No Serger? No Problem! You Can Sew Stretch Knits

design, diy, fashion, sewing

This month’s feature is about sewing stretch knits without a serger! (It can be done.)

See below me in a garment sewn primarily on a sewing machine. This particular sewing pattern was Burda’s fitted sheath dress which features rouching and gussets made in a slinky ITY knit.


If you’re like the rest of the world, most of your closet at this point probably consists of jersey knits, ponte knits, or stretchy fabrics in general.

You will need a few special tools for any knit fabrics:


For cutting:

  • Rotary cutter (you can get away without having this, but it’s super helpful for not messing up your cutting! Since stretch fabrics do stretch, pinning doesn’t always work.)
  • Pattern weights. Pins in knits can stretch the fabric in less than desirable ways and you could cut off valuable seam allowance on your pattern pieces.
  • Self-healing cutting mat (blue grid )

For sewing:

  • Clear elastic stabilizer (again, something else you can get away without, but it’s helpful!)
  • Twin stretch needle
  • Ballpoint needle (not pictured)

Generally when you sew a knit, you will want to use a serger, but you can completely fake most garments on a sewing machine by using a zigzag stretch stitch! I do own a serger and I use it in every garment, but my process with knits will help any sewer who doesn’t have a serger.

The first thing you want to do is start by testing on a piece of the fabric you’re working on. I like to use scraps of the fabric leftover after cutting my pieces just to make sure I have all the right settings before diving into my garment.

Here, I have sewn a zigzag stitch to test out my settings on a scrap piece. I find it does help to do a mock seam in the same thicknesses you would be sewing on your actual garment.



(I know my seam isn’t perfect, but this is for width illustration purposes!)

When you sew a zigzag stitch, what you’re looking for is as close to a serger as possible – which is a wide but close together stitch. The reason you sew a stretch stitch and not a straight stitch is because you don’t want your threads popping and breaking when you wear the garment!

Next, flip your fabric and see what your stitches look like on the right side of your seam.


I like to pull on the seam and see how well it holds and what the threads look like, mimicking how it will stretch when worn. Here, it looks good! Ideally, the thread would blend in with the color of your garment, but this works perfectly so you can see what I did.

The settings on my machine ended up looking like this:


Every machine will vary, but this can give you a good starting point. I have my stitch width on the highest setting and the length on around 1.5. I also have my needle setting to a zigzag. You may also want to play with the tension setting on your machine if you find the seam to be puckering a bit on your stitching side. The tension I find generally varies from fabric to fabric so it’s best to run a test sew.

Optional (below): Clear elastic stabilizer.


A prior Burda garment I made called for this elastic stabilizer and I have been using it ever since. In this dress, I used it to make the rouching stay in place before stitching my seam. It’s also good to use on seams that will stretch a bit – usually shoulder seams and some side seams.

Lastly, you will want to finish all hems of your knit garment with a double needle.

I used to think this wasn’t so important, but I learned the hard way a few times. This is important because you want your hems to stretch; not pop and break in the garment.


I have a ballpoint stretch stitch needle which is perfectly suited for this type of application. You will have to thread it differently than your single needle, but you can Google how that is done.

Even if you do have a serger, most sergers on the market will NOT do a coverstitch. This has been helpful for me since around two years ago, I started sewing way more stretch knits.

That’s really all you need to do to sew stretch fabrics! There may be things over time you learn to do more efficiently with knits, but this is a great starting point for anyone who has minimal if any knits fabric sewing experience.

You might just end up making your next favorite garment!




How to Turn Your Doodles Into Fabric Prints


Something I learned while I was in fashion design school and loved was some surface deign techniques. I liked doing repeats by hand (like screen printing, block printing, etc) but I really got hooked with creating repeats via Photoshop.

And good thing, because now Spoonflower exists and you can get your fabric designs printed up!

Here, I will show you step by step of creating a seamless repeat for your sketches for fabric using Adobe Photoshop.


First, you will need something you’ve created. Above is a design I drew with watercolor pencils, Micron pens, and pencil. You can have multiple loose items (like flowers in different angles, or any other pieces you can move around) if you want, but I just did the repeat with this exact image.

I always personally scan in my image(s) at 600 dpi (below). This may sound excessive, but it really helps get your image high quality for printing your fabric.

step 1 image originl size 600 dpi

Next, you want to set up your canvas for a seamless repeat. (File > new.)

At this point, I change my dpi on the new canvas to 150 dpi as last I checked, that’s the size that Spoonflower prints at/prefers your file size at. You don’t want bigger or smaller because then this affects the size of your print on your fabric!

This is also a good time to decide how big or small you want the repeat to be. I made my repeat fairly large at 8″ by 8″ but you can make your repeat any size or length.

step 2 first offset

Above, you can see I took my image and overlapped/reflected it already. I find that for the first iteration, you don’t want your image falling off the side of the canvas, so keep it within that size.

From here, you will do a series of offsets. (Filter > other > offset.) IMPORTANT: Before you do your first offset, your image must be flattened. No layers!  You will also check “wrap around” on the box. I’ll usually offset horizontal first by +300 then do second offset at +300 vertical.  (See below.)

step 4 offset again

The other important thing is to save in between each offset. This is so you can go back after you have flattened the image if you make a mistake somehow in one of the steps of your repeat. Trust me, I didn’t think this was that important, but I didn’t once and had to re-tool another print for another hour one time. Not fun!


From here, it’s really a game of filling in white space…. or not. It’s up to you what you want your print to look like!  This is what mine ended up looking like.

You will want to save your most basic repeat. I’ll call this one a “seed swatch” (I’m totally making up that phrase for explanation purposes!) From there, you will use this seed swatch to create the rest of your seamless repeat print.

This is what mine looked like.

trippy repeat swatch finished

You will also want to test your print in various forms. Make a bigger canvas in Photoshop and test what it will look like large-scale like I did (below)!

trippy print repeat

My favorite part of all this is finally getting it into a garment shape and seeing what it will look like. You will want to “select all” on your seed swatch, then go to “edit > define pattern”. Save your pattern.

Here I made a flat sketch in Illustrator of my loose-fit t-shirt to mock up what this print might look like on a garment. I selected all of my garment and clicked “fill > fill with pattern” on my top and the print automatically seamlessly populated.

t shirt front

I love it!

I also like to test my repeat by printing out a swatch on my printer at around 8.5″ by 11″ just to get a feel for size in general and see if I messed up anywhere.

Next, you would go ahead and upload that “seed swatch” into Spoonflower and click the option of a “basic” repeat to get what you just did in Photoshop.

That’s really it! You can send it off to print and receive your fabric in the mail in a few weeks.

Check out the Victrola print I did a while back and then made a romper out of it using a vintage sewing pattern!

victrola romper

The options are really endless. Have fun and try it yourself!




A Lil’ Style

cartooning, children's education, drawing, illustration

A ballerina for lil’ sis…

Today’s post features art by a special guest artist who’s stellar work was recently on display at The Miltgen Refrigerator Gallery. When I saw these pieces hanging on that hallowed ice box door, I knew I had to share them with the world. The artist isn’t too well known yet, except at her home address where she’s known as “R-Bear,” our oldest daughter. The stylistic consistency of each figure is what really impacted me—I’ve seen art by adult illustrators with this sort of charm to their work.


…Batman for baby bro…

At the Miltgen house, we’ve been careful to nurture the creative freedom of our little ones. There aren’t usually parameters given to the art our kiddos produce, we believe it’s just best to support and encourage them in being creative, whatever outlet they choose to be expressive in. That means sometimes it’s been dress-up time, sometimes drawing time, sometimes Playdoh time, or painting time, whatever. No need for walls or restrictions, just the joy of creating art.


…a Jedi for bigger bro…

One of the joys of being an artsy family is watching our children develop their creative abilities. It’s one of the many perks of parenthood, but can only exist without undo criticism or harsh commentary. We try to take care to respond affectionately and enthusiastically to whatever they make, because art is a sensitive undertaking, a tender plant that flourishes best in an environment of kindness and loving support.


…and a mermaid for the artist!

Happy Friday and keep shakin’, Art Shakers 🙂

Brandon Miltgen
Portfolio • Drawing Faith • Coroflot • Society 6

Stranger Things

cinema, colored pencil, digital art, drawing, entertainment, film, film and video, graphic design, horror, illustration, inspiration, television, video


Official poster art by Kyle Lambert, who was commissioned to create it stylistically in homage to the killer movie posters of the 80’s. Click [here] for a peek into his process.

Alright. We need a new post up here. It’s been a busy summer so some of our authors have been on hiatus. I need to plug this stellar show more anyway. It’s worth a moment of my time to do so. If you haven’t checked out Stranger Things on Netflix by now, what have you been doing?!? I’m serious, it’s the best thing I’ve watched in a loooonnngggg time. It’s up there with Downton Abbey or BBC Sherlock for me. Did I say I’m serious? No joke. It’s a fantastic show that blends elements of E.T., The Goonies, Super 8, and the best of a Stephen King-esque horror flick. The Duffer Bros, Netflix, and their whole cast and crew did us right with this bad mamma-jamma:

Heart and Soulless

art education, intention, meaning

Art is a vehicle. The technique, the medium, the execution is there to get you to a destination. But, dear Fellow Artist, where are you taking me? Is it a place of meaning, of genuine personal intention and importance? Is it somewhere that will make me a better person, thrill me, humor me, teach me, or take me to something new? Or are you just trying to impress me with your ride?

I can’t make personal art unless there’s something inside me—a revelation or realization—that’s risen up in me and has to get out. That’s worthy of getting out. That I’m willing to develop the feeling and understanding for, including the necessary symbolism to express it. Because I recognize what I’m doing when I move those pixels around on the screen. I’m just driving that vehicle called art. And my destination has (and even is) meaning.


This album cover couldn’t have been created without soul. Erick let me listen to the music early, allowing me to ponder track titles and sounds that helped an image to meaningfully form inside of me. I felt a sense of loss in the music, of a winter landscape traversed by a weary pilgrim who’s lost love still watches over him from the heavens. I think the piece works because, yes, there’s a decent technical execution here, but the real life underlying all of it is what makes the technical vehicle of it all worth it.

I’ve driven different types of creative vehicles toward different creative destinations. I’ve been willing to experiment with what kind of vehicle feels right for each trip—sometimes driving the viewer to a humorous locale, sometimes to a spiritual oasis, sometimes to a place of hitherto unexpressed love and appreciation for someone or something. And all in the hopes that when I get there—when I’ve taken you there with me—you’ll absorb the lay of the land with me, extending the cartography of your soul with mine.

But I’ve been noticing a serious problem in some corners of the art world. There are some artists—some pros and upcoming hopefuls—who seem only interested in recklessly piloting slick but heartless art rigs to creatively soulless destinations. These are the technicians who have learned (or hope to learn) to render anything imaginable, but deliver no real or worthwhile meaning in the end of their works. These creatives are so busy snatching up tips and tricks that they miss out on the real joys and purposes of art. It’s as if they think owning those tips and tricks alone will make them real artists. And for some, if any meaning or symbolism makes it into their art, it’s often so cerebrally cobbled together that it has no palpable feeling, no beating heart per say, at its core.


This is a piece of mine that I question the soulfulness of. On the one hand I love the intensity of the vampire, the compositional design, colors, and subtlety of the shadow play and bat forms. On the other, I knew I was indulging my inner technician too much while executing it. That’s not always or inherently bad, but I wanted to be impressive with this work, to display my current level of technical prowess to the world, almost as if that alone justified its existence. I can do better. The soul-saving grace of the piece is three-fold: 1) It was a good technical exercise, 2) It does lend some reference, although very hidden, to things deeply meaningful to me, and 3) I recognized my need to slow down and be more humble after creating it.

Part of the problem may be that art schools and trade programs are teaching us how to draw, paint, and sculpt, but not enough how creativity works, what creativity is, or how to let your soul sing thereby. It seems assumed that the art student inherently knows how to access inspiration, or perhaps is expected to enter school so full of unique ideas ready to be voiced that they don’t have to learn or spend any effort on understanding and recognizing different creative impulses, inspiration in its many forms, and how to work with them. Whatever the source of this issue, we artists ought to take greater care on the front-end of our creative processes to ensure a lasting destination is arrived at with each art piece.


Another piece I’m very proud of because of its soul. I had to search via my sketching process until I’d uncovered something that effectively voiced the precious love inside my little one. The purity of caring in the snuggle can be felt by looking at the piece. This genuine communication with the viewer is a real destination. The spacial depth, color, and treatment of form draws the viewer in, but when you arrive at the love within the work, you’ve found something genuine.

I must add here that I recognize that sometimes an artist won’t have room for this creative drive to fully shine. The destination is often pre-determined when one is a working artist, creating something for a client or employer’s end goal. But even in professional cases, there’s often room for an artist to drive intentionally toward a more meaningful endpoint, or at least show the client/employer the possibility of a better route leading to a richer destination. Clients and employers are better served by this kind of artist, even if the proposed, better course ends up redirected.

Another part of the problem may be that slickness of execution is what too many viewers or purveyors of media seek. It’s what we’re taught to be attracted to in television ads, movie trailers, and comic covers. Too many artists and viewers don’t care if a work has soul as long as it delivers a paroxysm of impressive, albeit momentary, sensory input of one kind or another. There may be a nod to a good message or meaningful content here or there, but it’s often so overwhelmed by tripe and flashiness that the meaning is all but lost in the end. That kind of art only spins its wheels.

As you can see above, I too have been guilty of piloting the slick rig with little thought of taking things to a worthy destination. It can be a fun ride once in awhile. And sometimes a project calls for it. All I’m saying is that I’m now becoming increasingly aware of the need for a very careful, very meaningful, even patient and revelatory start to my personal artworks. Art always comes out best when it’s got a real depth of soul, a genuine purpose for its existence. Then it becomes an entity that doesn’t just flash for a second in your face but something that speaks to you, even holds a conversation with you, one that can last and become a part of you and others. Because then it’s really taken you somewhere. And the artistry of it was only a vehicle after all, a means to a worthwhile end 🙂

Brandon Miltgen
Portfolio • Drawing Faith • Coroflot • Society 6

Virtual Wanderlust

drawing, illustration, inspiration, painting, sketch, Uncategorized

It started when my twin girls were born. Having a newborn is challenging enough and your sleep schedule is predictably wacky. Adding another little peanut into the equation gives the experience a splash of lunacy. So of course, being up at all hours of the night becomes the new normal. What you often don’t expect is the loneliness. Art has always been a stress reliever for me and I am a proponent for what it can do to lift others spirit but when the opportunity and energy was stripped away, I needed to find some way to reach out to the world around me.

I started following artists on Instagram and seeing what they had created, great or small, was inspiring. Fast sketches, detailed drawings, imperfect portraits all helped me acknowledge that my work doesn’t have to be immaculate. I was letting this notion of perfection prevent me from starting something of my own. It’s easy to feel confined and for some people the cause might be physical, monetary or emotional. This is how I was introduced to the idea of using Google Street View as escapism. One of the artists I followed began filling her sketch book with images from around the world that she had found through Google Street View. This was perfect because it provided the freedom to explore places that I always wanted to see while cornered on our couch feeding the girls or wide awake at 3 am from mounting anxiety.

So now things have settled a bit and the girls are three years old. While I have a smidge more time (let’s not get crazy, they’re toddlers), I am able to use Google Street View as inspiration for sketches. The blog somewhere2sketch gave me some great information about how to use it, especially when it comes to copyright issues. The blog owner, Ann Hyde, checked with Google Street View and said they were happy for people to use images from the map but to remember that the pictures from blue dots (or also known as photo sphere) belong to private individuals. She also gave a link to Google Street View: Permission and Guidelines which I found helpful. So thanks Google (and Ann) for a fun way to drop my virtual body somewhere in the world and explore! It makes a very useful tool when looking for inspiration for sketches and a satisfying walkabout for anyone in the throes of wanderlust but at present is inhibited by external forces.


Here is the screen shot of the Castle in Edinburgh, Scotland. My own interpretation might just get the title Fortress on a Hill because there are some changes in mine.

Edinburgh Castle ScotlandFullSizeRender-13


Next is actually not from Google Street View (I know, I know, what was all my blabbing for then…) but from an old photograph that was taken when I visited France in my youth.



They are 4×4 inches and will become part of a series.  Watercolor and Micron pens were used. Happy summer to you all!

Charlie & Company DVD

animation, cartooning, cinema, design, digital art, entertainment, film and video, graphic design, illustration, interactive design, print

All images Copyright ©2016 School Zone Publishing

For today’s post I’m sharing another recent School Zone project I did the layout work for—the new Charlie & Company 2-Disc Set. It came out so bold, colorful, and friendly I can’t resist sharing. Below’s a look at the full wrap layout and the DVD labels I put together. Also you’ll see the first wrap layout we did, when we released a disc of only a few of the first episodes a few years back.


Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 3.14.35 PM_12226

This first DVD wrap for Charlie had a darker look with a classic film reel touch on the back (and when I say darker, I don’t mean “scary” darker, just “on-black” darker to give it a hint of that premier cinematic feel). We wanted to feature all the show has to offer, all the new characters so gorgeously developed by the animators and creators of the show, hence Charlie and all of his friends are packed onto the front of the wrap.

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 3.15.30 PM_12226

This new DVD wrap is simpler and brighter, centering much more on the relationship between Charlie and his best friend, Miss Ellie—the true heart of the show. Many of the colors on both of the wrap designs link to the Charlie logo I developed, but the bright blue and paw prints here also link with the Little Scholar® branding we’ve been working on, allowing us to give this product an even lighter, friendlier touch. One interesting thing I notice now is that the graphics are much busier on the older wrap that includes only three episodes, whereas the opposite takes place on this new one, 13 episodes & 13 music videos against a simpler layout. An unintentional but though-provoking aspect of this project.

Well, there you have it! Happy Friday, Art Shakers! 🙂

Brandon Miltgen
Portfolio • Drawing Faith • Tumblr • Coroflot • Society 6

Fashion Sketching: A Process Post

design, fashion, sketch, Uncategorized

This month I will be showing you how to start fashion sketching like a pro!


While there are as many different ways to do fashion sketches as there are designers, there are certain things that can make fashion sketching super-easy and they may or may not already be obvious, especially to the newbies out there.

This is my process and what has worked best for me for about a decade now. I’ve taken some of these skills from my fashion design schooling and some of these techniques come from a Crayola fashion designer toy I had at age 9 in the early 1990s.

Materials needed:

  • Mechanical pencils
  • Paper
  • Color pencils
  • Fashion croquis
  • Micron pens (05 and 03)
  • Big eraser

Optional: Fashion styles reference sheet

First, I start with a clean sheet of copy paper and my croquis that I have either printed off or drawn myself.

What is a croquis? It’s a basic body form to plan out your clothing design onto. I have two that I received in 2003 during my fashion design school interview process from FIDM in California. I’ve used them a TON for more than a decade now because they just feel like me and my sketches. You can Google “fashion croquis” or “fashion templates” and experiment what you like best! Download my favorites here.


You can usually see through the copy paper well enough to draw on top of it. If you can’t, use a dark marker to go over it. I also have a Canson sketchbook from Blick that I believe is 60# weight and you can see through it. That works well for fashion sketching on the go.

Next, start sketching with your mechanical pencil. A mechanical pencil is important because you get fine lines all the time without having to sharpen. They are also the pencils I use with pattern drafting for the same reason: clean lines.


Sometimes I plan out what kind of garment I’m drawing, but other times I let my pencil wander or a shape inspire me. This time, I had a skirt/top combo come to mind.


You want to get the general idea of the garment at this point – is it short? Long? Does it have a high or low neckline? A collar? Sleeves? Is it cinched or loose? Don’t worry if you can’t answer all of these questions just yet. Play around with what you want! I also recommend drawing fairly lightly as we will finalize our design later on.

After that, I go into details. For this garment I added a scallop lace, buttons, slight gathers on the top at the waistline, and a side slit in the skirt. This is also a good time to think about darts, seamlines, zippers, pockets, stitching, ruffles, lace, or anything else you might want to add in.


Although it’s not necessary if you’re only sketching, I also will think about how a garment operates at this point in case I want to make it. How do you get into the garment? Buttons in front? Zippers in the side or back? Or is the material stretchy? My sketch here only has bust darts because it’s relatively loose otherwise at the top. My skirt doesn’t have darts drawn in I just realized but it’s ok — it’s just a sketch!

Next, draw in your details. Do you want pattern? Texture? Stripes? I drew in stripes of course.



Then, I drew in the hair and traced the body form. Stylistically, I prefer not to draw in faces most of the time, but obviously you can choose to do whatever you like!


Once I am happy with what I have drawn, I then move onto tracing over my pencil work with a Micron pen.


Many of you with an art schooling background may know about Micron pens already, but for those of you that don’t, I’ll explain why I like them so much.

Micron pens come in multiple point sizes — I usually have an 05 and an 03 on hand. I use 05 for the main sketch and 03 for the finer detail work that needs to be done. I even have one that is 005 but I rarely use it. They come in multiple colors, but I have only ever used black.

What’s also nice about Micron is that if you chose to go in with a watercolor pencil on your drawing after outlining, your ink from the Micron won’t run. They are relatively fast-drying, permanent, and archival. I have fashion sketches from almost ten years ago that look just as fresh ink-wise as if I had done them today.

Micron pens also won’t smear with our next step: erasing our pencil marks!


One time I did a cute sketch and outlined with a ballpoint pen. When I went to erase like I am here, the whole sketch smeared. Whoops. Again, another reason to love and use Micron pens all the time!

Now after this is where you could actually just scan your drawing in Photoshop and color it multiple colorways if you were having a hard time deciding color options. I have definitely done this a bunch of times when making something.

Lately though, I have been having a great time with color pencils. Color pencils have long been my favorite medium as well as watercolor pencils which I discovered only 5 years ago. Some of you out there may prefer markers (the brush tip ones are fun!) but my style of drawing looks best with color pencils.


With color, pattern, and texture, I usually like to work in odd numbers. Three is best, and five is fine but for this sketch I chose 3 colors aside from any neutral colors. If you want to make color palettes online, this is a great website.

Then, get coloring!


Some might be surprised that even after all of my fancy schooling, my favorite set right now is a set I bought a long, long time ago of 50 by Rose Art. They were cheap, they work pretty well, and I have lots of colors to play with!

It honestly isn’t how much you spent on any of your tools, it’s what works for you best.

Next, go in with some darker color pencils and shade your garment for a more 3D look. I’ve skipped this step numerous times as generally, I just want to save my color ideas but I’ve been playing with shading far more now that I have been using a Pantone fashion sketchbook for fun (and Pantone is all about color!)


Here is where you could also add more texture, cross-hatching, shading and any other effects.

Ta daaaa! I kinda want this outfit now.


You also can experiment with fun shapes in the background, perhaps draw in a hazy city skyline, or even some trees. It’s your sketch and the options are limitless!

Hope you all enjoyed this post!

Fire Mage: Digital Painting Walkthrough

client, commission, digital art, education, freelance, gaming, illustration, painting, Uncategorized

MichaelJWilliams_FireMage copy

It’s been a while since I posted a tutorial of one of my pieces, so today I thought I’d share with you my process for digital painting. The piece I’ll be focusing on is one I did last year for a fantasy card game. The character is a Fire Mage and needed to focus on the character wielding their magic.


A collection of images found online for inspiration.

The first step I usually take with something like this is to collect some inspiration as a jumping off point to get me thinking about how to approach the subject matter. I put together a number of pieces I found online to help me think about how to depict the magical element as well as the look of the character and their costuming.


My rough sketches.

Next I begin to do some rough sketches to explore different poses, compositions and looks for the character.

My model in a pinch!

When doing these rough sketches I made use of my poseable artist figures which can come in handy when you can’t get a model in a pinch. The one shown here is from Art S. Buck and can be found on DickBlick or Amazon for about $30 a piece. I ended up pinning some cloth to the figure to help me visualize the drapery of the costuming I was planning on.

The client preferred sketch number 2 so that we could focus mainly on the fire/magical element of the character. At this point I can begin working on a final sketch following the chosen direction. I had a friend pose for me so I could get some good photo reference to work from for the final sketch and painting. During the photo shoot I pay close attention to the lighting, pose and costuming to make sure I have the visual information I need when creating my final sketch and painting. Good photo reference is really key when drawing and painting realistically. Our brains are so accustomed to how the real world looks to us, that any element that I don’t have good reference for will stand out in the final product. I take a lot of shots of my model varying the details slightly for each. I then take the best pieces and composite them together in Photoshop, essentially “frankensteining” together my reference. So I’ll take an arm from one photo, a head from another and so on to put together the best version I can that fits my vision. It’s almost never perfectly captured in one shot.

My final sketch.

From that reference I then draw my final sketch and get approval from the client to move forward with the final painting.

Value study.

Before jumping right in and painting from my reference I need to figure out how all of the values are going to work together. I may not have the right color cloak or shirt for my character during the reference shoot, but I can always alter the colors to suit the needs of my piece during the painting process. I’m not trying to copy my reference exactly. I’m trying to have it help inform me of how things look in terms of shapes and values. As the artist I can and should take license with all of that to create the best piece I can, modifying some things as I go.

My color palette created in Adobe Illustrator using the Color Guide function.

My color palette created in Adobe Illustrator using the Color Guide function.

Now that I’ve figured out my values I work out my color palette for the piece. Knowing the general values I want to work with helps me better choose the colors I want to use. For this piece I set up a small set of color blocks in Adobe Illustrator to see how they all worked together. I use Illustrator for this because I really like it’s Color Guide feature. With this tool I can choose a dominant color and base my other colors around that one using different color harmony rules.

Adobe Illustrator's Color Guide panel.

Adobe Illustrator’s Color Guide panel.

For example I can choose complimentary, analogous, and tetrad color schemes (among many others) that will show me which colors to use for those schemes all based off of one dominant color.

Initial “block in” of value shapes.

I know my color scheme as well as my values, so it’s time to start rendering. For this piece I chose to render it in grayscale first and add color later. I don’t always work this way with digital painting, but it can sometimes be a time saver and can get you moving if you’re undecided about color, since you can always add that later. I begin by blocking in my values in a very general way and then move on to blending and finer details later. You can see a little of that general blocking in process in the image above.

Grayscale rendering.

With my initial grayscale pass done, I start to check how the values are working together.

Adding the fireball and adjusting values.

I then add the fireball and decide to adjust the overall values to add contrast in certain areas.

Adding color on a layer set to “Overlay” mode.

Since I’m happy with my values it’s now on to add color. I add in patches of color for the different objects on a separate layer and set that layer to “Overlay” mode.

The isolated color layer.

Above you can see what that layer looks like on it’s own.

I have yet to add color to the fire, because I want that to have a specific range of colors to it. For this element I add color using the “Gradient Map” adjustment layer in Photoshop.

Adding color to the fireball using a Gradient Map.

The way the Gradient Map works is it takes the values in the artwork you’re applying the “Map” to and sets certain colors for those specific values.

The "Gradient Map" window. You can see all of the colors I used in the fireball here.

The “Gradient Map” window. You can see all of the colors I used in the fireball here.

So in the above image you can see the map of colors I used for this element. The far right of the gradient is for the highlights, the middle for the midtones and the left side for the shadows.

Adding darker shadow to the fireball hand and warmth to the figure.

Because of the fireball, I realize that my figure needs to have more warmth overall and the shadow on the hand holding the fire needs to be darker. So I add a Gradient Map over my whole figure to help bring in more of those warm tones and set that Gradient Map layer to 24% so it’s not too overpowering.

Bright light! Bright light!

Bright light! Bright light!

With the fire now in my composition, it’s time to turn the lights on!

Adding highlights and a dark cloudy background.

You may have noticed that I haven’t added my highlights up to this point yet. That’s because I wanted those highlights to clearly reflect the color of the light source. In the past, when experimenting with coloring my grayscale work the way I’ve described above, the highlights have tended to be a little lifeless. So I add a separate layer on top of my figure and paint in the highlights on this one layer. This gives me more flexibility to make adjustments to just the highlights if need be. As I’m painting these, I make sure I’m getting the right colors for each object being affected by the light of the fire by mixing together the color of the fire light with the local color of each object. That way, each colored object looks like it’s being affected by the same color light source.

Adding a reddish glow to the fireball hand.

The fireball and highlights now in place, I notice that the hand holding the fire doesn’t seem to be affected by the fire enough, so I add a separate layer where I paint in the red glow on the hand from the fire.

Adding spark effects using custom brushes and some fire to the opposite hand.

It’s now time for some effects. I go in on a few separate layers using a custom brush to add some sparks from the fire. I also add some fire to the hand on our right for added interest.

Adding Color Balance and Levels adjustments.

I’m feeling almost done, but realize my colors and values can be pushed a little more, so I add a Color Balance adjustment layer to bring out the colors of my objects a little more and also add a Levels adjustment layer to increase the contrast here and there.

Desaturating the background and adding more sparks to the far hand.

I don’t like the way the reddish background detracts from the figure, so I desaturate the background clouds and add some more sparks to the hand on our right.

Adding the shirt decoration on a layer set to Color Dodge.

Lastly, I add a layer on top of the figure for the details on the shirt and set that layer to “Color Dodge”. By doing this, the values of the decoration get darker as they lay over the shadows of the shirt so that this element looks like it belongs with the lighting on that object.

I hope you enjoyed this walkthrough of my work. Thanks for checking it out!

Michael J. Williams

Puppets and Plays: Meeting Your Art Standards

art education, children's education, drawing, education, illustration, Uncategorized, writing

Welcome back to the world of art education. The school year came to a close today and there were smiles, tears (it’s hard to say goodbye!) and a lot of packing tape. This year was a tad unusual because our staff and most of our kiddos will be packing up and moving everything to a new building opening in the fall.  Imagine the task of packing up every single nugget in your room but still be responsible for supplying a well rounded art experience for the children who can sense the major shift coming. Yep, I was sweating… but hey, I’m a pro! I wanted to share one of my favorite activities that we did towards the end of the year when most of our supplies were packed away.

Puppets and Plays


Tagboard (so the puppets don’t fall over)


Hole Punch (large finger size bought at Hobby Lobby)


Pencils (optional)

Michigan State Standards:

Create: Art.Va.II.3.5  Create artwork that aesthetically and creatively conveys an idea.

Analyze and Make Connections: Art.Va.V.3.4  Illustrate connections between the visual arts and other curriculum through student artwork.

Learning Goal:

Students will collaborate to create and share a story.

Students will individually design their own characters.


I spoke with the students about how an artist often communicates a message. Images can have a powerful effect. A great example of this is the book, The Lion & The Mouse by Jerry Pinkney. The adaption tells of the Aesop fable with only images. I highly recommend this addition to your art room library, especially when it comes to talking about the career of an  illustrator.  The book helps the students understand how images can relay a story.

The students were then tasked to independently create their own characters. I loved the freedom of this part of the lesson. Thicker paper is desired for this part in case their characters are larger and fall over. I pre-punched the paper with a larger craft-style hole punch found at Hobby Lobby which creates the perfect size hole for their fingers.

After students finished their finger puppets, they worked in groups at their tables to write a script for a play which they would then present to the class. Some students even designed the “set” in order to create a setting. It was hard to decide which stage the students had the most fun, it seemed that every step was successfully entertaining! With independent work, collaboration and the opportunity to share their experiences, this lesson incorporated important art standards with minimal materials. This lesson could be done with 1st grade – 5th grade. Unfortunately I couldn’t upload the recorded videos, but I added a frame of one of the presentations. It was definitely an entertaining lesson in which the message of connecting writing to art and communicating through images stuck with the students.