MageCraft: A digital Painting Tutorial

Are you looking to learn some new digital painting techniques? In this short tutorial I (Nick Barfuss) will go over the quick process I use. I thought I’d share my digital painting techniques in the hopes they help amateur or even professional artists learn something new.  So let’s dive right in.


The above image shows two digital pieces I recently worked on. The female Arcane Mage has a cyberpunk feel that is reminiscent of a character from the Shadowrun universe. The Male Wizard was inspired by homeless chic fashion.


This tutorial is for the Male Wizard.


Step 1 – The (really bad) sketch


I have always considered myself a painter and not a drawer. When I start a piece I get really overwhelmed by a blank page. So I find that it is best to just lay down a sketch (I use a Wacom Intous 4)  without worrying how bad it looks. You can see here that I didn’t even care what the face looked liked, because I knew that I would repaint it as the piece progressed. The key for me is to get the key proportions and lines down. I know that as I start painting I will have fun and change things as I go.


Step 2 – Blocking out tones – painting in black and white


Now that the sketch is done (Finally!) I get to have fun with painting. I create a new photoshop layer underneath the sketch and work on blocking out general tones and shadows. I first block out everything underneath with a solid mid tone grey color. Then I start to add some shadows. At this stage the strokes can be really sloppy and rough. The idea here is to add some depth and start finding cool folds, wrinkles, or metallic parts that will look cool. I use a combination of my paintbrush and a rough blocky smudge tool to blend the colors together.


Step 3 – Merge


Now I merge the two layers together and continue refining my main shadows and highlights. Using the smudge tool on the original sketch lines (now merged with the under layer) helps me get harder more defined lines. At this point I get to see my bad line work from the sketch disappear 🙂 I use the smudge tool and a paintbrush to add more details. At this point I like to make sure most of my costume, details and design ideas are represented in some way. I never worry about getting them all, because I like to discover and add elements as the piece continues, as inspiration strikes.

Step 4 – Refine


Now that almost all of the design and ideas are down, and now that I have a good sense of the lighting source and direction, it is time to refine the shading and ensure the details start to become crisp and clean, or should I say “Crisp and Cleanish”? I never get too tight, because my mind is usually on fire and I cant wait to start coloring. My style is definitely not as refined as others out there, but for most of my work which gets scaled to small web sizes, it doesn’t really matter.  Art always looks more detailed when smaller. Continue refining the edges, have fun, and start to make a few feature areas pop. I find that finishing off one area in particular helps me to establish my “standard” so that I know how tight or detailed to make the rest of the piece.  I was really happy with how these rings turned out.


Step 5 – Refine again

wizard_2_step_5By now the piece should really start to come together. I like to take a step back and ensure everything is looking good. Flip the image and make sure it looks good both ways, then flip it back and take another step back.  If some tones or areas are not quite right I don’t stress, just keep refining.

Step 6 – Fine Detail


Now I add a background to add some depth to the scene. I make final touch ups and modifications and start getting really excited about coloring the piece.


Step 7 – Coloring


I create a new layer and set the mode to ‘overlay’, then I paint away! This allows me to add color based on the light and shadow areas I have already established in my black and white painting. It is really rewarding to bring the piece to life with color. Working this way, using color on a separate overlaid layer, allows me to change colors whenever I see fit without damaging the painting itself. I don’t think I ever set my brush to 100% opacity at this point. I like to build up color and layer it over different shades of similar or contrasting colors. This gives me a good amount of variation.  By limiting my color palette to 4 colors (black, brown, pink and gold) the image is more impactful than using tons of varying colors.  Try using only 3 or 4 colors in your next piece and see what happens.

Step 8 – Adding FX Details


Now I get to add crisp details and final refinements that really make key areas pop by painting bounce lights and reflective lights that helps to bring the character to life.  (I might show you how to create his magical cantrip in a future tutorial.  It’s a complex but easily duplicatable process I use for all my magic.)

Step 9 – Final Image

wizard_2In the final step I add typography, a really colorful background (in this instance I found a high resolution nebula on NASA’S Hubble telescope images gallery.) Adding white rim lighting helps to separate the character from the background.


I know this tutorial was short, but I hope the screenshots help you in some way. Have fun painting and enjoy, because for me that is what it is all about. I don’t care if my work is as good as someone else or if it will ever make it into a gallery, I just have fun with the process and enjoy looking at the finished product and saying “I did that!”

If you are interested here is the final Arcane Mage from the same series.



For more inspiration visit:

Art Station


Deviant Art

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