The making of: The Dragon Whisperer

In the making of Dragon whisperer George will teach us some things regarding painting a dragon in a fairly realistic fashion, setting up concepts, and some tips on painting in general as well.


This tutorial will hopefully teach you a couple of things regarding painting a dragon in a fairly realistic fashion, setting up concepts, and will include some tips on painting in general as well. Remember that the way I go about painting isn’t the ‘correct’ way; There is no right and wrong when it comes to painting digitally. Feel free to experiment as much as you’d like, and never be afraid to try out new techniques. I used Photoshop CS2 for this tutorial, but any decent painting program should suffice.
Before proceeding with the tutorial, here are some tips you should keep in mind when painting:

NOTE: Be creative with this tutorial; Don’t just copy my image step by step; Rather use it as a guide for your own image.

Work low resolution first; It’s amazing how many artists start with high res right away. That’s a big mistake; Never concentrate on details at an early stage; Rather, work at form and composition. Once everything’s looking good, you can proceed to work at a larger canvas.

Flip your canvas horizontally; Get into the habit of doing that every hour. The reason is that when you’re working on something for a long period, your eyes begin to get ‘immune’ to the mistakes. Flipping it hourly guarantees a fresh view, and mistakes will instantly pop out.

Don’t be afraid to start fresh or repaint; If you’re working at low resolution first, don’t be afraid to try out a couple of concepts before getting serious. If you’re going to invest a dozen hours painting (or more), you want the composition to be as good as it can.

Step 1: Start with multiple concepts
If you’re painting something you’re not familiar with (in this case, I never painted a dragon), do some quick speed paintings. Study whatever subject matter you need to. The more you familiarize yourself with the subject, then chances are you’re going to have a better painting because of it (and this goes for everything, human anatomy, animals, etc.) In this case, I looked at many dragon illustrations to see what makes them ‘click’. Additionally, since this is a commission piece, I sent the client multiple files and let him decide which one’s the best – the reason being it saves a lot of time as opposed to sending a concept one at a time, until he decides what works for him. It’s faster for both parties, and it saves a lot of frustration. Here are a couple of quick sketches I did for this particular piece:

Dragon concept 1
Dragon concept 2
Dragon concept 3
Dragon concept 4

They look terrible, don’t they? That doesn’t matter at this stage; Don’t lose yourself superfluous details at the concept stage. Concentrate on colors, the composition, the mood you want to convey; basically the most primitive things. Do not erase , just keep laying brush strokes over brush strokes. After a couple of studies, I decided to do a sketch and a quick color composite, as seen on the fourth image.

Step 2: Sketch & Color composite
When you’re finished with your studies, you can either clean it up and proceed to paint, or do a quick sketch to further refine it. If you’re going to do a sketch, remember to have that done in high resolution, so you can use it later on when you increase the resolution of your painting. In this case, I did the sketch at 300 DPI, and saved it under another filename for future reference. When it was time to do a color composite, I saved it under another file name and worked on low res. Working at low resolution first is recommended, so you don’t fall into the trap of detailing too early. Below are the two examples:

Dragon sketch
Dragon color composite

As you can see, I chose to go with a blue color scheme. It’s still very loose and sloppy at this stage, as it should. You should also concentrate more on values (the darkest and lightest parts) as opposed to colors at this stage as well (colors can be easily altered in later stages).

Tips & Tricks
Choose a color scheme first; You’ll notice most paintings that have a consistent color scheme have a more appealing look than those that are all over the place; Remember, you can easily change your color schemes with Photoshop in a variety of ways; The ‘variations’ and ‘color balance’ tools come to mind.

Step 3: Building form
I continue painting, doing my best to apply the same amount of detail throughout, so everything unites properly. Again, I’m concentrating on developing the form of the dragon here, to bring it to life:

Dragon – Building form 1
Dragon – Building form 2

At this stage the light source is becoming a bit more obvious, but not as much as I’d like (I’ll work on that later). Always consider you light source, and paint accordingly to how it effects everything, especially the figures. Having an inconsistent light source will kill the illusion you’re trying to create, and will also give it a ‘pasted’ effect. Obviously, we don’t want that. Continuing on, I refine the ground and backdrop a bit as well.

Grayscale trick
If you’re not sure about your values, convert your image to grayscale (Image> Mode> Grayscale); You can now easily see if you’re values are working or not, since you don’t have to worry about colors. I recommend checking on your values often while painting.

Step 4: Progress & Clean-up
At this stage, it’s safe to increase the resolution you’re working on. Anywhere from 200-300 DPI will suffice. I continue working on the image, giving the most attention to the two figures; Always work more on the point of interest, to lead the viewer’s eye where you want. In this case, I wanted the Dragon to receive the most attention, followed by the elf. Once everything looks decent, and there’s enough depth in the painting, start refining and cleaning if needed:

Dragon – Refine 1
Dragon – Refine 2

You’ll notice the image on the right is more refined, however, the light source is less evident. Don’t worry, you can enhance that later on. I also took out the elf, as I wasn’t happy with how he was coming along; I knew I was going to give it another try later on, so I wanted to concentrate on the dragon. Remember to tackle what’s most difficult at first, everything else will eventually fall into place.

Tips & Tricks
If you’d like to enhance your light source a bit, I recommend painting over the highlights, with your brush mode set to ‘soft light’; This really give it a nice impression that sunlight is interacting with your figures. In this case, I chose a warm color to reflect the sunlight. For consistency, use the same color for the highlights throughout the image so everything unites.

Step 5: Painting grass, the fast way
Regarding the grass, I knew painting them all individually would be a hassle; Luckily, we can take some shortcuts: I created a new document in Photoshop, drew a bunch of grass strands, and defined it as a brush. With that brush in hand, we can apply it on the ground to create the foliage. Remember to set it at scattering and angle jitter for the most desirable results. Continue painting over the grass repeatedly at different blend modes to create the illusion of depth; Layer modes set to Overlay, Multiply, and Soft Light are excellent for this. Work in many layers if needed, and merge them when you’re satisfied.

Tips & Tricks
If you’re feeling really motivated, you can create a new document, paint some grass, and define it as a pattern. You can now use this pattern to apply grass stains throughout the image!

Step 6: Re-establishing light source, repainting
At this point, it’s time to step back for a little and see what works and what doesn’t. I’m happy with how the grass is going, and the dragon finally looks defined enough to be fairly believable; However, the light source isn’t as obvious as I want it to be. The wings are also a bit flat looking, so I continue to refine them keeping the light source in mind. Also, keep this rule in mind when painting: Cool Shadows = Warm Highlights and vice versa. In this case, everything that the sun hit would have an orange/yellow tint , while everything covered in shadow would have a more ‘blue-ish’ appearance.

Dragon – Light source
Dragon – Repainting elf

Once I was satisfied with the result, I decided to give the kid another try; This time, I took a quick reference photo of myself to help me give him a more realistic appearance. When working with references, it’s important to have your light source match that of the painting, otherwise you’ll break that illusion you’re trying to create.

Tips & Tricks
When working with references, make sure they are that of your own. It’s amazing how many artists don’t know they could get into trouble for using commercial references (although it’s worth noting you can work with those as long as you follow it very, very loosely).

Step 7: Final stages
At this point, I continue to paint the elf until the level of detail matches that of the dragon, while using the reference as a guide to help me place the shadows/highlights accordingly. I admit I took a risk in waiting so long to paint him, and in general, I don’t recommend working that way. However, since the dragon was much more challenging for me personally, I opted to concentrate more on rendering him first as opposed to the figure, which I was certain I can get right.

Dragon – Continue painting elf kid
Dragon – Refine rock and color balance

At this stage, everything’s coming together nicely. There are some things that appear off, but nothing major; I continue to correct any errors, such as the base of the foreground, some spots in the background. Once I clean up those ares, I refine the rock the elf is sitting on and use a textured brush to give it a more realistic look. Finally, I did a quick altercation in the colors, using the color balance tool to give everything a more blue, calm vibe. And we’re finished! Below is the finished version and some close ups.

Dragon Whisperer – final image (Click for larger view)


Dragon head
Elf kid
Elf feet

This tutorial is created by George Patsouras. He is an artist from Greece who’s drawing practically all his life. It is only one year ago that he purchased an art tablet. All his works are now done digitally, primarily in Photoshop (although he might occasionally use Painter as well). His artworks have been featured in several magazines, and currently he create art for several book publishers.

Gallery album of George Patsouras

NOTE: All images are property of George Patsouras and can’t be copied/duplicated in any form.

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