Painting with GIMP
GIMP is quite adept at allowing an artist to draw and paint digitally. In this tutorial, I explain my general method for creating a digital painting.
Step 1 – Sketching the Initial Image
I often sketch my very first ideas on paper, whenever I have time – in the morning, on my lunch break, in bed before going to sleep. When I first began creating digital art I used to take a photo of my best sketch and use it as a base. When I draw a base today I use a Wacom Cintiq graphics tablet and the Paintbrush tool with different colors and usually the Pen Generic Dynamics setting with about 80% opacity. You can save specific brush settings, name them, and recall them using the Save Tool Preset and Restore Tool Preset icons at the bottom of the Tool Options dialog.
Personally I don’t sketch too many details, since I prefer colors instead of lines. I change a lot while coloring, and add details and new elements as I go.
Step 2 – Selecting the Colors
Next I add rough colors. I try out the lighting and choose colors for the different elements. You can put a dot of every color you're using in a corner of the picture and use this as a sample palette from which you can pick up a color. To quickly pick up a specific color, press O to select the Color Picker tool, then click on the color you want.
Alternatively, you can create your own color palette in the Palette window. Choose Windows > Dockable Dialogs > Palettes to open this window. Create a new palette by clicking on the blank paper icon at the bottom of the window or by clicking on the left-arrow at the top right of the window and selecting Palettes Menu > New Palette. This will open the Palette Editor.
A unique name for the palette can be entered in the text box at the top. The current foreground or background color can be added to the palette either by clicking on the blank paper icon at the bottom of the Palette Editor or by clicking on the left-arrow at the top right of the Palette Editor and selecting Palette Editor Menu > New Color from FG (or New Color from BG). You can add, change, and delete colors as necessary, and adjust the Columns number to affect how the colors are displayed in the Palette Editor. While you're drawing, simply left-click on a color in the Palette Editor to set the foreground color to that color.
Step 3 – Working with Layers
At this point in the process I’m working on about ten layers, but this number will increase later. If you use many layers, it’s very important that you name them correctly. One great feature of GIMP is the layer groups. Later on I will have reached fifty or more layers, so I group them and create a logically named structure. This saves a lot of time, because you never have to go searching for a particular layer.
For this picture I’m working with a resolution of 5100 x 6700 pixels, so a large number of layers can result in performance problems. To avoid that, as soon as you have finalized a part and don’t need separate layers any more, merge them into one layer. Another great thing is that GIMP can handle layers of all sizes; that is, all layers do not need to be the same size. Use the Crop tool to crop a layer to the needed size to save lots of memory. Remember to tick the Current layer only setting for the Crop tool, or use Layer > Crop to Selection.
Step 4 – Refining the Image
I tend to smudge more than I paint. I put some color on the picture and smudge it into place. If the current layer gets too transparent from smudging, I duplicate it, several times if necessary, then merge the layers.
The Smudge tool has a great advantage. It makes mixing colors easy. By using a soft brush and a low Rate setting, you can create very smooth gradients and add fine shades of color. Structure and edges can be added by using a hard brush or by ticking the Hard edge option.
I refine the picture until I have a clean, plain base image. In the example picture, I have already added some lighting and shading, but I will keep adjusting this while working out the details. For adding highlights and shadows I use the Paintbrush tool and the Lighten only or Darken only mode, usually with a very low opacity. Working in this way, I can add small amounts of color, and lighten some parts while making other parts darker.
Step 5 – Adding textures
Now that I have a refined, plain base image and have settled on the final colors, everything looks pretty nice, but far too smooth and lifeless. Have a look around. Have a look at yourself. How many surfaces are plain and smooth? Not too many.
So now I start adding textures. In this picture I have already done this on the helmet. I created a separate layer, selected an area of the helmet with the Free Select tool, ticked Feather edges, and filled the area with a pattern. This is not a pattern fill though – that would look far too static. I applied the pattern using a brush called Texture Hose 02 with about 60% opacity and with the Apply Jitter option checked, which lets you spread the texture randomly over the selected area.
I erased some parts of the texture to create a more interesting look, and added more of the same texture on the rest of the armor. To make the armor look less clean, I added another layer with a softer structure and lowered the opacity to about 15%. This is enough to make the armor look more like real metal.
Step 6 – Adding Special Elements
I then continue to add textures on the leather and fabric pieces, trying out different brushes and playing with the opacity settings. (Remember, you can create your own brushes or download some – even Photoshop brushes.) The textures don’t have to be applied in black by the way. Sometimes a different color looks much better.
I used the elements shown in the upper left corner of the picture as customized “brushes”.
To create an element, I draw it on a new layer. In most cases I also add a slight shadow below the element. This allows me to place it wherever I want without having to add the shading afterward. When the element is finished, I select it and copy it, and it appears in the Brush selection list of the drawing tools with the name Clipboard. Now it's possible to use the element as a “stamp”. You can change the size, you can rotate it, you can even stretch it in any direction you want – just have a look at the options in the Tool Options dialogue.
It’s not hard to see where I placed the buttons and the stitches. I put them on new layers and adjusted the color and brightness afterward so they would blend in with the rest of the picture.
The hair is made of a black base and many transformed versions of one piece of hair. Some are thinner, some are flipped, some are rotated, and in the top part of the head they are bent into shape using a cage transformation.
Step 7 – Adding the Background
Finally, I add the background. For painting clouds I add colors with a standard brush and smudge the colors using texture brushes such as the ones called Smoke and Texture 1. As a last step I adjust the colors, the brightness, and the contrast.
An Interview with Evelyne Schulz
As can be seen from the above tutorial, Evelyne Schulz is a masterful digital painter of fantasy and fan art, which she somehow finds time to create while working for an international publishing company and raising two children. Here is her story.
So, Evelyne, how and when did you get started with your art?
Art has always been a part of my life. My mother is a very creative person, so she made sure that her children always had the right tools and materials within reach. She showed interest and motivated us to keep going.
Who or what influenced you the most to pursue this passion?
That’s not easy to answer. When I was little it was my mother. Later it was my eight years older brother, who put a lot of effort into creating art. When I was fifteen, I went to a special school for art and music, so I was surrounded by people that appreciated art.
Have you ever taken formal lessons or are you self-taught?
When I was a child, my older brother taught me a lot. Then I went to a school with a focus on art. After I had children, I stopped creating art for a few years. Later, when I started drawing again, I took private lessons to catch up with a few things. Basically, I don’t think lessons are necessary though. The most important thing is to practice a lot, but it can be nice to get a few good tips from experts along the way.
Do you have any tips that you could pass along?
Always finish the picture you’re working on, even when you think it will be horrible. You will learn much more, and, who knows, maybe the end result won’t be horrible at all.
What type of work do you do and how is your art involved with it, if at all?
Unfortunately my main job doesn’t have much to do with art. I work at an international company that produces books and all kinds of printed matter, and I’m responsible for pretty much everything apart from accounting and the production itself. Usually I only check, adjust, and prepare the print files and look at the artwork other people have created, but sometimes I get to do some layout, too. That’s as much “art” as it can get. Even though I would love to have a more creative job, it is too much of a risk at the moment, since I’m a single mom responsible for two children. If I were alone, I would gladly move into a tiny apartment and work on a creative career.
Please describe your creative process.
First, I need an idea. Every idea comes from something I've seen. I get most of my ideas either on the way to work or coming back from work (by bicycle), or while running. My ideas are pictures or scenes. Later, I sit down and create rough sketches or plain color paintings to catch the right parts of the idea. As soon as I have one that looks promising, I change it and add some details and work out a concept painting.
Unless I have the right ideas for a lot of details, and lots of time, I set the concept as my desktop wallpaper at work. Having to look at the picture again and again helps me to discover mistakes and get ideas for details, or realize how I need to change the image to make it look right. Then I just refine the picture and add details until it’s finished.
When I create a piece for a customer it’s different, of course, because the customer usually has very specific ideas about what the picture has to look like.
What is your overall digital process?
Again, it was my older brother that made me try digital art. (I just realized that I should send him some flowers. Writing all this has made me realize how much of an influence he had on me.) He had been working digitally for quite a while, while I was still extremely skeptical of that process. I usually worked with color pencils, sometimes combined with acrylic paint, and I couldn’t imagine drawing natural-looking things on the computer. I kept myself from digital art, although I never really thought about it that much. Whenever I came across an impressive piece of art, then read that it was digital, I found myself adding “ah, but it’s only a digital piece” in my head.
One day I visited my brother (he lives in a different country, so that doesn’t happen too often) and he showed me how he created digital art. I tried out his interactive display, which is basically a screen that can be rotated and tilted, and you just draw on it with a special pen. I was impressed, because it felt so natural, and the result looked amazing. A while later he acquired a new tablet, and I got to keep his old one. That’s when I pretty much switched to digital art.
How did you come to use GIMP and / or other open source graphics tools?
My first computer ran Linux. My next few computers also ran only Linux, because I loved this operating system very much. Back then I was developing text-based online role-playing games in a special form of object-oriented C, and this was just so much easier on Linux. I liked working in the console instead of fiddling around with the mouse.
At a certain point I needed to edit graphics, I think it was for the game’s home page, but I don’t quite remember. I asked my older brother what program he used on K Desktop, and he recommended GIMP. It was a bit unstable back then, but still a good choice. As time went on, GIMP just got better and better and I never had a reason to switch, not even when I was working as a graphic designer later and had participated in Adobe courses. Today I have legal copies of almost all of the Adobe programs, including Photoshop, but I still use GIMP. (By the way, I’m not saying Photoshop is bad. It’s an excellent program, too.)
What could the GIMP developers do to make GIMP a better tool for digital artists?
I think the brush dynamics could be improved. It’s hard to sketch in GIMP. It never looks quite natural if you're trying to create a pencil sketch look. Also, when drawing “ink” outlines, it never feels as natural as in other programs, like Paint Tool SAI for instance, even though I have spent hours trying out various settings. So this is definitely something I would love to see – improved brush dynamics.
Where do you see your art going?
When I was a teenager I preferred a manga-like drawing style, although I stretched it a bit into a realistic direction later. When I got older I lost my interest in manga and anime and my drawing style changed, too. It became more realistic – I gave up drawing outlines. After my long break from creating art I continued drawing realistic pictures, and when I discovered digital art I “polished” my pictures to an almost photo-realistic quality, with tiny textures and details. I got tired of this technique though, because it required far too much time to create those types of pictures, and people kept mistaking them for photos or photo manipulations. That’s why my latest pictures are slightly less realistic, and I think I will probably continue some more into this direction, away from the photo-realistic quality, into a slightly more artistic direction.
Which projects are you working on now that you would like to promote?
In December I made a “what to draw” poll on Tumblr, which resulted in a few interesting pictures. One of them was a wizard fox riding a dinosaur, which was very popular. I’ve decided to create a poll like this every three to four months, and no idea will be refused, no matter how crazy it sounds. The more people who participate, the better of course, so I would like to encourage people to follow me on Tumblr or Twitter, or track the “wizard fox” tag. Also, I’m still looking for a fantasy author to work with. I would love to create a book which is a combination of a carefully worked out fantasy novel and a number of detailed, realistic illustrations. The concept would be worked out together, so anyone interested is welcome to contact me via my blog or my home page.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself?
I’m happy with my life and who I am today, so I wouldn’t give myself any advice at all. I made some terrible decisions in my life when I was younger, and the right advice would have kept me and people around me from a lot of pain and suffering. Still, all those problems, all the pain and seeing what life is like when you’ve lost everything, has made me the person I am today – a better person.