The Mermaid

The Mermaid

Lucia Chuang takes us through her process for creating a delicate Mermaid and her seaworthy companion in CGMA’s 8-week course Digital Portrait Painting.


My name is Lucia Chuang and I’m from Barcelona, Spain. I graduated from digital design at ESDI University of Pompeu Fabra. I love drawing and comic art. After school, I landed a job at an illustration studio (Escletxa studio) as a concept artist and motion graphic designer. After two years I had to leave this job to help run my family’s business. We have a Chinese restaurant in the Olympic port of Barcelona called Pato Pekin. I have been working in the Catering sector for more than 10 years and only recently I decided to return to my artistic skills. I wanted to learn more and improve my painting level, so I signed up for several 2D illustration courses at CGMA.

The Assignment

The goal of this assignment was to create a detailed human portrait. We’ve learned step by step how to paint a realistic human face (skin colour, eyes, nose, mouth, hair, final skin details…) We’ve also worked on how to create an interesting composition and dramatic lighting. Photoshop was used for this assignment. I chose to paint a Mermaid because I love this mystic character! To make her more interesting I added a seal that would interact with her. I wanted to paint my mermaid in a little cartoonish style but with realistic details, that’s why the proportions of her face are not as true to a real human.

I got the design inspiration from a Pinterest mermaid painting done by the artist Loish. This painting has a beautiful colour palette made with complementary colours of blue and orange. I also used Pinterest to find references for the seal and the background colours and for the lighting ideas.

The Composition

I began with some rough sketches to find a good composition. I worked with a very small file because at this stage I didn’t want to go into the details yet. For my composition, I was looking to find dynamism and movement.  I avoided painting the face just in the middle of the canvas and I decided not to paint a very closed portrait and just to leave some space in the background to add some additional details later. I followed the rules of thirds and put the center of interest in one of the bottom intersections. I tried to create an organic and circular rhythm in the composition for a good eye read, connecting all the elements and focusing the attention onto the characters’ faces.

To give the character more life and a natural feeling, I chose the three-quarter position because it’s a more interesting pose. I made her body a bit curved, avoiding straight lines to give her more dynamism. To make the light work I used two lights. The first light was the main light and affects her face and part of her body. The second light was more diffused and affects the background. I decided to use the sunlight for the second light in the background. The light is very important because it connects all the elements together and helps the viewer where to direct their attention to.


As mentioned earlier, my palette was inspired by one of Loish’s paintings which has a strong contrast between the background and the character using complementary colours. So first I found a mid-tone for the base: a greenish dark blue for the background. Then from the base colour, I modified the parameters (saturation, brightness, light, C/M/Y/K) and created new ones for the skin tones. For her hair, I chose a red-orange vibrant colour. This method allowed me to create new colors according to the base colour, so I had full control over them making my palette work perfectly. I used a soft brush with texture to mix and blend them. Using this kind of brush on a very low pen pressure gave me so many colour variations, thus creating a good integration of all the elements.

I tried to find a mid-tone colour for the base (greenish-blue), and I contrasted my character with a vibrant complementary colour (red-orange).

 I adjusted the colour parameters to create new ones.  I used a soft brush with texture to blend colours with the background and create more variations. 

Facial Proportions

Painting the face of the character was a slow and intricate process. I decided to paint the eyes of the mermaid looking directly towards us creating eye contact– this makes a powerful connection between my character and the viewer. The biggest problem I had with her face was creating the appropriate volume and lighting. I found it hard to avoid muddy colours for the shadows and also when trying to create a natural skin tone. At first, I tried to use as many different variations for her skin (reds, yellows, pinks, greens…),  but I used too many dark shadows and too much contrast that it didn’t work. After Melanie’s correction, I finally improved the painting with softer lighting which added more clarity to her face, making it more lively.

Another difficulty I had was patience when painting the details of her face. Never before had I painted that many details in such a small area and that was a big challenge for me. For example for her eyes; I had to use a very tiny brush and paint all the details stroke by stroke (eyelashes, pupil glows, skin texture glitter, eyebrow hairs) and I couldn’t rush.

The Hair

I had in mind that my character was underwater, so her hair had to have movement and lightness. I chose straight and long red hair for her. For the base of her hair, I started with a big soft brush and painted a big block of dark brown colour to create its shape. I kept the outline with soft edges to integrate (and blend) it with the background and her face. Then I picked up the same base colour increasing the light a bit, and with a big brush, I painted the hair’s highlights. With a smaller brush on low pressure, I gradually increased the light to work more on the highlights.

Once the base for light and shadows were done, I defined which area I was going to add more detail and more texture. That was because I didn’t need to add detail to all her hair, just the area that was closer to her face which is important in the portrait. With another very small fine brush, I added quick brush strokes following the direction of the hair to create texture. With the blur tool, I was always blurring all of the ends of the brush strokes to integrate them to the rest of the hair. I also used the background colour to paint small brush strokes all around the hair contour to blend it with the background. In the end, I corrected the final light. In another layer, I added this colour in the lightest part of the hair to increase the hair’s shine.  Last, I added some little details with tiny brush strokes using all the different colour variations of the hair.

The Background and Details

For the background I didn’t want too many details, I just added a few of them to help understand the story I wanted to tell in my painting. I added some silhouettes of seals and small fishes, some water reflection, and some bubbles to contextualize the mermaid in the sea.

For the mermaid, I wanted to add a few little details too, because I didn’t want to visually overload it. I searched for several references like shells to design her bra. I did many tests, but at the first ones didn’t cut it because I painted them too flat. After getting Melanie Delon’s advice I chose to simplify the design of my bra, and the final result is two simple big shells with a pearl in between. She also instructed me to create volume and realism on the bra.

I wanted to decorate her hair with some starfish, which complimented the colour of her hair. To give her an air of a Fantasy character I modified her ears to make them look like fishtails, and I also added gills on her arms. Lastly, I integrated the mermaid’s tail with the background’s colour and added some water reflections on her tail, hair, and part of her body.

For the details of the seal, I only added fur to its skin, some whiskers, and also some light water reflections.

Dramatic Lighting

The final step was working on the dramatic lighting. Here I felt that my colours were a bit too greenish and that the level of saturation was too similar. I wanted to softly give her more life and make her pop from the background. What I did was to adjust her colour balance, hue, saturation, and contrast. I slightly desaturated the background and increased the red colours of her hair and her skin. This was a very quick process and I didn’t need to repaint anything, but it gave the final result a noticeable improvement.

Final Thoughts

This assignment was really interesting and I had lots of fun doing it. I have learned so much during the process! I’m very satisfied with how my portrait turned out, and I’m impressed with the improvement and results I have achieved with this course. I’m very grateful for my teacher Melanie Delon and CGMA.  I strongly recommend this course!