Revisiting a Concept: Zombie Hunter

Sometimes, a good idea is buried under a lot of bad ideas. I was clicking through some old folders of work recently and came across an idea from last year that I really wanted to paint, but had to give up when I hit a creative wall. This can happen, especially with personal work. When there is no client, it’s easy to go off on a very long tangent that leads nowhere. The lack of boundaries inherent in personal work can lead to stagnation and aimlessness.

It all started with this fantastic piece of reference. I was shooting a friend and art model for another project and I had a very loose idea in my mind for an assassin character with an ornate knife. Since the camera gear was already set up, it was easy for me to get a few poses of this character. The model did such an awesome job and the lighting turned out so cool that I knew I had to paint this!

I came up with a story that the assassin was actually a holy guardian that was protecting a religious tomb. I drew sketches of other characters that are grave robbers desecrating the sacred crypt. The assassin is about to make them regret it!

But… I kept looking at it and I realized that something was off. There’s three grave robbers and just one assassin. She might not be be able to take them all down. Also, that tomb looks huge. Maybe there’s enough room for the grave robbers to just run away? That’s not very dramatic.

I decided to rework the architecture to be a smaller more confined space, took away the third robber and put a big loot bag in his place. Convinced that I could make it work, I also started to add color. But, something was still off. Compositionally, the piece goes from big character to medium character to small character, like a row of dolls. Not interesting and it has no clear focus. I really started to flail here – what could I do to rescue this thing??

I thought if I added more lighting details and a curtain, this would improve matters. No luck there; while it is more impressive as a painting, the central issues aren’t resolved. And, the story isn’t very clear. At this point, it’s not even clear if the assassin is on the side of the grave robbers or not.

This is when I finally hit the wall and decided to leave this piece alone. It was making me upset that I couldn’t get the darn thing to cooperate and I felt like I had thrown everything at it. In retrospect, I’m glad I did this: sometimes a bit of time and space can do wonders for a painting.

Then, while watching Game of Thrones, Season 8, Episode 3, I had a revelation. The episode takes place at a castle being besieged by a giant army of zombies. One of the main characters, Arya Stark, finds herself in a library filled with zombies and she has to use her wits to escape a death trap. It was one of my favorite scenes, combining elements of fantasy and horror to great effect.

A major part of Arya’s character is that she is an assassin and in this episode, her skills are a big part of the action. I loved the shots of her peering around these bookshelves, dodging the shambling zombies by mere inches.

And with the inspiration from Thrones, I’ve returned again to this piece. This time, the assassin is a zombie hunter, cleansing an ancient temple as a rite of passage. I think just focusing on her is going to be the key to making this piece work. I still haven’t figured out the zombie poses just yet, but I like the feeling of these shambling undead in “sleep mode”, just slowly stumbling and dragging their rusty swords around. Overall the piece will be very dark with just her glowing dagger and an off screen lantern providing light. It’s still a tricky piece, but hindsight always helps – especially when you’ve got zombies to hunt.