Anatomy of a Digital Painting: Cereal Mascot Reunion

This is a step-by-step guide detailing how I created my Cereal Mascot Reunion print, for those interested in the process.

Images with a red outline can be enlarged by clicking on them.

As an introduction, I work using a wide variety of materials, from pencils to scanners, but most of my work is hand-painted digitally using a pen tablet and Corel Painter. This particular image is probably the most complex one I've done to date, and utilizes Photoshop and layers more than my other work, which makes it a good candidate for a step-by-step. I generally try to avoid using much Photoshop, as using it too liberally can quickly take the organic quality out of a hand-drawn image - but with this image there were a number of places it felt appropriate, and I think the result is a successful marriage of hand-drawn elements and Photoshop enhancements. The insane level of detail employed is to ensure the image will look impeccable at its full 22" x 17" print size. 300dpi print resolution shows a lot more detail than a computer screen.

Please note that this isn't a "painting tutorial." I touch on painting technique a little bit, but that's a very difficult thing for me to explain, I just kind of do it. This is more of a breakdown of an image that involves a lot more elements than just painting, and how I brought those elements together. If you want to learn painting techniques, there are a lot of great tutorials available around the web which could probably explain it much better than I.

My main materials used were a Wacom Cintiq 12WX display tablet, and a Mac Pro 2 x 3 GHz Dual-Core Intel Xeon computer running OS X Leopard, Photoshop CS3, and Painter 9.5.

FYI: There's a bare breast about halfway down this page which is technically NSFW - it's not too obvious though, and it's easy to scroll quickly past, if you're concerned about that sort of thing.

Step 1: Rough Compositional Sketch
With the intial idea already in my head, the first step was to sketch it out on paper and figure out the general composition. I settled on five mascots so as not to over-crowd it, and I narrowed them down carefully, considering recognizability, how fun they'd be to draw, and how varied they'd be visually. I ended up selecting Frankenberry, The Trix Rabbit, Count Chocula, Cap'n Crunch, and Tony The Tiger, although Lucky The Leprechaun, Boo Berry, and Toucan Sam almost made the cut. I did a few rough composition sketches on paper and settled on this one:

Step 2: Refined Sketch

I scanned in the initial pencil sketch, then drew over it with the pencil tool in Painter, refining some of the details. I do every step or element on a separate layer, so I have the most flexibility possible down the road. So in this case, I took the opacity of the original sketch way down to keep it as a general reference, then drew the refined sketch in a new layer above it.

Step 3: Final Guideline Sketch

In yet another layer, I refined the sketch even further, taking some time to get all the details just right, as this would be my guide when painting. At this point I was very concerned with getting the characterizations just right. I wanted the mascots to look depressed, bored, and slightly uncomfortable, with the exception perhaps of Cap'n Crunch, who is enjoying his magazine.
After polishing this up in Photoshop, it was ready to go over to Painter to begin putting color in.

Step 4: Painting the Background

In Painter, I kept the sketch on top at a low opacity as a guide, then began painting the background layer. For broad areas of color on a large image, I use the simple watercolor brush. The process here is very similar to real painting - I put down a base color, then spread around a lot of different colors and began to mix them together, creating a brown that isn't just brown, but a rich mix of a lot of different colors. To get a nice rich painting, try to never use the color you actually want to achieve - dance around the color with a variety of other colors. For example, I never use black to make shadows - pure black flattens out the colors it mixes with. So I use a dark blue, which brings out all kinds of other colors as it blends, and keeps the shadows a consistent cool tone across the painting. Similarly, I pick a pale yellow color to use for highlights, as I want a warm indoor lighting, and at the same time I want a slightly yellow/brown tone in general, to invoke an old yellowed photograph.

You can see here I originally had light coming down the stairway, but that suggested sunlight, or an easy escape, or something otherwise positive just beyond that doorway. Making it dark worked a lot better with the depressing basement vibe and the uncomfortable feeling.

Step 5: Painting a Base Coat for the Foreground (click to enlarge)

In a new layer, I roughly painted in the foreground elements, just to get all the general color foundations in place. For this I used the round camelhair oil paint brush, which is my brush of choice and I used it from this point on when working in Painter. I usually put in a base color for a shape, then blot a bunch of other colors in that will end up getting blended in but will help keep a certain richness to the image. I build some dimension out of the shapes using my blue shadow color, then eventually bring out the highlights with my yellow highlight color. Again, the process here works just like real painting, there's no big secret or shortcut. Whereas Photoshop is largely a technical skill, Painter is an artistic skill, and pre-existing experience with painting will be extremely beneficial with Painter. Something to note: If you're going to use multiple layers in Painter, make sure you have "Pick Up Underlying Color" checked in the layer options. This will blend in the color of the layers underneath, so even though you're working with multiple layers, you never lose the painterly feel of the whole image working as one and shapes blending into each other and borrowing color from each other.

At this point I had eleven layers of painting: The background, ground shadows, the chairs and couch, each mascot, Cap'n's magazine, Tony's stripes, and the coffee table.

Step 6: Painting Wood Panels
I began to work on some details, starting from the background and working forward. At the very back of the image I wanted a wood-paneled wall, as it simply wouldn't be a '70's rec room without one. I wanted all the intricate details of the individual panels and the faux-wood texture, and since it's digital, I could get all that without having to painstakingly paint the entire thing (not that the process I used wasn't painstaking, but it was at least a more interesting process). I probably wouldn't normally be so eager to incorporate Photoshop trickery, but it was going to be part of this image's aesthetic, so creating the wall in a sloppier, hand-drawn way would have ended up looking out of place. But I still needed to do some painting, so first I created a new document and painted six different wood panels. Here's what one of them looked like:

Step 7: Installing the Wood Paneling

I brought my wood panels into Photoshop, duplicated them, flipped them and reversed them, and moved them around until I had an entire wood-paneled wall. The idea was to use this as a texture that composited over my painted background, preserving the shading and color of the background while adding the detail of the wood paneling.

Step 8: Compositing the Wood Paneling

It took a great deal of experimentation with layers and blending modes, but eventually I found the right balance that gave me the look I was going for. It ended up being fairly complicated, but basically it worked like this: The panels as you saw them in step 7 were placed above the background. On a layer above that, I had another copy of the background, which was set to "luminosity" blend mode. This created a perfect brown hue, but lost most of the details of the wood panels. So above all that, I pasted the wood panels again, but high-contrast black and white versions of them set as "multiply" layers, which put the texture back. What that lost, though, was the slight highlight along the edge of each plank that gave it some depth, so I had to add those as separate "color dodge" layers.

At this step, I had all the individual wood planks and all the different layers it took to get their color right, plus all my painting and sketching layers for the other elements, resulting in a total of 208 layers. Yikes.

Step 9: Giving the Wall Perspective

Of course, I'd built a flat wall, and the scene is at a slight angle, so now I needed to adjust my wood paneling's angle and perspective. I made some perspective lines based on my original sketch - looking at the major horizontal lines in the image like the coffee table and the floor and the door frame. With my perspective lines as a reference, I adjusted the wood paneling with Photoshop's perspective tool until it fit perfectly. Remember I'm just adjusting the texture of the wall, my original painted background from Step 4 hadn't changed.

Step 10: Finished Background Wall (click to enlarge)

I brought my foreground layers back (they were invisible while I was working on the wall) and I could see how everything was coming together now that the main part of the background was done. At this point I also added a "levels" adjustment layer to the image in Photoshop to make it a bit more vibrant - I tend to lose sight of the overall contrast of an image when I'm working in Painter.

Step 11: Painting Foreground Details (click to enlarge)

I flattened all my wood paneling layers so they weren't bogging me down, and I went back to Painter and worked on refining all the mascots. I was still using the round camelhair brush, and I was just slowly chipping away at the details bit by bit. When I paint a large image like this, I force myself to never zoom in further than 50 percent, otherwise I'll go insane with the details and never finish. For a 300dpi image, if it looks good at 50 percent then it's going to look good in print.

Step 12: More Foreground Details (click to enlarge)

Here I've refined more details, and I've painted in the base coats of some of the items on the table. I've smoothed out the chairs and added some more detail to Cap''n's magazine. Again, I kept each element in a separate layer for flexibility - i.e. the table legs were a layer, then the table surface was another layer, then the cans were another layer, and the Atari controllers were another layer, etc. I painted in the reflections on the table surface as a solid dark brown color, on a layer just above the table but underneath all the objects. Then I used a soft eraser to gently take away some of the opacity from each reflection, particularly in the middle. This let the color of the table come through a bit, resulting in a very natural-looking reflective polished wood surface. Later I'll add some wood grain texture to finish it off.

Step 13: Preparing the Magazine

At this point I had to make a decision. I was originally going to paint things like the magazine cover and the beer cans the same way I painted the mascots, but ultimately I decided to use real images for any printed material, to give it a distinctly different texture than the physical items in the scene. Plus, it would be more fun this way. So for the magazine, I searched around for a real Penthouse cover from the 1970's. I had Playboy in the original sketch, but the slightly smuttier tone of Penthouse gave Cap'n Crunch just the right amount of "creepy old man." I yellowed the magazine cover and added some texture to weather it a bit, as if it had been sitting around in the closet of this rec room for thirty years. For the back, I found a cigarette ad from the '70's and gave it the same weathering treatment - it's barely visible so it didn't particularly matter what the image was.

Step 14: Compositing the Magazine

To get the photographic cover image to sit convincingly on the painted magazine, I ended up using four layers, as numbered above:
1. The original painted magazine
2. Using the perspective and warp tools in Photoshop, I manipulated the front and back cover images to fit the angle of the magazine.
3. I now put the original painted magazine from step one on top of the photographic images as a "hard light" layer, and tweaked the levels and opacity until it was adding just the right amount of shading. 4. It still felt like it needed something more, so I duplicated the painted magazine layer yet again, pumped up the contrast, and make it a "screen" layer. This enhanced the highlights, giving an extra bit of shine to the front cover.

Step 15: Even More Foreground Details (click to enlarge)

Here I've refined the shading of the cans and the cards a bit more, painted in the details of the Atari and controllers, done a bit more work with Tony's fur, finished Count's hands (which I was avoiding because I hate drawing hands), drawn in the pot and the rolling papers (I wanted to have the pot in a little plastic bag, but found that way too difficult to render in a way that made it clear what it was), and added a bunch of pull tabs littered around. For those unaware, up until the 80's soda and beer cans opened with pull tabs - tops that came off entirely instead of staying on the can as they do today. You still see pull tab cans in Japan, and I'm sure in other places as well. I wrestled a bit with whether or not to make the cans pull-tabs. After all, this image would really be taking place now, with the old mascots reuniting in their '70's hangout room, which has been sitting untouched for 30 years. Technically they'd have modern beer cans, but the pull-tab nostalgia was too fun to resist, so I figured we could just assume they found an old twelve pack of beer still in the fridge in the garage. Thirty year old beer probably wouldn't taste very good, but whatever. Oh, I also refined the edge of the floor shadows to give them some carpet-like texture, and I realized at this point that the doorway behind them was way too small (check it out in step 12), so I enlarged it in Photoshop and repainted some of the details on it.

Step 16: Creating a Carpet Texture
I wanted the room to have a mangy old shag carpet, one of those hideous ones made up of all different reds and yellows and greens that ends up just looking orangish-brown. They seemed to be in every rec room in the 70's/80's. I tried a number of techniques for creating the right carpet texture, up to and including painting each individual fiber, but none of them were working. Finally I ended up filling up a large image with texture created with the variable splatter airbrush tool in Painter. I had to make it really large to cover the entire floor area - here's what it looks like zoomed out, with a detail of part of the texture:

Step 17: Creating a Wood Texture
I also needed a wood finish for the coffee table, so I painted a quick one in Painter. I painted it in black and white with the intention of overlaying it as a "multiply" layer in Photoshop:

Step 18: Compositing the Carpet
Back in Photoshop, I used the perspective tool to lay down my carpet texture over the background layer at the proper angle:

Then I duplicated my painted background floor, put it on top of the carpet texture, and tweaked the levels until it looked like this:

I then changed its blending mode to "soft light," and now my carpet layer had some nice shading:

Step 19: More Compositing (click to enlarge)

I put my floor shadows layer back in, and set its blending mode to "hard light" so it sat more dramatically over the carpet texture. Then I brought in my wood texture for the table, set it to "multiply," and used the perspective tool to match it up to the table's surface.

Step 20: Creating a Beer Can Label
It was time to put some labels on my beer cans. Budweiser, the most generic of American beers, seemed the natural choice for a brand. I dug around the internet for as much reference material as I could find, and recreated a custom label that more or less represents how Budweiser cans looked on pull-tab cans in the '70's. The back part with the warnings and such is from a modern can, but it's close enough:

Step 21: Compositing the Beer Cans

I made each label a "linear burn" layer, and adjusted their levels until they overlayed really nicely onto the painted blank cans. Then I used the warp tool to curve them around the shape of the cans. I had to do quite a bit of work to make them wrap convincingly - the warp tool doesn't take perspective into account (foreshortening of the label as it starts to go around the sides of the can), so I had to do that manually by scaling the edges of the labels.

Step 22: Scanning the Playing Cards

I needed faces for the playing cards, so I bent and tore up some real playing cards and scanned them in.

Step 23: Compositing the Playing Cards

I yellowed the cards a bit to give them some age, then adjusted them with the perspective tool to match the position of the painted cards, and set them to "multiply."

Step 24: Creating the Albums

The albums were the exact same process as the playing cards - I yellowed them a bit, added some texture to age them, then set them on the floor with the perspective tool and darkened them appropriate to the lighting.

Step 25: Adding the Game Cartridge Label

Exact same process here as above.

Step 26: Adding the Dartboard and Poster
No '70's rec room is complete without a dart board and a Farrah Fawcett poster. These would be very dark in the background, so I knew I didn't need to spend a ton of time on them. I made the dartboard in Photoshop based on a standard dartboard layout I found online. I yellowed the poster and gave it a color halftone effect, then faded the edges of it and painted in the folds and tears. Then I placed them on the wall and painted over them with black on a multiply layer to darken them appropriate to the lighting. This is how they look before being darkened:

Final Step: Tweaking the Colors (click to enlarge)
Now everything was painted, and all the details and photo elements had been laid in. All that was left was to spend some time tweaking the colors with adjustment layers until they were exactly how I wanted them. I wanted vibrant tones that emphasized the central overhead lighting, and creamy highlights that kind of gave the feeling of a weathered Polaroid picture, without going overboard. I ended up using 8 adjustment layers to get the coloring I was looking for. Here's the final image:

For a more straightforward look at the process, here's Frankenberry through his various stages of development:

And for those interested, here are the list of layers I had in my final Photoshop file (keeping in mind I lost many layers along the way from combining various elements) - from bottom to top:
curves (adjustment layer to darken the background)
wall shadows
carpet texture
ground shading (soft light)
ground shadows (hard light)
door trim
dartboard side
dartboard face
dartboard shadow (multiply)
dart shadows (multiply)
poster shadow (multiply)
poster thumb tacks
chair legs
chairs & couch
kiss record
bowie jacket
bowie jacket shadow (hard light)
kiss jacket
kiss jacket shadow (hard light)
coffee table back legs
tony's can
hue/saturation (adjustment layer to fix some shadows around the mascots)
mascot features
magazine front cover
magazine back cover
magazine shading (hard light)
magazine highlights (screen)
mascot features 2
mascot features 3
frankenberry's chains 1
frankenberry's chains 2
mascot texture
coffee table
coffee table reflections
coffee table wood grain texture (multiply)
coffee table scratches
cheetos bowl
can labels
stains (soft light)
pull tabs
beer spill
atari controllers
space invaders label
cards bottom level
5 of clubs (multiply)
6 of hearts (multiply)
jack of spades (multiply)
2 of diamonds (multiply)
queen of hearts (multiply)
cards top level
3 of spades (multiply)
adjustment layers
color balance (adjustment layer)
levels 1 (adjustment layer)
levels 2 (adjustment layer)
curves (adjustment layer)
color balance 2 (adjustment layer)
selective color (adjustment layer)
levels 3 (adjustment layer)
hue/saturation (adjustment layer)

Hopefully this guide proved useful to some of you out there working with digital art - or even just interesting to some of you who aren't.