How to paint scales

There are many types of scales, and when it comes to painting, each of them requires a different approach. For this article, I’m going to show you how to draw a half-dragon girl. Because dragons are fantastic creatures inspired by reptiles, I first obtained some references for those types of scales, in particular photos of lizards and crocodiles.

Such scales are tough, rough or leathery, and in some examples take the form of spikes. They appear in a regular pattern (more or less), depending on the area that they cover: the back, stomach or snout of the beast, for example. This means that you can’t use a default pattern brush to recreate their look; they need to be drawn into place.

Once I’ve got my references I sketch the figure and lay down basic colours. With a simple brush, without any texture, I paint cool lights that I contrast with warm shadows, and I define her face, neck and shoulders, even going into detail because the scales will follow the shape of the body. Then I start painting scales one by one. When I paint the horns, I make their colour fades into a darker one on the ends, for a more realistic look.

01. Drawing scale shapes

Scales are drawn in one by one

Scales are drawn in one by one

Once I’m satisfied with the light and shadow, I create a Multiply layer and use the warm colour of the shadows to draw scales one by one. Their shape is an irregular quadrilateral with a bevelled edge. I avoid rounding them off, leaving them with noticeable edges. I also lay down each scale’s shadows in the same colour.

02. Bringing out highlights

Research helps to give the scales a realistic shape

Research helps to give the scales a realistic shape

I paint a more regular pattern on the horns’ edges for a more realistic effect. Then I paint lights with a light, cool colour. Every scale has its own highlight that reinforces its rounded shape, as well as following the shape of the head. I apply white brushstrokes as highlights, to simulate the smoothness of the scales.

03. Painting textures

Twisting the scales keeps the composition interesting

Twisting the scales keeps the composition interesting

Now I paint the girl’s horns. To achieve a more interesting effect I give them a twisted form, taking a cue from some animal horns, such as the goat and ram. I pay attention to the light and to the shadows they cast. Horns are leathery so I paint in some more white brushstrokes, to simulate a shiny appearance.

This article was originally published in ImagineFX magazine issue 144. Buy it here.

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Sara Forlenza creates art for book covers, cards and RPGs. After many years using traditional media, she was introduced to the world of digital art.