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 🙂

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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?

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