View Full Version : How in the world do you paint scales?

05 May 2005, 01:03 AM
Right now I am working on two separate pictures, one of a mermaid and one of a dragon. I've got the basic shading down, and it's now time for me to move on to detailling the fin of the mermaid or skin of the dragon. But I have absolutely no idea how to tackle that. If anyone has any suggestions I would greatly appreciate it! Thanks!

05 May 2005, 02:01 AM
I suggest collecting as best reference as you possibly can. Study pictures of fish scales for the mermaid and reptile scales for the dragon. Also, study other painters and see how they handle it. Study guys like Keith Parkinson, Micheal Whelan, or Todd Lockwood and see if you find a technique you like. There's no one way to do it, so adopt the things you like and throw out the things you don't.

05 May 2005, 02:17 AM
I'd say figure out which areas need detailed scales on them and the other areas should then just get some more 'smudged'shading to them. You're getting yourself into some serious pixel shuffing with this one. Probably every scale points in several direction and each one also points in a different direction then the other, :argh:.

A trick used in 3d is to render the elements separately and combine them with layer settings. This would involve painting base shading, highlights and shadowing and intricacies on separate layers and then you could change more without destroying all the painstaking work.

Here's an example by the1st_angel (, you can see how he uses his layers to assemble something visually complex and relatively easy to control. :D relatively

05 May 2005, 08:03 AM
An idea would be to paint the creature in a darker, base color and then paint the lighter 'scales' over it using lines...just little neat blobs, with a highlight at the top of each..look at linda's m & s piece, she painted a snake and there's a close up of it- I think that's how she achieved that look.

05 May 2005, 10:03 PM
Sylanya, I did a quick and dirty tutorial for figuring out the structure and direction for scales. One key to making scales look authentic is to make sure they look like they are following the shape and changing directions of the creature's body and limbs. Although the actual color rendering can be done in any style, this should give you a good starting point.

1st I start with the base sketch of the shape. Forgive my shaky lines, as I'm not used to sketching on my Wacom.

Then using guidlines, I establish the 3-dimensionality of the shape. It is important to understand the volume of the animal, since that's what the scales are following.

Following the twisting direction of the creature and its volume, establish a grid. This grid will guide you in laying down accurate placement of the scales.

From here you can draw in your scales following the grid guidlines. Don't worry about getting each scale perfect (this is an organic animal, not a machine). Just try to follow the grid.

And here's the final scale treatment.

Now, for actual color rendering, it is not necessary to paint each individual scale. I say this with a smirk because I just posted this image: a few days ago where I tightly rendered each scale on the dragon's body. In that case I was going for a twisting serpentine effect, and I wanted the scales to support that. (and I admit I'm an anal-retentive detail freak.) But most of the time it will work well if you only suggest scales, rendering them in detail at points where you want the viewer to focus, but leaving unimportant areas looser.

I hope this helps!


05 May 2005, 10:07 PM
nice stuff, scott :thumbsup:

05 May 2005, 10:48 PM
Scott Johnson- You're thoughts on the matter have been very helpful, and that tutorial! Wow, I did not expect that. Thank you so much for taking the time to make that for me. :)

jmBoekestein- Thanks for the link, I've been wondering how to go about tackling the technique of using several layers to create a nice detailling effect.

paperclip- another nice idea. I have looked at Linda's picture repeatedly (and have it saved in my files along with some other inspirations pictures by Linda), and you are right about the scales. Thanks!

05 May 2005, 02:46 AM
that i used to make the scales on this image
or here for example

were made in maya, actually. create one scale and duplicate it with offset a bunch of times to make a grid of scale splines, in about 3 seconds. bring in your 2d art, and use the lattice deformer to bend the scales to follow the contours. put a paintfx brush shader on the splines and render it out. if you know how to use maya, this method has a ton of advantages over drawing it by hand, including the ability to easily change the size of the scales while still having them follow the curves, make them look like glowing neon, have grass grow out of them, animate them. only problem is you have to know a fair bit about maya to do this.. lucky me :)

the curves on the body were made the same way.

as far as the coloring i just painted over it by hand. i thought about how long it took to paint the sistene chapel, and how much time i had just saved making those lines, and how the old masters had no "undo" when they had already spent 309 hours on a piece and every new mark counted it all seemed so easy.

05 May 2005, 02:56 AM
Alright, so I tried to combine two of the suggestions I received here (jmBoekestien's and paperclip's) and painted the mermaid scales using several layers in different blending modes and also observing Linda's slithery snakes for a little while. I think it helped a bit. :)

CGTalk Moderation
05 May 2005, 02:56 AM
This thread has been automatically closed as it remained inactive for 12 months. If you wish to continue the discussion, please create a new thread in the appropriate forum.