Sam Nielson: Painting Process

Someone asked a question about the process of painting a character, so I'll take a stab at that one.  There are many processes that each have their strengths, but for the sake of learning this is what I'd suggest.  This process is based around the way 3d rendering programs work, using separate passes and combining them together for the final effect.  Separating the processes in this way helps you think through what needs to be done.

First of all, start with a sketch.  Don't try to design a character as you paint, unless you are really advanced and probably not even then.  Inked line art is fine.
Pick up the lines as a layer, and switch the layer type to multiply or Gel if you're in Painter.  Turn the opacity way down so the lines aren't getting in the way of what you're doing.

These next steps can almost be done in any order.  On a background layer put in flat colors, like you would if you were painting an animation cel.  Keep the values fairly dark and even---even white surfaces should be a medium gray at this point.  I'll usually have a color scheme in mind; in this case I used an analogous scheme (red/orange/yellow/brown)contrasted against a single "compliment" (the blue).

On a separate layer, paint the occlusion in.  I'll talk more about occlusion some other time, but basically think of the cracks where the ambient light of the scene can't easily bounce into.  I put a white background in so you could see it better.  Don't be too heavy-handed or feel like you have to render out the entire scene this way!
Now, on a new layer, paint in a single light source.  If this is a basic character rendering you probably want this lighting to be fairly neutral in color, but a simple warm/cool lighting scheme should be fine.  I often start with hard edges on everything, like a cel-shaded image, and then I soften the edges where the form curves or I fade out any planes that are trending toward the terminator (I talked about this in another post).  I painted in the lit areas with white but switched the layer type to "Overlay" so it would keep my colors.
Here is what the lighting layer and the occlusion layer look like when they're both visible on a blank background.  See how sculptural it looks already?
Here's what those layers look like applied over the colors I painted earlier:
If you want any more lights in the scene, use a "Screen" layer, which acts as a true additive layer.  And you can use other layers to tinker with the colors and texture in the scene.
Now you have a fairly good start to your painting and you're ready for the polishing phase.  I'll save that part for another post though, later.

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Tyson Murphy said...

your mind is a beautiful thing, sam. thanks a ton for this!

SantiagoVerdugo said...

These are very useful ideas to render the illustrations !!!, I already used them but the way is explained is very clear. I never thought about fading the plains and I think I will will use it from now on.

Thanks for your advices!!!!!

Anonymous said...

I've never seen this kind of painting method as in 3d. It works great. Very helpful tip.
Thanks a lot

sachin nagar said...

this is soo cool .. 3d in 2d .

Heather Dixon said...

I think I'll keep this forever in my heart

Randall Sly said...

Awesome Sam... Thank you!

wsmith11 said...

Sam, you make the mysterious seem simple. Thanks for sharing. I look forward to trying this method out.

rad sechrist said...

Wow, that looks like a cg model!! I have to try this. Really cool!

Octavio E. Rodriguez said...

Awesome tutorial!

Aaron Ludwig said...

Soooo good. Thanks so much Sam (and all you Art Center experts)

Florian Satzinger said...

Wow, the result is absolutely drop-dead beautiful!

whoreray/redfive said...

Inspiring as hell!

Jesse Larsen said...

Thanks for this Sam, it really helps. I love your way of thinking.

Mike Marinos said...

What a great explanation and result! Big thanks to Sam and all the Art Center team

Tony Tony said...

how... how... how... to paint the oclusion part?!

How do you think those volumes in a 2D pic? Do you have a mental program that you control just putting the light where you want and the image is just ready?! ahaha

This was amazing, but now I have more questions than solutions, thanks for it! =D
I really want to know how to think in 3D...

Sam Nielson said...

Thanks everyone!

TonyTony: Don't worry, I'll do a separate post on occlusion.
Describing volume does require a bit of thinking in 3d, but once you're able to imagine the forms, figuring out where the light hits isn't difficult. See my previous posts for more on that subject.

lausz said...

shading is a big difficulty for me. thanks for this tutorial:)

Demetre said...

so do we pay you or something?

Butch said...

Fantastic post, Sam, thanks so much! I'm going to go plug in my Wacom and get coloring!

Steve said...

An incredibly helpful post Sam, I just have a few quick questions for you, now that I'm trying to apply these techniques to a painting of my own.

Are using a 50% grey color with an airbrush for rendering the occlusion and the lighting? Or is it some other type of brush/color combo?

When you "apply" the layers to your color image in photoshop, are you using them as overlays? or screens?

Do you eventually get rid of the line work all together? Or is it always present even in the final image?

Thank you so much for this post, and the entire series you have been doing here at Art Center, as well as, on your personal blog.They have helped me tons in my own digital painting growth and I'm eagerly anticipating your future posts.

Thank you =]


Jon Davis said...

This is a really good post.
It's really useful seeing someone's thought process laid out clearly, and step by step.
Thanks very much for this :)

Jose Ramos said...

i´ve been waiting a long time for to see this, your process steps are very easy for understand, i like your process.

Sam Nielson said...

Demetre: Unfortunately the blog doesn't pay anything, but you could always buy my iphone app (that will give me a dollar). I wish I had more ways for people to give me money. Alas, for now you'll have to settle for getting it all free.

Steve: I use a dark color (almost black) for the occlusion, and a very bright color (near white) for the "Overlay" light layer.

The layers can stay as Overlays or Screens, either type will do. Overlay tends to saturate colors as it brighten them, but Screens usually desaturate colors. Screens are better for mixing two colors together, though.

I've answered your question about the lines in my next post.

Thijs said...

beautiful stuff. I've really gotta try coloring like that. Thx for the process shots, really helpfull

melsartstuff said...

I can't seem to get the layers right. What order do they go and what ones are Normal, which ones are overlay? Do you ever just paint with color, or do you always do flat color, then the other layers?

Cade Halada said...

I think there is some confusion on the lighting layer being an "overlay" layer. I'm sure people are trying to get it to look the same as Sam has posted but when they remove the colors layer the lighting layer will not show anything on a white background.

Make a 50% gray background below the colors. Now when you switch off the colors you should see the lighting layer like Sam has posted.

Cade Halada said...

I posted an example of what I think Sam had for layers on this tutorial over at my blog. Maybe it will help someone else. The lighting layer kind of screwed me up.

thinsoldier said...

holy crap!

painting in the ambient occlusion as a first pass!

Gexton said...

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Someone asked a question about the process of painting a character, so I'll take a stab at that one. There are many processes that each have their strengths, but for the sake of learning this is what I'd suggest.
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nomzam said...

This is an amazing post. Found quite good detailed sketches even the colours are brilliantly balanced. Thanks.

nomzam said...

This is an amazing post about paintings. Found quite good detailed sketches even the colours are brilliantly balanced. Thanks.

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Keith Seymour said...

This is really nice, Sam. Many thanks for sharing.

If you have a moment, there are a few things I can't quite follow...

1. Does the Occlusion layer have darks only?
2. Is the occlusion layer set to normal?
3. Is the occlusion layer all one colour?
4. How do you limit the value range of the AO? Are you just guessing it?

Sorry if these seem like silly questions, but I really want to explore the method, and as such want to make sure I'm starting on the right foot! Many thanks again. :)

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Sam Nielson said...

Keith: Sorry for the wait, I don't check these comments very often. Here are the best answers I can think of:
Occlusion layer=darks only, turned to Multiply mode. I think in most cases a single color for the darks works fine, just use a dark, warm color. The falloff of the occlusion is a curve: very slow changes and transparent at first, then dropping off into dark quickly.

Keith Seymour said...

Thanks so much for getting back to me, Sam. I have been playing with the process for a while now, even using it as the base for my current illustration! Although, I feel the benefits may be better suited to concepting. With a concept, I can leave all the form describing occlusion and lighting layers active, and underneath, work out different colour and pattern variations. Another great blog post that describes this can be seen here:
Thanks, again, Sam. Really appreciate you taking the time to explain it to me :)

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