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At the FanExtra network we believe that the best way to learn is from experts in your field. That’s why we employ some of the best tutorial writers and bring you regular quality content.
Tutorials are great, but I often find myself looking at work from some of the world’s top digital artists and wondering about the thought processes, techniques and workflows used to create such incredible art. I always think ‘if I only I could get my hands on their original Photoshop files I’d be able to break down exactly what makes their work so awesome!’.
Well that’s exactly what we aim to offer you guys, as part of our new series ‘Artist Breakdown’. We’re going to be talking to some of the world’s most respected digital artist’s and offering an insight into how they’ve created some of their most popular works. We’ll also provide a full .psd source file for our FanExtra members to explore. This will allow you to look through every layer, object, blending option and technique used. It’s a true behind the scenes look into some world-class work, and we hope you enjoy it!
Today we’ll be talking with Nik Ainley about his awe-inspiring piece Jade. You can check out more of Nik’s work at his portfolio Shiny Binary.
1. Jade is a very striking piece. Could you tell us a little about the concepts behind this work? What are you trying to portray?
Jade is actually the third in a series of illustrations that I started about 3 years ago. The first two were made at the same time as part of a collaborative project with a celebrity photographer and are called ‘Gold’ and ‘Silver’. At the time I always envisaged a third based on the ornamental stone jade but had more pressing work and had to leave it. It’s only recently that I remembered the idea and I felt compelled to finish the series off as I always intended.
The concept is fairly straight forward, it follows on from the first two in using ornate features surrounding a central figure, with a simple colour scheme. I love jade for its translucent qualities and this, along with its use in eastern art and jewellery, inspired the finer details. As with the others a few abstract elements found there way in, as I like to do with a lot of my images just to give it a bit more interest.
2. Would you mind giving us a brief overview of the workflow in creating a piece such as this?
For a photo based image such as this the first step is by far the most boring one. Searching for the right photos to start with can take quite a while, and finding and deciding on the girl alone probably took a day or two. Then came the slightly more interesting task of gathering the decorative elements. I downloaded so many Chinese dragon photos and other similar interesting statue pictures I almost didn’t know where to start. It’s good to have a good selection to work with though rather than having to constantly search for what you want online.
When I finally got into Photoshop the first step was to extract the girl from her background and do some retouching. Getting all the hair out nicely was a fiddly business but in an image this dark I didn’t need to be overly accurate. In addition she had a tattoo covering most of her back that didn’t fit with what I had in mind. There was so much of it that I didn’t really have the option of painting or cloning it out. In a case like this the best option was to find a photo of another girl’s back and paste it over the top with some careful masking and colour correction. The same goes for half of her left leg which was cut off in the original photo.
The next step was the bulk of the image creation. Cutting out elements, bringing them into the composition and just playing around to see what works. I try to not have too solid an idea before I start so I can have some fun experimenting. I do general colour and lightness adjustments as I’m working, Along with the ornamental items I added in some more abstract and atmospheric elements. Textures and subtle particle stuff, as well as the fragmented shapes coming across her body. Those are the only 3D elements in the image and were brought in from Illustrator via ZBrush.
The final touches are fairly quick as I didn’t want to make any drastic changes. After flattening down I did some small retouches, soft blurs before sharpening it all up at the end.
3. Are there any particular favorite areas for your with this piece? Perhaps some parts of the image that you felt were the most successful?
I don’t have any particularly strong feelings about the different areas of this illustration. I guess the central area is probably where I concentrated a lot of the more interesting details and the better decorative elements. I think the recoloured tattoo works quite nicely as well and helps link the shape on her back to her body. The bottom area I found I kept darkening and darkening as I worked on the image. Not because I didn’t like it in particular but because it was just a distraction from the focal point. It’s also largely there to hide the fact that most of her foot and a lot of her leg are missing.
4. For aspiring photo manipulators what would your advice be for combining so many different elements together into a cohesive whole?
A picture like this that isn’t strictly photo realistic but more illustrative is actually fairly easy to make cohesive.You don’t need to pay as much attention to getting exactly the correct lighting, perspective etc. You can just do whatever looks good and claim any oddities as artistic licence! You still need to do work to get some cohesion though, the most obvious of which are the luminosity and colouring. With a central figure as in Jade, each element brought in can be matched to this using whatever adjustments you feel best. Generally I use curves and shadow and highlights adjustments for the luminosity, and a whole array of different adjustments for the colours. I nearly always have a stack of adjustment layers at the top of my layer stack to give an overall tinting to the image. These can really help unify the colours.
Obvious mistakes to avoid are things like using images of completely different quality (noise, compression etc) or not extracting items from their backgrounds properly and having haloes around your brought in elements. Try not to mess with scale too much either, shrinking down a mountain to look like a small rock is going to look strange and vice versa. Try to match light direction if possible, but in an illustrative picture it’s not essential. Mixing elements with really defined shadows and those without is a bit more troublesome but only if it obviously looks bad.
By carefully masking an object you can make it appear as though it is both in front of and behind another object. The dragon by the girl’s breast in Jade is an example of this. Although above the girl in the layer stack, the lower end is masked off to make it appear it is disappearing behind her. A small shadow painted on top of the dragon where it disappears helps the illusion. Adding shadows underneath and on top of elements can really help them fit in and not look like they’re floating on top.I try to add a little noise to any shadows I paint in, shadows in real photos are never the perfectly smooth ones you get if you just use a flat colour. Only a very little is needed, it’s almost a subliminal thing. Small touches like that can add up to a surprisingly big difference by the time you’re finished.
FanExtra members are able to access the .psd source file for Jade, allowing them to see the specific workflows and techniques being used to construct the piece. (If you’re not already a FanExtra member you can sign up today.)
Existing members can login here to access this source file.
Tom is the founder of PSDFAN. He loves writing tutorials, learning more about design and interacting with the community. On a more interesting note he can also play guitar hero drunk with his teeth.
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