-By Serge Birault


My first idea was to write about digital painting. You know, why CG painting is easier than traditional painting, why it’s quite impossible to emulate oil painting or what was/is it’s impact on the industry. The kind of things digital painters have to write because they feel guilty. I sometimes have the feeling using a computer is a sin. Strangely, 20 years ago, I had the same feeling with airbrush. I’m too old to spend my time justifying it to myself, and by the way it’s not very interesting.

I want to talk about chaos. With airbrush and acrylic, you must work in a very organized way. You have no choice. With a computer, your process could be very chaotic. This little walkthrough will be a good example. «Fuchsia» is a picture I did several years ago.

Motivation and Ideas

I like painting people I know. It’s like a doing a gift. It’s the best motivation for me. Before, I only painted close friends of mine, now it’s quite different.

I found some photos of Maria on the internet. She’s not the most beautiful girl in the world, she’s not a «pro» model and she lives in Swede. But she’s a girl I always wanted to draw. We exchanged a few messages. She was a normal girl with a normal life. It seemed she was happy that I wanted to paint her. I didn’t learn much about her life, but I liked what I learned.

By the way, it was quite interesting to imagine how I could paint her with so little information. This exercice is now my favorite part of my painting process.

The global idea was about normal girls, the internet, and how they are perceived through the screen.This picture is a bit surrealistic but it makes sense for me and Maria. Things were a bit upside down. I had no idea of the picture I wanted to do before I spoke with her.

Sketch and Composition

I live in France, so it was impossible for me to take my own photo references. I spent several hours looking at pictures on her DeviantArt page, then I turned off my computer and started doodling in my sketchbook. I did a «cartoon» version of her face … only her face. I knew what I wanted to do, doing a complete sketch was not a necessity. I made her body with a black silhouette as I adjusted the composition.

Yes, I know, it sounds like heresy. I have to do my composition with sticks first, then I have to detailed all the elements and do a clean sketch. I know … but I don’t care. With a computer, you can move all the parts of your picture, you can change their scales, their ratios, their shapes… So I started with a floating head.

Lights and Colors

I always choose my «ambient light» first. As the nickname of Maria is Fuchsia, the choice was simple. I painted the whole background layer in pink. I chose my palette according to this color. There are a lot of ways to do that easily. For example, you can create a pink layer over your basic palette and decrease it’s opacity or change it’s mode. I don’t use greyscale, I hate that. It’s a good way to achieve good contrast, but all your colors seem to be washed out. Once again, I know I can change the tones or add some later.
I started to paint the face. I had good reference for the light on her face so I used it.


Painting Techniques

I don’t really know how software works, I use only basic tools. My students sometimes give me advice or tell me there are hotkeys … But I know some little tricks:

– Size : I always work on big canvas. A3 format, 300 dpi is a minimum.

– Blending colors : The soft round brush is very close to a real airbrush. The technique is quite simple, just work with a very low opacity brush (0 – 20 %) and do several strokes instead of one. It works better if you lower the sensitivity of your stylus. Yes, I know, it sounds strange, but believe me, it’s the best way to make good gradients.

– Layers : I do a lot of layers during my process. I created more than 1000 layers for this picture. It’s not a problem if you merge them often. Every part of the picture (skin, hair, background, clothes, ….) has it’s own layer. You can do adjustments in each part more easily.

You can try different things and change your mind. If it doesn’t work well, just delete some layers.
For example, the pig first looked like a Gynoïd of Hajime Sorayama (this picture is an homage to him). I shared the first version and people on my blog and Facebook gave me their opinions. I finaly changed my mind for a more organic version. It’s good to have critics during your process. Thanks technology …


– Saves : Do a lot of saves and use incrementation. I did more than 50 saves for this one. Computers are sometimes tricky, don’t trust them.

For the face, I turned my sketch layer to ‘multiply mode’ and I decreased it’s opacity. I did a solid swath of skin tone on a layer under the sketch, then I created several layers to paint the face.

The technique is the same for the whole picture. You cannot choose your final colors this way. You add colors little by little. It’s sometimes hard to establish good contrast, and airbrush tends to make your illustration too soft. But it’s how I work.


That’s why I like digital painting so much. You can change the contrast, the luminosity, the hue, the colors, … You can change everything at every moment. It’s a kind of magic …

Final words:

I take my time to finish my personal pieces. Sometimes I stop and I wait several months to continue them. You can easily see if you made mistakes and of course, you can change your mind.

20 years ago, I think I would be horrified by my actual process. I sometimes feel I craft my illustrations more than I paint them. Chaos is good but it’s dangerous too, you can lose your spontaneity and do soulless and cold pictures.

That’s all folks …