Using Masters for Inspiration: Inka Umu

Whew. I’ve recently emerged from a crazy black hole of work overload. My apologies for the quiet period!

Multiple deadlines at the same time forced me to chain myself to my computer for over a week. “Inka Umu”, a book cover illustration for an independent author, is the last project from this time. The piece went from rough sketch to final art in just under five days. Five days to paint a heroic character in front of a bustling town, all done with historical accuracy. It’s not something I like to do often, but sometimes that’s just how a freelance life is!

I actually have some other changes I’d like to make to this cover, now that I’ve had some time away from it, mostly concerning the background and other elements. I’m pretty satisfied with the cover character though, and I’d like to share the story of how I designed him with you 🙂

Alright, full disclosure here: the hero character’s pose was heavily inspired by this J.C. Leyendecker painting, an advertisement for “Interwoven Socks”. Earlier in my career, I think I would have shied away from looking at the poses used by early illustration masters. It was something having to do with being a pure creative, which is really a fallacy: there’s no such thing as pure creativity without influences. We are all influenced by our surrounding culture whether we like it or not. Taking a page from Leyendecker’s book is just part of the game!

Here’s one of Leyendecker’s preliminaries. I love seeing how he played with different poses and looks before settling on the final. You can see the thought process right there!

I actually work in a similar fashion while painting digitally, especially concerning a point of major interest like a head. For Inka Umu, I painted roughly three versions of the main character’s head before I figured him out. He’s of Peruvian descent and is described as an energetic young wizard with a taste for adventure. The author really stressed that he should look confident and self assured – we discussed it as some length, so I knew I had to get this one part right, if nothing else!

I was lucky to have some great references from the author to work on as well and learned a good deal about ancient Peruvian culture in the process. One note that he stressed in particular was the Unku, a dress garment worn by men and women. In particular, he made me aware that it only goes down to the knees, and this was one detail that first made me think of Leyendecker’s “Interwoven Socks” painting. That too has a heroic male character basically wearing a dress. In today’s culture, as a man you pretty much have to be twice as confident if you’re going to pull off that fashion statement, making Leyendecker the perfect inspiration.

If you need any more convincing as to why taking inspiration is OK, just take a look at this Conan the Barbarian painting by the master painter Gregory Manchess. Finding out his Leyendecker connection is what convinced me to go this route, providing a feeling of reassurance. Again, the confident man wearing a skirt. It just seems to work!