A friend once told me that your "style" as an artist develops out of necessity. Its the product of months and years of tight deadlines, a time when you don't have the luxury of finding yourself. I found that true of style's close cousin, process. Early in my professional career, I experimented with a variety of techniques, never quite comfortable with my own painting process. As work demands required quicker turnarounds, I was forced to focus on the getting the job done in the most efficient way possible. Through that experience, a process developed on its own that worked perfect for me. Whether I'm painting a children's magazine spot or a fantasy book cover, the way I work doesn't change much.
Below is a piece I did recently, titled Fun and Games, and a breakdown of how I did it.
1) Sketch... I always start an illustration with a sketch. Sometimes it's done traditionally, like this one. But, most of the time, I sketch digitally.
2) Flat local color and block-in... After a sketch is completed, I head to Photoshop. I set the sketch layer to Multiply mode and reduce opacity to 30-40%. Using the drawing as my guide, I block in the basic silhouette of the main elements using solid colors on a new normal layer (under the sketch layer). These colors are used to define the true hue of an object, independent of any lighting. No shading here.
3) Shadows... Now that the silhouette is defined and the local colors have been chosen, it's time to add shadows. At this point, I add a new Hard Light layer with Clipping Mask applied. Many people use Multiply layers for their shadows. I think Hard Light simulates real light properties better. If I want to create a rich, saturated shadow, I can get that with Hard Light. Multiply seems to muddy colors together. But be careful. The saturation and value levels of the color you choose can make or break this effect. Try saturation settings between 4% and 8% and value settings between 30% and 45%. You'll be surprised at how vibrant the shadows turn out. The clipping mask option assures that this shadow layer will not break the silhouette of the block-in layer underneath.
4) Lights... New layer with clipping mask applied. This time set the blending mode to Vivid Light. Vivid light works much like Hard light. Keep your saturation levels very low and the value setting just a bit higher than 50% (55-70% usually works great).
5) Massaging... With the local color figured out and lights and shadows applied, I have a color scheme completely resolved. At this point, I usually merge all the preliminary layers into one and then just paint away until it's polished and I'm happy. Truth be told, I usually keep a copy of those prelim layers hidden in a folder within the psd, just in case. But working with just one layer allows me to chisel away at the edges very conveniently as needed.
6) Final touches... After the painting is all done, I usually tweak things with a couple adjustment layers and maybe a textured Overlay layer. And then it's done. Breaking the image into stages makes it so much easier to wrap my brain around it. I can tackle each stage with confidence, which strengthens the picture as a whole, but also makes things go faster. I can usually finish a piece like this in under four hours.
Anyway, I hope this peek into my workflow was informative. If you like it, feel free to pass it along.