Lethal Reference

I recently needed a double barreled shotgun for an illustration assignment. I could have applied for a permit, taken a gun course and bought the weapon… or I could have built one from scratch! I ended up going with the latter. Building reference props is actually one of my favorite things about illustration. It’s a nice break from the endless cycle of drawing and painting, and I always learn something new.

I often go to reuse and thrift stores when I’m looking to build this sort of thing to buy a base to work from. I was hoping to find a toy gun I could retrofit, but I ended up discovering an old field hockey stick instead. I realized it would be the perfect stock for the shotgun- just about the right size and the curved end kind of feels like the butt of the gun. And only $2.00 too!

From there, it was a simple step of cutting the stick down to size and attaching two cardboard tubes (I had saved them from an old roll of canvas) to serve as the barrels with duct tape. Lastly, I cut some foamcore and attached it on the back to make the butt shape more pronounced. And BANG! There it is! Needless to say, this weapon can’t really hurt anyone unless you tried to whack them over the head with it, and even then the cardboard would probably fall off. But it certainly works to get a correct perspective angle for reference purposes and that’s good enough for me.

Raw materials: a field hockey stick, some leftover cardboard tubes, duct tape and foamcore.

The finished gun.

Good enough for perspective! This sort of prop only needs to have the basic shape to be effective. The rest of the details can be referenced via the web or from books.

One of my favorite reference maquettes from a past project: a rocketship built from dowels, PVC pipe and foamcore.

A more elaborate maquette. I don’t make them this fancy anymore! Takes too much time and its not necessary to get the results I’m looking for in the illustration.

How to Build a Turpentine Exhaust System

Turpentine is truly nasty stuff! Although it’s made from a natural material rather than a chemical compound (it’s made out of the sap from pine trees), it can do serious damage to an oil painter that doesn’t utilize proper ventilation. Turpentine inhaled in large doses can cause severe respiratory, eye and skin disorders. Being aware of its ill side effects, I used to simply keep my door wide open while working in my studio to get a proper airflow going. Problem is, it gets mighty cold in the winter! In an effort to both stay warm and keep myself free of a toxicity overdose, I recently built a turpentine exhaust system in my studio. I’m sure other artists have encountered this problem. Here’s how I solved it:

I built a small table that attaches to my easel where an exhaust duct can sit and suck up all those evil fumes as they evaporate from the turp jar. The duct is attached to the table by a simple clamp, so that it can be released and repositioned if the easel is moved.  Here’s a little in progress still life I’ve been working on for some practice  : )


The duct goes up to the ceiling where it’s attached by some simple hooked wires, and descends to a window fan on the other side. The turpentine fumes never enter the room- they’re sucked out immediately by the exhaust duct and go outside instead.

The window fan is a cheap model I bought at Target. It’s not terribly quiet, but it gets the job done. I may upgrade to a version with a lower hum, but for now I’m happy with it. I got the duct from Home Depot- it’s 8′ of 3″ diameter aluminum, and the piece that’s taped to the window fan is a 3″ to 6″ diameter converter so that the fan can suck out fumes more efficiently. Altogether, I purchased all the supplies necessary for just under $50.00. Take that, evil turpentine fumes!

Princess of Ganymede

Princess of Ganymede

Princess of Ganymede

I’ve finished my latest painting in my loosely science fiction based series of pieces, called “Princess of Ganymede.”


This piece was fairly epic and took a lot of gumption to pull off. Luckily though, I had some great reference that really aided in executing the finish. The stormy landscape was taken directly from a recent backpacking trip through the Eastern Sierras. At the time, I actually witnessed the sun perform one of those rare feats of perfect beams that etch through cloud cover, and I knew I had to get it in a painting.

The front princess character is courtesy of a great model I happen to know who was kind enough to pose for reference for me. I wanted a very charismatic character to pose for the alien princess, and she really typified the kind of face that allowed me to really channel the feelings I wanted to portray.

To streamline the process as I knew the painting could easily become a crazy mess, I sketched up a rough color study in photoshop before shooting any reference. It actually helped a lot in determining the direction the painting would take before I made any big commitments.


Photoshopped color study for the painting, crop marks included.

Here’s a progress GIF that shows the whole thing from start to finish. Thanks for checking it out!


A Blue Experiment


Finished piece, shot on location.

Finished, color-corrected painting, "View from Coyote Hills."

Finished, color-corrected painting, “View from Coyote Hills.”

I recently made a plein air discovery while painting on location in Coyote Hills Regional Park, near the city of Fremont. One of the hardest tricks to pull off while painting a landscape in one sitting is keeping edges and colors clean. As I essentially paint “alla prima,” the painting must be finished in a single session, in usually less than 3 hours. This means every layer of paint is very wet… and maintaining clean, crisp edges is a difficulty, especially when dealing with slippery oils that tend to bleed into each other.

In order to come at this problem from another angle, I decided to start off painting “View from Coyote Hills,” on a canvas that had a blue background instead of the standard white. A clean blue color is the most frequent necessity when painting outdoors, especially if the scene includes sky or water. This particular viewpoint from the top of a hill included both. As evidenced in the first photo, the canvas was basically a sky blue when I started. This allowed me to maintain some super crisp edges on the levees criss-crossing the bay, as well as the foreground elements of the hilltop and the salt forms.

I think I’ll try this again sometime. I have a feeling it could be the perfect thing for nailing a complicated tree with many tiny branches, or to paint telephone wires over a city street.

Thor and the World Serpent

Thor and the World Serpent

Thor and the World Serpent

I have completed my latest painting in my Norse series, “Thor and the World Serpent.” In Snorri Sturluson’s “Prose Edda”, Thor and the giant Hymir embark on a fishing trip. Thor, using the head of an ox as bait, catches Jormungand, the World Serpent on the end of his line. Fearful Hymir cuts Thor’s fishing line before he can slay the monster with his hammer and the serpent escapes to live another day.

I really enjoy the “tall tale,” aspect of this story- who hasn’t heard a famous fish story at some point? Also, being a fisherman myself, I know the feeling when the big one gets away so I can really emphasize with Thor.

This illustration presented a multitude of challenges- an atmospheric setting on the high sea with turbulent waves, complicated perspective in a shifting boat, and a giant sea monster. I knew it was going to be complicated, so I went did some extra preliminary work this time, including a maquette with the serpent and some clay figurine stand ins for Thor and Hymir in a paper boat I crafted out of bristol board.

Line study sketch.

Line study sketch.

Values study- this helped greatly in determining the lighting in the scene for a lightning storm at sea.

Values study- this helped greatly in determining the lighting in the scene for a lightning storm at sea.

Maquette study for determining correct scale and perspective. Placing the figurines in rice nicely simulates objects submerged in water!

Maquette study for determining correct scale and perspective. Placing the figurines in rice nicely simulates objects submerged in water! Thor and Hymir got a little Gumby like but that was OK- they served their purpose.

How to Frame on a Budget

For anyone who’s ever needed to display paintings at a gallery or exposition of some kind, framing is an inevitable problem. Frames are really important- they lend sense of formality to a piece and set it apart from the surroundings in its own space. Nobody ever asks, “is this finished?,” in regards to a framed painting.
Framing is a tricky, though. For an artist like myself working on a tight budget, getting paintings framed at a frame shop is just too expensive, at $100-200 per piece (and those are the smaller ones.) For my most recent show, Spectrum Live, I needed to frame 5 pieces, two of which were around 36″ in their longest dimension. This would have cost me a pretty penny. The solution? Frame it yourself! There are actually not too many tools required, and by reusing old frames you can save money and be ecologically friendly too. Here’s what you need:

Miter box and saw- pretty much the most important tool as this allows you to make a perfect 45 degree cut.
L brackets- what you’ll use to reassemble an old frame.
Eye screws, wire- for hanging the frame on a wall.
Wood glue
Measuring tape
Power drill and bits- this is the most expensive tool needed, but it’s really handy. You can get a cheaper model for around $25, I got this Dewalt a while back for about $55.

Step 1: Find a used frame that you can resize to fit your painting. I found this one at Urban Ore in Berkeley, CA. At any thrift or reuse store, its easy to find plenty of leftover frames from other discarded pictures. A lot of times, the lousiest art has the nicest frames! Obviously, make sure the frame is bigger than your painting so you can cut it down to fit. If you’re lucky enough to find a frame that is the right size exactly, well then there’s no need to read the rest of this tutorial. Most times, though you gotta do some resizing!

The used frame with my painting, “Fire Giant.” Currently, it’s about 4-6 inches too big in both height and width.

Step 2: Measure your painting in comparison with the frame’s dimensions. I flipped the frame over to mark where it needs to match the painting in height and width. This way, I know exactly how far I’ll need to cut it down so the painting fits properly.

Step 3: Break up the frame into two separate halves. Most frames are just stapled at the corners, so once those metal pieces are extracted with a pair of pliers the frame can be easily disassembled. This is usually pretty simple with the gentle tapping of a hammer. Remember to leave two of the joints unbroken, as these can be used as is.

Step 4: Using the miter box as a guide, cut the frame with a 45 degree angle at the places you marked. This is the trickiest part of the whole process. It’s very important to make sure the right angle is cut on each corresponding side so that they can match up when the frame is reassembled.

Step 5: Reassemble the frame at the miter joints using the L brackets. This is where the drill comes in handy to drill pilot holes for the bracket screws into the wood of the frame. I like to mark where the brackets will go with a pencil before drilling the pilot holes. If extra stability is needed after the brackets are affixed, squeeze a little wood glue into the joint.

Drill the pilot holes for the bracket screws.

Screw in the brackets.

The back side of the reassembled frame.

Step 5: Place the painting in the frame! Although its not quite finished, this is when it’s possible to see if the resized frame fits the painting correctly.

Step 6: Keep the painting from falling out the back by hammering nails around it on all four sides of the frame and insert two eye screws so it can be hung with wire.

The back side of the complete, reassembled frame, ready to hang!

“Fire Giant,” finished and hanging in the custom frame. I actually sanded the frame down and added a wood stain to give it a more refined finish. This step is totally optional and was a surface treatment I gave it to mask some scratches and marks the frame originally had.
Well folks, that’s how it’s done! Yes, there is definitely some work and a bit of elbow grease required. I feel, however that it’s well worth the time. I framed all five of my paintings for Spectrum Live for about $120 total in materials costs. Much cheaper than a frame shop, and more fun too!

Composing Digitally

I recently have gotten into the practice of composing my more complicated images digitally before going to paint. I took a page from the book of Jesper Ejsing, an artist I admire who uses this practice to his advantage. The first image is a combination of some drawings I fleshed out with a paper and pencil traditionally, threw into Photoshop, and then arranged with background I sketched in digitally.

I’ve found that this allows me quite a bit more freedom with my composition than trying to sketch the entire drawing on a single piece of paper. There is no hesitation with moving or resizing the disparate elements, no hesitation caused by having to use an eraser to make changes. When I sketched my ideas completely traditionally, I tended to erase and move things so much that the tooth of paper completely died and the eraser dust formed a fine layer on my work surface. Now it’s a clean file on my computer.

I used to really abhor any use of digital methods whatsoever. Of course, this is all preliminary detail- I still have a finished oil painting at the end, the methods I use to get there are just different. My new philosophy is: if it works better, use it!

The Support Question

For a long time, I’ve struggled with a basic technical question when starting a painting: what surface or “support” should I paint on today? There are many options for oil painters, all with their associated pros and cons. Stretched canvas is commonplace, but by no means the only option. I believe I finally found my perfect surface, but it took a lot of searching. I decided to write a little review on my findings, in case there are other painters out there struggling with the same debate. Here it is:

The Classic: stretched canvas

Pros: Stretched canvas is popular for a few reasons. The stretcher bars make for a tight, smooth surface for painting, yet there is still some “give”, where the brush presses into the canvas slightly when making a stroke. Also, there is no need to frame a stretched canvas, as it looks pretty good already hanging on a gallery wall- unframed stretched canvases are pretty commonplace in galleries today.

Cons: Very fragile! If the canvas gets poked or god forbid, pierced by any kind of object the painting is ruined. Also, it’s difficult to store and takes up more space than flat surfaces. Lastly, it takes a lot of time and energy to stretch canvases yourself- buying them premade gets rather pricy as well.

The Rebel: unstretched canvas

Pros: Very simple and easy to set up. Simply tear off a piece of canvas from a roll (I usually buy pre gessoed canvas) and tape it to a board. That’s it. Also stores very easily.

Cons: The fact that it’s unstretched can cause for buckling around the edges, especially if the tape holding it down isn’t very tight.

The Skinny: paper

Pros: Very light and easy to cut into any shape. I used to use Arches Platine, a very thick printmaking paper that could handle a lot of paint pretty well. Stores easily.

Cons: The surface has to be primed with something- I typically used Liquitex matte medium when I used to work on paper. Sometimes the paper buckles when it couldn’t handle the water in the priming mixture- this was a problem occasionally. Also, Arches Platine is no longer manufactured- last I checked- so this paper may not be available any more.

The Optimal: canvas mounted on gator board

Pros: Gator board is a building material often used by movie studios to build sets. It can be bought at photography supply stores. It’s a fantastic material! Very light, yet incredibly durable. I mount gessoed canvas to it and it makes for a perfectly smooth surface for painting. Also very easy to cut to size with a utility knife. And the 3/16″ size is also pretty easy to store.

Cons: Gator board is kind of expensive. About $50-60 for a 4 foot by 8 foot sheet.

Conclusion: Canvas mounted on the gator board wins! So far, I am the happiest with this particular solution. Even though it is a little costly, I can usually squeeze out about 6 to 8 paintings from a single sheet of gator board. Unless I find something better… (and I just might someday), this is the way to go!

How to Paint an Evil Witch


The seventh piece in my Wizards series, “WITCH” is complete, along with a new “how to” video! It’s a Halloween special! This one was quite enjoyable to paint. I really got into the mood of the environment and the personality of the character. Early on in the conceptual stage, I decided to depart from the traditional wicked witch pointy hat stereotype and go for a classier sorceress. Her raven feather dress ended up really informing the rest of my concept and a Morgan le Fay type of witch evolved, complete with a crystal ball and an oblivious knight. I’m very pleased with the results!

As far the tutorial, my first how to video was a hit, so I figured I’d release this one in the spirit of Halloween. Who doesn’t want to know how to paint an evil witch? Double, double toil and trouble… mix that turpentine and paint away!

How to Paint an Alien Spaceship from Life

I just completed my first tutorial video, titled “How to Paint an Alien Spaceship from Life.” It’s a submission to ArtOrder’s tutorial video challenge, in which art director Jon Schindehette gave out a call for entries for tutorial videos that teach a specific skill. I often build reference models for my illustrations in order to portray imaginary vehicles and creatures, so I thought that a tutorial on this process would be valuable and interesting for anyone who’d like to know more about how I create my images. The above painting that resulted from my video is titled, “VENTRUSCIAN WAR FRIGATE.” Enjoy!