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Painting Environment Concepts In No Time

There is one technique I love using when practicing environment concept art, and I use it a lot to come up with great ideas when clients give me their brief with description of the pieces they want to have for their game, movie or various projects.

This painting technique is called thumbnailing, and what it means is that you have a grid of about 3 by 3 rectangles, and you quickly paint in random ideas using simple tools and achieving fundamental compositions and designs, resulting in a total of 9 loose concepts. Thumbnailing can be used not only in environment painting, but also any other concept art and design.

The whole idea is to not care about details or any specifics what-so-ever – mostly only about composition. You want to spend only a few minutes on each of the thumbnails, working fairly zoomed out, and using only a few black-and-white values, and with only one type of brush. Doing this will result in a set of thumbnails that you can later on refine if you find that some of them are better than the rest. If most of them are crap, that’s fine! Remember, you’re only spending a few minutes on each – about 30-40 minutes on the entire set of thumbnails.

Here is the environment concept we will reach from one of the thumbnails we choose later in this tutorial:

Values & Thumbnail Template

Values & Thumbnail Template

Now, remember I said we can only use a few values? I want to limit you in this way, so you can really do your best to choose your black-and-white values wisely. If you have the option of using colors, any values, brushes and so on, you will have more choice and it will hinder what we’re trying to achieve here: a proper exercise and workflow to get a great composition.

Later on, you can definitely start making thumbnails using other brushes, even some colors, and any values you want, but starting out this way will be beneficial – trust me on that.

So to start, we are only allowed to use one brush, and that is the standard hard round brush in Photoshop, without opacity sensitivity. We are also only allowed to use 4 values; pure white, 33%, 66% and 100% black:

opacity sensitivity

If you check this link, you can download a Photoshop template of the grid, and start painting under that grid, with the values combined in the bottom. Or you can make one yourself. It is 3000×1941 pixels. This is what the 3×3 grid looks like:

grids for painting

Now, we need to fill these empty boxes in with some thumbnails. Remember, only use about 4-5 minutes each, and don’t sweat any details. We’re all about the composition here. Just use your hard round brush without opacity pressure sensitivity setting, and keep color picking from the down right corner to pick between the white, 33% grey, 66% grey and the black. Try to make your composition out of these colors only. Limitation is what leads you to mastery.

Be fluid, try to think of random cool concepts in your mind; a lone tree in a vast valley, spiky rocks with a hero standing next to them, a lake with some mountains in the background, just keep it simple in the beginning.

A quick tipThe sky is the brightest thing in a painting often, so I reserve the white for the sky, and for eventual water reflections, and the nearer something is, the darker it usually gets, so the black is mostly reserved for nearer things.

Starting To Paint The Thumbnails

To start off, I want to show you a quick process of making one of these thumbnails.

On this one, I begin by using a white background (often times I actually have the 33% grey as background and then add on the white wherever I need it). After that I add on the background elements – the mountains and clouds:

Starting To Paint The Thumbnails

I then add on some middle-ground elements with the 66% grey. Note how I’m using the values from the background, even in the middle- and foreground. I also create some path.

Painting Thumbnails

And finally I add a bit of other compositional details such as some birds, a character and foreground elements with the black value. This is how I made all of the thumbnails in this tutorial. I stick to 4 values, stick with one brush, and just get a sense for composition, concept and idea going with the thumbnails.

Painting Thumbnails detailing

Here are my thumbnails, I spent about 40 minutes on these combined (something like 5 minutes each):

Painting Thumbnails Grid by Grid

I just kept it simple, and used only those 4 values, and the hard round brush with some size setting. I also numbered them so any client, friend or colleague who looks at it and wants to feedback can easily give me feedback with the numbering. They all have kind of similar feel to them, except for number 8. Note that most of them have these inclines, and diagonals – this makes it feel more adventurous, moving, dynamic and flowing. Having too many horizontals will make your paintings look a bit flat and non-dynamic.

I added in a hero element (an element in the painting that really sticks out and has a large focal attraction) in many of them, to give them some more story. I also try to lead the eye into important focal points with the lines, as for example with #1#5, #6, and #7 where you can see the lines and subjects are pointing into the painting and to important focal points. Practice this!

This is the heart of this process – to keep doing these thumbnails, to work on composition while remembering the rule of thirds, values, empty spaces, simplicity, and so on. It would be too much for me to go into detail in this article with how to properly paint using these things, but you can definitely go ahead and try this out! Keep it simple and fluid.

Thumbnails Finalyzed

Looks kinda cool without borders, right? 

Now, I kinda thought that #1 was cool after looking at all of these, so i decided to go with that one and continue working on it. I copied the part of the thumbnails layer, created a new document about 2000 pixels wide and pasted in the thumbnail. This is how it looks now in its own document:

Painting Preview Frame

I will now take and refine this one and take it into a presentable state. For this tutorial, I won’t spend that much time on it, but I end up spending 40 minutes extra on it. Here is the PSD for this painting with the following steps.

The Process After Thumbnailing

These are the steps in the process:

The Process After Thumbnailing

I start off by just cleaning up the edges around the painting to get a clear view of it.

The Process After Thumbnailing Cleaned

After that, I start adding on texture in it. I use the texture & painting brushes in my brush pack. I get some more flow and detailing going in the rocks, always aware of the light source from the top/top-right. I also started painting in fog, atmospheric distance haze, cracks and added more interest into the landscape.

The Process After Thumbnailing Colors added

Then I do some quick color balance (hit cmd-B on Mac or ctrl-B on PC) and levels adjustments (hit cmd-L on Mac or ctrl-L on PC). I wanted to dim down the sky a bit, it was too bright. This is often the issue with having pure white as background, so make sure to dim your 100% whites down a bit.

The Process After Thumbnailing Adjustments and Tweaks

There is quite a large jump between the second final and the final step, and that is all the rest that comes with painting – to add on more details, fix up the characters, some more atmospheric effects, lightingand more. I am using a linear dodge layer here with some of my brushes from the brush pack, added an eagle, some feathers and epic-fied it. This tutorial won’t go in-depth in taking paintings to a full finish as that would require an entire course to go through – the important part in this exercise is the thumbnailing.

Final Tips

This tutorial is geared towards the exercise and workflow of making environment thumbnails, and not to epic-fy things (but do stay updated on the tutorials, articles and courses coming up on that).

This exercise is fantastic and fun to do. You get a flow going, you can mess up because it doesn’t matter – you’re not spending that much time on it and you’re practicing.

A tip is to check out environment concept art thumbnails from other artists on DeviantArt and Google Images, and you’ll find that most of them use a lot more values in their thumbnails, more details and such. I want to encourage you to start with only 4 values, and then progressing more into using more values, and more brushes. You will find that this is a fantastic exercise and you can do a lot more cool paintings in this very quick and fun way.

Hope this has been useful in any way, and if you have any questions or suggestions, post them in the comments section below. Don’t forget to subscribe to the Design Inner Circle!

Until next time, guys! Stay awesome.

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Walid Feghali

Walid Feghali

Co-founder of Evenant, Walid is a Swedish award-winning digital artist, composer, mechanical engineer, and entrepreneur. Travelling as a digital nomad and exploring new opportunities, Walid has always been dedicated to trying new fields of study, exploring, creating, travelling and collaborating. This has lead him to create artworks for countless clients and compose orchestral film scores for feature films and games, trailer music placements in many Hollywood campaigns such as Independence Day 2, Warcraft, Starcraft 2, Call of Duty, a mechanical engineering degree, and more. The journey does not end here for him!