How to illustrate realistic fire on your iPad

Dave favours rougher, block pastel-like brushes with a bit of smeariness

Dave favours rougher, block pastel-like brushes with a bit of smeariness

A campfire scene might sound daunting at first, but it also opens up many intriguing possibilities for building an exciting image. With a little work you can get a lot of colour and interest into your scene, even though it's night time!

Start by considering that you're not only limited to your fire as a source of light. You can have background twilight, moonlight for rim lighting, and bounced firelight on surrounding rocks, trees, structures and clouds. Torches or second fires can add even more variation.

Instant depth

Your figures can be both frontally lit by the fire and silhouetted against it, creating instant depth in your composition, and you can introduce a smoke plume through the picture elements to reinforce the areas of interest.

If you want to try a simpler approach, consider the fact that fire itself can be colourful. All sorts of hues are visible in flames, so don't be afraid to use them – Frank Frazetta was a master of this approach.

Even the night sky can hold colour possibilities: twilight can have very rich, deep blues and purples. Even with just a simplified compositional setup, you can still fill your campfire scene with vibrant colour.

01. Toying with ideas

Keep it simple with the initial sketch

Keep it simple with the initial sketch

I create a few quick sketches and doodles, toying with using several characters, but I decide that a single silhouetted character would be strongest option. 

I always ask myself if I can simplify what I'm doing, and it helps to keep compositions from getting out of hand. The figure is inspired by someone 
I saw at a festival dressed as a fantasy druid.

02. Establish a structure

Changing composition is easily achieved digitally

Changing composition is easily achieved digitally

I photograph my sketch with the iPad, and then in Procreate I carry out some blue-grey washes to help me establish the general value structure.

I then decide to change the path of the smoke plume. Compositionally, I prefer the first one, but the new layout enables me to use contrast to better accent the head of the druid against the rising plume.

03. Considering colours

Contrasting the figure against the flames helps to create a dramatic image

Contrasting the figure against the flames helps to create a dramatic image

There are now lots of colour in the plume! The top of the plume is nearly the same colour as the lower bright edge of the night sky. Think about the warm light from fire below revealing the three-dimensional form of the blueish smoke plume.

I ensure that the colours are saturated near the value transition areas, which gives the impression of brighter colour overall.

04. 'Colour corona'

Create a strong light source by surrounding it with intense colour

Create a strong light source by surrounding it with intense colour

Here I am employing what James Gurney calls “colour corona”, where a strong light source optically appears to be surrounded by intense colour. 

I tend to use this effect quite loosely, but even doing so creates the impression of very bright light. A night fire will also leave intense, colourful after-images in the human eye, and that's another inspiration for my painting approach here.

Top tip: create a micro reference

Being able to shoot model reference for your images is ideal, but if you don't have the resources to create a real campfire scene you can shoot a quick lighting guide using your phone or tablet camera: grab a few toy figures and a tea light candle to create a mini scene!

Watch the full tutorial:

Words: Dave Brasgalla

Dave Brasgalla is a graphic designer and illustrator who works digitally and traditionally in Stockholm. He recently organised the Northern Light Workshop series. This article originally appeared in ImagineFX magazine.

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