Work in Progress: The Raid

I know, it’s a bit of a bland title for such an action packed piece, but I honestly don’t have a great name for this one yet. It’ll come in time, I’m sure… in any case, I’m excited to share this study with you!

Besides the action packed subject matter, I also looking forward to this painting as I’ve committed to painting the final in oils. If you’re familiar with my past work, I used to work solely in traditional media, then made a departure about a year and half ago to pursue digital. This is the second oil painting I’ve returned to since.

I’ve been working on this off and on for the past month and I’ve come up against my own limitations multiple times in planning such as epic painting. With such a complicated composition, it’s taken many tries to get all the elements balanced and working together. Since I’m painting the final traditionally, I really want all my ducks in a row concerning value, color and composition. I’ve made the mistake of rushing into an oil painting so often that I really didn’t want to do that this time around.

Just drawing the architectural details was a big challenge. I wanted the scene to take place on the quarterdeck of a ship, which meant establishing vanishing points and the position of the camera so that everything looks correct and to scale.

This is where knowledge of 3D modeling software comes in extremely useful. An early challenge of this scene was that the stairwells that come down off of quarterdecks often have a slight curve. I think it’s so that they fit more snugly into the profile of the ship. Trying to visualize a curving stairwell in 3D space is incredibly complex, so I just built a model of it, set up my camera and got the stairwell figured out. Ironically, I ended up filling up that area so much that the curving stairs are hardly noticeable but I don’t regret going the extra mile to get this great reference. It helped me to conceptualize the rest of the space so it still served a purpose.

 My next challenge was drawing the main hero character. I worked on him completely separately so I wouldn’t get too distracted by all the other elements. He’s a kappa, a sea creature from Japanese folklore and he’s also a pirate captain (my own distinctive twist).

Something that digital media has totally changed about my work is that I’m no longer happy with a subpar composition. When I work digitally I can move, resize and rearrange a picture until the cows come home. It’s a new mindset that I now apply to everything, including oil painting. While I sometimes drive myself crazy with this ever shifting technique, it leaves me no excuses to make a weak picture.

A lot ended up evolving as I worked on him. I decided that I wanted him to have a clearer gesture and the abstract pointing hand just wasn’t working. I came up with the idea that he’s discovered a rare bottle of rum (he’s a rum connoisseur) during the heat of battle while his crew raids a merchant ship. It felt right for the character and it adds a bit more interest to the scene. I also adjusted his sword arm to be pointing at the neck of an unfortunate merchant who has ended up pinned under his heel as he takes command of the ship – another change that adds more to the overall story of the picture. Lastly, I refined his tattoos, taking inspiration from the original purveyor of tattoos – the hard bitten sailor. I had a lot of fun with those. I’ve never seen a depiction of a kappa with tattoos, but why not have this be the first?

And here we are, lots and lots of revisions later! I’m pretty much finishing the painting digitally at this point.  A lot of problem solving happened in bottom quarter of the painting. I must have drawn 20 different figures in that area, trying to fill in the action but not detract from the focus of the captain. Easier said than done!

This might seem redundant but it’s actually pretty common in art. The grandfather of modern illustration, JC Leyendecker would frequently paint completely rendered versions of major characters before he ever touched the final canvas. Some of these practice paintings are drop dead gorgeous.

I love these. He’s just trying stuff out. You can really see his thought process here, like he’s saying “hmm, should I put the fold of the headscarf this way? Nah, my earlier headscarf was better.” The truth is, no one really knows what will work until they give it a try. Iteration is the wellspring of beauty. 

A few more things to figure out, and then I’m almost ready to transfer this baby to canvas and start painting. Can’t wait to share that with you!