I’ve always thought the process for an artist is fascinating.
Some people have to sit and plan for hours, draw dozens of thumbnails, do color studies, or just jump right in. I thought It would be interesting to share my process, however simple it may be. I know its a little bit different than most logical processes, but there’s always an idea in mind. To illustrate this, I will use the cover for the “Historia Rodentia” book cover I created, which will be out in May. It best describes my process, as far as a single image illustration.
On a quick side note, you should love creating art. You should like whatever you create. You should understand that if you want to make it a career, you have to be flexible. Designs will have to change, and people will share their opinions, good or bad.
First off, there’s the initial idea. What do you want to illustrate? What are you trying to portray? Is this for you, or a client? At times, I miss drawing for myself. That sounds strange, but after going to SCAD and drawing, thinking, and breathing comic book art and illustrations, we were molded into the thought process of portraying what our client wants, whether that be a script or an idea. If that client is you, you may come to understand (just as I did) that people are fickle, especially the creative type. This is not a bad quality, by any means, it just means that they have an idea in mind, its just not as concrete as we would hope. The opposite end of the spectrum, those with the visual idea firmly implanted in their mind, are picky. Again, not a bad quality, but it does make it challenging when you think you’ve accomplished a beautiful piece of artwork and they want changes. This, my friends, is where the tight rough comes into play.
I always put together a tight rough. Always. I remember back in college when my professors would suggest this, I would be resistant and only put in minimal effort. But obviously, them being professors and practicing professionals, they knew far better than I did that this is a key step. Working in a smaller format allows you to see any glaring compositional issues. This, to be honest, is my biggest weakness, but the web-comic I’ve been working on has helped with that, along with my foray’s into graphic design. Tight rough’s also let you see “the bigger picture”, in that I mean that you get to see if the idea your shooting for can actually be portrayed. I’ve seen tight rough’s that look like finished products, then I’ve seen ones like…well, like mine. They are rough, but they get the job done. I’ve given up on the illusion of attempting to create whats in my mind. That has caused me to become much more fluid in the design process for both characters and environments, which will also cause you to disengage from them. That way if a client or you wants to make a change, you wont be in love with your design, and life shall continue.
To quickly describe their world, its a “fictional alternative history”, where the history of these anthropomorphic animals mimics our own, with a focus on warring nations. I tried to convey that there are different species, that general age the architecture comes from, and what kind of environments you would encounter. I made it using Photoshop, just for the ability to quickly move large elements of the piece around and add some basic special effects like snow and basic lighting. Here’s the tight rough:
With your tight rough in hand, now its time to go to a full size version. I did this by creating a tighter, cleaner penciled version of the above image. I’ve had issues in the past of just jumping into a full size image immediately, which caused me to have compositional issues, double horizon lines, and a thorough lack of visual direction. With a half decent tight rough, you can figure out where your general shapes, characters, and environments will take place. This is amazingly useful. In my rough, I vaguely figured out the architectural style I wanted to use and the species/outfits of the characters. Lucklily with their outfits, I had already created a visual library of characters for this book, so I pulled a few strong designs and reused them.The world, much like our own, had a mixture of relatively advanced technology (barely breaching into the tech of the Industrial Revolution) and basic technology (tribes using spears and clubs). I picked the more industrialized tech/setting for the cover because it conveyed more of the nations that were going to be playable.
For the full sized penciled version, using the tight rough as a guide, I created the base of the cover. By this, I mean a base pencil image that I would use to lay on all the finishing touches. A tight penciled image is a valuable thing. Trying to create a finalized version without nice clean penciled base image can be hard. Plenty of comics actually have artists create pages with such tight clean penciled images, that they just shoot straight to coloring. Joe Madureira is a good example of this kind of artist, check it out here. That still amazes me…though I’ve seen a comic try and use less professional methods, like coloring over a badly penciled page. If your base is weak, it will carry through the whole piece. So, start with something strong, it will severely cut down on issues down the line. Here’s the penciled image:
As you can see, I’ve fleshed out a lot of details. I’m very graphically oriented, so I like to figure out where all my shadows are going to lie. By the ways, penciling for black and white images is very different from penciling for a full color image. I’ve found that if I’m going to color something, I keep my shadow usage down, knowing I can just apply a color to convey that. With a b&w image, its either a stark black shadow or very good rendering to portray that shadow. Again, I’m more graphic and stark, and like to apply shadows in chunks, with some rendering to help it blend. This image’s final version is in color, so I’ve gone minimal with my shadow usage. The next step is inking. Inking gives that clean, crisp feeling to a piece. Beautiful inking can stand alone as finished artwork, and in my experience, it should stand alone. The best example I can give is most of Frank Frazetta’s black and white artwork, check out a piece here. If you have a chance, look up the rest of his work. Its worth it, I promise.
Anyhow, this is how it turned out inked. Inking is not one of my strong points, but I know how to do it well enough for my own purposes. A good artist who knows how to ink is an invaluable asset. They can make a decent artist look like a rock star with just a few brush strokes. They can apply textures and act as a second eye. If I could afford it, I’d have an inker handle all my paying work. Sadly, that is not the case. Here is my modest attempt at inking my own work:
It cleaned up nicely. I decided to knock out some of the shadows, with coloring in mind. I kept the town simple simply because I knew how I was going to handle it. Sometimes, too much detail is just that, too much. Sometimes implying that somethings there is just as good as painfully illustrating that its there. Line weight also plays an important part. Here, its pretty easy to see; it separates the foreground from the background. I can only hope that it separates the characters from each other. As a general rule, when your working in a process, never EVER assume you can just simply “fix” something in the next stage. Speaking from experience, it will get you into trouble like you wouldn’t believe. Inking and coloring don’t magically fix things. People fix them, with time and dedication and skill. And if those lazy mistakes aren’t fixed, I guarantee someone will see that mistake. Its not something to think too hard on, though. You cant draw something with the fear that people will find a mistake, because it will cause you to obsess over your piece, and cause more issues. Draw and ink and color in confidence!
Another quick side note. Never be embarrassed about your art. If you make a mistake, you learn and move on. I drew a comic about Ronald Reagan, it was my first piece of professional work. And you know what? It was garbage! There were some really good pages, but like I’ve stated above, it almost had every issue I’ve already discussed: I didn’t plan well enough, I thought it would be fixed int he next stage, and they colored over my pencils, which had issues. It turned out to be a disaster, but I learned so much from it! Now its just a piece of my artistic history, a lesson to learn. It made me a better artist, and there are some lessons you’ve just got to learn the hard way.
Back to the process. The next step I took was to set up a grey scale for the piece. This was just so that I could figure out the values in the piece, and laying color’s over the grey scale helped out a lot. Like in the tight rough, this helped separate out a few things. Here’s the grey scaled image:
By this point, I’m starting to have the finished piece in mind. I started overlaying textures into the foreground. This is a simple trick done in Photoshop, that is extremely effective. As long as its not “Here’s a rock, I’m going to place it here!”, I think its fine. It should look like a natural element of the piece, if its working against you, I suggest removing it and moving on. As you can see, the town is still very simple. I have a plan in mind and know exactly how I’m going to handle it at this point. This piece is set in a mountainous region, with the city resting in a valley. I really wanted to convey that it was frigid, which is why snow covers most of the buildings, even the steps the characters are on. I’ve also rendered the characters with shadows and highlights, trying to convey a tone. In the inked version, I just hinted at lighting. In this piece, you can really start to see the effect. Lighting is a powerful but challenging tool. The most I can suggest is just to view the environment around you. I look at everything graphically, the way a shadow falls, the way a piece of clothing folds, how light plays on color. Keep these things in mind, they will absolutely play when you create a piece.
Lastly there is applying color to your image. If you couldn’t tell, Photoshop is a tool in my arsenal, seeing as I mentioned it 3 or 4 times by now. But it is just that, a tool. Some people use it as a crutch, hoping to use it to fix all their problems. To put it in the best way I can, Photoshop is a fickle temptress. She’ll lure you in with promises of fancy graphics and tricks, like “filters” and “lens flair”. Its learning how to use it like you would use a brush or a pencil that’s the trick. But your base drawing should be where your strength lies. Never underestimate traditional skill. Especially with color.
Color, for me, has proved to be the most challenging but rewarding part of the process. How do you convey your ideas in color? People who can just jump in and start laying out colors are amazing creatures to me, having an understanding of color that I one day hope to possess. I just have my tricks and a basic knowledge to pass me by. If I can come close to conveying what I have imagined, I’ll be ecstatic. On this piece, what I wanted to convey was that it was cold. I’m sure I could have pushed it, but I just wanted cold. Not freezing, not depressed, not on the doorstep of death with frostbite claiming your limbs. Here’s the finished, colored piece:
I uploaded this image a few weeks ago. This was for a book cover, so there’s a lot of room at the top for the title block. Its a little saturated, but that is another part of fickle coloring. Each monitor is different, and calibrating is impossible. So, it shows up a little different on every screen. The original image was less saturated, but I’m alright with that. In this piece, there is a lot of blues and purple shades and tints, as well as a general overlay to the whole piece. As you can see with the characters, they’ve been separated out relatively well from each other. I tried to make the town look cold and uninviting, which I think came across. A few eerie glowing lights, the haunted cold blue mist rising from the streets, the utter lack of warmth. The characters, however, are warmer, more active. Again, with the cold theme, there are a few icy blue highlights on them. That last part of the coloring process, at least for me, is the special effects. That includes highlights, shadows, the city lights, the sky, the snow, and some tweaks for contrasts sake.
I’m proud of how this piece came out, and I’m glad that I followed that process. Along the way, it saved me a good amount of time, misery, and frustration. I know everyone’s process is different, and I am in no way saying that mine is superior or inferior, it is just my process. In that, it works for me, and I have put out paid professional work using it.
One day I’ll go into what my process is for creating characters, but I think enough has been said for this round.