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Paint an imposing Cthulhu in Photoshop

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Date Added: 14th September 2018
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Concept artist Andy Walsh takes us through the Photoshop process for painting an imposing Cthulhu accepting a sacrifice...


I grew up on the coast of Wales where there are fishermen's pubs and old harbors. The waves will lash up against the sea wall during a storm and the brine can be smelled upon opening your front door. The images and themes of Lovecraft's Cthulhu speak to this part of my psyche and conjure up all kinds of eerie imagery from the deep. I'm sure I'll be revisiting the theme from time to time. In this painting I wanted to focus on more of an illustrative piece rather than my usual environment-focused art. Let's dive in to the inky slime and see what lurks beneath!


Now I have to make a point here. The process I used for this piece is unlike any other piece I've made. I usually get stuck into the research phase for a long time and look too hard for answers. Just as I was starting this painting I was watching a tutorial where the artist talked about the idea of trying, where possible, not to use reference at first. Just see what's already inside your head and paint as much as you can from there and if you get stuck, look for reference then.

At the time when I started watching his tutorial I'd already done my ref-gathering but what I would usually do is paint with all the reference open and often drop the actual photo into the document. See, the artist talked about the notion that, if you can get away with not using the reference, you own every bit of that image - it came straight out of your head. That idea excited me and so I embarked on a new journey where I would, where possible, not look at my reference, or at least not have it up while I was painting. Time to be brave!


I think thumbnailing is quite an art form and it's taken me years to even get to grips with what it is. I used to treat it like a mini version of the final painting, so I would get frustrated when it didn't look good enough to post on social media (we all know those artists who post an amazing sketch, telling us how little time it took). Now I try to forget all that and just concentrate on getting an idea from brain to canvas, regardless of how pretty it looks. Otherwise you can get lost in peripheral elements like proportions and perspective and colors and so on. Just blurt it out and go from there. You can make a second, more refined thumbnail if necessary, but first just find out what it is you're trying to say. My thumbnail is pretty simple, but I like how the energy travels up from the bottom and into a dramatic splash that pushes you into Cthulhu.

Black-and-white thumbnail to establish basic composition

Turning to color

At this stage I want to get a basic color palette going quickly. There are many methods one can use here just to introduce some saturation such as Hue/Saturation, Color Balance or a Soft Light layer. Because the sky will be fairly monochrome as will Cthulhu, I could just use a Photoshop adjustment to pull out the blue/purples for the sky and greens for Cthulhu, just to make a base to paint on. It's okay that the saturation is fairly flat at this stage, we're just transitioning out of the grays.

Use whatever method you prefer to bring out some basic saturation/color

Refining the composition

I was aware that the overall composition needed to be further nailed down. It's not necessary to go too tight but just start to pull it together around the whole image, being careful not to focus on one area a whole lot. I wasn't happy with the bottom area so decided to tidy up those rock formations as well as Cthulhu's placement.

Early on, you'll want to slightly tighten up any obvious loose areas

Refining the anatomy & lighting

Here I'm going in and tightening up Cthulhu's anatomy and working out the lighting. Something I heard Craig Mullins say recently was to not 'overstate the halftones' which is where you have too much contrast in the light and/or the shadow. The real contrast comes in the transitions between light and shadow, so I'm being careful not to add noise and to keep things fairly clean and the values grouped so it's easy on the eyes. At this stage I confess that I had to look in the mirror at my hand to refine the anatomy a little. I did this by making a line-drawing on a new layer over the top of the painting, and then lowering the opacity so I could re-paint under it.

Don't overstate the halftones

Working out the bottom half

I decided that Cthulhu was more or less where I wanted him and that it was time to flesh out the lower part of the composition - the rocks and waves. I wanted there to be a bit of a zig-zag here to lead us in from the lower right and up the rocky steps. The energy of the water would also push us up in that direction, culminating in the main sacrifice figure. This is another situation where I would normally spend a long time trying to find reference for the human characters. Instead I just played with the silhouette until something strong came out. It's amazing how much stronger you can pose people when you're not depending on photographs. You decide exactly how you want the brush strokes to convey the dynamism of the pose in that scenario.

Make sure the energy of composition allows your eye to flow through the scene smoothly

Enhancing the composition further

I wanted to make those clouds around Cthulhu wrap around him in a circle. I think this is something that was in the back of my mind even from the thumbnail stage. It would highlight him as well as give us some kind of compositional barrier to keep us from going out of the top of the image. His arm shapes are helping this circular motion too, and I further reinforced it with some diagonal cloud wisps. I'm also brightening that area of cloud behind his head to make it come forward and be our focal point.

Keep the viewer's eye inside the image

Back to the lower half

Time to get in those characters. I always struggle the most with small character silhouettes. You have to nail the pose with not very many strokes and they need to look natural. There were very many attempts at getting these guys to read. This was made especially hard because they're on a very dark background. So it was just trial and error. Sometimes it's useful to cheat and add a little brightness behind their silhouette to make it pop. I also added the crashing waves pouring in from the sides to add to the explosive burst of the water breaking on the rocks.

Struggling through personal weaknesses, in my case - character silhouettes

Rendering the characters and final image adjustments

Next I had to paint the characters in. I originally wanted them all to be carrying babies, but man that's hard to have that be remotely obvious at a) this scale and b) with the lack of readability in those dark areas. So I settled for torches, which are good for conveying the theme of ancient sacrifice but also allow for a bit of light. The other thing to bear in mind is that we don't want the viewer to settle on those folks for long at all. This kind of balance is always tricky.

Once I was happy with the characters I had to adjust the whole image as it was a little hard to read, so I brightened it up. This included looking at any parts of the background which I could brighten to help Cthulhu's silhouette to stand out. Often, I won't realize how dark or under-contrasted a piece is until I've already put it on Instagram or some such, so double check!

The very last thing I did was to remove the cast shadow over his head. I liked that shadow as it made the lighting seem that bit more realistic, but then I preferred the clean flat shape of his head that bit more. I hope you enjoyed the tutorial and that it pleased all those loyal Cthulu fans out there!

Make sure everything reads ok before putting it out into the world!


Related links

Find out more about Andy on his website
Check out Beginner's Guide to Digital Painting in Photoshop in the 3dtotal shop


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