A More Methodical Process

A quick study of a sketch by Ian McQue

Here’s another study of an Ian McQue sketch. I like doing these studies at different aspect ratios from the original, because it forces me to try to recreate what the artist is doing, rather than simply copy the shapes. I learn a lot more by trying to use a process to recreate an image, because I’m breaking things down and understanding the process that I will be using in my own images, rather than simply copying what’s in front of me, which leaves me totally reliant on having something to copy.

Keeping my value layers separate helps me control and maintain that clarity of value shapes. Then, adding very transparent (10%-20%) dark and light layers helps to give those layers a bit of texture and visual interest without losing that clarity of separation. Only at the end, adding the gradients helps give it some atmosphere.

It’s another lesson I learned from Stephané Wootha Richard, who’s approach is very much about breaking things down into manageable pieces so that you’re only ever dealing with one problem at a time. I’m not even dealing with things like edges right now, and transitions only very minimally. My goal is still to work out a process for building strong compositions with strong shapes that I can build off of when I get into the fun stuff that brings the image to life.

Things that Could be Better

How do the shapes describe form? Some of the shapes, I’m just throwing down randomly, I think this can be useful for creating certain large areas that are more textural, and for creating interesting abstract compositional shapes, but I could go a step further and tell more of a story about what those abstract shapes are. I don’t need to fully flesh out everything, but giving some of the abstract areas more definition would go a long way.

Four Value Studies

Studies from a variety of sources using a base of four values

The above studies are small, quick thumbnail sketches based on images from films or from digital paintings found online. I tried to use one, hard, flat brush for most of the time on each one, using a base of four values (2 darks and 2 lights). My goal is to rely on shape making rather than rendering to create a believable sense of light and composition.

Only at the very end do I add a few gradients and blends, and I try to keep them to a bare minimum, looking for where I can get the most out of the fewest moves. 

As someone who has a tendency to noodle endlessly and get lost in rendering, this exercise is helping me with brush discipline and keeping my shapes distinct and clear. 

Flat Value Study of Cartier-Bresson

Using 4 basic values and a little bit of darkening in the details takes you a long way. Study of a photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Continuing in the vein of simple value studies, I took this photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson, the great 20th Century photographer, and tried to “replicate” it using only 4 main values, and some darker accents to help give things a little more depth. From here, if I were to try to take it to a finish, I would want to spend the majority of my time adding textures, refining the shapes, edges and transitions between the value shapes. It continues to amaze me at how far just a few simple, big abstract shapes and values takes us in creating a believable image.

The little numbers on my study on the right indicate the brightness values in photoshop, and I primarily used the lasso tool with fill and gradient fills for everything. 

You Only Need a Few Values

The above image is a breakdown of a digital painting by concept artist named Mathias Zamęcki. I took his full color painting (see below) and limited the values being displayed, progressively adding one value at a time to a total of 6, then the full value range is represented in the last frame of the animated GIF above. You can see that quickly, with only 6 total values, you already have more or less the range you need, with anything additional going to small details. In all honesty you probably need even fewer, and Sargent famously said that he used to work within a 5 value range for his paintings.

Now the conversion method I’m using for this study is imperfect in that, as a painter,  you would most likely make slightly different choices, but I think the overall lesson is clear here, that it takes a small range of values to achieve a beautiful and realistic look. A lot of the rest of it is drawing, texture, edge control, color, etc. 

It’s a lesson I’m hitting myself hard on, trying to see how much I can do with as few variables as I can. When we see a finished piece, our brains are filling in a lot of detail, and it’s easy to overlook the simplicity of a painting.

It’s not about putting in more details, more values, more colors, but putting in the right ones in the right way. That’s what’s so difficult. 

Here’s the full color painting below, check out more of his work on his Artstation page and give him some likes if you dig his work.

A Quick Study, Lessons Learned

The image on the left is by an artist named Sergey Kolesov (aka Peleng) the image on the right is my “study” of his sketch

Sergey Kolesov, aka Peleng is a concept artist who’s work I really admire. It’s creative, interesting, it’s got a sense of humor and the painterly qualities are spot on. With just a little bit of time, I decided to do a quick study of his sketch “Stranger” which caught my attention because of the ways that he indicates in this sketch without getting deep into the weeds with rendering and refinement. 

I learned a few things from doing this study, but the one thing that stood is how well he achieves a loose quality to his work while keeping his shapes and forms crisp and descriptive. It’s easy to go too far in one direction or another, to either overrender, over define, or over detail, but it’s also easy to put down marks that don’t mean anything, that are sloppy and loose, but don’t describe anything

On top of that, when working digitally, it’s especially easy to have this look where things are too flat, too perfect, too clean. So keeping a sense of texture and letting the process show through is particularly important. All that while trying to maintain a sense of light, balance of shapes, atmosphere, a sense of realism. 

My biggest lesson here was seeing how quickly I could indicate something like the light shining through the window, and keeping that loose and random, I think works okay. It becomes a matter of learning where to focus, what kinds of things are good loose and messy and left to chance, and what kinds of things need definition and attention and care and a slow hand. 

Separation of Light and Shadow

John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Henry James retains a strong delineation of light and shadow.

In the image above, I’ve taken Sargent’s portrait of Henry James and applied a threshold adjustment layer in photoshop at a value of 70. That’s 70 out of 255 (using the RGB color scale) where 0 is pure black and 255 is pure white. The gray color around the image is this same grayscale value. It’s approximately on the edge of the light and shadow on James’s face, and shows the separation of the side of his face that is in the light and the side that is in the shadow. This separation is one of the big principles of creating the illusion of solid forms in a painting that you want to read as realistic.

Often when we’re first learning about color and values, we tend to overdo the tonal variations within one of the sides, which leads to a mottled effect, breaking up the composition and breaking up the sense of form on the image. We’re much better off erring on the side of keeping everything closer together as Sargent shows us. It both reads more clearly, realistically, and creates a stronger composition because the shapes become unified. 

The Elements of Lighting in Composition

Edgar Payne’s High Sierra Landscape – Big Pine Canyon

As I’m working on my Spider Witch piece I got to thinking about the elements of lighting for composition. It’s one thing to think about abstract shapes, but when you want to start making those shapes into shapes that describe meaningful and believable objects, there are a number of factors involved. In particular, I am struggling with the difference between the shadows and shapes that make up the forms, and the lighting effects of the atmosphere of the cave, which got me thinking about these elements. 

I’m going to go deeper into each of these in coming posts, but right now I’m thinking of 5 overarching elements of lighting for composition. As always, I’m talking about composition for realism or stylized realism, the more abstract you get, the less you need to abide by these rules, though I would argue that they might still be helpful. 

  1. Light and shadow on solid objects. This includes both form and cast shadows. 
  2. Local color and their values
  3. Material and textures
  4. Atmospheric Effects
  5. Direct Light Sources

This is still part of a working system of thinking, but it’s helping me already to break down the light and shadow shapes into these various categories, not necessarily in any order of importance. 

Grouping Shapes for Composition

It’s already pretty clear in the original, but I threw some filters on in photoshop just to see how the shapes could be grouped even more simply into black and white. You can see how the brown of the man’s suit in the background groups in easily with the black suits of the woman and the man on the right.

Notice how there is one large shape of dark values, we might say, values below a certain threshold, formed by the clothing of the three people. They all blend into one single shape. Then there is the large shape of the white background, which blends in with the light of the woman’s blouse, and the hands and heads of the men. 

Now, some of these could go either way, particularly the areas with the most amount of detail, depending on how you think of it, but that doesn’t negate the fact that Leyendecker keeps his values within a certain range in order to create these, abstract shapes, large and small. It’s these abstract shapes that hold the composition hold together. Then, where there is detail, in the faces, the hands and the cage at the bottom of the screen, that’s where the eye can focus and spend some time.

Spider Witch Part 2

As I continue to work on this Spider Witch piece, I’m finally solidifying some of the compositional elements, and while I will continue to refine and work on the shape language, I’ve mostly got the composition as I want it. I’ve started to add in some color, lighting and atmospheric effects to see how the black and white shapes play out.

The lighting in my first version didn’t totally make sense to me, so I started thinking of the light as a hole in the cave coming down from above, with the background light being more of a secondary source rather than the main source. My next steps will be to do one more pass on refining shapes, and move more into trying to create a sense of realism and atmosphere, before moving into textures, local colors, and edges. I’ll finish everything off with a pass at giving everything a more painterly quality. 

Negative Shapes & Silhouette in Composition

N.C. Wyeth uses a variety of sky shapes to help create an interesting composition.

Today I wanted to look at the work of N.C. Wyeth, the early 20th Century Illustrator and how he used negative shapes and silhouette to create the powerful composition above. At top is the original image, with my breakdown below of the shapes that the silhouette makes of the sky . The thing I notice here is the variety and groupings that he’s created in sky shapes. The sky above is broken up by the spears, creating three large simple areas where our eyes can rest. These help to draw our emphasis even more to where the detail and the “action” is happening. Then below he has several little shapes of sky poking through the horses’ legs creating a nice contrast with the large shapes of the sky. In particular, notice that none of the shapes really repeats any other, they are all quite different, either in size, shape or arrangement with nearby shapes. Notice as well that the area with the smallest sky shapes is also where the woman on the horse is looking at the swans, the only character in this scene who is looking in a different direction, indicating that she is the protagonist of the story. 

Triangles to Describe Folds

This painting by J.C. Leyendecker does a particularly brilliant job of using triangular shapes to describe the folds of this man’s shirt.

It’s an interesting exercise to look at paintings and photography to see how many triangles you can find in the folds of a shirt or article of clothing. They are particularly clear in this painting by J.C. Leyendecker as they help to really emphasize the crisp nature of this man’s shirt. Something more loose and flowy will still have triangular shapes in it, but because of the nature of the fabric, they will flow more into one another. Leyendecker is great for seeing how clear, simple shapes can be used to create a sense of material reality.

Subtle Foreshortening

“Admiral Kirk” by J.C. Leyendecker. Note how Leyendecker uses shapes that trace the form of the arm to help maintain an illusion of depth.

I’m studying J.C. Leyendecker right now to get a sense of how he describes clothing in his paintings because his work has such a strong, geometrical quality to his forms. Here, in “Admiral Kirk” notice how the arm is coming forward in space, and yet the folds seem to be doing all sorts of things that could easily destroy the illusion of depth. There are a variety of tools he’s using here to give that sense of depth, but a subtle one that stood out to me was the way that he used areas of the folds that are closer to the arm underneath to emphasize the tubular shape beneath the loosely fitting shirt sleeve.

Old Man Head

I have been experimenting with 3D sculpting in Blender. Originally I thought it would just be a great tool for setting up and trying lighting scenarios on simple 3D models. I started working on a planes of the head 3D model as an exercise in learning both the tool and to help solidify the planes, but I started to find that it was just really fun to sculpt these heads. 

Spider Witch Black and White Block In Sketch

Here’s a black and white sketch for a painting I’m working on based loosely on Shelob from the Return of the King. I took some liberties with the character and made her more of a half-woman / spider witch. 

The process I’m experimenting with is one I learned from Stéphane Wootha Richard who likes to start his 2D paintings in this purely black and white world, creating interesting shadow shapes and focusing on the composition of light and dark to create form and tell a story. 

He’s got a lot of great tutorials on Gumroad if you want to learn more about his process. He’s french so sometimes his english is a bit hard to understand, but he’s a phenomenal artist, and he started his art journey relatively late in life (36), so he’s an inspiration to me in that regard as well. 

The next step for me is to continue to refine these shapes and try to think about how they are actually describing form. Right now the forms are somewhat loose, and my focus was on trying to get an interesting composition. The challenge is getting the form in there without losing the sense of gesture, texture and balance that I have right now, and to improve that rather than detract from it. 

It’s this step where I often can get stuck, and gathering good reference materials will be key to help me move forward with confidence. So it’s all about slowing down and making sure I set myself up well. 

The real goal though with this piece is really just to take it to a finish, a task that I’ve historically struggled with. After the quick bursts of the daily Inktober sketches, this is a good new challenge in a different direction.

Gas Mask

Inktober is officially over, but I learned so much from the limitation of using just black and white, I wanted to keep working in this world for a while.