I've had a few people ask me my process for art in #iHunt. I actually have a few different methods I use, and there's a lot of detail fussing I do that is immensely case-by-case. Now note that I'm using Photoshop for this tutorial. This is both super important but also not entirely necessary. I'll be including a Photoshop Action in this which speeds up my process immensely, you can download it below. But you should be able to mimic the same effects with other software like Affinity Photo or the open source graphics software with the gross ableist name. I'm not going to cover all those here because the tutorial's already long enough. You'll just need to break down the individual steps instead of doing it with a one-click action. This tutorial will presume at least a rudimentary knowledge of how Photoshop works.
I'm gonna detail the process I use to turn this piece into this piece:
The Photo Base
Since most of my work is photo manipulation, finding the right photos is immensely important, the value of which cannot be understated. You can't go in completely higgledy-piggledy. You really have to know what you want to do in advance. However, since I'm working with stock photography, there are distinct limitations. Like, you know, the actual photos I can find. In this particular example, I want to make an image that shows how not all vampire feeding is non-consensual. Some people are hot for it. So that's my artistic agenda going in.
There are a lot of great stock photo sites out there to work with. I generally only either use paid stock from Adobe Stock Photos, or I use free sites that don't require crediting. Nothing wrong with it, but when you're dealing in hundreds of bits and pieces, it gets to be tough to remember what you've actually used and what you've thrown away. I prefer Unsplash because it tends to have a lot of interesting photos, and more diversity than your average stock photo site. Pexels is another great resource, with a massive number of images available.
Unfortunately as of right now, there aren't a lot of good, free resources that specialize in diverse imagery. There are a couple of repositories for non-white and non-skinny models, but their free offerings are for non-commercial usage only, and most don't even have paid offerings available without having to personally contact the artists and wait for responses, which can be spotty, take forever, and I've had no luck with actually making those connections. So hey, if you think you can do a diverse stock image repository for commercial use, I think you've got a market. I'd pay you. I have bought a lifetime membership to Scopio, which is easily the best resource for diverse images I've found so far. It's nowhere near comprehensive, though, and doesn't feature a lot of action/movement shots.
For today's blog, I'm going to use this image from Unsplash as an example.
You can probably already see how this one's good for the agenda in mind. The big guy in the back with the tattoo is the vampire. The woman in the front is totally here for it. Not a victim. She's down with a little necking. (See what I did there?)
For this process, we need high res images. The process I use is made for 300ppi images, because that's what I need for print. If you use this process on a lower res image, it's gonna be weird. Like, it's gonna look like washed-out poop most likely. So scale up your images in advance.
Before I start, I will duplicate the background layer, name it something that reminds me it's my "master," lock the layer, and set the layer inactive. That way if I screw anything up, I always have the original to work from without going digging for the download.
Step One: Preparing the Image
You need to prepare the image to really get it where you want it to be. Fortunately for this process, it doesn't need to be super perfect and realistic, since the end result is heavily stylized. But there are some bits that'll really help it come out better and more unique in the end.
Smoothing is the first thing I like to do. The process will involve oil paint filters and posterization. So anything that I don't want to look particularly cel shaded or gritty needs to be smoothed out a bit. For example, the woman's face in this image is super detailed, and will turn out super problematic if I just apply these processes without prep. It's actually really unintuitive for me, because you see pores, blemishes, and the very real features that make skin look cool in this image, but I have to remove those to make the process work.
She looks great, right? Well, this is what happens when I just apply my effects.
Now she looks like a cracked old fresco. Not exactly what I want to see here. So what I'm going to do is go in with the blur tool in Photoshop, at about a 75% strength. The goal here is to smooth out any of the lines I don't want to show up in the final piece, and it doesn't have to be perfect or precise because the process really doesn't need immaculate detail. So I quickly did this:
Now, I'll put this through the filter process.
Much, much better. There are some stray lines here and there, especially around the mouth, the chin line, and the eyelids, but I think they look cool.
Now, before I get too far into this process, I really want to conceptualize what I want the final image to look like. In this case, I think I'm really going to downplay the role of the vampire in the piece. It's not really about that character. Since he's not going to be the focal piece of the image, I don't have to worry too much about his details.
So here's the initial prep work done. Not a huge difference. I mostly just focused on her skin, since it's problematic for the process in this image.
Step Two: Building the Layers
The next step involves building the layered image. This isn't an exact science, but I have some general guidelines I like to use. I like to have a completely separate background layer which I usually end up replacing (and I definitely will in this image because it looks like they're at a Rainforest Cafe.) Then anything that's in the active background is its own layer. In this case, the vampire is the active background. Then there's the focal point of the image. In this case, it's the woman. Then there's the active foreground. In this case, that's the vampire's arms.
Active Foreground (Vampire's Arms)
Focal Point (Woman)
Active Background (Vampire's Body)
Background Image (Rainforest Cafe)
If it's a group shot like the following image, the layers get more complex. But generally this process is enough.
That one's like twelve layers. But that's an edge case.
For this whole process, I use the Photoshop Pen Tool. I typed Peen Tool originally and had to fix it, and I felt you should know this. I start from the bottom, and work up the layer hierarchy.
I start by zooming in so I can get a fairly good look at the edges and details. This doesn't have to be precise, since later steps will round out the edges. But it's nice to get a fairly detailed silhouette. As a general guideline, I just tap a point with the pen tool every time the shape changes direction. You'll get better results with more precise points, but don't beat yourself up over this step, specially on the lowermost layer. You can also bend the pen lines in Photoshop pretty easily, but I don't bother because of the smoothing I'm doing anyway. Here's an in-process:
You can also use this opportunity to get a little creative with shapes. Especially any time a part goes off the side of the image, it's smart to consider carving it down to a more defined shape. I considered fussing with the vampire's head and actually adding to the top for that, but I think I'm actually going to fade him out anyway.
In this case, hair is a good example of what I mean. Actually, hair is almost always a good example. You're going to run into some problems if you try to perfectly cut out a person's hair, since for one, it takes forever and will offer diminishing returns, and for another, the stroke you'll apply later will just completely invalidate your fine tuning. So, I like to get creative and block out shapes of hair that don't correspond identically to the photo. Here's how I'm doing it for the bit on the right side:
Here's the final points I'm using for the first layer cut.
Once I have a fully connected shape with the Pen Tool, I am going to turn it into a selection.
Once I hit the make selection button, I'm going to use the default settings, and hit okay. If your settings don't default to feather radius of 0 with anti-aliasing, just set it there.
Once I hit okay, it makes a selection, which I use to copy into a new layer. I set the old layer inactive, and this is what I've got:
Now I'm going to start on the next layer, which is the woman, and by extension, the vampire's arms are also going to need to be copied. You'll notice that the woman and the vampire blend heavily in the shadows near the bottom of the image. That's okay! You just sort of have to figure out where you think the shapes begin and end, and make your best guess. In this case, I'm using her midriff as a guideline on the left side of the image, and building the shape based on how I think her hip should look based on the much more visible hip on the right.
Here's where I'm making my cuts:
You'll notice that around the edges, I'm real rough and go way off the side. That's just a time-saving measure. Also you'll notice I had to just pick a place where the vampire's arms end for the purpose of making the foreground layer later. I like to end somewhere a stroke doesn't hurt things. But it's not a bit deal so long as you have a little room to work with and erase without fucking up the overlap much.
This is what this step looks like:
Now I need to cut the arms and turn them into their own layer. So here's what that'll look like:
Now if you look over to the top right hand silhouette, you'll notice there's a break in the arm, so it's not one solid shape. That's actually fine. Just make the cuts as multiple layers, then Merge Layers to put them all together.
Also for posterity, I like to keep a copy of the focal point and the foreground layer. I just lock it and set it aside, inactive in case I need it.
Now that I have my focal point layer, I'm going to draw out the shape that's missing (I used the Lasso tool for this, but that's up to you,) and I'll fill it with Content-Aware Fill. It doesn't have to look good. It just has to not have defined edges that aren't natural. That'll cause problems later. In fact, this is what my filled version looks like:
See? Pretty silly-looking, right? Nobody will ever see it, though, so it doesn't matter. It's just there to keep the edges from fucking up the stroke.
We're pretty deep in layers now, so just for posterity, let's take a look at the layers panel so you can see what I've got so far:
The next part of the process involves deciding any sort of changes you want to make to the general look of the piece before any filters are applied.
Step Three: Image Edits
If there's any way you want the image to change before applying filters, this is the time to make those edits. This isn't a science at all—it just comes down to what you want to see in the image.
The first thing that comes to mind for me is that I don't like the vampire's t-shirt. It's this sorta comic sans thing that doesn't say much or add to the piece, while bringing some unwanted contrast to the table. More importantly, it doesn't say anything about the world. In RPGs especially, I find things like fiction text that don't actually deliver anything to the game to be a waste of space. So, I endeavor to marry the fiction and the rules as tightly as possible, using the flavor and execution of language in rules text to speak to the nature of the setting. In my opinion, game art is basically fiction in picture form. So why wouldn't I want it to say something about the world as well? As far as I'm concerned, generic art is a waste of space.
So I'm just going to play around with the Patch tool and Content-Aware Fill a little bit and get rid of the writing on his shirt. Again, we're not shooting for perfect here, and edges aren't a big deal. Here's the basics, to show you how rough it can be and not be a problem:
In the #iHunt universe, there's an old 1990s TV show called "Demon Knight" about a demon who fights crime. It's very much from the Forever Knight / Buffy / Highlander / Xena era of TV. It's an important part of the setting, because a group of hunters named themselves after the TV show. And as part of the world building for the book, I threw together an ad for the show with a logo. Since it was the 90s, I really wanted the logo to scream "t-shirt at early era Hot Topic that all sorts of suburban kids would convince their parents to spend way too much on."
So I'm just going to take that, export the logo itself as a PNG, and put it on the shirt. Then, I'll cut out anything that wouldn't be visible, and I'll use a little cutting and fussing to make it fit the fold in his shirt. I'll add a little gaussian noise, and a smart blur to make it look a little closer to the photo. Then I'll duplicate the background image and attach it to the logo as a mostly transparent Color Burn layer. This is what it looks like:
Like I said, not perfect. I wouldn't try to pass this off for a legit photo. But, we're not keeping it as a photo as-is, so there's no sense laboring too much on it.
Next, I'm gonna add a little makeup effect to the woman's face. She looks fine, but I kind of want to play with it a little, and give her a more "night time" look. For this, I'm going to duplicate the focal point layer, and add a new layer on top of that with a Color blend mode. I'm doing this so I can keep the brightness from the source image, while modifying the hues and saturation values to my liking. I'm gonna pick a color and use a soft-edged Brush tool. I'm going to play around with some purples. That's good for late night colors, and it'll go well with her turquoise jewelry. I'll just do some light painting over the lips, eyelids, and fingernails. Anything that goes too far, I'll crop down with the Eraser tool. Once I'm satisfied, I'll drop a gaussian blur on the layer, and adjust the opacity until it looks basically how I want. I feel like the lighting on the face is a little strong for the look I'm going for, so I duplicated the makeup layer and changed it into a color burn blend and played with the opacity on that. This is what I came up with in the end:
I kinda want to mess with her hair as well, but not today. So I'm going to first duplicate all the makeup layers and the focal point layer. I'll group the old ones together and make them inactive in case I want to change them later. Then I'll take the copies and I'll merge them to make my new working copy.
The other big thing I wanted to do with the image was add blood. There are a few good ways to do this. There's no perfect answer. I'm attaching a blood brush I picked up a million years ago in a freeware bundle. You can get it in the attachment links at the bottom of this page. I like it because it's shaped like two asymmetrical drips coming from a central splotch. I'll make a new layer and just drop down the brush in a deep, dark red where I want it to be. Then I'll use the Magic Wand tool on the focal point layer to select everything not on her, and use that to crop off the edge of the brush.
Next, I'll use Edit > Transform > Warp to make the blood fit the contours of her body just a little bit. And I'll apply a soft inner bevel/emboss effect for a little depth and personality.
Nothing too important here.
I almost want to give her tattoo sleeves to play up the whole goth/rocker look that's coming up here, but that's a whole different tutorial.
The last thing I'm going to do before I start applying filters is looking at lighting. Unless you want to be super ambitious, it's best to just work with the lighting you already have. In this case, the lighting is a soft light from overhead. Very simple—nothing challenging here. So what I like to do is go over the lights with the Dodge tool, and go over the shadows with the Burn tool. This'll add some contrast and starkness to the image, which will really punch once we start posterizing it. However, for the active background (the vampire,) I'm NOT going to do any highlighting with the Dodge tool, because I want to burn him into the background. He's just an accessory in this piece. So I'm going to use shadows and (lack of) highlights to objectify him. I even added a slight smart blur to help him fade into the background.
Already, he's kind of an afterthought. By this point you should already have stopped seeing him as a primary point in the image. Now, I'm going to go in and touch her up with highlights and shadows. Remember, I'm only emphasizing existing shadows on her, and emphasizing the existing highlights. But, since I want to keep the image on the darker side, I'm going to go for about a 65% exposure level on the burn, and maybe a 15% on the dodge. The only place I'm really going a little overboard on the highlights is on her navel piercing, just to help it stand out as an accent piece.
Alright. I like what I've got so far, so I'm going to start applying filters and moving into the final steps.
Step Four: Applying Filters
Now I'm going to start applying filters. This blog post is really long already so I don't want to break down exactly what I'm doing in the Photoshop Action I've attached to this post.
The actual list of things the action does is fairly simple though:
1) Converts the layer to a smart object
2) Adds shadows/highlights
3) Applies an oil paint filter
4) Applies poster edge filter
5) Adjusts the blending layer
6) Reduces noise
7) Applies an unsharp mask
8) Applies a smart blur
9) Applies cutout filter
10) Applies soft light blending
If you want to mess with these things you can probably replicate the effect fairly easy in another program. But applying them as an action makes it a one-click thing you can hit and walk away. This is especially important because sometimes I'll apply the effect multiple times to the same layer. It can get monotonous doing it the old fashioned way.
So then I start applying the filter action to the various layers, starting with the active background. This'll give it that sort of toon-shaded look. I'm also going to do the arms overlay layer, just so I can see him as a cohesive whole. Now, if I hadn't done all the blending and blurring on him before, his tattoos would have come out sharper in this step. But remember, I want him to fade into the background. You should know he's a big guy with tattoos, but you really shouldn't be able to focus much on the individual pieces of ink.
Now I'm going to work on her. I might filter her twice, depending on the exact look I want. Here's a side-by-side comparison:
I really like both of these. While I think the one on the right really stands out wonderfully, and could absolutely work, I think the one on the left lends to the overall darkness I'm going for here. If I were going with the more filtered version instead, I think I'd further blur and darken the vampire, to add some stronger contrast and really make it a bolder statement all around.
In this case, though, subtlety wins out.
I don't want to lose this work, in case I want to fuck around with it later, so I'm going to save the .PSD so far, and I'm going to duplicate the three important layers into a new PSD. Then I'm going to rasterize each of those layers.
Step Five: Applying Stroke
Now I'm going to give the new layers some stroke. With stroke, I'm going to work in reverse order by layer, starting with the active foreground. This is a lot of experimenting and feeling out. But I like to do a black, centered stroke, and in this case I'm going for a 12p stroke.
After looking at it, I don't think I'm going to apply a stroke to the background layer, further letting the vampire sink into the background. His arms will still get stroke, but that's mostly to differentiate him from the woman. If I were going to add stroke, I'd need to rasterize the stroke on the arms, and gently erase the stroke where his arm connects to his body. But I don't need to worry, since right now it sort of fades into his shirt.
Now we have a pretty bold, almost comic bookish look. We're almost done. If I didn't want a background on this, and wanted to just ship it as a transparent PNG, I'd add a second, outer stroke in white, to give it a more "cut out of a comic book" look.
Step Six: Applying Background
I really don't like the original Rainforest Cafe look. There's a lot of directions I could take as far as backgrounds go, but the picture doesn't really need much. So I just consider where they should be. I pick this photo from Pexels. Nice, red background bar image.
The photo itself is really cool, but most of the details are going to be lost. That's okay. We just have to accept that most of the picture will be the lights and colors along the side. First, I just drop it into a background layer and see how it looks.
It's actually not terrible, but it doesn't have the washed out feel I want. So I'm going to apply my filter action to it. It looks fairly cool. But I still want it to fade out, so I do a 1-point radial blur. And then I add a hue/saturation layer and fuss it a bit to match the characters to the background lighting just a smidge. I also like that it reddens her, so she doesn't seem desaturated. It's a common trope in vampire media that losing a little blood should be met with desaturation. But here, it actually gives her a rush and enlivens her.
There are a few other things I could do. I considered putting a feather gradient along the sides to further fade the background. I also considered blurring the vampire a bit more, or even adding the background as a blending layer to help erase him somewhat. But, I like it as-is. I might fuss it for the final book version, but, this is a good place to stop I think:
So what'd you think? Did this help? What kinds of other things would you like to see? I can do layout tutorials. I can do specific effects stuff, like adding tattoos effectively. I can talk about how I integrate images into pages. Whatever you're interested in learning.
If you're coming from elsewhere, you should check out the Patreon. I'll be doing more tutorials, some more micro games (you should definitely check out 2 to Tango,) and some other weird stuff.