Character Design Self-Teaching.

I decided to spend a couple of days unpacking the character design logic from Gears of War.  My own personal characters have tended towards a minimalism that I got from Alex Toth being a huge influence on me, and I'm trying to broaden my style to make it a bit more current.  The GoW style is *too* micro-detail for my personal tastes, but I thought pushing past my comfort zone might be a good way to learn.

I started with a relatively simple design from the GoW3 art book, and did a master copy.

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Next, I was interested in how they portrayed women as well as men, so I found a picture of a 3D model of one of the characters, and drew that as well.

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As my third and final (for now) master copy, I found one of the characters that was "bursting" with micro-detail, and copied him.

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Only after those 3 studies did I attempt to apply the design language to my own character.  I didn't try to slavishly copy exactly, but rather to learn the ideas of the master copies and apply them my way.

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I had a lot of fun with this process, and I recommend it for anyone who is trying to stretch their visual libraries and sense of design.  Learn first by observing and copying, and then try to take that to your own idea.

 

Thanks for reading!

Let's get Cinematic!

Maybe you are a character artist looking to understand backgrounds.  Maybe you're trying to break into comics.  Maybe you want to figure out how to tell dynamic and dramatic stories visually.  Maybe you want to learn how to storyboard.

Let me recommend an amazing resource for you:

https://movie-screencaps.com

This site automatically grabs HD screencaps from bluray movies every 2 seconds (I think).  Every movie has literally hundreds or thousands of screen captures.

Study them.  Use them as lighting references.  Examine where characters are standing in relationship to each other, or background elements.  Hell, if you are a student, replicate them using your own characters!

While I'm working on my "Beyond Human" challenge on artstation, I'm deep diving into the work of Roger Deakins, because I want to try and capture some of the essence of his cinematography in my keyframe paintings.  I am *blown* away.  Stuff like this:

Folks, this is great visual storytelling.  You know instantly this is NOT a friendly chat.  They are divided.  You know he's the one with the upper hand - his pose is relaxed, hers is not, and he has the phone on his side of the frame.  She blends into the shot because she matches the warms, he is a shock to the system with the blue.  So many people just look at shots of shit blowing up, but *this* is where real story telling happens.

Or this:

Bond may think he has it covered, but this frame is telling us his back is exposed.  He is vulnerable.  This kind of story telling is what great movies do incredibly well, and this site gives you hundreds of movies to look at.  You don't need to watch the films, and in fact, looking at them this way helps me to step outside of the story and really study them.  I tend to get sucked in by motion, music and dialog, which is great for enjoyment, but less good for learning.

Anyway, back to studying for me, I hope this is helpful for you!

Update on the master copies

Hey guys, I don't have a lot to talk about today, but I thought I'd share some of the copies I've been doing recently.

So, as of 2 weeks ago, I had done two Sargent studies.  I did a few more of those, ending with this one:  

 Sargent mastercopy

Sargent mastercopy

After that, I did two J. Allen St. John studies - If you don't know him, he's kinda the "proto-Frazetta" of the 20th century.

I wanted to try a photo-study instead of a painting, to work out my own ways of simplifying shapes and values.

To mix things up, this morning I went into DAZ studio, rendered out a figure, and then did a study of that.

I liked that one, but I didn't have time to "bake in" good lighting, so I spent a bit more time today pushing things past where I'd normally take them, and then putting away the reference and adding lighting to make it "pop".

To me, this is the point of doing these copies.  No one cares if you can replicate the  work of an ancient master - you're doing it to push yourself to try new things, and find new ways of problem solving.  After you've done that, you should try to apply those tools to your own work.  I can see some of the things I learned from the Sargents and the St. John studies in today's painting, which is as it should be.  I also feel like I'm learning a ton and getting better very quickly.  Even just doing 1-2 hours of studies a day has had a huge impact on my ability to straight up paint and render.  All of these were done on one layer in photoshop with no textures or photos.

Anyway, I'm sorry I don't have a more text-heavy update, I hope you've enjoyed seeing some of my progress :)  If you start doing daily studies like this, please, let me know your results :)

 

Stop copying me! - NO.

Hey guys, sorry I missed Thursday's update, but hey, better late than never, right?

This last week, I've been trying to paint outside of my comfort zone.  I've been doing "straight" painting, mostly one layer, no photos, no 3D, based on a drawn sketch.  It's been fun, and frustrating.  I feel like I got a lot of out of it, which is awesome - But one of the things I got out of it was confirmation of some fairly large weaknesses, which feels less awesome.

I've ALWAYS hated learning to do other people's stuff.  I hated learning other bands' songs when I was a musician, and I've never liked mastercopies as a visual artist.  After seeing my shortcomings stare me in the face on Thursday though, I am biting the bullet.  I could figure out how to solve all my problems on my own, but WHY?  There have been painters for thousands of years, and studying what they've done keeps me from having to re-invent the wheel.

I'm starting off with Sargent, 'cause I love his stuff, and because he's great at characters, which is definitely an area I need to improve.  I started yesterday with a one-hour study of Madame X:

One hour isn't enough to get the subtle brilliance of Sargent - but I can do it as a warm-up at work most days, and I'm hoping at the stage I'm at, we're talking 80/20 rule.

This morning, I did another hour study, this time of a Sargent self portrait.

If things go as I am planning, tomorrow I'm going to try for a longer session, and one that has multiple figures and a background.

I am also happy to report that I'm having more fun doing these than I thought I would.  Instead of being tedious, I'm seeing it as a puzzle, and a chance to really push my observation.

Because it's what I want to work on, all of these, while digital, are done on one layer.  I am sampling colours sometimes from the original, because I know I can match colour, it just takes longer.  What I'm focusing on is strokes, and *which* colours are laid down next to each other.  Remember, when you are doing a master-copy, there is no such thing as "cheating."  You can do it 100% by eye with no tracing or sampling if you want to, and that will be helpful - but you can also chose to focus on the things you feel you need the most work on, and recognize that you don't have enough hours in the day to do everything the hard way.

Anyway - once again, sorry I'm 2 days late, and thanks for reading!

 

Am I boring?

I think that's a question that most artists ask themselves from time to time.  We make work that doesn't sing to us, we seem to be lacking in new ideas, and people seem "ho-hum" about what we do.  It's easy to let that fear of being boring creep in.

Rather than tell you "You aren't boring!", let's break up what we are doing.

1.  Very little is actually boring.  I've seen paintings of simple pastoral life that made my heart race.  You don't need starships exploding off the arm of Orion for your work to be engaging.

2.  In the wrong hands, almost anything can be boring.  I find 2/3rds of the work out there I see "boring", mostly because I've seen things just like it dozens of times before.  Someone who isn't "in the business" won't have that same reaction.  This brings us to a common point - Who are you making work for?  If you want art directors to respond, you have to acknowledge that they've seen the obvious stuff many times, and might be tired of it.  If you want the public to respond - Go with the with obvious stuff.  There is a reason wedding magazines have a 3 year cycle for basically the exact same articles - your public will consume it, find value in it, and then move on.  By the time someone is bored, you will have hopefully found new people.

3.  Is your work not up to the level it needs to be to engage the audience you want?  We will drill into this one, 'cause I think it's actionable and worth addressing.  You might not be skilled enough yet for the markets you are trying to engage.  Either you try and fail in the execution of something interesting, or (and this is what I struggle with), you stay with what is *safe* when you conceive of projects, so you don't get that last 20%, which is the part that gives all the *oomph!* to a piece.

Ok, you're not good enough.  We can work with this.  You gotta take a long, hard, and probably painful look at your failings though.

At the highest level, do you have the painting/drawing technique you need to execute your vision?  If not...keep practicing.  You're going to fail 1,000 times before your make consistently boring work, and then you're going to make 1,000 boring paintings before you get consistently interesting.  

If you've gotten past the "abject failure" stage and to the "boring" stage, what is holding your work back?

If you can paint/draw components that really work, but the whole is failing, you probably need to work on your composition, and your "drama."  It's beyond the scope of this post to give suggestions on that, but people like Chris Oatley have classes and schools dedicated to learning "Painting Drama."  The good news is, this is a pretty quick fix for most people.  Once you learn where you're going wrong, you should be overcoming the boring problem pretty quickly.

Next question - Are your designs stale?  Do your soldiers look generic, and your aliens elicit shrugs from viewers?  I have a couple of suggestions, and these are things I'm working on myself.  

First - USE MORE REFERENCE.  The biggest cause of boring designs is a lack of the details that make things feel authentic.

Second - VARY YOUR SOURCES.  If you want to make cool designs, you need to look past the things you see every day.  Don't copy video games if you want to make cool video game characters.  That was fine when you were learning the techniques, but now you have to expand your pool of sources.  Try to pull from real life.  Use photos when you can't use your eyes.  Don't spend too much time looking at other artists' work.  

Third - GO OUTSIDE WHAT IS OBVIOUS.  The easiest, and most common way to do this is to include elements that, at first glance, don't make sense.  The easiest way to train yourself to do this is to create lists of elements, and then randomly combine them and force yourself to do something cool with them.  If you are a character artist, I highly recommend the Reckless Deck  for this.  You can come up with the same thing for props and environments, just make some lists and then roll dice to pull elements off of them.  The other thing I recommend is to make sure you are pulling from sources you don't know very well.  If you put the same ingredients into the same soup every day for dinner, you're going to get bored of it.  Think of something that terrifies you to draw, and incorporate that into your design.

Fourth - EMBRACE MISTAKES.  This is one reason I love drawing and designing with a fountain pen.  You can't erase anything, and you have to work with the lines you put down.  There have been times where I deliberately just gashed out the ugliest line I could think of on top of my half finished design, because it required me to work in new ways to fix things.  The eraser is the arch-enemy of interesting design.  Perfection is achieved at the end, not during the process.

Thanks for reading, I hope this helped think through some of these things - If you can think of another cause/cure for boring work, I'd love to hear about it :)

Excuse me, Stewardess, I speak Disney.

I was thinking about something that no one talked about in school, but has come to have a great deal of importance to me as I create artwork AND as I work professionally.

Design Language

What is it?  What does it mean?  How does it relate to style?

Ok, the first thing we need to remember, ALWAYS as we make art - We are not copying reality, even a cartoon reality.  Those of us who draw and paint are faking it.  We are creating a representation of something, not the actual something.  I'll speak in terms of environments, but it applies to characters too:  Our worlds end a millimeter after the edge of the frame.  You can't enter them, regardless of what illusions we spin.  The end result of our labours is a message to people's brains telling them what to think.  It is the visual equivalent to an essay describing a place.

Just like essays, our work is made up of sentences - The subject, the lighting, the angle, the camera lens....and just like sentences, these things are created with language.  It is this language we call a design language.

Humour me for a sec, and continue with the essay metaphor - I could write an essay in English, French, Japanese....that's the broadest of categories, and visually could be likened to "painting", "drawing", "photograph" or whatever.  Let's pick English for our essay.  Now, who is your target audience?  You're going to use different words for old people, college educated people, teens or toddlers.  There are generally understood ways to communicate with each group.  In design terms - There's a look to concept art, to architectural drafting and to book covers.  As you write your essay, you might pull words or phrases from other target audiences for colour, or to punch an idea home, and that is how you see different techniques blend together in visual communication.

At the most granular level of essay, you're going to write a different way than I will.  The lowest level of your design language is your "style", that which separates you from someone else making the same image.  Someone used to writing for toddlers might not do a great job writing a college essay - There will be design languages that work better with your techniques than others.  The design language often used by French comic artists  meshes well with my personal drawing style.  If I tried to use a tonal language like a water colourist, I'd have a much harder time.

Think of your style as your accent, and the design language is the actual language you're trying to use.  Some accents lend themselves well to the language, and some....don't.  It's much harder to change your accent (although not impossible) than it typically is to switch languages.  If you grew up speaking Japanese, French is probably going to be hard for you....and Spanish will be much easier.

Ok, so a design language is a way to simplify information and convey it in a way that is understandable and appropriate to the audience.  The design language of stereotypical toddlers for a house is a triangle for a roof and a square for the structure.  The sun has a smiley face.  If you wanted to replicate that language, you'd use flat perspective and simple shapes, with no real worry about scale.

Most cartoons try to have a unique design language that represents them...so you know instantly when you flip by on the tv that your show is on.  Colour, shapes, textures, size relationships - all important.  If you want to work on that show, it's not enough to be a good artist, you have to be able to bend your personal style into that design language framework.  If you can't speak English without an accent that makes your words almost impossible to understand, I'm not going to hire you to be my mouthpiece.  This is why it is important to work in multiple mediums and with multiple methodologies.  The more languages you can speak, the more useful you are as an interpreter.  

The other cool thing about design languages is that you can make NEW ones.  If you did a good job, people will understand what you are saying.  If you do a very good job, you can be like Mike Mignola with Hellboy, and create a language that will be emulated for years by people with things to say.  

My drawing style, as I mentioned, has a fair amount in common with the French comics artists of the 60s-80s.  When I copy from photographs, I'm less trying to copy exactly what I see then I am to try to find a way to abstract into repeatable shapes - to create words for my design language.  I can draw thousands of rocks in my own way, and they *look* like rocks, because I have tapped into a design language that makes sense.  I don't have to copy a real rock, or someone else's drawing of a rock, to make one that looks "right."

This last week, I've been trying to do the same thing with industrial, man-made spaces.  I want to strengthen my ability to speak "factory", so I'm not limited to parroting back other people's way of expressing that idea.

I hope you found this interesting, and that when you look at someone else's work, you spend a little time trying to see the design language they are using - What are the rules?  What ties how they draw rocks to how they draw trees, to how they draw characters - and what's different?

To all my friends at CTN-Expo this weekend, have a great time!  I wish I was there with you :)

 

Wayne Haag - Scorch Trials concept art analysis

Wayne is a great guy; I met him a couple of years ago at IlluxCon, and I love his work.  I'm still working on my "subway" piece for my personal project, so I wanted to see how other artists handle pushing the background back when there isn't a lot of atmospheric perspective or depth.  I saw this piece and thought it would be worth a closer look.

 The painting.

The painting.

Ok, this is *definitely* a low-key lighting scenario!  We've got our two characters in a pool of light, and a couple of other spots to lead our eyes around a bit and to sell why everything isn't just pitch dark...and that's about it.

Composition-wise, he's gone with a very centered piece...the characters are *just* off the middle.  It helps give the piece a sense of stillness - peace in a world gone mad.  The fact that the entire ruins are laid out diagonally further emphasizes that chaos.

Like a LOT of the concept art I've been looking at lately, it's basically monochromatic.  His shirt stands out as being saturated and green, while her paler clothes punch out from value.  The background has a very slight gradient from warm to cool as things come forward into the composition.

In terms of technique - Wayne is a matte painter, and you see that skillset here.  Lots of photo textures, and maybe some 3D?  It does get quite loose as you move into the darker corners, particularly to the left side of the image.

 2 values

2 values

Wow!  Yeah, low-key lighting!  The girl is OBVIOUSLY the subject of this painting - everything else fades away to nothing.

 3 values

3 values

Not a lot of difference from the 2-value read.

 4 values

4 values

It isn't until we reach 4 values that the guy shows up at all.  We're getting a couple of nice grey spots to break up the composition, but this image was designed with a 2 value read in mind.

 The people.

The people.

The two characters actually look a lot like 3D models (which is fine with me)  I would say they were lit in a 3D package and left pretty much alone, at least in terms of opaque paint.  There may be some overlay/softlight blending modes to punch up the lighting a bit, but I think this core part of the image was done with 3D and then not changed that much.  Nice to see, there is enough pushback from people who don't know better that sometimes I feel guilty not doing more photoshop work on top, but this is concept art, and it works.  Wayne can paint like a sonofabitch, so 3D is a choice for him, not a crutch.

 The midground path to our characters.

The midground path to our characters.

I like this section, because it gives the viewer a way into the painting.  Wayne has simplified the chaos in this area to give us a space of rest and a place to understand the geometry of the world.  Lots of photo texturing, and I'd call this fairly tight, although the further back you go, the looser it becomes.

 The left side.

The left side.

I know this is dark, but take a look at it, because it has the most obvious photoshop brush strokes.  Wayne has used them to simplify the noise, and to subconsciously make us *NOT* look at this part of the image carefully.

 

Learnings:

  • FRAME YOUR SUBJECT.  Your story/image has one point, make sure it is the important part.
  • Don't let your photos/textures take control.  Even when you want chaos, make sure it is organized where it needs to be for you.
  • 3D is fine in concept art.  You don't have to waste time hiding it *if* it works.

Thanks for examining the painting with me!  If you want to see more of Wayne's work, check out his artstation or his website.

 

What's next after #inktober?

Here we are, 2/3rds of the way through #inktober.  Are you guys doing it?  Have you managed to keep up with it, or let it slide?  I hope at least it's got you thinking about personal projects, and daily practice!

 One of my inktober sketches.

One of my inktober sketches.

 

...but what next?

If you listen to any designer, they'll tell you that ideas are important, but studying the real world and applying it to those ideas is critical.  It is by using an reinterpreting the "real world" that our designs become fresh while simultaneously maintaining that critical sense of authenticity.

To that end, I'd like to propose an idea for November.  #Photovember  Every day, take a picture that can be used as reference for a project.  For me, it's going to be the project that I worked on in #inktober.  If you didn't have a unified theme to #inktober, spend the next 2 weeks coming up with some kind of idea you can explore for the month of November - a story, or monsters, or spaceships....something!

In terms of the sorts of pictures you take - that completely depends on you.  If you want to set up models and figures and do actual reference shots of your idea, GREAT!  Maybe you take a picture of a texture that would be perfect for the wall of a building in your project.  Maybe you think the fender of that H2 Hummer could be used as part of your spaceship design.

The important part is to try to train yourself to see design elements all around you, and to record them.  It's not about taking good pictures, or getting a million likes on your Instagram for your super-sweet drawing of Deadpool, it's about SEEING, and having the discipline to look outside of what you already have in your mind's visual library.

I admit it, you're probably not going to gain followers from this month of work.  I'm going to post my pictures, so you can see how I'm thinking through things, but that's not the point.  If you can do this every day for a month, you will have probably spent far more than your usual amount of time breaking down the world around you into usable chunks, and THAT will improve your art.  It doesn't matter if you work digitally, traditionally, or some combination of the two.  It doesn't matter if you take the actual photos and slap them into your paintings as textures, or just look at them to see how you can recreate the desired elements with a pencil.

We all have phones with cameras - it doesn't take any more tech or preparation than that.  I hope you join me.  I'll be posting my shots to my instagram, which you can get to from the top menu of this website if you want to follow along with me.

I hope you join me for #photovember - Thanks for reading!

Charlie Wen - Guardians of the Galaxy Analysis

Charlie Wen is one of my favorite film concept artists, and Guardians of the Galaxy one of my favorite Marvel films.  I'm also trying to nail down a crowd scene keyframe painting in an urban environment.  Time to do some research!

 The painting

The painting

The first thing that strikes me with this image is how he has simultaneously posed his main characters like bad-asses, and made it feel like there is life and movement in the image.  It's cool how he's put Starlord and Rocket basically on a flat stage, and yet there is tremendous depth!

Look at the shape design as well.  Lots of verticals, but also diagonals leading into the center of the image.  Rocket's gun, Starlords right leg, the curves of the awnings and that circular portal - they all add a rhythm to the horizontal stage and the vertical buildings.

The guy in the upper left is super daring for me.  He's pointed off camera and he's framed by himself, and yet he doesn't distract from the subject.  I think the fact that his darks key into the shadows on the wall help integrate him as an element...also, the contrast of that section is very low.

Oh - speaking of those wall shadows - look how they are design elements that don't make ANY sense based on the lighting on the foreground characters. - I buy that they are coming from something offscreen left, but why does it point right to Quinn's foot and then stop?  He's not casting it, but that's what it looks like!

 2 value read.

2 value read.

Although the brights are super-bright and make this feel high key, the 2-value read tells a different story - this is actually a dark painting.  The "frame within a frame" is clearly visible, as is the fact he's used bands of light to add depth.

 3 values

3 values

Here we get a strong sense that Starlord is more important than Rocket....as is that sphere he's carrying.  Almost no brights in the background at all, it's all on that stage, bringing our heroes forward.

 4 value read

4 value read

As is often the case, 4 values pretty much gives us the complete painting.  Notice that even here, the dude in the upper left is still almost completely unnoticeable.  Rocket is also standing out more from the background, but still doesn't pop like Quinn.

 Starlord!

Starlord!

Quinn is definitely the highest rendered thing in this painting, and even he is pretty blocky.  Highlights have been used to carve out the shapes of his form  Different areas are separated by either rimlights or extreme shadows, making him almost a drawing.  I love the use of colour and texture splatters on his coat to add interest.  Check out the warm bounce light on his boots, and the VERY warm shadow edges on the ground.

 Rocket.

Rocket.

Same kind of thing going on for Rocket, but he's a lot more in shadow, and there is a lot less detail on his costume.  Still some cool bounce light, and his gun is basically just defined by black and then rimlights.  There's some interesting reds in his fur, but very little real "fur" rendering.

This is a pretty cool micro-composition, and goes a long way to adding to that sense of "place" and activity in the painting.  It's just shapes, silhouettes and colour, with some unifying texture on top.

 Midground characters

Midground characters

The midground characters on the other side are almost as loose.  Notice they can be reduced to dark-light-dark-light-dark shapes, and the final 'dark' one makes Starlord's jacket pop out.  I love the guy on the steps....yes, I like loose stuff :)

 Background peeps.

Background peeps.

Speaking of loose, check out these folks!  Again, dark-light-dark-light, and just there purely as suggestive forms....way more effective than using a blur to simulate camera focal length in this particular style of painting.

Learnings:

  • You can have a flat stage with a lot of depth, as long as you are conscious of using colour, tone and form to overlay each other and recede into the background.
  • Bounce light is killer
  • Your shadows don't have to make sense, as long as they make your composition work.
  • In the far background, less is almost always more.
  • Don't be afraid to put your brightest bright on the ground to make your characters pop.  Highest contrast should be around your subject, but doesn't have to be contained within it.

 

Thanks for reading, I really appreciate it!  I hope this was interesting and/or helpful :)

Establishing the point.

A couple of people have talked to me about "backgrounds" lately, so I thought I might do a bit of series about my thoughts on the kinds of painting I love doing.

First of all, backgrounds are just one kind of environment painting.  They give context to characters and to action.  Although in film keyframes and such they may be equally important, in general, in illustration the space is designed and created to support the characters and the story.  They literally are "back" grounds.

...they are also not my favorite.  I much prefer establishing shots.  Establishing shots make the space the primary focus, and they do a number of things:

Establishing shots set a mood.

This can be an emotional mood, like how a dark and stormy night can prepare you for conflict.  Batman feels like Batman because of how Gotham city is portrayed.  As I've said before, one of the biggest failings of the last Nolan movie was that it didn't establish locations as Gotham, but rather as just "a city."  More on that later. 

 It can also be a "style" mood.  Particularly in animation, the treatment of the establishing shot sets the stage for the style and tone of the cartoon.  Are the angles "wonky" and the buildings curvy and "charming?"  That scene-setting shot is going to tell the audience something very different than a realistic, hard-edged shot with photo textures.

Establishing shots set a "specific" location.

A friend of mine once said that when a concept artist paints the door to a bedroom, it's can't be "any" door, it has to be the only door that could be attached to that bedroom.  This CERTAINLY applies to good establishing shots.  In a "background" illustration, you can afford sometimes to be a little more generic, and just show trees to indicate you are in a forest.  When the goal of the shot is to establish a place, it needs to be unique.

The way I like to think about it is, "If you were giving directions to get to this spot, how would the person know when they got there?"  What makes this angle unique?   It could be physical characteristics, like signs, buildings, cliffs that look like skulls, or other geo-spacial markers.  It could be unique weather conditions, or a very particular time of day.  It could be evidence of history, past events that happened here that left their mark on the environment.  Ideally, it should be several of these things all at once.  The point is, when you see the shot, you should always feel like it could ONLY be this location.  If you have to establish a generic location like a WalMart, try to think of what makes *this* WalMart different from all the others...no two places are ever exactly the same, and it is your job to point out the special things about this one.

Establishing shots tell a story.

A great establishing shot moves the story forward and helps you tie into what is happening in the narrative.

 A great establishing shot.

A great establishing shot.

This Death Star tells a *story*  We know from looking at it that it is still under construction.  We know what is happening here.  It doesn't look complete, and it doesn't look ruined.

We've all heard the "If there is a gun on the mantel in Act 1, someone shoots it in Act 2" - Your establishing shot should at least give clues that there is a gun out there.

Your painting also needs to be clear enough that it can be understood and absorbed in about 2-4 seconds.  Crazy dynamic angles and mountains of detail aren't needed here unless they are absolutely required to set your stage and tell your story...and even then, you probably need half what you think you do.

Tangenting briefly here - One of my biggest problems that I try to remember is that you aren't painting a real location, or even a realistic location....you are creating an element to further the story.  CHEAT.  Do what you have to to make it work.  A little knowledge of how forests grow and the kinds of trees in them is great - but never let that knowledge keep you from doing what the story needs.  Think of the times plots simplify "hacking" in movies and TV...we know it doesn't work that way, but the story needs it.  Exact same things happens with painting locations.  Sure, the botanists will roll their eyes, and the geologists will have fits - but the story is a harsher master than either of those groups, and it is the one you owe fealty to.

Alrighty, I hope you enjoyed my thoughts on good establishing shots. Obviously, different people are going to approach them differently, and many of the same rules here apply to so-called "backgrounds"...and sometimes the line between the two types of shots will blur.

Have a great day, and I hope you paint some great things to establish the locations and mood of whatever you are working on!

Ian McQue's dirty tech

Ok, when I think of blocky, dirty, lived-in tech that has a fantastic sense of design....I think of Ian.  His pen drawings are a thing of beauty too, but today we're going to take a look at one of his so-called "speed paintings."

 The painting.

The painting.

Although there is an environment and characters, I would say that this painting exists to highlight the vehicle and to give it a sense of placement.  There's not really a deep narrative element, so on the "technique/design/narrative" triangle, this one certainly favors the first two.

Without story, the elements of the piece exist to show off the design and to draw attention to parts of the image.  Look at the dark triangle shape in the snow pointed directly at the rear treads, and the light triangle on the left side.  The vehicle itself is basically a dark "L" shape with treads.  Notice how it has been placed slightly to the left of center, to make it feel like it is going somewhere, and not static, even though it is sitting still in the painting!

 2 value read

2 value read

The two-value read is very straightfoward, and clearly shows those shapes I was talking about above.  The guys on top add visual interest to the silhouette, and keep it from being boring.  The dude in front also helps bring your eye up into the vehicle.

 3-values

3-values

I love this.  The background is the lighter 2 shades, the vehicle is the dark.  Super clear read, and the full story is expressed.  You could practically show this and convey everything you *needed* to.

 4 values

4 values

Yeah, this is just overkill.  It's almost the greyscale version of the image.  It does show the depth into the image better.

Let's move through the details front to back:

 "What, I had to pee!"

"What, I had to pee!"

The guy in the front is actually surprisingly tightly rendered.  There is a clear sense of the materiality of his outfit and the way the light hits him.  The edges of his silhouette are very clean, and it feels like he was painted using opaque, relatively simple brushes.  There are a couple of gradient-style changes in value, but they are very subtle.  It's hard to tell how the shadows were painted, but the highlights mostly seem to be cross-contour in nature.

 The front treads.

The front treads.

In comparison to the guy, the treads are quite loose.  They are basically blobs of colour and silhouette. I love the snow at their base, it's literally just a couple of dabs with a square brush!  He's left some of his "scribbling" in, and it really adds to the sense of dynamism.

 The cockpit.

The cockpit.

Almost like he's deliberately alternating detail, the cockpit is rendered significantly tighter.  It's still impressionistic, but there is a real sense of form, shape and design to the components you see.  I can feel the form changes from the shadows and the highlights.  I especially enjoy the micro-details he's put in here to make it feel both "lived in" and interesting to the eyes.  Ian is a master of both "rest areas" and high detail areas in a design.  Check out how much energy the textures have - you can feel that he's just laying in confident strokes and moving on to the next, not fixating on what "rust" looks like.

 

 Riding dirty.

Riding dirty.

...and another loose spot.  The silhouettes are VERY clear, but if it weren't for that, these soldiers would be very hard to read as people.  He's used the lasso tool to block off areas and paint with them.  Unlike artists like Jaime Jones, Ian doesn't seem to use a lot of texture brushes and strokes to add interest.  Ian's stuff is a lot more graphic, relying on silhouette and clear reads to give visual punch.

 Can you see the forest for the trees?

Can you see the forest for the trees?

Man, that background.  It's sole purpose is to contextualize the vehicle, and he's made something incredibly beautiful in it's simplicity and mark making.  Those ground twigs are made with so much confidence and bravery....I know I don't have the balls to paint things like that and leave them!  So good!

[EDIT]  Ian let me know that there is a tutorial for this image and several others HERE.

Learnings:

  • Good design first, then technique to support that.  Narrative isn't always required to be #1, but it still supports the design.
  • Strong shape reads
  • Balance your areas of detail with areas of simple space.
  • Balance your areas of texture with flatness or low-contrast.
  • Don't be afraid to make a mark and then just LEAVE IT ALONE.

Thanks for reading!  Please share if you found it interesting.  See you next time :)

Bare Bones Analysis of Eytan Zana

Ok, I live for stupid puns.

This image is actually part of Eytan's gumroad tutorial, but as I have yet to watch it, I'm going to be approaching it with fresh eyes.

 The full image

The full image

Eytan is definitely playing with scale in this image, flipping the "use the human shape for scale" on its head and making the skeleton giant.  The birds are a great way to express this without beating people over the head, or having another human element.

His process involves painting over 3D elements, and I really like how he's made it feel somewhat "painterly" while still using the strengths of the 3D forms.

Colour-wise, this is a pretty standard "warm yellow & orange" contrasting with a cool blue.  I do like how he has sandwiched the warm between two layers of cool, which helps give depth to a fairly flat scene.   The sky looks like a simple photograph that has been painted over just a bit...very little point in concept art to painting natural skies, as there is no design in that part of the process that is valuable to the final project.

 2 values

2 values

Very clear read of this in 2 values.  The helmet does a GREAT job of creating a silhouette to surround the white skull and keep everything readable.  Pretty standard radiating forms around the painting to draw your eye into the subject area.

 3 value

3 value

Look how for the most part he's limited the "pure" black and white touching to just around the skull and the left eye socket, and to the two birds on top.  First and second reads get the contrast, the rest starts to fall away.

 4 values

4 values

Almost no difference between the 3 and 4 value reads.  In a very painterly way, Zana has limited the value ranges.

 The skull

The skull

Although this feels really tight when you look at the painting, closer examination shows that it's quite loose.  For the most part, he's following the form with his brush strokes, and using hard, opaque brushes.  It looks like he may have used a little chromatic distortion, but not "Mr. Concept Art" levels.  I think the tight detail around the eyes probably comes from the 3D render.

 The Foreground rock

The Foreground rock

In contrast, the foreground is VERY loose.  For the rock, he's staying almost entirely "locked off" with the rock silhouette, but the sames are very painterly.  He's using the lasso tool to break up the form and give himself space for some of that grass...which is beautiful by the way.  Look how he's used a purple for the darker, cooler, shadowed grass variation.  No rendering in the grass, just a nice use of value.

 The background

The background

Just a quick look to show how simple it is.  He has definitely blurred his strokes to push things back.  See how he uses brush spacing to create texture as he makes a stroke.

 

Learnings:

  • Think carefully about how you want to show scale in such a way as to be interesting to the viewer, and to give them something to discover.
  • When using 3D, don't be afraid to both paint out detail, and to leave detail, depending on when it is necessary.  
  • Things like helmets and trees are great for creating framing elements around brighter objects.
  • Layering cool,warm,cool is a good way to add depth to an otherwise flat image.

Thanks for taking a look at this one with me, I hope you found something useful that you can apply to your own paintings!

You should totally check out his gumroad site, here.

 

That's Unreal!

Ok, continuing from last week's talk about playing to your strengths, I have re-immersed myself into the 3D pipeline..specifically, I'm learning the Unreal Engine.

 Unreal Engine + Photoshop

Unreal Engine + Photoshop

 

Guys - This tool is the real deal.  Here's some of the pros:

  1. It's free.  Like, 100%, unlocked, totally free, free.  If you make a game for sale with it, you owe them a percentage...but if you're using it for art?  FREE!  
  2. It comes with literally a 100 gigabytes of useful objects and materials.  The marketplace has so much out there that you can just download off the "learn" tab.  Trees, buildings, terrains, objects, characters....
  3. You can import .obj files.  There are so many free 3D objects on the net in this format, you have basically an unlimited library.  Sketchup exports as .obj from the free version, so you can pull down any object from their 3D warehouse and save it to a format Unreal Engine can use....not to mention modeling your own stuff.  All of this 100% free and 100% legal.
  4. If you want to pay money, the Unreal Marketplace has an amazing amount of high quality assets that require no setup or configuring to work.
  5. It renders in real time.  Making animations is absurdly simple and FAST.
  6. Knowing a game engine in any sense is very appealing to video game studios....at the very least, it helps you understand the pipeline, and it could very well be a way to get your foot in the door.

While it is completely possible to create final art in Unreal Engine, I've been using it as a base to paint on top of in Photoshop....I find it faster when you just need a still image to adjust lighting and to modify existing things into complex objects as pixels instead of 3D.

 An unmodified Unreal Engine output.

An unmodified Unreal Engine output.

I screencap'ed that from UE at 12,000x5,000 pixels in under a minute.  From there, I took it into Photoshop and ended up with this:

 The final piece of concept art.

The final piece of concept art.

The Unreal Engine interface is super intuitive, and there are hundreds of tutorials online, both text and video....for free.  

If you've been looking into breaking into some form of 3D with your work pipeline, I highly recommend this tool!

Thanks for reading, please let me know if you get into Unreal and what you create with it!

Man that's good! Jeremy Mann Analysis

I discovered Jeremy's work through his paintings of city streets, but his figure work is also insanely good.

 The painting.

The painting.

Lords.  I love his brushwork so much.  It is oil and not digital, but the lessons apply across techniques.  First off, check out how opaque every stroke is.  Jeremy's strokes look like PAINT.  There is almost no blending of edges in any sort of soft manner.  The only place you really see that is in the face.

This is a very muted palette, with just enough variance and saturation to draw your eye to the couch and to separate the woman.

Jeremy also wants you to know this is a painting.  There is a deliberate "flaw" in the rendering on the left side straight down the painting....it almost looks like a paper "fold" crease.  Really interesting, and it adds a level of interest I find very appealing.

 2 Values

2 Values

Nothing shocking here - But look how the diagonal lines move your eye around a very flat image and direct you to the face.

 3 values

3 values

The 3-value read pretty much gives us the entire image.  Note that the value shapes still all point at the face.

 4 values

4 values

This is the entire painting....it's almost the same as the full greyscale version.  I think a lot of this comes from the fact that he's not blending his strokes, and he's working traditionally...there just aren't a lot of different values.  He's changing the values to show change in form, but not arbitrarily.

 The Lady in black

The Lady in black

Look at the contrast in brushstrokes between the skirt and her face and arm.  The face and arm have been given quite a bit of subtle "love", and are quite smooth and well defined.  The skirt is just chunks of paint.  It works so well to draw your eye to where Jeremy wants you to look.

The dress strokes are almost entirely "with" the form, there are only a few cross-contour highlights on the ruffles directly below her gloves.  The only relatively warm areas of the painting are in the sofa, and they help bring the woman forward, even though they are almost the same value range as she is.   Note too that in the background, the strokes are almost all cross-contour....so the treatment of the woman further separates her from the rest of the image.

 The wall.

The wall.

The background is painted very roughly, as we've talked about, and most of the strokes are done vertically, although there are some cross-contour ones on the drapes.  The mirror has more definite hard edges, which helps draw the eye down in an arc towards the woman.  The energy in his strokes is so fantastic, he makes a flat wall feel dynamic and full of motion!

 Finally, the floor

Finally, the floor

This area is almost 100% abstract.  Strokes are a mix of horizontal and vertical, and he's varying chroma for interest, but keeping the values almost the same...it makes the colours "vibrate" a little on the painting and gives it life!

Learnings:

  • Different rendering on the subject from the background to draw attention.
  • Colour temperature to separate areas of the painting
  • Stroke direction is very important.
  • Strokes are opaque, the texture of the stroke is how blending is achieved

Thanks for reading!  I hope it was helpful :)

Play to your strengths

I came from a background in Photography and 3D before I got into painting and drawing.  I definitely see things in terms of values and not lines...and really, even more than values, "planes"....weird that I don't particularly like sculpting, but there you go.

...anyway...

For some reason, I internalized the "You must learn the fundamentals!" argument, and I put both photography and 3D away in favor of drawing, and then basically colouring, comic book style, when I was in the first 2 years of art school.  The teacher that I looked up to came from a comics background, and I really, really tried to do the work I was "supposed" to do.

Holy crap, I sucked.  I sucked so badly that a guy at Arena Net I showed my work to spent 10 minutes trying to figure out how to tell me to give up and find another career.  I sucked so badly that teacher I admired told me to break into comics WRITING...yeah, my art teacher told me to be a writer.

...and then, one day, for some reason, I tried painting in Photoshop again.  It had been years since I had worked without making lines primary, and OMG, it felt so good!...then I used some photo textures I'd taken in Cambodia, and that felt even BETTER!...then I figured out that I could import 3D models into Photoshop, and I was in HEAVEN.

I didn't stop drawing.  Drawing is important...but I didn't lead with my weakest toolset either.

Play to your strengths.  If someone tells you that you are good at something, don't discount it as meaningless because you are good at it, and you see so much out there to learn.  Work outward from your strong points.  Like I said, I didn't stop drawing....I draw almost every day, and my drawing has improved to a point where it's not one of my weakest skills anymore...but if I'd waited to try to find work until my drawing was up to par, I'd be 2 years behind where I am today.

"I'm bad an anatomy!"  Ok.  Sure.  But you want to work in cartoons.  Have you LOOKED at "Adventure Time" lately?  You don't need anatomy for that stuff.  Learn it on the side, keep on trucking!

"I've never figured out perspective!"  A'ight.  You don't need drafting levels of perspective to draw trees....or do what most comic book pros do these days, and trace over Sketchup models.

"I don't know <xx> tool or medium."  There are dozens I don't know either!  I do my illustrations in the ones I *do* know, and then I go play with Unreal Engine, or Paintstorm, or Watercolor, or whatever in my spare time.

Moebius once said that every illustration you do should be 90% things you are strong at, and 10% experimentation.  If you experiment fails, a 90% grade is still more than passing, and over time, that 10% will add to your tool box in new ways that keep you growing as an artist.

Some of the best movies in the world are that way because of the limitations, not in spite of them.  The Star Wars prequels kinda wet the bed because there were no limitations.  You can create successful work with a very limited toolset - in fact, it will probably be more successful, because it will be filtered through a set of requirements that are unique to you.  The trick is finding what sort of work lends itself to what you know best - but that's a question that's worth putting to yourself!

Thanks for reading!  Now go out there and make something :)

Rembrandt Drawing Analysis

This one is going out to the drawers out there.  I've gone through a fair number of paintings, and I thought it might be cool to check out some linework...and I love me some Rembrandt!

Even though he probably did this as an on-location sketch to go back and paint later, we're going to treat it as a finished piece of work.

 Rembrandt - The Omval

Rembrandt - The Omval

Ok, this is my kind of drawing...tight and high contrast in the focal point, and then fading to literally scribbles on the corners.  I believe it is a "pure" line drawing without ink washes, although he may have smudged in some of the darker areas.  Contrast is built up with cross hashing.

Notice that he's drawn a frame around the image.  He's not just "dashing off" a sketch, he's building a composition.  The contrast point and focal area is definitely the lower left corner, right around the "Rule of thirds" point.  There's no point in doing a "value" study version of this image, but if you squint your eyes, it's pretty clear where the large massings of shadow are.

 The Tree &amp; Foreground

The Tree & Foreground

Man!  Look at the way he's built up the form!  So many cross-contour lines in the shadow areas!  He's built texture by cross-hatching with the contour in the darker areas.  When the form changes at a highlight point, there's just a simple outline.  He is using outline lines instead of separating the forms with value.  Look at the ground cover - Almost no shading inside the forms, instead he's added cast shadows under them.  Every line feels incredibly loose and expressive - He was not worried about capturing every clover, but in getting the feeling of the clover and grass on the ground.

In places that are darkest, his cross hatching has basically filled in the entire form, but even so, you can "feel" the stroke of the lines, so the directions he laid them down with were very important.

 The Dude

The Dude

*heart*  So loose, so expressive, so DAMN GOOD.  The whole figure looks like it was drawn with almost one line, like he didn't lift his pen off the paper.  The only hatching and shading is around the hair and the hat, the rest of the guy just falls off into simple outline.  Look how he's used a minimum, but NECESSARY number of cross-contour lines to show the form and the costume.

 Buildings in the Background

Buildings in the Background

Again, the bare minimum number of strokes to show form, without drawing attention from the trees.  Lines are mostly outlines and following the contour...and almost entire vertical.  Look how graphic and iconic those trees are!  Look at how he's not afraid to have the lines "break" the form on the windmill, and how that adds a sense of motion and energy!

 

Learnings:

  • Draw the feeling of things, not the things themselves.
  • Scribbling is FINE
  • He never, ever goes back over a line.  There is no furriness, each line is laid down and then he moves on.
  • Direction of stroke is very important.
  • Seeing is more important than mark making.

 

Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed it!  Next week I'll try to go back to someone more current and flashy, you guys seem to respond better to that stuff, but I think it is really important to hit up our roots every now and then!

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? &nbsp;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 :)

 

Painting in the Ruins - Hubert Robert Analysis

Going to do something a little different today, we're going to be looking at a classical oil painter instead of a modern digital one.  In many ways, it is probably even more important to study these guys than the modern leaders of our field.  Hubert Robert is famous for painting the ruins of Italy, which ties very closely to my personal IP project at the moment, so I thought I'd take a closer look.

 Hubert Robert - A Hermit Praying in the Ruins of a Roman Temple

Hubert Robert - A Hermit Praying in the Ruins of a Roman Temple

Man, I *love* the storytelling in this piece.  We have a very low-key image, dark, but with enough light to convey information, story and details of the location.  The subject is pretty clearly the hermit in white, but Robert has given us secondary and tertiary reads from the 3 girls in the doorway, the one up on the ledge, and the personal effects in the left corner.  Compositionally, the image is cut by the pillar on the left, but the basin and jug in that corner keep it from feeling extraneous to the story.  There is a VERY strong one point perspective, and interestingly, there is no payoff at the vanishing point, which would be common in most paintings.

 2 values

2 values

The B&W pass confirms our subject pretty clearly, while also showing the girls in the doorway and a sense of where the lighting is coming from.  He has obviously made a clear design choice for the key of the painting, and the dark far outweighs the light.

 3 values

3 values

The third value establishes the mid-ground and the importance of the architecture in the painting.  It also brings into focus the secondary reading of the flowers and the painting in the lower right corner.

 4 values

4 values

Almost no difference between the 3 and 4 value reads.  There is not a lot of contrast within the bands of this image.

 The Monk

The Monk

This entire painting is pretty loose, and the subject is no exception.  Things are more hinted at than tightly rendered.  His shadows are painted with the contour instead of across them, and are almost all simply single strokes of paint.  In contrast, the highlights across the back of the form are painted as cross-contour strokes.  I love how just his nose pokes out of the robe, and it is much brighter than it "should" be based on the lighting.

The other elements around the monk are equally or even more loose.  I think we can safely say that while he is the "subject" of the painting, Robert wanted our eyes to take in the whole thing, so he didn't over detail this part to keep us focused on it.

 Hey Ladies!

Hey Ladies!

Interestingly, although they lack the contrast of the monk, the secondary-read characters are more detailed.  I would say that they are more important to the story of the painting, and Robert may also be relying on the fact that a pretty girl tends to capture people's attention!  

Either way, they too are given the same shadow and highlight treatment as the monk.

 The midground

The midground

Although he's placed another figure with a story element here, the primary focus in my opinion is the architecture.  This is Robert's chance to show the ruins he loved.  Check out the details and method of abstraction on those columns!  Look how he is introducing variations in colour and value to sell the "ruined" aspect of the temple.

 The left foreground stuff

The left foreground stuff

Again, very low contrast but fairly tight detail.  He's once more telling us that this secondary information is fun to discover, and putting it on the left side of the column makes it feel like a secret to be found.  The stick curves back up to the far left column, which leads back to the roof and the crossbars that take us back into the painting.

 The roof/background

The roof/background

Finally, the background of the image.  Observe how he lessens detail and contrast as things recede.  The birds and the green leaves exist to give a sense of scale and depth, and a final fourth read of interest.  Everything is very abstract at this point in the painting.

 

Learnings:

  • Design your light and dark with a definitely point of view.  Don't keep them balanced, make one "stronger" in the image than the other.
  • You can vary contrast, detail and placement to keep secondary and tertiary elements interesting.  Not every painting has to have all of these things decrease uniformly, it is possible to have a high contrast, looser subject and more detailed, less contrasty secondary reads.
  • If you divide your canvas, make sure you have some sort of payoff in all sections.

 

All these things apply to all forms of painting, digital or traditional.  I hope you've enjoyed going through this one with me, please share if you did :)

 

Thanks again!

Vance Kovacs Analysis

This year for Spectrum 23, I was up against Vance for the award for concept art....which was an honor to even be considered in the same section!  I love his work so much.  He conveys so much information with such loose paintings!

 Catacomb

Catacomb

This kind of composition is totally my jam.  Single, small character in a quiet, lonely place?  Yes please!  He's created a "frame within a frame" composition, divided into clear foreground, midground and background.  The character sits on the rim of the foreground, and the environment detail exists primarily in the midground.  I love how vertical his composition is within the ultra-wide image shape, and how he's used the diagonal god-beams to add drama to an otherwise static painting.  Value-wise, it follows the standard dark-medium-light as it goes backwards into the frame.  The environment feels very megolithic, but he's used smart negative shapes to add interest and a bit of space to breathe.  He's put a slight spotty texture on top to look like dust and debris in the god beams.

 2 values

2 values

This is pretty hard to read, but feels to me like a giant mouth with teeth.  Not sure about the white in the upper right corner, but it gives more space to the image, and keeps it from feeling too symmetrical and locked into the center of the composition.

 3 values

3 values

Wow!  Ok, that's a textbook use of values.  You can tell from this that the lighting is very flat and even, because there are no highlights that "jump" out of their space in the painting.  Each region very clearly stays in its value range.

 4 values

4 values

Four values doesn't add a lot to this image, but it does give the sense of depth and a path back into the painting.  Four values is also where we see highlights come into the mix.

 Traveling Stick Salesman

Traveling Stick Salesman

I love how loose and graphic the character is.  He's made of literally 3 tones and values.  It's amazing what a good silhouette will give you!  Vance has used the classic walking stick maneuver to make it feel like a person, and to lead the eye into the painting.  The only anatomy he's defined is that great deltoid muscle, but that's enough to sell the lighting and sense of realism.

 The foreground

The foreground

This is very loose, and he has decreased its importance by keeping the contrast very low.  Vance is using cross-contour brush strokes to establish the form, except for a couple of highlights that are with the contour.  He's using simple brushes and no real textures.

The indication of vines continue the vertical theme of the rest of the painting, while the trunks have enough form to keep it from feeling graphic.

 FG vines

FG vines

Here, he's refrained from cross contour strokes, and instead builds up form and volume with overlapping vine strokes.  There is a little colour and textural variation, but not much.  Again, it's dark, and it's meant to be used as a framing element more than a descriptive one.

 Midground vines

Midground vines

This is where he does most of the describing of the environment.  There are some textures overlaid, but most of his strokes are just vertical vines.  You can tell that he's added back in some of the negative space with lighter colours, instead of painting dark on white.

 Background vines

Background vines

Literally, the background trees are just a collection of simple vertical strokes.  Super loose, completely designed so the viewer's eyes ignore it.

 

Learnings:

  • Stroke direction to help tell your story.
  • You don't need a lot of contrast to sell a location, use as much as is appropriate.
  • Throw some kind of diagonal into the image to keep it from feeling too stiff.

Thanks for reading as always!

Stephan Martiniere Makes Magic

Stephan's first art book was one of the very first books I got when I started wanting to doillustration.  I had the privilege of hanging out with him a bit last weekend at SDCC, so he was fresh in my mind for today's post.  This image is one of his magic cards.

 Phrexian Vatmother

Phrexian Vatmother

 

Obviously, this is a creature card.  Because the illustrations on M:tG cards are small, the subject needs to read very clearly immediately.  Stephan choose a fairly standard lighting scenario, backlit warm against cool to pop out the subject and make it read.  The spider-esque nature of the creature really comes through with the silhouette, even in the final version.

 2 values

2 values

Yeah, that's a creepy 2-value abstract.  Reads quite well, both with circles to frame the creature and the legs and shadows to draw you in to the center.

 3 values

3 values

Note the relatively unbalanced 3-value distribution.  The brights are reserved for the eyes, and the background directly behind the creature.  The "spokes" of the composition to lead in your eye are even more visible and obvious now.

 4 values

4 values

By the time we get to 4 values, we have mapped in the atmospheric perspective and the sense that this creature is coming towards us.  In all of these simplifications, it remains a "low key" lighting situation, which is totally appropriate for the subject matter.

 The wee beastie's head.

The wee beastie's head.

The head of the creature could be more of the 2nd read than the subject - The subject would then be those red "sacks" that identify it as a "mother." - but if so, this is a strong second read, and we like to look at heads :)

The silhouette is strong, but the details are quite loose.  You can see some photo texturing, but it has been heavily painted on top of with what looks like a chalky texture brush.  I'd say he's also used some custom brush shapes to create the mandibles.  There is a secondary light source from the front, off screen right that is warm and slightly below the creature.  The bio-mechanical nature is being conveyed with flesh-like tones and a metallic treatment to the edges and where the form curves.  I really like that one bright highlight just to the right of the top eyes.  I would guess that the banding around the neck was created with the lasso tool and gradients, and then "dirtied up" with textures and some subtle brushwork.

Look how abstract and blobby the shapes on the shadow side are.  He's spent ZERO effort where he didn't need to.  Not sure he could get away with that if this was a book cover, but for a Magic card (or piece of concept art), this is great.

 The foreground leg.

The foreground leg.

I pulled this out to point out how loose it is, and how he's used another light to bring out the form and show the metal rendering.  Lots of lasso+soft brush here, and then the entire thing has been gone over with a soft, textured brush to add atmospheric perspective.  The looseness gives it energy and a sense of motion.

 The body

The body

The main body of the creature is mostly just silhouette and core shadow.  The details he is showing have sharp edges and are rendered to show the metal nature.  Like around the head, the background legs are just silhouette forms.  They are there to draw your eye in composition-ally, but not to hold your attention.

 The background

The background

Here's where the blue and cold-colours come in.  Notice that this is not a simple gradient of 'yellow to blue' across the top.  The purples closer to the subject unify the image and give it cohesion.  It reminds me a lot of the old poster for "Something Wicked This Way Comes."  There are literally NO details at all to show what this place is.  It feels metal, or at least constructed, but that's all you get.  Lots of textured brush shapes.  The areas behind the legs are just brighter than the silhouette, and then vignette in the corners.

The very bright sliver of light behind the creature is an interesting choice.  I would have been afraid that it would draw your eye off the page, but it completely works.

Lessons from this one:

  • Know your final illustration size when you can.  He can be looser and work faster on this one because it is going to be a M:tG card.
  • Lasso+gradient works well for metal plates.
  • Cool foreground, warm background, but warm foreground light.  
  • As before with other things we've looked at, don't be afraid to have unmotivated light sources to add drama and help show form.
  • Atmospheric perspective doesn't need to be simple soft airbrushes - textures can help the space feel more dense and add interest.
  • Even when all you are showing is a creature, try to work out a foreground midground and background, and vary the level of detail between them.

 

Thanks as always for reading, I hope this was helpful and interesting :)