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How to improve your character drawing

07. Make use of highlights

I create a new top layer and call it Highlights. It's time to shift back to the lit areas. (I jump from shadow to light and back again to keep everything balanced.)

I select the Color Picker, grab some direct light colour and brighten the colour up significantly. Then I paint areas that require a bright highlight. I also start adding rim lighting and some deeper shadows.

08. Use an autumnal background

Next, I create a layer underneath all layers and name it Background. Using a natural brush I very quickly start laying in some autumnal colours to complement the greens of the creature.

I treat it loose and abstract, and use darker values to ensure that the creature pops from the background. I then click Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur, and set the blur at 25 pixels.

09. Introduce photo textures

Elephant textures make great creature skin. I select a section with the Lasso tool, drag it over to the illustration and reduce the Opacity to 30 per cent. Then I click Image> Adjustments>Exposure, increase the Gamma setting and adjust the Exposure to increase the contrast. I tweak these adjustments and the Opacity until the texture looks right.

10. Fit the texture to the creature

Next, I click Edit>Free Transform, resize the texture to fit and then select Edit> Transform>Warp. Now I can start to shape the texture to fit the creature's form. 

I then repeat steps eight and nine to create a mosaic of textures on the creature. I experiment with a variety of textures – here I've used both elephant and leaf textures.

11. Add highlights to textures

By the end of this stage, the textures should feel like a part of the creature. I start by creating a layer on top and calling it Texture Highlights. Then I select a fine brush and start to highlight over the textures where the light falls. This should be done tastefully. A little goes a long way here.

12. Apply markings

Now I create a layer under the Texture Highlights layer and call it Markings. I set the layer's Blend mode to Multiply.

Now using mid-tone greens and reds I go in and delicately add markings to the creature's skin. This stage adds interest and believability, and helps to describe the form of the creature.

13. Depict foreground elements

I create a new layer on top and begin to loosely lay in foreground leaves and branches. Because this will be blurred there's no need to get detailed. However, I do build it up, using several layers.

Once everything is laid in, I combine the layers and go to Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur. Then I set the blur to about 35 pixels. This will give the piece a nice feeling of depth.

14. Adjust depth of field 

I copy all of the creature layers and combine them into one layer. Then I turn off all of the original individual layers. I select the Blur tool and pick the Airbrush setting. I set this to about 300 pixels and a strength of 50 per cent.

Now I go in and begin to blur out areas of the creature layer that I want out of focus. I do this to divert the viewer's attention to areas of interest, such as the face. This also gives the image a bit of a photographic look. Finally, I flatten the image and adjust the exposure and saturation to get the composition nice and bright.

This article originally appeared in ImagineFX. Subscribe today.

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A graduate of Ringling College of Art and Design, Aaron Blaise worked as an animator for Walt Disney for 21 years. He was co-director of Brother Bear and nominated for an Oscar.