The Magic Skull

The Magic Skull [Artwork Deconstructed]

Skulls are dark, mysterious and imbued with magic properties – at least this is what the fantasy culture teaches us – so I had to try my hand at an artwork centered on a skull. In case you missed out on the How to Draw a Skull tutorial, make sure you check it out now! It might prove useful.

I start out with a randomly colored canvas. At this point, I still have no idea about what I want to draw, so I just scribble away until things are starting to take shape. For now, I am just focusing on a backdrop for the skull, something that will emphasize the mystery and magic properties of the skull, without stealing its thunder.

Blocking in the background

Doesn’t look like much, eh?

I am simply painting in large circular motions with a basic hard round brush and mixing up colors – blues and purples and oranges.
Then I add some details trying to define the circular shapes. I add a bright yellow layer set to Color Dodge in the center, to enhance the brilliance of the area and I darken the margins for a slight vignette effect.

still not looking like much...

still not looking like much.

And it’s time to add the actual skull. I quickly block in a very rough shape, just to see if it works.

aaand here's the skull!

aaand here’s the skull!

I am not happy overall with the position and angle of the skull, but I push on to see if it starts working better when it’s fully rendered. I add some more details and color variation by mixing in purples, dark reds and some saturated green.


I want this skull to be made of shiny silver, or maybe even liquid mercury -I want it to be highly reflective, like a mirror, so I start polishing it. If the skull is mirror-like, it should reflect (and distort) everything in the environment. For now we don’t have much of a reflection because I haven’t decided upon what the skull should reflect. For now, I only know that the area above the skull (which should be reflected in the forehead) is a colder color (blue) than the rest of the environment.



Aaaand, this is where I realize that the skull isn’t working, I don’t like the angle, I want to see it from a top-down view to make more room for the reflection… so I start over.

here we go again!

here we go again!

With the new skull blocked in, I start adding details – things are a bit easier now, since the top of the skull acts pretty much like a convex mirror surface.

Much better already!

Much better already!

It looks okay, so I can move on and work on the reflections. Also, I add a saturated blue color to the top of the skull, to emphasize the fact that it is reflecting colder light from above- maybe the night sky.


To reinforce the idea of a silver, highly reflective, magical skull, I need to have it reflect something intelligible, and so far I have no human presence in the picture. So, what if I have a little boy reflected in the surface, about to pick the skull up? Problem is, I am not experienced with how the distortion works on a curved surface, so I go around the house looking for something to use as a glass ball, to take some reference pictures. All I can find is this:

I know, I know...

I know, I know…

It’s an Ikea candle holder. The lighting setup is nothing like the one in my artwork, but it’ll do. At least I can make out the distortion. Problem is, after a couple of failed attempts, I realize I cannot paint the image already distorted – but hey, this is all digital, so I can simply paint the kid straight on, and distort him afterward. So I start painting the kid in a new document.

One ugly little boy. Good thing we won't see too much of him in the final artwork :)

One ugly little boy. Good thing we won’t see too much of him in the final artwork :)

I don’t have to be too careful, because the image will be smaller and distorted in the final artwork, so I don’t have to worry too much about all the little details. What I do need to have in mind is the lighting on the boy -his face should be illuminated from below by the glowing, bright orange surface the skull is on, while his left side needs to have a blue rim light.

Now, let’s see how it looks. I warp the smart object of the kid around the top of the skull, then I set the layer to soft light and multiply it to make the effect more obvious.

Now it's starting to look like something, right?

Now it’s starting to look like something, right?

I’m slowly getting there. I add some more smoke effects and glowing particles (just set the layer to color dodge for the glowy effect), but it’s still missing something. I decide to also add the hand of the boy in the foreground, just to emphasize the reflection on the skull. I’m bad at drawing hands, so once again I need to take a reference picture:


Again, I block in the hand using the reference as a guide. I don’t follow it exactly, because the lighting is completely different, and considering how strong the light from below the skull is, I definitely need to have some subsurface scattering showing on the fingers for instance. You might notice how reddish and translucent your own skin appears if you hold you hand against a light bulb.

Blocking in the hand

Blocking in the hand

And we’re done. Just some final adjustments, some glowing embers, a quick reframing, a sharpening pass and here it is – the kid and the magic skull!

The final artwork

The final artwork

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