More work in progress for Tales From When I Had A Face.
I don't mean to imply that there is just one way to to do this. Part of what I love about Photoshop is that it's very open ended in terms of workflow.
When building a piece, I might be working off a script that calls for something, or I might just have a sense of a vibe. I'll spend a couple hours online gathering reference... basically hunting out everything that connects with me, in terms of that vibe. Or, if I'm collaborating with a model or photographer, I'll take those reference shots or have them take them. Or a mixture of both.
Then I'll start sifting through that reference and putting together a larger composition.
Then I'll make an underpainting guide -- all that reference gets simplified down to 3 to 5 tones usually with a "paint" layer, and then I'll often do a layer on top of that using a finer "brush" to do black line art. Then the photos are yoinked. From here I've got an underpainting, and then comes the rather laborious process of building up layer after layer of color, texture, and so on. Often, during that process, I'll rethink elements of the composition and have to go in and cut and slice and move things around, then spend a while balancing it out again. This can take anywhere from 6 to 20 hours for a finished page. I've worked on covers that take upward of 40 hours.
I've thought a long time about using reference in this way. A lot of artists do, actually, especially nowadays, but it's often not discussed. And a lot of opinions are out there -- I've even heard groups of people attacking artists that use found reference photos for traditional work. Personally, I think that's pretty idiotic, and misses the mark. Though I understand where the sentiment comes from, if you don't understand the process, not to mention all the people online that are literally taking someone else's work and putting their name on it.
Of course, it's important that you are presenting something new in the composition and actually build up the painting yourself. This is where I think process makes all the difference.
For Tales..., I'm looking to line up with more photographers and models because whenever possible, I do prefer for my reference material to be shot for a new piece whenever possible, because it allows more creative and compositional flexibility. Plus I just love collaborating with people! It also opens up more possibilities in terms of using it as source, rather than just underpainting reference. However, with small budget projects -- or projects in development that won't have a budget until they're already well enough along to go into crowdfunding or pick up a publisher -- you kind of have to work with what you can get. If a piece calls for a Siberian mountain range or Buryat-style shaman, you can't exactly hop a plane.
Keep building, keep refining.