Digital; cover of the book Dereliction by Ray Garton, Cemetery Dance (2012)
In the last few years, I’ve done something regularly that I hadn’t in the previous years. I’ve started to complete full sketchbooks, with some kind of art on every page.
I’ve noticed that it’s a good time to go back and look through it, to see how things went over time. In this case, this sketchbook was started in June of 2010, and the last image was sketched in it today. Over that time it’s seen all kinds of sketches, from loose practice ideas, to sketches for published projects, and plenty of goofy items.
It’s also great timing overall, as summer is over and my big plans are all about to start. It’s going to be an interesting few months, hopefully time that will change everything, so it’s interesting that the sketchbook happens to be ending now.
If it wasn’t such a chaotic book, you could say that it was a snapshot of my life in the last year. Certainly there is some sense of that, as there are sketches for some of the projects I’ve worked on for publishers in it (Maelstrom/Thunderstorm, Dark Regions, Cemetery Dance, and so on).
But I don’t think it exactly works like that. There are stretches where I would hit it daily, sure. Other times there are gaps of weeks, even months. So it’s hard to see it as a snapshot, but maybe more as a curious artifact in the life of the artist.
I’ve decided to choose some of the more interesting sketches in the book, and offer them for your perusal below. First up, some of the cartoonish and even goofy images that pop up in there. I try to have fun with it sometimes, and, being kind of a sarcastic person, sketching offers me a nice outlet.
Being a horror artist, I also often sketch the darker ideas that come up. Sometimes there’s still the humorous edge to them, other times it’s just something I want to get out of my head and onto paper.
The skull with the bullet hole in the forehead actually leads quite nicely into the next set of sketches. It’s the practice sketch/idea for one of the skulls in my acrylic painting The Apotheosis of War. The sketchpad is a great place to do rough sketches of full paintings, and these below are sketches for some of the projects that have been or will be published.
Can you guess what any of them are from?
One of my projects is, always, to learn to be a better artist. Along with reading many, many books on art techniques and about other artists, I picked up the idea (from comic artist David Finch) to sketch from books to get some practice in. To that end, I’ve been eyeing the images from George Bridgman’s Complete Guide to Drawing From Life, and I’m soon to start on Andrew Loomis’ Figure Drawing For All It’s Worth.
This set below is all from Bridgman. Basically, I open up the book, look at the images, and try to redraw them in my sketchpad. No tracing allowed, but interpretation. Along with that, I also try to draw from life, and simply never stop learning.
Last but not least, if I think of it ahead of time I like to end the sketchbook on a single image. I always try to start the sketchbooks with a full page image, and I’ve decided that, if I can, I want to end them that way too.
Here’s the final shot, something fun for my daughter:
One of the great things that I like about digital art is the ability for programs (I use Photoshop) to let different layers of art interact. For example, I can have a painting of a character on one layer, with all the shadowing, anatomy, and so on, and on a different layer I can have a texture. By using different abilities in Photoshop (namely Layer Blending Modes), I can use the texture layer to give the character a different sense.
Now, that can mean a lot of things. The character might be dirty, or bloody, or dripping with water. It might even be a subtle texture of rough skin, that can barely be seen. Texture can get rid of the soft (or hard) look of digital art, and make it less “perfect”. Even when it’s subtle, it gives the eye something to grab onto, and since the art isn’t so smooth people accept it a little more (watch out, opinion given).
When I was doing my recent cover for Ray Garton’s book Vortex (Cemetery Dance), I needed to create one of the main characters for the cover, Pyk (see the full genesis of the entire cover here). I thought I had a decent layout idea, and a decent idea for the character, so I went to work painting him in.
I reached a point where his look and feel were complete, but I wanted to add some texture to him based on his description in the story. He’s a creature that’s been out in the woods, dirty, and very violent, and he has a blue tone to him. I debated manually creating the textures with the paintbrush in Photoshop (which I often do), but in the end decided to use manipulated photographic textures.
I have a lot of textures on my computer, some of which are even organized (in a half-ass way, believe me). I have a small digital camera that I take with me to many places, taking photos of trees, streams, buildings, goo, whatever might come in handy later. So, I started looking through my files for the right one.
Here’s what Pyk looks like without a texture:
Let me just say up front, I knew Pyk had to be blue, so I started with a blue texture (you’ll see it). It happened to work quite well, so it stayed. But, for the sake of this article, let’s just say I didn’t do that. In fact, most of the time I do drift between several textures, and even combine some together, for different effects.
It also should be said that many of the following textures aren’t blue. But if the look of the texture had worked, that’s an easy thing to change in Photoshop. On each texture as well, I spend a lot more time dodging, burning, heal-brushing, actual brushing, and in general manipulating the textures until I get what I want. I rarely just get to slap in on there and go with it.
On to the textures, the first one is actually stone, petrified as I recall:
To be honest, I don’t think that one is too bad at all. It gives a rough, dirty look, and adds interesting shades to the art. Even if I changed it towards a bluish color, that color shift would be interesting. It’s maybe a little too spotty though, almost more like he’s been rolling in mud.
So, we try another one. This is a closeup of some mossy rock, weather beaten as it is:
The problem with this one is what you often see with texture work. It’s a nice texture, sure. But it’s not one that can translate into anything other than stony rock. Pyk looks far more like a statue than a dirty creature.
So, we try the next one. It’s a closeup of mud near a vent in Yellowstone National Park:
If Pyk was only bloody, this might be something to work with. It also might be handy combined with another texture, say the first one, to give him a dirty, bloody look. But by itself it looks more like he butchered a herd of cattle than something that’s been living on the land for a long time, and isn’t quite it. Still, it’s an interesting texture.
Next, I tried something a bit different, chili pepper flakes. Before you laugh, there have been lots and lots of textures that I used in the past that started out odd, and still worked well. Case in point:
To me, that has a wicked look to it. It’s translucent, like you can see what’s going on inside him. It gives him a shininess too that wasn’t there before, and gives me lots of really wild ideas for things to try.
Sadly, in this case, it would not have worked. It’s not at all like the story, and I think it’s highly important to follow the story when you’re doing covers and illustration work.
It’s not all in vain though. As with many of my experiments, that one gets logged in the old noggin for later. I have a feeling that effect will come in very handy.
When you’re working with digital art, and you have a little time, it’s good to experiment. Sometimes if you pick something very radical, you might find that it actually works. At the very least, even if it doesn’t work with one project, it might work great on the next one.
With the idea of radical in mind, here’s this one:
Now, of course it doesn’t work for the story, and in fact would need quite a bit of work to be good at all. But there’s something intriguing there, almost a golem or created creature feel. If you hide the bricks on the right and just look at it objectively, it’s quite curious.
At the end of the day (as can be seen of the cover of the book), I went with a blue marble texture:
I gives him the subtle blue feel I was going for (and is described in the story). The lines in the marble translate very well to a dirty pattern, almost a feel of veins running under his skin. The roughness of the stone gives him a good look of being dirty overall, and adds a nice inconsistency to his skin.
Also important, it doesn’t lighten or darken the anatomy much, or the shadowing I already had in there. That’s the undoing of many a cool texture, the fact that they can interact so harshly with the art that they can’t be used. No matter how cool the look is.
Overall, textures aren’t going to make you the artist, and they won’t cover up crappy art. Anatomy still has to be right, composition well done, colors chosen well, and so on. But textures can help give flat art life, and give them a little something else that by themselves they might not have.
Despite the bad way that my year is going, I still manage to get some great projects by some wonderful authors. Case in point, I was given the chance to work on author Ray Garton‘s new book, Vortex, out soon from Cemetery Dance. It’s a great honor not only to work with one of Ray’s stories, but to work with an always helpful and constructive publisher like Cemetery Dance as well.
For the cover, I wanted something that showed the main characters. The trick of it was, the creature of the book was both a character the reader has sympathy for, yet still very violent. Coupled with that, along with the actions of the characters, there’s a part of the story that deals with psychic powers as well. So the trick was to show both the real and the unreal, which isn’t always easy.
First though, as always with illustration work, we start with the initial sketches. Here’s the main character, Pyk.
I then can take that initial sketch and throw it into a rough layout to get a sense of how things might work. The text shown is more for me than anything, to see how the text might interact with the art. You can also see in the layout a rough idea of the original version, of the other characters in the story fighting each other:
That was then sent to the publisher and the author, to see what they thought. They liked the idea, so I created a new Photoshop document and went to it.
I sometimes start with the character, sometimes the background, it just depends. Mostly I let what I feel like working on rule the moment, I’ve learned through hard lesson to follow the muse and not fight it. I might want to start on one piece, but that doesn’t mean it’s the one I’m meant to start with.
I made the background black, and added one of my textures to it. It started out looking like this:
I then manipulated it on the black background, using copies of it, hand painting, masks, and layer blending modes. Then I put the sketch on top of it.
Next, I start adding Pyk’s real details (though I occasionally still screw around with the background). The character is extremely thin, at a level of starving that shocks the first character in the book, and I wanted to capture that. I also was looking for a balance of pity at his condition, but a subtle show of his violent nature as well.
Then, I added a few more details, smoothed out some spots, and added his mangy, long hair. With that, I also added blood around his mouth, which adds a bit of dread overall. I also gave him a subtle blue tint, which is part of the character. Working with blue characters can be very tricky after Avatar (and even the smurfs), so it needed to be subtle.
Being that the character lived away from civilization, and was quite rough, I added a texture to his skin as well.
Which for me added exactly what I was looking for in the character. There’s a certain sense of death, of wrongness with his skin, and yet (hopefully) the blue doesn’t pull you out of the image completely. The texture almost grounds it in reality, despite the color.
But Pyk stands out a bit too much here. He’s a bit too stark, and is alone versus part of his background. So, I added some further shadowing.
Now he’s part of the scene, not just a character in it. That idea is very important in most pieces, but in this case it’s something that has to be done. The whole idea is this sort of darkness of the mind, crossing reality with the psychic parts of the story, and he must be a part of it and not above it.
While working on one part of the image, I always have the other parts of the image in mind as well. Often that leads to the chaotic working methods I employ, but it also keeps me grounded in the overall idea. It’s easy to let one part of it take off and be its own thing, and I certainly don’t want that here.
With that, I ended up abandoning the idea of the people fighting on the back cover. I felt that it didn’t really fit, and it looked far more like people fighting independently than being any part of it. So I decided to focus instead on Pyk’s psychic relationship with another character, Penny.
Penny is a girl who is brought in to read Pyk’s mind. But instead they become friends through this psychic link. To put her on the cover, I had to balance Penny’s growing friendship with the horror she knows he can be. She has to be there for him, but is still in many ways wary of him.
I started the same way, with a base construction of Penny.
Sometimes, I’ll let the colors get worked in the main area, but in this case I decided to make Penny a Smart Object in Photoshop, to keep her textures and parts together.
I went in and added colors and textures to Penny, and manipulated both layer blending modes and masks to get what I needed. I painted her completely first as opposed to only the parts that would be seen, as I think that’s a better way to go.
Then I put her in the full image with Pyk.
She created a nice balance with Pyk, and made the back cover of the book more interesting than just the texture. I think she adds more mystery than just the people fighting as well.
However, she was also too strong in the image. She’s in focus and very bright, which takes your eye off of Pyk and distracts from the intent. So, using masks and blending modes again, we knock her back some.
The focus has returned to Pyk, but Penny is now too far in the background. It’s a back and forth game, and it can be tricky to get the right balance.
One way to get the balance is to try other textures and colors on top of the image, and see how they interact with the layers below. In this case, a simple area of white highlighted the background quite well, and gave Penny just enough highlight to show well.
As I was trying it out, it occurred to me that the white layers on top, when blurred a bit and set to “overlay”, gave a nice feel of lights coming into the smoky areas. That gave it a nice idea of the light of reality shedding light in the darkness, and I went with it.
The highlights really added to the effect that they are both within this environment, not above it.
I don’t have them on every image here, but usually I leave the guidelines on while I’m working. I set guidelines for various things, including bleeds, cuts, margins, the spine and flaps, and in general any area that I need to be aware of. As a graphic designer, even if I’m not doing the design part of a book I still want to create the art so that it’s ready to use in a layout.
So, ladies and gentlemen, here is the completed cover of author Ray Garton’s wonderful book Vortex, from Cemetery Dance Publications. I’ve added a couple of closeups as well.