Create a Multi-Character Pirate Illustration for Young Children in Adobe Photoshop

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

In this tutorial I'll give a walkthrough of creating a fun, bright multi-character pirate ship aimed at three- to six-year-olds! In this tutorial we will be looking at how to rough out poses, apply colours, draw appealing characters and much more! 
Here are the assets I will be using for this tutorial:
Specifically I'll be using KYLE Ultimate Pencil Hard 10px as a default in this tutorial unless otherwise stated.
Our brief for this illustration is:
"Create an A3 Illustration, portrait or landscape, with 4 characters: Girl, Boy, Captain (female) and Ship's cat aimed at 3-6 year olds. This should look as if it was created with pencils and/or pastels."
Girl Pirate
  • harem pants
  • wooden sword
  • curly redhead
  • tiny hat (lost in mass of hair)
Boy Pirate
  • messy hair
  • waistcoat
  • striped tee
  • head scarf
  • bare feet
  • captain's hat with large feather
  • female
  • boots 
  • massive telescope (not shown here)
  • ginger/white
  • pirate flag on tail
  • neck scarf
  • eye patch
Pretty straightforward brief. We need to make sure we include these in the characters. To make the piece look as if it was drawn in pastel and/or pencil, I have chosen this brush.
It's the KYLE Ultimate Pencil Hard 10px from Kyle T Webster's ULTIMATE Photoshop Brush Combo.
I love this brush as it's great when used fine for drawing and larger for shading, has a lovely texture and really mimics pencil well. I use it all the time! 
KYLE Ultimate Pencil Hard 10px
When you are looking to sell or aim your artwork at younger children aged three to six, draw your characters at that age bracket. Kids can relate and empathise with drawings of characters their own age. 
Keeping the rendering style fairly simple is good, although remember that children are not stupid, and they do enjoy looking around pieces at details. Using media that children relate to is also good, like pencil, crayon, paint and messy textures. There is a real risk when creating digital artwork that it becomes sterile and too clean. Messiness is interesting (and fun to draw!).
Lets have a look at these children aged about five or six. If we look at the boy in blue, note his proportions. An adult is usually six and a half or seven heads high, which means that if you took the height of their head it would be one seventh of their height. 
This is important to note when drawing children. Their head in relation to their body is larger, which also applies to their features, e.g. larger eyes.
Group Of Young Children In Studio
If we have a look at these approximately 12-year-old children, we can see they are less stocky than the five- to six-year-olds. The largest difference is in the legs. 
Group Of Five Young Children In Studio
Take the boy in the pale blue polo shirt; his legs are three heads high compared to the younger boy whose legs are only two. This is a good starting point for creating targeted illustrations.

Head Height Comparison

Below I have sketched out three people, and going by our measurements these are about six years old. 

3-6 year old proportions

For the purposes of cuteness, I have made the heads slightly larger than they should be. The reason is that the younger a child is, the fewer heads high they are.

Larger Heads for Cute

Now that we have a rough stick child, we can now create some characters that match these proportions!
Here comes the fun part, designing the characters! Here I've sketched out three versions of each, with the exception of the cat. 
First we will start with the girl pirate.
Let's start with the most fun one first. I love drawing hair, and in my opinion there aren't enough curly-haired girls in illustrations. 
A few things we need to include are:
  • harem pants
  • wooden sword
  • curly redhead
  • tiny hat (lost in the mass of hair)
A look on your favourite search engine can be helpful if you aren't sure what items in a brief look like, e.g. harem pants. 
I've added in the head heights at the side to make sure we get the proportions right. The legs to hips should be two heads high, the torso two heads high, and the head... one head high.
As these characters may need to be used over several illustrations, possibly even a whole book, I recommend you keep them simple. It's visually pleasing and easy to keep a consistent look throughout. To make them look a bit more detailed, add in busier areas such as the crazy curly hair of the girl pirate!
The brushes I am using require a tablet to use the full range of pressure options. I cannot comment on how they react with a mouse as I do not paint with one. Basic tablets are fairly inexpensive, and are a must if you want to do lots of digital illustrations in your drawing program of choice.
My three designs have gone from cute to cheeky, and for this I think the cheeky last girl wins my vote. 
Girl Designs
For the boy's design I've gone through the same process. We need to include:
  • messy hair
  • waistcoat
  • striped tee
  • head scarf
  • bare feet
I like the scruffy jeans look of the middle boy, but I think I'll add in some sandals to the main illustration. I designed these characters using the same heads method as above, just not shown.
Boy Designs
OK, here we have the captain! These kids are all the same age, so we need something to make one stand out more than the others. Cue massive hat and flamboyant feather!
The girl designs must include:
  • captain's hat with large feather
  • female
  • boots 
  • massive telescope (not shown here)
I want to keep her outfit fairly simple and let the hat and boots steal the show. I love the last girl so we'll go with her. 
Captain Designs
For this I just draw out a cat. Animals are my favourite thing to draw, so this little guy comes easily to me. I remember to include:
  • ginger/white
  • pirate flag on tail
  • neck scarf
  • eye patch
Pirate Cat
I arrange all four characters next to each other to see how they look. They look cool! Next step is to work out our composition!
Character Designs
Start off with some rough rectangles to the proportions of your finished piece either on a piece of paper or in Photoshop.
Blank Thumbnails
Working quickly (as I find this stops me getting too precious with ideas), I doodle out the elements in the piece that must include three children, a cat and a pirate ship. 
My favourite designs are 2 and 6. Number 2 is really lovely and flowing, but 6 has the strong skull graphic and shows the characters clearly, so I am going to go with that one. 
Chosen Thumbnail
To create our illustration document, we press Control-N or File > New to bring up the New Document dialogue box.
  • Width: 297.03 mm
  • Height: 419.97 mm
  • Resolution: 350 Pixels/Inch (300dpi is fine for print, but I like to go a little higher for flexibility)
  • Color Mode: CMYK (CMYK for print: RGB for web)
A3 Document Setup
If, like me, you create lots of A3 illustrations for print, you can Save Preset after you have finished adding in your settings and give it a name such as I have here: "A3 CMYK Print".
The document should look something like this. Remember to create a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) before you begin anything on it. Drawing on the background layer is something we all do and end up kicking ourselves for it!
Portrait Document
To use this as a base for our illustration, I use the Marquee Tool (M) to select the thumbnail, and press Control-Shift-C to Copy All Layers and then Control-Vto Paste it into our New A3 Portrait document. Press Control-T to Transform the thumbnail to the desired size.
Thumbnail Scaled to A3
I like to rough out large areas of illustrations using a low-opacity brush. This helps me work out how well areas read. Here I've done this with the sail, the cross mast and the main body of the boat, along with approximate plank placement.
Rough Pirate Ship Background
To begin roughing in the characters, I use the thumbnail and make sure they're in the place I want them to be. Here I've reduced the opacity of the thumbnail layer so I can clearly see what I am doing.
I draw the red circles over the thumbnail layer to ensure I am making each character five heads high and they all end up being approximately the same height.
Head Heights of Rough Characters
Using these circles as a reference, I create a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) and draw in the exact poses for each character plus props.
Poses Sorted
Now that we have all our basic information in place, it's time to begin creating the clean line art!
For this illustration I would actually like as little line art as possible. So why am I doing this? Well there are two reasons in this case. 
  1. I like to get complicated items worked out in advance so I don't scramble my brains when I go to colour it, and instead I can just chill out and go with the flow.
  2. Wood and planks have lines: lines where they join, cracks between them, edges and grain. I can use this line art later on to make my life easier and add more detail quickly. 
By having each piece of line art on its own layer, you can manipulate them in many ways such as changing the colour and blending mode, and masking off some areas so they emphasise some areas more than others.
Here I have taken Kyle's Ultimate Pencil Hard 10px in a dark grey and gone over the rough shapes on a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) over what I doodled out earlier. It can be good to turn off the rough layer.
Line Art - Ship
Here I've worked in the sail details. If you look around, there really is no such thing as a perfectly sharp, clean edge, so why do it in your artwork? Rough edges are more pleasing, and things like sails will get ratty and tatty, so rather than trying to make perfect art, be loose and spontaneous. 
Line Art Sail
Here I have roughed in the rigging using a dark red. I find details like this are easier to rough in during the line art stage, when you know exactly where major items will be placed. This way you can create the illusion that the ropes go under and over the horizontal mast without getting confused!
Rigging Rough
Now the cool bit! I've drawn in the skull design on the sail. If you do have a large graphic like this then draw it on a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) so you can erase lines that cross over the mast and make sure it's positioned right, without having to redraw or lasso areas.
Line Art Sale Rigging and Skull
Bleed is where you have an illustration that needs to be printed all the way to the edges. This is your "safe zone" to make sure that when the artwork is cut down there's no paper showing if the cuts are off.
Because sometimes illustrators get carried away and we're only human, we can forget little things such as bleed. Clients can sometimes change their minds or forget to mention something like this, so it's good to know how to fix it. 
To add some bleed I have gone to Control-Alt-C to bring up the Canvas Sizedialogue. 
Canvas Size Dialogue
Here you can increase the size of the document by any increment you wish: pixels, mm, percentage and so on. This is one reason digital illustration is amazing.
In this case I keep the anchor point in the middle, type 110% into the Height andWidth boxes, and press OK
The blue lines below show where the previous document bounds were. I have illustrated this by dragging in Guides from the Rulers around the document. I have then drawn extensions to the illustration by completing areas such as the top of the skull, the edges of the sail and the boat. 
Bleed Added
You'll notice at this point I haven't added in the extra rigging. I'm leaving that until I've added in the characters. This is an important compositional element and I want to make sure it doesn't distract from the characters too much. The rigging looks fine in the thumbnail but as we often know, little surprises can happen!
Hide the clean line art layers by pressing the eye icon on the layer. Reduce the opacity of the rough poses layer and create a New Layer (Control-Shift-N)over this.
Lighten Character Poses
This is the tricky bit! By having your character designs in a neutral pose, you can apply their designs to the pose. Because the roughs have been set up with the head heights, you can easily mark in landmarks such as the waist. 

Draw Clean Girl Pirate

On a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) flesh out her costume over her body. For flowing shapes such as the harem pants, use ovals to get an idea of the shape. I have not included her hat or hair as I would like to draw those in with coloured lines during the colouring stage.
Anatomy such as hands and feet can be tricky, so feel free to add in an extra layer to draw in some ovals where fingers or toes need to be. Add in details and fun extras like the treasure bag and wooden sword!

Girl Pirate Model to Pose

Create a New Layer (Control-Shift-N)Here we have carried on the process with the boy and added in some sandals. It's mostly a case of lining up landmarks in the design such as the belt, sleeves and knee rips over the rough poses. Take your time with this until you're happy with the character. It's a good time to adjust expressions too!
Draw Clean Boy Pirate
On a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) it's the same again with the captain. Having a character holding an item can cause some issues. How I like to work is to rough out the shape and position of the object, in this case the telescope, and then draw in where the hands would hold it. I then connect the hands to the arms and the arms to the sockets, and hopefully everything works out OK. 
In the same way as the girl's hair, I have left her feather as just a gesture line. It will be easier to draw in the fronds in the colour stage.
Clean Pirate in Pose
On a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) I repeat the process of placing landmarks on the rough pose.
Cat Design in Pose
To allow you to see this more clearly I have added in a blue background behind the characters.
Underneath the line art for the characters I have blocked out white behind the characters to separate them from the background line art. Make sure the character white-out and the line art layers are above each other, for example:
  • boy line
  • boy white
  • cat line
  • cat white
  • captain line 
  • captain white
  • girl line
  • girl white

Character Line Art Isolated

Turn off any layers between the characters and the background, and turn on the background layers. As you can see, there are no overlapping issues and everything is clear.

Characters in Situ

When choosing colours, it's best to start with the known colours of things first. There is of course some creativity to be had, but on the whole start with the facts.
These facts are:
  1. Sky can be blue or sunset colours.
  2. The sea is blue, but that depends on the sky.
  3. The boat is brown, because everyone knows pirate ships are brown.
  4. The cat is ginger and so is the girl's hair.
  5. The hair of the other two characters is brown, as are their belts.
Anything else we can move on from there.
The three palettes below are fairly similar. The kids are all Caucasian, but of course this doesn't have to be the case. The first palette is orange and teal with hints of berry tones, the middle is a moodier sunset piece with contrasting greens, and the third is a mix of warm reds and browns with contrasting cooler blues. 

Colour Palettes

The next step is to apply these rough colours.
On a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) underneath the line art, set to Multiply in theLayer Blending Modes, rough in areas of colour. It doesn't have to be neat, just a guesstimate to give yourself an idea of how the piece works. Start with things you know the colour of, e.g. the girl's curly hair. If you are uncertain of what a colour should be, rough that area out on a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) and then useControl-U to tweak the Hue and Saturation until you are satisfied. 
Group all the palettes into their own folders with their own sets of line art. To arrange them as I have below to compare, select the whole document by pressing Control-A and then press Control-Shift-C and paste the scheme onto a New Layer (Control-Shift-N)
Then turn off that group and show the second one, and repeat the process. Then, once all three are done, scale and arrange the palettes and decide which one you prefer. For this one I love A so let's go with that.

Three Colour Designs

Tip: to work with that palette, save a jpeg of your favourite colour mockup so that you can have it next to your clean document. 
To make our lives easier when colouring, we create flats. Rather than create masks, I like to lock the transparency on the layer. 
Depending on what sort of edge you would like on your scene items, choose an appropriate brush. For a soft edge use a soft brush, for a hard edge use a hard brush, and for a pencil pastel edge use KYLE Ultimate Pencil Hard 10px
Here we can see that I have our colour palette on top of our illustration. To the side is a jpeg of the colour palette we chose so we can make the flats up correctly. 
Here on a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) I have painted in the deck of the ship. The line art is above all of this and set to Multiply so we can colour below. To keep our artwork tidy I have made folders for each section of the boat as follows:
  • Cat
  • Captain
  • Girl
  • Boy
  • Boat 
  • Background
The teal background is in the Background folder. The deck of the ship is in the Boat folder. Once each flat layer is complete, make sure that layer is highlighted in theLayers panel and then click on the checkerboard icon at the top of the Layerspanel. This is called Lock Transparent Pixels and it's my favourite feature of Photoshop. It means you cannot add anything outside of the pre-defined areas on that layer. 
Create a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) for each large area in the background, e.g. the mast, the horizontal mast and the sail. Repeat the process.
Background Flats
The characters are organised much like the background flats. Here we have the captain character, and you can see how the background is "coloured in" with the line art.

Start Characters

Create background shapes first and work forward. Here I've started with the trousers layer and the skin layer. Make sure that where areas cross over there is an overlap of the lower area. For example, note how the red goes over the boots slightly. This is so that none of the background shows through.
Trousers and Skin Flats
For complex, single-colour areas like the cat, it is a good idea to section off areas. In this case the head, body and left legs have their own layer. The tail and right legs will be on a layer behind these. This is so you can quickly shade in areas such as where the right front leg joins the body or the base of the tail to its rear. 
Cat Flats
Carry on all over the piece until all the areas are sectioned off. This might seem tedious, but it can save a lot of time later on!
All Flats With Line
Here's how all the flats look without the line art. Notice how all the areas are clearly defined, with the exception of the girl's hair and the captain's feather.

All Flats without Line

Next we move onto the fun part: rendering details in the background!
Wood can be tricky to paint, but I am going to show you how I make it simple! On a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) above the deck which I have set to Multiply, I have selected the same brown as the wood. Next I right click on this layer and selectCreate Clipping Mask. Next I paint in the shadow areas such as the gaps in the wood and under the railings. 
Wood Base
Using a larger KYLE Ultimate Pencil Hard 10px and a lighter brown than the base on the original base deck layer, I paint in some horizontal stripes utilising the brush and tablet's pressure settings. For perspective along the railings and edge, I run the brush parallel to the edge of the planks.

Wood Highlights

Now here's the clever bit. Remember all those lines we drew for the background? Well this is where they come in useful!
Copy the line art background layer and place it in the Boat folder above the deck layers. Next select the deck layer by holding Alt and clicking on the Deck layer icon. Marching ants should appear. With the Line Art layer active, press the Add Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers panel, which is the rectangle with a circle in the middle next to FX. This will hide anything on the line art layer that is not on the deck layer.
Next, turn off any active background layers other than the one you have just masked. Play with the opacity of the visible masked background base layer so that some of the details show through. You can also play with the blending modes—Multiply will make it darker. To change the Hue and Saturation press Control-Shift-U and move the sliders until you are happy.
Doodle over the planks to create knots. Just have fun here and create swirls and random lines in a few shades of brown. Use a beige colour for highlights and raised areas.
Wood Grain
On the skull, brush over some heavy strokes. Do not go into heavy detail with this. We want this to be quite flat in comparison. The gritty texture of this brush will bring out the quality of the sail fabric.
Skull Darks
On the sail layer, select a slightly greyer blue than the sail and add some darks under the middle section to give the illusion the wind has caught it.
Sail Damage
This is the fun part! Flatten all the sail layers by selecting them all and pressingControl-E to merge. Next select the mask icon at the bottom of the layers panel. Next take your Brush (B) and begin painting in some damage all over the sail in the mask. Make them messy! 
Once you're happy with the inner damage, we need some edge damage. Come out of the sail mask and colour pick the sail colour. Draw in some strands around the edges.
The way I created the sky was to use a pale green-blue and then add in a setting sun behind the boat with a large soft Brush. Switching back to the KYLE Ultimate Pencil Hard 10px, I reduce the opacity and paint some horizontal lines on the same layer to simulate sun reflecting off the base of the clouds.
I use a similar effect on the sea, but this time I use a lighter teal and some very pale teal for areas of spray and reflections. 
Sky and Sea
On a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) above the base skin layers of the characters, I sweep over a redder, slightly more saturated version of the skin tone at 60% Opacity. This layer is set to Clipping Mask, which can be set by right clicking the layer and selecting Create Clipping Mask. 
If the colour is too intense, you can adjust the opacity in the Layers panel. Make sure you keep your folders organised. If you are happy with the skin, merge the layers by selecting both: hold Shift as you click, and then press Control-E to Merge.
Skin Shadows
Add shadow areas to the red parts. You can quickly select colours that are already on your canvas by holding Alt when your Brush is selected. To quickly select a darker red, move the B slider towards the darker end fractionally in theMagicPicker.
Red Shadows
Repeat the shadow process with the purple. Remember to place shadows on the opposite side of the light source!
Purple Shadows
Add a pale blue to the fabric, similar to the sail colour.
Pale Blue Designs
Shade in the teals in the same way.
Teal Shadows
I find oranges and reds quite hard to work with, so I don't move my colours far from the original when going darker. I tend to desaturate them more than I make them darker, and move them slightly towards red. Have a play and see what works for you!
Cat Shadows
On brown areas like the belt, chest and money bag, I use the Multiply layer technique. To recap, you create a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) above your artwork, e.g. the chest, set the Blending Mode to Multiply, right click the Layer to select Create Clipping Mask and then paint over the areas you wish to be dark with the same brown. 
Adjust the opacity if required, and then flatten the layers when you are happy by selecting both and pressing Control-E.
Brown Shadows
To stop the telescope looking too grey I use a darker, very desaturated purple version of the base for the shadow, keeping the shade at the bottom. 
Telescope Shadows
Next we move on to making the areas really pop with highlights!
Repeat the process of the shadows with the highlights. In this case you would like a lighter version of the base tone. Apply this to areas where the sun would naturally hit, like the nose, the cheeks and the tops of the arms.
Skin Highlights
For red highlights, don't be afraid to go a little pink.
Red Highlights
Add a touch of pale purple to the hat, boots and waistcoat of the boy. This will make them look a little velvety.
Purple Highlights
Don't make the light blue highlight too bright—we don't want the shirts to look shiny! Keep this subtle.
Pale Blue Highlights
Go slightly yellow and peachy with the highlights here.
Cat Highlights
Opt for a latte coffee colour and emphasise the edges of the belts, the coin bag and some of the chest grain.
Teal Highlights
Lastly use the brush on a large size and add some pale purple highlights to the top of the telescope to add some texture. Now that we have our bases complete, we move on to some of the finer details!
Telescope Highlights
Pick a dark orange and create a layer behind the skin but above the t-shirt. To create curly hair I work fast and change my brush size frequently by pressing or ] on the keyboard. Scribble and go mad! Curly hair has a life of its own, so be dramatic with your scribbles!
Back Hair
This time with a layer above the skin and t-shirt, go crazier with the hair. Change the tone of the orange in the hair by playing with the hue, saturation and brightness inMagicPicker or in Photoshop's default color palette.
I love painting hair!
Front Hair and Details of Curls
Much like the girl's hair, on a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) in the captain's folder, draw in a central spine with the dark red from the palette and add fronds to the feather with a quick flicky motion. Try and evoke movement! 
Base Feather
Lock the transparency of the layer by pressing the checkerboard icon next to lock on the Layers panel. This is called "Lock Transparent Pixels" and acts like a mask. Next, take a lighter red and brush over the feather.
Move the feather layer behind the hat layer.
Pink Addition on Feather
Uncheck the Lock Transparent Pixels icon, draw in some more fronds with different pinks and reds, and redefine the central vein. 

Filled Out Feather

Here I've taken the character line art and erased all the areas except the faces and some hand details using a mask. This is so I can keep the expressions I am happy with. I added stripes over the t-shirt layers using a clipping mask.

Face Details

Let's make this mog more adorable by adding in some scribbles for stripes in a darker orange, green eye, spots on his neckerchief and white areas on the paws, tail and tummy.
The eye patch is of course purple to contrast with the orange body! Draw in some smile lines and whiskers, and here we have the ship's cat!
Cat Details
On all three characters I will keep their eyes brown. In this case I have added some freckles and some big teeth and defined the mouth line. Once I have these details in, I can remove my character line art layer to make sure the characters stand out without it.

Girl Details

I added a small hat on the girl and drew some curls over it. I love this character!

Girl Pirate Details

I gave the captain's face the same treatment and added some shine to the telescope.

Pirate Captain Face

Add some shine to the coins and belt. I decided to add in a patch on the trousers too! Love how this is coming along! I made a fancy swirled lock for the chest too because, y'know... pirates.

Gold Details

Here we have our completed characters!

Complete Characters

I could leave the piece there, but I've decided it needs a little extra! I have copied the deck layer and gone to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur. I tweaked it so that the boat looked as if it was going off into the distance. This has been applied to the whole boat, but I just want it at the back. 
Depth of Field
I solved this by creating a mask over the blurred layer, filling it with black and then taking a soft brush to paint white onto the mask around the areas I wanted visible.
Boat Blur Mask
I also added a teal Gradient (G) over the boat base, which I set to Multiply, with Opacity of 72%.
At this point I felt the girl's hair needed more pop.
Locking the transparency on the hair layer, I select a more saturated yellow-orange and brush it round the edges to really make it pop out from the wood in the background.

Ginger Hair Boost

To add extra pop to the red tones I have added a pale blue shadow on Multiply on the skin of characters.
Almost Complete Illustration
I feel the colours need to tie in a little better and the focus be pulled to the middle, so on a New Layer Control-Shift-N I create a vignette by creating a reverseRadial Gradient (G) in the teal colour over all the artwork and setting that layer toMultiply
Hue Saturation Adjustment Layer
Then to tie everything together I create a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer by clicking the divided circle at the base of the Layers panel and playing with the settings until I am happy.
Teal Vignette
Right at the end I add a Levels Adjustment Layer in the same way as theHue/Saturation Adjustment Layer and make it just a little punchier. 
Adjustment Layer
Here we have the completed pirate ship and her crew! Arr! 
Finished Pirate Ship
I hope you have enjoyed this advanced walkthrough on how to create an illustration aimed at three- to six-year-olds. You have learned about colour choices, composition, and what appeals to certain ages and why. 
I really enjoyed creating this tutorial and I hope you enjoyed reading it. 


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