Righting Wrongs

“Wrong Turn”, 43 inches by 24 inches, oils on canvas.

I recently reworked a painting from last year, “Wrong Turn”. Revising old pieces is never as satisfying as starting something new, but I often find that I learn more by the time I’ve finished. This piece was no exception!

Left: The original painting. Right: Original painting with new changes mocked up.

The biggest problem I dealt with in this piece was the two merchant characters who are having a bit of rough day. I showed this piece to some colleagues whose opinions I hold in high regard, and they all said that these characters’ poses were problematic. Too stiff, the proportions are strange and the gestures were not telling a story. I started by completely reworking their poses, and made a quick and dirty mockup in Photoshop of how it would look with those changes.

Maureen O’Hara and James Stewart in “The Rare Breed” (1966)

It can be tough to reimagine a failed painting when it holds a strong precedent in your mind. I needed to brainstorm how I could make those poses stronger, so I turned to some old books on classic Western cinematography. A good Western is all about strong composition and gestures that telegraph emotion. I knew I’d find some gold and pored through the pages looking for a distraught couple and when I came across this image, a light bulb went off in my head!

The shot from “Rare Breed” really got me started because I realized that I could channel the distress of the couple completely through the emotions of the female character. Her husband’s been shot, she’s surrounded by danger on all sides but she’s still desperately trying to protect him. The husband is in his own private world of pain, totally unresponsive and deaf to her cries for help. I quickly put a crossbow quarrel through the heart of my husband character and positioned the wife in a protector role. Now it’s got something going on!

Compare it again to my original painting. These characters are lifeless by comparison. Their poses are oddly symmetrical and their physical separation is not adding to the overall story. At the time, I justified it to myself with the concept that they were frozen by the danger in front of them and powerless to take action. Indeed, they look frozen… and totally devoid of emotion or narrative.

Painting out those old characters made for a dark evening. It’s never fun to erase hours and hours of work but it’s the initial band-aid that has to get ripped off before healing can begin. I then printed out my sketch at the same size as my painting, taped it on and used Saral transfer paper to transfer it to my painting.

Another thing that made this painting difficult with my first pass was the ridiculously tiny scale of the figures. Painting an expressive face the size of a quarter is just really hard. Also, the canvas grain begins to work against the brush at this scale, making tiny detailed strokes harder to achieve. It’s actually a large painting, but these two characters are the smallest in the entire composition so they were the hardest to pull off. When I finally felt satisfied with how the faces were coming along, I took the above photo and posted it to social media with a triumphant caption. Nothing like the encouragement of your peers to keep on going!

I am so much happier with this painting now! As I reworked these characters, I noticed other things that needed fixing, such as details on the wagon, parts of the landscape, etc. Those got a redo as well, but the distressed couple was the lion’s share of the work. Ironically, I decided to leave the painting’s title, “Wrong Turn” the same. My own personal misstep is now a part of the piece but I went back and corrected it the best of my ability, and that has made all the difference.

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!

The Reference Treasure Hunt

Arms and armor at the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, Cambridge MA.

Arms and armor at the Peabody Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

I’ve always loved a good museum trip. Even at a young age when the rest of my classmates raced through exhibits, I was the last one left behind reading every placard. A great exhibit really transports the viewer into the subject matter. Well designed informative exhibits, whether they are about marine life in the Pacific Ocean or the history of Jewish peoples in Poland, equally entrance me.

Like many others, I visit museums most often while traveling. There is always a bit of tension when visiting exhibitions while on holiday in that it’s nearly impossible to see the entirety of the exhibition in the time available. Inevitably, choices must be made as to which exhibitions to appreciate and which to pass up.

I used to always hit the art exhibits the most and gloss over anything that sounded like culture or history. However, I have recently developed a taste for the anthropological displays. For starters, they are a perfect place to capture reference imagery, especially the displays on arms and armor. Also, anthropological exhibits rarely ban photography, unlike art exhibits where the restriction is common. Here are some of the most intriguing pieces that I’ve stumbled across:

From the Peabody Museum.

From the Peabody Museum.

From the Peabody Museum.

From the Peabody Museum.

From the National Museum of Warsaw, Poland.

From the National Museum of Warsaw, Poland.

From an exhibit in Hohensalzburg Castle, Salzburg, Austria.

From an exhibit in Hohensalzburg Castle, Salzburg, Austria.

From an exhibit in Hohensalzburg Castle, Salzburg, Austria.

From an exhibit in Hohensalzburg Castle, Salzburg, Austria.

Of course, I still love the art exhibits. There is nothing so powerful as an original work from a great master. Given that there is never enough time, I have a few pieces of advice to really get the most out of a museum:

  1. Check out the institutions web site to see which exhibitions are permanent and which are temporary.
  2. Pack a snack so you don’t have to leave for lunch.
  3. Bring a camera and always ask about the photo policy.
  4. If in a group, schedule a meeting time to check in. Its better than being distracted by a pinging phone.
  5. Finally, if the place warrants it – plan a return trip!

Spectrum Fantastic Art Live 4 Recap

Spectrum Fantastic Art Live 4 an incredible event, surpassing the glory of previous years yet again. Coming home on the plane this last time around felt like I was leaving a sanctuary of colleagues, friends and incredible inspiration. I had more paintings in my booth than ever before and received enthusiastic reactions to my work from peers and the public who came to see the show. Here are some highlights from the exhibition:

Laima Klavina as Alice, drawn in pastels during an amazing demo by Steve Rude.


Looking spiffy for the Spectrum 22 Awards Ceremony.



Fellow illustrators Brynn Metheney and Mike Manomivibul enjoying some classy beverages at the hotel bar after the ceremony.

A new painting that I unveiled at the exhibition for the first time, "Supernatural Disaster III". Published by Centipede Press under stellar art direction by Jerad Walters. Keep your eyes peeled for more!

A new painting that I unveiled at the exhibition for the first time, “Supernatural Disaster III”. Published by Centipede Press under stellar art direction by Jerad Walters.

It’s always hard to try and sum up these events in a few brief paragraphs. Spectrum is so many things rolled into one: an art exhibit, a special one of a kind gathering of creative minds and a celebration of all the incredibly varied fields of “fantastic art”. Every time, I meet people I never would have expected to find there from all over the world. There is a dynamic sort of energy that just courses through the room as everyone’s jaws drop at the incredible work showcased all across the hall. I received great feedback from fellow illustrators and great painters who I aspire to emulate, and have only just started to set down in writing a new batch of goals and benchmarks to strive for. Spectrum is a massive charging of the creative battery that sustains my practice. Special thanks go to Cathy and Arnie Fenner for starting this incredible event and also to John Fleskes for carrying the tradition forward. See you all next year!

Gregory Manchess: Weightless


It’s a strange thing to meet a hero. This past week, I helped my friend and studio mate Lauren Szabo prepare an exhibition of paintings by Gregory Manchess at Arte Verissima Gallery in Oakland. The show is titled “Weightless” and features no less than 14 canvases of Greg’s recent work. Arte Verissima has been a gallery for over a year now, yet Saturday’s opening brought in record numbers of attendees and first timers. The excitement was palpable.

I first came across Greg’s work when I was in high school, sometime around 2005. I remember stumbling across this incredible Conan the Barbarian painting. It blew me away. I remember wondering how it was done and realizing it was painted in oils. I remember I even copied this picture for a school assignment. I was mesmerized.

Later in 2012, I attended the first Spectrum Fantastic Art Live convention in Kansas City, MO and watched Greg paint a demo in person. I had followed his work from that first impression and it was as powerful as ever. I myself had begun oil painting by this point and was still trying to figure out his secret – how he does what he does. There is a virtuosity to his brushwork that is difficult to understand. It turns out, it’s really simple: a TON of hard work and countless hours at the easel. Greg himself attests to this with his famous “talent is an illusion,” theory. I’m not totally swayed by it, but he has a very valid point in that sheer effort counts for a lot more than people generally think.

After watching that demo, I finally met Greg in person at a memorial for the artist David Grove in San Francisco. I found him to be humble, generous person. Later, I told my studio mate Lauren Szabo how excited I was to finally meet him and this piqued her interest. She looked up his work and realized he would be a perfect fit for the high bar of realism that Arte Verissima specializes in.

In 2014 at the third Spectrum convention, Lauren came along to attend the convention and lend a helping hand with my booth. She arranged for an interview with Greg and asked if he’d like to have a solo show at Arte Verissima. And the rest, as they say… is history.


The show remains on display until March 8. Arte Verissima is open Friday through Sunday, 12pm-6pm and by appointment. If you’re in the area, don’t miss it!

Mirror, Mirror

An Audience for the Lich King

“An Audience for the Lich King,” 18 inches by 24 inches, oils on canvas.

I’ve had a lot of comments recently regarding the mirror in my piece, “An Audience for the Lich King.” I often talk a lot about my process, so for this post I thought I might talk more about my concepts and ideas that lead up to a personal work.

Personal work is always markedly different from my commissioned work in that no one is asking me to do anything in particular. The freedom this imparts is both a blessing and a curse. While it grants me a wide berth in determining any kind of subject matter for my painting, I often feel lost in the sheer amount of possibilities. My interior dialogue often goes something like this: “I’d like to portray an older character. A older warrior. No, a wizard. No, a warrior wizard. Actually, let’s make him an astronaut. Or is it a she?” There’s no one telling me what to do, so my narrative compass is just spinning all over the various possibilities like an out of control Wheel of Fortune.

I often create works in a series, like my “Norse” series of mythical paintings in order to build a framework for the pieces to occupy so that I don’t stray off course. Recently though, I’ve been wanting to experiment more outside of just one story or environment. As a method to guide my indecisive imagination, I’ve been using existing works by artists from the past and using them as starting points for my own creative journey.


“Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses,” by J.W. Waterhouse.

I’ve always been mesmerized by this Waterhouse painting. Waterhouse uses a mirror so effectively to build a sense of narrative tension that it literally puts the viewer directly into the scene, right next to Ulysses. I really, really wanted to use a mirror in my own work after staring at this piece! There is always this problem in illustration when a scene is called for in which two characters are facing each other and both need to have their expressions visible. It’s impossible to show effectively unless you have them face each other in profile and that usually makes a very static picture with too much symmetry. A mirror does just the trick, however. Both characters are clearly visible, and it also imparts the chilling psychological effect of the double image. I’m sure I do myself no favors by showing the masterwork by Waterhouse next to my own painting but I feel it does help to illuminate where my influences come from.


“Venus at Her Mirror,” by Diego Velazquez.

Mirrors actually have a long history in the arts. In this piece by another one of my favorite painters from antiquity, Diego Velazquez, the mirror is used in one of its most direct ways: as a symbol of vanity. Interestingly enough, it also gives Venus a more humane image by showing her face, while also allowing for some some sense of propriety in that she is turning her nude form away from the viewer.

"A Bar at the Folies-Bergère," by Edouard Manet.

“A Bar at the Folies-Bergère,” by Edouard Manet.

I’ll finish up with this wonderful piece by Manet, “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère.” One of the reasons Manet is one of my favorite Impressionists is because he had such a photographic way of working; he’s captured this girl’s worn out, dreary expression perfectly like he caught her in just that moment. In the mirror behind her, we see a crowded room full of noisy patrons and off to her right yet another customer asking for service, reflected in the glass. The mirror’s doubling effect shows perfectly the inner and outer personas of this character.

That’s it for my little art history lesson for today. I hope you enjoyed it – let me know in the comments section and perhaps I’ll write another sometime!

Grand Canyon Inspiration

I recently returned from a backpacking trip to Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Describing my trip as “inspiring” does not do it justice, but its the best I could come up with! The Grand Canyon is an incredible place that almost seems entirely untouched by humanity. For seven days and six nights, I hiked through the most desolate, remote and impossibly beautiful places. If you’d like to see another planet, but can’t afford the ticket aboard a space shuttle, I suggest going to the Grand Canyon instead. It was bizarre, enchanting and dangerous all at the same time.

I had originally planned to bring along my full plein air painting kit to make some on location work, but in the end the strenuous nature of the trip and weight restrictions forced me to leave it at home. I sketched instead, and took lots of photos to make some work back in the studio from.

Here are a few of the highlights and my favorite sketches.

Sketching my first view of the Colorado River up close. Photo by Alex Nitta.

At the canyon’s rim, ready for adventure! Left to right: Alex Nitta, myself and Willie Rusert. Photo by Alex Nitta.

Photo by Alex Nitta.

We walked for miles with no sight of water, and then see this: a geyser of water, bursting straight out of the canyon’s walls, named “Thunder River.” Simply marvelous. Photo by Alex Nitta.

“Kanab Creek.” Water became a wondrous thing in the desert.

“Colorado River.” One of my longer sketches that I’m pretty happy with.

A quick sketch at yet another magnificent desert oasis, “Deer Creek Falls.”

Once we hiked down to the Colorado River, the landscape completely changed. Now we were on a riverbank, mostly rocks that alternated with occasional sandy beaches. Rafters would pass us by – and occasionally would give the amazing gift of cold beer!

Sometimes, a spring on an overhanging ledge would drip water down to the canyon floor below. All sorts of ferns and plant life spring up from these oases.

“Branches.” A quicker study of some wiry willows growing out of a creek bed that I rather like.

Photo by Alex Nitta.

New Website! (again)

I’m quite proud to present my new website! Take a look around!

As with all things in art and design, I have found that my methods, techniques and aesthetics have changed and evolved over time. It’s only right that my portfolio website should evolve as well. In addition to a new site, I’ve designed a new logo for my work. As for the inspiration behind this latest change up, I felt like I really wanted to honor my roots as an illustrator. One of my earliest sources of inspiration was from a humble little game… called Dungeons and Dragons. I remember my oldest brother Joel picking up the books we needed to play the game. I must have been around seven years old at the time. They were filled with all kinds of arcane rules and stats that were fairly intimidating, but what I noticed first was the pictures.

Beautiful illustrations filled the inside pages and the covers by Jeff Easley were jaw dropping. I was hooked. Even if the game was difficult, confusing and not really designed for the mind of a seven year old, I was determined to play. Eighteen years later, I rediscovered those same musty old books on a corner of a bookshelf in my parents house. And they still hold up! Some really good work was being done by TSR back then. So, with this latest website rebuild, I really wanted to pay homage to one of the first inspirations that drew me to the fantasy genre: the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook, 2nd Edition, circa 1995.

My copy of the AD&D 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook, cover illustration by the legendary Jeff Easley.

Thirty Years

"An Old Man in Military Costume," by Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1630-1631

“An Old Man in Military Costume,” by Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1630-1631

"St. Bartholomew," by Rembrandt van Rijn

“St. Bartholomew,” by Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1661

I recently visited the Getty Center in Santa Monica and had the wonderful experience of seeing two spectacular Rembrandt paintings currently on display there. There is something truly different about a Rembrandt. They radiate a kind of power that reverberates throughout a room.

What was really interesting about these two particular pieces is that they were placed side by side in the museum, and were painted roughly thirty years apart in Rembrandt’s career. “An Old Man in Military Costume,” was painted in Rembrandt’s mid 20’s (my age!), and “St. Bartholomew” was painted when he was in his 50’s. “Old Man” showed all the hallmarks of a young prodigy. The sheer technical skill employed in the creation of this portrait is staggering. I couldn’t get over his highlights- they were so delicately applied, in an almost ethereal fashion that they felt just like real light. There is a sort of delight in all the various textures of the feathered cap contrasted against the smooth refracting surface of the armor, compared again to the light touches of hair in the man’s beard.

“St. Bartholomew,” on the other hand, showcased pure emotion. No unnecessary trappings were allowed to stand in the way of mood and drama. The clothes appeared to be quickly painted, with broad strokes punctuated by short staccato ones, especially in the areas of the cape and the shirt. The expression on the face seemed worn, melancholic and deeply human.

Placed side by side, I’d have to say I prefer “St. Bartholomew.” There was a incredibly vital connection present that I think trumps all the virtuoso aspects of “Old Man in Military Costume.” It’s as if, thirty years later, Rembrandt already knew he could pull off the trick of creating reality on canvas and it no longer held sway over his aesthetic choices.

I doubt I’ll ever reach what Rembrandt achieved in his 20’s by the time I am in my 50’s. But what is inspiring about this pair of portraits is that no matter how far one travels in the odyssey that is an artistic practice, there are always loftier, more majestic peaks to climb.

A Pleasant Surprise




I was taking a break from painting one night and I stumbled upon this mind blowing illustration in a dog eared October 2002 National Geographic laying around my friend’s kitchen. I abruptly dropped the conversation I was having and gazed, dumbfounded. A quick glance at the artist’s credit revealed Kazuhiko Sano. Although my gut instincts told me I’d seen this artist’s work before, the name didn’t occur to me instantly the way my favorite artists usually do. I’m fairly familiar with Kazuhiko’s work but for whatever reason, he had never stuck in my mind as one of “those artists.” In other words: a master. This illustration changed my perception immediately. The sheer breadth of atmosphere and space involved in this picture is incredible. The palette is one of the most impressive elements in this painting, with gorgeous golden hues transcending into beautiful pinks and violets. Whenever I see a particular piece like this, I feel immediately galvanized and inspired. I have a feeling that this is the sort of painting I’ll be striving to create in twenty, even thirty years time. Sadly, Kazuhiko Sano passed away last summer. Nonetheless, his incredible talent lives on in his work and continues to inspire young artists such as myself.