Chains of Durandal

Killer Bee

Well, IlluXCon is next week, so all my mind is now turned to prep for that. Well, most of it--there's still the day-to-day. Show prep has just shoehorned itself into the mix and taken over most of the mental space.

Preparing for a show means going through all the paintings and drawings I have around. I don't have so much room as to be able to organize them terribly well. Every time I do a show, I manage to put things away with just a little less organization than last time, so I can get quickly back to work. This also means I have to go through it all the next time to make sure I don't miss anything.

Doing so yielded up this little piece, however, which I thought would be a nice brief post for me this week:

"Killer Bee" 6x8" Oils on illustration board Sold

"Killer Bee" 6x8" Oils on illustration board

This little guy was painted awhile ago, as you can see, and was done as part of an illustration for the Android game, "Chains of Durandal," which I showed some art from last year. The "bee" (kind of a fantasy monster bee) was cut out and used with other elements into a digital final that is quite different. But I needed that painted bee anyway, so just painted him as his own small painting which could exist on its own. So here it is.

You'll notice it was painted on illustration board, which I haven't used or stocked in years. In this case, I primed over an old painting which I didn't really want around anymore, then painted this on top. I do that from time to time. Every artist has pieces they just don't want around anymore. Most just destroy them. I've done that to a few. Recently, when possible, I'll recycle them. This is harder to do for oils, but for my old acrylic paintings it works just fine. In this case it was an old Vampire CCG painting, although I've done this to a couple of Magic pieces over the years, too. So, with such pieces you essentially get two for the price of one.


Mid-way through the Chains of Durandal project, I was given this assignment, which required a ghostly figure. I've actually had art directors in the past describe such looks as "Particle Effects," which is video game jargon for procedurally rendered special effects like glows, sparklies, and similar that make your ultra magic combo look awesome. This art director didn't use the term, but it's what was going to be depicted. I knew off the bat that this would be problematic as a painting--painting things with ghostly transparencies and glows is fine, but if there was going to be a chain of adjustments (more/less transparent, more/less glow, change color of glow, etc.) then painting it would be fruitless--you can't make those sorts of paint adjustments easily, if at all, without repainting entirely. So this was an occasion where I decided to go mostly digital.

Figure study, 12x9" charcoal Sold

Figure study, 12x9" charcoal

I still started traditionally, however. Drawing in real media is still for me much better than drawing digitally. Perhaps because I don't yet work on a Cintiq, but rather on a standard tablet still.

I cobbled together a digital sketch, including the cave this poltergeist was emerging from and got approval. From there, this one took a different tact. Taking the shapes of the cave from my digital sketch, I next combed through my catalog of paintings to find ones in which I had painted stone or rocks or the like. I then cannibalized the texture, sampling it to create these new rocks. I did it by reducing the source images to grayscale since they originated from different pieces with different color schemes. Then I sampled them in, and overlaid color digitally on top to re-color them. The result is much more of a hybrid, where the background is one sense still hand-painted, while being entirely digitally generated. Some digital overpainting went on top of that. And yes, it was much faster to do. I then overlaid the scan of the drawing and began blending it into the painting by erasing out, partially erasing out, and painting back in as needed.

"Poltergeist", digital over charcoal

"Poltergeist", digital over charcoal

Here, then, is a final illustration that doesn't physically exist. And I was correct in my assumptions: upon submitting the final, I was indeed asked to make tweaks to the transparency and glowy aspects. Had I painted it all, I would have had to do that rework digitally anyway. Since the charcoal drawing was its own layer from the beginning, the requested changes were much, much faster to do. The foremost rock is its own layer, too.

Elven Warlock

I mentioned last time, that it has been an increasing request this year to deliver artwork in layers. Until now, I've seen clients suggest that if you do art digitally, submit the layered Photoshop file, if you work traditionally, that's fine too. But I foresee an increase in the request to receive layers, and so am glad to have done some work on that this year. "Elven Warlock" (working title) was my first piece done for Chains of Durandal, and so here is my earliest attempt at trying to figure out how to deliver a layered piece of art and have a finished painting at the end.

For this, I think it's necessary to show the final art first, and we can deconstruct it after. So here is the final painting:

Elven Warlock, 11x14" oils on masonite

Elven Warlock, 11x14" oils on masonite

The Art Director would have naturally been pleased to receive every discrete element on its own layer. Digitally, this is possible. But after talking a little with him and figuring what he really needed, I understood that he basically wanted the figure, the mid-ground and the background separable. That still seemed doable within the realms of traditional painting, at least in this instance.

Looking at the final, that meant the sky, the "stage" and the figure. My initial thought was that I would paint the sky, including some of the area "behind" the ruined wall, scan it, then the ruins including the area behind the figure, scan, then the figure, then varnish and scan the final. I'd then reassemble the layers digitally. Along the way I learned that there would necessarily be some digital work done, too.

Step 1:

I painted the sky over a drab underpainting. You'll see that I left some of the basic silhouette of the figure in place. I wasn't too thrilled with the idea of painting a figure over essentially black. I'd done it before, and wasn't awful, but it's easier to have a more mid-value tone.

What was immediately apparent was that I would need to do more digital work on each layer. What you see is a scan that is lacking varnish. There is all sorts of unevenness in the sky, which is really supposed to be quite black at its core. I'd already established that I'd just fill in the black digitally anyway, but now I knew I'd have to smooth over some of that scan artifacting, too. Hmm, this was going to be a little harder than I first thought.

Step 2:

I actually did all the digital stuff after finishing the painting, but it makes more sense to show it this way. Here, I finished out the sky digitally, retaining as much of the painted part as possible, and taking the sky out to a rectangle that could be used independently of the other elements. You'll note that I re-shaped the lightning at left. I wasn't happy with what I painted. I then went back and repainted the actual painting to match. Changing the painting was a wholly unnecessary move, but was done simply to improve the painting itself as its own artifact.

Mind you, by this time the piece had already taken about 3 times the time it would have taken to just do the sky digitally from the get-go.

Step 3:

Having re-painted the lightning at left, I then proceeeded to paint the ruins. A good chunk of the character's robes would obscure what's behind, but I needed to paint it anyway. Normally, all that stuff behind a figure is never painted. No need to. So you can see how time adds up, even had I done this digitally I would have had to detail out areas that I normally would not have needed to.

At this point, had the Art Director requested the ivy be its own layer, I probably would have ditched trying to paint this at all and gone all digital. Because I knew that a chunk of the background was to be covered by the figure, I designed the ivy so it didn't run as much behind him--it would've been too time-consuming and painful to paint lots of ivy in that area and then to just paint it over and have it not matter in the final illustration.

Because this layer was not as dark as the sky, it suffered less from scanning issues, but nevertheless still did. Prior to each scan, I would slap a thin isolation coat of Gamblin Neo-Megilp over it to even out the color as much as possible. But it wasn't enough to really kill the brush strokes.

Step 4:

Back in the computer, I now had a scan that looked like Step 3. But I already had the sky as its own layer. Now I needed to isolate the mid-ground. That meant taking the scan of the mid-ground, and then digitally erasing the sky again. You'll note I didn't add a lot of branches of ivy breaking the border of the ruins. Just a couple, for effect. But now you see why--the more I would have done, the more I would have had to erase around all the leaves. I could have gone in after and drawn in more digitally, but didn't want to deal with trying to match digital application of "paint" to the rest. Digital just looks a little different. So, here's the mid-ground layer.

The actual painted sky, as I painted it, is never seen in the final illustration the client received. The stage has really no digital enhancements, but the sky does, as I showed. The layer the client received for the sky was the digital one.

Step 5:

The figure was then traced down again, and I painted it right on top of the stuff you see above, completely covering up the ruins I'd just painted. Having finished the painting, I varnished it this time, scanned the whole thing, made a copy of the scan, and went about cutting out all the background once again, leaving the figure isolated as its own layer.

You see this sort of thing all the time, don't you? On advertisements, packaging, game manuals or websites--the figures that appear in other configurations elsewhere cut out and floated onto white or into another mix of characters. This is how it's done--by having the figure on its own layer so it can be pulled apart and re-used. Digitally, of course, you'd just open a new layer, "paint" the figure, and it would be separated by default. You could turn it on or off. As you can see, I had to sort of retroactively create each layer.

Yes, it was a bit of a headache. Yes, the whole piece probably took twice the time it might have taken had it been all digital. Yes, that means I made half the income I might have made otherwise. So why do it at all?

1.) The look of the piece, digitally, would have been just enough different, and I prefer the look of my painted work. I could continue to work at emulating my painted look, and over time have done so increasingly, but:

2.) Digital is fun, and I use it more or less at various times, but I'm a painter. I've made this point before. If I had to ditch paint entirely to survive as an illustrator, I might just ditch illustration and find another venue to paint. It would be a difficult decision, though.

3.) On might think there is the economic benefit of being able to sell the painting. And there is, but it's not guaranteed. If I sell the painting, I will make up the extra time spent on the piece. Or, I could have not painted it, finished it in half the time, and taken another commission from the developer which was a possibility in this case, at least. And a new commission would have been certain income versus having the reasonable chance that the painting never sells, and so I never recoup.

4.) I do believe this request is going to come increasingly--in some years, this will be standard. So, it's better that I wrestle with the issues as much as possible now, and learn how to go with the flow. It's no good to complain to a client about it, they rightfully will have no patience for it and can just as easily hire a digital guy for whom this is all a moot point, mostly. Neither will it do to demand a higher fee for my extra work, since my extra work is due to my medium, and again this is something where a digital artist would be at an economic advantage. Really, this is a matter of compete, adapt, or die.

I dealt with this layer-thing differently on different pieces, including doing a couple that were all or mostly digital, depending on the request. With Stalking Specter, the last piece done for this game a few months later, I composed a piece that was much simpler, so that each layer had less wasted time of painting details that would get covered up. It also went well with the assignment--one doesn't want to compromise unnecessarily for the sake of expediency. When a piece got too complicated for the painted route, I just went digital rather than compromise.

Stalking Specter

"Stalking Specter" sketch, charcoal

"Stalking Specter" sketch, charcoal

I spent part of this year working away on the recently-released Android mobile game, "Chains of Durandal," published by Mobage and developed by DeNA. I don't have an Android device, so can't give you any information on the game itself, except that it has some cool art, and some of that is mine. And over the next few weeks I'll be talking about some of it. I think it's a "freemium" type of app though, so it's probably worth giving it a spin. No idea if an iOS version is on its way. I hope so.

Interestingly, the first piece I'm showing is the last one done. Amazingly, "Stalking Specter," (my title) was painted just back at the beginning of June.

An interesting note about this piece is that it is the second time I painted this character. Within the game it seems to act as an unevolved/advanced character, sorta like how your Magicarp might evolve into a Gyarados...but I wouldn't know anything about that.

In this case I began with a charcoal study, which with heavy digital sketching became what I sent in to the art director.

Digital study

Digital study

There were some cues from the earlier illustration I did featuring this character (which was the "advanced" version, though I didn't know that at the time--confusing, I know) that needed to be picked up in this version.

So, everything about the image needed to be a bit subdued, but things like the hedge and the tendrils of wispy black smoke are part of that. I suppose that had I known this would be a set of this sort I would have composed them more tightly together, but as it stood I sort of needed to retroactively undo some of the other piece to allow this one to seem more like a before to the after.

Being video games, a lot of developers are used to everything being layered and tweakable. Being that most illustrators are digital these days, that's nothing unusual anymore. As a primarily traditional-media illustrator, however, this is an increasingly requested aspect of illustration that is challenging the feasibility of being an illustrator in traditional media.

"Stalking Specter, Evolved" 12x16" oil on watercolor paper

"Stalking Specter, Evolved" 12x16" oil on watercolor paper

It should be fairly obvious that paintings happen on one layer--the painted surface. To have things on layers digitally (for the uninitiated) means that the figure should be completely moveable independent of what's underneath--like an animation cel over a background. Depending on how much flexibility the client wants, using digital tools, every object could be its own layer, and even costume, such that you could click on or off almost any aspect of the image. Few would need that level of control, but for sure the ability to pull the character off the background, minimally.

This was the first project I've really been asked to do this on, and since then I've worked on another that requested similar. So, I've had to develop means of accomodating this request if I intend to continue working traditionally. It'll be a feature of some of the future posts on this project.

But for now, here you have a Stalking Specter, still hand-painted.