Part 4 of my Drow Vs Mind Flayer cover work in progress.

It is time to move onto painting now that I have the structure of my piece more or less in place.

I begin by laying down transparent layers of color. These will be washes of ” local color” ( the actual color of the subject) which will be most visible ( in the final painting) in the middle tones of the piece where strong light meets shadow.

I begin my painting in the background working from front to back. I build up my colors much like a traditional watercolor or acrylic wash technique. I established a sickly,alien green light source coming from the tunnel above. Mind Flayers are such bizarre creatures and I wanted the light to further hint at their strange society.



As I continue to build up the colors, I am also adding layers of opaque color to reclaim and add detail to the rocks in the shadows. I am using darker washes to establish further details in the rocks found in the light as well ( cracks, spots of oxidation, etc.).drowmindflayercover_color3


Now I’ve added color to the light source in the foreground. I wanted a strong warm color to indicate that the two combatants are falling towards something hot! I imagine a lake of magma that if the reader wants to learn more about, they will have to sit and have a read.drowmindflayercover_color4


Now that I’ve managed to establish the background for the most part, I set about adding color to the Mind flayers. I used a dark cool blue for their cloaks and and a dark cool grey for the armor. The reference indicated their purple flesh so I chose a warm light violet for the first pass. I also make a first pass at the drow female’s attire.drowmindflayercover_color5


Next I added flesh tones to our female drow elf and indicated the warm light falling on everyone. I visit passages of blues and purples into the shadows of the Mind Flayer’s flesh and passages of unexpected color to create interest such as the odd spot of green. Also, as I paint, I make refinements to her features and start to establish the location of highlights.drowmindflayercover_color6




I have now started to add further details such as to the woman’s clothing since much of what I want for this picture is in place. I still have some reservations though. Maybe it’s time to give it a flip.drowmindflayercover_color8


I flip the piece horizontally from time to time at various stages of production in order to see how a change of view reads to me. I recommend this trick to anyone when you want to get a real glimpse of how well a piece is holding up. You can get a better read on how a composition is behaving and how well you’ve handled details such as perspective and anatomy.  I’m happy to report that the image still reads well to my eye, but I will continue working on the flipped image for a time to see if the change of perspective inspires any fresh ideas as I continue to work.

I’ve given our foreground mind flayer a blue crystal sword! Me likey! It will really pop on the cover I think!drowmindflayercover_color9


I continue to noodle with the lighting situation on the rocks in the foreground as it serves a vital role in framing the action that will appear on the front cover. I’ve also added a bit of green to the rocks in the middle ground to show some of the green light that is bouncing around in the scene.drowmindflayercover_color10


Time to flip it back and continue on my merry way secure in the knowledge that things are reading well.

One change I have made is to correct the foreground mind flayer’s head. That tentacle needed to be further behind his head. Now his head reads far better as a round form to me. Sometimes you have to be willing to make changes to the drawing even in late stages of a project, if it serves the image. While best to avoid these instances with better planning, don’t be afraid to make changes as they occur to you.drowmindflayercover11


I’ve now added some green to the armor of the mind flayer in the middle ground to add further interest. It also echoes the green of the light source in the back cave. I’ve also deepened the shadows behind him and obscured his silhouette somewhat to give him that “coming out of the shadows” look.


Finally, I have placed a wash of the fiery light into the highlights of the foreground and middle ground figures. This helps to root them better in the scene and helps to unify the palette. I have added subtle details to the mind flayer in the background to give him more form. Not so much that he begins to compete withthe middle ground and foreground, but just enough….

I’ve also finally decided to darken areas of the stone behind the foreground figures. Their highlights help them to pop against the newly darkened background.

Now, I’ve been continually referencing the position of the trade dress to see how all is coming together. Let’s have one final look at this piece with all of the elements in place…


Looking good! I mentioned in an earlier article that I maneuvered the middle ground and background figures  a smidge. You may notice that the middle ground mind flayer’s staff is placed so as to be visible just to the left of the text and that the background mind flayer is just giving the reader a peek from behind the upper right corner of the text. I will admit to having a bit of fun with that . Another subtle thing I played with was the green light that comes from the tunnel and how it wraps around to the front. It is my hope that the reader will follow it to the back cover to learn more about the book.

Also, the thrust of the action on the front cover is towards the right; an invitation to the reader to crack open the book and read some additional teaser text.

At the very end, I’ve added some mottled flesh to the foreground Mind Flayer.

Et Voila!


To recap this whole process for you folks who’ve followed this tutorial …

Part 1: Rough Sketches

1) Rough sketches which are then scanned and used to generate a refined final sketch.

Part 2: Refined Drawing

1) The sketch is then printed on to copy paper and light-boxed to illustration paper for final refined drawing.

2) The drawings are scanned and assembled on the computer.

Part 3: Grayscale underpainting.

1) Create a “multiply layer” ( or any layer type you find suitable to the task)  and fill it with your darkest value and erase the areas that are in light.

2) Work into the image with white paint and blending tools to refine your grayscale underpainting until you have the solid underpinnings necessary to begin painting.

Part 4: Painting

1) Begin with washes of local color and the color of your lighting. 

2)Work into the shadows with reflected light and color.

3)Establish your highlights and final details. Add passages of unexpected color here and there to add visual interest.

4) Add final washes of the color found in the lighting to help unify your palette and root everything within the scene.


I hope you found this Work-In-Progress helpful as a glimpse into how I currently tackle my assignments as a freelance fantasy illustrator.

Maybe you might give this process a try, if you don’t already work this way. I am learning a great deal from working this way and the opportunity to learn and grow as an illustrator was one reason I adopted this approach.

I wish you all the best as you set to work in your studio.

Good luck!


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5 Responses to “Part 4 of my Drow Vs Mind Flayer cover work in progress.”

  1. Chelsea Says:

    Wow Jeremy, that was an awesome tutorial, and really gave me a lot to think about. Thanks so much for sharing! 🙂

  2. mchughstudios Says:

    Thanks, Chelsea.
    I’m glad you found this useful. 🙂

    It took some doing, but I finally wrangled this all together and I’m pleased over all with how it came out.

    I’ve now submitted this piece for judging, but even if it doesn’t have a prayer of winning, the opportunity to write these articles made it very worthwhile.
    Onwards to the next project!
    Good luck with your work, Chelsea, and do let me know, if any of these techniques work for you. 🙂

  3. b1tzmast3r Says:

    Hey Jeremy,

    Thanks a million for putting this tutorial together! It’s always cool to see how other artists work.

    I really liked point made about “Flipping” your work to see how it holds up! I’m going to add that to my bag of tricks provided by the gang at Ninja Mountain.

    Good luck with the contest!


  4. Gilead Says:

    Thank you for taking the time to post this. I don’t do digital art, but it’s easy to see how to apply the technique to acrylics. It’s a little bit like what I did, but not entirely.
    Have fun at Illuxcon, it sounds like a good time.

  5. mchughstudios Says:

    Thanks Bitzmast3r.
    Thanks, Gilead.

    I’m really glad you enjoyed these articles.
    I actually learned to paint traditionally by working digitally! A bit of a backwards approach, I know, but the truth. When I occasion to break out the acrylics, it is with the confidence gained from working on the computer. LOL
    funny how that works.

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