Amateur Guide to Amateur Art

I have said before that I do other projects. The state of my website probably proves this of its own accord, as I continue to fail to focus on things I want to do, for the need of things I need to do instead.

My responsibilities to society and the greater world at large aside, my last week has been spent working on an art project requested of me that has nothing to do with Hevna.


I am not a true artist.
I have never received a proper lesson in my life about digital art, and have had something of a reticence to take any formal learning since I was told at the tender age of 14 that I had no creative prospects and to cease thinking about pursuing art.
While I’m sure the teacher who told me such probably meant I did not have the skills needed to pass the requirements for GCSE Art exams, the phrasing and intent I took away from what I was told certainly stopped me developing my own artistic identity for some time.

The upshot today is that I am amateur at best, I work very slowly on what I create and have way less technical know-how than the plethora of very talented and hardworking artisans out there, doing amazing things with their skills.
And that is ok.

I create because I find it fulfilling. It’s fun. I like bringing the characters of my friends and those who commission me to some semblance of life, even in my less professional style.
So after a week of tinkering with both a character outside my usual artistic range and some techniques I had not tried before, I thought I might share a quick look at the stages I go through in making a piece of character art.

1 – The Concept

When I draw, whether for myself or others, everything starts with a concept, a description.
Sometimes, all I get is a written description of features, which may or may not include clothes. Other times, I get photos and color swatches the person would like used or imitated or just things they found cool in terms of the subject to incorporate or take inspiration from as I wish.

And other times, I get prior artwork, which is what happened this week.


This week, I was handed the above image. Sadly, despite it being signed, I have no idea who the original artist is. I have the picture via the customer who purchased it from them, though, and I think it’s a great piece.
There are technical elements to the character I love, and little details that make it really interesting, even if the image is relatively small and granulated. It’s cool, in a very Animated Character kind of way.

It’s also a great reference piece for my design brief – ‘This is an old image of the character I want. Can you draw him in a larger file, remove the belly button and give him bushier hair, down to his back.’

Yes. Yes I can.

2 – The Scribble

I, like so many other artists out there, work digitally. Historically I have favored Photoshop, but any program that allows for using layers with relative simplicity would allow me to do what mediocre work I am capable of.
And the first layer is ‘the scribble’, which is simply me using a blank canvas to scrawl out vague shapes and ideas on, sometimes using different colors to help me differentiate parts of the final work as I get the idea out of my head, and onto ‘paper’.

It is usually ugly, messy, not necessarily physiologically accurate in all ways, but that’s ok. Digital workspaces allow for easy changes and adjustments at all levels as I go along.
So, my art starts out looking like this:


3 – Flats

Once I have an idea scribbled out, I can liaise with the client or friend or my own brain to talk about the stance, fine details I may need to be aware of or add-in, and have something to help with visualization as I confirm what is anted going forward.

Once that is done, I can start to color. This is where new layers are my friend, with a new one for each major piece of the puzzle. A layer for the skin, a layer for hair, a layer for different pieces of clothing, etc.
This also makes it easy to change to the color of any piece of the puzzle as I continue talking to the commissioner as the flat colors are laid down, making sure they are happy with the decisions being made.

When that phase is done, with the sketch as my top layer to keep guiding me, the piece looks something like this:


4 – Defining Details

With basic colors done, details become my next focus. In the above image, I still have the foot claws to position, and the hair and face to mark out.
Those last two can really change and alter a piece and take the most time for me to get right, which is why I save them for last when making my flats. It is not uncommon for me to go through four or five different face options until the client is happy, as well as looking at the flow of the hair to give the correct mood to the piece.

Again, I am no professional so these elements can take time, but I enjoy them. It’s especially fun with fantasy characters with unusual traits, and this particular piece was interesting to me as I was drawing a face mask instead, and very much sticking to Anime style hair with horns for the final product.

With those details added in, the sketch is no longer needed and I end up with this:


5 – Adding Depth

The next phase is the shading. Bringing in texture and lighting, color detail, scratches, scars, water droplets.
Layers can again become my friend here, allowing me to lay down areas of light or shadow on complicated areas (like the horns in this piece) so that I can blend lighter and darker color over sections of my work without smudging or losing the crisp lines in my flats.

‘Clipping masks’ really help here. These layers, linked to the one below them, make sure anything painted onto them remains only over the work beneath, without straying. Effectively, they mean I can only ‘color inside the lines’, which can be a great help.
Other layers help me give illusions of depth, or glow, in specific areas of an image – in this case, the eyes and chest piece.

Adding depths also allows me to see flaws in my original design work, and to focus in on areas with problems I had not noted before. For example, the horns on the left side of my flats were incorrectly positioned, and I ended up moving them to better positions and tinkering with hairlines as a result. I also found the balance of the image didn’t work with the tail in the original position, so that was a major change I made for finishing off the character.

With that all done, I end up with a complete central figure:

IxWIP4Yes, that is a belly button, I had not corrected that yet. Oops.

6 – Finishing Up

The final part is constructing the background of a piece. Sometimes, all that is wanted is a transparent background and nothing more, at which point the above phase would mark the completion, save for signing the work

More often, something more is wanted. Details of the kind of environment the character comes from, some special location or theme relevant, or just an outer glow or the name of the character, especially if it is going to be displayed in forums.

Constructing a background works pretty much the same as constructing the character. Layers make the world go round, and make it easy to toggle what is wanted by the commissioner on and off.
For this piece, I had a brief description of the sort of area wanted for the character, and then, it is just a matter of signing it, which I do with my pseudonym, RDS.

And that’s it! Done!

I will always be an amateur artist, with amateur skill, but I enjoy the genuine pleasure people get from seeing their ideas and concepts drawn, even in just my small way.
That seems worth it to me.

And yes. The person who wanted this piece was happy with it 🙂

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