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.


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.


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.


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″


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.


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.

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.

From sketch to final.

From sketch to final.

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

Creating Convincing Armor


The Knight with Two Swords – 2012. Lots of armor issues here.

Fred Knee-Chee - Level 4 Dwarf Ranger - 2016

Fred Knee-Chee – Level 4 Dwarf Ranger – 2016. Getting better at armor!

Painting armor is really tough. There’s no getting around it.
To begin with, it’s very difficult to get good reference for a full suit of armor. Most artists don’t have the funds to go out and buy a period specific suit of full plate mail, so we have to do what we can with existing reference elsewhere. I’ve been knocking my head against this problem for a few years now, and have learned a few rules that seem to make it easier.

  1. Armor is an external architecture that wraps itself around the body.
    Basically, this means that wherever someone is wearing armor, it is an additional layer over their anatomy. Everything gets thicker because there is this armature that is adding to the girth of the chest, the groin and the appendages. Armor is designed to deflect blows, so it inherently has a convex shape that induces blades, arrows and other penetrating objects to bounce off of it. This further adds to this appearance of extra thickness. This is the fundamental problem with “boob armor”, but many other bloggers have gone on at length about this issue so I won’t dwell on it here.
  2. Armor is designed for movement.
    IMG_4241When knights were wearing armor in the middle ages, they not only needed it to protect themselves but also needed it to allow them to move sufficiently enough to swing their weapon, raise their shield and any number of other necessary maneuvers in combat. This means that anywhere that a limb needs to rotate, the armor needs to be flexible enough to allow a full range of movement.
    A great way to replicate this is to build armor yourself out of cardboard for reference purposes. You’ll quickly find that in order to lift your forearm, the bicep armor needs to have a sort of diagonal cut near the elbow joint that allows for movement.
  3. Form follows function.

    Although it is super fun to draw super buffed out knights with massive armor, it’s important to remember that armor is always designed for a specific purpose and that the amount of armor is always relative to the combat role of the soldier wearing it. Knights could wear full plate mail mainly because they rode on horseback, and didn’t need to worry as much about the weight of their gear. A footsoldier, on the other hand would quickly tire with all that weight so his armor is much lighter with more tactical placement that emphasized speed and agility over protection. Notice how the armor on the right protects the soldier’s head, chest cavity and neck – but not much else.
  4. Study, study, study!
    Whenever you can, draw from real suits of armor in museums. There’s just no replacement for this kind of observation, as you can’t take that suit of armor home to photograph it in just the right pose. I always try to draw armor when I see it and take lots of reference pictures from all angles. Of course, the interwebs have a vast trove of reference to glean as well, but there’s nothing like your own notes.

Hope this was insightful, thanks for stopping by!

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!

Tools for Creating 3 Dimensional Reference

I was recently chatting with some other realist artists about how they find their reference for their work. It occurred to me that everyone has a different method- some people use themselves for literally every human being in their work, and others hire models specifically for every individual character. Reference is an incredibly personal sort of tool – everyone has their methodology and it’s unique to how they create their own illusion of reality. I find this sort of thing fascinating.

A couple of years ago, I discovered a little tool built by Google called Sketchup. It’s a free 3D drafting program and it’s an incredible tool for creating 3 dimensional reference. It’s much faster than drawing old fashioned perspective that takes hours of layout with a ruler and vanishing points the old fashioned way. Also, it’s great for getting specific views of popular vehicles and machines. Granted, it has a bit of a learning curve, but as far as these sorts of programs go its fairly intuitive.

For this painting, I needed a tank climbing the hill behind the main alien soldier character. Although it’s set in a science fiction world, I wanted to vehicle to communicate itself as a typical “tank” in the most obvious way- turret, treads, etc. So, I went to Google Sketchup and searched a typical modern tank, the M1-A1 Abrams in their 3D Warehouse. Hundreds of results came up, and I had my pick of the litter for a 3 dimensional tank model. Part of what is so cool about this tool is that the tank can be posed in any position, and I was even able to adjust the turret so that it was pointing in an angle away from the main direction of the body.

I changed the turret to include a sort of robotic periscope on top and gave it a few laser weapons as well. Obviously, SketchUp isn’t much good for lighting, so I also looked up a lot of photographic reference to give the vehicle some weight and to make it appear lit from behind. To avoid copyright problems, I always augment the images I pull off the web with others so that any one particular reference is not obvious.

I used a similar method for “Supernatural Disaster 2” in which several fighter jets were called for circling this great Chtulu-esque monster rising out of the depths. The F-16 Tomcat is one of my favorite fighter jets – I was taken with them at an early age from watching Top Gun way too much, so I decided to make an homage to that classic 80’s flick with this piece.

For the monster, I built a maquette out of Super Sculpey and posed in him in the proper lighting. This is always one of my absolutely favorite things to do! In Photoshop, I dropped in the plane models circling him. Since SketchUp allowed me to tilt the planes at any angle I wished, I posed them just so to appear as thought they are buzzing around the monster like pesky mosquitos- no match for this Elder One!

This method of mashing different reference together can take some getting used to- one of the toughest things is matching the lighting of all the separate elements in the scene. It certainly has saved me a lot of time and effort however. Can you imagine how hard it would be to find an F-16 laying around to photograph?

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?

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.

Back to the Drawing Board

It seems that I never really know if I’m ready to start a painting until I actually start it. Only once paint is applied to canvas and things start to get messy do I ever realize there’s more preliminary work to be done. My current painting commission, “GLANCE,” (I just now gave it a title) is a rather complex scene in a cocktail bar at the top of a skyscraper. The piece focuses on a central female character whom is in deep in contemplation over a glass of cabernet. There are many elements present in the piece, some which I have done adequate reference research and sketching for… and some which I have not. Once I got my hands dirty, I came to the conclusion that the central character needed some more concrete definition. She just wasn’t looking right. I struck back to the drawing board, and voila! Much better results. Part of the issue was with her hairstyle. Tracy, the model and fellow illustrator who posed for me, has short hair. My client specifically asked for long hair, so at first I just slapped on a longer cut in the painting. No bueno. It looked fake and fairly wiggish. I did some proper research, found a good hairstyle and sketched Tracy as she appeared in the reference photo. Next, I traced my sketch with an overlay of the hairstyle and finally implemented it into a full body sketch. This back and forth between sketching and painting seems to be contrary to progress, but I think its just natural to the way I work. I lose all momentum if I try to sketch out every little detail in a drawing before going to paint. Of course, the final part of the formula is meeting my deadline…

Under Construction

RETALIATION WILL NOT BE TOLERATED. That’s the first thing I imagine this fellow saying. I’ve been tinkering with some old toys to create photo reference for a giant robot in my next illustration in my Wizards series. This piece will revolve my next Wizard archetype, the Alchemist. I imagine this character as part scientist, part inventor and part magician whom is accompanied by a giant robot of his own making. I really enjoy ripping old models up and mashing their components together into mutant constructions like these. The shield in particular came from the deck of a World War 2 battleship model. Looking forward to sketching this bad boy and creating some robo mayhem!

Hiking in the Skies

I just recently returned from a fabulous backpacking trip to the Southeastern Sierras in California. For those familiar with the area, I came in through Florence Lake and hiked up to Evolution Valley. I saw some amazing skies up there. Something about high altitude alpine air changes the nature of clouds, and they assume a totally different character from what I’m usually accustomed to in the Bay Area. Pay attention and you may see these particular suspects in a painting sometime soon…