Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Of Mice and Monks

Folks have been asking about my process lately, which in some ways I gather is different from many other painters.

This is a pretty simple image I did for Maurice's Valises: The Muuha of Bang Bua:

I start with a really simple rough, but only do the bare minimum needed to give me a guide for painting.
As usual my rough sketch is pathetically simple

Lately I have been developing preliminary drawings a bit more

The critical parts of an image like this are the value and color plans.  I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH. If this work looks really solid and polished it's not because I spend a lot of time polishing - it's because I set up the basic value relationships via careful observation and adjustment.

Lately I've been setting up my images in value first, then adding color, then painting.

I do all this preliminary value work on a single layer with a big soft brush, because it needs to be very direct and spontaneous.

The basic value layout shown under the sketch

And without the sketch - if your image falls apart without the
drawing, you are likely not hitting a home run with your value relationships.

The second image (without the drawing) is the one I am really looking at.  It already has an almost photographic quality, a certain kind of poetry of authenticity and tangibility, despite having no detail whatsoever and certainly not based in any way on a photo or real scene.

Observe how it appears more finished the smaller it gets (this is a combination of the two, with the drawing being preserved for accents in a few spots such as the eyes):

The smaller it gets, the better it looks

Contrast is typically fundamental for creating focus in a 2d picture, but NOT for creating the illusion of light.  I cannot stress that enough either - the illusion of light comes from value relationships in perfect harmony - which is often undermined by extreme contrast.

You don't need high contrast or even a very wide value range to create the illusion of light (if that were the case it'd be impossible to do this in a picture, since pictures have a very narrow range of value compared to the real world).

If I could only say one thing about color it'd be this: color is relative.  We simply cannot judge colors in isolation.  The same is true of value.  

Color organization systems and other devices (such as color wheels) are necessary for industrial purposes, but for painters these only provide illusory comfort, typically serving merely to mislead and undermine your ability to see - to see what is actually happening right in front of your eyes in that unique one of a kind painting you are working on - which is all that matters.

Initial color plan

Working digitally it's a lot easier to adjust values and colors in context.  When oil painting I am constantly painting little swatches of paper and holding them up to the canvas. With digital work I can lay down any color and adjust it, then use that to paint.

With such a solid foundation nothing can go wrong now!  It's just a matter of continuing to subdivide the image into smaller and smaller value/color shapes.

Beginning to paint

 Developing the forms

I flip back and forth between painting detail, working out forms like the drapery, then doing bigger adjustments to realign what I've painted with the larger value and color shapes as necessary.  This is unique to digital painting (for me at least) because with digital work I can't paint everything when zoomed out. I need to do some detail work zoomed in, which unfortunately means I can't see the whole image at the same time (Photoshop's navigator panel helps, but its interpolation is somewhat coarse).

The finished painting!


  1. Lovely picture and insightful process breakdown! Thanks for sharing!

  2. You always pack so much solid fundamental teaching in your posts and practical steps for a digital workflow.

    I can second the importance of the values step. Even after doing this 30 yrs., I'm still tempted, when on a tight deadline, to just skip over this stage ...and I always regret it later! Taking the time to nail the values first actually saves time in the long run.

  3. This is a great tutorial. And the artwork is stunning too.

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