Saturday, 6 December 2014

SmART School Art Director Assignment

So I've been so busy with SmART school, that I've barely had time to turn around, but for those of you who are wanting to know how the rest of the semester has been, I'll be writing about it shortly, after my final class with Iain this coming week. If it's already appealing to you go sign up now, as registration has just opened for Spring term. 

In the meanwhile, here's a write up of the Art Director assignment that i did as part of the semester's program. For those unfamiliar, every semester, a number of Art Director guests are invited along to set the students an assignment. This time round we were given our choice of AD assignment, and the lineup was pretty awesome. Karen Berger (formerly?) of Vertigo Comics, Doug Gregory from Blizzard, Andy Navarro of Fantasy Flight Games, Susan Sherman of Charles Bridge and as a bonus choice, Dawn Murrin of WotC. You could only do Dawn's assignment *if* you finished one of the others, and you only got feedback from the AD if you finished their assignment too. It's probably going to be a no brainer for anyone who knows me which one I picked. I'd been playing Diablo and was looking forward to Warlords of Draenor once the course had finished, so Doug's Diablo based assignment was an immediate draw. There were some cool assignments too, but it's been a real dream of mine to do some official wok for Blizz in some way. So without further ramblings, have the step by step of a traditional Diablo-themed comic book cover.
 STEP 1: Thumbnails! These were the 6 finished thumbnails I picked out after scribbling out some other thumbs that would have been unintelligible for anyone but me. Done in pencil and white Conte on toned sketchbook paper. I was looking to go for a more graphic approach, with the story elements combined in a more metaphorical way that would allow for the hero to be the dominant form in the painting.

 STEP 2: Line work! Even though the thumbnail wasn't as punchy as the others, I'd been immediately drawn to the concept of the monstrous mad barbarian's mouth being a red cave that the hero, Jacob was facing into in thumbnail no four above. But Iain really liked number 3. So I worked both up, still internally convinced the one I liked would give me a stronger, more unique take on the story imagery. Working things out in this line-detailed fashion allows me to figure out if there are elements that don't work so well. Like the pose of the hero in number 3's thumbnail looking like he might have a nasty accident straining and crouched like that. Once the line work was done, Iain agreed with the fact that the mouth-cave idea worked too, and actually needed less feedback, as it happened! I have also included the photo reference I used to create the linework. Lightboxing ref is something I've done in the past, but was surprised how openly the teachers at SAS use it, if it gets them a better end result. Rebecca paricularly was a great proponent of frankensteining reference together to get the image you want, rather than relying on one image. You still have to know what you're drawing, but if it makes the process a little faster (and I was on a 2 week deadline for this), and your drawing is more accurate for it, then why not? I still had to work up the lighting and bring the image together as a whole, but light boxing over these frankensteined ref pieces made the linework a lot faster to do. 

 STEP 3: Value study. This part's fairly self explanatory. I actually used a hastily hacked together blobby blutac model to figure out the overhead lighting for the figure. It also helped me figure out that I didn't want the skull mask to be overly brightly lit, as it started pulling focus away from the hero. At this point I wasn't sure if the sword hilt's tip poking out form behind his head would work like that, but I loved the 'angelic halo' aspect it gave Jacob. Sometimes you've gotta just paint these things and react to them on the fly. 

 STEP 4: Colour studies. By now I'd seen the reference Doug had given us, including some of the existing comic covers for Sword of Justice, and I loved the bold colour choices. It's not something I typically do, but I really wanted to make use of the strong red, as it was a recurring theme in all the other covers. it also fed nicely into the Blood plague element of the story we'd been given. So given the strong red was a definite, the rest of the colour choices were going to be fairly limited for me unless I wanted to go down a very graphic route, which I'd decided against, as it's not something I have much experience in, and wanted to play to my more realistic rendering strengths. So it was mostly variations on muted tones of greens, blues and browns, and in the end I actually picked something close to number 4 on the right, with more neutral browns in the light and greens in the shadows. 

 STEP 5: More Linework! At this point I hadn't been sure if I'd have enough time to go traditional with it,as the digital colour roughs were already quite far on. But I'd been hugely inspired by the results Rebecca's students had been getting with their traditional media, so I figured what the hell. The pencils were transferred from the digital line work using a grid, at 12 x 18 inches. I use grids rather than just printing out and sealing with something like matte medium, or using transfer paper as I get a cleaner linework with it and it also gives me chance to iterate the designs one last time. 

 STEP 6: Underpainting. This isn't something I've ever really done before to this kind of degree. I understand the principle of it but it was kinda scary putting the value study down without knowing if painting over it would work. I deliberately left the red area white, as I wanted the colour to be as pure as I could get it. The underpainting was done in a slightly blueish green, to make the red really jump and to give me a consistent colour base for all the other elements in the image.

 STEP 7: Painting. This was the part I was least sure of, but it turned out to be quite satisfying, laying washes of thing paint glazes down, much like you might do with a multiply layer in PS. The sword was remarkably fast to paint with the values already laid in, but there were a few areas where my values were a little darker than I'd have liked them. I definitely learned that if you want a really pure colour, even if it's dark that you should probably lay that colour in without much underpainting, at least with acrylic. I'd love to try this method with oil paints sometime in the future, as the ability to just lay colour over colour with thick paint would be awesome.  It was also as this stage that the sword hilt tip just kinda fell into place and worked better than I could have thought. Note with the image above that only the lower half of the image is fully painted - the skull only has the first couple of glazes over the blue. 

 STEP 8: Digital touch ups. With the painting done and scanned in, I worked into the values a little digitally. I could have done them traditionally, but was running short of time, if I wanted Iain's feedback before submitting it for review with Doug. I'd always known getting the very vibrant orange in the centre of the red would be tricky and I adjusted things like the line weight around the teeth to bring back the slightly more graphic look the digital color rough had had. Cleaned up a few soft edges and put a little bit of darker gradient in along the top to push the skull back. 

STEP 9: The final so far. I implemented feedback from both Iain and Doug -  Iain to add the darker slopes at the sides and more of a glow at the boy's head, and Doug's suggestion of adding in the left hand arm (as we see it) - which had been the only aspect of the image I'd been wondering over how to do. I pushed values a little more in the beard at the sides, and added the blood-like rivulets in the ground like the digital rough had had. All these amends are currently digital, but the end goal is to go back and make the traditional piece look as close to this final as I possibly can. All in all, I'm ridiculously happy with how the final thing came out and how positive everyone who's seen it has been. It even got a feature on the SAS front page!  And to think it was done in just under 2 weeks, alongside my day job is quite eye opening for me. I genuinely think doing it traditionally actually sped up the process.

So I'll end this by saying that I absolutely think SAS is worth the money and time. I feel like I've come out this so far ahead of where I was in terms of understanding narrative imagery. I can't wait to share the fruits of my labors with Iain's class with everybody, but that'll be a little while in the making, as it's turned into being a fairly ambitious little project. I honestly think I would have learned as much with any of their tutors. In the meanwhile, enjoy the Diablo art! 

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Smart School Weeks 2-4

Okay, so maybe the blogs aren't happening every week, but to be fair, the last couple of weeks for Iain's class have been plagued by technical issues with either sound, video or a combination, so it's been a little trial and error thus far! Week 2 was a bit of a write off, but gets added on to the end of the course, so we get a bonus week in December. 

Mostly we've been focused on trying to find our story in a really concise manner. To find a number of 'beats' that we can translate into visual images. It's something I've always had trouble with (I'm one of those 'give me an inch' kind of writers, even in every day email), so it's been tricky trying to distill Eideann's story within the world down to a single paragraph. Especially when the one paragraph has to  include who she is, what she wants, why she can't get it and how she's going to get it anyway. But amazingly, Iain managed to whittle it down perfectly for me! 

So my story is now about a girl with powers over bodies of water, whose beloved mentor dies at the hands of her cruel village, and in order to exact revenge on them, she joins up with a crew of pirate merchants to restrict the trade going to them and punish them. But when she realises there are others like her out there, her plans for revenge soon become petty in comparison to the role she will eventually take on. I've been sketching rough thumbnails and scenes for the beats I have, and thus far it seems I've been doing pretty well. Iain walked us through some key factors in creating narrative images, a lot of which crosses over with what I learned over in Painting Drama 1, with Chris. The two are starting to have a great synergy as Chris' course covered the more technical aspect of compositional drama, whereas Iain is really trying to get to the emotional core of why we want to tell the story in the first place. 

Much of it comes from a place of contrast, be that in your character designs - one thing Iain mentioned which I'd not considered before was that if your character's personality is grumpy, arrogant and drunkard, then don't just make him look exactly that way, as you end up with no unexpected moments (to pull a phrase from Rebecca's class) and that actually if you make them not super gnarly and grumpy looking, it keeps an audiences attention more, makes them less one dimensional. Also, one great idea from week 2 was trying a game of charades with friends and getting them to try depicting a regular sentence, to see how they act out certain words and emotions on a more exaggerated scale and use some of those gestures in your paintings to really sell who your character is.

We also covered a great little lesson in the  4 key features of story telling, which were Aspect Ratio, Framing, Lens and Eyeline. And I have to say, Iain's description of the three lens variations is the first time I've ever been able to make sense of how they work, even though the amazing Hans Bacher goes into it in his awesome book 'Dreamworks' (which I highly recommend if you're into storytelling) in a more visual way. Sometime these little snippets of interpretation are worth their weight in gold. 

Definitely looking forward to using all this new found knowledge in my next batch of sketches.  No more boring on my own eye level pieces. Time for some dynamic thumbnails!

Here's a couple of the sketches I've done in the last couple of weeks. 

Rebecca's classes continued in much the same vein as they were in week one. She really is such an amazingly patient teacher, in tune with what her students want or need, and how to ask the right questions to get them there. She is heavily focused on being deliberate in your choices with art, even in the beginning thumbnail stage. I love the idea that she works with, that even the thumbnail should evoke a mood or emotion. People and things in an image just become shapes that evoke a mood, and click together to form cohesive wholes. Everything should have a purpose and add to what it is you're trying to communicate emotionally. That you shouldn't make images just to make something pretty or decorative, that if you want to really make people sit up and notice your work, you have to make sure that you don't scrimp and get lazy, that you give the image everything you can to make it the best you can. Find the emotion and make everything fit around that. 

I can't tell you how much she pummels in the need for reference for everything. That the heart stopping images are full of these little real life moments that can be hard to capture, even if you're working in a stylised fashion. Frankensteining reference is a big thing in her work and she encourages her students to do it too, pulling from everything from photographs online, to taking your own reference, but doing it in a way that gives you something great to work from. Week 4 had a great mini tutorial on paying attention to things like positions of faces and lighting in the reference you use, and how to blend your pieces together to give a more cohesive starting point. More importantly, paying attention to your value structure again once you've got your ref together (as frankensteining has a bad habit of totally screwing up values!).

Week 3 had an extra half hour added on, for an awesome lecture she gave on how to find the unexpected moments in your work and gave examples of artists through history and how they managed to stand out from a crowd. In the end, a lot of it came down to how much of themselves (in emotional terms) the put into their art - take Klimt, for example, much copied, but many of his admirers who mimc his style don't ever manage to capture it in the same way because they are not driven by the same emotional responses. Being yourself and playing to your strengths were things she really pushed as a way to get this, especially by paying attention to the artists whose works you are genuinely moved by. 

I'm also really loving seeing how quickly her students are creating work in her class too. She encourages people to already be thinking about, or have planned for their next piece by week 4, and there are already a few folks who have pretty much completed their first piece by then too. All in all, the more I watch of Rebecca's stuff, the more I'm sure if I do another Smart School class in the future, it'll be with her, since I'm loving every piece I'm seeing her students do. 

Here's a an older piece of work I've been inspired by Rebecca to finish with new methods. 

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Smart School Week One

So I've just finished with my first weekly class with the exceptionally bubbly Iain McCaig, whose personal manner is as lovely as people told me it would be! My brain is buzzing, between this and the Rebecca Guay session I sat in on the day before, I am very fired up to embrace what is a fairly new concept for me. To follow my real love in art. To. Just. Be. Me. 

The two classes were handled very differently, but the end message was almost the same. Find what you love doing, look at your influences and learn from them. USE REFERENCE. Keep  thumbnails loose!

There's so much I could write up, but I'll try to keep it to short, salient points for the TLDR crowd!


Recurring theme of this class was that there's no one who can do you, like you. You are unique. If you want to work in the entertainment industry, then entertain. Tell stories. Even if you think you're  the most boring artist in the world, then at least that's something special and something you can embrace.

Stop guessing what people want from you, especially when it comes to your portfolio and the jobs it may or may not get you. Don't think in terms of jobs or what will sell. Create what you love and  people will respond to it. 

I was inspired watching Iain doing a study but turning the study into a character even as he sketched -  even in the simplest of gestural lines, there was something to be told about the character of a  face by the way you add lines, or creases, or arch an eyebrow. What was interesting was when it came to looking at our pre-course homework, he was much more focused on our personal stories  we'd told in words and looking at the art almost as a secondary backup to that. He was focused on finding the narrative in our lives and how we can pull from that. For me, it's about embracing the  magpie I've become, that I can pull from all these amazing sources I've been inspired by and worked on and create stuff that's just *me*. I don't have to choose between styles, because I can use  my love to both to create something that's unique. 

If you're not sure who you are, then take an hour each day to sketch. Only sketch things that you love, that you would - and I quote - 'run naked in the snow to see'. 

The other awesome quote I took away from the session was "Perfection is counter-intuitive to creating things that communicate." I've worried over perfectionism for a long long time. It's a chain I'm  more than happy to break. 


Rebecca was just like her art. Soft, demure, elegant and deep. It came across that she really loves teaching and I'm already sold on her class if I sign up for another one in the future. She was  invested in finding out what it was that really inspired her students, probing things like what mediums they enjoyed/were fluent with and what inspiration made their hearts stop. What do you respond  to and who works in the medium you want to work in? 

She was very into the art and giving personal feedback on the pre-course assignments, helping students see where their strengths lay and how to add elements to make that image even stronger. I  really love the fact she didn't alter drawings all that much, just pushed things around and added visual interest to the pieces. I swear every single work went from a cool drawing to an awesome  conceptual art piece, or, if the student was pretty competent (Kim Kincaid!) she helped push good pieces into extraordinary pieces. 

Reference was stressed as being important, including the use of lightboxing. If it makes the piece better, then no method should be out of bounds and that you should always try to learn from the  methods you employ. I also loved the fact she was a great believer in the strength of simplicity, citing the Spectrum covers as great examples of works of art that don't need a lot going on in order to  be emotionally impactful. 

I'm only one week in, but I think I'd already highly recommend SmART School. It's clear these guys are super focused on the students and the work they produce and I'd imagine that each tutor brings his or her own special touch to proceedings. I loved Iain's bubbly, excitable nature, like that of some kooky old wizard who just loves telling you every story he found in his day. I found I resonated with much of what Rebecca told her students and *every* influence and inspiration she mentioned, I found myself going 'wow' at. The price is much higher than a lot of online courses,  but it's SO worth it for the sheer enthusiasm and excitement it's generated in me for art, even just one week in, and even taking out the sheer caliber of the people who teach there. 

Conclusion thus far? AWESOME!

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Smarter Art School

So I've been a bit lax with posts for a good chunk of the year, mostly coinciding with getting my current concept job with Playground Games, and taking on a good chunk of freelance alongside it, none of which I can really show yet. But I'm going to get back into the habit of posting again, now that my schedule is no longer manic with crunch time and crazy weekends of working.

The main thing in my life right now is that I'm about to start a 12 week course with Smart School (online learning resource set up by the creator of the Illustration Master Class, Rebecca Guay). The course is taught by none other than Iain McCaig and has a focus on world building and story telling. I cannot tell you how excited I am for this course. Yes, they're pricey but the class size is small and we get 3 hours of  Iain's time live every week along with personal feedback. I've always been self taught; it's going to be awesome to actually have one of my art idols looking over my virtual shoulder for almost 3 months.

So my first pre-class assignment was to create a self portrait, based around the questions of what we wanted out of the course and what had stopped us doing it already ourselves. I wrote a small novel (me? really?) but the tldr version boiled down to me being very torn between two styles of working and basically being at a bit of  a standstill because of it. Chains of my own doing, that are really becoming a burden that I need to let go of and focus on one thing for a while to get that elusive consistency in my work.  The self portrait is a somewhat metaphorical representation of that. It's also not an easy painting for me to share -  it feels intensely private letting others see my struggle, even in a still image.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Three Dragons

I started this piece not long after season 3 of Game of Thrones aired, meant as some portrait practice with more muted colours, and was enjoying it so it ended up turning into something a little more. Often time I get far into a piece, in this case it was about 80% done and I left it for months (case of the ooh shiny effect of new ideas) and then picked it up after finally getting some free time over the Easter break. I think thus far I still prefer old Daario as he is here, but he seems to polarise opinion with people either liking him or loathing him.

So fellow Daenerys fans enjoy! The image is 1900px across for those who'd like desktop wallpaper, and I've also uploaded an animated gif of the steps as I often enjoy seeing others progress shots like that.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Whaler Women and why I can't escape saturation

I've recently been spending more of my free time creating work for a world that's been rattling around in my head, that I've finally started fleshing out thanks to my Audacious Accomplishment task from Chris Oatley's painting drama, outlined in this post from 2013.   It's a sort of sprawling collection of characters and stories that I'm starting to click together into a cohesive whole and as such am trying to take a game development approach towards the visualisation of it. 

This piece started (as a lot of my pieces do) as a lunchtime quickie, just throwing some stuff around, intended to be a short exercise to be stuffed into the annals of my many un-shown folders of crap art.  But as I worked with it more, it took on a different tack, it started gaining narrative. I had originally intended to do a very desaturated piece, as I often admire artists who can do that greatly. But inevitably, colour *always* sneaks in, no matter what I try to do with it. I guess I'm just a paint magpie, always drawn to the shiny colours!

Here's the steps I remembered to save. Early versions of the sky were done with a bit of photo mashing, until I got to the point where I realised my planning (and lack thereof) had undone me again, so I repainted the whole background. 

Half way through I also discovered THIS AMAZING BRUSHSET from Jonas De Ro, which has now become, along with my tool presets, my defacto brush set. That had a big impact on the style of the piece, along with looking at the works of guys like Homer Winslow (whose works have already nailed the look and feel I'm trying to get!) and a few Russian and Polish painters, such as Jozef Chelmonski, whose bleak subjects always seem to be captured with a delicate sense of emotion. 

Still very much finding my feet here, but I've always wanted to give my work a looser feel, and this feels like a step in the right direction. Now if someone would kindly tell the colour fairy to sod off for a bit, I'd be happy!

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Photos in art: Cheating?

For a long time, I've considered using photos in art something of a cheat, but anyone who's watching the games industry will know that realistic cinematic imagery is often the way a lot of concept art gets done, which inevitably means using photos in your work. So, in my pursuit to get into the kind of high end companies I want to, I've recently been trying to get my head around more realistic environment art. I was lucky enough to get an interview at a next gen games company and as a result had to do a bit of photobashing of environments. 

Here's two of the images I've done in the last couple of weeks. The Colorado Plains image took more time, oddly, without verticality in a landscape, it's down to how cool you can make the clouds and light look. The Rainy Afternoon image only took me 5 hours. Far from bragging (I think speed can sometimes be a double edged sword) I'm actually still baffled by how I managed to turn something like that image out an afternoon - though having a solid deadline helps as I got the plate images at 2pm on the afternoon before the interview! 

The thing with photo bashing is I'm still in control of the composition of most of the elements, and in a way, it forces me to be a little more creative as I have to work with whatever the photo elements give me. I still have to find ways to make fairly boring images look epic and exciting, I still have to add mood with light and shadow and colour. All the things I do with hand painted stuff. I have to say I think with photo bashing that Value is king. If your values aren't right and you don't blend the layers of stuff properly it'll stop looking like a coherent image and looks like you just pasted a bunch of photos on top of one another. 

A lot of it is knowing how to adjust colours, levels and add lighting where you need to, but working with photos takes a little of the control of the design away from you. For me, that's a good thing, because I can easily spend ages noodling over the design of something, believing I have to make it my own -  something no one's ever seen before! Using photos actually makes me think of the bigger shapes and forms in an image, not how cool a grate on the pavement is. Definitely a good thing.  I don't have any plans to abandon my desire to paint everything - I do still think you learn more if you have to hand paint everything, but the sheer speed of using photos is pretty mental. 

And to finish up, I want to say Titus, who's little tips, tricks, input and amazing portfolio has kept me on my toes for these kind of images. Go check out his stuff! TITUS LUNTER ARTWORK.