Friday, August 22, 2008

Tips & Techniques: Homage to Parkinson

When commissioned to do the three chapter header illustrations for D&D's recently released "Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide," I was specifically asked for one of the pieces to be a partial homage to Keith Parkinson's classic image for the much earlier Box Set. I was thrilled to do so--I played D&D in that era, and I've expressed more than once my admiration for Keith's work and thrill in meeting him before he passed away.

Wish I had a better scan to show here

First off, let me state openly: the 4th Edition 1.5-page chapter headers are an illustrator's dream: having a major line like D&D institute a few large pieces like these is a major turn-around from the constant small 1/4-page color illustrations the books had been using increasingly. Let me also state, for those who might be a little turned off by the art in this book: I was surprised as anyone to see how crazy-dark the images reproduced seemingly across-the-board. I don't know what went wrong as I even sent my original paintings in to be photographed, but hopefully this blog post helps show what the art was meant to look like...apart from cross-monitor differences and stuff.... I know my own scans certainly captured the art much better.

While Keith's is a romantic straight-ahead portrait of character, my assignment was much more narrative. I was to show that character rushing away from some huge energy vortex in the distance, and a bunch of animals fleeing it as well. Fair enough. The details were left to me, and I intended to include as many references to Keith's painting as I could. So, the landscape would be recognizeable (although floating landmasses needed to be added), the figure recognizeable--though I intended to age him some--and the palette still muted and overall grayed-out. With that in mind, the digital thumbnails followed.

L image was concept 4 and the R was number 6, but these were my finalists

I was given the template for the page layouts, since none had been published yet, showing where the gutter would be, and where the chapter header would encroach on the image. I kept these present throughout concepting so that nothing too important fell into those areas. Even at this crazy-sketchy phase, I try to keep my value (dark/light) structure in focus. It'll become more varied, but it's important that dark and light read relatively well even at this stage. As you can see, I'm not at all concerned with detail here, just shape-making. Art directors don't see these thumbnails (except here, after the fact) because as you can see, they are ugly as baby vultures.

Next up was reference hunting and drawing. Here the character started to take some shape. I made a few distinct changes, but not many, as I wanted the character to definitely be the same guy. At this point, the first thing that would go would be his shield. After a few years of adventuring, certainly his shield would've been battered to uselessness. So I replaced it. But, with so unique a shield as he had, certainly he'd also make a visit to the same shield-maker for its replacement, so I gave my shield another face-design.

~11x14" Pencil on paper

Typically, I then scan the drawing and use a multiply layer to do a grayscale. This is what I send to the art director for approvals. I am sometimes told by art directors that I really go overboard on my prep-work, and having seen some other artists' submission-sketches, I probably do. But, I prefer my art directors have a very clear idea of what's coming so there are few surprises later for either of us. I also enjoy the drawing part.

As with the other two illustrations I submitted sketches for, I skated by with no changes required (a rarity for most projects), and so set to work on the painting. I worked a bit larger than usual--all 3 paintings were done at 14x18". This is a standard size for original art, but is wider than the printed art, so I designed it to work in the printed frame, but included a bit more on the sides to fill the standard 14x18" size.

Before beginning, I ran it by an artist friend who gave a couple of small pointers. One of them was to raise the deer into a higher leap, which I changed before beginning the final. I also adjusted the anatomy on the horse and rider, and the angle of his lean.

I really enjoyed walking in Keith's footsteps for this piece, and it's easily my favorite of the 3 images I created. This was predictable, since the other two were location-establishing shots, and I tend to prefer more figurative pieces. I'll leave you with a detail, which shows much of what isn't visible in the printed piece:

I also took the liberty of giving him a change of clothes. I mean, years of the same-colored tunic and pants would make them terribly stinky. His steed (the same one), also got a few decorative touches added to his tack. Certainly after gathering up all that loot in his adventures, he'd splurge a bit on his trusty steed? As a tiny little detail, apparently somewhere along the way he busted one of the decorative cross-bars on his helmet.

I never titled the piece properly. Usually, I'd title it the title of the chapter, but since this chapter was creatively titled, "Magic," I feel like the painting might need a little more. Suggestions welcome.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

All Points West 2008

What with the Beijing Olympics on the TV behind me where I work and last weekend's All Points West Festival (I attended Friday evening only), it's been tough to stay focused between conventions.

My last concerts, sad to say, were over a year ago. I love live shows, but man--the cost! So I headed down to the APW in the afternoon to catch the two acts I paid to see, really: Andrew Bird and Radiohead.

I discovered Bird last fall right around the time of my series of unfortunate events. Though I pick up albums here and there, really only one or two dig themselves in deep. While the other albums will get some play, the one or two will invariably dominate my ears for about 6 months straight. From October through March of this year or so, it was the two Bird albums I mentioned earlier, just about non-stop. He came through San Francisco when I was in California for a stint during that time; I couldn't afford the show and life had me down, so I stayed home kicking myself instead.

Seeing him live (front row center) was fantastic. He's known for changing songs quite a bit live, and his show feels like it's about to go off the rails at any second. Playing multiple violin parts which he loops live, along with very proficient whistling, glockenspiel, guitar, and singing is like watching Bugs Bunny trying to manage his one-man band act. But then the drummer gets into the act with more live-looping of drum and keyboard portions. When it works it's very, very fun to watch and gorgeous sounding. He jumps back and forth between instruments frequently mid-song, and I've heard some shows where he misses cues or has to start over. No such mess-ups on Friday.

I didn't bring a camera, unfortunately

Radiohead I haven't seen since the OK Computer tour. I consider that album to be the best rock album of the 90s, so when they delivered their next two albums they felt like someone you were great friends with went off to college, got all into drugs and stuff and you hardly recognized them by winter break. And yes, OK Computer was one of those 6 month albums, too. I've kept up with them though and after the most recent two albums felt like seeing them again.

On both stages the sound was probably the best live sound I've ever heard. Clean separation of instruments, deep silky bass, clear vocals, loud but not ear-splitting. The weather was good (for a change) and I thoroughly enjoyed myself...except for when a gal passed out behind me. Radiohead had a good show, though there are a few slow, plodding numbers that did kill the momentum here and there. They were the exact opposite of Bird, rendering nearly note-for-note reproductions of their recorded songs.

The main stage was a good 3/4 mile or more away from the light rail station. When the show ended, fearing a huge delay getting home as tons of people made their way to the station, I took advantage of my running to basically bypass everyone and hop on the very next train. I win!

And with that, time to pack it up and head to Indy again!

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Tips and Techniques: Anna

Recently, we had a friend staying with us from our time in Italy. She's always found the fact that I'm a painter/illustrator to be very interesting. This time, she expressed an interest in watching me paint...and with a moment's further deliberation, switched to asking if I might paint her! That's a pretty bold move, as most people would never ask, for fear of seeming imposing or something. However, since I was already preparing to do some plein-air painting or something so she could watch, subject matter wasn't at issue--I'd already decided to take the time to do it. So I said yes and she was tickled pink at the prospect of being painted by a "professional artist." I found her enthusiasm refreshing and we set a time when she'd sit for a couple of hours.

I pulled out a prepared canvas. It was primed some time ago with multiple layers of Acrylic Gesso, and I put down a basic underpainting of sludge-gray on it. Basically, at one point I was cleaning out my thinner jar--at the bottom a sludge is formed from paint cleaned off the brushes. This nasty stuff is typically gray-brown or gray-green, and is fairly unusable as paint alone, since the oil has completely thinned out of it in the turp--it's just wet pigment. So, I rubbed some Liquin on the canvas to create a new binder to replace the lost oil, then scrubbed out some of the sludge onto the canvas, giving it an overall gray underpainting. Not a uniform flat gray, mind you, I left some parts with more or less canvas showing through for interest. Gray itself is a fairly traditional underpainting color. Since I didn't know what I'd eventually paint on it, it also served as a neutral multi-purpose base. I prepared a few small canvases this way, recycling much of my sludge rather than dumping it. I'm so green (read: cheap).

I set up my paints and used a lamp in the living room as the sole light source. Using this warm light in conjunction with her raven-colored hair and black turtleneck would serve to create more a composition of value than color--the color palette would be very limited. This would help create a quicker painting, since the more colors involved, typically the more time involved mixing and matching and planning the greater variety.

She wanted her hand in the composition, so I had her lay it across her black turtleneck, where it would break up the black shape there. Then I began.

Sludge-gray still visible in the hand/arm at this point.

First I rubbed some Walnut Oil over the rough and dry surface. This would allow my paint to slip along the canvas, increasing flow and helping me paint with strokes as I pleased. I began the painting with Cassel Earth, a fairly toxic nearly-black brown that I've used quite a bit lately. The tube is almost out, and I'm hoping to create a less-toxic replacement by mixing other colors, as it's been incredibly useful. I used this Cassel Earth pigment to quickly block out the proportions, and I intended on making it work as the actual black color of her hair and sweater. Having established the darkest points of the painting, I then sought to establish the lightest areas--in this case, the background, since it was a lighter value than her skin.

My little over-easel lamp was bent down so that it lit my work area, but didn't bleed over and give her a secondary light source. Typically I have it higher, angled down. It changed the way the light bounced off the wet paint, and glared off the wet surface. I painted almost all of this with #8 and #4 filbert brushes, my usual brushes. The #2 sablettes, which make up the third brush I typically use with the other two for 90% of all my painting, were only brought in for small little details at the end. They get much heavier use on my tighter illustrations.

As well, I found that some of the colors were soaking into the base very quickly--their oil was being sucked out by the under layers, which apparently didn't have enough binder in them. This made dark areas go matte very quickly, which you can easily see in her hair in the photo above. Sometimes this can be prevented by rubbing a layer of Liquin or something oily on top of the dried under painting and letting it dry, as a final prep-stage. It helped that this wasn't a very long painting, and that the sunken-in areas were primarily the "black" portions--since they were going to be very dark anyway, I didn't feel concerned that there'd be great surprises there later.

In the end, I had a reasonably decent portrait, painted live, in 2 hours; faster than I expected, and aided by the simple dark shapes of her clothing and hair. Another hour could've provided the time if she'd been blonde, or had a colored sweater on that revealed more folds and such, or to simply futher articulate her hand and head. And, it was a decent likeness, to boot--often a portrait can look like a well-painted head, yet not really resemble the person. Even the old masters would occasionally run into this issue, with a patron refusing payment on a painting where the likeness was off.

9x12" Oils on Canvas, 2 hours

I've been really wanting to do more figure painting (as opposed to the life drawing I've done a lot of), so it wasn't much of a sacrifice to do this--my last live painted portrait was done in...'02? I'd have to check.

Friday, August 01, 2008

4,198 words about Comic-Con

If I didn't have to work it, I'm not sure I'd actually attend San Diego Comic-Con. I know that's heresy to the ears of some. Growing from ~150 attendees its first year to ~130,000 this year, it's just not something I think I could brave. The cost of attending, the murderous hotel rates that week, the line...oh, dear God, the lines to get in, get free stuff, get autographs.... The crushing crowds in every interesting aisle. There are lots of cool things to do and see at Comic-Con, I'm just not sure I have the constitution to deal with it.

As an attendee, I get to skip most of those things, but the price paid is seeing very little of the show. Still, much of the circus passes by my area, and so I get to experience some of the fun the attendees bring to the event. I always forget my camera at these things, so I've relied on my friend Ben's shots. It's hard to describe the beast that Comic-Con is, so these few photos should help more than my words.

I call this proper parenting