The Making of “Wrong Turn”

Wrong Turn – 43″ by 24″

Every now and then, I decide to take a big leap forward with a new painting. “Wrong Turn,” is definitely one of the biggest leaps yet. As 43″ inches wide, this painting is one of the largest, most complex compositions I’ve attempted in recent years.

Basic value study.

Very early in conceptualizing this piece, I knew that I had to nail the values exactly if I wanted to convey the amount of complexity inherent in the scene. I forced myself to only think in two dimensions: shape and value. The plethora of details would come later – first I had to build a solid foundation.

Perspective study in Google Sketchup

Figuring out the perspective in Google Sketchup also started early in the process. I figured out that I wanted a dramatic, low angle, with the foreground villains literally towering over their victims. This “worms eye view” is tricky to pull off if you’re not sure how large each figure is in relation to the others. Sketchup is an invaluable tool when it comes to getting mathematical accuracy. Of course, the models themselves are really just reference points for scale – it’s absolutely useless for finer points like lighting and texture.

Finding my inner bandit.

I must have shot hundreds of reference photos for this piece. Figuring out how to mock up the crossbow was tricky. It turns out that taping a wooden clothes hanger to a BB gun was the ticket.

Again, Google Sketchup proved itself for details on the crossbows. My MacGyver’d version made from the BB gun and clothes hanger provided just enough light and shadow information, while the Sketchup model showed me how the arms of the crossbow curve in space when viewed from a low angle. I think this sort of solution is one that often evaded me when I was a younger illustrator. For this situation in the past, I used to assume that I just had to buy a crossbow off eBay, or there couldn’t be any crossbows in my work. If you can solve the puzzle of light and shadow with a crude physical model, then often a digital Sketchup model will provide the missing details, and you can basically paint any object in this way.

El supremo bandito – the first solid drawing.

I knew that the foremost bandit had to be dead on. I spent the most time drawing his figure before looking at anything else. Tinkering with details in this drawing stage is one of my favorite parts. I think I laughed out loud (alone in my studio, like a weirdo) when I came up with the idea of a crossbow bolt harness attached to his bootstrap.

Vice Bandit.

The fallen guard. Working digitally now.

In this sketching process, I always start out with pencil and paper, and slowly migrate into the computer with digital tools. Pencil is where I do all my tough thinking. When I’m feeling more confident with the direction things are going, I pull the sketches into the computer and start drawing supporting elements in that medium, moving layers around and adjusting the composition. I’m not sure why I do it this way – maybe the physical tug of the graphite on paper is a soothing presence in those dicey early stages when I’m not feeling as sure of my direction. For this reason, I almost never draw my thumbnails digitally. I’ve tried it before, but it just makes me anxious, and I tend to abuse the all too available eraser tool when working on digital thumbs.

Final drawing with values added.

At last, after all the preliminaries I make a final drawing and really nail those values. Over and over again, I revisited this until I was sure I had something that really worked. It served as my roadmap for all decisions going forward.

Digital color studies.

I knew that I wanted one color to support all the others in the image that would result in a stark, high contrast painting. Magneta ended up grabbing the most of my attention, and once I had that decision made, I consulted my handy color chart for the rest of the supporting cast.

I already wrote a post on color charts a while back. These things are so awesome. Every painter should make them. Nuf’ said.

I try to make a habit of shooting a photo of my painting after every significant painting session. It helps me see the choices I make as I go through a piece, as well as spotlighting the blatant mistakes that get corrected later. One of these that you can see in the GIF above is the change in the merchant woman.

Realizing where I went wrong – the purple is a digital redrawing over a photo of my in progress painting.

I remember painting and repainting her face, thinking that I just needed to get the expression right. I remember wanting to throw my brushes at the wall when I realized it wasn’t just her expression… it was everything. The torso was totally off kilter from the rest of the body, making her look stiff and doll like. The fingers were weirdly fused together, and the clothing looked fake. I wiped off the wasted paint from my canvas, and set to redrawing her completely. It was painful, but worth it. The new figure was so much stronger I could hardly believe I had ever accepted the first rendition.

A first pass on the crystals.

Another thing that threw me for a loop were the scattered crystals on the ground. Near the final stages of the painting, I showed the work to a friend who commented that the crystals didn’t look believable enough. She was right. Although I had looked at plenty of reference images of crystals, they seemed flat and non-dimensional.

Ah… that’s the sparkle we want!

A trip to a craft store solved this conundrum. I realized I needed actual shiny blue crystals in the dirt, reflecting the midday sun. I found a package of cheap plastic and glass beads, crushed them with a hammer and tossed them on the ground.  The real trick turned out to be getting them wet before I took a photo. They gleamed much brighter with beads of moisture bouncing the light in a glittering pattern.

So shiny…

These little details are actually what make illustration so much more fun. There’s a real thrill of discovery to figuring out that cheap plastic beads can be made to look like precious gemstones with the right methods.

The hardest thing about this piece was not rushing myself. It took me so much longer than usual that I started to get antsy when I looked at it after week five of the same canvas being on my easel. The last stage of asking friends for critique was the hardest – I didn’t want to even think about it anymore, but the feedback I got was so important it could not be ignored. Now that “Wrong Turn” has finally left my gaze, I can think about framing it for the Illuxcon Convention in Reading PA in October. I can’t wait to show people this baby in person!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

The Making of “Dana & Goliath”

Dana & Goliath - 24" by 18"

Dana & Goliath – 24″ by 18″

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Initial thumbnail sketches.

I promised a “making of” post for “Dana & Goliath” a little while ago – so here it is!

When I have a germ of a narrative idea for an illustration in my head, I always start out with very loose thumbs to establish a super basic composition. My sketchbook typically gets covered in scrawls that look very much like the above. I really wanted a strong gesture in the halfling swashbuckler as she defeats the ogre tyrant, and I finally landed on a sort of leaping, triumphant gesture that hit what I was looking for.

Digital grayscale value study.

Digital grayscale value study.

As this piece was turning into a pretty complex scene, I decided to fully flesh out a grayscale value study to really nail the parts where I wanted the most visual emphasis and establish elements that needed to fall back as supporting elements. I didn’t use to do this sort of preparatory work, but I’ve realized that it is a huge time saver on a piece like this. Working digitally lets me really tweak the contrast as much as necessary, and one of my favorite tricks is zooming way, way out on the piece to see if it still reads properly. The is a great test to see if a composition is working – if you can’t differentiate the major shapes at the size of a postage stamp, chances are it still won’t work when it’s enlarged to a double page spread.

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Still works!

Next step - shooting photo reference.

Next step – shooting photo reference.

All told, I used about 15 different photos that I composited together for the entire image. Some are just images I pull from online sources for a quick reference on how a rapier sword handle looks, or to how an aged wood barrel appears. I don’t copy these verbatim, but rather just look at them for quick notes on texture and form. Other references are much more literal, like the figures and also the castle interior itself.

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Its a little hard to tell here but this is a model constructed from gator board and drawing paper to get the proper perspective for the castle interior. I wanted the look of a medieval wine cellar, and this called for rough masonry walls and paved stone floors. Getting all those bricks in perspective was a tricky prospect, especially when they were so obscured by all the various objects in the room. The best solution turned out to be a physical model because I could control the lighting very easily. Some artists prefer 3D software like Maya for this, but I like getting crafty – it’s super fun and feels like I am really building an actual space.

Final sketch before painting.

Final sketch before painting.

After compositing all the reference together in Photoshop, I made a final drawing to really get details established. I didn’t bother with values because I had already established those in my earlier value study, and was mainly focusing on accurate proportions and proper perspective.

When I finally transferred this drawing to the board, I had almost already painted it in my mind because I had done so much preparatory work. That may sound bold but its how I actually feel sometimes when a piece requires this much reference shooting and model building. I worked on “Dana & Goliath” on and off over a period of three weeks in between other projects, and solid 20% of that was just the prep work.
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From sketch to final.

From sketch to final.

I hope you enjoyed this “Making Of” post as much as I enjoyed painting “Dana & Goliath”!

The Making of “Summertime”

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“Summertime” on display at the 97th Independence Day Celebration this past weekend at the Latvian Hall in Los Angeles.

I recently finished a painting inspired by traditional Latvian folkwear, titled “Summertime”. Many people responded positively to this piece at an popup show in LA this past weekend, so I thought it would be a great piece for a “Making Of” post.

With “Summertime”, I actually started by shooting a model in various poses before settling on any one particular idea. I knew from the outset that I wanted to paint a portrait that was inspired by traditional Latvian folkwear, but wasn’t sure on what potential pose would work the best for the concept. Dzoanna, the model and I had never worked together so I didn’t have a good idea of her character. I decided to let the photo session lead to a pose naturally instead of coming with a preconfigured idea of how I wanted her to look.

Luckily for me, Dzoanna did a great job and gave me a number of wonderful poses to work from. I went with the fourth photo but any of the previous three could have worked as well.

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I then used a grid process to draw the photo reference from my computer onto a 12″ by 16″ piece of sketch paper. Gridding is a common transfer method and I like it for a few reasons – it helps to keep the drawing proportions accurate and also forces me to pay attention to every individual gridded section of the piece. It’s very simple – by using a grid that’s overlaid on top of the photo, I simply match up the grid sections that in equal number and proportion on a piece of sketch paper, and then copy them by hand.

I find that I don’t ignore the random folds and drapery as much in favor of juicier areas like the face and hands when I use a grid method. It’s a little more laborious than other methods but I like the observation that it forces.

Underpainting stage.

Underpainting stage.

First layer of colors.

First layer of colors.

Second layer - focusing on primary elements like the face, hands, and also the background around the figure.

Second layer – focusing on primary elements like the face, hands, and also the background around the figure.

Adding refinements - pattern on sleeve, pattern on skirt hem, flowers. Another pass on the face and corrections to the hands.

Adding refinements – pattern on sleeve, pattern on skirt hem, flowers. Another pass on the face and corrections to the hands.

I believe this took around 4-5 sessions to complete. After I have the painting transferred, the process is a number of passes that go from an underpainting to successive layers of mostly opaque paints. I don’t use a lot of turpentine at all, and linseed oil is mostly reserved for the later refinements. I try to let the paint really handle the job and have been trying to avoid thinning it overmuch or using a lot of washes. This avoids both over-refining and lets me finish the painting in a relatively short period.

Summertime - 16" by 20"

Summertime – 16″ by 20″

Finally, the piece comes together as a finish and it’s ready to display. I had a fun time with the beautiful patterns on the sleeves and decided to break out of my normally quite somber range of colors with a burst of summer flowers that complement the bold palette of the skirt and sleeves. Weirdly enough, I am happiest with how the black skirt turned out. Black clothes are always a challenge, but I think this is the first time I’ve ever managed to paint them convincingly. Bring it on, black! I hope you enjoyed this post, stay tuned for more like these in the future 🙂

The Making of “Supernatural Disaster 5”

Supernatural Disaster 5 - for an ongoing project, copyright Centipede Press, 2015.

Supernatural Disaster 5 – for an ongoing project, copyright Centipede Press, 2015.

I was recently given permission to post some additional work from an ongoing project called “Supernatural Disaster.” I’ve been working on this project for some time now with the publisher Centipede Press. I can’t say much about it at the moment, but a first release should be coming soon. Big thanks to art director Jerad Walters for the project!

This piece called for some very evil trees, reminiscent of those found in The Wizard of Oz. Before making any sketches, I like to do my research. In particular, I studied this clip carefully:

What really seems to make these trees so eerie is their very human expressions, as well as the feeling that they are constantly watching. I think the idea that you can’t get away from a menacing presence that seems to watch your every move gets to a very primal sense of horror. It became clear that I needed to have a few evil trees in the scene, to show this sense of being surrounded and unable to escape.

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After studying the clip, I began brainstorming and coming up with ideas for the illustration. In addition to the trees, I needed to include a priest character fighting them off with a bible and a vial of holy water. At first, it was a challenge to figure out how exactly I should communicate visually that the water was a kind of weapon. I eventually figured out that holy water is typically carried in a bottle with a cross at the top, and it became clear that this would definitely say “holy water” more than anything else.

I always try to send at least three sketches to the art director with the hope that at least one of the three has a chance of being a decent idea.  After the second sketch was approved, I moved on the fun part – shooting reference!

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For the evil tree, super sculpey turned out to be the perfect material to get the reference I needed. I loved working with this stuff and had a ton of fun carving the sculpey into the perfect expression of twisted malevolence.

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After getting the tree just right, I hire the nearest model (myself) for the priest character and spend hours getting into character and hunting down all the proper priestly vestments, props and accessories. (Actually, any old book, liquor bottle and a dress shirt will do.) I overlay the reference on top of my sketch in photoshop and then it’s just a matter of matching up the different pieces to create a pleasing composition.

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Then it’s time for the final sketch. I try to always take time for this step, even if the reference is really solid. I find that I always add or discard information, so a final sketch is key to figuring out how it’s actually going to be painted.

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After all the preliminary steps, it’s just a matter of painting the final and sort of just feels like “filling in”. I had the most fun with getting the tree’s texture just right and used the palette knife to give it a rough, gnarled surface. There is a certain pleasure in scraping the paint onto the canvas that I just can’t get in any other media… I suppose this is why oil paint, despite it’s cumbersome set-up, expensive material cost, dangerous fumes and long drying time, is still my weapon of choice. I guess I have to learn to love it, because I definitely can’t let it go!

I hope you enjoyed my latest “making of” post! Thanks for looking 🙂

The Making of “English Magic”

englishmagic_featured

I finished my latest personal work, “English Magic” almost two weeks ago, but I’ve been so busy it’s taken me a while to write a process post. This piece was definitely one of my most ambitious portfolio pieces to date, with a lot of meticulous detail. I set out to create a piece that inspired wonder, and while I’m not quite sure if I managed to achieve that, I think that it does make the eye linger.

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“English Magic” was largely inspired by the book Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. The book is a 19th century alternate history fantasy in which magic is being restored to England during the Napoleonic era by “magicians”. One of my favorite aspects of the story was that these magicians either learned magic from other magicians before them, or from books. In other words, magic is just a very complicated sort of trade anyone can learn (given they are clever enough), rather than some kind of mystical force that resides within certain individuals and not others. The main characters learn magic chiefly from old books, and their personal journeys of academic discovery lead them to learning new spells and opening portals to other worlds.

I wanted to emphasize this feeling of discovery in “English Magic.” My chief aim was to show a wizard buried in his work, oblivious to an entire world of magic unfolds around him. I spent a good two weeks on this one, in between other projects, working on all the various elements of the piece. It occurred to me that it was really like two paintings in one, which explains why it took me so long. The green upper half was basically an entirely different palette and I found myself working on it in sessions separately from the lower half of the library scene.

I was the lead model on the reference shoot, unsurprisingly. A trench coat stood in nicely for the jacket style of the period. Although I'm crouching at a coffee table in this shot, you really can't tell once I drop in the easy chair behind me.

I was the lead model on the reference shoot, unsurprisingly. A trench coat stood in nicely for the jacket style of the period. Although I’m crouching at a coffee table in this shot, you really can’t tell once I dropped in the wingback chair.

Again, Google Sketchup was invaluable in creating a perspective layout to base the library scene off of. It's super basic but it gave me all the information I needed to make sure the scene was convincing.

Again, Google Sketchup was invaluable in creating a perspective layout to base the library scene off of. It’s super basic but it gave me all the information I needed to make sure the scene was convincing.

Here is an initial compositional sketch I created for the illustration. I had it in mind to mock it up in a book cover style, as though it was an alternate cover for the actual book. To this end, I made an attempt to leave extra space for type, although for an actual cover I'd probably need to leave even more. Oh, type- the bane of illustrators!

Here is an initial compositional sketch I created for the illustration. I had it in mind to mock it up in a book cover style, as though it was an alternate cover for the actual book. To this end, I made an attempt to leave extra space for type, although for an actual cover I’d probably need to leave even more. Oh, type- the bane of illustrators!

The above progress image is from around halfway through the painting. I was struggling with rendering the dancing figures in the middle section of the green area. My initial intent was to make them quite painterly and dreamlike, but it just wasn’t working. I think that in order to really sell the magical green world, I needed to make it hyper-real, rather than blurred and indistinct. After all, don’t most dreams feel very real while we are experiencing them? It’s only afterwards that you realize they are a long ways from reality.

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I finally finished the dancers with some more compelling details, and from then on the rest of the painting basically followed suit. Sometimes, there is almost a kind of turning point in a piece, when a decision has to be made: go left or go right. From that point on, the commitment is made and the piece almost finishes itself.

The Making of “Thor”

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I recently finished the eighth deity portrait in my Norse series, “Thor, God of Thunder.” I put off Thor for a while because he is far and away the most popular of all the Norse gods, and the combined forces of Marvel and Hollywood have painted a picture of him that the public has come to recognize as authentic. This version is stoic and handsome. In the original epic poem of the detailing the Norse gods, The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturleson, Thor is depicted as more of a bumbling oaf. He is a god for the common people. It was this version that I most wanted to emulate.
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I ended up studying a lot of professional wrestlers to give him the right sort of swagger. This is the Thor that is boisterous, loudmouthed and full of the bravado that a lot of the contemporary versions of the character seem to miss. I pull most of this general reference off of Google just for the basic feeling of the pose.
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I next develop thumbnails for the silhouette of the figure. These are still super basic, just rough ideas of where I want the picture to go. Because I often discover new possibilities when I shoot the photo reference for the pose, I don’t want to limit myself by making the thumb or rough sketch too detailed.
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My final sketch after shooting reference.
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Here’s the very beginning of the painting, just after I’ve transferrred the sketch to canvas and traced the linework with burnt sienna. It’s still pretty rough at this stage- I hadn’t decided to add his flowing cape yet, but it quickly became clear that it would be essential. Looking back, I can see that I lost some of the energy that was in the final sketch and some things got a bit wonky, like the angle of Thor’s neck and his back. I always aim to identify and fix issues like these when I start painting. It’s a gradual process in which I’m constantly correcting errors and stepping back to make sure everything remains in proportion.
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This is much further along in the painting, about 80% finished. I’ve shifted and corrected the angle of his neck and head, added more girth to the shoulders and made the cape much more prominent, tucking the warhammer behind it in a more natural way.
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And the finish 🙂 I ended up reshooting photo reference for the right hand that is above the belt, which was looking rather unnatural and wooden before. The end result has a lot of the original attitude that I was going for. This portrait ended up being much more of a caricature than the others in the series, although I think I like it for that reason. I hope you enjoyed this latest “Making of” post, thanks for stopping by!

The Making Of “The Mechanic”

I’ve been wanting to beef up my science fiction portfolio for some time now, and “The Mechanic” is one of the first pieces in that genre that I’m genuinely satisfied with. I have a lot of diverse influences and I feel that I managed to meld them successfully with this piece. I’m going to go into more conceptual details with this “Making Of” series as I feel that it is in some ways a more interesting aspect of my work rather than the technical details. Without further ado, here’s how I came up with the idea from the very beginning and fleshed it into a painting.

“The Geographer,” Johannes Vermeer, circa 1668-1669

Like many others, I am a huge fan of Vermeer and am enchanted by his work. There is something timeless and mystical about his incredibly still pictures that are loaded with precisely lit details. One night, while pouring over some art books brainstorming ideas, I came across this particular Vermeer and wondered what a sci-fi interpretation on this picture might look like. I loved the idea of a lone inventor wrapped up in their work, illuminated by the light from their studio window. In some ways, that’s exactly the same pose I often take as an artist, working in my own studio, bent over my easel in a zone of absolute concentration.

I hired a model that also happened to a be a bodybuilder. It turned out to be a perfect match for the character I had in mind :)

I hired a model that also happened to a be a bodybuilder. It turned out to be a perfect match for the character I had in mind 🙂

colinnitta_mechanic_ref_sketch

I knew that I wanted the character to be a different take on the classic inventor/tinkerer sort of stereotype that we’ve seen many times before. Making the character female seemed to turn that archetype on it’s head, and I knew I wanted her to have some grit- more like an auto mechanic in greasy coveralls than a scientist in a white labcoat. As for what she would be working on, it seemed fitting that a half built android be present. Science fiction has approached this idea of humanity building another human and playing God in a myriad of ways. Usually, it’s some secret government project that finally constructs the first robot with complete awareness. I went with more of the “genius in a garage” sort of approach, like Steve Jobs building the first Apple computer out of spare parts. What if the first fully sentient AI is built by some loner in who just happens to find the missing key while they’re messing with some random junk? I liked the idea of that. I did more research than usual as well into this character’s costume and I think that paid off. I looked at a number of steampunk, post-apocalyptic, as well as vintage fashions and combined them all together to create her look. With an illustration like this that is basically a character portrait, it’s very important to have their appearance meld with the narrative at hand. Getting that look “right” really ended up reinforcing the character’s story.

One good example of this is her jewelry. At first, I thought she would have some necklaces and bracelets. As I painted her, it became apparent that it actually made no sense for her to wear a necklace that might get pulled into the gears of some power tool and most modern workshops forbid any kind of loose fitting clothes or jewelry around the neck and arms.

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Another crucial step in this painting were my initial perspective and value studies. Using Google Sketchup is now a standard part of the sketching process for me, especially when I need to lay out man made architecture. The crude little model that I threw together in ten minutes helped greatly to establish vanishing points and give the room a feeling of depth and realism. I started my value study with this perspective study, laid on light and shadow, dropped in my character sketch and added the robot. It made for a super detailed plan for the painting and althoguh I ended up lightening it a lot, gave me a good road map for the lights and darks.

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From there, I spent about a week in the studio painting it from start to finish. I painted everything in oils, except for the drawings of the robot plans that are on the wall behind the mechanic. I knew that those tiny little lines would be nearly impossible for me to paint in even with a single haired brush and being able to adjust the drawings to fit around the character digitally ended up saving a ton of time.

"The Mechanic," oils and digital, 20 inches by 14 inches.

“The Mechanic,” oils and digital, 20 inches by 14 inches.

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And there’s the finish! I had a lot of fun painting in all the tools and spare parts on the work table. Vermeer fits these miniature still lifes into his work, like beautiful water jugs and tiny boxes of colored threads. I really wanted to imitate that feeling of a life captured in delicate objects. Well, as delicate as nuts, bolts and robot hardware can be, anyway. I know I am nowhere near to his work, but hey- you gotta have a goal to shoot for, right?

The Making of “Skadi”

 

The first seven portraits in "Tales of the Æsir."

The first seven portraits in “Tales of the Æsir.”

I’ve recently finished the latest painting in my Norse portrait series of a winter goddess named “Skadi.” She’s more obscure than the other characters in the Norse pantheon but actually has one of the most interesting backstories. I had a lot of fun painting her and enjoyed the challenge of portraying a complex character in a simple composition.

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As usual I started off with a very loose idea of how I wanted to portray her in a series of very rough thumbnail sketches. Because I’m leaving the background white on these images, the silhouette has to be strong and interesting to lead the eye around the picture. Also, I quickly realized with this series that it could easily become a bunch of pictures of “people holding stuff.” As a result, it became important for me to try to inject additional narrative into the piece with the more subtle aspects of posture, expression and costume.

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After I established the pose, I asked a friend to model for me to get the correct photo reference. Skadi is a huntress and I wanted her to be holding a pair of antique wooden skis, similar to the style a hunter in Norway might have used. Since I didn’t have any around I mocked up the shape of them with some fishing poles, and duck taped them together to make them wider and more similar to skis. An old fur coat from a thrift store was perfect for the costume and had just the right texture.

colinnitta_skadi_sketch

My initial sketch dealt with a lot of problem solving right off the bat. Looking at it now, I can see that I was struggling with the facial structure. My model had a lovely cleft chin, but this can very easily look too manly if depicted with a heavy hand. Although Skadi is a huntress, she is by no means a man. This problem came up again during the painting, but the second time around I found ways to soften and subdue those harsh lines. I think sketching is where I usually make all my mistakes, sort of like a trial run. I also ended up tilting the composition more when I transferred the sketch to the canvas, making it much more dynamic and alive.

colinnitta_skadi_prog_fb

This is around the middle of the beginning of the painting after I’ve laid down initial colors over the underpainting. This is where I’ve begun to sort out the issues with her face and add some additional elements that weren’t in the original drawing, such as her deer skull necklace. According to the legends, Skadi is a half-giantess and I wanted to allude to this aspect with the deer skull. If she is wearing that as a necklace- then she’s gotta be huge!

colinnitta_skadi_fb

“Skadi,” 14 inches by 18 inches, oils on canvas.

And here’s the finish! I had the most fun with the textures on this one. I set out with the goal of making every texture in this piece feel alive and I think that at least partially succeeded. The gloves sewn from animal hide are my favorite part. In case you were wondering, the footprint on the ski is a nod to her origin story that involves the choosing of a suitor by his feet. I won’t tell the entire story here but you can read a decent summary at norse-mythology.org

Thanks for stopping by!

The Making of “Two Hunters”

Two Hunters

“Two Hunters,” 24″ by 18″, oils on canvas.

“Two Hunters,” could have gone wrong in any number of ways. I think I steered it clear of most of the pitfalls because I spent A LOT of time planning this one. It started out with a fairly simple idea – that of Comanche warriors riding velociraptors in the desert – and quickly became quite complicated.

Raptor Maquette
Raptor Maquette

The first problem was reference. Where was I going to get reference imagery of velociraptors? As usual, I decided to build a small maquette out of super sculpey wrapped around a wire frame. This turned out to be invaluable- it allowed me to position the creature just so, and I also was able to control the lighting for a nice back lit sunset feeling. This little fella’ helped quite a bit!

Raptor Sketch
Comanche Sketch

I proceeded to make studies of all the figures and tested out the poses. Initially, the angle of the spears were my biggest design challenge. No matter how I positioned them, they ended up making funny tangents with the crossing tails of the raptors. In the end, I positioned each warrior holding his spear vertically- it made for a nice contrast to all the horizontals in the scene with the desert background, and also acts as a subtle framing element. In the sketch of the left warrior, his hand was in a different position at first, but I’m so glad I changed it. Its so critical to eliminate these problems in the drawing phase.

Landscape Reference
Landscape Reference

The last piece was the background. A teacher of mine from art school, Mark Eanes, used to say that he really preferred the term, “ground,” rather than “background.” Background, he argued, was too much of a inferior term, because that part of the picture is very important and often takes up more actual space than the figures. With this particular image, the background really carries the weight of the picture. I wanted it to emanate the calm, cool feeling of a desert evening. My reference was from a recent backpacking trip to the Grand Canyon, and I ended up combining the above two photos for the setting. While the left photo is heavily darkened, it actually captured a really great sense of drama in the sky and the saturated colors. The right photo gave me much more detail for the rocks and dirt in the foreground. Each one had their merits.

Two Hunters

And… then I painted it! Alas, I have no progress photos to show of this one. I was completely in the zone by the time this baby got transferred to canvas and I was halfway through when I realized I hadn’t snapped any photos. That part remains a mystery – can’t reveal all my tricks, can I?