How to create an epic dragon scene

Fire up your Photoshop skills to create an epic dragon scene with this how-to from expert Ruan Jia.

how to fire up your dragon

This is a painting that I produced for Volta's homepage. The customer provided a concept – a dragon rider leading his army towards the viewer – and I took it on, first changing the male rider to a female.

I designed four thumbnails and sent them to the customer for feedback. The preferred idea ended up being a combination of two of my thumbnails. I then began painting the image properly, establishing lighting and composition.

I chose the direction of the light and then determined what would be the focal point of the painting for the viewer – this was especially important because I knew there'd be a lot of elements in the scene. The solution was to make the dragon's mouth the centre of the painting.

To ensure that I made the action look as realistic as possible I collected photos of animals roaring – these helped me draw the lead dragon properly.

01. Draw thumbnails

dragon step one

These are the black and white sketches I created to show to the client. I tried a different quantity of heads to experiment with the creature design; I also adjusted the composition depending on the number of heads. The customer chose the upper right and lower left thumbnails, so I decided to combine the two into one painting.

02. Careful detailing

dragon step two

I'm obsessed with little details and always bear in mind whether they're appropriate for the subject. I use a custom texture brush to draw in the scale patterns on the dragon's head, focusing on the eye, cheek and jaw. This is the painting's focal point and needs to have a strong impact on the viewer, so in the next stage I need to enhance these details using colour.

03. Adding highlights

dragon step three

I like the shadowing around the eye, but the colours feel wrong. I feel the main colouring should be more realistic, so I add more details to the head to highlight the eye. Next I enhance the yellow colour of the eye and make the red of the mouth brighter. The highlights now have more contrast – it feels brighter and enhances the dragon's face.

04. Painting hair

dragon hair

I spend a lot of time painting the knight's hair. I use the Eraser tool between the character and background. To enhance the hair I chose to paint the armour blue, to add contrast and give the character more colour.

05. Horn detailing

horn detailing

When I begin to detail the main image, I take great care over this edge of the horn. This part is near the centre of the image, so it'll anchor the image. I enhance the contrast of the wing and its angle to make it more obvious, then overlay a Color layer to strengthen the yellow and lift the horn off the wing.

06. Background approach

background approach

I paint the background in advance, before I began work on the main creature. I'm deliberately vague with my brush strokes here, so that it looks like the details have been captured while travelling at speed, to introduce a sense of movement.

Photoshop custom brush: Scale brush

photoshop dragon brush

I'm obsessed with little details, so I use this texture brush to draw in the scale patterns.

Words: Ruan Jia

Award-winning artist Ruan Jia was born in China’s Fujian Province. After he graduated Ruan spent eight years as a concept artist at NetDragon before moving to Canada in 2010 to work for concept art studio Volta. This article originally appeared in ImagineFX magazine issue 77.

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