Thursday, October 17, 2013

Donkeyskin - Tutorial

I usually start with a really rough and simple sketch, about 4" x 5", to establish the basic composition. This picture was no different.
In the story the girl is fleeing into the night from a terrible situation at home. Her castle, her former home looms in the darkness behind her, as she follows a winding path lit only by the lanterns on her wagon. Her sheep, her sole companion, guides the way.   

I then did a tighter drawing, and laid in some very rough colors to establish the mood and basic lighting.
For reference at this point I look at lots of pictures of old wagons and carts, and different kinds of sheep. I try to fill my head with as much imagery as possible, then I am free to create without looking at pictures.

After some experimentation I decided to go with just one lantern. This created more dramatic shadows, and a stronger focal point. I spent a fair amount of time redrawing the wagon a little more carefully. The way it tilts to one side and negotiates the turn, and the coming hill, were important dynamics to get right before painting.

Using an opaque brush in Painter (IX) I lay in some opaque colors, and start to suggest the grass texture. With a clear idea in my mind of how the light illuminates the scene, I quickly get the basic value relationships and shapes in place.
The sketch is still visible as a multiply layer over the painting layer.

I typically begin the real painting work on the largest areas of the picture, because that gives me a solid environment or context in which to fit the rest of the imagery. The grass was a little challenging to get right, so I used separate layers for a few steps of the process (which I rarely do). The sky and road helped establish the purplish ambient light. I experimented with a greater degree of saturation, but pulled back a bit from a really strong purple.
I also moved the castle to the opposite side of the girl because I felt it strengthened the composition.

Here I hide the sketch layer and switch over to just the painting layer. The sheep is the first area of detail I begin to work on.
I also add an effects layer for the lantern halo and some texturing over much of the background. This is just a composite of a whole bunch of old paintings, basically creating an abstract texture pattern, then added as an overlay layer.

Now the painting is firmly established, and I work over all the areas of detail bit by bit.
It takes a bit of playing around to get the lighting on the sheep just right - its not receiving much direct light from the lantern, but it's also fairly light, so needs to pick up a fair amount of ambient light from the sky and moon.
The girl is also roughed in pretty quickly here.
Also see the close up of the girl, below, for a more detailed walk through of the process used to paint the girl.
As for "style" I set out very deliberately to return to a smeary wet look, as in The Girl in the Iron Shoes. I also work with bristle brushes (in Painter), which for me makes executing a painting much quicker, but the look is consequently a little "scratchy." So for this picture I stuck with a basic round brush, with lots of bleed. The only real variation is sometimes I drop the grain a bit, for some texture, and occasionally squeeze the brush shape into an ellipse for things like the blades of grass.

The girl's face and dress are tightened up a bit more. The sheep didn't feel like he was pulling as much as he should be on that hill, so I tilt his head down a bit. Also see the close up of the sheep, below, for a more detailed walk through of the process of painting the sheep.
At this point I decided the castle really wasn't a powerful enough component of the imagery, so I redid the whole thing. I did a whole new sketch, then laid in the basic colors and shapes.
Also see the close up of the castle, below, for more detailed information on painting the castle.

Here I add some detail to the line of trees, and give a little tilt to the castle (one more great thing about digital painting!).

Finally I decide that the lantern isn't quite working. I wanted the shape to be rounder and "cuter," and also to put a little more effort into the light rays coming from it.
A few more color and value adjustments, and I'm done.

Close up - Girl

This is the pencil rough as a multiply layer, laid over the basic underpainting for the girl. All that's important at this stage is to get a rough idea of the value relationships, and to a certain extent the colors.

When I'm ready to really start painting the figure, I get rid of the sketch layer and lay in the brightly lit areas as well as the really dark darks (the crevasses and crannies that get almost no light). As you can see, this is done very quickly. Normally I'm still working at about 25% zoom level.

Here I start to tackle some of the details of the face. I'm going for a kind of stunned fear, almost a blank stare, and it takes a few tries to get it right.
There is a lot going on in terms of the colors in the costume, with several different light sources hitting it, so at this point I do some experimenting with various reds, oranges, yellows and pinks. The lantern light is sort of an "equalizer," pulling everything it hits toward a warm saturated color (yellow / orange). But at the same time, the various "local colors" of the objects in the scene need to differentiate themselves from one another.
The human eye is much more sensitive to variations in hue and saturation in this area of the spectrum, so some of these color shifts are really minute, yet the dress, face and cushion still read as very different colored objects.

Still working on that facial expression, I add more detail to the facial features, and try to maintain that wide eyed expression in the process. I also paint in the light and shadow on the cushion, to help frame the girl. Then I rough in a headband or something (at this point I'm not sure exactly what it's going to be, but I wanted to round out the form of her head a bit, and also make her costume a little more "royal" looking).

I think the face is looking pretty good here. It's still pretty loose - you can see the separate color shapes pretty clearly, but that's how I like it. Also, even printed at full size (8" x 10"at 300dpi), a lot of the detail is hidden, so it's usually a waste of time to work in a lot of detail at 100% zoom.

Now on to the dress. I just continue to refine the basic shapes laid in initially. Sometimes I smear around the shapes that are already there, making rough oval shapes pointed or triangular, etc. - whatever is needed to carve out the forms. I also subdivide shapes and add finer wrinkles to the dress here and there. This part is fun!
I gently bring in a secondary light on the girl's right sleeve (on our left), and refine the trim on the dress a little. The dark gray / black band running down the front of the dress is almost completely washed away by the saturated light, making it appear like a dull yellow orange.
A few highlights in the hair, some detail to the headband, and I decide to leave it at that!

Close up - Sheep

This is the pencil rough of the sheep on a multiply layer, laid over the roughed in color. I typically paint on one layer, so I can smear and bleed the edges of the different objects together. You can see here how I let the grass enter pretty far into the sheep's area. That's because with a texture like that, you can't really go back and paint it right up to the sheep (at least it's not easy...). So I paint the grass first, then the sheep on top. If I paint over some grass and need to get it back later, I just open an earlier save and paste it back in, then erase around it with a layer mask and merge down. Because of how Painter's bleed and resaturation controls work, you really need to paint on a single layer to get this particular wet, smeary look.

I know it's going to take a bit of work to get the sheep right. It's not just a question of figuring out how it's "supposed to look" in the given lighting conditions - it's also about what kind of a role I want it to play in the picture. I don't want the sheep to be too bright or white, or it will draw too much attention to itself. It needs to frame the lower corner of the picture, but also lead off the page as well.
The lantern is making a narrow edge light on the back of the sheep, but the sky is also illuminating the sheep from above. At this point I make my first pass at a basic wool texture and rough in the colors and values.

Here I darken the sheep a bit, and make the light on his back a bit more saturated. Then I add some detail to his harness. The lantern light hits the back of his ear, which is very thin, so it appears to glow with some pretty saturated oranges and reds.

When I should be done... I decide to tilt the sheep's head down and completely change his stance, for more forward thrust. It was a bit tricky to settle on a stance that would also produce the particular shadow shapes I wanted.
A lot of beginning artists think this process is about deciding on a pose and picture arrangement, then just figuring out how the lighting and shadows would look for those conditions. But really it is a back and forth process of establishing poses and arrangements of lighting and objects in the scene that are going to produce the two-dimensional shapes you want for the compositional impact you are after.

Close up - Castle

When I first painted the castle I wasn't expecting it to play quite such an important role in the scene. But as it turned out the castle needed a bit more attention than I originally devoted to it.
With all my architectural and costume designs, I try to stick pretty close to historical authenticity, with just a touch of the fantastic to create the sense of an alternate time and place. I think it's important that the imagery remain very accessible (at least for my pictures) so I don't let things get too far fetched.
For this castle I found some pretty good reference material to get me started. Usually I assimilate a lot of different reference material then produce my own imagery from my head, but at this late stage I needed something a bit more concrete.
First I did a quick pencil sketch to establish the basic form and perspective.

I then laid some basic colors under the pencil sketch (which was on a multiply layer).

It didn't take long to work in the necessary details to bring this castle to life. As usual, I keep it pretty loose and smeary.

Finally I decide to tilt the castle a bit to better support the flow of the composition (gotta love digital), adjust the colors, and I'm done.

Illustrating The Selfish Giant

As soon as I read a story like The Selfish Giant my mind floods with imagery of the characters, places, and scenes depicted in the text. It’s important for me to get this early raw imagery down as quickly as I can, while it’s still fresh and clear, which is why I always carry a pocket sized sketch book with me wherever I go.
For the character of the giant I didn’t have to explore a lot of different treatments - I knew exactly what he looked like! But I did need to clarify how he would appear as he underwent his various transformations, both physically, as he grew older, and in terms of personality, as he changed from grumpy to cheerful, even loving, over time. Making sure a character is always clearly recognizable as "the same guy" while also showing the full range of emotions and poses, and being able to depict him from all different angles are critical factors if the character is to be as real to the audience as he is to me. Working this stuff out is what sketch books are for...
After getting the main character down, one of the first spreads I tackled was the scene that appears later in the story of the giant playing with the children - something that had become a regular and familiar event to him by this time. I knew it was going to be one of the more challenging illustrations for the book, featuring a lot of figures, all interacting with one another (well, all with the giant).

All illustrations start with a "thumbnail", and this was no exception. I explored two different approaches - the giant walking along with kids hanging from him, and the giant half sitting on the ground, being somewhat overwhelmed by kids (and joy). I chose the latter because it was something I personally could identify with, having spent much more than my fair share of time on the ground being tackled by my daughter’s friends and the neighborhood kids! Also I felt the walking idea made it look a bit like they were "going somewhere", while I wanted them to be clearly quite content rolling around in that magical garden.

The top left thumbnail is the one I felt captured the right gesture, movement and weight of the giant and kids together, the giant sort of struggling to keep himself upright while not inadvertently squashing any of the little tykes! Still, in the other thumbnails you can see individual snippets that were taken and transplanted, for example, the boy throwing the ball, the child hanging by his two hands, etc.

Often I go directly from very rough thumbnail to paint, but with a complex scene like this it’s better for me to work out some things in pencil first - basic poses and costumes, for example. Often my best sketch work comes spontaneously and unexpected, when I find myself with a spare moment to jot down some ideas... waiting in line to pick up by daughter from school, at the dentist’s office, whatever. So again, I always keep my miniature sketch book at the ready.


After exploring some rough ideas with the figures, it’s time to lay these separate drawing on top of the (blown up) thumbnail, with a lot of twisting, flipping and resizing to pull it all together. The goal, as always, is to move the picture to the next level without losing that precious, elusive power that the little thumbnail magically delivers. The result is the rough sketch - you can see the thumbnail as a very rough and somewhat blurry pencil drawing behind the more detailed drawing.

I don’t want to go too far with the pencil drawings, though, because when I start painting I don’t want to feel constrained and have to "paint to the line" so to speak. I want my paint marks to be fresh, alive and new, as if the picture is starting then (which in some ways it is, because these paint marks, and not the pencil marks, are all the viewer will see). So the pencil drawing, for me, is more of a rough map, a skeleton to get me started. There are still lots and lots of explorations to be made, and questions to be answered, and fun to be had, in the (digital) "paint."

Since the change of seasons plays such a specific role in other parts of the story, I chose to use weather and seasonal differences throughout the illustrations to underscore the various changes going on in the giant’s life and outlook, and with the kids’ situation as well. I chose to set this scene in the autumn, in part because that specific season is not used elsewhere in the book, but also because at this point the giant had entered his "autumn years." He’s getting older, and before long (in Wilde’s brief text), he’s going to be too old to do much but sit in his armchair watching the kids play.

I started by laying in some really loose colors, in Corel Painter, staying on the cool side, and working the picture as a whole. I don’t really plan out the palette, I just "think autumn" and some hidden part of my brain seems to deliver the goods. I use really big, soft brushes at this point, so I can cover a lot of area quickly. I don’t need to be caught up with any details at this point - that’d be counterproductive. I use the color picker (the eyedropper) to grab colors from all over the painting and mix and blend them to make new colors, which helps to give the palette some internal consistency as it forms up.

The trick here, as always, is to capture that same gesture that the thumbnail exhibited, which becomes increasingly difficult to as the picture develops, and less and less is necessarily left to the viewer’s imagination. But in this the rough painting stage is critical, because not only the shapes and forms, but the actual colors must also contribute to this, and as new, more detailed elements are clarified, they, too, need to have their own little "gesture" and palette.

Once I have the rough painting in place I decide on how to structure the layers in my image. I don’t use a lot of layers, for example, to create effects, but I do prefer to have certain things on separate layers to facilitate more loose and fluid painting of elements that are behind other elements, and to allow me to moves things around without having to constantly retouch. For example, I typically put the sky on its own layer, on the very bottom, so that I can paint it using very large brushes and bold strokes, without having to simultaneously worry about painting around the figures and other foreground elements.

Usually I have two to four layers: sky, background, mid ground, and foreground. Sometimes I have a sort of auxiliary layer on the very top for small details like animal whiskers and such because they, too, can be unnecessarily challenging to paint around if you find you need to alter something that is, visually speaking, behind them.
Once my image is properly structured, I start working on... whatever I feel like at the time! Really - each stage of a painting has its own challenges, and the challenge here is to start to make the scene more and more real and palpable, when in fact there is nothing really there yet for me to see. This is where I have to start pulling reality out of nothingness. Once I get a foothold, something solid and convincing, it’s comparatively easy to build on that. So I look for what’s working, and push it along a bit. Sometimes it’s an important focal point, other times it’s a minor background element. Here I started developing the girls’ faces and costumes.

At this point I felt something wasn’t quite working in the visual space behind the giant and the boy on the left. This is one of those things that, for me, could not really be resolved in the pencil drawing. Once I had some color and value laid in, I realized it would be much stronger if this area were dark, rather than light, as this would contrast the giant’s white shirt, thus creating a a strong diagonal from his raised arm, across his shoulders to his other arm. The altered bushes now form a dark, triangular wedge that showcases the giant and also cuts him off from the castle, which, like his shirt, is also light. But, this created a problem whereby the dark haired boy on the left was no longer strongly silhouetted against the (now dark) background, so I placed a lighter bush just behind him. I also at this point felt the blonde haired girl’s cool blue dress was drawing too much attention and not fitting in well with the rest of the piece, so I changed it to orange and yellow.

Some artists maintain that these things should be worked out in advance, before any real color is applied, but with digital painting that’s really not the case - you can work things out in full color, as you go, without hampering the image or the process. Compared to a strictly traditional approach it may look like "two steps forward and one step back", but really there is simply no strict line between the rough stage, the composition stage, and the final painting stage, and the overall process is very quick. With digital media you can make big compositional changes after doing detailed painting, for example (more on that later), and sometimes in fact it’s the painting that prompts the idea for the compositional change.

With the image firmly established now, it’s time to paint, paint, paint. I use Corel Painter for all the mark making in my paintings, periodically dropping into Photoshop to make large scale adjustments to color and levels, or to move and resize areas of the painting. For me this is a constant and integral part of the process. For example, I tilted the red haired boy’s head up a bit, changed the blonde haired girl’s pose, and corrected the scale of the staircase.

But at this stage most of my time is spent just painting! I move from area to area, staying zoomed out to the point where the whole picture fits on the screen, always working on whatever area is the most far behind (least developed). Finding the proper zoom level when painting digitally can be quite a challenge - some digital brush strokes look great when you’re zoomed out, but terrible when you’re zoomed in (and that often translates to the printed image). But working zoomed in means you lose sight of what is going on with the picture as a whole. As usual the challenge is to make the image more and more real, without killing it...
I don’t want my pictures to "look like they were painted with oils", that is, I’m not trying to fool anyone, but it is critical to me that my hand, my marks, are clearly visible in the finished work. For me, one side of the viewer’s brain must feels s/he is looking at a "real thing" or a "real person", while at the same time the other side must also know for a fact that s/he’s just looking at a bunch of individually meaningless marks made by a human. That abstract non-sequitur is something a photograph cannot deliver, it’s what lights up my brain, and that’s what I’m trying to give my audience as well.

Continuing to work the whole picture, I add more and more details such as the leaves on the ground, the giant’s hair, the flowers - even one in the blonde haired girl's hand. But even at this stage I will also make relatively drastic changes if necessary, such as shifting the upper part of the castle back so it is less imposing, less dominating over the giant and the central area of the picture in general.

Working digitally is great because you can change colors, move things around, etc., at any stage of the picture - but this can often create a trap where you find yourself endlessly experimenting with different ideas, never really committing to anything. It’s a fine line to walk - you want to always be open to new possibilities for the picture, and "happy accidents", but at the same time if the picture does not move forward with some degree of purposeful, focused momentum then it will almost certainly flounder or even collapse.
Once you learn how to draw and paint well enough, the challenge in picture making becomes being able to simultaneously direct the outcome while also sitting back and just letting it happen. Anyone who knows a formula for that, please give me a call.