Photoshop and Illustrator digital painting workflow

Assalamualaikum. My name is Widhi Muttaqien from “Expose Academy”. In this tutorial I’m going to show you the workflow that I used to draw this alien soldier illustration from start to finish.

The final result

You can watch the video process with commentary:

Timelapse video of the whole process with commentary

Or you read the written article below:

Now, this artwork is unique, because I exploit two different graphic techniques, raster techniques using Adobe Photoshop and vector techniques using Adobe Illustrator, all in one workflow. For your information, this whole illustration process took about 5 to 6 hours total. So it would be too long and too boring for you guys to watch every single steps in the real speed. Because of that, for the video tutorial I will do a timelapse format, but with commentary on the important things that you need to know from the whole process.

If you don’t like watching timelapse video or reading long written article and prefer to look at infographics or cheat sheet images. I already prepared this image that explain the whole process at a glance. You can get the file below.

A quick guide image of the whole workflow


The first phase is sketching. Although you can sketch in adobe Illustrator, it will not be as comfortable and as fast compared to sketching in Photoshop. So for sketching, we’re going to do it in Photoshop. In this process I’m using a transparent layer on top of a white colored layer.

The story behind this illustration is a war between human against an alien race. The alien race, they are, well, smart but kind of coward. Instead of going to war by themselves, they create and send these cheap clone soldiers to invade the human race. Basically each of this clone soldier is just a lump of meat with a big mouth. They implant their dead soldier’s brain onto it and also add spider-like robotic limbs to enable it to move around fast. Each of the clone soldier also equipped with a laser gun. These clone soldiers are not sent down using UFOs or parachutes. Instead they are sent through a one way portals directly from their home planet to the battle fields on earth. In this illustration, I want to draw an alien clone soldier that just came out from the portal and start shooting around. The portal emerged on a ruin of an old temple. Most of the temple’s architecture is already destroyed but you can still see the remaining structure. So this is the final sketch that I’ll be using as the guidance throughout the entire illustration process.


After sketching we need to trace the sketch to get clean shapes. This is of course best handled in vector, so for tracing I imported the previous sketch from Photoshop to Adobe Illustrator. Make the image layer as a template so that it becomes locked and semi transparent automatically.

Then do the tracing in adobe illustrator. In this project, we will have foreground, midground, background and some other composition layers. Basically in this phase, besides doing tracing we also dividing the image into several composition layers. This is useful, so later we can edit the drawing easily and non-destructively.

Tracing clean shapes, coloring and also creating lineart can easily be done in Adobe Illustrator. You simply use a feature called “Live Paint” for these purpose. Of course in Adobe Illustrator there are many other features that I used to finish the tracing process, but “Live Paint” probably already deals with almost 80 percent of the whole work. I’ve tried many different vector software exist in the world, both paid and free. But until this date, when I record the video, there is no vector editing software that provides anything close to the “Live Paint” feature in Adobe Illustrator. Well, except one, Adobe Animate, which previously known as Adobe Flash. So yes you can do tracing and clean up process in Adobe Animate. But Adobe Animate still lacking the other 20 percent features that I need for this process which is only available in Adobe Illustrator. Essentially, until this date, for me, Adobe Illustrator is still the best vector editing software in the world. Now you may want to argue about this, it’s totally fine if you have different opinion. Other vector editing software do offer some unique features and that features might be the ones that you need for your own workflow. I’m just saying that based on my needs, the way I use vector editing software, Adobe Illustrator is hands down the best vector software for me. Okay.

Let’s get back to the story behind this illustration. At this stage, you might be wondering. Why in the world do I choose this topic for the illustration? Why making illustration of this alien clone-soldier that coming out of a portal? Well I choose this topic deliberately, because there are many different elements inside this illustration, such as: metal, stone, concrete, foliage like tropical trees, fog, transparent liquid, glass, organic meat or skin etc. So this project would be a great way to practice digital illustration. Okay.

This tracing process may seams tedious, but it’s actually fun to do once you get to know how “Live Paint” works in Adobe Illustrator. You can let your line crossing over the other lines without worries, because later you can easily cut or clean them with little effort. I understand that using vector for illustration may discourage a lot of people at first, because you do need to familiarize yourself with how vector editing works such as using the pen tool, how to control bezier handles and different type of vector points or also known as anchor points in Adobe Illustrator. It just seems too many stuffs you that need to learn before you can actually take advantage of vector graphic. But here is my advice for these people. You see vector exist on almost every graphic software in the world, whether be 2D or 3D software. In 3D software, though it is commonly named “spline”, essentially it is the same vector editing tool that you can find in 2D software. The only difference is that “spline” has 3 coordinate axis: X, Y and Z. The way you edit spline is identical on how you edit 2D vectors in any 2D software. My point is, there are huge opportunities that you neglect by not willing to learn vector editing.

If you want to learn vector editing from scratch using Adobe Illustrator, then my Udemy course “Adobe Illustrator Advanced Vector Artwork” should be the perfect course for you.

Expose Academy Illustrator course

Udemy course: “Adobe Illustrator Advanced Vector Artwork

Okay guys so this is the final result of the second phase which is the tracing phase.

Base coloring

After tracing, we now move on to base coloring. Essentially base coloring is a process where we add flat colors to the drawing as the basis for further refinement via shading and highlighting later. In computer graphic, the term “base color” is often refer to “albedo”. Essentially albedo is the real color of an object when you take out all of the shadows and highlights from it.

Image source:

Of course to create albedo from photograph, we can not simply point and shoot with a camera. Because in the real world you always see some kind of shadows and or highlights on object surfaces. Commonly we will need a special software to process the photos to generate albedo image. Okay. Back to our illustration. You can assume that these “base colors” are albedo in general computer graphic term. To add these base colors to our drawing quickly and precisely, it would be very very easy if it is done in adobe Illustrator using the “Live Paint” feature. Imagine if you have to do this in Photoshop, it would be very time consuming. And also the result would be harder to edit further, if for example we need to do any revisions. So for this phase, it only make sense to do it in Adobe Illustrator. You can see that some of the colors in this phase is different from the final result we see earlier. This is because I revise some of the colors along the way in the next phases. And this is actually something that we can do easily with this workflow.

Base coloring phase result

Local shading

The next phase of this digital painting workflow is to add local shading. Now, local shading is just my own term for describing small sized shadows. This type of shading is inspired by indirect lighting or so called “ambient occlusion” in 3D computer graphics. Basically they are subtle dark shadows that you can see on corners, crevasses or on areas where objects touching each other.

Local shadows or Ambient Occlusion.

You can use Adobe Illustrator to add shading, especially if you already traced the drawing in vector format. But using raster graphic application for shading such as Photoshop, can give you way more advantages over vector applications. Why? Because, raster brush engine offer far superior controls than vector brush engine. For example raster brush engine fully supports pressure-sensitive devices capabilities. Devices like drawing tablets from Wacom, XP-Pen, Huion etc. Yes vector graphic application can also support pressure sensitive devices, but they can only do that in term of changing the size of the brush. You can not control the opacity. Controlling the brush size is important for creating linearts or outlines. But for shading, what you really need is to control the opacity or the flow the brush. This is also true for eraser tool. You need to control the eraser strength by varying the pressure on the drawing tablet, which is just not possible to do in vector graphic application. So again, in conclusion, it is better to use raster based graphic software when you need to add shading to your digital paintings.

The process of local shading started with exporting the file from Adobe Illustrator to Photoshop. When exporting you need to make sure the artboard option is turned on so that the image transfers from Adobe Illustrator to Adobe Photoshop back and forth at the exact size.

After you are in Photoshop, you then need to create a new layer on top of the original base color layer, and change the blending mode to “multiply”.

We use “multiply” because it will essentially darkens everything below it which is suitable for adding shading colors. Then after that, comes the fun part. We can start adding shadow colors using soft edged brushes.

Now ideally, we want to have the local shadow color to be almost the same with the color in the base color. So if we have red color in the base color for example, it is better to use a dark version of that red color for the local shading color. You may shift the color a bit towards cold colors, but still not far away from the original base color. But because this will require more time to finish the work. For this project I’m only using black color for the local shadings. Okay. I admit that this is not the best practice and it is not something that you should do. It is just a trick that I use to save time when creating complex illustration like this. It is much faster because we can just use the “D” keyboard shortcut to quickly access the black color. While for the other colors we need to pick them manually. Later we can recolor the shadow using the “color bleeding” techniques or “color correction” techniques.

Okay guys so this is the final output from the local shading phase. We can see the previous flat colors now starting to take 3d-like forms.


The next phase is adding highlights. Highlights are the brighter color areas in the drawing due to light exposure or reflection. Personally I don’t like putting too many highlights on my illustration because it tends to make the drawing overly shiny. So usually I only add highlights on glossy materials such as: clear metals, glasses, oily surfaces or anything that produce strong reflection. Now, because there are no materials like that in the environment, for this illustration I only add highlights to the main character. For the process, first we need to create a new layer on top of the local shading layer and then change the blending mode to “screen”. Screen is the opposite of “multiply”. It makes everything below it brighter, so that is why it is perfect for adding highlight colors.

I haven’t mention about this before, that In shading and highlighting phases, I rely heavily on the express keys in my Wacom tablet. I programmed one button to move up the layer selection and automatically activate the brush tool. And I also programmed one button to move down the layer selection and then automatically switch to the magic wand tool. This is more or less like the macro key setup you usually find in gaming devices.

This setup is important because whenever I need to select a region, I can just press the down express key in my wacom tablet several times, until the base color layer is selected. And because the magic wand tool automatically becomes active, I can quickly sample the layer to create the selection. To add shadows or highlights, I can then press the up express key until the correct layer is selected, and just add some brush strokes right away because the brush tool is already automatically activated.

Highlighting phase result


The next phase is adding additional details to the illustration. Essentially detailing process is adding more shadow colors and more highlight colors to the illustration. Including color variation to the base color layer and adding texture to a dedicated layer above the base color layer. That is why in this phase it is not necessary to create a new dedicated layer. It all depends on what your goal is. If you want to add shadows, then just use the local shading layer you already have which is set to multiply. If you want to add highlights then just use the highlight layer which is already set to screen as the blending mode.

Before we continue I need to mention that this illustration is actually the final project that I cover in my Udemy coursePhotoshop and Illustrator speed illustration workflow”.

Expose Academy course Photoshop

Udemy course: “Photoshop and Illustrator speed illustration workflow

Although this tutorial can give you a great insight of how the workflow works, but I can not squeeze and include every details and techniques I teach in that course in this tutorial. So if you serious in digital illustration I recommend you to join this course to learn everything more in-depth, from the very basic level to the advanced level.

At this stage I’m adding a lot of cracks in the environment manually. For this I’m using the polygonal selection tool to create the selection. And then use the shading brush to draw the shadows inside that selection. In this phase you can also embed texture to your illustration from external images or photographs. But we will add texture later because at this stage when I was creating the illustration, I wasn’t thinking that I want to add any texture. Again, later I will revise this phase by adding image texture.

Global shading

Next is the global shading phase. This is the phase where our illustration becomes more realistic and looks more interesting. Essentially global shading is my own term for adding casted shadows or in other words shadows that are being emitted from one object that falls onto another object. Or it can be large size shadows that create silhouettes. For this phase I created a new layer above the local shading layer and then change the blending mode to “multiply” just like the blending mode that we have in the local shading layer. After that I use several different methods to create the shadow silhouette. I can create the selection directly. Or create a temporary layer first where I can easily draw and erase solid pixels. After I have the pixels shape that I need, I then convert the pixels into a selection and then use that selection as the constraint where I can draw the shadows in the global shading layer.

For the global shadow color, I usually use cold colors such as: blue, dark cyan, dark green and or dark purple, depending on the lighting situation of the illustration. So yes, one of the success factors in adding global shading is to really understand where your light sources are located. You need to play your imagination a bit to tell how or where the shadows should fall. But don’t get too obsessed with it. You don’t need to be scientifically correct to create casted shadows. We’re artists not scientists. As long as your shadow silhouette looks normal, and it interacts with the light sources correctly in general, and most importantly pleasing to the eyes, no one is going to jump on you and complain that your shadow is not scientifically correct. Okay.

For casted shadow, I usually make the edges a bit blurred on areas where they are further away from the object that produce it. Essentially the further it is from the object the more blurred the shadow silhouette should be. Okay guys this is the final result of the global shadow phase.

Post processing

The next phase is post processing phase or also known as visual effects and or color correction phase. This is the phase where I add things like: glows, backlights, rim-lights, color-bleedings, camera depth of field, color balance, levels, color filter, etc. Essentially all of the eye candies that can make our digital painting more pop out.

At this stage I’m adding blue backlights on the alien’s body because there is a strong blue light emitting from the portal. I also add yellow highlights which supposedly emitted from the gun burst at the left side. I also add those light effects on the environment where I see fit. For this process there is no exact rule of whether we need a new layer or not. Usually I just reuse the existing layers. Basically I use the local shading or the global shading if I need to add darker colors. And I use the highlight layer if I need to add brighter colors. Sometimes I also add one or several new layers into the mix, if I need to create something that I’m not really sure if it will look good or not. If it turns out not working as I expected, then I can easily delete it.

For color correction I always use adjustment layers. Sometimes I temporarily add “black and white” adjustment layer to check the level in my illustration. I also took a bit of time to correct the mistakes that I made in the previous phases. So this is the final result we have from this post processing phase.


Next is the outlining or also known as the lineart phase. This is an optional phase, only if you want to add lineart or outline into your digital painting. Honestly I’m not a big fan of adding outlines inside my drawings. But because I created this illustration actually for an online course at Udemy. I still have to teach the students on how to do this in case they need lineart in their own project.

For linearts, the best way to create them is by using vector editing software, which in our case Adobe Illustrator. You can create lineart in raster graphic software but it will harder and more time consuming. In Adobe Illustrator you can have so many flexibility to create, edit and tweak the look of the line art. After you like how it looks you can export the lineart to Photoshop. In Photoshop you can still make corrections as needed using the brush tool and the eraser tool. And we can also easily recolor the line artwork so that the color is closer to the base color layer.

Okay guys so this is what we have so far until the outlining phase. In the final result, I actually reduce the opacity of the lineart to about 40%.


Finally the last phase is texturing phase. Now ideally texturing should be part of the detailing phase that we have discussed earlier. To be honest, I put this texturing phase at the end not because it was intentional. I initially didn’t plan to include any image textures in the illustration. But then I changed my mind when I saw the final result still lacking of texture details. Basically in this phase I extracted texture images from photographs. And then overlaying them on top of the base color layer. It is really a simple process but it does contributes a lot to the overall look of the illustration.

This additional texture phase is also a prove that the workflow I use in here is very flexible and non-destructive. You can actually swap the chronological order of the phases as you please and make changes along the way, and everything will still works as expected. But ideally speaking, this is how the workflow should goes: first is sketching, second is tracing, then base coloring, next is local shading, then global shading, highlighting, detailing, outlining, and finally post processing. You can download the cheat sheet image or the quick-guide image at the top area if this page.

Photoshop and Illustrator digital painting workflow

The final result after adding texture and lowering the lineart.

Final words

So there you have it, Photoshop and Illustrator combined workflow for creating digital painting. Now before you go away please check out my new website It is a website where I curate computer graphic related news, tutorials and resources. Thank you for reading this long tutorial until the end. Don’t forget to watch the video tutorial also if you have the time. Wassalamualaikum.