Developing a Concept with Digital Painting

I’m working up a new mermaid concept for one of the cards in my upcoming Mermaids Oracle deck with Lucy Cavendish. I’m attempting to save work in progress shots as I go to show how I paint digitally. I don’t work exactly the same every time I paint, but here is an example of one way I work. I’ll describe what I’m doing at each stage under the image. Click the images for a larger version.

First I lay in some colour and rough background, just to get myself grounded. I love this aqua and light peach combination of colours, hinting at a sunset or sunrise above the water surface. I use a really large brush size and scribble the colour on.

For this artwork, I want to paint a mermaid lifting a man up to the water’s surface, away from ominous claw-like shapes in the bottom of the image. The concept provided by the deck author is for “Soul Cages” from which mermaids sometimes rescue men.

Once I have that rough background in place, I start roughing in the figures. And I do mean rough! I’m not working with any reference photos for this artwork, because I had a specific pose in mind and couldn’t find anything close enough. Reference photos make things so much faster and easier, especially for complex poses like this but we’ll see how I go… You can see the man has legs sketched in more than one position, still testing pose details.

More sketching, mostly on the man’s leg positions. Again, he’s got a “double” foot sketched in, me playing with positions.

Time to start cleaning up my mess. I solidify the lines I’m happy with and erase out the one’s that I’m not. The mermaid’s hand on the man gets the chop, it was wrong. The man’s face (bottom half only) comes into focus. I’m not sure about the idea of not showing the man’s eyes, but I like how his hair is falling. Eyes are important in artworks, one of the main things a viewer connects with, and this artwork (with the angle of the mermaids head as well) hasn’t got much in the way of visible eyes. It might change. I’ve also used the free transform tool to rotate and reduce the overall size of the figures. Free transform is to one tool I miss most between digital painting and traditional painting!

Time for a change up! I need a new perspective to get these figures right, so it’s Mirror Image trick time. Switching to the mirror image of your sketch can give you a new view on things and help get a better drawing.  I sketch in a hand for the mermaid I’m much happier with, and a little shading on the man, who’s shoulder gets cut down to a better size. I decide I’m not happy with the mermaid’s body at all, it’s got to get redone from scratch (but keeping that hand I like!).

Lots of construction and mess around the mermaid while I’m trying to get her body sorted out. Getting a bit better, but still not right.

I’ve been looking at the figures for too long again, time for another switch to refresh my eyes. Mermaid’s body is coming up better now, so I start cleaning things up again.

I add in some more shading to the mermaid to get a better idea of her 3D presence, and give her some rough hair.

Fins! I wanted to do some really soft, wavy, feather fins for this mermaid. I also darken the bottom of the image a bit more with a simple gradient layer set to Multiply in the blending options.

About time for some colour, right? The card description talks about red-haired irish mermaids, so we’ll go with that. Red is a great colour for mermaids anyway, lovely contrasting colours for water settings! I add a little of the rusty red to the mermaids tail as well, and do some subtle skin colouring for skin that looks like it’s underwater. Dark grey/purples and greeny browns make up the skin palette, with a touch of the same peachy colour as the water surface for highlights. While adding colour to the hair, I’ve given it some more shape- digital painting for me is just slowly working each piece of the image from rough to refined. I’ve also done another free transform, reducing the size of the figures in the image again.

I go back to the background to finish up this concept. I add a couple of murky “cages” in the background, occupants included. A few hints of fish and bubbles, and add some more detail to the water surface. The man also finally gets some pants.

There’s still a lot more to do on this artwork, but this is the stage where I’ll normally stop and leave an image alone for a while, so I’m looking at it fresh when I go back again. I also want to contact the author and see if this artwork is working for the card description, and this is a good time to do so. While most of the image elements are now in place, I haven’t spent any of the hard hours of detailed refinement work still to go. It probably took me an hour and a half to get to this stage (between getting up every few minutes to drag my exploro-baby back to her approved play area).

This sketch actually went fairly smoothly for me, considering the lack of reference. Only a few complete limb rearrangements. I try to keep different elements on individual layers in photoshop to make painting easier as I go (background, figures, hair normally gets it’s own layer, foreground details like the bubbles).

I’ll try and remember when I get back to this artwork to keep saving stages and continue this walkthrough, or at least post the completed artwork so that you can see how much it changes in some ways, and doesn’t in others, from this stage. 

Writing – From Planning Plot to Drafting

I wanted to share a little of my writing process as I work on this short story that fits into my Empath Chronicles series. Writing a short story is a bit different to working on a full novel, and each is it’s own different art form, but there is some overlap in the way I write.

Every story starts out with an idea. The idea may be simple and need lots of work, or come with a lot of details already in place (those are the ones I like!). For this short story, I knew I wanted to explore the character Emma, and where she came from, so people know her better when she returns in the next longer instalment of the Empath Chronicles.

This short story has been a really fun challenge for myself. I haven’t written short stories since high school, and as I said, they are a different form of art to a novel. You have to condense so much into such a short space, but still make it compelling. Tough stuff! Even more challenging was the subject matter. Bullying, self worth, and the fact that as it played out in my mind, I knew this story was going to be a tragedy. I’m used to reading and writing “the hero story”, with big showdowns and victories for the main character. But Emma’s story won’t be so fortunate. So there was my challenge- to write a short story that was moving, dealt morally with the issue of bullying, dealt with a character who makes a bad decision instead of a good one leading to a non-heroic ending, and could be read by someone who hadn’t yet read Emotionally Charged. Yikes. Well, I’m going to try anyway.

As the idea forms in my mind I jot down notes. On paper, on my phone, in Word, where ever is handy. I then gather all those ideas in Word, and start getting them into order. I start breaking them down into Acts (I like to follow the three act structure), and then break them down even further into scenes, and fill out the details as I go.

Here’s an example, of the first scene of Emotionally Scarred, in it’s planning stages-


Emma walks through halls of her new school, first day. Everyone stares and she hates it. This was meant to be a new beginning. She’d convinced her parents to let her have the surgery, to change schools (and by convinced, she means got kicked out of her last school because she got in a fight with a girl who teased her and ended up breaking the other girl’s arm). It was going to be like in the books where she’d make new friends and the hottest guy there would fall for her.
She felt unattractive with a large mole on her face. Teased terribly about it, called a witch because of the mole and felt like it with her freak ability to know how people were feeling.
If I really were a witch I would make myself beautiful but my powers are different.
She could tell the way she revolted people because of her empath ability so of course never dared tell anyone about it. She finally convinced her parents to have the mole surgically removed. They couldn’t afford a good plastic surgeon and it left a scar bigger than the mole.
It was supposed to be better. I was going to be a new me. But the hack doctor botched it.
She made an effort to still be positive about the new school, dressed up, held her chin up, but she could still feel how people looked at her and her scar, and knew she was going to be just as bullied.
She turns to stare at a notice board to hide that she’s close to tears. The hottest guy in her year (with looks of a 50’s movie star, he knew it too, playing it up by calling girls Doll) comes up and talks to her, shows interest in her for some reason. She’s suspicious, but there is some hope as well. He asks to meet her after school at the abandoned set of a pirate movie (like Popeye’s town) so he can get to know her some more.

This story will only be three scenes long, but book two of Memory’s Wake, for example, has seventy-six scenes, varying in length, each written out in about the same level of detail. I also jot down what I call “Fragments”. Snippets of prose that have come to mind that I might like to write into the story later. I drop those into the scene outlines in a different font- like the bits in bold, above.

I like writing in Word because I use their Heading styles to keep my outline in order. Acts are set to heading level 2 and scenes (I give them all a short descriptive title) are set to heading level 3, so that when I turn on the Document map, I can glance over my entire plan easily, and use the document map to jump to whatever scene I need to work on.

As I’m planning, I’ll often pass by details that I’ll have to come back and decide later. I set these to red, so I know I have to come back to them. This outline originally read-

He asks her to meet him after school WHERE to get to know her some more.

After I have the flow of the story right, I go back through and fill in the details like that. Once I have the complete plan, I write into that outline. I normally write in order, start to finish. Even with a plan I prefer to go in order. I write following the outline, deleting the outline as I’ve written each part of the scene to replace it with.

And very quickly I have a first draft. Want to read how that scene plays out? Here’s the first draft, fresh and un-revised! I haven’t even run a spell check over this, that all comes much later.

Emotionally Scarred – Scene One – First Draft


If I really was a witch, I’d enchant myself to be beautiful, but the powers I have are different. I might not be a witch, but I’m not a good guy either. I wasn’t born to be a hero. Heroes aren’t ugly.

If only I could use my powers to stop people staring at me. The corridors of my new school were a shade of lime green that set my teeth on edge. Everyone watched me, the new girl with a target right on her face. My sneakers squeaked as I walked and I felt so completely conspicuous. Damn laminate flooring. The other students stared openly and gossiped as they pretended to poke through their lockers. A tide of emotion followed their stares, the usual mix of sympathy and disgust I was used to feeling. That was my superpower – to sense how people were feeling, so strong I felt it myself. I hated it. I hugged my laptop bag and pile of new books close to my chest

Chin up, Emma. Don’t let them get to you. You’re beautiful on the inside.

That’s what I was meant to believe, that my outer appearance wasn’t important, and that real friends would like the real me no matter how I looked. But I didn’t feel beautiful on the inside. It was as though my face had poisoned everything about me. I tried to ignore it, act like everyone else, be cheerful, friendly, dress right, talk right, do all the right things. Maybe I tried too hard.

This year was supposed to be better. I was going to be a new me. A fresh start, a new school, a new face. But the hack doctor botched it. It took so long to convince my parents to have the mole removed. This was no cute beauty mark (how I wish it were just a cute beauty mark), but a brown blob of ugly flesh larger than a quarter that covered the side of my chin. That’s why I was the witch of my last school. Marked by the devil, dribbling sewage, just plain gross; I heard it all.

Brother, if they knew I was reading their emotions like some kind of freak…

I’d finally convinced my parents to let me change schools. By convinced, I mean I got expelled from my old school by getting into a fight with this chick who wouldn’t leave me alone and breaking her arm. I guess I was stronger than I realised.

So I was off to a new school, and in between, I’d have the mole removed. Then it was meant to be like in books, where a group of great friends would adopt me and the hottest guy in the school would fall for me. I’d be happy. Really, I’d be happy to just not be bullied.

I was so dumb. I didn’t realize I needed a proper plastic surgeon for the work, to actually make my face look like the mole was never there. The mole was gone, but the doctor left a great pink grub of a scar in its place.

I often wonder if it weren’t for that mark, would I be comfortable with how I look? I was tall, like a supermodel (yeah, right) but that just made me easier to spot. I should have loved my bright red hair but I hated that it just made me more visible.

I came to this new school determined to be positive anyway. I dressed up, smiled, and waited for people to ask, wow, where did you get that scar? And I would tell them crazy cool tales of my heroism, saving a small child from a pitbull attack, only to have a chunk of flesh bitten off my face. I’d say it was nothing. I did what I had to do.

But everyone judged on first sight. They didn’t even talk to me. And the thickness of their hateful emotion smothered me. I knew I hadn’t escaped. It would be the same here as it was before.

My eyes stung suddenly. No way, if I cried now in the middle of the school corridors, it was all over.

I turned to face the wall and made it lucky. There was a notice board right there, covered in fluoro fliers for me to pretend to read while I got myself under control.

Just breathe.

The corridor stunk of bleach from a recent cleaning. If anyone saw my eyes damp, and asked if I was OK I’d say my eyes were sensitive to the chemicals. I had an answer for everything. If only anyone would ask.

“Since you’re new, I’ll give you some advice.” A voice, deeper than most teen boys, spoke in my ear, closer than I’m used to anyone getting. I shivered. “Don’t join the Chess Club.”

I turn around to find Rafael, who I’d already determined to be the most handsome guy ever, leaning on the wall next to me. He had one elbow against the wall and his hand played with his own sun-bleached hair. I don’t blame him; my hands would love to do that, too.

He had the looks of a 1950’s movie star and he knew it. He played it up, wearing a leather jacket with turned up collar like he was James Dean, and said things like doll, daddy-o and swell. Yeah, I’d been eavesdropping, just a bit.

He was looking at me, talking to me. What was going on?

I let what must be a dumbfounded expression stay on my face and spoke slowly. “But… the checkered boards are so pretty, and I like the little horsies.”

Rafael had the worn look of having to explain something to a poor dumb girl and I worried I’d missed my shot. I raised an eyebrow dramatically, hoping he got the point.

A moment passed, then he chuckled and I let out a massive sigh. Internally. Externally, I kept my cool and gave a flirty-yet-coy grin. I was stupidly proud of myself. Maybe I could do this. I would beautiful on the inside, and he would be the first person to see.

“I’m Raf; that’s the other important thing you need to know, new girl.”

“Emma,” I said. I extended a hand to shake his, leaving just one to hold up my books. They shifted, and I rebalanced them in a way I hoped look cute, and squish my boobs up into prominence at the same time.

“Woops!” I giggled, as though I hadn’t meant to do the whole thing. His smile in return was hungry, almost predatory. There was warmth and excitement to the emotion flowing from him, but also something dark. It gave me chills.

“Careful, you’ll need those, for, you know, learning.” He stared at the books, or maybe at me. I tried to believe it was me.

“No problem. I can shake hands and balance books. Get me a job in the circus, I have the skills.” I rolled my eyes, with just enough eyelash flutter to be cute, I hoped.

The bell rang. Too soon, I wanted this to go on forever.

I shrugged and smiled anyway. “Time to go, and you know, learn.”

“Better move. I don’t want to get you in trouble on your first day.”

Right. I’d been here a week. Well, he’s noticed me now, at least. I had to give him a reason to remember me. Dare I?

“I don’t mind getting into trouble sometimes, if it’s for a good enough reason.”

Raf bumped his shoulder into mine. “You’re a firecracker, aren’t you? Say, you want to meet up after class? Just hang out?”

Something was wrong. This was too good to be true. I hated that I doubted this. I was about to split apart, torn between hope and suspicion. I did a quick check for hidden cameras.

My lips trembled. “Sure.”

“Come to Siren’s Haven. You know it?”

The abandoned set of a failed pirate movie, still standing down by the harbor. I knew kids went there, but I’d never been game. I nodded, casually, like I went all the time.

“See you there at six, the main pirate ship. It’ll be a gas.”

He headed off down the corridor. I skipped class, went to the girl’s bathroom and did the snoopy dance.

And that’s scene one!


Once I’ve finished the whole first draft, and start revisions, I’ll share the revised version of the scene to show what changes I make. You’ll notice I also notice that some things change between the outline and draft, like it being her first day (or not). No matter how thorough the plan, things still always change.

What do you think of the story so far? Feel free to be critical, first drafts need criticism! My thoughts are telling me to possibly cut a little back story (or save it for later), add more description of the setting, and maybe a little bit more about Emma herself, who she is and what she likes, beyond her feelings about her appearance. But that’s all for the revisions stage. For now, back to drafting!

Video- Digital speed painting animation

I took a few snapshots of this digital sketch as I was painting to show the way I paint digitally by roughing in shapes then refining. This sketch was done for Sketch Fest in about 45 mins.

(If the animation doesn’t play for you, open the direct image here- https://selinafenech.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/moonlitpathanim.gif )

Fairy and Gargoyle Painting Walkthrough- with Videos

It was about time I created another step by step walkthrough of one of my paintings developing. Many of my methods have changed, and I work a lot more in acrylic now than in watercolours, and often use both.

This artwork will be purely in acrylics. I had the idea for this just pop into my mind as I was falling asleep one night, as inspiration often does when half asleep. Sometimes these images are very clear and I try and match them as close as possible. This one was a little vague on some details. I just knew I wanted to paint a glowing fairy sheltering from the rain under a gargoyle (or “grotesque” technically).

So I start with some quick research-

Gargoyle image search on google

I hop on google image search and browse gargoyes and grotesques for a while, work out what kind of gargoyle I want it to be. Something not too humanoid, but not too dragon, a bit in between.

Fairy and Gargoyle Thumbnail Sketches

Then it’s time for some rough thumbnail sketches. These are only maybe 5x10cm in size. I did the one on the left first, but decided I didn’t want the scene to be straight on (the sketch also sucks!). So I thought I’d turn it around to the side a bit. I then scan the thumbnail image in and open it in photoshop.

Finding a model for the fairy

Now, I want to find a model. I know roughly what pose I want my fairy in, but I’m not 100% set on it. So I open up saved reference photos of models (most are from www.deviantart.com and the stock models there). I find one that’s really close to what I want, but not quite.

Photomanipulation of model

So, I do some quick and dodgy photomanipulation work in photoshop and put a different head on the model. I also want to change the position of one of the arms, but will do that while I’m sketching. Please excuse the very rough censoring here for younger or more prudish readers. This is the body of Amiba Stock and face from ClickyPenPixie Stock on Deviant Art.

Mock up of fairy and gargoyle artwork

Now, with my model and my thumbail sketch, in photoshop again I do a very quick photomanipulation job to mock up roughly how I want the artwork. I grab a photo of some clouds, a moon, and some rooftops and drop them in, and use my wacom tablet to very messily sketch in some more details. It doesn’t matter if it’s a complete mess, it’s just for me to get an idea of whether the image in my mind will come together, and help me establish the colour scheme and composition. I’ll also print out a copy of this to keep in front of me while painting to keep these things in my mind- you’ll see it in some of the photos below.

Watch me sketch up the artwork in this time lapse video. This is sped up to nearly 10X actual time. Unfortunately the end is cut off because my battery went flat.

Cleaned up Sketch

Here I have my sketch, scanned and cleaned up in photoshop. I sketched this just in my sketch book, but am going to blow it up to twice the size (from A3 to A2), and print it using my Epson 3880 printer. The inks of this printer are waterproof and archival, so I can paint right over the printed sketch. I often do this, because it means I can sketch in my sketch book and not worry about ruining good expensive watercolour paper if the sketch doesn’t work.

Coating paper with Gesso

Because I want to paint in darker colours and don’t really require the strengths of watercolour for this work, I’m going to paint entirely in acrylics and gesso the paper first (gesso is a medium for sealing and creating a less absorbent working surface). Even when painting entirely in acrylics I don’t always gesso the paper. If I don’t, it means I use a more watercolour technique of layering transparent colours, but when the paper is gessoed the paint behaves differently, a little more like oils, perhaps. If I weren’t gessoing the paper, I would have lightened the sketch before printing it so it wasn’t as strong as seen here. So here, I’ve taped the sheet of A2 Arches hotpress watercolour paper (what I always use) to a MDF board with masking tape, and begun rolling gesso on with a sponge roller.

Adding some texture

This is going to be a quite dark artwork, with the fairy being the main source of light, so I want to start getting some dark paint onto there and darken the values of the paper down from the bright white it starts at. I get a small house paint brush and Paynes Grey acrylic, and roughly brush the surface, darker at the edges, lighter in the middle. I use a tissue to sponge away paint from the fairy if it gets on there (I’m messy!). This is just about creating texture and darkness, so I’m as messy as I want to me. Rough brush strokes done, I clean the brush, and spatter clean water all over to create those spots you can see. Once that’s dry, I spatter again with watered down paynes grey.

Building up the forms

Time to start working on the shapes. I’m still working fairly roughly, it will all be refined more as I go. I just want to block in the forms based on the light source now (the fairy). Still just using Paynes grey and a big brush, I rough out the shapes of the gargoyles muscle structure, the wall and the clouds.

Adding a second colour

This is basically just going to be a two colour artwork, pale yellows and blue greys. Because the fairy will primarily be golden, I use Raw Umber acrylic to start defining her form a little before I lose her under other paint. I want the sky to have a yellow misty glow as well, so use Naples yellow (opaque) muted down with a little raw umber to smooth out the lower sky area where the darker clouds aren’t, and also brush that same colour all over and around the fairy, and where her light falls on the gargoyle.

Working on the wall

Well, there’s no more avoiding it- time to start working on the details. I’m trying to be good and work from background to foreground here, which generally is the best way to work (but I don’t always do). It’s good to work this way because you want your figures to look like they fit in the environment, so you want the environment there first as a reference for their values and colours when you start painting them.  I’ve tidied up the clouds a little with more naples yellow and white paint, and with varying mixes of naples yellow and paynes grey I’ve painted in a few rows of silhouetted rooflines. On the wall itself, I’ve done a number of layers of paynes grey to build up the decorative scroll work carving. You can see it’s changed from my sketch- it was lost underneath the other paint already by this stage, so I sketched something new out on top. Often having to do something again makes you change your mind on what you want there anyway. I paint a few cracks in paynes grey, and highlight the right side with naples yellow, and our wall is basically done.

I want to lighten some parts of the stone wall to look like lichen. Watch how I do it in the following video! You can also use this technique to some extent with watercolour on paper as well.

Refining the background

So the background is pretty much done at this stage, but no doubt I’ll poke at it again more later (I also have to add rain, right at the end!). I’ve defined the clouds some more with white and naples yellow, and added a few flying bats (or are they gargoyles?). Now I can move onto working on the two stars of the artwork- the fairy and the gargoyle.

Working on the gargoyle

I start working on the gargoyle first, since he surrounds the fairy I need to have him pretty well defined before painting her, since her glow is going to get painted over the top of his details. The rough brush strokes I made before are a great base for refining the details further, and often the rough brush strokes bring out great shapes that you wouldn’t get from careful brush work. I darken edges and smooth some areas, always trying to keep the light source in mind as I work. The gargoyle will be faintly backlit by the moon as well, but I’m mostly focusing on the lighting from the fairy.

Time to paint the fairy. Here’s a time lapse video of me painting the fairy in mostly raw umber and naples yellow. This has only been sped up to 2X normal speed so you can see how my brush strokes are handled.

Working on the fairy

The gargoyle is mostly done now, so I start working on the fairy. She is getting painted in a mix of raw umber, naples yellow and titanium white at this stage. I paint in the veining of her wings in white, and then we get to some more brush abuse, using a very dry brush and scumbling (yes, it’s a word!) some naples yellow all around the wings and the fairy again. Scumbling is the method of glazing a lighter, opaque colour over darker areas of paint. I do a lot of dry brush work when painting in acrylic in this way, and really mash up and scrub my poor brushes.

Here is a short video of me lightening the fairy’s wings using this technique. Normally I keep the tissue in my left hand (as you’ll see in another video), but had my camera in my left hand here so it was a bit awkward with the tissue on the painting itself. I always, always paint with a tissue in my left hand, and end up with a big pile of soggy, paint covered tissues by the end of a painting. They are just indispensible for controlling the amount of paint and water on a brush. I feel naked without one!

Fairy being refined

Finally, a little more colour! All I’ve added here to the fairies skin is a few hints of Rose Pink, but it makes her glow even more, doesn’t it? I’ve also decided I want some of her tattered skirts hanging down the wall, so paint them in in a mix of white and naples yellow. I continue refining her features and figure in a mix of all these colours (raw umber, naples yellow, rose pink and white. A tiny bit of paynes grey for her eyes).

Fairy finished

Now we’re cooking. After the fairy has some work with darker colours, I get stuck in with the white and make her glow. I hit all the highlights, and give her a rim glow as well. Since her clothes are essentially a dirty white, they also get highlighted with lots of white. She’s just about done.

Final details

Time to have fun splattering again. I use the same technique on the gargoyle as I used on the wall, spattering with clean(ish) water then rubbing away the lifted paint with a tissue to create lighter spots of “lichen”, and then spattering dark spots of paynes grey as well. Then I spatter white paint all around the fairy by loading a bristle brush and flicking it with my fingernail. I decide I want a hint of colour in some of the grey areas, and with a dry brush I glaze on some dioxazine purple mixed with storm blue, very very thinly in some areas. Did you know the only difference between glazing and scumbling is glazing is dark/transparent colours and scumbling is light/opaque colours? Also here I’ve given the gargoyles wings some rim lighting in white as well.

Scan before adding rain

All done now- except for making it rain! Because the rain is going to be painted all over the top of this, I scan the artwork in first, just in case my experimental rain doesn’t work. Above is the scanned image, not yet colour corrected. You can see how different the colours from my scanner turn out compared to the photographs.

Final artwork finished and scanned

And here is the final artwork with rain added, scanned and colour corrected in photoshop. The rain was added with a large brush, streaking watered down white paint, and watered down paynes grey for the falling drops, and then flicking white paint on with a bristle brush for the areas that are hit with rain.