Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Painting a Snow Scene - working the whole

This is a picture I did for the second book in the Maurice's Valises series.

This picture needed to capture the excitement and promise of Maurice the mouse setting out on one of his most important adventures, in this case traveling by barge to the city of Moscow in deep winter.

Here's the rough sketch - as usual I don't develop the drawing very much before getting going with the paint. I really like to find my way through the picture with values and color, big shapes, vs. line.

Here I've laid in the basic values and colors for the picture. The compositional approach is fairly simple.

Here's the same picture with the drawing removed. You can see that even at this very, very early stage the value and color relationships are standing on their own. If you squint and look at this picture you might think it's finished.  When everything is in good balance your eyes will fill in the details (or not care that they're not there).

For a picture like this I won't do any precise perspective work. I just lay in some lines using Photoshop's line tool, color coded for left, right and top vanishing points. These are all I need as a guide to paint the buildings, wall and bridge in consistent perspective.

As I've said before, when it's time to start rendering, it really doesn't matter where you start, so long as you don't bring any area too far ahead of the image as a whole. I know some artists that don't work this way - they finish one small area and then move on to another. For the vast majority of them this has a generally negative effect on the whole, though I will say that for some it works really well. If that approach works for you - great!  For most artists, though, the way to ensure a consistent whole is to consistently work the whole. I started working the figure here.

I should also add that for some artists it does matter where they start. Where you start can have an effect on the final image, depending on how you work and how you see. For example, some artists start on the focal area, so the focal elements tend to achieve and remain at a more advanced level of finish and detail than the rest of the image. If you do this you may even find that the non-focal areas can remain really unfinished. I used to do the opposite - start on the non-focal areas and do the focal areas last, because at that point there was a really solid context for the critical focal areas, making them much more straightforward to render.

So I'll leave it this way: if you have a reason to start in a particular place, great! If not, don't let that cripple you - just start somewhere and dive in.

Here I'm moving to tighten up the bridge, and add some waves to the water.

And now moving onto the buildings in the background.

More refinement all over, and some snow on the buildings. I'm not loving the palette at this point, but it's actually easier for me to adjust it after rendering some of the elements a bit more. That way I have more information to inform the larger color and value adjustments.

I tried several different approaches with the snow. The scale of the snowflakes vs. the mouse was definitely a challenge. The relatively large flakes run the risk of becoming way too prominent in the picture. To address this I made them blurry, and a bit smaller than what would be perfectly realistic. The snow is built up in three layers.

Here I've lightened up the image a bit, modified the large cleat, and added more detail and texture to the mouse's coat and hat.

A tiny bit of tweaking on the snowflakes here and there to make the figure's silhouette a bit stronger.

Here I made a dramatic adjustment to the palette, bringing more reds and purples into the background. My typical process is: bring all elements up to the next level of detail in Painter > switch to Photoshop for big adjustments to color, value, and position of elements > back to Painter > repeat.

Lastly I lowered the entire background for what I felt was a stronger compositional relationship with the foreground elements, I lightened up the background behind the figure to make him stand out a bit more, and lightened the coat to allow the background to breathe into it a bit more, vs. having the whole foreground reading as sort of a big black blob.

With traditional media you really do need to do a lot of planning up front, because certain changes are really, really costly down the road. But with digital tools you can really work the whole, meaning you can make all manner of adjustments and changes at any stage of the process. For me it's not just that I can make these changes at a stage that might be considered late in traditional media processes, but it's actually more appropriate to do them once much of the image has been rendered, so I have some good tools to work with when it comes to making the big decisions.


  1. Pure genius, Chris. You make a complex scene, full of subtlety and atmosphere seem simple. It has so much cinematic narrative I can almost feel the boat moving. Outstanding stuff and so generous of you to share your insight with us. Many thanks.

  2. Really interesting Chris! Just finished a lot of snow images, so it is interesting to see in the mind of another artist.

    I like the sketch. I tend to add a lot of the detail in the paint phase too.