Illustration Master Class

Bindi – 16″ by 20″

Amherst College, MA

“You have to finish. There is no other option.”

These words were spoken to me by the renowned painter and illustrator Donato Giancola at the beginning of the Illustration Master Class. This year’s IMC was my very first as an attendee and I was curious as to how many students actually finished their painting in one week’s time. I already knew that the IMC was basically a crazy illustration blitz in which students of all skill levels learn an incredible amount of technical and conceptual skills with world class faculty in one week. What I was unsure of was how many students actually manage to finish a painting from start to finish in that time. I’d seen other people post their unfinished paintings from IMC to Facebook, talking about how much they’d learned and how they hoped to finish their work with the help of their newfound knowledge from the class.

So, on Day One, I approached Donato Giancola and asked him if it was realistic to expect to finish my painting by the end of the week.

“You have to finish. There is no other option.”

Well, there you have it. My question was answered, and as I settled in for the week of intensely devoted study that is the Illustration Master Class I knew that I had to finish my painting.

Initial searching.

I had come prepared with some ideas for my piece, inspired by the novella “Binti,”written by Nnedi Okorafor, published by Tor Books. I really liked the story’s protagonist, but was struggling with how to portray the dizzying array of visual information provided by the story. I churned out thumbnail after thumbnail, none of which seemed to fit.

Presented thumbails.

I landed on the above four ideas and shared them with Donato Giancola and John Jude Palencar, the instructors who would review our work on the first day of class. Both Donato and John agreed the first idea on the top left was the strongest, but they encouraged me to make it more visually interesting – while the pose was strong, there wasn’t enough happening with the left side of the canvas.

Reaching clarity.

The character of Binti goes through a fairly ridiculous set of transformations over the course of the story, and I really wanted to portray that with my illustration. She encounters an alien race called the Meduse that appear as airborne jellyfish, and is herself incorporated into their species, her hair changing into tentacles. I wanted to show this aspect of metamorphosis, as well as the story’s dynamic of space travel and the journey to discover one’s true self.

Final drawing

After continued consultation with Donato and John, I shot some reference of a fellow student and drew up my final sketch, which I felt to be strong. A spray of nebula space fabric would be emitting from Bindi’s hand as she faces the desert, the tentacle hair writhing atop her head which would mimic the abstract rhythm of the star fields in the nebula spray.

Underpainting and initial color lay in.

I eagerly started painting and felt optimistic about my progress. During the class, I was surrounded by a host of other students painting away on their pieces as well as instructors giving demonstrations and critiques late into the night. I noticed that while others were farther along on their paintings than I, some hadn’t started painting yet and were still in sketch phase. I had confidence… but that was soon going to change!

Something is amiss…

I began diving into color and painting the space fabric as the week progressed. Slowly but surely, inklings of doubt began to set in. Something about the space fabric emanating from the point of light near Binti’s hand was off. What was this space stuff anyway? I wasn’t sure, and that was a major issue.

Further sinking into the mire…

I kept noodling along until I noticed instructor Scott Fischer walk into the classroom. I knew instinctively that he would have something valuable to tell me. I approached him and asked for his thoughts on the piece. He strode up to my canvas, put his hands on his hips authoritatively and asked, “What is it?,” pointing to the ungodly tangle of color and shape taking up the left portion of the canvas.

“It’s, uh, you know, space stuff.”

“No, but really, what is it? I can’t tell what it is. Doesn’t the story have a jellyfish, or something? Is it a jellyfish?”

“Uh… Yeah. Yeah, it’s a jellyfish. Sure.”

His answer received, Scott looked to my palette and saw a brush laying there. I knew what was going to happen: he was about to paint over my picture. My pretty picture. I forced myself to hold back the urge to use my body as a shield for the canvas I had slaved over all week and let Scott do his work.

Bindi, post operation by Scott.

“You should just make it clear and show what it is. Show that they have a relationship, like this,” said Scott. Suddenly, those quick slashing black lines that he laid over the top of my painting clarified in seconds what hours of my self consumed muddling could not. I thanked him profusely and he went on his way to lay waste to the agonized work of another student.

Taking the tough steps: painting out my mistakes.

Many painters agree that the hardest thing to do is paint over a section of a piece that isn’t working. There is an inherent compulsion to over assign value to anything we’ve spent significant amounts of time on, a common logical fallacy known as the Sunk Cost problem. Once Scott had put those harsh black strokes over my problem area, I was suddenly free to destroy it and start over. Mind you, this was around 1pm on Saturday, the second to last day of the class. I had less than 24 hours to fix the painting and finish.

You can just smell the paint in this room.

My studio: Room 101 – Illustration in Traditional Media. The frenzied activity shown above was constant and sustained every day from 8am when the studios opened to 2am when they “closed” (not really, many students worked later than this quite regularly). The atmosphere was so intense that when I took occasional breaks to use the bathroom it felt like stepping out of a gym where everyone is working out so hard you can smell the sweat and hear the painful strain of muscles growing stronger. Art muscles, that is.

By 7am on the final day, I put down my brushes and felt a wave of weakness overcome me. I had painted for approximately 18 hours in the final stretch. For several nights in a row, I had averaged less than 4 hours of sleep… and I am a big fan of sleeping.

“You have to finish. There is no other option.”

These words and the encouragement from the other instructors were my fuel. Without that fuel, I never would have been able to accomplish Bindi in the time frame allotted. I was a wreck on the last night in which the faculty and the students hit the bar together and traded sketchbooks into the predawn hours. My eyes would hardly stay open and conversing intelligibly became a challenge. But, I can say that I finished, and that makes all the difference.

A huge thank you to Rebecca Guay, the IMC staff, and the faculty for building an awesome week of learning that is like no other. I’m still trying to process everything I learned and experienced and will be thinking of this week for a long time to come. If you’re curious about the IMC, the best way to learn about it is to just go. For years, I was on the fence about whether it was worth the investment and whenever I asked alumni from the IMC about their experience, they told me I just needed to go. Now I’m saying it, too!

End of an Era

“Vaudie III, 11 by 14 inches, oils on canvas”

Painting models from life is a precious thing. Over the years, I’ve learned just how rare it is to find a painting group that meets on a weekly basis. Several things must converge: a studio space large enough to hold several artists needs to be available (no easy thing in the Bay Area), professional models need to be willing to sit for long periods, a chief organizer needs to wrangle said models and artists together, and schedules need to be available that permit for said wrangling. It also helps if everyone gets along too!

I am leaving one such precious group with a move from the big city to a rural town. As such, “Vaudie III” has a tinge of melancholy. The painting group that I’ve been a part of for about a year and half will be sorely missed.

Vaudie I

Vaudie II

Over time, we painted the same models on several different occasions. As my skills improved, I also got better at recognizing the shapes in these people’s faces. It was truly an revelatory experience, and having the same fellow painters to share it with only built upon on our camaraderie.

While I’m blue at having to leave this club behind, I’m also extremely excited for a new development: a home studio!

It’s still under construction, so it’s a bit of a mess at the moment. I simply cannot wait until I get to move in completely and make it mine. It’s part of a remodeling project that I have been working on with the help of friends and family. The project has been all consuming, but I’m sure the final product will be well worth the time and energy we’ve been pouring into it.

I’ll miss you, painting group. This room will become the new home of my artistic adventure. So many developments are racing along that it’s hard to keep track of them all. I hope to document them here in greater detail in the coming months!

100.100.100

“Kappa Night Raid”, 10 inches by 10 inches

I was invited to participate in a group exhibition at Sketchpad Gallery in San Francisco, titled “100.100.100”. The theme of the show was simple: 100 artists, each creating a single piece at 10″ by 10″, or 100 square inches.

It was a packed evening! 100 artists plus their friends is basically a party waiting to happen. I decided to continue exploring a fantasy world of my own creation with my piece, starring a race of turtle-humanoids inspired by a creature from Japanese mythology called the Kappa.

Tough, feisty and resourceful, the Kappa have evolved from their roots as peaceful sea turtles to become feared pirates, conniving merchants and wealthy smugglers on the high seas. Painting these guys was super fun and they clearly piqued people’s imaginations. I may just have to paint them again!

For more information about Sketchpad and the show, check them out here!

 

Infected by Art Volume 5

Forbideen Knowledge, 28″ by 21″

I’m pleased to announce that my painting “Forbidden Knowledge” was accepted for inclusion in the annual art competition Infected by Art, Volume 5! What is most interesting about this is that Forbidden Knowledge is actually a paint over of a canvas I originally conceived four years ago, titled “Sage.” For a look in the way back machine, you can even see the original post I wrote when I originally completed the piece here.

The first time around, I received a positive reception from people who liked “Sage”. The composition was strong and the storytelling aspect was clear. But, two things in the painting were seriously lacking in overall execution. They happen to be the most challenging elements of a figurative painting: heads and hands.

I chose a pose for this character that had writhing hands, spiderlike and villainous. One of the reasons hands are so hard is that they have a multitude of planes that wrap around the digits and the flesh of the palm, resulting in an incredibly complicated (and beautiful) piece of anatomy. Looking back at my original painting, I can see I clearly struggled with the overlapping nature of this hand pose. It doesn’t feel like there are any bones in those fingers.

The left hand was even trickier. As I repainted it I was able to appreciate just how nuanced a foreshortened hand really is. The first painting looks like a painted drawing: lots of unfinished linework and an overall lack of volume.

Finally, the face got a serious makeover. Unlike the hands, the way in which I handled the features is basically correct on the original version. The main problem lay in the brushwork and values. Too much contrast resulted in a flat looking portrait and the shadows lack depth. Also, faces just require a tighter control of individual strokes. We pay way more attention to faces than almost anything else in a picture so they demand a higher degree of finish.

I touched many other aspects of the original painting as well: the wineglass and the candles especially. Going back to an old piece is actually very rare for me as I have a tendency to be obsessed with my latest idea. In this case, it was extremely enlightening. It showed just how much we artists have our blinders on. Trying to see your own weaknesses is like attempting to peer around the edge of the cascade created by two mirrors reflecting each other. Only time and the valuable opinions of other eyes can reveal the glaring faults that we are too close to see!

Illuxcon 9

My booth at Illuxcon 8!

My booth at Illuxcon 8!

In one week, I will be touching down in Pennsylvania for Illuxcon 9. I couldn’t be more excited! Last year was so much fun. I am very much looking forward to reuniting with the fantasy illustration tribe in the convention’s new location at Goggleworks Center for the Arts in Reading, PA.

Preparation for Illuxcon 9 has been intense. I am bringing more artwork this time and have carefully measured out my booth dimensions to make sure everything just barely fits. Here are some new works that will be on display and available for sale:

Forbideen Knowledge, 28" by 21"

Forbideen Knowledge, 28″ by 21″

Gorp Scream-Bringer, 20" by 16"

Gorp Scream-Bringer, 20″ by 16″

The Necromancer's Return - 18" by 24"

The Necromancer’s Return – 18″ by 24″

Dana & Goliath - 24" by 18"

Dana & Goliath – 24″ by 18″

Twisted Fellowship - 20" by 16"

Twisted Fellowship – 20″ by 16″

I will also be exhibiting a brand new series of miniature paintings, featuring castles inspired by recent travels in Europe. Below are three completed pieces of the series thus far. I like to think of this series as a postcard memento to a long forgotten age 🙂

Camelot, 6" by 4"

Camelot – 6″ by 4″

Fortitude - 6" by 4"

Fortitude – 6″ by 4″

Wanderer - 6" by 4"

Wanderer – 6″ by 4″

wanderer_mc_scale

The Beauty of Ruins

"Koknese Castle Ruins" by Juljis Feders, 1904.

“Koknese Castle Ruins” by Juljis Feders, 1904.

I returned to Latvia a second time this year and was entranced by the glorious castle ruins there yet again.This time, I had a chance to visit the Latvian National Museum of Art and was delightfully surprised to find that Latvian artists from the past had also painted the same exact ruins that I have become enamored with.

Wall piece from the Latvian National Museum of Art. Artist unknown.

Wall piece from the Latvian National Museum of Art. Artist unknown.

Here are the ruins of Koknese castle again in a much moodier, darker composition. Two very different takes on the same location!

"Timebound" by Colin Nitta, 2015.

“Timebound” by Colin Nitta, 2015.

My painting inspired by Koknese, “Timebound” is from a different vantage point, though certain elements can be recognized such as the central wall piece that juts up between the left and right wall ruins. It’s interesting to note that when the Latvian artists painted Koknese, they were working at a time when the landscape was totally different. At that time, Koknese was on a hill overlooking the surrounding landscape. My version of Koknese has water right up to the castle’s edge with no change in elevation (just ignore the big alien planet and the ship in mine, for now). Why the difference?

The answer is the occupation of Latvia by the Soviet Union from 1940-1989. During that time, hydroelectric stations in this area were built to supply power to nearby cities and in the process, they dammed up rivers. This caused the water level to rise greatly, so that the Koknese we know today has water right up to its edge, whereas in 1904 when Juljis Feders painted it, the water was much further down below. Painting from his vantage point made a lot more sense at the time; Koknese looks truly fantastic up there on it’s hill. That kind of composition is catnip for artists.

These differences make a huge impact on the castle’s relation to the surrounding landscape. I can only imagine what Koknese must have been like in the year 1200 when it was not a ruin but a real fortress on a high hill overlooking the surrounding territory. It must have been truly awesome back then! There is a great deal of myth and wonder surrounding these old ruins. So much narrative power lies in a pile of old moss covered stones. A year ago, I thought I might be tired of castles and ruins by now, but I can see that I’ve only just begun to explore these enchanting places in my work.

"Cesis West Tower".

“Cesis West Tower”.

"Dobele Spire"

“Dobele Spire”

Color Charts

palette2_8-22-15

Color mixing: the bread and butter of painting. Carpenters cut wood. Welders work with metal. Painters mix paint.

I finished a complete color chart of my current palette a few weeks ago and have been meaning to write a post about the process. It was funny for a little while – people would ask me what I was working on in my studio, and I would answer, “Mixing paint. Making color charts.” It sounded silly – why wasn’t I working on some epic new portfolio piece featuring my usual cast of fantasy characters? Well, making these color charts has actually become one of the most useful tools in my studio, so much so that I now reference them almost every painting session. Here’s a breakdown of what makes them so integral to my practice.

All 12 charts, on my studio wall for easy reference.

All 12 charts on my studio wall for easy reference.

Having all the charts behind me as I paint is incredibly useful. When trying to get a particular hue, I often would spend a lot of time mixing different colors on my palette, basically guessing until I found something that sort of worked for what I wanted. While mixing paint this way is very meditative and calming, it’s not particularly fast. Now when I’m stumped to figure out what I need, I simply glance behind me – and most of the time I can find what I’m looking for. How does this work?

tube-colors-plus-white_full

The mother color chart – every pure tube color, plus white.

I won’t take credit for this process – that would go to Richard Schmid, painter and author of Alla Prima. His technique regarding color was my inspiration for this entire project, so if you’re interested, the best way to do it yourself is to pick up a copy of his book.

The first step is to take all the colors in your current palette and mix them out to gradations of white, establishing a stepped scale of tints. Step 1 is the color straight from the tube – easy. Steps 2-5 are successive mixtures of Titanium White added to the color in a steadily lightening gradation, with Step 5 being the very lightest.

It immediately becomes obvious that as colors are lightened with white, they actually get much cooler in tone. The lightest tints are very cool. While I already knew this basic concept of mixing, having it so readily demonstrated is a great reminder of what white actually does. The cooling effect is subtle in the lower gradations, but it always happens.

The child palette. A specific color is mixed with every other color.

The child color chart for Cadmium Yellow Medium. A specific color is mixed with every other color in the palette.

The next step is to go through the palette and mix what I call the “children” charts. The above chart is for Cadmium Yellow Medium. For each column, Cadmium Yellow Medium is mixed with every other color in the palette with Cadmium Yellow Medium “predominating” in hue. Predominating means that the mixture is not overwhelmed by the other color – so the first mixture of Cadmium Yellow Medium and Radiant Lemon has more Cadmium Yellow Medium than Radiant Lemon, allowing its basic qualities to be the main hue in the mixture.

Next, that mixture is again gradated out with Titanium White, from steps 1-5 the same as was done for the mother chart. By repeating this tinting process, it becomes evident where the color mixtures have the greatest amount of individuality, right around steps 2-3 in hue. By the time it gets to step 5, the hue is so light that differences in mixtures are very subtle.

It was actually quite time consuming to get those stepped gradations just right. But once it’s all finished, the amount of information regarding color is astonishing. The chart above basically unlocks all the possible combinations of Cadmium Yellow Medium in two color mixtures plus white. This is incredibly useful information!

adsf

The child color chart for Radiant Lemon.

I won’t discuss every child color chart in depth. Even I know that would get dull. But just look at the difference between the Cadmium Yellow Medium and Radiant Lemon child color charts. Both colors are yellow in hue. Cadmium Yellow packs an intense, warm punchy hue. In contrast, Radiant Lemon is so light and cool that its practically almost white when it is squeezed from the tube. It’s much more pastel in hue. There’s a reason why Cadmium Yellow Medium costs twice as much at the art store – just look how much more literal color there is in those mixtures!

Was this project worth it? Definitely. Each chart took me around 2.5 hours, so with all the panel prepping, taping and mixing, the project probably took around 32 hours. Now though, I have a complete guide for every color I use. Eventually, the time I’ve spent will be regained when I’ve eliminated the guesswork while trying to mix a particular color on my palette. If you’re curious, the rest of my charts are below. I highly suggest mixing your own. The investment is worth it!

yellow-ochre_full

cad-red-med_full

transparent-brown-oxide_full

quinacridone-magenta_full

alizarin-crimson_full

viridian_full

cobalt-blue_full

ultramarine-blue_fullcerulean-blue_full

How to Build a Painting Rack

I recently constructed  a painting rack for my studio where my work can dry above the ground. Since I work on canvas mounted to gator board panels, I needed an easy way to store them without stacking them directly on top of each other where paintings could smudge or scratch each other. It was actually pretty easy and only took an afternoon. Here’s how I did it:

IMG_0007

I started with some reclaimed wood and measured it to be 12″ in width. Most of my work is around the 11″ by 14″ range to 18″ by 24″ range, so 12″ on the bottom was going to be the minimum I would need to be able to stack work onto the shelf and allow some overhang without it falling off. Next, I measured six intervals, and then used a hand saw to cut grooves into the wood.

IMG_0009

It was a crude job, but good enough. I just need the grooves to be deep and wide enough to fit some 1/8″ plexiglass dividers.

IMG_0011

Next, I scored plexiglass into 12″ right triangles and set them into the grooves. All that’s needed to keep them in place is a line of wood glue where each divider is placed. I like plexiglass because its durable and the transparent effect is nice too when I’m looking at paintings in a row.

The two sides of the rack, installed.

The two sides of the rack, installed.

I repeated this process again for a second rack. As you can see here, this wall in my studio has a dividing bit of molding, so in order to effectively use the space the rack goes on both sides of the molding. I have a very small studio, so I try to use every available bit of room.

IMG_0016

The rack in action!

The rack can actually hold quite a few paintings at once. Looking back, there is one design change I might make. The plexiglass dividers could use a bit more total area. As they are right triangles, there is actually not much that the paintings lean and the can tip to one side easily when bumped or jostled. I think I may use larger dividers in the future that do not come to a perfect right triangle but instead are larger trapezoidal shapes. This would give more structure to the dividers and the paintings wouldn’t be knocked around quite so easily. Even so, it’s a good solution – my work is off the dirty floor and I can see it all in one glance. A big improvement from stacks of panels on top of each other, leaning against the wall!

The Making of “Guardian”

Guardian - 24" by 18"

Guardian – 24″ by 18″

My latest painting, “Guardian” was a new exploration into character and environment. For me, the setting is akin to another character in an ongoing story, rather than a simple backdrop that plays second fiddle. I went through a lot of mockups to figure out how to best interweave these two elements and spent a whole day just sketching for this piece.

refcomp

Mocked up Photoshop reference collage.

With this piece, I actually started working with existing pieces of reference in Photoshop first and then made a sketch of them afterwards. For some artists, this is a no-no; they would advise starting ideas with rough sketches straight from the imagination first, then shooting reference to match those, whereas this process is the reverse. I don’t actually think there is anything wrong with starting with photo reference first. I “sketch” just as much in Photoshop, grabbing pieces from photos that I need and throwing out what I don’t need, and arranging the elements as I see fit. A lot of editorializing goes on and I try to avoid being a slave to the existing images.

I actually visualized this piece having smoke plumes in the background at first. I thought an extra element of drama and narrative was needed – perhaps a disaster on the edge of the tranquil forest that our guardian satyr is the first to witness. As I painted the piece, I realized it wasn’t necessary. Still have that itch to paint some far off smoke plumes though – I think I tackle that in another painting.

satyr-study-5-2-16

Satyr study.

I then made a final drawing of the assembled reference collage. Getting the satyr hooves to look convincing was by far the toughest part. My reference image was great for the hair on the thighs (a handy thing, those hair pants), but I still needed to figure out how to get the hooves to look like they were capable of bearing weight. A lot of goat images via Google helped out, and the horns of the Nubian Ibex provided inspiration as well.

Sequential progress, from left to right.

Sequential progress, from left to right.

Keith Parkinson Changling War

“Changeling War” by Keith Parkinson.

I don’t have a lot of progress images with this piece, but a few of them here illustrate my thought process. I wasn’t sure at first how to resolve the tree – you can see that at first, I left a lot more detail in the branches in the first progress image on the upper left. They were too distracting though, and I realized the tree needed to lead the viewer’s eye to the satyr and provide a sort of “border”. Sometimes, a painting from another artist can help – in this case, I consulted a cover painting by the late illustrator Keith Parkinson, “Changeling War.”

Keith has done a great job in directing the viewer’s eye. The tree needed to lay back for cover text to go on top, and this works to lead the overall composition to the young warrior interacting with the man inside the tree. I took a note of that – and, admittedly, the purple flowers too. Purple is just a great compliment to green! Looking back, I can see how one might even think I started my painting with “Changeling War” in mind. I swear, I didn’t. I just happened to find it in an art book and realized Keith was facing many of the same problems I was having.

guardian_zoom

I think “Guardian” maybe be one of my favorite character portraits so far. I love taking old archetypes and recasting them in new and interesting ways. Creatures from Greek mythology are so iconic that they can be reused in almost any way. Medusa, you’re next! (maybe)

New Portraits from Life

evan

“Evan”, 11 inches by 14 inches

I’ve been continuing my practice of painting portraits from the model at a weekly session with some friends in Oakland. Every 4 hour session is a new chance to try something new and I am finally beginning to see some improvement since last fall when I started attending. There is something about the air of a group of painters in a room, trying valiantly to capture the visual phenomena that lies before them. Its a great feeling of camaraderie, one that I look forward to every week. Enjoy!

annabelle

“Annabelle”, 16 inches by 12 inches

 

kawena

“Kawena”, 11 inches by 14 inches

"Anjuli," 16 by 12 inches

“Anjuli,” 16 by 12 inches

mia-2-framed-3-19-16

“Mia II”, 11 inches by 14 inches.