Every now and then, I decide to take a big leap forward with a new painting. “Wrong Turn,” is definitely one of the biggest leaps yet. As 43″ inches wide, this painting is one of the largest, most complex compositions I’ve attempted in recent years.
Very early in conceptualizing this piece, I knew that I had to nail the values exactly if I wanted to convey the amount of complexity inherent in the scene. I forced myself to only think in two dimensions: shape and value. The plethora of details would come later – first I had to build a solid foundation.
Figuring out the perspective in Google Sketchup also started early in the process. I figured out that I wanted a dramatic, low angle, with the foreground villains literally towering over their victims. This “worms eye view” is tricky to pull off if you’re not sure how large each figure is in relation to the others. Sketchup is an invaluable tool when it comes to getting mathematical accuracy. Of course, the models themselves are really just reference points for scale – it’s absolutely useless for finer points like lighting and texture.
I must have shot hundreds of reference photos for this piece. Figuring out how to mock up the crossbow was tricky. It turns out that taping a wooden clothes hanger to a BB gun was the ticket.
Again, Google Sketchup proved itself for details on the crossbows. My MacGyver’d version made from the BB gun and clothes hanger provided just enough light and shadow information, while the Sketchup model showed me how the arms of the crossbow curve in space when viewed from a low angle. I think this sort of solution is one that often evaded me when I was a younger illustrator. For this situation in the past, I used to assume that I just had to buy a crossbow off eBay, or there couldn’t be any crossbows in my work. If you can solve the puzzle of light and shadow with a crude physical model, then often a digital Sketchup model will provide the missing details, and you can basically paint any object in this way.
I knew that the foremost bandit had to be dead on. I spent the most time drawing his figure before looking at anything else. Tinkering with details in this drawing stage is one of my favorite parts. I think I laughed out loud (alone in my studio, like a weirdo) when I came up with the idea of a crossbow bolt harness attached to his bootstrap.
In this sketching process, I always start out with pencil and paper, and slowly migrate into the computer with digital tools. Pencil is where I do all my tough thinking. When I’m feeling more confident with the direction things are going, I pull the sketches into the computer and start drawing supporting elements in that medium, moving layers around and adjusting the composition. I’m not sure why I do it this way – maybe the physical tug of the graphite on paper is a soothing presence in those dicey early stages when I’m not feeling as sure of my direction. For this reason, I almost never draw my thumbnails digitally. I’ve tried it before, but it just makes me anxious, and I tend to abuse the all too available eraser tool when working on digital thumbs.
At last, after all the preliminaries I make a final drawing and really nail those values. Over and over again, I revisited this until I was sure I had something that really worked. It served as my roadmap for all decisions going forward.
I knew that I wanted one color to support all the others in the image that would result in a stark, high contrast painting. Magneta ended up grabbing the most of my attention, and once I had that decision made, I consulted my handy color chart for the rest of the supporting cast.
I already wrote a post on color charts a while back. These things are so awesome. Every painter should make them. Nuf’ said.
I try to make a habit of shooting a photo of my painting after every significant painting session. It helps me see the choices I make as I go through a piece, as well as spotlighting the blatant mistakes that get corrected later. One of these that you can see in the GIF above is the change in the merchant woman.
I remember painting and repainting her face, thinking that I just needed to get the expression right. I remember wanting to throw my brushes at the wall when I realized it wasn’t just her expression… it was everything. The torso was totally off kilter from the rest of the body, making her look stiff and doll like. The fingers were weirdly fused together, and the clothing looked fake. I wiped off the wasted paint from my canvas, and set to redrawing her completely. It was painful, but worth it. The new figure was so much stronger I could hardly believe I had ever accepted the first rendition.
Another thing that threw me for a loop were the scattered crystals on the ground. Near the final stages of the painting, I showed the work to a friend who commented that the crystals didn’t look believable enough. She was right. Although I had looked at plenty of reference images of crystals, they seemed flat and non-dimensional.
A trip to a craft store solved this conundrum. I realized I needed actual shiny blue crystals in the dirt, reflecting the midday sun. I found a package of cheap plastic and glass beads, crushed them with a hammer and tossed them on the ground. The real trick turned out to be getting them wet before I took a photo. They gleamed much brighter with beads of moisture bouncing the light in a glittering pattern.
These little details are actually what make illustration so much more fun. There’s a real thrill of discovery to figuring out that cheap plastic beads can be made to look like precious gemstones with the right methods.
The hardest thing about this piece was not rushing myself. It took me so much longer than usual that I started to get antsy when I looked at it after week five of the same canvas being on my easel. The last stage of asking friends for critique was the hardest – I didn’t want to even think about it anymore, but the feedback I got was so important it could not be ignored. Now that “Wrong Turn” has finally left my gaze, I can think about framing it for the Illuxcon Convention in Reading PA in October. I can’t wait to show people this baby in person!