Arthur and the Whale Process
Arthur and the Whale Process

I’ve got very complicated feelings about doing fan art, but when the opportunity presented itself this week to draw my favorite character for an end-of-year sketchblog throwdown, I knew I had to put those feelings aside. Or, at the very least, use the process as a teaching tool.

I took a few screen shots as I was working on the piece and I’m going to walk you through how it worked. First, here’s the finished piece.

So first, let’s take a look at where I started. This piece was done entirely in Photoshop (CS 5.1, if that matters to you) and a tablet and pen from Monoprice. It’s a cheap tablet, but it gets the job done. (Mostly.) So. the first thing I did was create the document at the size I wanted, filled the background with a dark sea green color, and then started to sketch in the figures using a white “pencil” on a separate layer.

I’ll come clean right now and tell you this is the first time I’d ever drawn a whale. Luckily, the web is full of ample reference. As for Aquaman himself, you can see that this was very quick, but I used the standard “8-heads tall” measurement for him, which gave me easy guidelines for where to put the head, feet, chest, crotch and knees.

Above you see some of the reference I used for this. I sampled the colors for the whale from the photo and created a new layer on which to paint. My main goal here was to have a value-driven piece by the end (as opposed to a line drawing). My iPhone, an Aquaman action figure, and a light helped me figure out where the shadows were going to lie on this. I also have a plastic mannequin head which I also shot and used as reference.

It’s not pretty, and the color balance on this is practically making my eyes bleed, but it did what I needed it to do. And it did it without hiring models and spending an hour setting up lights and backdrops and tripods and bounce cards.

The keen observer will note that at this point in the process, Aquaman’s right arm (the one in back) is too long. His shoulder looks like it’s coming out of his nipple. I fix this later. You’ll also note that I have completely forgotten to draw the whale’s furthest fin. Up until this point, he was just swimming in circles. Very sad.

Sometime in the middle of all this. I created a gradient on the background layer to suggest the light source from above right. Getting the angle on that right is important because if you don’t match your shadows to your light source, people are going to know something’s off with the piece, even if they can’t immediately tell what it is.

There’s one thing about this image I want to draw your attention to — the trident. First, let’s have a look at the reference I shot for that:

I took this picture into Photoshop, cropped out just the trident, rotated it to match the drawing, and then created a new layer on top of this picture just for the trident. I used the Rotate function to put that trident parallel to the bottom of the screen and then used an old trick to draw the straight lines. If you click on any point with your brush and then shift-click somewhere else, Photoshop will immediately draw a line between those two points. Brilliant. Then all I had to do was zoom in and add shadows and highlights to make those lines three-dimensional.

In the end, I realized my mistake with the fin and added it in, along with some atmospheric effects for the background. I ended up being very happy with Aquaman in this piece, but I have to admit I started getting a bit lazy with the whale and was eager to move on. The piece was finished enough for me to send it along to my friend for his sketchblog throwdown, but I’ll come back to this again later to polish it up.

Edited to add: One of the things I’m trying to do with this site is give other learners a more clear path to success. It occurred to me after having read the article again that I missed a very important point — setting the focus! After nearly 20 years as a graphic artist and art director, I forget how much of this I do instinctively. With Aquaman being so small in scale in the painting, it was doubly important that his colors popped. I didn’t want to go too cartoony, but it was a conscious decision to put him next to a whale that was so comparatively dull in color, as opposed to say an orca or the city of Atlantis. Keeping Aquaman small but still the focal point of the painting was accomplished using color… and size. Because, yes, the fact that he’s such a small, concentrated point of light in this painting immediately draws your eye to him.

And that’s… one to grow on!

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