Today, I thought I might give a brief overview of the typical color grading process that I give the Zodiac•Axis backgrounds to try and make them consistent. Almost every background has gone through this process—both mine, and ones created by contractors, like background artist wrothsloth.
We’ll start off with the finished diner from Zodiac•Axis, which is decent but has flat lighting, and enhance it using Clip Studio Paint.
Step 1: Add Shadows
Create a layer in Multiply blending or a Tone Curve adjustment layer, and airbrush in general shadows with a very, very dark navy blue (almost black).
I also recommend adding in a slight vignette so that the edges have a darker airbrush than the center of the image.
Step 2: Lighting Fixtures
Add in the light that comes from the lamps on scene. I often do this with the Add (Glow) blending mode or Color Dodge.
Make the light very bright, almost harsh. These areas should stand out. Use a pen or opaque hard-edged brush, then slightly blur out the edges; do not use an airbrush.
You can see the tables below now have a very bright blue glow, and the tops of the chairs are lit with orange/yellow.
Step 3: Sun Glow
Add in cutouts of light from the sun coming through windows, usually using Add (Glow). They don’t need to be particularly exact, but the harsh edges of cutouts add a great amount of style to your background.
Use a pen or hard-edged brush for these cutouts, and smudge edges when necessary.
Soften these areas slightly by dabbing in a huge airbrush, so that the sun cutouts emit a soft glow.
Step 4: Lens Effects
Lens Flare: Create a layer with a bright color—usually blue or magenta—with the Screen layer mode. Airbrush over the stark highlights, like the far windows. This creates a “glare” effect.
Particles: I like to add small particles in two of the opposite corners to simulate some foreground depth. These particles are blurred at the edges slightly and put in Add (Glow) mode.
Bloom: Use a small airbrush to add a slight glow around your very bright objects.
Step 5: Color Grade
Use a Tone Curve adjustment layer to adjust your highlights, midtones, and shadows until they match with your sprites.
For Zodiac•Axis, all backgrounds have bluish shadows and yellowish highlights to simulate a retro look.
This was just a really quick overview of my usual process rather than a step-by-step guide, but hopefully, it offers some good ideas on how you can color grade your backgrounds!
What are your favorite techniques and visual filters to apply on your game artwork?