Ballgown with Tulle Skirt (A Not-Really-A-Tutorial Tutorial)

A ballgown with a halter-style black bodice and a floor-length, bell shaped skirt. The bodice is patterned with a metallic gold brocade. The gown is divided into three layers. The first one is shades of layered orange, yellow and red tulle under a light layer of black tulle, which the warm colors show through. The second layer is light green, dark green and light blue under a layer of black tulle. The third layer is dark blue, purple and magenta under a layer of black tulle. One of my Pinterest boards is titled “Paperdoll Reference.” It may as well be titled my “Why Can’t I Draw Like That?” board. I’ll pin dresses with interesting coloring, particularly shiny dresses or dresses with great draping, with the intention of using them to study from. Not being the most diligent artist in the world, I’ve been piling up interesting examples and not doing all that much with them. Then the thought came to me, why not make the learning process into a paper doll outfit? (Everything’s better with paperdolls.) Sort of like a tutorial, except I, too, start out with no clue what I’m doing. Let’s learn together!

If you look through my board, a recurring theme is my fear of tulle. I like to draw nice, sturdy fabrics, you know? If you search my site for “tulle,” you’ll come up with two outfits, and neither of them are particularly great tulle-wise. Whenever I try to do tulle it turns out flat and boring. So when I see a dress like this one with the layered tulle underskirt, this cloudy creation or this elegant pleated tulle skirt, I feel like Mia and Leyla are missing out on a whole world of skirts. I found this pin showing layered tulle effects, and it made me think “Hmm, I can probably do that much.” The page that pin comes from has a whole series of color layer examples.

Sketches of two dresses, one a ballgown with flowers around the shoulders and one a small version of the dress attached to this post.Step 1 is a sketch. I started with a perfectly serviceable ballgown, but really, it’s just too bland. One thing that stuck with me when I read Story was that your first idea is likely to be a cliche, and I’ve found this to be true with paperdolls. As long as I’m challenging myself with layers of tulle, why not challenge myself with lots of tulle? What about three layers with rainbow colors? Here’s what I’m thinking: check out the bottom two images on this pin. Black overlay, colors underneath. How cool would that be in three layers forming a rainbow? We’ll find out.

When I’m looking at an interesting piece of fabric or decoration on Pinterest, I tend to wonder, how is it that our brains know how to process the object depicted in this image as shiny, textured, embroidered and so on? All I’m actually looking at is a flat image made of pixels. It’s the colors that make it look like it has depth or make it look shimmery. That means anything I see can be reproduced, or at least that’s how I like to think of it.

I’m working with digital coloring now, so why not take these layers of tulle literally? I’m going to try to recreate one of them in Photoshop. Let’s say the lower left set. I like its shades of purple and the warm pink peeking out underneath.

Two examples of layered tulle, one a picture with different shades of purple, and one with two major color areas blocked out as an example.Looking at it, I identify two major areas of color within the bulk of the fabric (that is, I’m ignoring the outside area with fewer fabric layers for now). There’s a darker area which is near where it’s gathered at the top and goes all the way down to the edge of the fabric. The thickness is uneven, and it’s split up by triangles of lighter color that have wider bases, don’t go all the way up to the gathered area at the top and also have uneven thicknesses. A lot of the other color swatches can be described in this way, so – sweet, five minutes in I’ve already learned something interesting about tulle. It makes sense, because the gathering makes it thicker at the top, giving the top shades more dominance. Of course, when I turn off my sketch, I remember just how subtle the effect is — it can’t be reduced to two colors so easily. Let’s see what I can do in Photoshop.

An example of my first attempt at drawing tulle, with several transparent layers over each other.I made a black rounded triangle shape at 50% opacity, duplicated it several times and made the top layers just a little larger than the bottom layers. Then I changed each layer from black to one of the colors shown on the image, using a solid color adjustment layer. The effect is pretty purple. Now, what I want is for the upper layers to be less thick in places, showing the lower layers. What’s the best way of doing that?

My first stab at making tulle. The lower layers have been recolored, and the upper layers have been erased to let them show. It's not very good.I tried erasing parts of each layer with a low opacity and flow, fuzzy-edged brush. It’s a start, but it’s also a muddled mess, and it ignores the differences in thickness in each individual layer provided by the folds and gathers. Maybe I’m taking the layer idea too literally?

An image with what looks like an iridescent blue overlay. It's pretty but not tulle-like.I almost always work with hue and saturation adjustment layers, so that the colors can be changed easily. I tried setting up a base peach layer, then building it up with different hue and saturation layers for each level of tulle. Well, I’m on the road to *something*. It’s highly relevant to my interests, but not what I want today. This actually looked pretty decent with two saturation layers, but with more, it got kind of messy.

Another shot at coloring tulle; this one looks pretty but not tulle-like.I took another stab at it, starting with darker layers and working my way towards lighter ones. This looks pretty promising, actually, and you may very well see things colored this way in the future – but it’s not really tulle, is it?

This is about the time where I say to myself, Liana, don’t you think anyone else has ever had this problem before? and go search for tutorials or what have you. This one is close to what I’m interested in: Palnk’s Tulle Tutorial. It suggests making a brush to mimic tulle. Let’s give it a shot.

Another shot at tulle done with the brush. This one looks more textured but still light and layered.My first stab at doing tulle with a brush; it looks much more like tulle than the previous attempts. My first stab at it is pretty promising, if inexpertly executed; my second feels like I’m getting somewhere. The brush is undoubtedly the way to go…

Another stab at tulle; it's starting to look pretty good.I let that percolate overnight and woke up ready to try more brushes. With a new brush, opacity and flow set to 50%, I’m starting to feel like I’m coming up with something I could put on a dress and display to the world. But it’s still just a little too muddled.

A half-circle of tulle. It looks pretty realistic. I try adding a little definition to the edges and middle of the brush itself, so that the sides are automatically more opaque and the middle is less opaque without fiddling with the brush settings. That worked well! I’m really happy about this little peach puff of tulle.

A rudimentary tulle skirt over the doll in Photoshop. The tulle is pretty but too muddled. When I layer two other colors over it, it looks good — but too even somehow. I’m still thinking of that first color test I did, with the lighter triangles at the base. You can see that the effect is similar but too perfect, and I really like that effect of the lower colors peeking through at the base.

The same style skirt with some more coloring added.I’ve been using a path, but if I add a few strokes manually… well, that looks better, doesn’t it?

At this point, I’m thinking of changing the brush, adding extra brushes, and doing other small changes, but I think the best thing would be to go ahead and get started on the dress itself; I’ve got a good idea of how I’m going to do the tulle, and so any more experimentation will be better served actually producing something.

Second large sketch of the dress, done in Procreate.

First large sketch of the dress.I start with re-drawing my initial sketch onto the doll, the first time roughly, the second time more carefully. The skirt I didn’t take much care with — I’m going to be actually making it in Photoshop, so all I really want is a guideline for the general shape and the layer placement. I don’t know how I’ll handle the black and white version, but sufficient unto the day are the paperdoll problems thereof.

A rudimentary tulle skirt in shades of yellow and orange.I did the outline of the bodice, then took a stab at the tulle. I wasn’t thrilled with it, so I experimented with some new brushes, and also came up with the idea of using color dynamics, which let me automatically change colors within a single brushstroke. This image shows the effect of color dynamics – one color is yellow, the other is orange, and the colors it produces are all in between those two colors. Now we’re getting somewhere.

A Photoshop brush to make tulle. It looks like a tall triangle with a rounded top and base.I experimented with brushes: instead of going with the gradient recommended by the original tutorial, I’m making a solid color brush and painting it with shades of grey to make the finished brush stroke lighter in some places and darker in others. It makes less of a floaty effect, but I like having more control over it. (Feel free to snag this brush, Photoshop users! It’s not perfect, but it’s not a bad starting point either.)

I ended up doing the tulle in three layers: the yellow base layer is pretty thick, while the orange and red layer has the tulle spaced out more, so that the yellow layer is visible. I placed the black layers by hand, not by using a path, so I had more control over what went where. I warped the skirt so that it fit around the doll’s waist, and…

The dress in progress, with the first layer of tulle all done.Hey, not bad! Let’s post a teaser pic to Twitter then see about the next two layers.

After all this work, I’m not entirely sure I like the finished dress! It doesn’t look like a rainbow so much as it looks like red, green and purple. You can see in my sketch that I wanted to give the secondary colors a little more weight than they actually got. But the tulle looks good, I think. I’m tempted to redo it, but I think I’d rather move on and make more dresses instead. After all, yesterday my tulle looked like the muddled mess you saw at the beginning of this post. This is what it looks like today; I bet it’ll look pretty great tomorrow. This could be dangerous. I want to do lots and lots of tulle now! You guys will be so sick of tulle by the time I get it out of my system…

Now, I’m aware this isn’t actually a tutorial. When I feel like I really know what I’m doing, I’ll do a proper tutorial on it. In the meantime, I hope it’s been an interesting glimpse into my work!

Next week will be the elf dress from my last contest, plus a new poll to decide on what I’ll do for the next contest. Don’t forget that you can now download combined PDFs of all of my 2014 dolls and outfits for free! Also follow me on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest for sneak previews, paperdoll thoughts and fashion plates. If you enjoy my work, I’d also appreciate your support through Patreon.

12 thoughts on “Ballgown with Tulle Skirt (A Not-Really-A-Tutorial Tutorial)

  1. Hmmm… I agree that it’s not my favorite of your dresses, but I really admire your dedication to learning to do tulle and this was a fascinating glimpse into your process. Makes me want to learn more about coloring with the computer. I think perhaps the edges of the tulle should be fuzzier, because it feels a little stiff to me (if that make sense.) Of course, I never draw tulle, so who am I to judge.

  2. That is incredible and incredibly good!! If I could only get the PDF to link….it just says that page can’t be found. I’ll try back soon; my internet is acting weird so it could be on my end. (Oh, and Karina loves the dress!)

  3. It’s not your internet, dannyscotland; I couldn’t get the PDF to link either. When I clicked on the ‘PDF to print’ button a page just came up that said, “Oops! That page can’t be found” The same thing happened when I clicked the ‘Black and White’ button.

    Do you know what’s going on, Liana?

    1. Sarah, dannyscotland, I can’t fix it at the moment, but the link is messed up — just look at the whole link, delete everything before the second and try again. I must have forgotten the http:// part or something like that? I will be able to fix it later on, anyways. Sorry about that!

  4. I like the process! There’s so much I could stand to learn about Photoshop. I like the silhouette of the dress but less so the colors. I’m excited to see what else you can do with your tulle!

    1. I know, I’ve been using Photoshop for a long time and I still feel like I’ve got so much to learn. (And I’m using a version that’s a decade out of date — I don’t even want to know what the new versions can do!)

  5. I recently bought paperdolls on Amazon for my mixed media projects. And downloaded both Color and b&w from your collection also for mixed media projects. I absolutely love them. Thanks for making them. :)

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