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Digital Perspective: Sphere of Divination

Around two years ago, I began working digitally for clients that needed quick turnarounds. The change was mostly borne out of necessity. I can remember breaking down and finally buying a large size Wacom Intuos tablet to use in my studio. There is this interesting divide between clients and illustrators regarding the use of traditional vs. digital media. I’ve heard it over and over again from clients that say they really don’t mind one way or the other, as long as the job is done on time. Illustrators on the other hand are keenly aware of the differences between the two modes of working!

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Since I had started working digitally for clients, I kept working traditionally on my personal works. Oil on canvas is, after all, the medium I have always favored. It occurred to me at one point thought that if I made a few personal works in digital media, I could start perfecting a merging of the two. If clients can’t tell the difference, then I could switch from one to the other seamlessly for whatever the job called for. A quick turnaround? Go digital. Long, luxurious book cover deadline? Let’s paint it in oils. Sounds great, right?

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“Sphere of Divination” is the first piece I painted for myself completely digitally, featuring the character Arkeria. I learned so much working this way! For one, it’s a real magic trick to make the digital work look like my oil paintings. I think it is a close imitation, but not quite there. 

The beginning stages are very similar, starting with rough drawings that turn into color studies. I pretty much always make my color studies in Photoshop, regardless of whether I’m working traditionally or digitally. In this case, the color study I like the best just sort of morphs into my digital piece as I continue to work on it and before I know it the painting is already starting to appear.

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Here’s a version of the painting fairly early in the process. What in the heck are all those crazy lines, you might ask? Well, they are for establishing my vanishing points in order to ensure correct perspective. I knew that for this scene, I wanted a detailed interior space that is part of a wizard’s study. There’s an armchair, a bookshelf with all matter of moldy treatises and ancient tomes, the obligatory creepy skull, and even a cat crouching on a side table. All of these objects need to feel real and be aligned in the proper perspective to create a feeling of dimensional space.

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Here’s another image with the vanishing points drawn all the way out to where they meet the horizon. A lot of times, vanishing points will go really far beyond the edge of the painting. In the beginning stages, I constantly check these vanishing points over and over again to make sure that my objects are in the correct perspective. Later, I turn these colored line layers off after I’ve established the drawing, as they are super distracting and not conducive to painting.

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Here’s another process image, around the middle of the painting. I knew that I wanted to have a stained glass window behind Arkeria. Since I’m working digitally, I have some more flexibility in how to draw and create this window. It’s basically a graphic image that needs to be placed in the window casement and look as though it belongs in the scene. So, I created the window itself in Adobe Illustrator, a much better program than Photoshop for designing clean, geometric shapes. I then brought over my window design into Photoshop, made the layer into a Smart Object, then distorted it to appear as though it is in perspective with the rest of the scene.

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You can see here the original stained glass vector graphic on the right and where I placed into the scene on the left. If you look carefully, it is ever so slightly skewed to give it a look of being in proper perspective. I originally got this trick from the illustrator Paolo Rivera. He has a fantastic post on Muddy Colors where he takes the idea of using smart objects and placing them on a perspective grid for this insanely detailed Daredevil comic book cover – check it out here.

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After this stage I got really into painting and forgot to take daily screenshots of progress. At the image above, I was nearly finished (and had even signed the piece), but felt I should take the work to a critique group for feedback… where it was pointed out that I had made a pretty big mistake with the lighting on the main character!

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In the first version, Arkeria’s face is lit with frontal lighting and also some rim lighting off to the right side. However, this doesn’t make much sense as the main source of light in the room is the glowing orb in her hand, which is really just the right side of her face. My lighting mistake originated from a piece of reference I had started with, but that’s no excuse. She just looked wrong. Especially since this mistake involves the face of the main character in the piece, there’s no way I could leave it in!

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And now you can see in the revised final that the lighting has been corrected… ah, much better. Getting bedeviled by photo reference is a problem I’ve dealt with many times! It just goes to show that receiving critique on my work is an essential part of the creative process. I make mistakes all the time and only in hearing the constructive feedback from my peers am I able to catch those mistakes, fix them and improve. For years, I avoided constructive critique out of the fear of looking like an amateur. Face that fear, show your work to those you trust and in the end you will always get better!