In Which We Analyze John Park

Keeping on with my "Tuesday is painting analysis" trend, this time with John Park.  John is one of the concept artists I'm looking at a lot these days, and I thought it would be fun to pay some attention to one of his Hawken images.

The full image

The full image

I'm a sucker for mechs, and I'm a sucker for forests, and I'm a sucker for desaturated this is my jam :)  This is a classic "concept art" style piece, showing the basics of the world and the mech design in a mood painting.  This would be used to help set the direction of the project, and then further design energies could be put to the individual elements.  It's loose because it's about evoking a feeling more than tying down any particular design.

The 2-value version.

The 2-value version.

Not a terribly successful 2 value composition breakdown.  I actually think this image could probably use a bit more contrast to make it pop as a painting, although it does capture the intended mood, and it's important to remember it's concept art, so *maybe* we can relax some of the stringent composition requirements.

The 3-value test.

The 3-value test.

It does work VERY well in 3 values, so maybe the default two value read just needed to be scaled down a bit.  Nice separation of form.

The 4-value check.

The 4-value check.

Like with Stalenhag, I like the 3 value one better, but this breaks out some of the smaller forms.  Still works.  I don't think anyone is going to argue that the mech in the foreground is not the subject.

The Subject

The Subject

There are certainly similarities between John's work and Jaime's.  A lot of care has been placed into the silhouette and the basic form of the mech, but the interior detail is quit loose.  The details near the edge of the silhouette have been firmed up, but most of the rest of the mech is very sketchy - in fact, it doesn't even really work in perspective, if you try to line up the parts!  Definitely the legs and lower body are less detailed, but from paint strokes, contrast and the fact that mist covers them up.

Rim-lighting is used to show form change rather than a lot of rounding of shadows.  Unlike Jaime, he doesn't seem to only go with or cross contour - he's doing a bit of both.  On the more rounded forms he's going cross, and with on the flatter shapes.

Brushes seem to be mostly hard but I think he's got opacity turned on, he's just pressing hard for the most part.  I think he's using the lasso tool in some places to select his shapes.  On the left-hand gun, you can pretty clearly see some simple "Photoshop round brush"

Detail is implied and mostly occurs in shadowed areas.

The other mechs

The other mechs

These are even more loose, and are basically two-value objects within the silhouette.  Forms are "lumpier" and more painterly than the subject mech, and he's pushed the values *way* back to match the background.

The extreme foreground

The extreme foreground

I really like how he's pushed back the subject into the painting by using the mechanical ruins in the extreme foreground.  There is detail here, but unlike the operational mechs, no rim lighting, so it doesn't pop out and become overbearing.  Nice implied detail and texture, and it sells the war-time story nicely.

His treatment of the ground is quite similar to Jaime's, consisting mostly of horizontal strokes of textured brushes.  He's using the default Photoshop grass brush a couple of times.  Compositionally, he's using the puddles of water and the reflections in them to draw the viewer back into the painting, while the horizontal bands give a sense of depth.

That LOOSE tree.

That LOOSE tree.

This tree is so loose it is practically scribbled in, but it works.  Value and shape and the illusion of film depth-of-field let him use it as a framing element and to establish a sense of place without it being obvious for it's lack of finish.  Notice that the branches nearer the subject have more detail and a tighter finish to them.

The background forest looks like it was started from photo textures, but then heavily painted on top of.    He's added those god beams from the sky to draw the composition and motivate the sharp rim lights for the subject.

Even though he's used a photo, he's pushed back almost all of the detail with atmospheric perspective and decreased contrast from brush strokes.  By the time it reaches the ground plane, it's pretty much just a unified desaturated grey-green.

....which brings us to the colour choices as a whole in this painting - Green predominates.  Warm greens in the front, cool in the back on the ground, and the reverse of that on the man-made parts.  The exception are those red missiles, which serve to draw your attention to that part of the subject.  There's just enough desaturated browns and reds in the areas around the mechs that the colours sit together nicely.  I feel like Stalenhag would have put some industrial yellow or even white on the wreckage, but Park leaves in green and grey.


1:  If this works in two-values, it is grey and black and not white and black.  Low key painting that feels brighter because of the warm tones of the light and the sharp highlights.

2:  Repetition of form - The mechs get less and less detailed from the wreckage to the subject to the back of the painting - but because we see it in one place, we expect to see it again and "buy it."

3:  Keep colours unified, don't go nuts trying a bunch of different things.  Start monochromatic and use a different colour when it needs to be there to serve your painting.  

4:  Very loose and painterly foreground elements are fine if the composition makes you look in the midground.  Trust your composition, don't fight it.

5:  When you use photos, paint down the extra details so they don't draw attention.

6:  Don't be afraid to let your paint strokes look like strokes.  You are making a painting, not recreating reality.

Thanks for reading and going through this image with me!  Did I miss anything you think is important?  If I did, drop me a note!

Thursday I'm posting from San Diego Comic Con!


The Agrarian Utopia "One Page"

Hey guys!  So something a little different today, I know I've posted a couple of paintings and process work from my "Agrarian Utopia" project, and I thought it might be cool to talk a bit about how I go about starting an IP, and some of the thinking that goes into it.

The initial spark idea can come from almost anywhere.  In this case, I was participating in Tom Scholes #maysketchaday challenge, and I did about 6 rough matte-painting style pieces based on photos I took in Cambodia in 2007.  I think it is super important to do rough things like this, because they trigger new ideas!  I knew I wanted to show the contrast between poverty and cyberpunk-rich megacorporations.  There was no story yet, but there was interest!

I took one of those sketch paintings and worked it to a more complete state:

Working on this made me decide that my story was going to be about the teenage boy on the top of the barge.  I researched Cambodian boys' names, and decided on "Arun."  I knew I wanted to do several keyframe and environment design paintings around this world, and I decided that the next one would be Arun's home - a hut on stilts balanced on top of the foundations of a Cambodian temple that had been mostly submerged by the rising oceans of the 2nd half of the 21st century.

Arun's home

Arun's home

All the while this was going on, I was sketching ideas for characters, and thinking of story.  By the time I'd finished the 2nd painting, I had enough information to create a simple "One Page" for the IP.  A One Page should have your elevator pitch, the key plot elements, and enough world information to give a feeling for your project.

First draft of my One-Page

First draft of my One-Page

If this was going out to a client or for an actual pitch document, I'd make it prettier and think a little more about it, but it's great for keeping me on track, and for focusing my attention.

Now that I have all that stuff, I've created a private board for references.  I'm looking up all kinds of things, from Cambodia pictures to factories, technology and costume.  I'm looking at the contrasts and mood stuff I laid out in the document as inspiration and keywords for what sorts of things I should save.  I already posted the thumbnails I've been creating from those reference photos for the unloading area inside the Receiving Facility.

For me, having the written stuff is critically important.  It keeps me going the right direction, and helps me decide what to paint next, and how things should fit together.  The research stored on pinterest is also crucial.  I create one of these "mood boards" for every IP I start, and they have always helped me to both expand the visual language beyond what I was comfortable with and to keep a consistent look and feel to the projects.

From this point, it really comes down to how far you want to take the project.  If I end up making a pitch document, I'll want 5-10 paintings, as well as several character designs and maybe a vehicle or two if they are cool looking :)  I'll spend a bit more time writing up the character bios and doing a couple of design drawings for them as well.  The final pitch package will probably end up around 10 pages, unless the funding agency or target studio requests a different format.  Beyond the creative, it will also require some financial estimates and a team bio, but that's a bit beyond the scope of the art side of this post :)

This particular IP started from a sketch, but I've had other ones that started from dreams, from ideas that grew out of D&D games, or from just talking to friends about what we'd like to see....regardless of how they started, all of them seem to progress about the same way - create some blue-sky stuff until you get a firm direction, then write down that as a one page, then create more imagery based on the document.  I find this technique works very well for me, and I think it might be helpful for you too, if you get lost in endless possibilities, or can't figure out what you should be painting.

Oh - I'm completely not worried about sharing my idea.  Ideas are great, but without the work that goes into them, they are just that, ideas.  Very few people are going to steal your idea, and if they are, there's nothing you can do about it, so you might as well just keep going.  Honestly, as a creative person, you should be able to come up with ideas like this pretty much on command.  There's nothing particularly innovative here, what will make it or break it is the execution!

I don't think there's anything special about my formatting, but if you like it, I've attached a blank form you can fill out for your own IP projects :)


Thanks for reading, I hope it was helpful!  Please share!

Deconstructing Simon Stalenhag

I really enjoyed doing the painting analysis of Jaime Jones last week, so I thought I'd do another one today....this time, the Sci-Fi Future-Retroism of Simon Stalenhag.  

The Original Image

The Original Image

I am completely in love with both his subject matter and his treatment of digital "paint."  To me, his work looks like a great gouache painting, and it is often mistaken for traditional instead of digital work.

Composition check time:

2-value version.

2-value version.

Definitely there is an interplay between the police car and the weird crashed "robot", but I think the two value version makes a pretty compelling argument that the first read is for the car.  Look how all the lines "zig-zag" there way towards that point.



The robot gets a lot more love in the 3-value version, but it still points towards the car.  Look how few true "bright" spots there are in this image, which is one of Stalenhag's trademarks.  You definitely feel the gloom in this painting.



The 4-value version is actually the least compositionally striking for me, and I'd guess that he uses a 3-value system when he's laying out his paintings.  His value ranges are so small that by the time you get to 4, you have almost just a grey-scale version of the image.

Let's take a closer look at the police car now:

The subject.

The subject.

The interesting thing about Simon's work for me is that he keeps his tight detail very minor, even in the focus area.  Interest in generated with shape, value and colour.  What looks near-photo real turns out to be just a couple of strokes.  The edges are pretty universally hard, but he's using rough brushes to add that falloff, almost like how a comic book inker uses cross-hatching to simulate greys.  The car silhouette is very clear, but doesn't look like the lasso tool was used.  Check out how hard that shadow is underneath too!

Now let's check out the crashed robot.

The "payoff" of the image.

The "payoff" of the image.

Look at how impressionist all the "details" are!  We completely buy the mechanical parts, but they are literally just a couple of dabs of grey paint.  Much less contrast here than on the police car, and the lighting is softer as well.  Still using hard brushes and textures to simulate gradients.  As with Jaime, he's making highlights that follow the form, and shadows that cut across it.  Look at the bottom of the hand, the legs and the bottom of the overpass for a great example of a warm bounce light up from that grass.  The light coming from the sky is cool and soft, but if you look at the side of the bot closest to the highway, there seems to be a warm and harder light coming from that direction.  I'm not sure it's motivated from any actual light source, but it does an excellent job of separating the form from the grey sky behind it.

The cut-lines on the form help sell the sense of scale in an effective and quiet way, as do the cables wrapped around it's legs.  

There are a couple of "hits" of yellow in the mechanical bits that also work to sell scale, form and to give a bit more visual interest.

The other players.

The other players.

I love this part of the painting.  It's so gestural, but it completely works.  Still just hard brushes, but with MUCH less contrast, except for the tiny hits of the headlights and taillights.  Look at how he has eliminated the detail from the license plates, and not put any details in that would draw your eye.    Lighting on these guys is strictly ambient soft light from the sky, and the headlights aren't casting anything onto the ground.    The texture on the highway goes across the painting and decreases as it goes away from the viewer, to increase the sense of depth.

Under the bridge.

Under the bridge.

I love how he treats concrete.  Just look at how wobbly those cut-lines are.  The one "U" turn of the highlight texture is awesome.  Again, bounce light on the bottom, and soft light from the top on the railings.

'dat Greenery

'dat Greenery

If this were a traditional painting, he'd be using a fan brush for 99% of the vegetation.  Doesn't look like any "leaf" brushes at all, just scumbling shapes that get less textured as they recede into the distance.  Check out the grass treatment!  No details in the shadow areas.  Genius.


Ok, what have we learned that we can apply:

  • No soft brushes here.  Texture is used to simulate gradients and smoother transitions.
  • All opaque paint.  He's not using any transfer setting on his brush strokes.
  • Texture is used to turn forms and add depth, not for it's own sake.  Very little used in the shadow areas.
  • Don't be afraid to create a "made up" light if it helps your forms turn.
  • Background lights are used for hits, but do not really affect the environment - keep it simple!
  • Control your level of detail and decrease it as things recede into the distance.

Did I miss anything key that you can see?  Thanks for staying with me on this, please share if you found it interesting!

IMC - Final Thoughts.

Ok, I'm back home again, and trying to put my thoughts of the whole week in order.  First off, here's my final piece:

If you are into that sort of thing, here's an animated gif of all the steps:

The process!

The process!

Trying to talk about the entire event in any holistic way is really difficult.  It runs from Sunday at noon through the following Monday morning a week later.  There are just under 100 students and just around 20 faculty and staff, leaving, eating, making art and friends for the entire time.

I went in asking to get my ass kicked, and I hope I got that.  It sure felt real.  I had a weird moment halfway through where I realized I was still making one of "my" pieces - There wasn't an epiphany where suddenly I was leaps and bounds better - but why would there be?  My art is my art, and probably many of the things I feel uncomfortable about will ultimately become the trademarks of what makes my stuff successful.  I like my final work, and it feels better to me than the stuff I created in the years prior.

The lectures were great, as always.  It's amazing how many of your heroes suffer from "Imposter Syndrome", and yet still managed to succeed and produce work that stands the test of time.  There was a tremendous outpouring of heartfelt stories, emotions and advice.

I made a lot of new friends, from all levels of the search for Mastery.  I learned things from people who I'm pretty sure would say they are not as far along as I am, and I showed some professionals things they didn't know.  

I really can't recommend this event enough.  The staff are incredible, the other students are incredible, the event is incredible.  When you factor in that food and lodging are included, it's really NOT that expensive, I spend more getting to and attending most cons for 4 days than this event for an entire week.  Don't worry that you aren't good enough, you come away changed regardless of your level.

This one is a game changer.

Thanks again for reading, you guys are the best!

Dynamic Sketching

As many of you know, I went to a very "fine art" oriented art school, where technique was very much frowned on as worthwhile to teach.  As such, after I graduated, I made the decision to go down to Pasadena and attend the Concept Design Academy.  There, I took the "Dynamic Sketching" class taught by Peter Han.

Peter taught me to draw.  After 10 weeks of his class, the difference in my skill level and confidence was night and day.

I mention, this, because Peter is currently running a kickstarter for a book of his Dynamic Sketching class notes and drawings.  If you are trying to learn to draw, this is literally the bible.

Peter is an amazing artist, an amazing teacher, and an all around great guy.  This book is going to cover everything from the basics of simple forms, to plants, insects, environmental stuff and mechanical things.

I know there are at least a couple of people who follow this blog that could really benefit from having some of these steps lined out for them.  I REALLY recommend backing this kickstarter, for at least the digital version.

Sorry this isn't a "from the heart, come to God" talk  about life blog post, but I believe that this is a great opportunity to acquire a beautiful book, learn to draw and to support an amazing artist.

Thanks for reading and sharing!

Improve Your Art in Just...30 Minutes a Day!

Ok, I admit it...I've been putting off writing this post.  Imposter syndrome is definitely kicking in here, and I'm not sure I'm the right person to tell you how to get better... I may not be the teacher you need, but I guess I'm the one you're listening to, so let's do it.

First of all - 30 minutes a day is better than no time a day, and better than 3 hours once a week.  If you can't find 30 minutes a day, IMHO, you aren't really serious about making it as a professional artist, at least right now...which is fine, but relax.

Second - 30 minutes is good, 3 hours is better.  There is no substitute for work.  Scott Hampton told me that drawing improvement is measured in inches - as in, the stacks of paper you are drawing on.  You'll get there on 30 minutes a day, but it's going to take you a lot longer than if spent more time....but assuming that, right now, you DON'T HAVE that kind of time....

The most important thing: 

You learn more when you are having fun.


Seriously.  Fundamentals are great.  Drills are great. Cast studies and still lives and all that stuff are great....but if you aren't having fun, you probably want to work on something else that hopefully incorporates that stuff but still gives you a buzz.  Rather than draw endless pages of cubes and ellipses, draw endless pages of spaceships that USE cubes and ellipses.  I have always found my biggest gains in skill happened when I was excited for the process, not the long term result that might or might not come months or years later.  

The second most important thing:

Work on stuff you want to get better at.


Sounds obvious, right?  Well, from looking at people on the path, you would not believe how many people use their precious drawing time on things they are already good at.  You gotta step outside your comfort zone.  If I may use a gym analogy, you have to use weights that you don't feel comfortable with...For all the people who think they're great, 2lb weights don't really do much for you when you're curling them.  I'm happy you can draw Batman, you learned in 3rd grade, and you draw a *mean looking* Caped Crusader....but if you want to get better, you're going to need to put him away for a little bit....To connect with #1, maybe you put him in a cityscape, so you can practice backgrounds...but you should spend as little time as possible doing things you feel comfortable with, so you can maximize growth while still meeting your "enjoy it" needs.

The third most important thing:

Review your work when you finish.


It's not enough to draw/paint/sculpt, you have to check your stuff after you are finished to see what you did right, and more importantly, what you did wrong.  Try to turn off that internal editor during the creation process, but bring them out with a VENGEANCE after you are done.  It's not enough to say, "Man, my anatomy sucked!" either.  You need to see what you did wrong.  You need to know, not only that you have a problem with perspective, but that you have a tendency to put your vanishing points too close together, or forget that things get "thinner" as you go backwards in space.  When you go to draw again the next day, try to remember your mistakes from the day before.  Look at your work, and try not to make the same mistake again.

The fourth (and last) important thing (for today):

Switch it up.

Within the category you are trying to work on, try to find as many different ways to get there as possible.  If you're working on drawing, don't spend your whole time with a pencil.  Try a brush pen.  Try a Sharpie marker.  Don't go nuts with this (which is why it's number 4), but different tools and different processes will help you find your way faster.  Every couple of weeks, go ahead and do something in a different way.  It will help you.


Ok, I lied.

You aren't here to make pretty pictures.

Not in those 30 minutes a day anyway.  You are working to be *able* to make pretty pictures.  The gym isn't the bodybuilding competition, it's what you do before.  In an ideal world, try to push everything you do until it breaks and looks like shit.  It's the gym equivalent of "working to failure."  I know it's hard, I know we want that ego boost from getting something sweet out there to show on Instagram....but if you want that, that's on your own damn time, not in your art workout period.


I can't tell you that you'll "make it" as a commercial artist if you do this stuff...but I feel very confident that if you do this stuff, you *will* improve, even at only 30 minutes a day.


Thanks for reading, please share if you think others will find it helpful :)