Forums are a fantastic place to find communities of artists supporting each other. There are many spread across the internet, I happen to post on a relatively little one, The PA:AC. The forum is heavily based on critique and has a small core group of active posters, making for a personal atmosphere that discourages artists to just showcase art and run.
Kevin O'Neill keeps the mood alive. Artist and moderator, he has provided a massive amount of helpful and pointed critiques. The following quotes are from forum posts which I will do my best to contextualize and edit down, Click the link under each to go to the original forum posts.
I highly suggest reading the accompanying quotes, but my goal is that by scrolling through, you will see a progression in the lessons Kevin has to offer. This post will be long, but you can always bookmark it and come back!
What Does Light have to do with Painting?
Practically everything. Light can make the mood, the forms, and the composition. It can tell you how to color, what colors to pick, and why. If you are jumping into painting, digital or other wise, having some base knowledge of light will go a long way to making believable and interesting images.
One of the better, and simple explanations of light is the section in the Itchstudios tutorial, a staple of internet tutorials.
We can start with bacons critiques of one of my own images, just to illustrate the difference between line and painting with light:
My original image is the 3rd image, when I was still playing wow freshman year in school. The other three are quick paint overs by Kevin. He pointed out some questions about the style:
I guess what I'd say is that I kind of (and this is just a personal opinion, right?) would like to see a stronger commitment either to the line-based style, or to a more painterly, light-based style. Right now it kind of hovers in between, without gaining the full benefits from either.
What bugs me about the current state of your work is that the combination isn't quite bold enough that it read immediately as a coherent style, but rather something vascillating between two different styles.
Understanding how the tone changes as the form turns away from the light is essential to creating convincing form. This requires more than simply assuming a tonal value based on the distance from the light, or distance from the nearest edge, but a thorough understanding of how the object is constructed as a three-dimensional object.
Of course, looking at light in a planar manner is only the first step. Moving on from that are hard and soft edges:
Expanding on that a bit, you may want to try doing a 2-tone value study when starting out, just to force yourself to pay attention to your edgework, without getting caught up in the full value range from the get go. Just stick to a white and a flat medium grey, and use the fluctuations of edge quality to get the form to read. Think Mike Mignola inks if he airbrushed a few edges to soften and roll the form. I did some photoshop levels magic to strip down a lot of your values and tried it on your head here.
While your edges are generally fairly soft, you can see from my breakdown where I'm making them hard on drastic changes in plane, like the top of the tip, and on cast shadows. More rounded areas, like the cheek, are made softer. Watch how some edges start hard and then soften as they go along, not staying with one edge type along its length.
Original Posters on the left, Kevin's example on the right.
In the original, the edges are getting confused with each other- the edge of the cast shadow of the glasses is the same firmness as the form shadow of the cheek, the bottom edge of the cast shadow of the cookie flows into the the form shadow of the chin. Also, edges of the form shadow of the face are not consistent with each other, making them two distinct 2-d areas, rather than one area broken by a cast shadow.
When applying edges try to think about what the purpose of that edge is. If you look at mine, the form shadow edge is defined by one simple soft edge. The cast shadows are a crisp edge. As a result, the form appears continuous and solid, rather than two-dimensional. You can tell where the cast shadow of the glasses (crisp) meets the form edge of the face (soft), purely by the change in edge quality.
It's easy when working from photoref to get caught up in rendering every piece separately, rather than putting your effort into figuring out how the form functions. The ambiguity of form and often unclear edge definition in anything but very good photoref makes putting conscious effort into how you design your edges essential, if you want to get a clear read of form. You need to make the form more clear and more understandable than the photograph.
This is a big part of the reason that it is often very obvious when people are working from photoref and not from life- simply replicating 2d shapes, rather than presenting a coherent representation of the 3d form.
Simplifying your light and properly noting your edges can help you quickly lay out a painting, here Kevin goes into the details of over detailing.
original posters on the right
I think you're running into a lot of problems as a result of trying to work out the drawing's structure and the painting at the same time, which is leading to an overemphasis on details, and too little emphasis on the light. For example, in trying to work out the folds of cloth, you've made each fold extremely contrasty and very much its own sort of object, rather than being subservient to the broader, overall forms- the block of the torso, the cylinders that make up the arms, etc.Some step by step build up. These are rather self explanatory, but the original posts are still linked, if you'd like to see the images in context.
It's also leading to you forgetting things like the broad brim of the hat casting a shadow on the coat, the coat casting a shadow on the feet.
I also suspect that while you're trying to design this character, you're trying to figure out the local colors- 'oh this is white, this is blue', so you stick those colors in- but when you think about the light and where it's coming form, those colors would be stuck into shadow or effected far more by the light's color than the local color, so it ends up looking out of place, and unrealistic.
I did a quick paintover here, but look at what I did with it- it looks more realistic and solid, but how I got there was stripping away and simplifying detail, not adding it. To be sure, in a more finished illustration, there would be more detail, but being able to figure out this broad, overall read is what will make the subsequent additional details hold up.
I think the best examples of light and mood come in his environment critiques.
Original posters image is the top left.
Darkness combined with bright, local manmade light sources means high-contrast, which isn't coming across here. That means you have to pay a good deal of attention to where light would be coming from in a real environment- in a place like a hospital where someone may be pulled up outside the front doors bleeding to death, there's going to be a lot of light so the emergency crews aren't screwing around in the dark. Entrances in general are likely to be lit up so they are easy to find, and general safety. Streetlamps are going to be on the sidewalks. Moonlight isn't consistent or bright enough to provide a significantly usable amount of light in a modern city, so don't rely on it in a painting of a city either.
So I threw together a paintover to add those light sources, and bring the areas that wouldn't be lit down to a more appropriate level. Note how the colors of the light sources are handled: yellow/orange safety safety light, dingy orange for the off screen streetlamps, green/blue glow of the entrance florescents.
Compositionally, the added lighting of the entrance, the color contrast of the area with the rest of the picture, and the addition of some space to the right to make the entrance more centrally placed makes it clear what the most important part of the piece is. In the original, it's difficult to tell what is meant to be the focus of the piece, which ends up giving it a rather dull, monotonous read.
It isn't enough to simply draw the objects you want in a piece, it is necessary to establish a hierarchy of what is important and what is not in a piece through value, color, and composition.
Up next, we can see some of the benefits of how a quick change of light can effect the mood and focus of the piece.
Original Posters image on the right.
I would suspect it's mostly the lighting that's the biggest problem here, since it seems to just feel like this drab green-blue wash over everything. All the textures and models are great, but the lighting isn't serving to separate what's important to the scene/player from what isn't.
Given, there's limits to what you can do with light, and Maya's viewport rendering is never going to give you the lighting results you really want simply because it's not a game/movie quality renderer, but the point stands. If you can, try lighting the scene without an ambient light (or at least, have it set to emit a very,very low level of light), using directional lights for primary lighting and broad fills, and spotlights for focused areas- you can get a lot more subtle, effectively contrasting lighting this way. (This may be problematic for same game engines like Doom3 where all lighting is done in real time, but not for a good portion of them that bake lighting anyway (Quake/Source/Unreal). I believe you can also bake the lighting into texture in Maya for nicer real-time rendering than you'd get in the viewport normally.
What you might want to do is do a screengrab and do a quick paintover of what you've got in order to figure out where your focus is; ideally, you'd have a good piece of concept art to go by from the get go, but doing this mid-stream can save you some time if you just find yourself noodling around for direction. Did an example to try to center the focus around the big central crystal- maybe not the mood you're going for, but with something like this in hand, I'd have a pretty clear idea of how I'd want to set up my lights.
I believe this post is long enough, so I will leave it at that. I hope this information finds people outside of our little community and inspires them.