For this week’s blog (a week late due to family stuff and the subject of this blog taking way too long, but I’m getting ahead of myself), I’ll be taking a deep dive into my latest completed piece, “Curse of the Mermaid Gold.” Below I’ll be walking though my digital painting process in nearly complete detail (some layers have been combined into one step for clarity’s sake, and the order has been fudged slightly to make more sense). Even though I made this piece entirely for fun, this is the same layer of detail and effort I put into my professional work as well, because if something’s worth doing, it’s worth spending 40 hours on stretched over 13 days and countless uncounted minutes fretting over how much cave floor water is the right amount of cave floor water while making dinner or walking on a treadmill, staring 1,000 miles into the distance.


1 – Rough Sketch: Since this might be the first fully fleshed out piece I’ve created completely digitally, I started out by quickly scribbling my idea into Photoshop. I did put a 3×3 grid over to guide me, making sure that imported components roughly lined up with the rule of thirds, because design is really just Math + Taste.

2 – Final Sketch: After the quick, mad ravings were completed, I lowered their opacity and drew the final sketch over it. I’ve spent the last few years working hard to work less hard on this phase, and working digitally definitely helps speed things up considerably. Basically, the goal hear is to give it the same quality and detail in the drawing as if 14 year old Andrew did it, just with less teenage angst, depression, and inexplicable shyness.

Oh, and I’ve been asked quite a few times recently why I usually sketch in reds and oranges. This is because ink lines stand out really well over them. Also, it just looks “dope.”

3 – Ink Lines: Here’s where the real work happens. The quality of the sketch can be sophmoric (which I drop the opacity on and work over) because I go HARD with ink. I taught myself to draw as a kid from comic books, so I see my main style as an attempt to both replicate and elevate that. Basically, deep down, I’d probably rather be drawing the X-Men at any given time…

Anyway, I used the Classic Cartoonist brush to do all of this, because it can perfectly replicate my real world brush pen work without the constant possibility that I could ruin the entire piece at any given moment.


4 – Background Color Blocks: At this point, I start color blocking, putting in all the base colors that I’ll be building on top of. I think of my process from here on as either a boomerang or bell curve, because I start from the back and least important parts of the piece, work my way to the front and focal points, spend most of my time there, and then work my way back to back before finishing everything off.

I start every digital piece with the same color palette, and then mix from their to get the right tints and shades. I do this partly because I like those colors (I feel they’re very end of summer/early fall in their purest form), partly because it brings cohesion to all of my work, and partly because it saves me time, which is great, beause this is the phase that feels the most like work.

Fun Note: You can see where I screwed up much later in the process and painted on the deepter mountains and the cloud in this layer instead of the correct one.

5 – Water Color Blocks

6 – Cave Color Blocks: This one was actually pretty tricky getting the cave to a good color that wouldn’t blend in with fur coming up right n-

7 – Character Color Blocks: As many times as I keep swearing off fur and feathers, I keep going right back to them in my work. Must just be a gluton for punishment?

8 – Foreground Color Blocks


9 – In the Shade: Since I chose to do a 2.5 light source lighting approach, I needed to put darken up areas that weren’t touched by the moonlight.

10 – Water Shade

11 – Cave Shade


12 – Darker Values: At this point, I start adding the darker values to principle charactera and the foreground. A lot of professionals and art teachers will call this “adding value” and scoff at you if you call it “shading,” but that’s just semantic, patronizing nonsense, because “shading” is exactly what you’re doing. So, as far as I’m concerned, call it whatever you want; we all know what you’re talking about, because it’s all just “lighting” anyway. Because I come from a Film background, I like to separate it out like you would onset, lighting the characters, foreground, and background independently. I’m going for cinematic rather than naturalistic.

13 – Lighter Values: Here’s where the shapes get to start taking form, and I can finally start enjoying looking at my work.

14 – Shadows

15 – Shadows in Shadows: Since we’re not in an extremely dark setting (it is a full moon after all, and all that water is going to be bouncing that atmospheric lighting all over the place, we can’t forget that objects within a cast shadow will still cast their own shadows.

16 – Highlights

17 – Hotspots: This is the only stage where I’ll allow myself to use pure (think titanium) white (my palette starts with something like an egg shell insteadd), because that stuff is addictive, and once you start with it, it’s next to impossible to put it down. It’s basically the Oreos of art.


18 – Tide: This was a good reminder that no one knows what’s in your head but you. Since I knew that the captain here was going to be kneeling in several inches of water, it didn’t bother me that it looked like he was hovering over the cave floor. Everyone else? Not so much.

19 – Ripples: Always fun. I think Bob Ross was at his happiest while slapping some ripples onto his canvas with a palette knife.

20 – Arm Extra Shade: His left arm, with all that fur popping out of the leather jacket, was really bothering me, so I doubled up it’s shade quotient to get it in line.

21 – Magic: Is he being curse right now, having just transformed? Or is the magic about to tranform him back after he’s returned the gold? That’s for the fan to decide, having left it intentionally up for interpretation. But just like Christopher Nolan, I’ve left at least one clue to let you know what I know is really happening. P.S. The author/director/artist always knows the answer. If they say otherwise, they’re lying.

22 – Stronger Magic: Had to add a couple more layers to both beef up the tendrills wrapping around the capatain, and brighten up the tendrills reaching out of the chest.

23 – Glow: Congratulations! We’re halfway done. But seriously, if you’re still hanging in there, thank you.

24 – Stronger Glow: Same with the magic, an extra layer was needed to help separate things without being in your face like an anime. And we never want to be like anime. Never.


25 – Floor Darker Values: At this point in the project, I was ready for it to be over, so it was great that I left all background and painterly stuff left to finish.

26. Floor Lighter Values

27. Shadows in Water: At this stage I got to start tying the characters and setting together.

28. Reflections: I didn’t want thsese to be too exact, but to be just enough to trick your eye into believeing you’re seeing the reflections that it’s been trained to expect.

29 – Water Gradient: This was subtle, but really helps sell that the lighting conditions shift once you enter the cave.

30 – Water Texture

31 – Wave Highlights: Part of me wonders if I should have brightened these up closer to the volcano, but I didn’t want to draw too much attention to them. So I probably made the right choice, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t think it over every time I look at it.


32 – Cave Lighter Values: Just some rim lighting for the moonlight.

33 – Cave Painting: As we’re getting farther into the background, I was able to knockout adding texture and darker values all at the same time.

34 – Cave Shadow: I was going to leave this detail out of the piece, but my wife insisted it was a good idea. She was totally right, and that admission should bank me some good will ahead of the next artistic disagreement.

35. Cave Glow

36 – Stronger Cave Glow


37 – Background Shadows: We’re in the home stretch now!

38. Background Paint

39. Volcano

39 – Stronger Volcano: Because if you’re going to put a volcano in the background, it might as well be about to erupt.

41 – Deep Background Texture: Things were looking too smooth back there, so I multiplied some watercolor painting texture over it to grunge things up a bit.

42 – Smoke: Just to top off the volcano properly.

43 – Blue Overlay: I added this to push the background more into a moonlit temperature and to be able to have the glowing volcano without (hopefully) unnecessary complaints that I have too many focal points in the piece.

44 – Water Color Paper Texture Underneath: I don’t like my work to look too digital, so usually will incorporate some paper texture into the piece. A wise man doesn’t build his house on the sand, and a wise artist doesn’t paint on 100% white. So, I grouped all the artwork layers together, set them to multiply, and through some watercolor paper beneath everything. Unfortunately, this pushed everything a little too dark for my liking…

45 – Final Texture and Saturation: …so I screened the watercolor paper over the whole painting, finishing everything off with a saturation layer to put the colors back where I want them to be.

And that’s it! Just 45 easy steps to create a were-raccoon pirate captain and his cycloptic pinata-parrot being cursed by mermaid gold. Now, I’ve got another Monster Bash party planned to go down during Spring Break – should I create something else in this world, or come up with something completely different, but equally weird?

Let me know in the comments, and smash that like butto- nah, just kidding. But thanks for reading. I’m hoping to go into some similar Deep Dives on a couple other projects this year, but in totally different styles and mediums.


In the last update, I said that I should have another Year of the Ring character sketched and inked. I missed the mark on that one:

However, I was able to complete the sketching on Quickbeam (because Treebeard gets enough love already). Just need to add a couple short passengers, and it’s ready to ink.

The reason I didn’t finish Quickbeam was because I got distracted by this sketch of Wolverine.

See? There really is always a part of me that would rather be drawing the X-Men.