Create a Winter Scene in Adobe Photoshop: The Digital Painting

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating
In the first part of this tutorial, fellow Tuts+ instructor, Rowena Aitken showed you how to create the line art for this festive winter collaboration. In today's tutorial, I'll be showing you how to paint it using Adobe Photoshop and a pen tablet. Let's begin!
The following assets were used in the production of this tutorial.
It all started with the words, "Winter Solstice."
According to Wikipedia, a Winter Solstice is "is an astronomical phenomenon which marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year." And honestly, that definition does nothing for me visually. But after rummaging around Google Images for awhile, Rowena and I could at least set our eyes on a very specific color scheme.
Set a Game Plan for Colors Story and References
Here's what we found...
Most of the inspiration we saw had beautiful warm tones against a cool lit sky. Essentially, a winter sunset! Though we liked this idea of warm against cool, we ended up changing the light source to better reflect the story.
Creating the Winter Color Scheme
I love storytelling. And one of the many benefits to developing a back story to your art is that you force your brain to visualize the scene and all of its details more clearly. So before starting your next project, be prepared to ask yourself this question:

Deep within the forest, three close friends, an elk, owl, and rabbit, all gather around in excitement and delight. With a little teamwork and lots of extra pine cones lying around, they decorate the forest in preparation for the coming winter festival. Adorable right? We thought so too!
Now there are two great ways you can go about color theory when painting digitally. You can start with a definitive color palette where all your main colors are already selected. Or you can start with a base of grayscale tones that allow you to develop the lighting scenario, followed by a gradual application of color. I typically choose the latter setup because I'm always finicky and indecisive when it comes to color in the beginning.
There's a lot to remember here, so I stay focused by making a mental checklist of things to keep in mind while painting.
  1. There is one warm light source (the lamp), amidst a cool background (the night sky).
  2. The elk is fully lit, the owl is partially lit, and the rabbit is in silhouette.
  3. Lighting on the tree should diffuse as it progresses upward.
  4. Fur and texture will be affected by the light and shadow.
  5. Everything isn't fully illuminated, so have fun with experimentation.
Over on Pinterest we've prepared a list of references for this collaboration. They cover everything we'll need to understand about animal anatomy, winter colors, and general design inspiration for this tutorial. The examples below are just two references we pinned from PhotoDune which helped us learn more about rabbits and owls. I recommend it as a great organizational tool to keep all your references in one place.
Winter Collaboration Pinterest References
Now that we know what we're painting, it's time to review the line art. Here's a reminder of the document setup Rowena prepared.
  • Width is set to 3,508 pixels, while Height is set to 4,961 pixels.
  • Resolution is set to 300 dpi.
  • Color Mode is set to CMYK (for printing).
It's important to note that because the color mode is set to CMYK, there will be a more limited range of colors as opposed to RGB. This means that not only will you have fewer colors to paint with, but also some adjustment settings will be affected as well. No worries though, we'll still have plenty to work with. So let's take a look at the original line art!
Original Line Art by Rowena Aitken
The great thing about the file Rowena prepared is that every component is on its own layer. This way I can adjust or even omit any details I see fit. The first thing I do is Delete the Horizon Line layer. I don't really need it for reference since I'll be opting for a natural ground level anyway.
Delete the Horizon Line layer
I also notice a few more things I'd like to change quickly. Depth of field can be tricky. In "real life" we know that rabbits are smaller than elks, but in this scenario the rabbit is positioned closer to the viewer. Selecting the Rabbit layer I Free Transform (Control-T while holding Shift) to enlarge the rabbit so that it overlaps the elk and illustrates its foreground position more clearly.
Free Transform the Enlarge Rabbit Layer
I follow these same steps for the Owl layer, except this time I Decrease its size so that it appears further away from the viewer.
Free Transform to Decrease Owl Layer
The last change I made to the line art is really simple. I don't want to make the mistake of painting too much detail on the background trees. So to remind myself of this as well as to trick my eyes into seeing them in the distance, I lower the Opacity to 30%. Now here's the adjusted line art.
Before and After Line Art
Painting in grayscale allows artists to set up the proper lighting scenario without the distraction of color. On a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) set to Multiply, use the Brush Tool (B) to paint a gray color for both the elk and tree, a lighter shade for the owl and background trees, and a darker shade for the rabbit. These different shades of gray signify the distance of the characters from the viewer. So in other words, the closer the character, the darker the shade.
Initial Grayscale Colors
Feel free to use the Eraser Tool (E) to clean up the edges, and then set the layer to Lock Transparent Pixels.
Lock Transparent Pixels and Erase Edges
Duplicate this layer. Because the original is set to Multiply you'll notice that a duplicate creates darker gray values—we don't want this, so Erase the excess tones, making sure the Background Color is set to White.
Duplicate Layer and Erase Excess Tones
For this next step I'll be using the Ambient Occlusion technique. For a more in-depth look at ambient occlusion, check out Monika Zagrobelna's Zombie Dragon Tutorial. There are so many details to this piece that need shadow, so do to this quickly I use the Lasso Tool (L) to make selections around each character and fill in those selections using a Soft Round Brush (B).
  • Brush Color set to Black
  • Opacity set to 20%
The key here is to apply shadows to areas where one object is overlapped by another. In this case the branches overlap the tree stump, so the stump is in shadow. I quickly apply this shading technique to all other areas of the line art.
Ambient Occlusion Technique
You'll also notice that on this same layer I started to loosely trace over the original line art, especially the sections with snow and tree definition. I do this step as a reminder of all these little details because eventually I will need to delete the line art.
loosely trace over the line art
Duplicate this layer and Erase the excess as before. Using the Gradient Tool (G) with the preset of Foreground Color to Transparent (Opacity 50%), I'm going to create even more shadows. This time around, when I make a selection with the Lasso Tool (L), I switch over to the Gradient Tool (G) and drag the marker in the direction I want the gradient to appear. Repeat this process for each character as well as the background.
Use the Gradient Tool to Apply Shadow
If you turn off the visibility of the line art, the painting really starts to come to life. Now that I have my base, I can move on to color. Just like before, I'm going to Duplicate the previous layer and Erase the excess. With this new layer still set to Multiply, I paint a solid brown color over the rabbit, tree branches, and owl.
Add Color on the Multiply Layer
This color process will involve many layers for adjustments and playing with different blend modes. If the file size gets too big, merge layers whenever possible or even save to additional files. The next three layers will include: a Blue fill set to Screen, a Purple fill set to Color Burn, and a Color Balance Adjustment Layer to help bring out the blues even further.
Add Three New Adjustment Layers for Color
With one more layer set to Color Dodge I fill it with white, bringing the Opacity down to 40%.
Add a Layer of White Set to Color Dodge
To create a subtle hint of texture that will be great for the snow and sky, create a New Layer (Control-Shift-N). Set the Foreground Color to Black and the Background Color to White. Then go to Filter > Render > Clouds to create the texture we'll need.
Render Clouds for Snow Texture
Set this layer to Difference, bring down the Opacity to 15%, and use the Eraser Tool (E) to erase any texture that is overlapping our main focal point.
Set the Layer to Difference and Reduce Opacity
Currently, the colors are a little too bright and saturated. To correct this, I use three different New Adjustment Layers. For the first one, go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Hue/Saturation. Bring down the Saturation to -100 to make the whole piece black and white. Next go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Color Balance. Adjust the Midtones so that the painting has more Blue and Cyan.
Use Adjustment Layers to Color Correct
Add another New Adjustment Layer for Curves. Remember earlier when I said some settings change depending on the color mode? Well typically in RGB mode, in order to make something darker you have to pull the graph down. In this case we have to do the opposite.
Add A Curves Adjustment Layer
Adjust the Curves on the CMYK, Blue, Cyan, Yellow, and Black Channels. The effect I'm going for is to deepen the overall color scheme while applying a yellow tint.
Result of the Curves Adjustment Layer
Even with all the adjustment layers and different blend modes I've already applied, I only consider this stage as a solid base for more. My goal here is to make sure that I paint in enough details now, so that I can completely delete the line art later.  So before going any further, it's important to clean things up. Using a Hard Round Brush with the Opacity varying between 50% and 100%, I clean up the painting by carving out details, and referring to the original line art every now and then.
Always keep a copy of the line art handy. Up to the last stages of this painting I'll need to refer to it often in order to make sure I'm doing justice to Rowena's illustration.
Clean Up Your Painting
At this point I realized I spent way too much time paying attention to details that couldn't possibly translate into the finished piece. What I mean is, if you zoom in on the original line art at 100%, you can see all the incredible details Rowena drew. However, if you zoom out to a more suitable display size for the web, all of those intricate details get lost, or jumbled together.
Zoom Out to Review Display Size
In a traditional art class, teachers will often tell their students to take a couple steps back from their paintings. Sometimes we get so caught up in the details that we have to step away and make sure the entire piece works harmoniously. So remember that mental checklist from the beginning? This point becomes another thing to keep in mind as I paint.
On a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) set to Overlay, I paint in the highlights for the snow, tree, and animals. I want the snow to have a fluffy and realistic feel to it, so I use a Chalk Brush for the texture of the snow and a Standard Soft Brush for the remaining highlights.
Paint Highlights on Overlay Layer
Now it's time to add in the real color. Just like in my previous steps, I'll be using an array of adjustment layers and blend modes to color the painting. First I paint the colors for the trees, owl, and rabbit using a layer set to Color Burn. Then I paint the acorns, pine cones, and elk antlers on a layer set to Darken.
Add Animal Colors with Adjustment Layers
After cleaning up the painting a little, I add a New Adjustment Layer of Color Balance to give everything a nice blue hue again.
Add Color Balance to for More Blues
So I have plenty of blue going on but I can't forget the warm light source! On a layer set to Vivid Light, I use a Chalk Brush to apply orange to the scene. The parts that are most illuminated from the light source are the bottom of the tree, the lamp, the snow on the ground, and the elk. Although the owl is the furthest away from the light source, I do want to make sure that it catches some of that light.
Add the Warm Light Source with Overlay
To paint the pine cone ornaments I refer to some quick references on the web. As the pine cones move up the tree they are hit with less of the light source. I illustrate this by making sure to pay attention to where the light might hit the cone.
Paint the Pine Cone Ornaments
I follow the same process for the string of acorns. The only difference is that since some of the acorns are in the sky, I also paint in some blue to show that they are affected by their environment.
Paint the Acorn Decorations
To make fur, let's create our own brush! Open a New Document (Control-N) with the following settings:
  • Width: 100 px
  • Height: 100 px
Take a Standard Hard Round Brush and create two diagonal black dots. Go to Edit > Define Brush Preset, enter a name, and hit OK. You can keep all other default settings, and just add the following:
  • Brush Tip: 15Spacing
  • Control: set to Pen Pressure
Create Your Own Fur Brush
Use the Fur Brush to add fur to the rabbit. Start off with a color slightly darker than the rabbit, and then add a few bright hairs for highlights.
Paint Fur on the Rabbit
To celebrate different fur textures, I avoid using the same brush for the elk and rabbit. Instead, I grab a Standard Round Brush (B) and make a couple of thick strokes to represent the elk's fur.
Paint Fur on the Elk
I repeat a similar process for the owl's feathers and general features. Using the same brush, I define the highlights of the feathers while paying attention to where the light strikes the owl.
Paint the Owls Features
Every time I introduce New Adjustment Layers to the painting, it tends to oversaturate the colors. Since the background for the sky is now very blue, I add a layer of white set to Hue to desaturate it a bit. Bringing down the layer's Opacity to 40%, I Erase any areas covering the warm light source.
Desaturate the Sky
Next I apply a purple filled layer, setting the Blend Mode to Soft Light. I repeat the same process from before, erasing any areas that cover up the light source.
Add a Purple Layer Set to Soft Light
Applying a yellow tint will give the painting a nice vintage feel. To do this I add a new layer filled with yellow, setting the Blend Mode to Darken with an Opacity of 45%.
Set a Yellow Layer to Darken
For the most part, the current color scheme is what I want for the finished product. Hooray! Now I can really move on to the details. For the snow on the ground, I use a Chalk Brush to paint random spots of highlights to represent a beautiful glistening texture. Whenever you're using a textured brush, just let it do its own thing for each stroke. Simply Erase any excess that doesn't belong.
Paint the Highlights on the Snow
Adding highlights to the other mounds of snow also gives off a greater impression of realism. Using a Hard Round Brush (B), I paint loose strokes to represent highlight and texture. As always, diffuse any harsh edges with the Eraser Tool (E).
Paint Highlighted Snow on the Tree
I continue to work around the illustration, refining all the details with a Hard Round Brush (B) and finding a balance of zooming in and out as I paint. You'll notice that some additional details even include bright green highlights for where the light hits the tree. And of course, I absolutely couldn't resist altering the colors some more with a purple layer set to Color Burn.
Add Green Highlights on the Tree
This lighting scenario has turned out beautifully. However, I can't help but notice that some details are getting lost in the shadows. To combat this, I paint bright outlines around certain details to make them stand out more.
Outline Details for Crisp Edges
It wouldn't be a beautiful night sky without stars, right? Using a Hard Round Brush (B) I paint lots of white and yellow dots to represent the stars in the sky. Duplicate this layer and Erase a few of the stars. Now go to Filter > Blur > Motion Blur and set the Angle to 30 degrees and the Distance to 290. Instant star mania!
Paint Stars in the Sky
Collaborating with other artists is fun, but the unfamiliar territory can be daunting! In this tutorial we learned to listen to the process and trust what we know.
You don't always have to have the answer. Keep your eyes open to the experience, experiment a lot, and you'll make out just fine. Good luck!
Winter Collaboration Finished Painting by Melody Nieves


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