Monday, December 10, 2018

MTG Art Process; Thunderbreak Regent

Note; This was previously a Magic Art in Focus article created in 2015 for Original Magic Art that has since been taken down.

When I received the brief from art director Dawn Murin for what would become Thunderbreak Regent, I knew it would be all about the silhouette; a Kolaghan Blood Dragon swoops over a Oujutai mountain monastery, channeling lightning from a gathering storm cloud through its horns to attack the building on the high peak.

To tackle that I ended up changing the way I create thumbnails. Previously they would be rather sloppy, quick scribbles on paper that mainly hinted at action and placement. However for this card I took some extra time, created fewer thumbnails but with greater clarity, focusing on (relatively) sharper silhouettes and bolder, more separated values. The result is far from a clean sketch but it’s a process that yielded far better results at that early stage, and one that I’ve adopted for each card since.

Rough but clear; focusing on separating values was key

While many thumbnails showed promise I focused on picking the best fit for the upper frame, and chose the sketch that had the viewer pulled back from the action slightly. I scanned the page, drew over it in photoshop and added some basic colours underneath.

Interesting, but these sketches didn't have the centered feeling of power I wanted.

unlike the other options, here everything leads up to the dragon who occupies a central,
powerful place in the frame
Most of the time I send two options so that the art director is presented with two very different approaches, but this time around I felt like this one would be sufficient. I created other colour sketches for other thumbnails, since even if I’m not sure about the pencil sketch, I might be persuaded of its merits when I see it in refined in colour.

use whatever you can to get the reference you need!

After the sketch was approved I set about preparing for the final image, which usually means studies and reference photos. Keep everything! Or at least, hold on to most of your interesting items. A toy of the Hydra from the Hercules TV show provided some decent lighting reference for the long neck and head of the dragon.

To help me visualize the lightning-lit snow and rock, I did a quick observational study of a snowy mountain under harsh lighting conditions. While I only completed a portion of it, it was enough to give me some clues about bounced light, snow drifts and rocky texture.

This setup is for a less photographic, more classical perspective.
Finally, on to the image itself. Since I was working with an environment and architecture, I took the time to create a perspective setup... a bit too complicated to go into detail regarding that image, but I was mainly looking to set up a building with proper right angles in 3d space.

I then used that perspective setup to properly segment the building into equal parts.

Easy to do, but tedious

I'm trying for something more accurate based off reference, but my rough re-sketches still
try to keep gesture and exaggeration in mind.
Once the perspective was sorted out I went on to creating a rough line sketch. This intermediate sketch is important as it allows me to explore gesture, shape and movement more freely than if  I were to create a tight sketch immediately.

It also allows me to create a final sketch where I’m able to focus solely on specific details, confident that the “big picture” is working well enough.

These tight lines won't be seen in the final image, so it's pointless for me to
"finish" them in an aesthetically pleasing way like comic lines

Even during this later stage I'm trying to keep big, simple areas of value and colour separate from
each other. The dramatic lighting is very helpful in this regard.
I set that final sketch layer to multiply, made the original colour sketch visible again, and then painted over it to account for the changes.

By this point, most of the hard work has been completed. The overall look of the illustration will largely resemble the final. This is the advantage of planning and making conscious choices ahead of time, as rendering will now be a relatively relaxed affair with few surprises. I paint/render an image from back to front, only switching to a new layer when there’s some sort of natural overlap.

A lot of rendering. The last 10% of an image takes 90% of the time.

And there it is! While there were a few things I wish I had done differently (a more intense explosion, maybe some different lightning effects) overall I was quite happy with the result.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Process: Oracle of Dust & the Essential Art of Starting Over

The Magic: The Gathering card art I produced for "Oracle of Dust," one of the many colourless Eldrazi cards for the Battle for Zendikar set, seems to be one of my most popular pieces for MTG.

It was very nearly a disaster, or at least a headache.

Art director Jeremy Jarvis gave me a great brief;

Color: Eldrazi creature with blue header (see ref)
Location: Shoreline in an Ulamog corruption zone
Action: Show us a vaguely humanoid Eldrazi of the Ulamog lineage, using the one on p. 200 of the world guide as a starting point. It's big--about 12 feet tall sitting down--and sitting by the ocean in a corruption zone, where seawater laps against a shore that's been entirely transformed into spongy bone and gray dust. Around it, we see the bodies of Zendikari whose heads and shoulders have turned to that same dust, but whose bodies are otherwise intact.
Focus: The Eldrazi
Mood: Thoughtful, curious, utterly alien

---Thoughtful, curious, utterly alien---

That last bit was something that really inspired me, and helped inform the pose, mood and framing of the image. 

Thumbnails are great except when they're not

I always produce a decent amount of thumbnails. Oracle of Dust was the first time I slowed down and tried to produce thumbnails in a clear, thoughtful way. I tied areas of similar value together, rendered them slowly and evenly so different areas were clearly marked out, and overall tried to make some concious decisions about the use of space. The results, as you can see, are still rough and scribbly, but they were still an improvement from my previous rough sketches.

Then I tried to colour them.


For some reason my attempts to add colour were too subdued and desaturated, as if I was only using high-key pastel colours. The scene seemed to be obscured through a white haze; in-line with the "dust" aspect but not nearly what I wanted to achieve with some rich daytime lighting. The topline notes for battle for Zendikar clearly stated that everything was to take place during the day, with the otherworldly Eldrazi presented plainly and out in the open. There was also a unique challenge for this illustration; this was an image by the sea that would theoretically have a lot of blue, but as this was a creature with a blue header, I couldn't (as per our topline orders) have blue at the top of the frame.

I realized that I simply didn't have the right visual information in my head regarding the scene I wanted to paint. My brain was short-circuiting with the thought of "bright means things are light!" which I tried to implement again and again, and not the information that could accurately depict that situation. I was faced with the choice of pushing through based on principle (which is thumbnails always yield the best results) or starting from scratch.... I decided upon the latter.

Studies studies studies

Studies from observation are food for the artist's mind. They're so essential for the development and maintenance of an artist's skills that I'm confident in saying that no artist attempting any shade of realism can do without them. What's often overlooked is how helpful they can be outside of the vacuum of "practice" and in the context of preparation for a particular piece.

Totally a real bathing suit
I scoured my reference folders for images of shores and beaches and found a few that featured a nude model on a rocky shore. The lighting was great, the salt-pitted rocks spoke to the spongy bone of the corruption zones and although she looked nothing close to an Eldrazi horror, her humanoid form nonetheless could help describe the way light would fall on a more-or-less human shaped body.

Also a very real bathing suit
I quickly scribbled some new sketches, taking what I learned from these photos and applying them with a little thought given towards adaptation; photos aren't real life, and the lens doesn't capture images the same way we see them. Later on while working on the image I didn't apply the grainy haze seen in the first photo, and I also made sure that the colours were a bit more vibrant.

That's better; a better sense of space, more clearly defined values and richness that wasn't present in the first batch of colour sketches. The "utterly alien" line informed the poses, which have been described as "alien hindu" poses but are really just  attempts to show a bifurcated-limbed horror pondering.... something. Mortal life. What it has done in this scene. The beautiful scenery....

After sending in the above options Jeremy replied that he would be satisfied with either approach and that the decision was up to me. While Option A was an interesting angle, a similar point of view was selected for my other piece Adverse Conditions, so I chose B.

Sketching, painting, and when and when not to be specific

After taking some reference pictures in my underwear (not shown here or ever; I'm shameless but the images just look grody) I did a rough resketch of the creature, added the implied perspective and plotted the size of the creature relative to its victims. this was fairly simple since the creature is 12 feet tall sitting, half that would yield about the right height of a heroic Zendikari.

Once all that was in place I created a tight sketch of the creatures and victims, seen below. I kept the simple rough sketch-in and colours of the rest of the scene as unlike the characters and creature, landscapes are more malleable and follow somewhat less visual "rules." Stating them with very detailed line is unnecessary when the stroke of a digital brush is most of the statement already.

First I paint under, then over. That is to say, I begin actually putting the colours down by first applying my sketch as an overlay, painting very rough colours within the lines to account for the different between the initial colour sketch and the final line sketch, then continue painting rough colour under the lines until I'm happy with the way the piece is heading, and finally paint on top of the whole image, back to front.

The gif below starts with that final sketch and ends with the first "background layer" painted over the colours. I got lost in the waves on this one, drawing from a few different sources, adding more saturated colours to hint at a more vibrant sunlit beach. I found the key to distant waves seen at an angle is fluid solidity, with relatively sharp edges to show the peaks overlapping each other. When viewed closer and from above however, softer linear detail is important and minor ripples coruscate across the landscape of the larger swells.

I didn't have the time to include the third foreground figure I intended to paint or to really get into the detail of the closer waves. The fact that most of the bottom of the image would be obscured made up my mind to finish the image up as best I could and send it in.

Oracle of Dust has so far been my most popular illustration created for Magic: The Gathering. Part of it has to do with the great brief, direction and concept work for battle for Zendikar. Part of it has to do with the detail I demanded of myself in the waves, creature, and point of dusted land in the background. But all of it has to do with the fact that I scrapped my faltering original vision and started again. It wouldn't have done this well at all if I hadn't learned the essential art of starting over.


- The original thumbnail sketches for Oracle of Dust (though the sketches were unused) and Adverse Conditions are available to be purchased. Please contact for details.
- Prints of Oracle of Dust are available on my inprnt page
- You can receive artist proofs and sketches of Oracle of Dust or any other of my MTG cards by following instructions on my website

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Simple + Interesting = Memorable

The TIE Fighter is the best spaceship design ever.

That's the TIE/LN specifically for my fellow supernerds

I don't mean to say that within its universe it's the most powerful ship, or even the most cleverly and efficiently designed. It certainly isn't the most realistic. What I mean is that if one were ever asked to draw a spaceship, the TIE fighter would be the easiest to get across quickly while also being interesting to look at.

Why is that? Some designs are interesting to look at but not simple or easy to remember (like many modern ships designed for video games) and some are exceedingly simple but not interesting (your standard flying saucer). What makes the TIE fighter so memorable, iconic and "draw-able" comes down to a simple equation;

simple + interesting = memorable

Simplicity isn't synonymous with boring, and interest isn't generated exclusively by complexity. A TIE Fighter is made up of 3 simple shapes (sphere, cone, hexagon) that on their own are boring, but are cunningly fit together to create a unique design. Compared to the rebel starship designs, which are more reminiscent of familiar planes and jet fighters, the TIE fighter is a cyclopean insect, swarming towards the viewer in the thousands on solid, hexagonal wings. It's a single-minded drone that emphasizes not only the inhuman nature of the empire but the disposability of the pilot within. It screams evil and oppression without a single silly spike or skull lashed to the hull. It's great.

It's made even better by the fact that its design is easy to remember. That memorability is advantageous in so many ways; being easy to remember it's easy to draw, encouraging fan projects (free advertising); it makes the artists' job (whether that be concept artist, modeller, cinematographer, director etc) easier by being an easily lit and readable object; it sticks in customers and fans' minds more easily - etc. and etc. to Alderaan and back.

There are great examples of this equation in all forms of media... but sadly there seems to be too few. Sadder still is the lack of these simple and effective designs both in student portfolios and in some of our favourite settings. I won't critique specific examples, but videogames seem to have a problem with excessive design, with bits and bobs strewn about over a character in an effort to make him or her stand out, to seem "realistic" or particularly bad ass. The problem is all that clutter simply gets in the way and prevents our eyes from really "grabbing" the idea of the design. I can't tell you how many games I've played relatively recently that contain character designs that aren't memorable.... simply because I can't remember them!

So how do you, as an aspiring or working artist, approach this problem? How do you give a client what they (think they) want, which is detail, while still creating a cohesive, interesting, and memorable design? Let's do a little exercise, take a look at a few do's and don't's and see if we can make something you'll remember.

Step One - Simple 

One or Two. Repeated. United

Let's start with a fantasy character. You might think this is starting things off easy, but it isn't; fantasy characters are everywhere, competing for attention in a crowded space of the public eye. The fact that general "fantasy" characters are quite ubiquitous in movies and video games means that making them memorable is a challenge.

Fear the Placeholder Stick.
Here she is! Fresh off the character-creation-system of the imagination, ready to be clothed in pixels and to then hopefully set down roots in our memory. We'll try two different types of character and narrow her down a bit so our challenge has some direction - one version of her will be an armoured warrior who hails from a tropical, sea-faring civilization while the other will be an arctic rogue - a thief or assassin in the snow.

Here are three things to remember when creating and simplifying a design;

Simple is one or two. Simple is repeated. Simple is united.

"One or two" is where we limit the amount of elements in the design; one or two major shapes; one or two main colours; one or two motifs. "Repeated" is simple enough; repeat those few elements throughout the design. "United" is where each element serves the whole, where elements appear in similar or connected places (arms and legs, hands and feet, elbows and knees etc.).

Let's start with the Warrior. Living in a watery, tropical area gives us some unique practical considerations to play around with as well as a good number of potential motifs to integrate into the design. She might be in relatively heavy amour, but freeing up the arms and legs (which are almost always of secondary importance) gives the impression of freedom of movement, very important if she needs to wade or even swim through water in an emergency.

One or Two - For motifs as well as shapes, let's go with the obvious but effective crescent-shaped waves as well as the bulbous, rounded carapace of a crab; not only does it provide a visual contrast while maintaining a "natural" feel, it also evokes a sense of hard shells and protection. For main colours, sea-foam green and red-orange is a striking and tropical contrast. I say MAIN colours as an important distinction; there are inevitably going to be a few more hues than just two; the colour of her skin, the sandy colour (no accident) of the underpadding, the colour of her steel sword, her black hair, etc. There are however colours that stand out, and colours that don't. The sea-foam and red-orange are the stand-out, memorable colours. Her skin, hair, underpadding and netting are far less contrasted which each other, and offer a neutral base. This base doesn't impact the readability of the main colours and so are an exception to the "one or two" guideline.

Repeated - The nature of the waves demands us to repeat those crescent shapes throughout. The crab, while being a central focus on the chest, finds itself orbiting the main crab on the shoulders, hands and knees. The underpadding is also repeated.

United - Here's the tricky part, where all the pieces are not only fitted together, but in a way that reinforces simplicity. That big, bright red crab can sit smack dab in the middle of her chest. It's the big, shiny button that is noticed first, and hopefully acts as the mnemonic device of the design. The sea-foam armour will be in one spot underneath it to frame it and keep things simple. The underpadding crab armour will be repeated in conceptually similar "end-cap" places- the lower arms and lower legs.

On to the Rogue. Like the warrior there are some practical design choices such as relatively warm but light clothing, and well-worn themes such as fur, polar animals etc. Unlike the warrior, her palette is going to be a bit more subdued. You can't always add whatever elements you wish to characters you're creating for clients, so "bright, distinct colours" isn't a weapon you can always have in your arsenal. Luckily value is a (potentially more) potent tool you can use in less saturated designs.

One or Two - The motifs here can be even more simple; her cloak and claw-gauntlets will be made from a polar-bear's hide. Two main colours, or rather values, are the unsaturated grey/white of the fur and black/grey of her clothing. Those are also the two types of main materials as well. The varying tan colours of her face, claws, weapons and slashes in her dark outfit all settle back as secondary colours.

Repeated - The fur is repeated on her hands and also on her boots. Her 3-claw pattern on her gauntlets is also repeated on her hips with the braces of 3 throwing knives. there are also some cut-and-tied segments between the joins of her clothing. These are in a practical sense a way to limit the sound her outfit makes when trying to move silently, and in a design sense allows some repeated patters that highlight her joints.

United - Here we have another case of one colour or value enveloping or cradling another. the white of her hood surrounds her dark hair and face, and the rest of the cloak surround her dark clothing, with the clothing itself creating a dark triangle that moves up to her face. this design is more separated than the warrior's, almost cut in half by the two values.

Step Two - Interesting

Clutter it up... the smart way!

That subheading is actually a little late, as we've already dealt with interesting shapes and motifs in our designs already. I'd argue that "interesting" much like "composition" is a concept that can't be excised from the ideas and elements that built it up in the first place. What I'm going to be talking about here is a specific principle that deals with creating detail without sacrificing the overall read of various elements or the whole.

These are the tertiary reads, the thing the viewer notices after the first two important elements. The viewer, when looking at the warrior design, is likely going to notice the large, bright, central crab. Primary read. Then they'll notice the other major elements like netting or wavy, watery armour. Secondary read. Then this hypothetical (and to be honest, methodical) viewer is going to notice.... the little bits. The swirls of detail in the waves. The bulbous bits of carapace jutting out. The small hints of personal history that don't stand out, don't get in the way, but are there to be found and appreciated if one were looking close enough.

Tertiary read.

This whole section might seem long winded for the rather mundane advice of "put some minor stuff on there" but it's very relevant to the problem of clutter that I see so often with fantasy design. Let's see it applied to our characters;

The warrior has seen a jump in detail with her armour, many more waves of varying value and saturation decorating it. The shift in colour is small enough that the sea-foam armour still reads as a single unit. She can also sport some netting over her underpadding,both to tie her once more to the sea but also as a practical way to keep the padding tight to her body in case she does have to swim. This netting is also in line with the "repeated" principle, as it's made up of many repeated lines but also is repeated throughout. Finally it also is "united" in that it's only and always seen on top of the padding. For other minor elements we could add some sea-shell or jade accoutrements.

The snow-rogue is even simpler. Unified and subtle detail can be added in the fur and in the overlapping leather bits of her rogue outfit. Small, subtle patterns can create detail and the illusion of complexity without losing the impact of the whole.

Finally, let's take a look at some bad examples I cooked up. I actually challenged myself to make something that on the surface might seem complex and interesting, but forced myself to not think about all of the simplifying design principles. Take a look at them side-by-side with their simplified counterparts;

All of the themed material is there; shells and fins and wave details for the warrior, fur and leather and claws for the rogue. What's also present is way too much everything. Too many materials, items, colours and shapes that are scattered about haphazardly, all without their own territory or chance to shine. You might argue that they might look "cooler" or more deadly or impressive at a glance, but try remembering their design. Try to remember what was there, what shape it was, where it was placed. Chances are some time from now you'll draw a relative blank. They are brainless, throwaway designs that I came up with on the spot with no thought whatsoever, and the less I see of these types of designs (even though I wouldn't remember them for long in the first place) the better. With the simple designs you might not remember every little detail, and for sure they're not the most amazing, award-winning character designs you'll come across.... but you'd probably remember that big bright crab surrounded by sea-foam, or a sliver of darkness running up through a white shroud.

Remember to be Memorable

Hopefully this has been a helpful set of examples that will encourage you to take some time to really think about what you shouldn't be adding to your character designs as much as what you should. Try to let only one or two elements shine so that the viewer can really grab hold of the design in their mind rather than a bunch of little kernels that will slip right through. Keep in mind that Simple + Interesting = Memorable, remember to clutter things up the right way, and remember that the TIE fighter is the best damn spaceship design in the galaxy.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

My Study "Schedule"

 Michael Bierek posted a study schedule on his blog a while ago that was reblogged by The Art Order. It had a big influence on the way I do studies, especially the quick timed master copies. I can't seem to find it online, but the jist was that every day was divided by subject. During a 4-hour study block you would strive to complete three 5-minute warmups, three 15 minute studies, a one-hour refinement of one of the 15 minute studies, three 15 minute practice paintings and a one hour+15 minute refinement of one of those practice paintings. There were options for 3 and 1 hour study blocks as well.

It not only reinforces application of studies but also gives structure and limitations. When I engaged in this study schedule I found the timed studies worked well for the quick master studies but not for much else (especially if I was sketching with graphite). I altered the schedule into something that worked better for me, focusing more on desired output after a session rather than timing of each individual study. I can choose on a day-by-day basis where I want to do more than the required studying. I preserved the timing aspect for the quick studies, and you can see my whole study schedule (which i keep in a word doc) below;

*** indicates what category to tackle next
* indicates what sub category to tackle next
Days can be replaced by longer in-depth studies of a single subject, application of previous studies or personal projects.

Sketchbook gesture or rough warmup
1 large page (or 2 small pages) sketches
1 colour (or two greyscale) digital studies
1 digital or sketchbook page of application

Aquatic animals*

Sketchbook gesture or rough warmup
1 large page (or 2 small pages) sketches
1 colour (or two greyscale) digital studies
1 digital or sketchbook page of application

Longer nude studies*
Human anatomy

Sketchbook gesture or rough warmup
1 large page (or 2 small pages) sketches
1 colour (or two greyscale) digital studies
1 digital or sketchbook page of application

Hands, gloves and anatomy
Feet, shoes and anatomy*
Facial features (eyes noses mouths ears)

Sketchbook gesture or rough warmup
1 large page (or 2 small pages) sketches
1 colour (or two greyscale) digital studies
1 digital or sketchbook page of application

Ancient clothing
Modern clothing*
Ancient armor
Ancient weapons

Sketchbook gesture or rough warmup
1 large page (or 2 small pages) sketches
1 colour (or two greyscale) digital studies
1 digital or sketchbook page of application

Heavy machinery
High tech*
Modern weapons

Sketchbook gesture or rough warmup
1 large page (or 2 small pages) sketches
1 colour (or two greyscale) digital studies
1 digital or sketchbook page of application

Landscape scene
City scene
Architecture and indoors*
Plants, trees, rocks

Sketchbook gesture or rough warmup
1 large page (or 2 small pages) sketches
1 colour (or two greyscale) digital studies
1 digital or sketchbook page of application

Quick Master Studies (three 5 min studies, three 15 min studies, one hour refinement of one study. Application: three 15 min sketches, hour + refinement of one sketch)
Longer Master Study
Screencap studies*
Life study/self portrait

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

My "New" Process (and why you should take risks)

Even though the beginnings of it date back to 2010, I still refer to the way I work as my "New Process." I'm not sure why, but I think it has to do with my new way of thinking about how to create pictures. It also reminds me that it was a new way of thinking and a chance experiment that led me to the way I work.

When I was just starting out making cheap little illustrations I would simply go right into a sloppy grey-scale sketch. If it was client work I'd send it off for approval. Back then they usually looked like this;

Prelims aren't meant to be finished images, and the problems with the one above are more technical and skill-related, but the issues with my early process becomes clear when you see the final;

Again, technical issues aside, all I did was throw a colour layer over my sloppy sketch and tried to render my way out of the corner I sketched myself into. No references, no planning, no thumbnails or colour exploration. Just slop it on top and hope for the best. This time in my artistic development was spent trying to emulate my digital art heroes by rendering and rendering.... and rendering. Overlay layers, grey-scale sketches, texture brushes, they're all great if you know what you're doing. I didn't. I didn't have a solid preliminary process, I had an even worse process of translating early rough stages to intermediate and final stages, and I was ignoring my best allies; line and structure.

Taking the Chance



I remember late 2010 pretty well, because it held a breakthrough. Just for fun I decided to paint some sirens. I forget what the inspiration was, but I do remember an image of a nude model by the sea that I wanted to use. Rather than go right into a dirty, sloppy grey-scale sketch, i tried something new; a dirty, sloppy line sketch that only hinted at the main actors.

Over-top on a multiply layer (which expresses true colours so long as your background is white) I brushed in some vague colours. More importantly, I went straight into the colours, skipping the grey-scale layer entirely.

I felt a new sense of freedom as I tried some subtle colour combinations, bolder brushwork and funny enough, simpler rendering. I felt like I was painting rather than wrestling with a digital program.

I still didn't nail down a preliminary process, and in the years to come I would still end up using overlay layers on top of grey-scale sketches, but this was one of the first times I stepped outside my comfort zone and tried a "fill in" approach rather than my "block in" approach. both would be important I would find out...

Fast forward to the end of last year and what I consider not only a typical example of how I work (even though the thumbnail process is changed again) but in my opinion one of the more successful illustrations I've created - the cover to The Lords of Gossamer and Shadow diceless RPG;

The success of it had a lot to do with good clear direction from a small publisher and my first real client from a few years ago, and a genuine interest in the game and setting after reading through the manuscript. Always ask for something more unless you've been given a fair amount already. After reading the art order and whatever supplementary materials are provided, I try to answer;

- what is the background of the characters and settings I need to portray? how should they act or feel?
- what overall emotional impression should the viewer take away from the image?
- what existing imagery (reference materials or works of art) might the client have had in mind when creating the elements of the setting?
- what liberties can I take, and what is set in stone?
- how busy is this art director and how important are these questions to them?

If I can't answer those then I ask for more, and that last question is important when dealing with different clients - larger clients may care more about internal consistency with the world that's already established but might leave a larger part of the idea-generation and small details up to the artist.

The Beginning


The rule for me now is - something smaller reworked into something larger. Most of the time that means thumbnails and small sketches, other times it might mean some pixels splashed around on the computer to give an overall impression. What it never means is a doodle that's finished and presented at the size it was conceived at, digital or otherwise. That "reworked" is an important part of it. I abhor the method of one-shot-make-it count or noodling at the same image until it vaguely forms a decent direction for the illustration to head in. I believe in well-thought-out and explored upon design and revision based on a preplanned destination over the constant shuffling and re-packaging of icons and imagery. The latter I feel tends to lead to emotional/thematic stiffness, confusion of intent and worst of all, similarity

 That's an awfully long way to say that I start with thumbnails.  



When I was creating the LoGaS cover last December I was in a phase where I created my thumbnails digitally with no linework. Limited to 4 basic values this process is great for developing a very clear tonal range but for me ends up lacking in structure.

These days I'm back to thumbnailing on paper. For whatever reason, I find working on paper allows for some more genuine, structured ideas to form and I'm dissuaded from over-working the thumbnails due to the small size and medium.

Today my initial thumbnails look closer to this. Detailed sketches could follow or I'd re-sketch them in photoshop.

Sorting out the values begins on the page and is fleshed out further when I transfer the sketch to the computer, but if the colours or values are ever in question I may try for a quick a quick colour exploration phase. This involvs splashing colours around without the need to fit them within the lines and allows a lot of freedom for exploration.

Colour comp -to- final illustration example

The Transition


Removing backgrounds can help interpret the colours
The transitional phase between the rough sketches and the final rendering is, for me, the most important part of the painting. The way I translate that original idea can have a huge effect on the final product, either reinforcing the gestures, mood and values or muddying them up.

The first step is gathering and shooting references. If there are any figures in the scene, I'll likely shoot references of myself for them; there's no reason not to, and I can always disregard the visual information if the photos don't reflect an important aspect of the original idea. Perhaps the lighting is wrong, so I'll improvise, or the gesture isn't expressive enough and I'll only use the folds of the fabric etc. Don't ever shy away from references, but know their limitations. Following them too closely will mean you're copying the photos "mistakes" such as lack of energy or lighting inconsistencies.

In the image above I used two cheap refurbished display lights and an old kodak easyshare digital camera to capture the reference for Calais, one of the characters featured on the cover. You probably won't have full costumes at hand for each character you create, but some belts, a long sleeved shirt and a bed sheet can go a long way. I take many photos per character as you never know when some small turn of the body or gesture of the hand will make for a better image.

From here I'll go back to the original sketch and create a rough sketch overtop using the references I shot/gathered. it's important in this phase to try to capture forms and gesture over details and likenesses;

On top of that comes the final sketch. This type of final sketch is best for detailed characters and creatures, not so much for landscapes. it's important to only add the detail you need; a large turning of a form (such as a large swath of cloth) can be detailed in only a few lines, whereas a face or a flintlock pistol requires some more detail;


This is NOT intended to be "linework" that others might see in the final image, and so I spend little time fussing with the quality of the lines. This is only for me, a guideline that solidified the structure and design of the image.

I set this final sketch layer to "multiply" and then directly apply colours underneath. I start with a basic fill and add in some basic detail and variation, trying not to get too far ahead of myself. I might add some quick overlay or multiply layers above the image at this point to push the colours or values in a certain direction, but the directly-applied colours do all of the heavy lifting. At this stage, the image has the potential to be a bit awkward looking;

The Finish


The whole final phase is essentially rendering using brushes on a normal layer with references in hand. Because I use a planning-heavy process, if the image isn't working at this point it's difficult to steer it back on course. This final phase is realizing what's already there, not creating what isn't; an element thrown in at this phase has the potential to throw the composition out of balance. Here are a few animations of the final process;

 And that's about it!
The best thing to keep in mind when figuring out your process is that it can change. Try new things, take that chance. Do you work primarily from grey-scale? Try going right into the colours. Do you Always use line? Try brushing in broad shapes first. Add and subtract elements of your process to try to find the best fit for you, and make sure to never poo-poo a tool or process until you've tried it yourself. Above all else; the process and tools are subordinate to your own skills and understanding of artistic principles. Sometimes instead of looking at your process or influences you just need to knuckle-down and do the work that your skills require.