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Digital Painting Lesson: Paint a Scary Zombie Cat Using Photo Reference

Digital Painting Lesson: Paint a Scary Zombie Cat Using Photo Reference

The Internet loves cats. The Internet loves zombies. What if we create a mix of them both? Well that’s exactly what you’ll be creating in today’s design lesson!

Today you’ll be learning the incredibly useful skill of digital painting using a photo reference. This is a fantastic method to learn the basics of digital painting, and can really improve your design skills.

By using the reference photo as a solid base you’re able to focus less on anatomy, and more on lighting, details, creativity and your painting technique.

Follow along with today’s lesson to learn some great new skills. Let’s get started shall we?

Final Image

As always, this is the final image that we’ll be creating:

Step 1

First place your reference (you can use this picture by KB-Fotowelt) inside a PSD file (or just open it in Photoshop and save as a new file). Lock the reference and create a new layer for every important change. Before we start painting, we need to define the colors of the scene. Dark blue and orange should play well together. So, grab a hard brush, lower Flow and cover the right half smoothly with dark blue.

Now do the same with the left half, using orange. We can imagine it’s a night (dark blue) and there’s a lantern (orange light) near.

Cover the ground too. Keep in mind that the cat’s casting the shadow to the right.

Change the file’s resolution (Ctrl + Alt + I) to as high level as you can. 10k width would be perfect, but 6k should be enough. The higher resolution, the more detail you’ll be able to put in your piece.

Step 2

Zoom into the eye. Use black and the same brush as before to draw the edge of the eye and the pupil.

Now cover the inside of the eye with different shades of green. Don’t be afraid of covering the pupil, it’s never really that black.

Play with brightness of the colors we’ve used before to draw some details of the iris.

Hide the reference for a moment to check if you didn’t rely on its colors too much. If the eye seem semi-transparent now, create a new layer under it and cover it with black.

Merge all the eye parts, copy the layer (Ctrl + J) and go to Edit > Transform > Flip Horizontal, to reflect the copy. Then move the other eye to its place.

Time for some fun. Use bright green in Linear Light brush mode to add some lights to the eyes. Remember – they shouldn’t be symmetrical! Paint directly on the eyes’ layers, or they won’t be affected. Be careful here, this effect is easy to overdo!

Change the color to darker green and the brush mode to Overlay. Now you can add some shadow under upper lid.

Our cat is a zombie, so its eyes shouldn’t be so bright and alive! Take a soft brush with some light blue in Screen mode and add some fog to the eyes. Don’t touch the edges!

Now, create a layer under the eyes and paint some dark around them. It shouldn’t work the same as with human zombies, but look how nice this effect is!

Step 3

Paint a rough shape of the nose with some brownish shade.

Use black to add more details to it. Look at the reference every time you need some help.

Add more details, lights and shadows, using the same color we’ve used for the general shape, but changing its brightness.

Again, turn off the reference layer and check if this part was really painted by you. Fill all the empty spots.

Step 4

Add some light to the left part of the head. Just sketch the lighted parts, precision isn’t important here.

The right part isn’t really lighted, but some of the reflected light will land there.

Add some blue shadows on the right…

…and some brownish orange ones on the left.

Hide the reference photo layer and fill in any gaps as needed:

Step 5

Time for the ears. The left ear is backlighted, so it should be painted with bright and warm colors.

The other ear can be ripped off. Erase the part we’ve drawn before and cover the inside of the ear with dark blue.

Now add some dried blood on the ear and lighten it a bit with red.

Step 6

Time to go crazy! Pick all the colors you see around, dark and light ones, and draw the hair with them. Don’t even try to be precise, just splash the colors around, defining all the shapes roughly.

Take an orange light and put it on the left as we did before.

And the right part again.

Now grab a soft brush and cover the messy spots between orange and blue lights, using colors you picked from these spots. Be subtle, don’t blur it all by accident.

Step 7

Create a layer under all the previous ones and draw the general shape of the rest of the body. Pick the colors from the head and use brighter, less saturated version of them.

Yes, it’s this step again.

Now cover the background completely, so that you could remove the reference and forget about it.

Step 8

We’re going to be more precise from now on. Let’s fix the jaw line to give the kitty more innocent look.

If you have a cat, you know sometimes they forget to hide their tongues after washing themselves. It’s looks pretty funny when they do it, doesn’t it? We can use it to make our illustration more surprising.

Add some light and shadow to the tongue, picking the colors form the head.

Add stronger light and draw some details using brush in Linear Light mode.

Add these little holes for the whiskers (do they have any name?), drawing them as a mix of hard and soft brush.

Now cover the holes with the colors around, so that they don’t stand out too much.

Step 9

Now we’ll add some depth to the picture. The part that we focus on mostly is the head, but the rest is less important for us. Select the layer with the body and go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur. Change the radius to the level where the body becomes slightly blurred.

Get into Quick Mask Mode (Q) and use soft brush to select the parts of the body that are even further form us (in this mode you’re actually painting the selection).

Get out of the Quick Mask Mode (Q) to create the selection (click Ctrl + Shift + I to reverse the selection) and apply some more blur to this part.

Step 10

I’ve just noticed the nose is too straight for this cat (of course, it all depends on the kind of cat). Here, fixed!

Add dome veins inside the left ear. You can play with brush modes to get an interesting effect.

Draw all the hair, quickly and loosely. Set minimum diameter of your brush to 0% to make it sharper.

And again, some more lights. You can use Color Dodge or Linera Light Mode for more vibrant effect. Just be careful!

Darken the lower jaw a bit.

Let’s come back to the ripped ear. Add some fresh and dried blood here.

Step 11

Whiskers! Whiskers are very important for a cat. Use your sharp brush with 100% Flow to draw them.

Create another layer above this one and create a clipping mask (Ctrl + Alt + G). Now you can easily paint over the whisker’s tips.

Step 12

Time for another element of the illustration. Our cat was caught on eating a mouse’s brain. As a reference you can use this picture by mslissome. Place it inside your file.

You can skip these steps, if you already learnt how to paint something from the reference. If you stil need some hints, there they are: first you can draw some outlines.

Then draw the inside of the body (pick the colors from the reference).

Draw some rough details (for example, the part of the head where the brain will be visible).

Place the reference of a brain (you can use this one by absurdwordpreferredon the mouse’s head.

Sketch the surface of the brain using the reference.

Now add some lights. The mouse basically is lying in the cat’s shadow, so reflected light will be mostly visible on it. Add some more details too.

Draw the fur roughly, just to define its direction.

Cover the fur with more appropriate colors, and define all the parts of the body.

Use soft brush to add lights.

Define the brain surface, covering the sketch and adding some lights.

And the last touches.

Step 13

Now we’ll add some surface to the ground. You can download any texture from and paste it inside the file. Transform the texture to fix the perspective (Ctrl + T, then hold Ctrl to drag a single point).

Make the texture black and white (Image > Adjustments > Black & White), and set the texture’s blend mode to Overlay. It should now fit the image.

If the ground turned out to dark, you can always add some colors under the texture layer to fix it.

Now, when the ground is defined, we can blend the mouse’s body into it. Cover it with black until it stops standing out.

We need to define the background too. Use Rectangle Tooul (U) to draw some random shapes. Try to use matching colors.

Gaussian Blur will do the rest!

Step 14

Now we’re going to add some creepiness and start to think about the wider movement and actions inherent in this scene.

The cat was probably starting to eat the mouse before we caught him, and now it has just raised it’s head to look at us. Some blood could have stuck to its mouth. Use your imagination and draw it!

Add more details. Remember about lights, blood is shiny!

A zombie without its naked body visible under ripped skin isn’t a zombie! So, draw some part without any hair, covered with blood.

Cover it with dried and fresh blood, as if it was going to be a scab soon.

Add some light too.

Check if the ripped ear doesn’t need any more details.

A stylish wound on the nose.

Step 15

Our cat seems to have too clean fur for a zombie. Let’s paint it a bit with red. Use Overlay blend mode not to lose the details.

Add some more creative wounds. It’s all up to you! Just use dark red and then cover it with wet fur.

With so many wounds there must be some blood on the ground too. Use Multiply mode to get a dark shade of red.

Now let’s add a bit of atmosphere by creating a new layer, filling it with some dark color and going to Filter > Noise > Add Noise.

Resize the layer to get a bigger mess.

Change its mode to Overlay and lower the Opacity until it’s barely visible.

And We’re Done!

It’s done! Isn’t it a cute kitty? ;) I’d love to know what you thought of the process by leaving a comment below:

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About the Author:

I'm an artist with a long experience in doing creative things. I'm familiar with traditional and digital media, and I feel at home in Photoshop. I love fantasy, my speciality are dragons - I could draw them all the time. You can visit my portfolio at

Leave a comment


  1. o0MSK0o says:

    For the eyes, what should Distance be set on for the brush?
    The hard brushes i have have distance at 5% Would that still work for it or should i put it back to what the default 25%?

  2. Nika Madness says:

    OMG its amazing!!!! thank u!

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