Gesture - Taking a simple gesture, movement, or pose that emphasizes your character's personality is the first step. Doing lots of thumbnail drawings might be needed if you are unsure of where to go. For this image I had the image in mind while i was figure drawing one morning and decided I would like to take it further. I also usually do a rough musculature blockout during this stage to avoid broken anatomy that can plague drawings in the later phases.
Linework - This stage will save you the most time down the road if you take time to design everything out here. Draw all costumes and props on a new layer, figure out the weight and folding of the materials over the figure and try your best to visualize the final image. To avoid problems later don't block in shadows in this stage just stick to contour lines. If you are having trouble creating clean lines create a white layer at 50% opacity underneath to act as tracing paper. Clean and lively linework takes a lot of practice and confidence in your strokes but the practice is worth it.
Flats - Easiest stage of the process. Just fill in major areas of your design on separate layers while keeping your lines layer on top. This will allow us to create fill masks for easily blocking light and keeping the increasingly complex drawing easy to manage.
Lighting - This stage benefits from reference gathering. Different materials behave very differently in the same lighting conditions. Study material properties and light the figure to emphasize the gesture. Adding light without purposeful intention leads to an unfocused final result. Keep it simple and use your initial gesture sketch for direction.
Color - Veteran artists can apply color and light at the same time but for the majority of us it can be a daunting task. Unless I have a very clear vision of my final image I find it easier to add color by tinting a black and white image. By applying a Color Balance adjustment to your fill layers you can inject color into a black and white image without altering its value. I find I can get about 80% of the way to the colors i want using this method then I finish by painting color into the tinted image to bring it to full color.
Detail & Adjustment - This part takes a long time for realistic imagery. You have to comb the image and figure out how to bring out what you want to communicate to the audience. You can add and warp on photo textures, clean up unclear design segments, enhance colors and add final image adjustments (contrast/curves/levels) in this stage. Its done when either you or the deadline decide it has to be. Bring up your original sketch during this stage, if it feels the same then you have succeeded. If not try to figure out where it deviated and if it was intentional, if not you might want to try again :P
This is intended as a guideline, there are many ways to create an image and you don't have to do it this way. I do notice constructing images this way leads to an easy to manage layer structure and a lot less headaches in the later stages of the painting.
For the final Shielmaiden image click here