Learn how to combine surreal elements to create a fantastical vision
Quickly lay down the composition via a rough sketch. It’s a good idea to sketch out several compositions (thumbnails) of the same concept to see what works out the best. For inspiration, look at photos of various aquatic life like corals and seashells. Once settled on the strongest concept, make a new layer set to Normal and using a basic Hard Round brush roughly sketch out the idea you settled on. The details don’t have to be very refined; the concept will be polished and built upon throughout the painting.
After quickly sketching out the concept, create a new layer over the rough sketch and set it to Multiply. Using a basic Soft Round brush, in combination with monotone black and grey colours, work out values on this layer to test the composition and get a better idea of how to approach the lighting in this painting. Using another new layer set to Normal, and going between Soft Round and Hard Round brushes, define the values more and add the lighter details like moon and stars with lighter grey and white tones.
Once you are satisfied that the values create a harmonious composition with the sketch, merge the layers of the sketch and the values together using Cmd/Ctrl+Opt/Alt+Shift+E (and delete the original layers, leaving the background). Lower the Opacity of the image to 10-20% and use a small black standard Hard brush with Opacity of 90% to ink the sketch. Study leopard anatomy beforehand using photos. Don’t fuss over the details; the line art is simply meant to serve as a cleaner guide for the painting than the rough sketch.
Before we begin painting, it’s important to figure out what colours we want to use for the painting. By researching and collecting photos of the relevant subjects, we can learn how lights and colours interact, as well as find inspiration for how to light the composition and what colour palette to use. Create a new layer on top of the composition and set it to Multiply, then use the Paint Bucket tool to fill in a base colour. Use a large standard Soft brush with low opacity to loosely fill in the shapes, using lighter colours for the leopard and the surrounding waves to create contrast between sky and ocean.
To help visually stay on track throughout the painting process, carefully narrow down photos that mirror the colour palette you have settled on for the scene. Photos of abalone shells show a texture comprised of green, blue, and pink. Create a new layer on top of the composition set to Normal mode and use a small standard Hard brush to paint in the pearlescent texture on the skin. Use Opacity settings between 60-100% to create the various soft and hard edges and to blend the aforementioned colours together seamlessly.
After some thought it’s decided that adding bleached white coral antlers will match the light of the moon and tie together the colours of the sky, sea, and leopard to balance the composition. Use a standard Soft brush to fill in the shadows on the coral antlers using dark blue and purple, then use a small Hard brush to add texture using light blue, purple, and pink. Limit the use of details on the tips of the coral that are receding into the background, this will help push them further back.
With the foreground more refined, turn to the background. Photos of the Milky Way show that there is a darker area in the middle of the belt surrounded by lighter spots filled with thicker clusters of stars. Use a standard Soft brush with an Opacity of 60% to paint in the darker area using shades of dark blue. Set the same brush at a higher Opacity of 80-90% to paint in the lighter areas using light blues, purples, and yellows.
Paint the stars on multiple separate layers using the custom star brushes, with varying Opacity and sizes to create a sense of depth in the star field. Create an Overlay layer set to 100% Opacity/Fill over the star layers to add a glow effect and further push depth of field. Using light blues and yellows with a standard Soft brush, paint over a few select stars, being careful not to overdo the effect. Zoom out frequently to check your overall progress.
Sometimes it is desirable to use photo textures for certain objects, either for the effect or to save time. For the Moon, a photo texture from cgtextures.com is used. First, lay down a silhouette of the Moon with light yellow using a standard Hard brush. Then select and move the part of the desired texture over from the photo onto a layer new set to Overlay. Lower the Opacity of the layer until the texture blends in naturally (in this case, roughly 80%), then use the Eraser tool (Soft brush, Opacity of 10-20%) to soften the edges.
Light on and in water is tricky to paint. Study photos of waves and ripples. The leopard in the painting is the primary source of light and like abalone being hit by light, his skin radiates a warm bright light throughout the surrounding waters. Use a standard Hard brush to paint the ripples and foam. Then in a new layer set to Overlay and 100% Opacity/ Fill add a glow effect by painting over the surface ripples with light hues of pinks/yellows/purples to make the ripples glow more intensely.
The outline of the leopard’s head requires some additional effects in order to make the majestic crowned head of the leopard the desired focal point of the piece. Use a small standard Hard brush to add some contoured highlights around the mouth and neck, then paint in some light thin hairs around the chin. To finalise the effects, create a new layer set to Overlay and 100% Opacity/Fill, and go over the details with a standard Soft brush using a light blue hue to create additional glow.
Make long and smooth strokes using a small standard Hard brush to paint the whiskers. Try to do only a single pass to keep the lines fluid, and use an Opacity of 80% or less for the brush to make the whiskers look soft and semi translucent. This often takes several tries to create natural organic flow to the set of whiskers. Use Cmd/Ctrl+Z to quickly undo undesirable strokes. Lastly, use an Overlay layer set to 100% Opacity/Fill to add some glow effect by painting light colours over the whiskers.
Light on the water’s surface reflects onto surfaces underwater, creating swirling light ripples that would be seen on the leopard’s legs. Use the standard Soft and Hard brushes with a light colour matching the hues of the surrounding area to create the reflections of the waves on the leopard’s skin. Then create a new layer set to Overlay and 100% Opacity/Fill. Light appears multiplied and opaque underwater. Use a standard Soft Round brush at varying opacities to paint over the underwater area to make the underwater light glow opaquely.
Use a small standard Hard brush to add more details onto the abalone texture using complementary colours such as orange, purple, yellow and blue. Also add more highlights and shadows in the eye to give it more depth and draw the viewer’s eyes into the leopard’s soulful longing gaze. Use a Hard Round brush with a light blue, almost white, hue for the eye glints and rich opaque aquas and flecks of purple you would see in the veins of abalone for the final eye details.
If desired, use a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer to boost the contrast and a Hue/ Saturation adjustment layer to increase the saturation to finalise the look of the image. Drag the SSaturation slider until the colours pop to the desired level, being careful not too oversaturate the tones. Adding contrast and brightness by slightly moving the sliders in the Brightness/Contrast dialogue (starting with a small amount) can also help make the colours appear more vibrant. Adjustment layers can be edited any time if you decide the effect is too strong or not strong enough!