Give your art a traditional look with Erin Kelso

Erin Kelso traditional digital

Discover how applying a few digital tricks will enable you to paint a dark fantasy image with a watercolour feel. Erin Kelso goes bird spotting...


Erin Kelso
Erin Kelso
Erin is a science teacher who moonlights as a freelance artist. She enjoys creating traditional fantasy art using modern techniques. 

What makes something 'dark fantasy'? I'd never thought about the question until ImagineFX asked me to create an image with a dark fantasy theme for this workshop.

Of course, the first thing I did was Google 'dark fantasy' to see what other artists were doing. But naked faeries in lingerie on swirly purple backgrounds don't seem particularly dark to me.

Because they're full of horrible things, I decided to look to traditional fairy tales and myths for inspiration. Take the harpy, for example: a huge, predatory bird with the head of a beautiful woman and a taste for sailors.

I think that's pretty dark and the character is a good fit for what I want to create. I'll give the harpy a little anatomy update, but I want to keep that classic illustration look for the image.

Key to creating an old-school look lies in starting with some detailed line work and using texture overlays to give a traditional watercolour feel. Keeping your colour palette subdued or limited also helps.

Look to classic children's book illustrators, such as Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and Gustaf Tenggren, for inspiration. You'll soon have people asking if your work is digital or traditional.

01 Prepping the line art
I'm starting this project with an ink sketch. This is a loose, quick drawing that I know I'm going to have to fix in Photoshop.

Once I scan the lines in, I clean up the most obvious mistakes, darken the image if necessary, then copy my lines to a transparent layer.

To do this I go to the Channels tab and click Load channel as selection, then Select>Inverse to grab the white background, and hit Delete to get rid of it. Then I copy and paste my lines into a new transparent layer.

Step 1 image

02 Cleaning it up
First I darken my lines by locking the transparency of the layer and painting everything black with a big, round brush. It helps to have a white background in the layer below, so I can see what I'm doing.

Then I go about fixing all the little stray marks and stuff that I screwed up in the original drawing. I have to unlock the layer to make these changes. I make a few tweaks to her face and arm.

I just wasn't happy with the way they looked once I'd gotten them up on the screen.

Step 2 image

03 Blocking in colour
Once I'm happy with the line work I add base colours to the three main subjects: the harpy, the tree she's sitting in, and the background.

I make a background that’s simply a colour gradient on its own layer. This will serve as a placeholder for now.

I almost always end up changing it as the piece progresses. I paint the colours for the harpy and the tree on separate layers.

I'll be able to lock the transparency of these layers later when I need to adjust the colours.

Step 3 image

04 Adding texture
Some artists like to wait until the image has matured before adding a texture overlay, but I like to slap one on before I do any serious painting.

Colours and brushstrokes can look so different depending on the texture you use, so why wait until the last minute to make a decision? If you have a good camera, you can make your own textures out of pretty much anything, but I get my textures from free texture sites ( is a good one).

Set the texture layer to Overlay so that it'll affect any layers below it. I adjust the saturation and, usually, the colour on the texture layer to achieve the right look.

Step 4 image

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