Symbiotic (Part 2 of 2)

Updated: Oct 13

Woo, wrapped up the color version of Symbiotic. If you missed my first post on this one, check out the black and white line art and read about some of the inspiration behind the imagery in Symbiotic Part 1.

The Process

I hadn't really completed color on a dense drawing in this style before, at least not in a way I was happy with, and I have to admit this one wasn't easy for me. Just choosing a color palette and working out the flat colors was a small mountain to climb. I initially thought it would be fun and interesting to go with a color scheme reminiscent of '70s sci-fi art, which tends to be super-saturated with lots of primary colors. But for various reasons, I just wasn't happy with how that was turning out and I slowly inched away from that until I landed on something that feels more contemporary with fewer colors in it.

Here's a look at the flats before any shading, highlighting, or lighting effects. The art also has solid black lines at this point. (I later made the lines a dark purple color, adding highlights in places to accent the other rendering work.)

Once I had lasso'ed out the flats and chosen a color palette I liked, I still had to find a good approach for the rendering. Again, because this is the first time I'd tackled color for a drawing in this vein, things felt very open-ended there. I tried several approaches, including the one I had used for The Plague King and Hell Is Empty, and Trump's GOP Is Here, which is to basically add gradients for the larger figures and objects and then lasso in highlights and shadows for each section, either using the paintbrush or the brightness adjustment tool to shift the selected areas away from the base color.

But each time I tried it was just TOO MUCH. I find that doing this type of digital color work is much easier for me on cartoon-style drawings that have fat outlines and fewer interior lines. The more hatching and contour lines there are, the faster the color rendering tends to make everything look round and bloated. In those cases, the linework is already doing so much of the heavy lifting sculpting the form that the options become narrower for color.

This drawing falls into a middle ground of the range of drawing styles I enjoy: it's far less hatch-heavy than something like the Soldiers of Hell drawing I did late last year, but denser than the cartoon-like Hell Is Empty.

The key for me on Symbiotic came when a friend showed me her new deck of Beauty of Horror tarot cards, which were drawn by Alan Robert and colored by Jay Fotos. I really love the art on those and feel they're somewhat in the ballpark of what I'm doing stylistically: they have a darker mood to them but still have a nice open approach to the linework with strong colors that I wouldn't necessarily classify as "horror" art.

Using some inspo from those, I went back to Symbiotic and added some fairly strong gradients to the two foremost figures, shifting the tone but also the tint. For example, on the central figure, the gradient begins as a slightly yellow-ish beige on his left shoulder and takes on a darker, purple-red tint by the time it gets to his legs and right arm.

Then, using a stock paintbrush in Photoshop, I added some subtle highlights and shadows for additional contour work without lassoing out anything, which is more like traditional painting than what I normally do digitally. Finally, the real key, and the one I loved in some of the Beauty of Horror cards, was to add a really powerful highlight along the edge of the characters.

All the smaller elements were handled more along the lines of how I've done color in the past, sometimes with a gradient first (but no real tint change) and then lasso-ing out some highlights and shadows, shifting them either with a brightness adjustment or the paintbrush. In some cases, the gradient was enough on its own, particularly on the wires.

The color ended up taking me far longer than the drawing itself, but I also don't have nearly as much practice with color as I do with the pen and ink, so that's just the way of it. I learned a ton in the process though and I'm more satisfied with the result than I expected to be. So the good news is that going forward I'll have a much clearer idea of how to approach the color palette and how to add shadows and highlights in a way that makes sense without completely over-rendering.

That's it for this week. Feel free to ask a question or leave a comment about this one below, and check back next Wednesday for another music-related post!