Independent art series Lily featured image

So You Want to be an Independent Artist? Episode 1

Welcome to the first episode in the Independent Art series! This series will follow a schedule of every Sunday, at the latest, Friday at the earliest, barring any natural disasters or an apocalypse. And even then. If there is an apocalypse, I’ll just find different tools and keep creating stories.

Independent Art Project

Graphic novel. Cottonseeds, issue 3, page 1, full page layout.


I’m not doing much for the layout other than the usual reverse zigzag flow. I also like to keep in mind the golden ratio, but that’s more so for overall page design.

For every page, I create a standard 8.5 by 11, with 0.5 inch margins with and a resolution of 300. 8.5 by 11 is the biggest size and with anything digital you can’t make it bigger, only smaller, in order to preserve the images. So I always start with the biggest, and at worse, size it down later. I keep any text and balloons inside the margins so it won’t be cut off.

Of course, this does mean my working files are huge, 100 MB on average. Final file is around 25 MB.

The first layer in the document is a handy layout I found on It gives me a good idea of where to lay out all the elements. I only use the layout as a layer/guideline in my Photoshop document. Half the time I ignore the guide.

Unfortunately, I had already merged a lot of layers before I started writing this post to keep the file size down, so I can’t show you every step, but I’ll show as much as I can using screenshots.

Independent Art Tools

Photoshop, the internet, and imagination. (Yes, you guessed it, independent).

Step 1 – Camera Shot

This step takes the most brain work for me. I talked about how perceiving depth perception is a neurological function in this post. So, needless to say, with sclerosis on my brain, finishing step 1 is a sloooooow process. I get frustrated and so mad at myself for being so slow. Then, eventually, it falls into place, and I’m happy again.

This is a thought-process where being independent can be lonely, which drives me to question my sanity. There’s only one way to resolve the problem and go back to being happy again, and it’s this.

Of course, positive feedback after I finish the project helps, too.

I was going to just use the image of the main character, Sam, from issue 2, last page. I figured, it’s already the front shot I have in mind, might as well use the same image for continuation.

Alas, when I placed the image on the page, it turned out to be the wrong view.

independent art Sam Cottoneeds 2 Lily Dark
See? He’s looking to the right, not a front shot at all. Dammit, Sam.

A minor angle difference, but it made a huge difference, and I couldn’t finish the page. So I recreated from scratch.

Step 2 – Another Version of Step 1

Yes, I go back and forth a lot. Stay with me.

My inspiration for the character has always been a Frankenstein cross between River Phoenix and Norman Reedus. I needed to recreate the character as a front shot, close-up, with a cop car sneaking up behind him. Google Images to the rescue!

I never use actual images from the net. I just stare at them until I have a good enough mental image in my mind. (Being independent, right?)

River Phoenix is deceased (RIP), so it might be okay to use the actual images, but even it is, I’d rather use my own art style. Copy and pasting annoys me, and it’s just not art.

Norman Reedus is very much alive of course, but, again, inspiration only. Besides, I’m mostly using his hair as inspiration.

Norman, if you’re reading this, call me.

Okay, so now I have two photos printed on my brain. I’m ready to create the front shot.

River Phoenix and Norman Reedus independent art Lily Dark
River and Norman, together, both are front shots, yay.

Step 3 – Outline and Fills

I create two groups of layers so I can blend them later, if needed, one for body/face and one for hair.

Then I take my handy Photohop lasso tool and click away until I have a rough outline of the body/face and the hair. Next, while the lasso shape is active, Select > Refine Edge > Smooth > anywhere from 10 to 25 pixels.

I don’t want a perfect outline for the lasso shapes. I want breathing room to add a Filter Stroke later, I usually do about 10 – 25 pixels for the Stroke, depending on closeness of the camera view, solid black. But first!

Select > Refine Edge> Smooth > between 10 – 25 px > then fill lasso shape with white.

Then, Filter in layers > Stroke > 25 pixels > Center

I always select Center so that no jagged edges are showing AKA pixelization.

Now, I have a nice solid outline filled with white for each group of layers.

Character stroke independent art Lily Dark
Filled and stoked, shapes and outlines of face and hair. It’s starting to happen. Can you see it yet?

Step 4 – Shadow Layers

Under the white stroked layers, new layers for the shadows. I make the white layers inactive for now, otherwise I won’t be to see what I’m doing.

By the way, I use a lot of layers and groups. On average, 100 layers per document.

I mostly use three shades of black: 25% black, 50% black, 75% black, and a whole lot of 100% black. I start with the lightest to darkest. Lasso again, click away until I have the rough shape of the shadows. Refine edge > Smooth. Fill with shadow color.

lightest shadow independent art Lily Dark
It’s happening. I can see a nose and an eye.

At least two more layers, different shades of black, light to darkest. Then I merge all shadow layers and duplicate twice. I apply two filters for each duplicated layer. Filter Gallery > Artistic > Cutout. Filter Gallery > Sketch > Stamp. I play around with settings until I like what I see. It seems to vary depending on the image.

cutout independent art Lily Dark
Cutout filter.
stamp independent art Lily Dark
Stamp filter.

Blending time!

Cutout layer > one of the light filters, depending, either Overlay or Pin light. White layer over the other layers > Color Burn. Stamp underneath everything, no blending.

Step 5 – Independent Art Hair

I use the same steps to create the hair. The only difference is the lasso shapes are more symmetrical, sharper. I also added an inner shadow of medium gray and a drop shadow filter in layers, solid black. My own artistic styling.

Here’s the final result.

hair final independent art Lily Dark
Sam’s hair.

Step 6 – Trimming and Blending

I made both the hair and the body group layers active. Adjust as needed. The hair was a bit too curled and long on one side, so I selected a small portion and deleted.

After all that is done, I copied and placed in a new layer the blood splatter for Sam’s face from Cottonseeds 2, last page, and made the color a bit darker (color burn) because it would be drying by this point in the timeline.

sam final blood independent art Lily Dark
And voila!

Step 7 – Background

Most of the background is easy for this page since it’s suppose to be the middle of the night, so solid black background. The tricky part was trying to decide the proportion of the car behind Sam. Back to the internet for more image research.

I analyzed so many different images that I can’t remember all of them, photos, movies and TV stills. Eventually I just decided, screw it. I’m going with the right-hand side, mainly because it’s connected to what happens on the next page.

black background here independent art Lily Dark
Here… ish.

Step 7 – Police Car and Lights

I wanted a car that has lights flashing, but it’s in the background, so somewhat blurred. For this, I did look at a bunch of photos, but ended up ignoring all, and I just created rough black outlines where the car is suppose to be… roughly. So, I made it up.

police car independent art Lily Dark
Digital scribbles.

Then, similar steps as the shadow layers, just not as many.

police car filled independent art Lily Dark
Police car filled with layered shadows

The most fun I had with creating this page is the car lights. I was extra creative about it. I used two diamond shaped gradients, red to transparent and blue to transparent. Then I applied a Gaussian Blur filter to both. After that, a blurred white thin rectangle behind the gradient shapes to show the light is glowing a bit in the dark.

police car final independent art Lily Dark
Oh shit, the cops!

Step 8 – Independent Art Text

I created my own Photoshop brushes a while ago for text outlines. Speech balloons, captions, clouds for inner thoughts, starburst for sound effects, etc. Sure, I could use the default shapes that comes with Photohop, but most of them are useless.

Creating a brush is simple enough, though a bit tedious. Create shape with lasso tool > select all > Edit > Define Brush. I’m glad I did them all, so now all I need to do is select the shape I want, then a Stroke filter.

inner thought balloon independent art Lily Dark
That’s one of my brushes.
inner thought balloon stroke independent art Lily Dark
That’s one of my brushes with a Stoke Filter.

Funny thing about text. 9 out of 10 times I won’t realize I wrote too much text until I start to type it in Photohop. I try to visualize what I can in my word doc, but it’s not the same.

My first idea for the page was two panels, first shows sound effect for cop car sirens, second shows the cops have turned the sirens off, and Sam had an inner commentary. That didn’t quite work out.

I changed the text to read that no sirens are used, and changed Sam’s commentary to reflect that. And then, everything fell into place. Plus, a bonus of silent creepiness for the page, which I just love.

Step 9 – Putting it all together

You might be wondering at this point, how I managed to finish this hot mess. The method behind my madness is simple. There’s a black background. Most of the unevenness or messy parts will disappear.

Cottonseeds 3 page 1 final independent art Lily Dark
Cottonseeds 3 page 1 final

And this is why I love working in mostly black and white, with spots of color here and there.

Step 10 – The Mole

As I was putting together this post and preparing all screenshots, I realized I forgot one tiny detail. Sam’s mole.

Back to Photoshop. Standard round brush, 25 px. And I created a dot. There. Now I’m finished.

sam mole independent art Lily Dark blog
Cottonseeds 3 Page 1. Final FINAL. Can you spot the difference?

Side note: I used American spellings because Photohop uses US English.

Note: Cottonseeds has been removed from th website, and will be uploaded again when the whole story is complete.