All the small things - Ryan Lang's Mouseguard Painting Analysis

I've been thinking a lot about storytelling in painting, and the ideas and techniques that go into a good keyframe painting....and that naturally brings me to Ryan Lang.  Ex-Disney Visdev, concept artist and all-around bad-ass...super nice guy too.  Anyway, I thought I would take a look at a panel he did for a Mouseguard comic, because it is incredibly cinematic, and probably helped get Mouseguard optioned as a movie property.

Ryan Lang's Mouseguard painting

Ryan Lang's Mouseguard painting

Wow!  This one exudes dynamic energy and action, and there are some interesting choices to observe too.  First off, all the characters are pointed straight to the right.  He's laid out the mice in poses that accentuate their triangle heads, and each one makes an arrow pointed in one direction.  At the same time, he has so many diagonals to increase tension.  The swords, the leaves, the slope of the heads, the rocks...basically, nothing in this painting is horizontal.  Taken as a whole, the image looks like it points slightly up, like they are climbing - or "Taking the Hill!"  Think about the famous "Marines on Iwo Jima" image and look at how this uses the same cues.

Unlike a lot of the paintings I seem to post, this is very much high key.  The light blasts from the background, obscuring details and making *yet more* graphic shapes to lead the eye.  We tend to think of these sorts of shapes as coming from shadows, but Ryan proves you can use highlights just as well.

Colour choices are also very warm.  Even the coolest grey in the painting is a desaturated red.  He's limited his palette to a narrow band of tones and kept everything very unified.

2 tones

2 tones

When we look at the 2-tone read, we can certainly see those highlight shapes as graphic elements!  Interestingly, it looks like the lights and darks are pretty balanced, but we are seeing the lights on the left and the darks on the right - conflict!

3 values

3 values

The greys are mostly used for the background, the characters are still either light or dark.  Bodies are dark, heads are bright...this gives us more contrast, and in all cases, the edge is right at the eyeline, which draws our focus to the important parts of the mice.

4 values

4 values

The four-value read just continues the information set up in the 3 value one.  The eyes are black, and still touch the rimlights.  I don't get a lot more information from the 4-value read, but it does give a sense of depth.

The subject

The subject

I like the way he's rendered the fur - It goes with the contour, and all comes to a point at the nose - definitely increases the sense of movement!  This isn't very painterly, except for the sword and the hand, which are quite "chunky".  The sub surface scattering on the ears is amazing.  I would say the shadows were created with the lasso+gradient tool.  There are a few "cross contour" strokes on the cloak from the highlights racking across, but mostly, this would be very graphic were it not for the gradients of value.

CHARGE!!!!

CHARGE!!!!

I love this guy, and I think he's selling a LOT of the action to this painting.  Rendering is done much the same as the foreground guard, but with less detail.  Ryan is a master of "faking" lenses in a painting, and he's starting to apply a depth of field blur, particularly on the left hand (paw?)

Not Legolas

Not Legolas

The archer is the other character that sells the action.  He's more in shadow than the other two, and really very graphic when you break it down.  It's all about that gesture though!

What?  Who's this guy?

What?  Who's this guy?

I confess, I missed seeing this mouse the first time I looked at the painting.  Except for his ear, he blends with the background and that rock.  It's a really cool third read when you see him though!  Talking about depth of field, this is a good section to see how the leaves get blurry as they go back into the image.  Ryan uses that more than value or stroke changes to sell the different planes, and it makes it feel very cinematic - which is the goal!

Learnings:

  1. Don't be afraid to use big swaths of very bright as design elements.  
  2. As much as to define form, strokes can help reinforce the direction you are supposed to look.
  3. Depth of field can be established with blurring as well as changes in paint treatment.

 

I hope you enjoyed going through Ryan's painting with me, please share with any friends you think might value from it :)