Basic to Advanced Color Theory and Illustration Techniques for Photoshop

You must consider many things while painting: Layers, Exposure/Lighting, Shadows, Highlights, Surfaces, Materials, Textures, Translucency, Reflections, Composition, and Color Temperatures

Article by Arne Niklas Jansson

The onion (Thinking in layers)

Before laying down a stroke, there's a number of things you need to think about. Well, actually you shouldn't have to think about them, it should just go automatically.

  • Feel volume and angle of the form.
  • Where is the light coming from?
  • Try to figure out if there are any shadows that might be falling on the surface.
  • Is there any reflected light (radiosity) that hits the surface?
  • What is the ambient color of the scene? (sorta like global reflected light.)
  • Any speculars. Is the surface gloss/wet and also angled so it reflects a light source, such as the sky?
  • The exposure level. Perhaps it's so heavily lit that it becomes more than white? Perhaps it's so dark that even the brightest spot is hidden in darkness.
  • Is there any fog in the way?
  • The texture of the surface.

Note that this mainly goes for realistic styles. A brushstroke should also look efficient and consistent with the rest of the painting and your color scheme choice. You might also have an idea or style which disallows certain colors or textures and puts priority on other things. However, even in a powerpuff girls illustration there's simplified elements of realistic rendering. Don't hide behind "it's not apart of my style so I'm not gonna learn it".

Light stuff

There's really just one kind of light. It bounces. You can only see the light (photon) if it enters your eye. Light does two important things when it hits a surface. First, a part of it is absorbed. This is how colors are made. A red apple reflects mostly red wavelengths, the rest are absorbed and turned into heat or something. That's why black stuff get so hot in the sun. Anyways, the reflected light bounce away differently depending on the surface. If the surface is bumpy it will bounce away sort of randomly, like a tennis ball that hits rocky terrain. If the surface is smooth it will bounce away in a predictable path. A mirror is very smooth so the light comes back undistorted, so we can see our reflection.

Note that all surfaces have speculars, because speculars is just reflected light. It's just more broken up/diluted on dull surfaces.

Depending on where the eye/beholder is, it'll see different light and different specular spots on a curved surface such as this. A puddle isn't curved (other than the edges because of surface tension) so you'll only get a shiny reflection from a certain point of view. Point speculars can only appear in an environment where there's a point light source, like a sun, lightbulb or small window.

Photo - Speculars do exist on cloth, diluted and subtle. I stretched out my shirt sleeve with two fingers to get a flat surface between the two marked dots (I moved the camera and not the sleeve).

Here on earth we have lots of stuff around us that the light can bounce off, so things here are more or less lit from all angles. For example we have the sky which is like a dome shaped blue light source. Then theres the ground, walls and other surfaces. In space there's basically just one light source, the sun. This is why the moon just has a lit and shadowed side, and looks kind of flat. If you looks carefully however, you can see earthlight on the shadow side of the moon, but it's very weak. Then there's starlight, which I guess is even weaker.

When light hits a surface and bounces, it also change color. If it hits another surface of the same color it bounced off, it will make that surface look even more saturated.

(Too orange to be some sort of skintone anyways.)


The sunlight is much stronger than the skylight, which is in turn much stronger than indoor light. Our eyes adapt automatically after a while, and we can also adapt by squinting or just focusing on an object. Because we do this without thinking about it, it's hard to understand that our eyes are actually kind of limited. This limitation becomes even more obvious with cameras. If you take a picture indoors, the windows will become overexposed (bright). You might try to adjust the exposure levels to the window light, but then the indoor environment will become underexposed. This can be used to your advantage. By for example putting a character or object in the foreground where it's darker, you can make the silhouette read well against a well lit room.

The exposure to light can also make parts of a body look very bright or dark, not skin tone color at all. When the shadow is dark and the lit side is overexposed, the only place for the color to go is on the edge between them.


Here's an example of various materials and how i render them.

  • Cloth - Hardly any speculars, just shadow and light. Sometimes strong light can penetrate thin cloth and cause some sort of subsurface scattering.
  • Leather - Can be a little gloss and thus have a few speculars. Also, don't make it too saturated.
  • Trees and wood - Dull. Not very saturated either (sort of grey-brown-sienna).
  • Stone - A bit like cloth. The surface is often to rugged (both at micro and macro levels) to have any serious speculars.
  • Plastic - It seems like the speculars and reflections are colorized in the color of the plastic. Plastic can also be a bit transparent.
  • Gold - Gold isn't orange. I use black - desaturated orange sometims with hints of green, then up to yellow and white.
  • Silver - More or less like a mirror.
  • Metal - In the case of armours I often push the values a little more, not as much midtones.
  • Brushed metal - It's sort of like an inbetween of a grey surface and a silver surface.
  • Glass - Often just transparent with distortion. The speculars come suddenly and are often white. In the case of car windows you might have noticed that it's easier ot see what's behind if there's a shadow over the window. The brighter reflections obscure.
  • Wet stuff - more speculars, can become transparent in the case of cloth, and stones get more saturated and pronounced details.


Shadows are quite flat and generally less saturated than the lit side. It's easier to notice ambient light in the shadows. Shadows get blury over distance, this is called diffraction.

(Shadows don't add (multiply) with just ONE lightsource that is...)

Skin tones

Consider the environment. The light is stronger outside, and the skin color tend to be less saturated due to the sky blue ambient light and sky blue speculars. Sometimes the skin color become shifted towards purple because of the sky blue being mixed in. This is especially true if the subject is standing in a shadow.

Indoors (no windows, only light bulbs) the light is warmer and allows skin saturation to be amped up to oranges and reds.

The shadow color of the skin can sometimes wander off to greens, especially if the room have green components, like wallpaper, plants, furniture.

In a white room or a bathroom the skin tones would be quite pale, closer to local colors and less contrasted (shadow/light) due to lots of ambience.

A room with a single strong light source will probably result in near black shadows., the type of environment your character is placed in very much affects how you should render it.


The human body has a lot of different hues. Parts covered by cloth gets less tan. Mons pubis, the hip bone area and the chest is quite pale. The shoulders and lower arms gets a little extra tan. The inside of the lower arm is often pale however. The kneecaps and elbows have a little darker skin. The face also has a lot of hues, such as rosy cheeks, males might have grey or almost green jaws because of stubble. The best way to learn the hues of the human body is to make studies of course. Don't forget that animals, monsters and objects also have hues. If you paint everything with the same hue and saturation it will look boring.

Some hues are due to ambient and reflected light. The shoulders and surfaces pointing up can get a blue hue because of the sky reflecting.

Saturated gradients - The gradients between the shadow and light is not just an in-between color of the shadow color and light color. If the shadow and light is just blended, it will look very lifeless. If you look at pictures you will see that the gradients is saturated. It's especially easy to notice if you remove that saturation.

Sub-surface scattering - Strong light can penetrate the surface of some materials and bounce around, then exit again. This will increase the saturation and make the surface look illuminated from the inside. In the case with human skin, we sometimes see it on hard edges between light and shadow.

Photo - Leafs are gloss on the top side which means there can sometimes be a sky blue specular here. The light shining thru the leaf makes the bottom side more saturated, this is also true for ears and fingers, which can turn super red when heavily backlit.

Photo - Sub-surface scattering on the fingertips. The light on the left side of the thumb is probably light reflected off the index finger.

Photo - Note that the edge only appear if the light is overexposed. It does not appear as pronounced on the thumb.

Color relativity

Colors and values are relative. By using various tricks it's possible to trick the viewer into thinking a color is really another color, or a value is darker than it is. Unfortunately, the artist is also tricked into using too much colors or values than is needed.

A hard edge between two values will be much more obvious than a soft one. You'll have to know when to use which. Sometimes your choice of values is very limited, such as when you're working in the shadow. By using hard edges you can describe a lot more detail with less values available. However, using gradients is very useful for changing value without the viewer noticing. The 'fake flat' illustration looks flat, but is actually a gradient. The square is the same color as the left side of the 'flat' rectangle.

Colors with the same value are relative in terms of hue instead. A common mistake is to draw one detail too saturated, then something else nearby looks grey, so to compensate you increase saturation on that detail too, and as a result the whole painting end up too saturated.

Color identity

It's easy to get carried away and go over the top with highlights. This makes it hard to see what color the subject is. Instead you should use shadows to describe the volume of the subject.

Flatten and simplify

Work with larger brushes and remove unnecessary brushstrokes. See the bad and better example below. I really didn't do much on the second one. It's actually simplified. It's surprising how much a little flattening here and there can do. I did spend some extra time on the face though. A bad face can ruin everything. Image is from reference.

Focus points

A painting is a hierarchy of important and less important details. If you're doing a pin-up the main figure and silhouette is the most important. In comics they often use a fat outline around the silhouette, whilst the less and less important details get thinner and thinner lines. When painting you do the same thing, but with brushstrokes instead! You use differences in hue, saturation, value, edges, sharpness, detail and composition to lead the viewer's eye towards the focus point of the painting.

If you use the same rendering everywhere on the painting it will look flat. You can lead the eye toward important spots, but once the eye is there it needs something interesting to keep it there, like proper details. The amount of details on a spot should be proportional to the amount of time the eye stays there.

Attempt to isolate some of the techniques you can use to attract the eye.

Here's an example I made: (A) Important forms | (B) Textue | (C) Both

It can be very dangerous to get excited about rendering details, especially at an early stage. You can not render details the same way in the shadow as in the light. On the second one (B) I just rendered all the details to demonstrate how it can look if you just scribble down all the detail without thinking about the important forms (A). (C) is still a bit confusing but that's more of a construction issue. Side views can only get you so far, and the anatomy is pretty odd which makes it harder to read.

A is the form without detail, B is the detail and C is both. Be careful not to do too much B, the form has to read!

Perspective and construction

I'm not going to have a long perspective tutorial here. Instead I'm just going to mention how much easier it gets if you make a few guide lines to align the figure/environment after as you draw.

If you're reluctant to do environments just because perspective is tedious to set up, you can use a simple 2 point perspective and just guess in the details. It's surprising how much easier it is to align things correctly with a few guide lines (for me anyways). It doesn't have to be perfect to appear correct. There's a risk that your designs will suffer if you can't improvise quickly and have to consult the ruler every other stroke. First draw a horizon line, then radiate lines from both ends in a random manner, then just crop and sketch away.

Here's a few quick freehand lines helping me to align the shoulders and stuff. When drawing people, it can help to align stuff after a 'spine'.

Line art

Exaggerate - One great thing about art is that you can exaggerate things, like hips and boobs. Haha, no, actually I'm serious. It's a good thing if important curves are more pronounced.

Simplify - The advantage art holds over photos is simplification. In a photo you'll get distracting details. When drawing, you can remove objects that aren't relevant to the scene. Wrinkles and minor protrusions can be removed to get a better line flow. A common mistake I see is when someone has drawn all the abs (belly muscles) with an overly amount of crosshatching. It's better to leave out lines, especially if you're going to color, because then the contrast between different color fields can work as lines.

Harmonize - Another word for this is 'swooshyness'. Unlike the above things it has to do with the relation between details and how lines intersect and take over ofter another. Try having a few swooshy lines that you align several parts after.

Stylize - When going for a style it's important to be consistent. You can turn curves into hard edges, or you can go for sweeping sinus lines. I prefer a combo where I turn a curve into a hard edge at a certain threshold.

Line weight - With a few exceptions, I'm not a big fan of fixed line width. Here I'll attempt to devise some general guidelines for when and how to vary line width.

  • Lines are thicker on the shadowed side, thinner on the lit side.
  • Lines are thicker near the viewer, thinner further away.
  • Silhouette lines are thicker. Inner details get thinner lines.
  • Lighter materials get thinner lines.
  • Thin lines works good with detailed motifs.
  • Thicker lines work well with simple figures.
  • Fat line art works well with flat colors (cel) .
  • Thin line art works good with realistic rendering and pronounced volumes.

Also, you do not always need to draw a line. Sometimes it you can just hint the ends of it, and the eye will fill the rest in. Examples are places where skin is pushed together, like the mouth, buttocks, pushup boobs etc. It's good to make the line a little thicker where there's a gap. Examples are places where clothing stretch over gaps between muscles or... cleavages.

Finally, here are a few illustrations. The first one is Photoshop (5.5) + Wacom tablet and there is no line quality to speak of, but I hope you get the idea. Second one is an inked thing from a few years ago.

When painting, subractive edges which are remnants from the line art or construction stage can be harmful. You can separate shapes with other means than black lines, such as different value, or a bright line. Here's an illustration of a few possible solutions and what they convey.

A line art image might go several stages of refinenement where previous, rougher stages, are constantly faded and painted over. Final stage not completed here.


I didn't start making studies until just some years ago, and that I regret. You won't stumble upon the right lines with guesses and wild scribbling. Using reference will only get you so far. In order to be loose and fast you need to be able to draw without having to think about the general construction of things (such as basic anatomy). This way you can concentrate on the actual design and detailing.

Construct your drawings/paintings. Don't march around with the pen doing detail by detail. Always check the general proportions and don't get caught by details too early. Place marks where the important features are. These well be like landmarks you align after.

Try to learn one thing at a time. You can't learn juggling while also practicing 400m hurdles. If you want to learn how to handle the medium/tool, try making studies of easy stuff like fruits. If you want to learn human faces, use a medium you know so you won't have to struggle with that as well. If there's several things you can't handle then you won't see what it is you're doing wrong. Quantity is also important. I wouldn't recommend making anatomy studies with tedious woodcarving tools for example.

Lineart - Pencil studies doesn't have to be more than a few quick pencil thumbnails on a paper. I spend a few hours on studies when I do them, and I put about 10-30 on each sheet (A4). I only do a couple of studies a month, but I certainly notice improvement each time. Just imagine what would happen if you did them several times a week for years.

1 - 2 - Some older study sheets made from a comic (poses) and photos (faces).

Painted - When I do digital studies I use Photoshop and mostly a picture from the net. I duplicate the window and clear the new one. Then I start placing the larger color masses on their approximate positions. After that I gradually increase the details and value/color accuracy as good as I can. When it looks close to the original, at a distance or with the eyes squinted, it's finished. I always work with the largest possible brush allowed to render a given detail. I don't color pick from the original, but I do keep the windows in the same size so I can see if I misplace anything. If you want to increase the difficulty (and reward) you can always try to draw in in a window with different size, and mirrored, or paint something from still life.

Statue study: 1 | 2 - First one is OC (Open Canvas), second is PS (PhotoShop).

1a -> 1b | 2 - Here I tried to be as economical as possible. Second one isn't a study but an example of a cleanup, which isn't necessary for studies.

1 | 2 - These are made from reference. I took the liberty to add some line art and style.

1 - One of my first studies.

Subjects to study

Study everything! You need to build a large library of shapes and things in your head to be able to draw intuitively. This takes about a lifetime or more to do, so you better start now!

Human anatomy - One of the most important things you need to know. Even monsters have traces of human anatomy.

  • The whole body. Use photos, anatomy books, statues or real people.
  • The face is the thing we look at first. If you misplace a line just a bit the whole expression of the face will change. Make studies of photos, your friends or yourself.
  • The hands are also important (and hard) to learn.
  • The feet can be tricky too, not because of the shapes, but because you need to plant the character on the ground so it doesn't look like it's falling over or the ground is leaning.
  • Daily clothing. It's important to learn how cloth wrinkles, how different types of cloth looks and fits.

Gestures & styles - You need to be diverse and get fresh ideas. Learning some different styles can be a good idea.

  • Draw from life using your friends or people at a cafe, a bus or somewhere. How does a person pose when he opens a door, reaches for his keys, and looks intimidated by an artist?
  • Marvel. How does the Marvel artists represent the human body with lines? What details are important and what is simplified?
  • Modesty Blaise, or some fairly realistic comic style. Drawing gradients with just blacks and whites isn't easy.
  • Manga or a style you like. Again, how does the artist convert the human anatomy into lines and color blobs? What parallels can you draw between the different styles?

Environments - Putting your character in an environment really brings it alive. This is something I definitely need to learn myself.

  • Landscapes with fields, mountains or whatever.
  • A dense forest or a jungle.
  • An urban or industrial 'landscape'.
  • An indoor setting, like a room with furniture. Boring, I know. To be honest I haven't done this yet.

Fetch an animal book - ...and draw some animals. A good way to design a monster is to morph different animals into one.

  • All living things. Mother nature have spent millions of years perfecting the designs, so you better study them.
  • Horses, Cats, Dogs, birds. These are especially important since they are more commonly seen.

Machinery - You also need to practice drawing machinery. It can be useful when designing robots and planet-smashing vengeance-crazed battle droids.

  • Cars of different models.
  • Digging and working machinery.
  • Military vehicles.

Classical still life objects - Or basically anything. Good for learning how to draw and paint in general, because of the simple shapes. You won't have too struggle much the shapes and can concentrate more on the materials.

  • Flowers, fruit, skeletons, sculpts, chunks of wood, rusty metal parts.

Self critique

Analyze what you're doing wrong. It's easy to get blind from staring at the image too much (which you must do to be able to work of course). Try flipping the images, look at it upside down, through a mirror (I use a CD), and zoom in and out (or back away). Don't sit and nibble too close to the paper or zoomed in. You can also make a 'New view' (PS).

You must also accept that just because you have worked on something for a while doesn't mean it's worth anything. You must be ready to sacrifice the time you spent on something if it looks wonky. Even if you're happy with the detail you might have to rework it (Kill your darling). Sometimes it's not the the detail you're concentrating on that's wrong, but something relative too it, like the value of the background or the perspective of another detail.

Orders of importance

Very generally speaking, certain apects of a painting are more important than other.

  1. Construction - What are you trying to paint? Your subject and composition should work on a fundamental level. If not, then no rendering in the world can save it. Don't have any illusions that you will be able to salvage the piece later. If a pose look wrong now, it will look stiff when finished too, even if Rembrandt himself painted it.
  2. Values - For a painting to work you need to use values to sculpt the forms. Values can do a lot of work grouping and separating shapes. Example 1 - The first version here is obviously wrong. Each shape has just gotten the shadow and highlight treatment. Second one is better but there's just one value type. Third one has different values on different shapes. Maybe it fails at the construction step though; it's not a very interesting pinup. Example 2 Here both value and color is used to separate the foreground and background, although I don't like this painting either, again it fails at construction.
  3. Color - You can be a little off with the colors (hue and saturation) and still get away with it. If you just can't make the colors work, it is probably the values that are wrong. On a side note, if the previous steps do work, it's easy to make fresh looking images with color balance tools. In my experience the original choice is often the best.


Finished version:

Various Tutorials

Blending Colors

Skin Tones

Scroll right >>>

Scroll right >>>

Making of Ash and Sam by Jeff Haynie

making of ash and sam

Introduction - "Ash and Sam" was originally painted as a full page illustration for a game magazine showing the main characters from "Evil Dead Regeneration," the game.  My concept was centered on showing the relationship of Ash the hero with his deadite zombie sidekick victorious over a pile of zombies or deadites.  My influences came from fantasy art book covers from the '70s by artists like Frank Frazetta, who created dynamic heroic poses and figure compositions using a traditional oil technique.  That was the look I was attempting to mimic in this painting.

Step 1: Thumbnail stage to establish the composition of light and shadow

First I start with black and white thumbnail studies, just exploring the composition of the figures with abstract patterns of light and dark shapes.  It took me years as an artist to realize that the black and white value structure is the heart and soul of the image.  In my opinion, this is the secret to a dynamic image; not making something realistic, but rather breaking up the image space into an interesting pattern of light and dark shapes.  When I start this process, my mind goes through a visual checklist: do I want a dark figure on a light background or a light figure on a dark background; do I want the light to come from the side, above, or below; do I want my eye to flow left, right, upward or downward through the composition?   Learning to make quick visual decisions is important in developing your eye skills.  Notice how the base shapes form an "A" or figure triangle, which is "A" for Ash.  I decided to make the flow of the eye go upwards, symbolizing the team of heroes triumphing over all.  The area of Ash' heart will end up being the focal point, which symbolizes his persistence to live and conquer evil.  Many important decisions can be made at this stage that will determine the power of the final painting.

black and white

Step 2: Color thumbnail stage to explore color combinations

Using one of the black and white thumbnails, I experiment with a wide range of color compositions to see which color scheme will fit the mood.  Since the Evil Dead story is more earthly then high tech, I choose a warm color scheme with reds, yellows and greens.

color thumbnails

Step 3: Take photograph reference to get details

Using artist friends to pose for the characters, I do a photo shoot with props to get necessary reference for the body, hands and legs.  Even though I love to paint most things out of my head, it is helpful to have great reference to fall back on especially when you have a tight deadline.  One good point to remember when shooting reference is to have an assistant help work the lights while you work on the camera.  I have the assistant move the lights around the model so I can see what the light and shadow shapes are doing.  I'll photograph a lot of variations of light direction and poses.  When I compose the final painting I pull from the best photo information to design my shadows.


Step 4: Tight pencil sketch stage to define key details in composition

I compose the final composition by doing a tight pencil sketch using multiple layers of tracing paper. The importance of this stage is to refine the shapes and refine your drawing, especially any important details to the painting.
drawingStep 5: Under painting to establish the base light and dark structure

Since I had illustrated the cover of the game box, I had previously painted faces of the characters that I could use to get a start without having to paint them from scratch.  I took my favorite value study, enlarged it to working size, and pasted these details in place.

Now I block in the base structure of all the main elements in sepia tone to mimic my traditional oil painting technique.  Basically at this stage, you block in all the light and shadow shapes in sepia tone as a value foundation for the painting.  The main Photoshop brush I use is a chalk brush with an 'opacity jitter' brush setting.  It gives me the feel of an oil brush.

base light

Step 6: Apply texture to break up digital look

At this stage I apply lots of texture information on top of the image to get lots of cool atmosphere and "texture stuff". It breaks up the smooth clean digital look and starts to make the piece have more of an oil painting look.  One way to do this is to load a texture into your brush using the texture settings.  The texture I used was an old stained concrete wall I photographed on vacation.  Place the texture on a separate layer above everything else, and set the layer setting to 'overlay' or 'hard light' then adjust the opacity to taste.   Then I apply a layer mask to the layer, and paint into the layer mask to break up the opacity more randomly.


texture background

To make textures using a more traditional method, I use illustration board, canvas or watercolor paper. Sometimes I gesso it first with a stiff brush to get directional brush strokes in the gesso.  After putting a wash of a dark color on the board, I tilt the board while it is wet to get drips and random texture. If you sprinkle salt onto the board while it is wet you can get some wild texture.  That's an old watercolor technique.  The outcome is a texture with drips and cool happy accidents.  After it's dry, scan it in, and use it as a grayscale texture.

Step 7:  Build up the base colors

I call this stage the ugly stage.  I begin to block in the base colors to layout the main color composition. In order not to lose my value relationships, I use 'color' or 'overlay' mode in my brushes to layout color quickly.  Next, I block in the main body colors with a regular brush. I added blue in Ash's shirt, red on the chainsaw, orange in the background, etc.  I don't get caught up in making the color too accurate since I will be layering lots of colors on top of it.  Digital art is so wonderful in that you can undo, try something else or delete the layer if it's not working.  I find it important to work the whole painting and not focus too long on one area.  My technique is a loose building-up process where I can make changes as I develop the image, refining the shapes and details as I paint.

base colors

Step 8: Start building up details

It's time to start bringing out the highlight shapes, adding ghoul faces, refining character body parts, etc.

building details

With all the strong red brown under- painting as a base, I start adding the compliment color to red, which is green, to bring the light out.

colour wheel

Step 9: Add highlights and refine details

The painting is now nearing completion.  I focus on pushing the contrast of colors and values around the main character's head and chest by adding highlights.  Since this area of the painting is the focal point, I put my strongest value and color contrasts here.  I've also added some splatters and grit.  At this point my focus is pushing the quality of the details in the areas in which I want your eye to focus.  I try to stay out of the shadows and do most of my work in the highlight areas.  This allows the shadows to blend more together and breathe.


Step 10: Add final details and color adjustments

In the final stage I add the last little highlights and push the saturation of the color to give more drama to the scene.  Even up to the end of the painting, I am still refining details such as the smoke out of the shotgun and the body parts.  In all, this painting took me about 40 to 60 hours to complete.


ash and sam final


Subject Placement
Rule of Thirds
Lines That Lead The Eyes
Open Space
Focal Point
Natural Frames
Depth & Spacing

Samples of these elemnts put into practice:

Step by Step Process for various Fantasy Art Paintings and Concept Design

Beyond Space (Pulp Sci-Fi Magazine Cover)

Fantasy/Sci-Fi (Digital Illustration)

Creature Concept Art 1

Creature Concept Art 2

Creature Concept Art 3

Environment Design 1

Environment Design 2

Environment Design 3

Begin with exploration sketches.

Move on to researching lighting and reference photos.

Refine the shapes and forms, further define the textures, glows, shadows, highlights and final surface details.

Philip Straub article on Composition

Composition is everything! No amount of detail in an illustration or Concept Painting will be successful without a strong compositional foundation. Composition in Environment Concept painting can be quite difficult since your focal point usually isn't as obvious as in a character piece.

In this introduction to Composition we will explore the fundamentals used to create exciting and functional compositions along with a variety of composition techniques. Initially I will show some successful examples of iconic composition, formal composition, the rule of 3rds, the golden rule, etc. There will be a discussion on what makes each piece successful and an explanation on why the artist chose to describe the scene using a particular form of composition.
The Golden Rule
The Rule of Thirds
From the golden rule came the "rule of thirds" which is virtually the same concept but slightly altered to fit photographic proportions.I find it a bit easier to follow since it's very simple in its origin.Here we have a look at the rule of thirds in action.
The Golden Rule
Notice that the main focal point sits right almost directly over one of the "golden means." Additionally, other objects are placed near the other converging lines (the bird, for example) but, not directly on them, since that would create competition for the focal point.
There are Four Spots where these lines cross the Upper Left the Lower Left, the Upper Right and the Lower Right. Please note that all the "hotspots" are away from the center position in the picture frame.

The two best "power points" are the Upper Right and the Lower Right because the eye enters the picture frame at the lower left hand corner of the picture frame, travels to the center of the picture area and then reaches the right hand 'Golden Mean' position where it stops to look at the 'Center Of Interest'.

The reason the eye enters a picture at the lower left side is because we are taught to read from Left to Right. This is a psychological fact that has been proven over the years. Next time you're in an art gallery or art museum that shows the Old Masters paintings, notice how many have the Center Of Interest in the "Golden Rule" positions.
Th Golden Rule
  Above is an example of the rule of thirds, this time utilizing a vertical canvas. As you can see regardless of your canvas proportions the "rule of thirds" can be applied. Notice the hotspot falls near the center of the converging lines.

Be very careful that you do not place two centers of interest of equal importance and weight directly in 2 Golden Mean positions, especially on opposite sides of the picture frame.

This will cause the eye a lot of trouble as it will keep going back and forth from one Center of Interest to the other and will get confused and tired and want to leave the picture area.

Divine Proportions
When you take the canvas area and divide it into 'thirds' Horizontally and Vertically, where the lines cross in the picture area is a 'Golden Mean', or the best spot in which to place your Main Subject or Object of Interest as it is the Focal Point of your picture. The golden rule originates from the Ancient Greeks, since they were great mathematicians as well as artisans, they came to the conclusion that there needed to be a certain balance in composition for it to be pleasing to the eye. They further developed this theory and defined what they called "power points," Power points are located at the point where the lines used in the golden rule intersect. By placing a main subject on a power point, it further defined that subject as the focal point.

The golden rule can and usually is applied to a paintings canvas proportions. As you read through the following text you'll notice that most of the imagery presented utilizes similar dimensions and almost all of them fall into the "golden rectangle." Today you can find the Golden Rectangle almost everywhere: from credit cards to phone cards to book covers, all are shaped with its proportions. The Golden Ratio (the ratio of the longer and shorter sides of the Golden Rectangle) also appears in many natural phenomena. The ratio between the length of your nose and the distance from the bottom of the chin to the bottom of the nose is the golden ratio. The spiral growth of crustaceans follows the golden spiral. The divine proportions are an in-built (or in-grained) aesthetic parameter we judge beauty by.

The imagery below represents the division of space when the "golden rule" is applied to a blank canvas. Basically it is the division of a line in two sections, where the ratio between the smallest section and the largest section is identical to the ratio between the largest section and the entire length of the line. In other words A/B = B/(A+B). The ratio is about 1/1.618. Honestly, I'm still not exactly sure what that all means? but, I do know that I used this grid layout a-lot when I first started painting and found it helpful. I still do.

In the beginning you may find it useful to use this as an overlay for every concept piece you do. Having this grid float over your imagery as a reminder of where to place the objects of importance in the scene may help you as your develop your composition.
Implied Forms
'Implied Forms' are a combination of 'Implied Lines' and they help to hold a painting together. The eye enjoys these interesting forms and will stay in the picture area to examine each one of them, if they are present. The following text and sample imagery will demonstrate a variety of implied forms and composition approaches.
The Circle
The Cilrcle is made up of a continuous 'Curve' and it's circular movement keeps the eye in the picture frame. There are many circles in nature and man made objects. You can use the circle in a very obvious way in your composition or simply suggest it.
Circular Example
The above image is a very obvious and deliberate usage of circular composition. Notice how the circular shapes created by the dragons also follow a path that leads your eye towards the focal point.

Circular Example
Circular Example The Circle
Another example of circular composition! Again, I chose this type of composition to enhance the feeling of motion in the piece. You can see how the eye follows the circular shapes across the picture plane to the focal point. Something interesting to note with this image, it actually uses two composition approaches at one time; circular composition and iconic composition.
The Triangle or Pyramid
This has a 'solid base' and will show Stability. It also has Height and Strength. The Pyramids of Egypt have survived for thousands of years while other types of solid buildings have crumbled in to dust in less time. With the image below I was very deliberate with my arrangement of shapes so the triangle or pyramid composition is obvious. When I began this piece I simply started with a triangle shape as my starting point...nothing more than an abstract composition. I just let everything flow from there....and very quickly the painting began to take shape.
The Radii
Is a connection of 'Lines' meeting in the Center and an expansion of 'Lines' leaving the Center. The Radii is usually found in Nature Subjects. The best example of the man made Radii is the spokes of a wheel.

The eye has two ways to go when it comes upon the Radii. It can either be drawn in to the picture area or it can be led out of the picture area. You must be careful how you used the Radii and try to have the eye led into the picture.
Triangular or Pyramid Example
Radii Example Radii Example
The Cross
A showing of 'Opposing Force' that will give the picture a feeling of Cohesion and Relationship. The horizontal bar of the Cross will act as a "stopper' while the vertical pole can act as a leading line. The windows in a large skyscraper will form crosses and will keep your interest in the building. The Cross also has religious meaning and the subtle use of the Cross can give hidden significance to an image.

In the painting to the right Hong Kuang uses the cross composition subtly. One could argue this piece is also using an "L Composition." The strong line across the horizontal center that's being formed by the characters body suggests "The Cross." The somber facial expression and subject matter demonstrate an experienced artist's ability to use symbolic composition to help tell a narrative.

The far right Daryl Mandryk successfully combines a Cross composition with iconic composition. This is common composition choice for themes of heroism or comics. Fantasy artists like Brom and Frazetta use this type of composition in their work regularly.
Cross Example Cross Example

The 'L' or Rectangle

This makes an attractive 'frame'. It can be used to accentuate important subjects. Many times it is a 'frame' within a 'frame'.

A tree with an overhanging branch at the 'right' side of the picture area will form a 'Rectangle' and help frame the Main Subject in the picture. By doing this you will make the Center of Interest stand out and be noticed clearly.

'L' Example 'L' Example
Iconic Example The Iconic
Some Art theorists contend that the most important information in the image should be placed near the center of the picture plane. This may seem confusing to some students since this contradicts many of the major principles of the "golden rule." In general iconic composition should and can be used to describe a subject in a certain way. Iconic Composition or "Formal Subdivision" applies best to subjects of a dignified or religious nature. This style of composition was the approach of choice in earlier times and many excellent compositions have been made with it. Usually Iconic composition is used to describe symbolic subjects, heroic subjects, or religious subjects.

I've taken the liberty of drawing over this imagery to demonstrate the division of space in iconic composition. This is a technique used by many illustrators to help define the division of space and focal point when creating an iconic illustration. Well know and renowned illustrator Andrew Loomis used this technique extremely well and his book "Creative Illustration" to demonstrate this further.

Notice, that while the focal point is slightly off center, all the converging lines lead to the center point of interest. Additionally, notice how the figures head sits directly in the diamond shape of the overlay lines I've created. It should also be noted that I chose this composition to further enhance the regal and heroic appearance of the character.
Tong Wu uses Iconic composition perfectly here! Notice how the character again falls nearly at center of the canvas. I've taken the division of space a bit further on this imagery and have broken down the image into smaller segments so you can so how the artist balances everything in the piece.

Notice how the top right corner is almost a mirror image of the top left corner. In fact, look at almost any opposing segment in the painting, they are very similar! When creating iconic composition, it's not necessary to duplicate each side exactly, but there should be a feeling of complete equalization of the units or masses, the line and spaces of one side with the other.
Iconic Example Iconic Example
  Tricks & Tips
So, there you have it, a variety of ways to deal with division of space when you first begin visualizing a painting or drawing. At the end of the day, theses approaches to composition are guides and simply a place to start. Once you become more comfortable with composing a scene you can begin to push the boundaries of formal composition.

Since most Environment Concept Artists work in the entertainment industries, its expected you will be asked to create cinematic moments or "memorable moments" utilizing the environment as a stage.
You'll want to use your mastery of composition to lead the viewer's eye and really make the viewer feel like they're in the scene. The single most important thing you simply must have in any Environment Concept Painting is a clear and dynamic focal point.

Without a place for the viewer's eye to rest, the painting will lack impact and won't hold the attention of your audience. It's the job of the Concept Artist to visualize what can't be visualized in reality. Concept Artists are the first step in every production and therefore must create dynamic imagery that the rest of the team will be excited to build. There are a few cinematic tricks that you can use as a Concept Artist to make things appear more dynamic.
Dynamic Composition
Sometimes all it takes to add an extra bit of drama to your composition is a simple tilt of the camera. In the image to the right the viewer really feels like they are part of the action, simply by slanting the camera a bit. This is approach is especially useful when you are trying to depict action in your environment.

Some of the best Concept Artists in the industry use this technique. Check out any of the images Ryan Church has created for Episode 1, 2, and 3.
Dynamic Example
Lead the Eye
Many Concept Artists today, myself included, use perspective as a tool to create dynamic compositions that appear to have motion and lead the eye to the focal point clearly and concisely.

In the painting to the right you will notice I've used many of the objects that appear in the painting as opportunities to further guide the viewer to the "payoff." Additionally, I tilted the camera a bit to add to the action.

Dynamic Example

To learn more about these same plrinciples applied to comics,
illustration, animation storyboarding / background art, visit these links...

John K's Composition For Animation Artists:

Composition 1: Framing
Composition 2: Intersection
Composition 3: Clear Staging
Composition 4: Staging Groups of Characters
Composition 5: Negative vs Positive Space
Composition 6: Asymetricality
Composition 7: Poses Working Together
Composition 8: Form vs. Detail, Lettering, Reference
Composition 9: Study Other Artists
Composition 10: Contrasts
Composition 11: Organic Shapes
Composition 12: Contrasts in Texture and Spacing
Composition 13: Scale
Composition 14: Form Over Detail
Composition 15: Form in Clouds
Composition 16: Flair
Composition 17: Reference and Inspiration
Composition 18: Scene Planning For TV Part One
Composition 19: Scene Planning For TV Part Two
Composition 20: More Inspiring BG Layouts