The Digital Painting that Got Me Hired as a Concept Artist

May 24th, 2020

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In 2008 there was a major economic crash in the U.S. that was felt all over the world. It led to many businesses closing down, and many, many workers losing their jobs.

In August of 2009, this included me.

Fortunately, after a few weeks of job hunting, I got the opportunity to interview for a concept artist position at Cryptic Studios, a video game company based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Great news right?

Well, before I could be hired I had to pass an art test. An art test is a mock assignment given to potential candidates. It’s standard procedure for video game companies and other creative studios.

For this test I had to create a digital painting of a creature that would fit into the world of the Champions Online video game which was their #1 title at the time.

In this digital painting tutorial I will break down my step by step process and share the Photoshop techniques I used to complete the test. Scroll down to read more…

Step by Step Process

Step 1: Understanding the brief

Before starting to draw or paint digitally, I took some time to become familiar with the game, it’s world and most importantly the art style, requirements and time limit.


The brief was simple:

‘Giant creature raging through the streets of New York’

The location is clearly defined but the “creature” was left to my imagination. This means I had an opportunity to showcase my design and drawing skills. 

Step 2: Creature design and thumbnails

creature concept sketches 01

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I started the design process by sketching from imagination. Sketching like this also helps me to get warmed up and into a good rhythm.

Step 3: Composition thumbnails

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Having a strong and clear composition will not only make the image stronger but helps me to stay organized during the painting process. Taking the time to arrange the character, background, light and dark shapes will help guide me when I eventually add color and details.

After several rough composition sketches, I decided to go with the minotaur creature and composition (bottom left).

Digital Painting Process


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Now that I have the creature, environment and a composition to work with I could start the digital painting process.

There are many, many ways to approach a digital painting or digital rendering. This process is a ‘tonal approach’ that starts with black and white and grayscale rendering with layers of color added on top. This approach is often used by digital artists and illustrators.

I chose this approach because of the short deadline and because it was appropriate to match the look and art style required.

Step 1: Line drawing

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I scan the thumbnail sketch into Photoshop and clean up the line drawing. Since the art style required a comic book look, I wanted to have strong emphasis on the line drawing.

Step 2: Light and shade

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To set up the shading process, I first fill the canvas with a flat, medium gray (50% brightness). Then, I fill the character with a medium-dark gray tone. This gives me a base tone to start with and a mask I can use to separate the character from the background.

Next I start to block in the shadows and highlights, which helps to start to show the forms.

Step 3: Foreground elements

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I draw foreground (FG) shapes that overlap and interact with the creature. The shapes are filled with a very dark, almost black tone. This makes FG elements come forward, which creates a sense of depth and also helps to vignette, or frame the image. I also added some detail to these shapes, especially the hanging stoplight.

Step 4: Rendering and details

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I start the detail phase by modeling the forms in the creature. I also add subtle highlights and texture. I control the level of detail by focusing most of  the rendering at the hands and the face.

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Close-up of the details.

Step 5: Background

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Because of the tight deadline, I decided to use photography as a base for the background.  I used a combination of Photoshop filters and hand painted details to help fit the art style. I also used warp and transform tools to make it match the perspective of the composition.

Step 6: Integrating the background

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To better integrate the background and create more depth and scale, I add more details like figures, cars and street lights.

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A close-up of the details.

Step 7: Final tonal render

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I add details like small flames and smoke which softens edges and adds movement. I also add a subtle drop shadow on the character to help him sit in the environment.

Step 8: Colorizing

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This method of digital painting uses blending modes to add colors in layers. This method is favored by concept artists and digital illustrators because it is fast and efficient. The downside is that when using digital blending modes, the colors can quickly get of out control and produce unnatural looking results.

To help me control my colors, I use a very limited palette of red, yellow, green and violet. The colors were picked from a photograph of New York at night and slightly adjusted so I have dark, light and medium value version for each color. To help me control the mixing of the colors,  I place my palette in a separate window, but a separate layer will also work.

Color itself is a very complex topic. If you want to learn how to use color and get consistent results, check out my course, The Laws of Color.

Step 9: Creature coloring

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To apply the first layer of color, I create a new layer set to “Color” blending more. I start by painting a base of reds and yellows, with violet in the shadows to add color contrast.

Step 10: Coloring the background

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To start coloring the background, I fill a Color layer with blue-purple, which is a base for the night sky color. Then I create another Color layer and then I block-in more colors using large brushes with big, loose brushstrokes.

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Once I have a nice harmony of warms and cools, I refine the colors in the detail areas like the windows, street signs and buildings.  At this stage I try to limit the saturation and keep the colors mostly cool and desaturated so they don’t compete too much with the creature. Keeping the colors desaturated and grey will also make the background elements recede into space which creates depth.

Step 11: Dodge and Burn

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Color Dodge and Color Burn are blending modes that can quickly add highlights and dark accents of value and color. They are very powerful effects that can quickly create contrast. But they can easily be overdone and can overpower or ruin an image, so I approach this stage with caution and care.

Once I merge the colored creature layer with the colored background layer, I create a new layer set to Color Burn. I use a medium value purple to paint in dark accents. I focus mostly on the shadow areas, especially the form shadows and areas of overlap such as the front leg, armpits and the smaller shapes in the face.

Next I create a new layer set to Color Dodge. Here I use a desaturated yellow to paint the highlights, especially in the face and hands. I also add a warm glow to the explosion around the car and in the street lights.

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Before and after Color and Dodge layers.

Step 12: Final image

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To finished the painting, I add some small details around the face of the creature and the FG elements.

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Detail of the creature’s face. I mostly refined shapes, increased the contrast, modeled small forms and added drool just for fun :).

Chris, Did you Get the Job?

Yes, I did. My art test was a success. After my in-person interview with the Art Directors and Art Department I was offered a job.

I worked at Cryptic for almost 3 years and eventually go to work on the Star Trek video game and even go to paint a cover of Star Trek Magazine, but that is a story for another day…


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If you liked this concept art tutorial and want to learn more about digital painting and how to use color in Photoshop. Check out my course The Laws of Color. This course has all the knowledge, tips, techniques and practical color principles I used to get a job and continue to use in my professional career.