Photoshop tutorial: Add narrative to a painted illustration

Lucy MacLeod shows how a single, balanced artwork featuring traditional and digital elements can sum up an entire tale


This Masterclass follows Lucy MacLeod as she conceived and created her work Underwater Love. The piece was influenced especially by religious iconography and by Lucy’s recent interest in mid-20th-century narrative and lifestyle illustration – as featured in pulp-fiction paperbacks and magazines from the 60s – but also has a clear contemporary twist.

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The tutorial aims to convey a specific narrative and atmosphere using hand-drawn, textural and digital elements. It highlights how to combine them while maintaining a balanced, readable image. Besides helping develop drawing skills, the tutorial will make you explore the issue of scale in the creation of an artwork.

Lucy says she wants to encourage you to use traditional fine-art methods and techniques in new ways in your image-making. Her emphasis is very much on going beyond preconceived boundaries in modern illustration.

Time to complete

Research and drawing 8 hours; scanning and Photoshop work 4 hours


Photoshop CS5 or later

Step 1


My favourite illustrators include Bob Peak & Robert Weaver, and I wanted the piece, like their work, to have a strong suggestion of narrative and a strong sense of style. I started off by assembling a mood board of 60s-style art to inspire me.

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Step 2


Though created specially for the tutorial, this piece was also intended to be exhibited in Edinburgh in April, so it must be strong enough to work in a gallery setting (other work of mine is shown being exhibited right). This crossover from illustration to standalone art is getting more common as an outlet for creativity and a source of income.

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Step 3


Once I had an idea of the way I wanted to work and the style I wanted to work in, I had to come up with a concept. I find music helpful in this regard, and Smoke City’s track Underwater Love was the inspiration for this particular piece. I decided upon an aquatic, atmospheric scene with a surreal twist.

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Step 4


I often work from photos of myself and friends – and also from life – as this gives me control over my work. In this case I wanted a strong, near-portrait angle for the central female face for maximum impact, though I would soften this with the fluid lines of the hair and the jellyfish (bottom right of the piece). The male face adds intensity to the composition.

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Step 5


Preparatory sketches help me work out what I am trying to build in the final piece, and are the best warm-up for the drawings to follow. At this stage I favour loose lines and am open to mistakes and accidents, as these often suggest new directions.

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Step 6


I decided upon a diagonal composition, partly to support the dramatic sense of narrative within the piece and partly because of the influence of religious paintings I’ve studied over the years. The composition directs the viewer’s eye and creates a sense of movement; it also creates space away from the main characters, which adds tension and contrast.

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Step 7


Working with charcoal and heavy textured A1 paper afforded me the space to create fine, tight detail alongside loose expressive marks. I feel uninhibited at this stage, adding more paper if the composition needs to change and grow. I used a putty rubber and a ruler to constrain my marks.

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Step 8


I began the central character with a line drawing, working from her eye outwards, as I felt the eye was the anchor point for the illustration. I used a fixative to seal the layers of drawing then drew on top, creating depth. The rubber let me contrast sharp lines with softer highlights, for example in the woman’s wavy hair.

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Step 9


Scanning is more time-consuming with a large work such as this, but the results make it all worthwhile. I worked as methodically as I could in A4-sized sections with a slight overlap, and at 400dpi – higher than usual, to allow for any necessary changes later.

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Step 10


Once all the segments were scanned I placed them into a single document in Photoshop on an A2 canvas. By dropping the opacity of each layer in turn, I could find corresponding points on separate layers and this helped me to align all the scans, locking layers together and saving as I went. Finally I brought all the layers up to 100% opacity.

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Step 11


Using the Eraser tool (E) along with a soft-edged brush, I got rid of harsh edges from overlapped sections. Once all such edges were removed, I merged the layers.

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Zooming in to view the image at its actual size (Cmd/Ctrl + 1), I used the Clone Stamp tool (S) to remove imperfections such as paper creases and charcoal smudges.

Finally I switched to the Marquee tool (M) to square off the rough collaged edges.

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Step 12


I selected the Burn tool (O), set the Exposure to 10% and the Range to Shadows, then used a large soft brush to darken the entire background.

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To create more depth and contrast, I chose the Dodge tool (O) with its Exposure at 15% and Highlights selected. A smaller soft brush was good for lightening details in the foreground, for example to exaggerate the light hitting the pearls and hair.

Step 13


I placed a photograph of ink swirls in water in a new layer, rotated it 180 degrees and gave the layer a Soft Light blending mode. I also set the opacity to 45%. The idea was to give an underwater texture to the piece without overpowering the drawing.

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I also created an adjustment layer to alter the colour of the overall work, enhancing the blue tones.

Step 14


To add depth and tonal variety, I added two more layers. The first used a light colour and a Soft Light blending mode. The second was a Selective Color adjustment layer. I experimented with colours and opacities until I found an effect that worked.

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I added texture to the female face by adding scans of a watercolour blot and old scrap paper, with a Multiply blending mode. The images above show how these effects built up.

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Step 15


As mentioned in the box opposite, I made a texture of a dry-brushed paint wash to give the impression of light in water. I scanned it in, homed in on the brush marks using Image > Select Color Range with the Fuzziness at 200, then set its layer’s blending mode to Soft Light. The results are on the right, above.

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Step 16


It was time for finishing touches, which I applied using adjustments such as Brightness & Contrast and Levels, plus a little experimentation. I also used the Burn tool to darken the eye as this now needed extra definition to remain the main focus of the work.

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About the artist: Lucy MacLeod


Lucy MacLeod’s work merges the hand-drawn and the graphic to create a unique, iconic visual language. Lucy was originally a fine artist, and her images, with their dramatic colours and strong compositions, can be said to represent a bold femaleness. She has been involved in many high-profile campaigns for clients such as British Airways, Levi Strauss, Smirnoff, Marie Claire, The Independent, Royal Mail and The Times. She lives and works in Edinburgh.

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