In this mermaid painting tutorial, I will show you the full process of my illustration The Porcelain Mermaid. I focus on digital painting and how I build up a whimsical illustration in many layers through an organic development process. There is a great deal of discovery in the process, combined with a basic structure. I work in Adobe Photoshop CC, on a Wacom Cintiq 27HD Touch tablet.

Step 1: The Sketch

Sometimes I begin my sketches directly on the tablet, other times I like to start them in my sketchbook. For this piece, I began in my sketchbook. I didn’t have a clear vision of where I wanted to go with it when I began the sketch but as her face formed, ideas started forming as well. Once I had a good base for the figure, I scanned the drawing and pulled it into Photoshop.

Step 2: Color Block In

The next step is adding the base color. I began by filling the background with a deep blue and then I add lighter colors in on top to form the overall mood I am going for, for the illustration. I also extend the canvas, as I realize I would like this to be a longer portrait styled image, this allows me to add more of the figure to the sketch and really show she is a mermaid – tail and all. I prematurely begin adding some detail to her face, just to toy around with the idea of porcelain face paints.

Tip: To balance all the blue I very deliberately decide to make her floaties orange. Orange is the complementary color to blue so it’s going to help the image pop.

Step 3: The Detail Trap

The detail trap is a very real trap for artists, it is so much fun to work out details and you can absolutely get lost in it prematurely and forget about working on the big shapes and that is exactly what happened here in stage 3. I began rendering out details on her face, detail her ear and gills and render the hair. You should always focus on getting all your big shapes and rough colors in, before doing detail work. This will save you time in the long run, because when detailing before working everything out you run the risk of having to erase and repaint. It’s so important to have a strong foundation first.

Step 4: Those floaties!

At this stage, I begin working out the anatomy of her arm and the floaties. Being bright orange the floaties will be what is going to draw the eye the most. I want to balance that with the details of the face. As human beings, we are naturally attracted to looking at faces before anything else, but bright orange is also a color that puts us on alert so it’s important to find a good balance here.

I am using a mixture of Grzegorz Rutkowski‘s Photoshop brushes that I downloaded from Gumroad. I really like these brushes because of the painterly texture they have.

Step 5: Getting the base down.

At this point, I begin doing what I should have done in step 3, working out the base structure of her body and of the diving helmet, which helps to really make the image come together. I use reference photos I have shot myself, using my husband as a model, to get the pose right. I also begin playing around with some of the cool textures the before-mentioned brushes have to offer. They offer a lot of potential for getting that painterly finish I like so much.

Step 6: Adding the details.

Now that I have the base of her body worked out I can knock myself out with adding details. I love this stage, this is when the illustration really begins to come together. This is also the time where I begin looking for reference photos, to make sure I paint everything correctly. For the patterns on her body, I’m looking at photos of old blue and white porcelain cups. For the diving helmet and the barnacles, I look at old photos of shipwrecks.

Tip: Always paint light on dark and dark on light. You want to watch the values and make sure each part of the image reads clearly on a small scale. By having light on dark (for instance the teapot inside the dark helmet) to ensure the teapot reads clearer.

Step 7: The Light Source

Now I begin to consider where my light is coming from and add in shadow areas accordingly. I am not going for 100% realism here, my work is always a mixture. I add in cast shadows on the teapot and from the helmet onto the mermaid. I also begin detailing out her hair more, to add motion to the piece. You can do so much fun stuff with hair!

Step 8: Refining

At this point, I start refining some of the details of the illustration. I spend some time detailing her goggles and letting the colors of them blend with the colors of the surroundings. I also begin finding my highlight spots to give her skin that glossy porcelain feeling. Then I add some bubbles coming from the teapot to show she is under water. I also raise up the sprout of the teapot just to give it a more dimensional shape and add some red bounce-light underneath the diving helmet.

Step 9: Darkening Shadows

For this step I add a ‘multiply’ layer in Photoshop, it’s a layer where the colors will darken what is underneath, and begin to darken up some of my shadows with a grayish blue tone. I always find that once I begin darkening the shadows the illustrations have a lot of depth, it’s about finding the right balance though so it can be tricky. I also refine the light on her hand, I’m not sold on how that hand rests on the helmet though.

Step 10: Texturing and Final Pop!

How I pull in some paper texture pictures and overlay on the image to really get more of that traditional painting look that I like. This also darkens the overall image so I can pop the lights. I have a collection of images of papers with various coffee stains and the like that I have scanned, which I use for this purpose. You can also search for free paper textures on Google to use for this purpose. I sneak in my name on the label of the diving helmet. I like to hide my name in my illustrations. It’s something I picked up from the Disney artist Don Rosa.

Finally, I go in with a light splatter brush and mess up some of my edges, especially around the floaties. I like it when the colors blend together a bit.

Step 11: Push the light and Fix the Hand

For my last step, I shoot some new photo reference for the hand and repaint it. I also render out the barnacles in detail and add final touches to her bottle cap necklace. It’s a difficult gesture just because she’s holding onto a rim. I go over the image one last time with a soft brush on an ‘Overlay’ layer, a layer that allows you to brighten lights, and just add some final high lights and radiance to the orange and with that, I am ready to call this piece finished.

I hope you enjoyed this look into my process, please let me know in the comments if it is something you would like to see more of and/or if you have any specific questions. Thank you for reading!