"Mythical Beasts" artist Kiri Østergaard Leonard shows us how she creates her wonderful unicorn illustrations for her calendar project "The Year of the Unicorn"...
In this tutorial I will show you the full process of an illustration for my calendar The Year of the Unicorn. I will focus on 2D digital painting and how I build up a whimsical illustration in many layers through an organic development process. There is a great deal of discovery in the process, combined with basic structure.
Step 1: The sketching phase
My illustrations most often (not always) begin in my sketchbook. I play around with compositions until I have something I like, this usually happens through a series of thumbnail illustrations, but for this illustration I had a specific scene in my mind right away.
The first draft of the sketch is done in pencil in my Stillman & Birn sketchbook. I use a 4B lead, regular mechanical pencil
Step 2: Adjusting the Sketch
When I have a rough sketch to go from, I scan it into the computer and adjust it in Photoshop
before I begin blocking in the colors. I thought the troll's face was too squished, so I moved it around a little. I also lengthened the canvas to have room for the legs of the unicorn. Lastly I dropped his eyed down closer to his nose to give him a more brutish appearance.
This stage always look a little awkward, everything is so rough at this early point in the process
Step 3: Rough Color Block In
Now I select my base color and begin blocking in the major areas. At this point I am not quite certain what color I want the background to be. I imagine the unicorn is going to be a radiant white, a decision which I later wind up changing. I continue sketching on the troll to give him more solid features.
Prod that unicorn! This rough step of the process is usually reserved only for my own eyes
Step 4: Shoot some Reference
At this point I lie down on the floor and snap some photo reference, I find that in a prone position you have to tilt your head to pull off what the troll is doing, so I go back and adjust my drawing accordingly. I also add a second hand for stability; it helps to sell his pose.
The idea is beginning to form more at this stage, though there is still a long way to go
Step 5: Adding a Rough Background
My process is as mentioned earlier very organic; I let ideas get worked into the illustration as I have them. I'm starting t think about the background. I want the troll to be in a Nordic pine forest, maybe he is bending pine trees aside to get to the unicorn. I imagine the setting to be Northern because trolls are an essential part of Scandinavian folklore. I'm also starting to think about the features of the unicorn, see the long ears? It's turning into a Donkeycorn.
Dark green for the pine trees in the background help to bring focus to the unicorn
Step 6: Adjusting Skin Tones
Now I begin to work on rendering the skin tones of the troll and bring it more to life, I'm also adjusting his facial features, dropping his eyes down even further on the face to make him look less human. I try to bring in more muted tones into the skin, so it isn't all the same tone, this helps to bring it to life.
I really like the darker tones at this point. I'm debating whether to make it a dark or light piece
Step 7: Donkeycorn!
At this stage I redesign the unicorn completely to be a donkey. I also begin sketching out the background and add more details to the troll. The illustration is really beginning to come together now. I am having a tough time with the pine tree being bend down by his hand though, it's just not convincing. I also start to realize that for a troll his hand prodding at the Donkeycorn is rather small.
I begin playing around with jewelry in his hair. I imagine trolls would wear things made of stones
Step 8: Adding more Detail
I re-center the image and scale up the hand to make it more like that of a beast, I begin rendering out the Donkeycorn and reposition its head. Then I spend some time figured out an effective way to paint the connecting flesh tissue and horn. I end up settling on covering the area in short coarse hairs. Trolls are known to be very hairy, so it fits the character.
It's time to start thinking about the eye connection of the two characters. How are they interacting?
Step 9: Time to do some rendering
At this point I really begin rendering. I start detailing the background, playing around with different brushes in Photoshop. I recommend Kyle's Brushes and some of the sets you can find on Gumroad. I also sneak my name in as engraving on some of the troll's jewelry.
No trolls without warts. Warts help to add to the character and make him more unique
Step 10: It's not fluffy enough!
As mentioned earlier trolls are known to be very hairy and it is time to start adding some hair to those big hands. I also work more on the background, bringing in the pine tree details and ground texture around the Donkeycorn. I love painting unruly hair so both troll and Donkeycorn have extra fluff and hairy details added.
I add life light to the eyes of the troll. It's amazing how two highlight helps bring life to eyes
Step 11: Adding more Details
The last part of a painting always takes the most time, from now on it's just rendering and adding detail. I'm not fully sold on the hair I painted on the hands. I begin adding more foreground foliage too to make it feel like you're observing the two from within the forest. I also start to detail out his ring.
What kind of jewelry do you imagine trolls would wear? Asking yourself questions like this can help define your characters
Step 12: Bring in the Light
Now I soften up the hair on the hands again. Hair always clumps and having too many strands showing never works well. I am near the finish line now, it is time to add some magical light to the Donkeycorn, he is after all a unicorn cousin and they are very magical beings. I focus on adding as much focus and detail to my focal point of the image here which is the head of the Donkeycorn and also finish up his body.
There should always be the most detail where your focal point in an illustration is located
Step 13: Final Stages, give it the last push.
Now I begin thinking about what I can do to push this illustration further. I begin to really detail the ground and add some texture layers to make give it some depth. To give the illustration a look of traditional media instead of digital, I used scanned images of paper textures. I have a collection of papers with different textures I have made and scanned. For instance by splattering paint or even coffee grounds on a simple piece of plain white paper, you can get a really nice paint texture.
I make a new layer in Photoshop on top of my illustration and copy the texture image in. Then I set it to "Soft Light" and lower the opacity until it's just adding a bit of grain and depth to my painting. At this last stage I also fine tune the lighting in my image and add some details to the foreground images and that's it!
I have learned that once I think an image is complete I usually need to render on it for another four to five hours to really get it to a good polish
Top tip: When Adding Highlights
Remember highlights, whether on skin, eyes, metal or any other material should never be pure white, it will wash out your colors. Pick a light color that compliments the tones you are working in when adding highlights.
See more of Kiri Leonard's wonderful fantasy art at her site
Read our interview with Kiri
Watch Kiri in action on her YouTube channel
Pick up prints and more from Kiri's shop
Read Kiri's chapter in "Mythical Beasts"
Follow Kiri on Instagram
Check out Kiri's latest project "The Year of the Unicorn"