Tutorial: Use Photoshop brushes to create a cowboy character from scratch.

I create a lot of characters in the work I do as an illustrator and I’m always looking for new ways to work that will keep me fresh and interested,
improve the speed of workflow and sometimes give new and unexpected visual results. I do a lot of my initial sketch work on screen nowadays, using
Photoshop as a sketchbook to quickly sketch and visualise ideas right there on screen and then take those ideas to a completed
stage without ever going near a pencil.
Photoshop  has a great range of out-of-the-box brushes that – together with a Wacom or digital tablet – allow you to imagine and experiment on the fly
from start to finish on a project, using Photoshop as a virtual sketchbook and canvas.

Below I will take you through the steps off creating a fun character in a loose and fluid manner using Photoshop all the way through. The version of Photoshop I use is CS2, but the tools involved are core tools found in any of the iterations.

NOTE: This tutorial assumes you have a good basic familiarity with the programme. I also recommend that you use a pressure sensitive tablet such as a Wacom to try this painting tutorial.  I will be posting more basic tutorials in the future as well, so watch this space!

Create an A4 document at 72 dpi. This will be your initial
sketch file, so keep the resolution low so you can work
quickly with the brush tool and avoid any lag.
Open the brush palette and select the Dry Media brush list
from the palette menu.

Select some of the brushes in the list and play around with them.
Get used to the feel of each brush and the feeling of using the digital tablet
to draw with. Remember to stay loose and have fun.
Click on the Brush Tip Shape option to access the shape controls
to explore variations. Don’t aim to do anything meaningful yet!

You are looking for a small brush that will provide a soft, variable
line allowing for quick, expressive sketching and shading.
I like some texture in my drawing brushes as well, so I chose
Conte Pencil on Bumpy Surface. Vary your brush size quickly using
the [ and ] keyboard buttons
. Practice drawing and shading simple shapes.

Add two or three new layers and name them simply “Sketch1, 2, 3” etc.
Then just start drawing shapes and lines and just doodling.
You can jump between the layers with different sketches going on
at the same time, so as ideas develop they can feed each other.
If you have an idea of what you want, try different versions out in each layer.

Make changes quickly using the Eraser tool – choose brush
settings in the same way as you did for your brush.
Don’t be afraid to increase the canvas size either. Once you get
used to sketching you might find, like me, you need more space.
Experiment with landscape and portrait formats too, as your idea
for a character starts to develop.

If you’re anything like me, you like to have freedom to
draw big. The important thing is to get something fun
and expressive happening, so if you end up with an element
that’s too big for the canvas space, use Free Transform to resize
or rotate. Or just increase canvas size again.

Once you have one or two elements working okay,
you might want to use another of the sketch layers
to work in. Here I have started to add a body on
one of the earlier sketch layers beneath the head sketch.
This way I can experiment quickly with positioning and
relative sizing.

Once your sketch is  working, zoom in to add any details that come to mind.
Although you can add new elements at any stage of the whole process,
it makes the painting stage easier if you have a fairly detailed sketch.
Remember when working in a zoomed view, you will have to reduce your
brush size to work details.

Create a new document at the resolution you want to output at finally.
Flatten your sketch and drag and drop it into the new document.
If the new document is a higher resolution, resize your sketch as needed.
Call the new layer “sketch”. Name and save the document as “Gunslinger”.

Select the Background and add a new layer above that. Call it “Palette Layer”.
Our sketch layer will be the topmost layer throughout. Set its blending mode
to Multiply and adjust its opacity to 40 – 50%.

Although we are sticking to Photoshop’s default brushes,
its a good idea to use the Tool Preset picker to rename and organise the
brushes you’re using during a job. Select the brush you used for sketching
and open the Preset dialogue box in the top right of the toolbar.
Click Create new tool preset and rename it as “drawing pencil”.

Select the Palette Layer. From the Brush Palette start
exploring possible brushes. From the Palette drop down menu
you can load different libraries of brushes.
I chose four brushes as well as my drawing brush. I made some
changes to them and saved them as Tool Presets.

My four painting brushes and Eraser are:
Watercolour Heavy Pigments (Wet Media list).
Rough Round Bristle (Thick Heavy).
Smooth Round Bristle (Thick Heavy).
Stipple Dense 26 (Natural).
Smooth Round Bristle Eraser.
I set Opacity to Pressure and sizing off on all except the watercolour.
I personally like manually adjusting size with [ and ] keyboard buttons.

Add a Colour Layer and above the Palette layer.
Using the Watercolour brush, quickly block in all the main colours.
Don’t worry too much. Simply aim to get a strong colour base
down. Make the base colours vibrant and a little over – bright, so they
“shine” through the paint layers you will be adding on top.
Fill in the Background Layer too.

Add a new layer called Colour 2 above your base colour layer.
Reduce the opacity of the sketch layer to around 30%.
Paint light and dark colours using the rougher bristle brush. Use the keyboard
shortcut of holding down alt to activate the eyedropper and sample
variations of colour . Vary pressure to vary opacity
and blend with the underlying colour layer.

Some of you might like to use the -now optional – Palette Layer
to paint in quick-access swatches of colour from your painting.
It can help you organise and work quicker sampling quickly with the eyedropper,
but I tend to sample from the painting itself and use the colour picker to
adjust hue, saturation or brightness.

Rework the colouring in the background as needed and keep it separate from
the colour layers.
After working up the light and dark areas you should have
a good sense of shape and mass. Merge both colour layers
to minimise file size and add a further colour layer. Bring the opacity
setting of the sketch layer down even more.

Rename the merged layer colour 1.
Add a new layer above it. Call it colour 2.
Change your brush to add variety – I used my Stipple brush –
start building in more contrast using light and dark tones.
Try to use more saturated colours to bring the face and
clothes to life.
Use zoomed views to work in more detail.

Late on, I decided our gunslinger needs a cigar!
Bring up the opacity of the Sketch Layer and using the drawing brush add a
cigar and reshape the mouth.
Then add another layer above “colour 2” and paint the cigar.
Add another layer for the smoke. I used the watercolour for the smoke.
Painting digitally makes adding in extras  easy!

Add a new colour layer. Use your drawing brush with opacity set to Pressure
to gently enhance light and dark details in the eyes, hand and other areas as you wish.
Then have a blast just painting a loose, colourful cactus straight in
the background and finishing the sky!
I also erased the spurs at this point, deciding against them.

Add a Hue and saturation Adjustment layer just above all
the paint layers
. Bring up the saturation and bring down the
brightness. Set the mask to black to hide the effect, then
use a white brush to paint into the mask as needed.

Add a shadow for the character and some other shading as you like.

Here’s the final piece with final adjustments to saturation and contrast. You can keep adjusting an polishing as long as you want, but I hope this tutorial has given you ideas about how you can play “fast and loose” using Photoshop as a sketchbook and a painting canvas.

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