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!

100.100.100

“Kappa Night Raid”, 10 inches by 10 inches

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

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

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

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

 

The Beauty of Ruins

"Koknese Castle Ruins" by Juljis Feders, 1904.

“Koknese Castle Ruins” by Juljis Feders, 1904.

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

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

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

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

"Timebound" by Colin Nitta, 2015.

“Timebound” by Colin Nitta, 2015.

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

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

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

"Cesis West Tower".

“Cesis West Tower”.

"Dobele Spire"

“Dobele Spire”

Color Charts

palette2_8-22-15

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

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

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

All 12 charts on my studio wall for easy reference.

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

tube-colors-plus-white_full

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The child color chart for Radiant Lemon.

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

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

yellow-ochre_full

cad-red-med_full

transparent-brown-oxide_full

quinacridone-magenta_full

alizarin-crimson_full

viridian_full

cobalt-blue_full

ultramarine-blue_fullcerulean-blue_full

New Portraits from Life

evan

“Evan”, 11 inches by 14 inches

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

annabelle

“Annabelle”, 16 inches by 12 inches

 

kawena

“Kawena”, 11 inches by 14 inches

"Anjuli," 16 by 12 inches

“Anjuli,” 16 by 12 inches

mia-2-framed-3-19-16

“Mia II”, 11 inches by 14 inches.