I would have named this piece "How to paint an attractive Asian female in less than four hours" but it sounded lame. So here we go... the making of Natsu.
Digital painting is always fun because you don't know how things will turn out. If you've some experience, chances are you've already developed you own painting pipeline or working style. So first of all, I'm addressing this making of to the artists looking for the fresh input and some creative thoughts.
Each painting starts with an idea or feeling. While I was working on my Barbarian image (that Diablo III guy), I stumbled onto a drawing from Deviant Art (usually I turn my network connection off while working). It was of half-nude girl painted by French artist ~darax.
I liked the idea and decided to quickly sketch my own interpretation. The results were quite surprising, so I put the barbarian to one side and switched to the sketch. The next two or three hours were a total blast with me painting like mad. My primary tools were Photoshop 7.0 and Wacom Intuos 2 tablet. I started sketching on a small canvas (even for commercial work I start from low-res files) in Photoshop 7.0 because it's super fast compared to CS3. First, I filled the canvas with solid color and sketched in a new layer using a hard edge brush with varied opacity/size.
Some people prefer to work from an accurate sketch whereas I usually think in big shapes, switching as quickly as possible to light and dark masses. In reality we don't see lines - we see shapes, so from the very beginning you just mimic the reality. Just shrink your eyes and you'll see big masses of lights and darks around you. The monochrome palette helps you to concentrate on shapes and values first, without overloading your mind with color information.
Painting is a lot like playing music. There is a certain rhythm in your movements, so you have to prepare your brushes and memorize your software shortcuts so that you won't be distracted by minor tasks like changing opacity or switching tools. You can also plug in your iPod and listen to the music you like or the music that best fits the current mood.
If you're unsure about any detail(s) while painting, then create a new layer and try out your ideas. A digital workflow allows you to experiment in a non-destructive way. If something goes wrong or doesn't work, just hit undo or hide/clean the layer. And make sure you save your work in separate files. I add numbers to the filename so I can find the latest version easily. This tip also helps you to prepare a Making Of if you are asked, or desire, to do so.
Back to Natsu, the most important thing in painting females is... who said breasts?! It's the face actually! Great body features are, without a doubt, a big bonus to the character but they aren't enough. We see faces everyday and we communicate a lot, even indirectly, by eye movement or facial expressions. We're reading a lot of information by looking at each others' faces.
I worked on and refined the face until it emanated some interest on a subconscious level. It's hard to explain, but I paint until I feel some sympathy and emotional, even romantic, attachment to the female character. I then applied some local colors to the face, chest and background. I combined both hard edged brushes and soft age airbrushes, as well as layers with gradient fills (Fig.01 - Fig.05).