Digital Painting Process: Mermaid Cave and the Importance of Underlying Structure

Rough thumbnail.

Adding skeletons to check for correct anatomy.

Painting it in color.

Initial sketch.

Refined sketch and value study with anatomy adjustments.

All finished!

Today I thought it would be fun to share a process post with you guys. My mermaid cave piece began with an extremely rough idea inspired by Frank Baum's book, The Sea Fairies. There is a scene in the story where the main characters explore an ocean cave in a small boat. Inside the cave, they discover mermaids. I wanted to make a dramatic composition, from inside a cave looking out at the ocean, that conveyed the feeling of magic and mystery I felt while reading that part of the story.

The top left image is my thumbnail. All was trying to do here was get my idea down. Once I had a thumbnail that I thought was promising, I made it into a more detailed sketch, which I showed to Marsha (top right). Marsha suggested that I do something really cool.

If you use a bright color to draw the bone structures of your figures over the top of your sketch, you can see where your anatomy is working or not working.

Sometimes when drawing figures we don't remember to leave space for internal organs or keep in mind that the skin is wrapped around the skeleton. I drew spines, ribs and hip bones on all of my mermaids which helped me make adjustments to the anatomy. Then I did an even more refined sketch and value study before painting the whole thing in color.

I have drawn my entire life, but until a few years ago, I never learned the importance of drawing through the forms and underlying structures of things you are going to paint.

"Drawing through" means that you are thinking about the shapes and volumes of things you are drawing and painting as if they were three dimensional objects. It also means that you continue lines that might be hidden behind other objects. It might seem like you are doing a lot of extra work for nothing since you won't even see some of these things in your finished piece. But the forms and structures inform the rest of your drawing and it will actually save you time in the long run because you won't end up having to go back and correct things later. For example, if you put clothing on a figure without considering the anatomy underneath there is a good chance you are going to run into trouble. 

James Gurney says, "When an architect draws a building elevation, she knows where the windows and doors are located on the back side of the building." [Tweet this]

You can see that even as I move into the color painting, I painted the bodies of the mermaids under their clothes before putting clothes on them. And for weeks I had to field questions from everyone in my house about when I was going to put clothes on those mermaids. All worth it! :)

Scroll to the bottom to see an exciting animated gif of the whole process!