Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Influential Paintings 1

Akseli Gallen-Kallela...taught me that design and detail can coexist.

Greg Manchess

As it has been said, no one is original.

And yet, everyone is. As long as an artist is authentic to their approach, they are original, but it stems from what came before them. Just as thoughts build on the ones that precede them, ideas build until they arrive at the ‘aha!’ moment. No one creates, or paints, in a vacuum. Influence runs deep, from subtle input to outrageous effort. From emulation to imitation.

Over time, I realized I had to understand my influences in order to differentiate what was already me, and what was trying to be me. The authentic me, like the one we all own at our very core, worked its way out by recognizing a kinship with other creatives, other painters.

These are some of the magnificent paintings that profoundly influenced my own painting. They guided me out of the selfish fog. Maybe you feel the same about them, too. Or maybe these will help your authentic self push open, igniting your own methods.

I used to lay these paintings out on my drawing table to help me understand the process I wanted to learn and build, and the process of painting in general. There’s a little bit of me in all of them, and perhaps a little bit of you as well.

This is the start of a new series I’d like to share, based on my personal influences. They come from all areas of the art world.

They speak to me, and I hear myself.

NC Wyeth, The Black Arrow...Nature or not, a powerful use of black.

Edwin Dickinson, The Ruins At Dapne...finished and unfinished--the blend keeps the mind engaged.

David Grove, A Coffin Full of Dreams...use of light and loose paint are compositional aspects.

Mead Schaeffer...composition is story-telling.

Norman Rockwell, Ichabod of the greatest character portraits of all time, for any time.

Frank Duveneck, figure studies...a fresh, deliberate application of paint, masterful in touch, can be frozen in time.

John Twachtman, Arques la Bataille...landscape is character.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014


Just how much story can you tell in only 40 seconds? Quite a lot apparently. Below is a teaser for an upcoming film called 'Construct'.

The teaser was intended as a tech demo illustrating recent advancements in next-gen graphics capabilities. But good design, writing, and photography have turned into more than a mere demo. It's full of mood and suspense, and sure to delight our SF fans out there.

The Dragon Doc

By Justin Gerard

Today's post is a quick one!
I am busy working on some new watercolors for Spectrum LIVE. (Like this little guy here.) The event is almost upon us!

Like all the other exhibitors who will be out there, I am frantically trying to finish as much new work as I possibly can before I have to throw everything in the truck and floor it for Kanas City.

I'm looking forward to another great show. Hope to see you there!

Monday, April 28, 2014

Comic Book Coloring — Part 2 of 3

IRON MAN VARIANT COVER (sans inks). 2012.
Ink(ed by Joe Rivera) on Marvel board, digital color. 11 × 17.25″.
Step-by-Step post

Apologies for having posted this art previously, but it's the subject of today's video (I figure that's a good enough excuse). Now that we have the technical info out of the way, I want to get to the heart of the matter: how to choose color. I've written about color many times before, but as always, there's a world of difference between theory and practice. This post is all about the latter.

Put simply, it's trial and error. Starting with artwork that's been flatted, I use the Magic Wand (tolerance set to 0) to select each patch of color that I want to modify. I then use the Hue/Saturation/Brightness command (under Image > Adjustments, or Command-U) to modify those parameters individually.

That's it. Really. Here's a video of the process in action.

Since I do this quite a bit, I'm always looking for ways to speed things up. I often use the Tab key to jump from one dialog box to another, and the Up/Down arrows to change the quantities. Holding down Shift with the arrows raises the increments to 10. If I use the cursor, I grab the name, "Hue," as opposed to the slider — it's a bigger target and shifts the color more quickly. (I have more time-saving tricks in my Cintiq post.)

The "Colorize" option

Sometimes the results of the Hue dimension can be tough to predict. When that's the case, check the "Colorize" option — it resets the all the variables so that you can achieve any color in the gamut in a predictable way. One caveat, though: if multiple patches of different colors are selected, it will unify their Hue and Saturation, leaving only Brightness to differentiate them. (Sometimes that's what you want.)

There are, of course, many other principles to keep in mind. Having a familiarity with color will help immensely, but if often shocks me how simple the process is, especially remembering how much I used to struggle with color. (The digital aspect of color alteration is so easy, I use it to plan all my traditional work as well.)

Hopefully, seeing the process in action will help to show how decisions actually get made. The first step is pretty straightforward: Iron Man is red and yellow. My assistant usually does a fine job of assigning the correct colors to each character and element, but there's always some fine-tuning to do, or certain ideas I need to get across. You have to start somewhere, and this is always easiest for me (because I already know what the goal is).

Make sure the Tolerance is "0" and all options are unchecked.

When selecting color with the magic wand, I usually leave the Contiguous option unchecked, so that it will select anything in the entire piece that's the same color. I do the opposite with the Bucket (tolerance set to "0" as well) since I usually want to color just one patch at a time. I use the bucket primarily at the outset — it's quick and easy, and best for bold moves with clear goals.

A Quick Mask to show the foreground group.

But elements don't have to be the same color to be treated as a group. I use the Channels palette to save selections that include different patches of color. These are called Alpha Channels, and they are useful for backgrounds, characters, groups of figures — anything you would like treated as a single element. If you're not familiar with Channels, it's worth your time to learn (you can start here). Once an alpha channel is saved, you can Command-click on its icon (in the Channels palette) to automatically make the selection again.

RGB Channels and saved masks

Once the easy decisions have been made, I begin to think more about mood, atmosphere, and environment. If there's an art to it, this is where it's at — give 10 colorists the same piece, and this is most likely where they will begin to diverge.

While I'll occasionally go off-model for characters, I tend to wait until I have their official color schemes in place. That way, global changes in color will retain the same relationships between isolated areas. The same goes for skin tones.

Color Balance is best for subtle shifts.

I also use Color Balance (Command-B) for adjustments, typically for less dramatic changes — a bit more cyan, slightly less green. When I'm more concerned about overall mood or lighting, I'll create a Photo Filter adjustment layer that will give a color cast to the entire piece. Be sure to check the Preserve Luminosity option if you want to retain your brightest areas. I like keeping it on a separate layer because I can tweak it as I make progress. Once I'm satisfied, I combine it with the main coloring layer. You can also mask this and other adjustment layers using your saved selections in the Channels palette.

The Photo Filter is great for getting colors in the same "key."

I wanted to make special note of color modes. I work in RGB, Photoshop's native method for calculating color. Although print is almost always my ultimate goal, I don't convert to CMYK until the very end. I'll cover the details of the conversion process in the next post, but you can find my reasoning here. The next and final installment will cover rendering and special effects.

The CMYK channels of the final, flattened artwork.

Finally, my Digital Tool Shop is up and running — as of now, it has 3 products to help streamline comic production (with more to come). My blue-line conversion template is free to download.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Shifting Shadows

-By Dan dos Santos

Here's a recently released piece I did for an upcoming Patricia Briggs novel, called 'Shifting Shadows'.

Because this book is a collection of short stories, and not strictly a part of the Mercy Thompson series, the client wanted something a bit different than what they usually do. They specifically requested a close-up of Mercy's face, and that was it.

Since the stories are short, I felt that a looser, more "brief" style of painting would be appropriate. I decided to play with some brushy paint textures, palette knifing, some digital effects, and little gold leaf on this one.

I also proposed some much bolder approaches as alternate sketches...

I really liked these alternate sketches, not only because it would have been fun to get back to painting looser, but because they also showed off Mercy's Native American heritage, something we don't get to do much on the current series of covers. Fortunately, some good clients liked them as well, so the sketches may yet see fruition in the form of a private commission.

I will be displaying this painting, along with several other originals of mine, at next month's Spectrum Fantastic Art Live. Be sure to stop in!

Friday, April 25, 2014


by Greg Ruth 

SO. We're back and now that we have our script breakdown,  it’s time to boil it even further into a proper pitchkit. As great as you may believe your proposal to be, this next bit will make or break your chances for moving onto the next stage: getting a contract, and getting to work.

In general there are always two basic approaches to pitching a project: In person or via mail/email. I find the former is preferred- it takes more time, and requires travel, but the essential benefits of being able to sit across from an editor or an AD cannot be underestimated. You can email and snail mail pitches later, but I find this carries more umph if you have a previously established relationship to build on- i.e. at least one office visit. Sometimes an editor strolling through a con might ask for a pitch to be sent, and that’s okay too, but try to avoid out-of-the-blue unsolicited pitches. I have been in their offices and seen the towering stacks of these and seen the toll it takes. Editors are people too, with lives and the need to live them. As much as your pitch is the most important thing in the world to you, to them it is one among thousands.

(above) original cover and back matter art

But back to INDEH. Ethan and I came up with a rather consolidated approach, both art-wise and in prose form. First, you want a cover sheet that summarizes the basic gist and arc of the story, and for us this is the hardest bit. Ethan I think due to his time in film, is used to one-line concise pitches and was really able to nail it down. This is not a blurb on the back of a book to draw a potential reader in- this is a summary for the initiated. You want to lay it all out in descriptive and brief summations, not flowery catch phrases and snappy ad-copy. An good editor will know if a story has legs or not by way of this first summary minus the bells and whistles, and a good story worth the telling will sell itself in this stage. The fact you have a meeting at all means this is assumed going in, so when you write this, attack it with a get-down-to-business approach.

We summarized INDEH with a quote from Geronimo himself, and a mission statement. Telling a tale largely untold about the Apache Indians, the way we intended to tell it is by fact of itself, and our NOT being Apache Indians by blood, make this entire project controversial. Our trick is to make it work so this is forgotten. Sometimes we had potential publishers that got right away with what we were doing, others needed convincing. We did our best to do so with a comprehensive pitch that was surrounded by art, and presented Ina clean, uniform and most importantly, brief format. No more than five pages all told.

(above) Mission statement and first act summary

The next step is breaking down the story into three single page more fleshed out plot summaries- ours is a story in three basic acts, so the book form is ready made for this. We just needed to touch upon the basic points, describe the action of our core players and how they span the three acts. Unlike the summary and mission statement, this is less an exercise in intent, and more a plot summary you might read in a tv guide or a Hulu description of a film before choosing to watch it. Like the summary and mission statement, your ability to do this well indicates how much a grasp you have on your material and your ability to organize it in a professional way. This is, in essence, the first date, and making sure you present your best self is going to be a big factor in determining whether you get a second date after this. So don’t take it lightly. Get friends and other peers in the business to read your pitches and have them provide feedback. I say this when people ask me about critiquing their work, and the same holds true here: You have your mommy to tell you you’re wonderful, don’t look for praise and softball edits when showing work to others. An honest, even harsh real assessment is a million times more valuable than dismissive or awkward encouragement. Get a thick skin- not everyone’s going to like what you’re doing. And be confident in what you’re doing to be able to discern worthwhile criticism from trolling, or mere compliment.

(above) page from EDENTOWN

Now in the midst of all this, since this is intended as a graphic novel, it’s entirely important to include art. And yes, that means on your own time, make some of the best drawings you can for this. I was so incredibly in love with this project I had a goodly amount of art already generated to pull from, but I did make more for this too. Ideally, you want to have comics pages- no more than three or five, when pitching a graphic novel. I could get away with not doing this because I have a large body of work to point to, and brought some of those along- I had also begun and never got to finish a western for Vertigo and while in many ways dissimilar to what we were doing for INDEH, it was close enough in subject matter to stand in for this.

Both mine and Ethan’s agents, (Allen and Eric respectively), then came up with a list of publishers we’d like to consider, Allen honed this list down and scheduled them all. Ten meetings in two days. A total whirlwind. We had two or three ideal locales in mind, and we had others we weren’t familiar with to visit mixed in. Allen made sure that each publisher got an emailed pdf of the pitchkit and the gist of what we were proposing before we walked in their door so we could hit the ground running at each meeting. Overall, we had a big leg up over the usual approach- Ethan had his film career and writing credits to bring to the table and I had nearly twenty years in comics, and publishing to add to the pile. Between us we had the practical know-how to make the book and the engine to market and sell the book once it came out. This is a huge plus in our corner walking in any door. Not a usual one, but pure gold when the chance arrives. Like the selling points of the story itself it’s important to know this and to remind the editors and publishers of this in the meeting. We also were not pitching this book to any comics publishers, and we did this on purpose. There’s a long discussion to be had about this particular divide, and a topic for a later post, but for now we both agreed we were looking for a wider audience than most comics publishers can provide. This was to be a fully realized book, not a series of pamphlets. Happily the medium of comics is no longer entirely enjoyed by a scant few direct market publishers. Take advantage of this folks- this is the boom-time for graphic novels, and the wider publishing world is hungry for more. Think beyond the page rate and the comics shops.

Having four or five pitch meetings a day, for the same project is exhausting beyond words. We were basically having to do the same dance multiple times a day for two days straight, shaping it to each publisher, and of course, over time both getting exhausted by the repetition of it all as well as benefiting from the repeats to get better at it. Ethan and I really get going like a pair of steamrollers when we get to throwing ideas backj and forth- this can be exciting in a pitch meeting, but it can also be domineering and terrible if left unchecked. So it helps to know when to slow down and read the room. Many of the meetings were either working or not within the first few minutes. You can just tell if the person you’re talking to is getting it, or not. I think we even had one meeting we knew was over before we barely sat in our chairs. These can be the roughest to get through because the editors and publishers made time to see you, and you owe them a conversation even if you both agree this isn’t the right book for them. You also don’t want to burn any bridges you might want to exploit in the future. Presumably you will be pitching other projects down the line which may suit them better, so as much as your current meeting is about what’s in front of you, remember it’s also about what you’ll show them next year or in five years. There’s a lot of musical chairs in publishing and the assistant editor at Simon and Schuster you are meeting with today, could well be running an imprint at Harper Collins tomorrow. Be nice, be professional and think about tomorrow, because it comes a lot sooner than any of us can expect. Plus everyone in publishing knows each other fairly well and word spreads. This can be good for you or bad depending on how you conduct yourself.

(above) second and third acts summarized

As much as a pitch meeting is about the pitch and the project, it’s also about you reading them and they reading you. I will bring back in the first date analogy for this: you need to not just be courteous with each other, you need to get each other and be able to get along respectfully with each other. Working with an editor on a book is an extremely intimate prospect, and it demands a great deal of trust from both sides for it to work in the best way possible for the book. There’s a lot of folks in comics who will proclaim there is no need for an editor- ignore these people. Seriously. Consider anyone who wholly dismisses the editorial process, a fool not worth listening to. You need an editor. You WANT an editor. The better the editor, the better the book. A good editor will be the person on shore allowing you to swim out further in the ocean of your ideas without drowning in them. Conversely, a bad editor can be a real obstacle. So read them and the room you’re in. We sat in front of publishers in super slick offices promising big bucks and superstardom, and others in dark and dingy offices who weren’t wearing designer suits. None of that stuff matters. It should be about the people you’re talking to first and foremost. You are in essence, courting members of a team, and you need to make the right choices about whose coming on board. You want to meet with the editor as well as the designer and art director you’ll be working with if possible. Every publisher has a different culture and you want to find the one that has the right fit for you. Generally follow the people not the companies. Giant hits come from all quarters so being with a big one, like Harper Collins or Random House doesn't also guarantee a big pay out, or marketing force. Sometimes the littler places can give more time and attention to a book. But really this should be secondary to the people you work with. The wrong editor at Random House is still the wrong editor at Little Tree Press.

We had scheduled most of the meetings with little breathers in between so we could bounce ideas off each other- discuss what worked and what didn’t- who we liked and who didn’t. We got better as the days went on as much as we got more exhausted, but in the end we were as informed as we could have ever been. We also got to know each other a great deal more in this time too. Most importantly, we in face to face meetings got to get a sense of who our partners would be for this books, and more essentially, who they shouldn't be. We were able to make an informed decision about who best to go with, and we did. It turned into a long drawn out drama due to outside circumstances, (a story for the next post) but in the end we ended up exactly where we needed to be.

Ultimately at the end of the day, after ten meetings we had our top three choices in mind. And those three felt the same. It was then about practicality- what was the money they were offering, what was the marketing they could provide, and how did they want to print it? Less upfront money, but with an editor who gets it and a serious marketing effort is a far better choice than the opposite any day. Strengths and weaknesses in all the various aspects should be balanced and considered. Be careful not to chase the short money. Coming from comics and the lure of the page rate and its more regular drumbeat of checks can be a rough transition, but the long game in book publishers is better. As an example- I have never once received a single royalty check from Dark Horse or any comics publisher in all my years working for them. Not a penny. But I continue to get them from the Goosebumps anthology I participated in for Scholastic, and they have long ago surpassed what the original advance payment was. The sooner you get out of the comics world page rate trap the better.

As always, feel free to ask any question or disagree with anything I've said. The discussion is where the magic happens so don't hold back.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Astronaut - Whispers from the Past

by Donato

Whispers   rough sketch    7" x 5"
Last year at Spectrum Fantastic Art Live, I was in discussion with a couple regarding a private commission.  Not having specific content which to create a work from, I invited them to browse through my sketch book for direction and called attention to a few rough concepts I had been investigating.  A few of these concepts had made their way onto my cork board collection of ideas to develop into finished oil paintings when a bit of free time opens up in my schedule.  My wish list.  Likely hell will freeze over before free times opens up to finish most of these as I have had little free time in nearly twenty years as a working illustrator.

But that day, a little cool wind blew in to brighten my afternoon.

My clients selected a sketch I loved, that of a young child stooped over an astronaut buried in the stratifying layers of forest undergrowth.  Much like the artists Jeremy Geddes, Greg Manchess, and thousands like us,  I have a fondness for astronauts, NASA, and space programs, having grown up and matured with these sciences through the decades.  Now mid-career, my mind turns to those childhood sources of inspiration to reassess that content and find new meaning through the lenses of my developing artistic aesthetics.  Gone are those overly ambitious dreams of walking on the Moon like Neal Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, or Alan Bean.   I am too old, the door was long closed on that path.

Rather I am now reflecting upon what the Space Programs will mean for my children and their future progeny.  How will they see these great achievements of humanity?  Will we humans reach the stars, or even another heavenly body again in my lifetime...or ever?  I question whether we will again see a human lifted out of near Earth orbit, for our robots have become so much more efficient at  interplanetary tasking, travel and exploration.  Sending a human will always mean a round trip ticket, while a robot never misses home.  I do not have answers these days, only questions...

My thanks to Murray and Mary Ellen for giving me the chance to bring a voice to my dreams, and hope that the past may supply the fruit to bring forth a brighter future.

And thank you to my daughters Cecilia and Naomi for providing the inspiration for this work...may your roads take you beyond the confines of our world.

preliminary drawing after references  24" x 18"
initial acrylic lay in      32" x 24"

Whispers   near completion final art       32" x 24"     Oil on panel

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Mingjue & Me

By Jesper Ejsing & Mingjue Helen Chen

I was skipping through Facebook updates one day, when an image by MingJue Helen Chen immediately caught my eye. It was a simple little illustration of a girl in sneakers with a backpack and a sad expression. There was nothing “special” about this drawing, no bright colors or digital color dodge effects, no sparkle and crazy angles or anything; but the specialty of it was that it was an incredible solid drawing filled to the brim of the outline with craftsmanship. I joyed over the small tilt to the foot, that allowed me to see the bottom of the shoe, the believable way the hair fell over the forehead and around the ears, and then I clapped my hands at the dryness of the colored strokes, that made it look like an almost flat gouache illustration. So I immediately clicked the link to the artists blog, and got blown away by the rest of her artwork. Damn; it turned out she had a thing for drawing girls with swords! ( And she worked for Disney; turned out I had already seen her work before in "Paperman" a small animation film) I asked her to be my best (Facebook) friend and the second she accepted I asked her if she wanted to write a piece on Muddycolors. Egotistically, I asked mostly because I was really interested in knowing all about how she worked for myself. Now you can see as well.  Here is what she wrote me...

Process of a Visual Development Artist for animation:

For the last 5 years I’ve been working in the field of feature animation, working on projects like Frankenweenie, Wreck-it Ralph, and Paperman. Most recently I’ve finished working on Disney’s Big Hero 6 and moved on to Paramount Animation as an Art director for an as yet unannounced feature animation film.

This post will focus on my process, in my personal work as well as work my professional work. I’ve always felt that art intended for film is a little different than art intended to be presented as a standalone illustration. For example, at work I will rarely present paintings that are formatted outside a widescreen format, because that will most likely be the format the audience will receive it.  Another key difference in art for film is time. When an audience is watching the film, every composition happens within a very short time, so the visual storytelling aspect of the film has to be clear and precise.

This is the process of a quick 4 hour demo I did for an online class I taught. There are some issues I still have with the overall piece in terms of value and color, but it does show how I normally start a piece.

1. Even though the initial sketch does not address value, I’ve already tried to plan out in my head how I want the values to work in my head, and the direction of the light.

2. This is the stage where I lay in as much of the canvas as possible, any color is better than no color. I usually work back to front.

3. This is where I normally redraw my perspective grids so I can focus on the structure and design of the space. There is quite a bit of lighting backed into the painting itself, but I also know there will be more on top of it. As a one off piece, this painting could have benefitted from more reference and forward planning.

4. The last half hour or so I add some lighting effects to bring everything together. I use it as a way to get rid of unwanted detail and bring the focal point forward.

Character Painting

In my free time, I do a lot of character paintings as a way to wind down from my normal workday, which includes very little characters and a lot of sets and painting. It really helps as a way to keep me motivated to practice drawing characters as well, because even though I focus on environments at work, I try to place figures in every painting.

I start very much like how I would a normal environment painting, with scribbles. It helps me feel out the forms and plan the drawing even before I add any color. I fill in the line with a base layer, because I am not a great designer. If I fill in just one color it highlights the shapes for me, and I can focus more on the graphic design of the figure just for this one step. It unifies the design for me, and prevents me from adding tiny details that break the silhouette for no reason.

After that I lay in the local color, and add simple line detail and basic shading to sell the simplified form. Not that I would compare myself to him in any way, but Robert Mcginnis is an illustrator that I look up to for his strong use of value and shape. Values are contained within strict hierarchies, and composed in a really graphic way. All of that without sacrificing form and function, its really genius.

MingJue was even nice enough to put together a process video for us!

You can see more of MingJue Helen Chen's work on her Tumblr:

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Digital Art Is Not "Real Art"

-By Dan Luvisi

I had a little bit of a revelation the other day when I read someone's comment on Facebook saying: (Totally paraphrased, but this was the gist of it):

"Digital Art is not real art, and you're a fool for thinking so."

I was really peeved at first, after been training and studying digital art since I was 15 (28 now). Calling back to all the people I had to prove to, that I was actually painting and not just touching up photos like everyone thought Photoshop was used for. I wanted to write this big whole paragraph up, then I realized I was 28-years old and on Facebook, about to argue with a kid who had never drawn in his life.

So I stopped and moved on. But as the week passed, the idea of this kept on hitting me. It reminded me of the teachers and older artists that would roll their eyes at me whenever I brought up Photoshop in school, like I was this huge fake. It reminded me of comments on websites and blogs, bashing realistic paintings and so forth.

But then I realized that I had become that way against people that Photo-Bashed, and everything kinda clicked. But first, let's jump back.

My father was a traditional painter. You know how you remember specific moments in your life, and can practically see it? I recall my father showing me a massive oil painting he did, of this woman, clad in fur-hide, holding a spear. It looked real to me. I was so impressed, and wanted to be just like my father.

Inspired to paint or draw like him one day, I picked up drawing at around 3-4. I began with pencils, believe it or not. I know, all you guys have seen is much of my digital art, but don't worry, I actually do draw with pencils and pens. I grew up on them, drawing on anything that I could. My grandfather owned a print-shop, and would deliver boxes of sketchbooks that I fill to the brim in days.

As I grew up, I continued with pencils until one day I stumbled across this very exact image, by Justin Sweet.

I remember losing my mind over it, knowing right there, this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So Justin, if you're out there, I know we've never met, but thank you for inspiring me to take a risk. From there, I dropped traditional tools and for the next four years of High-School, taught myself how to use Photoshop in a day where there was not many people to use Photoshop.

Now, this is a risk that would cause lots of debates in school. I had several art teachers in High-School and junior college and each one of them disliked me. I never received above a C in any of my art classes and you want to know why? Not because we didn't get a long (mostly due to different generations, and looking back, I can see why), but because I chose to bring a crappy back-in-the-day Wacom tablet to class, when every other student was using pencils or charcoal--painting plants and fruits, no less.

I wasn't being an asshole by any stretch, digital painting was perfectly welcomed by the class. They had the computers set up for it, and they had the programs (this was back in the early 2000s, so Photoshop was not as snazzy as it is now) that would allow digital art.

But my teachers despised it. Saying Photoshop is for hacks and people that don't know how to draw. Digital art will never catch on and I'm silly for thinking otherwise. There was so much hostility against an art form, that it made me begin to realize that it wasn't due to wanting to learn it, but that it was because it was a new medium taking over and making it easier than what my teachers once had to use. They saw how fast art could be produced, and to me, I believe that intimidated them. They never wanted to understand the process or the art farm, they simply would disregard it.

I caught another glimpse of this when John Lassetter, CEO of Pixar, began to introduce 3D-generated animation to Disney, and they practically laughed him out of the room. A lot of the traditional animators began to question it, asking if it was an end of the era for Disney Animation. He got flack and slapped around, but thankfully stuck to his gut, and as you can very much see, has inspired and changed the way Hollywood treats animated films now.

Being something new, I stuck to it. I kept on practicing, trying to get better at digital painting, inspired by the others around me doing the same thing. But it kept on getting a bad rep. People saying digital art wasn't real, and that people just cheated when they used it, bashing together photos and what not.

See, I'm one of those artists that spends days, hours and weeks on a painting, trying to push everything that I can. My business partners see it in the office I work at. I usually am glued to my computer when I'm really into a painting, and will spend hours rendering tiny things. Over the years, I've developed my own style, which I guess could be hyper-real (using others' words, not my own).

Every now and then I'd read a comment going "Looks like a photo, this isn't art." "Is this just photography? Don't call it a painting then."

I fought this question forever, always using a rebuttal of "It's my style." "I love details." "It's the only thing that calms me when I paint. It's how I meditate."

Thankfully I grew out of that, and it became my style and you either like it or not. As the years passed, new art styles changed as well, and eventually photo-bashing came about. For work or freelancing? I totally get it. We're all on the same timer, and time is money.

Now I know we live in a day now where photo-bashing is the new hip thing to do. I've seen hundreds of copy-cats throw it about on art websites or Facebook, and quite frankly, I'm getting a little tired of it. Why? Well, the same reason I'm writing this article.

But then artists began clinging on and doing it. It became a fad. The cool thing to do. People that don't even work in the business, just bashing to photo-bash because some of the greats did it. I started seeing less painted art, and more Franken-photos. And honestly, I got upset over it.

Why is this now okay, but I had to struggle to prove myself that I was really doing it when someone else was just slapping photos together and getting the same feedback?

But then it clicked, it's not about that: Times change, art and styles evolve, and the world will not wait up for you, so you better adapt one way or the other.

That's not to say painting will ever die, but I've come to realize that we are in one of the most prolific times ever, where technology is literally evolving every hour of the day, techniques are improving and doubling, and there is not only just one way to produce art.

Art is art, it will always be a universal expression of creativity, imagination and story telling, whether through music, painting, sculpting, or writing.

The lesson I learned is, don't be so quick to judge just because you don't prefer the medium being used. It matters not the tool used, but the product that was born from it. A lot of artists have put thousands of hours into honing their craft, and growing the gut to put it out there for the world to see.

And I think that's a lot more powerful than the debate of whether digital art is real or not.

Goofy says hello.

Monday, April 21, 2014


-By Arnie Fenner

Above: Me shooting the breeze at the Illustration Academy

A few weeks ago Jon Foster and I gave an on-line lecture about the history of Spectrum at The Illustration Academy followed by a series of reviews of portfolios that had been submitted for consideration in advance by members of the audience. I generally don't like to do portfolio reviews for the simple reason that I don't view them the same way an educator does. A teacher or mentor offers critiques to help an artist improve and hopefully move on to the next level. As an art director looking at someone's book my position is less nurturing and more black and white: would I hire this person or wouldn't I?

Maybe that's a little cold—I know many art directors who happily offer critiques and suggestions to developing artists in the hopes it will help them achieve their potential—but I try to be a realist. I've said elsewhere that artists wanting tips and criticism should show their folios to educators they respect or artists they admire, but they should show their best work to art directors because they're confident in their abilities and want work. You can only make a good first impression once and the first impression you want an art director to have of you and your art is "too good to pass up."

So I was a little uncomfortable to do portfolio reviews and promised to let Jon and John English do most of the "heavy lifting." It went fine. There was a nice mix and the art ranged from good to outstanding: I didn't have to do much more than say, "I like it," which suited me fine.

But there was one student folio that was particularly impressive which included mixed media works, beautiful pieces that featured photographs that were digitally manipulated and then painted into and over with traditional methods. Great stuff that was ready for Prime Time as far as I was concerned. One of his instructors at The Illustration Academy, Vanessa Lemen, was also on-line and mentioned that the young artist had been getting criticized when his work had appeared in several exhibits recently because of his methodology. "Even though he's doing all the work, hiring models, shooting the photos, doing the digital manipulation, and the final painting, some call what he does 'cheating.'" Vanessa was noticeably frustrated that a young artist was being hammered, not for the quality of his work, but because of the way he chose to create it.

I had an immediate response: "There is no such thing as 'cheating' in art."

No, don't chime in with exceptions: I'm not talking about plagiarism or anything like that. I was talking about methodology. There is no "right way" to create art; there is no methodology that is blessed, no single path. There is no style or medium or approach that makes one type of art "better" than another. Regardless of those who feel otherwise, art is art.

I don't care how it's created: I only care about the results. You'd think that's all anyone should care about, but unfortunately that's not the case.

I know of an excellent artist whose works have been disparaged because he shoots photos, transfers them to canvas, then paints over them in oil. I know digital artists who will create an image in Photoshop or Painter, print it out on watercolor paper, then, like the previous artist, paint over it to produce an original. And, of course, when it comes to reference, artists like Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell set up elaborate photo shoots with props and models to help them create their art: none of it simply sprang straight out of their imaginations and onto their easels.

Above: The camera obscura

I've watched people marvel over the art until someone mentions the technique or methodology, then the attitude changes, the admiration shifts to dismissal, the smile turns into a sneer. It's no longer "special" because it suddenly seems like a dirty trick. If the art wasn't magically conjured out of thin air…well! In 2001 the Hockney-Falco thesis was posited in Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters and it ignited a firestorm of controversy from those who thought David Hockney was suggesting that van Eyck, Vermeer, and other Renaissance painters had somehow "cheated" by using a camera obscura. A similar, though less heated (probably because arguing with producers Penn & Teller would not turn out well), controversy surrounded the release of the film Tim's Vermeer which explored the same territory.

But…cheated? Why? How? And…really, what does it matter?

What is the difference between transferring a pencil drawing to a canvas to use as a guide to paint over and doing the same thing with a drawing created on a screen? What's the difference between painting from a photo and painting from life?

There isn't any.

Above: One of Frank Frazetta's better-known selfies

Frank Frazetta would routinely insist that he "made everything up" and never used references or even did roughs: he would chide his friends like Wally Wood and Al Williamson, who kept extensive resource files, used models, and shot photos as part of their creative process. Dr. David Winiewicz (who is easily the Frazetta authority) recently posted an excerpt of an interview he did with Frank in which Fritz insisted he never used himself as a model despite the ample evidence to the contrary. "Of course he did," Dave told me. That Frank used himself as a model and then denied it were both reflections of his vanity (and were also an aspect of the myth that aided in his marketing). As an athlete with movie-star good looks he was an excellent model for his heroes, he just didn't want to admit that he thought so. Frazetta's claims over the years added to the cult of personality that surrounded him and allowed the gullible to disparage other illustrators who didn't "make all it up" or used models or photo reference. But the simple fact was that, regardless of his prodigious drawing skills and an enviable memory which allowed him to approximate things he'd seen almost at will…

Frank used reference.

He shot photos (he kept thick albums of he and his wife Ellie in all sorts of poses), owned and used an oversized Artograph that allowed him to project and trace his reference or comps onto his board, occasionally referenced the art of others, and created multiple roughs and thumbnails for virtually everything he drew and painted. (Cathy and I even produced a book of his comps called Rough Work.)

While that might cause cries of anguish among the true believers, it does not diminish Frank Frazetta's art in the slightest. Just as Jan van Eyck or Johannes Vermeer using a camera obscura (if they did) does not make "The Amolfini Portrait" or "Girl with a Pearl Earring" any less the masterpieces they are.

Whatever tool is employed, whatever medium or technique, doesn't matter: what does, as I have repeatedly said (to the consternation of some), is the intellect behind the tool.

Above: Al Williamson posing as Ming the Merciless for a reference shot

I love Wally Wood's quote: "Never draw what you can copy; never copy what you can trace; never trace what you can cut out and paste up." Now, of course, Wood could draw wonderfully and he almost certainly said this in a semi-joking manner. And these days, "copying" (or "swiping" as the comics artists and illustrators of a certain era called it) is a big no-no, but I appreciate that Wally, as a commercial artist from the 1950s till his death in 1981, was more concerned with delivering the job than he was about his technique.

Just as I love Greg Manchess' much more recent comment during his talk at the reception for his show at the Society of Illustrators last year: he explained that for one of his jobs he had traced the reference he'd been provided for an assignment. The students in the audience audibly gasped, which made Greg laugh, "Time to get real. If you're going to paint a bottle of Jameson you don't have to distill the whiskey and blow the glass yourself in order to be authentic."

I've addressed this in the past (most notably in my "Labels" post), but I think it's worth repeating: for an artist the "how" and "what" are much less important than the results and for people to get hung up on anything else is silly.

So cheating? When it comes to technique or tool or methodology...there ain't no such thing.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Photoshop Brushes

My personal brush library, of which I really only use 3.

If you ask any digital artist, what is the single most annoying question they hear all the time? Most of them will probably tell you the same... "What brushes do you use?"

It's inevitable. Students are always looking for that 'secret ingredient' that is going to suddenly make their art great. And although the right tools DO make a massive difference, the truth is, the real secret ingredient is simply hard work.

Still, no matter your medium, the same old questions always come up... What brushes do you use? What surface do you paint on? What kind of pencil do you use?

Now, this is not to say that a student shouldn't ask these questions. They should! You should always be inquisitive! But that inquisitiveness should encompass an interest in ALL your potential mediums. Rather than ask an artist what type of paint they use, and then simply use that paint for no good reason other than imitation, why not try every brand of paint you can get your hands on and then decide for yourself which one YOU like best?

These issues seems to be particularly prevalent amongst digital artists. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that everyone is working with the same tools, so finding a brush that makes your work look unique is all the more important. Whatever it is, the question (no matter how annoying) is an incredibly valid one.

Fortunately, there is a website that answers that question for you!

Digital Brushes is a Tumblr that has collected all the digital brush packs they can find in one place. It's a incredibly wonderful resource for digital artists, and I've downloaded a LOT of them myself.

For those of you that work digitally, I encourage you to really scour these brush packs. Try them all out, find which ones work best for you, and then modify them to suit your own personal needs. Or better yet, figure out how they work, and then make your own!

Perhaps the next time you hear the question 'What brushes do you use?', it will be some student asking YOU.

For loads of brush packs, visit: 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Process to the People: Part 2

My post today is the second half of my entry from two weeks ago.  If you didn't read that post, or would like to refer back to it, here is the link - Process to the People: Part 1.  My goal in the first half was the show how the predominant artistic tradition over the last several centuries and through the Golden Age of Illustration followed a specific process.  Also, I hoped to show how changing your process can potentially improve your final results.

For this half of the post, I am going to show my steps for a recent painting, applying some of the traditional steps but also using some modern tech to possibly add efficiency.  I want to reiterate that this is just one approach.  I find it intriguing because it was used by nearly every artist of the past that I admire.  It is where I want to go with my work.  That may change, but for the last 7 years or so it has been my focus.  It doesn't mean it is the only way to get the results you are after.  There are some incredible artists today that start right on the canvas, designing as they go.  So, with that in mind, take from this post what you think might help your process and not as an indictment against any other approach.

As a quick recap, the process used to go from idea to final was this:

1: Thumbnail sketches
2: Detailed sketch
3: Studies from life (or photography)
4: Value/color sketch
5: Study of head/hands/feet/fabric/difficult passages
6: Full sized cartoon
7: Final painting

A few years ago, I was approached to do a series of religious paintings.  The commission was enough that I could really focus on the images, take my time and develop the work.  I decided that I was going to proceed with the above steps, but also use what I had learned using the computer as a tool.  So, as you will see I adjusted the process, changing some of the steps.  I am still in the middle of my experiment so I can't say if it is an advancement, just different, or step back from tradition.  We will see!

1.  I started with thumbnails as usual.  I did 20-30, but here are a few to give you an idea.  Just a minute or so on each one.  Investing a half an hour at this stage is small, but with a huge return.  I went through a lot of ideas.  Most of you probably do many thumbnails, but if you don't, force yourself to do more than you think is necessary.  The purpose of this step is to possibly find new ideas and refine your vision.

2. Detailed sketch - Still from imagination, really just a more developed thumbnail.  The purpose of this step is to direct you when posing your model, gathering reference and determining other details for the final.  Still a rough drawing, but enough information to get you moving forward with some confidence.

3. Life/Photography and 3D model if needed - At this point I had to decide, do I paint from life, or work from photography?  If possible, I would paint from life, but often it is not an option for the model or budget.  I would rather have the right model for a specific piece and use photography than find someone who isn't quite right who could pose and have to compromise.

I have invested a fair bit of time into learning better photography skills (though these photos do not show it particularly well).  Not from an artistic standpoint, but from a technical standpoint.  If you are going to use photography and take the images yourself, learn how to really use your camera.  Decide that you are going to become and expert and invest the time or hire someone who has.  I fuzzed out the face of the model, because in the model agreement (always good to have one signed) I didn't have the rights to publish her likeness from the photo.  I don't think she would mind, but good to follow the agreement.

When I do a photo shoot, I usually proceed with this mindset:

1 - Try to capture the whole figure at once
2 - Focus just on the facial expression, don't worry about the whole
3 - Focus just on the hands
4 - Feet
5 - Fabric

By the time I was done with this shoot, I had 200 or so shots that I was able to choose the best elements from.

I have also used 3D models to help establish some forms.  My preference is Blender.  It is free and plenty powerful enough to do all that I need it for.  It is a great tool.

Photo reference for textures and scenes is important too.  When I go on vacation, I become *that* guy with my camera.  Camera always up to my eye, snapping pictures of the most mundane things.  In France, I took 4500 pictures, only 20 or so had me or my wife in them...  the rest were of trees, rocks, walls, doors, buildings, plants....  Same with Italy, though I was sure to get a few more with family in them!

Ground reference

Plant reference

Texture reference for the well

4. Value/color sketch/studies/full-sized cartoon - If you are comparing my process to the one listed at the first of the article, you will see that I am combining several steps into one here.  Here is where my digital background is coming into play.  I painted a finished version of my piece on the computer.  This let me work out all the values, colors and detail that I wanted in the final.  It also provided me with the chance to do studies of the hands, head, feet and fabric.  It also provides me with a full sized cartoon.  All in one piece.

When the file was done, I sent it off to a blueprinter and had it printed at the final size.  The prints are rough, black and white, but only cost $2 for a 34" x 50" print.  Very cheap.  I used this print to transfer the drawing to the canvas and then inked the drawing with india ink and a brush.  It is a very fast method to get your image onto the canvas.  There are other great ways too.  I will comment on that later in the post.

Once I have this image, I take advantage of the tech at my fingertips and try some different color ideas.  Even if I am pretty certain, I always shift the temperatures around, or change colors completely.  Why not?  It is fast and I learn a lot about color relationships, even if I don't go with the changes.  I actually do this every time I finish a piece.  I spend a few minutes trying out different color schemes.  It is a great way to explore color!

Maybe some different costume colors too

I think I know what I want, so on to the oil painting!

5. Final painting steps

Early progress shot.  You can see the transfer lines, inked over with india ink.

A little more progress.  Color wash on the whole lower piece, face is nearing completion.

Upper two thirds are done, just the feet and ground to do.  Almost there!

Living Water - 34" x 50" oil on linen

I also decided to build the frame for the painting. :)

Conclusion - I definitely feel that all the work before starting the final was worth it.  I have more years under my belt working digitally than traditionally, so there are aspects of the digital version that I probably pulled off better, but overall, I feel that the final oil painting is the strongest, especially in person.  I am still finding out if substituting the digital study for traditional is an improvement.  My mind tells me it is, but there is a nostalgic, even romantic side of me that wants to do those steps with just like the old masters did.

For my most recent paintings, I haven't printed out the large print to transfer the drawing (like I mentioned in step 4), but have done a grid and scaled up my digital painting by hand.  I find that I like the direct interface with my drawing at this stage.  I add in little touches that are interesting that I miss when transferring the drawing like I did with this piece.  I might make a conscious effort on my my next painting to combine the two, transferring big shapes and free handing the details.  We will see.

I don't think I will give up tubed paint or my digital camera as a tool, but look for a future post where I work without my digital toolset and create everything with a traditional approach.

Experience will tell.  I am sure that I will refine my process along the way, and will post results when I think they are informative.  I would love to hear your thoughts.

Last step - onto the next painting.