Friday, January 27, 2012

Snow White and Rose Red - process

Here's a walk through of my process for creating my picture, Snow White and Rose Red. The piece was also featured in Spectrum a few years back.

Here's a detail of Red:

You know the drill... just get your ideas down. Don't question them at this stage, just get them down and assess later. If one starts grabbing you, though, make sure to follow that lead.

It can be tough trying to turn that dreamlike image you get in your head into a tangible, viable real world space, while also retaining all its magic and abstract "oomph" - that is the challenge of realistic painting!

...starting to see an idea here... maybe if I have Snow White offset from the fire, against a dark background, with Rose Red darker, against the fire...

The basic value structure is starting to work, but I don't love the centered, one point perspective view.

This is more like it...
 Here's the value study...

And some quick color ideas, and the rough is done!

Before I get to work painting the final image, though, I need to really absorb my subject. I don't do a tight pencil drawing to guide (I say LIMIT) my painting. Instead, I do a lot of different drawings to get to know my subject, using real life, photos, imagination - anything - as a source. Here is me getting to know bears:

And kids...

And bears and kids...

and mom...

and sheep...

and stuff...

I've included all these so you can see that this stage of the process is more about training, which in turn is about quantity (time spent), not quality.

Here we go painting... where to begin? Doesn't really matter... I know some artists start on the focal point, others mix it up a bit. I tend to loosen up by working on non-focal areas, then sort of sneak up on the focal area and take it by surprise!  But I do generally work the WHOLE picture at once. Stapleton Kearns reckoned this something like herding all the sheep into the pen - you don't bring ONE to the pen, then go back for the next, then bring it into the pen, then go back for the third etc. - no, you corral them all at once, moving more slowly but bringing the whole herd along together. That's my approach.
 Starting to see some form and light here...

Continuing to add detail... like a photo coming into focus...

More detail... (I really need to do some videos of this process, I know)

Now adding a lot of stuff on the walls - this is where all those studies come in handy. No shortage of ideas, and all I need to think about now is where they fit...

So here's where artists that are just learning get upset with step by step demos("just keep adding details and refining and voila!") - they're like, "you make it seem so easy!! I never know what to do next!!" 

The truth is, I often don't either. I think Jason Manley once said, "think more, paint less" (could've been someone else, if so, apologies to you both). Anyway, believe me, I usually do not have a completely clear "vision" for the painting in terms of specific details - more like a specific feeling that I am roughly aiming for. Then I just follow the bread crumbs.

Making sure to maintain my simple value structure as I refine and add detail... all art is abstract - THAT'S WHAT MAKES IT ART!

This painting has a lot going on, but it's actually a very, very simple composition - basically just two values - a big dark area with a light spot in the middle. It's usually pretty straightforward to have large areas of the image kind of melt into darkness - but this is not always the obvious thing to do with light areas.

Check out the fireplace. Next time you're looking at a real fire in a real fireplace, you'll note that there are actually lots of darks in there, even if the fire is burning brightly. But if I did that here, say, brought some darks into the kettle and such, the fireplace would pop out like a yellow and black striped caution sign (they paint those things that way for a reason). The compression of the value range and overall monochromatic treatment of the fireplace interior is not just to give it a feeling of glowing warmth, it's also to create a flatter foil for the figures silhouetted against it.

Harvey Dunn would say, "it's ok if Rose decides to raise her hand, so long as YOU do not decide to raise it for her..."

At some point the picture has kind of arrived, and it's tempting to stop. You've done enough, it's all there, nothing left to do... then I ask myself, "well, if I WERE to do a little more, what might I do? maybe a little work here... the bear's fur could use a little more love..." and before I know it I've brought the painting to another level that I did not really foresee. That is one of the "secrets." All this little stuff adds up. For some painters, given their particular process, there are points at which the painting looks ABSOLUTELY HORRIBLE, and they may not even have a clear picture of what it needs to end up looking like. What they do have is confidence that if they just keep going it'll get where it needs to be.

Everything in the picture has to contribute to what you're trying to do, or it will undoubtedly work against it. You need to think about it all - color, value, lighting, mood, viewpoint, content, facial expression, body language, costumes, things, stuff - everything! For "stuff", I like to think about what these folks do when I'm not looking at them. How do they scurry up that ladder when they go to bed at night? What is just slightly "off camera" that we may not be seeing? What's in that jug on the shelf? What kinds of visitors come and hang their coats on that coat rack by the door? Who winds that clock? What do the girls do during the day - I know, they pick cherries - there's a basket of them under the ladder...

Some final adjustments, and we're done.

The thing that's great about 2d still art is it takes just a fraction of a second for us to get inside the viewer's head. 

Here's the same progression, focusing on Red. 

She starts life as a blob... ok two blobs (don't we all?)

Working those values, starting to define her edges

Painters go on and on about values - and no one listens to us!!!!!
Look at Red here - you can easily differentiate her arm from her body, and see that the shoulder on her dress is probably a white material... but squint down and look at it again - everything within her form melts into a single almost black shape. Values in painting are sooooo much more limited compared to real life you've got to "stay within the lines."  For Red, in this picture, that means using an extremely narrow range of values to depict the entire range of "local" colors in her, from white to dark red.

 Value control is not just about depicting reality - it's about focal point and contrast. Notice how much darker the fireplace interior is to the right of Red's head vs. the left side, where it's in front of her face. I don't want that triangle of light behind her head to draw your attention... but I also of course staged the picture so the brightest part of the fire is where I want it - behind her face (I'm so clever).

Changing pose and costume at the last minute...

Here's a detail shot of the mantle. Red is more active and wild - she likes to catch butterflies, so there's a jar of butterflies above her. Snow likes to read, so there's a stack of books above her.

At one point in the story the girls are rescuing a dwarf whose beard has gotten stick in the split of a log. Snow whips out a little pair of scissors and cuts the beard, freeing him. There they are...

I hope this little walk through the making of Snow White and Rose Red has been helpful (and apologies for the delays in posting).


  1. Hi Chris,
    This is a truly wonderful painting, and a really great tutorial. Thank you very much for sharing. As with all your other tutorials I find them a great help and an inspiration for someone like me who is still trying to learn to paint digitally.

    Can I ask...are the close-ups you show typical of the magnification that you work at? I know you'll be zooming in and out throughout the painting process, but just wondered how close to the canvas you like to get, so to speak. It's probably the thing I struggle with most since I'm more used to working traditionally. It often feels very uneasy to me to suddenly zoom in, even a little bit, so that I no longer see the whole painting on my screen. Was this ever an issue for you? Is it something that you just get more comfortable with over time?

    Keep up the great work. I very much enjoy your blog and your artwork is just wonderful.

  2. Thanks Kevin, glad you found it useful. No, the closeups are not the zoom level I work at typically... or ever, really. They're at 100%. Usually I work at 25% zoom because a) that allows the whole image to fit on the screen (crucial) and b) it's fairly close to the size the picture will print at, on my setup.

    Yes, this was a HUGE issue for me, and is still one of the most significant drawbacks / challenges of working digitally. As you say, you really need to be able to see the whole picture at once, but working zoomed out at 25% means for every 4x4 pixel area (that's 16 pixels), you're actually only seeing ONE pixel. Also note that zooming in to 100% does not give you a clear idea of what kind of detail the image will have when printed either, because pixels are not printing dots. Even though technically all those details will be there, because the image is physically smaller, you won't see them as well, if that makes sense. So the short answer is THERE IS NO WAY TO SEE ON THE SCREEN HOW YOUR IMAGE WILL LOOK IN PRINT! iPhone screens actually have a finer resolution than print (they're like 330 pixels per inch, or something). Someday we'll have monitors like that... For now, my advice is to work as much as you can zoomed out at 25% or so, then when you're done zoom in to 50% and see if anything needs to be cleaned up. At that point you shouldn't be jeopardizing the "big picture" with these tweaks.

    Thanks for the kind words about my work.


  3. Thanks for the great advice Chris. It's a big help to know that I should try to keep the zoom at 25% as much as possible. It sounds like I have been falling into the trap of zooming in too much and then getting bogged down with detail and tidying up too early.

    It's interesting to read what you say about the problem of translating what appears on screen to what you actually see in print. Do you ever find it helpful to do test prints at various stages throughout your painting? Or are you able to just use your experience to know that what's on your computer is going to print out as you want it to. I actually haven't done much in the way of printing out my digital art - not least of all because I don't have a very good home printer - but I do tend to work on images that would print out at 300dpi on A4 (so usually no bigger than 2500 x 3500 pixels).

    Many thanks,

  4. I think you've got it right, Kevin - "zooming in too much and then getting bogged down in detail" causes far worse problems in digital painting than in physical painting, because in physical painting the whole image is still in your field of view, so your details are relating to the whole at least somewhat.

    I used to do test prints a lot, and was always shocked at the difference between what I was seeing on screen and what was printed. But, as you said, eventually I became trained to know the relationship between how something looked on screen and how it would print.

    But your TOOLS have a lot to do with it as well. Some brushes, say, a brush that's really "hairy" may make a lot of small raking lines that blend together when viewed on screen zoomed out, but which print really clearly. I learned not to use brushes that look really different at 25% zoom on screen vs. in print. Some digital artists use a sort of scribbly or cross hatching type of approach, with a very small round brush. This looks ok on screen, but then when it's printed all those little lines become visible. I personally don't want that look. So you really need to know your tools well, and avoid those that aren't working for you.

    Digital painting is "easier" in so many ways (it's consequence-free), but make no mistake - there is just as much to learn about it as any other medium, and I'm not talking about all the tools and techniques that are available. I'm just talking about basic mark-making and printing. It takes a while to get a "feel" for it, as it does with all things art, but it will come.

    So you want to get to the point where you can paint at 25% zoom or so (whatever you need to do to fit the image on your screen), while also being confident that what you see is what you're going to get in print.

  5. Thanks again Chris for taking the time to reply. The difference in how certain brush marks appear on screen versus in print isn't something I've heard other artists talk about before, so I'm really glad you mentioned it. I think I'll start doing some test prints of my own to see how the various brushes perform in this respect. After all, I suppose there's little point in being thoroughly happy with a painting that looks great on screen if it falls down when printed (assuming the image is destined for print, even if, like me, it's just for one's own enjoyment).

    Brushes are something I've still to get to grips with but I realise that's just going to take time, practice and experimentation - and plenty of it! I'm trying not to rush it by using dabbling with many brushes too quickly. I'm currently using Painter XI for the most part, which I like and will stick with). It can be rather daunting to look at the large array of brushes and brush variants available, and that's before doing any brush customising, which I haven't dabbled with at all yet.

    Like you say though, it will all just take time to acquire a 'feel' for everything. Thanks again for the words of advice and encouragement. I really appreciate it!


  6. Kevin, also, to be clear, you can identify these brushes by looking at them zoomed in (I hope that's not confusing). For example, with a bristly brush, zoomed out the mark may simply look sort of soft, but zoomed in it may look really scratchy, with lots of little scratch marks each of which has a very HARD edge - perhaps exactly the opposite of what you wanted! In print that effect would likely be lessened, but still there.

    I'm going to start a request thread so folks like you can ask for specific topics to be discussed.

  7. Yes, I see what you mean. Thanks.
    I think the request thread is an excellent idea! There will no doubt be plenty of other things I'd find it helpful to ask you about, as I'm sure others would. Will look forward to that! :-)

  8. Es fantástico, impresionante!!! o.O