Product Over Process & What is Art

I thought I would take a moment to share my thoughts that have been percolating for awhile now. In particular, I wanted to address something I’ve heard or otherwise read online around the lines of “what is art?” or “is that legitimate art?” or even “does this constitute cheating in art?” I thought I would minimally attempt to answer these questions head-on, if for no other reason to state what I think is art; note the emphasis is on my opinion. You may disagree, of course; but, hopefully you find this discourse useful.

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Dragon Warden, A More Critical Eye

A few months ago I attended Norwescon where I participated in an artist workshop. This is where you can show your work to other artists to get your work, well, critiqued. And you also get to participate in someone else’s workshop. All in all, a lot of fun. This year, in particular, I found it exceedingly enlightening and constructive. I came out of the workshop with some homework, and here is the first of them.

While I like my original Dragon Warden piece, its undeniably a work in progress. Frankly, I think all my work is forever words in progress; the moment I’m done with it, within in days, hours, or even minutes I see things I want to adjust, change, or otherwise (hopefully) improve. Regardless of my forever needing to improve my skills and my artwork, the feedback focused on issues of values, composition, insufficient rendering that resulted in a muted piece of work without any clear focal point for the viewer.

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Norwescon Artist Workshop

One of the great things at Norwescon is in recent years is the addition of an artist workshop, or otherwise a critique of your work by both other artists and folks in the art field such as art directors, collectors, et cetera.

I participated last year for the first time, not entirely knowing what to expect. I found it sufficiently valuable that I wanted to do it again this year. Whereas last year I brought my work on my iPad, this year I had physical copies of my work. First and foremost, I’m now a believer of physical copies, especially given I was honestly a bit skeptical at first. But today I found that having physical copies all laid out on the table really allows for a much more comprehensive view of your work. To boot, I was able to lay out my work in chronological order, allowing us to find subtle shifts in my technique or approach that had encroached over time, but might otherwise lay undiscovered if viewed serially.

The critique, in no particular order, included the following major themes, or:

  • Push Contrast – over time my work has lost its depth due to a flattening of my values. I will admit this was intentional, but that is not to say it was the right decision. One person noted that my earliest piece is the strongest in terms of contrast, and likely a reason many people like it more than others. For what its worth, its the piece I like the least in terms of technique and rendering, so I will definitely go back and re-do, albeit I will try not to lose some of the things that make it stand out for so many others.
  • Know Your Profiles – this is a bit of a corollary to comments on contrast. While I know the value of 3-value thumbnails, I’m not as disciplined as I ought to be with it. The use of this technique early in the creation process can help ensure that my primary subjects can be read at a distance, and also help solve some of the muted contrasting that has crept into my work in the past year or so.
  • Warm vs Cool – My use of warm versus cool colors is, at times, fighting with the primary focal points. One recommendation is to use cooler colors to help knock back parts of the composition so it better recedes into the background, and use warmer colors to draw the viewer to the primary focal point. Interestingly, my own self-portrait suffers from this where the armor is the place where the viewer’s eye is drawn toward, and not my face itself. Someone asked if this was intentional or otherwise a subconscious decision; honestly, I think I just got carried away as it was the last thing I added and it being the first time I had rendered armor I got a bit carried away.
  • Careful of Lighting – In at least one instance, the lighting of my subject was inconsistent. In particular, I rather abused rim lighting to outline the subject. I will readily admit, I recall that at the time of producing that particular piece I had just learned of various forms of lighting, and had become enamored in particular with rim lighting. I’m still enamored; but, hopefully I apply it a bit more logically in the proceeding year since I learned of it.

While not a critique in and of itself, there was at least one compliment that particularly pleased me as an artist. I’ve always been in love with the textures of oils on canvas, and even though I avoid analog approaches, I’ve always wanted my pieces to exist in both worlds. At least one of the persons thought my work was analog (e.g. oils or acrylics) when in fact all my pieces are almost entirely if not entirely digital. As noted, I’ve been striving to achieve a more painterly style, so to have someone note with some surprise that my pieces were indeed digital really tickled me delighted.

From the critiques, there was some solid suggestions and questions that arose. One question is what my goals were as an artist, especially as I have pieces that are both a bit whimsical and other pieces that are more realistically rendered. Especially in context to professional pursuits, I’d really love to eventually illustrate books both as inserts and covers. My whimsical pieces would be appropriate for children’s or YA (young adult) books, whereas some of my other pieces would more appropriate for maturer audiences. In reality, I aspire to do both.

In that context of my goals, a suggestion given was to take one of my pieces and re-interpret for a different audience; I love the idea! It’s a great project, and an opportunity for me to show myself and possible clients my ability to approach a subject that is appropriate to the intended audience.

Another great suggestion is to revisit some of my recent pieces where I’ve dampened my range of contrasts, and push the values to help pull and push the fore- and backgrounds, respectively.

Here is the work reviewed, and presented in general chronological order.

This is a piece I did rather early on when I was just learning how to render digitally. It’s one of the pieces I love to hate, even though a lot of people love it. I showed at both this year’s and last year’s workshop, and I think I have a much better triangulation of the elements of the piece that work well. Last year it was pretty clear that narrative trumped technique, which as time has passed I have myself come to discover as a truism for myself. I love a lot of artists’ for their technique, but after seeing the 10th render of basically the exact same composition with only a slight variation in theme or subject I’ve grown weary of them as inspiration. That all said, I fully recognize the narrative elements of this piece as being something I do not want to lose. And I’ve gleaned from this year is that this is a stronger piece due to its greater range of contrast, something that really helps the composition and ensure viewers stay in the scene and explore.
One of the critiques of this piece is that lack of coherent lighting; in particular, note the use of rim lighting EVERYWHERE. Yep, I was in my rim lighting phase as an artist. This is one of my more whimsical pieces, and it was suggested that I do a re-interpretation of this piece in a more realistic style as a way to compare and contrast my different styles; again, an idea I absolutely love! I cannot wait to sit down with this piece and try my hand at it again, but with an entirely different lens.
One of the strongest critiques of this was the lack of contrast between the foreground and background, along with the fact that reds do not at all carry when underwater. Yes, this was meant to be a sea dragon submerged underwater after attacking a boat that is left off scene.
This piece was where I was delighted to learn that someone thought it was analog, not digital. As noted above, its something I’m actually striving to achieve in many (most?) of my pieces. And again, the lack of strong contrast was brought up as something I want to return to in this piece to see how I help punch up the subject, as it were. But I might note I do not recommend punching any dragons of any size; its rather hazardous to your health.
Generally speaking I think the largest critiques again lay with the lack of strong contrast to help bring the subjects into better focus. Additionally, there are things about the landscape that should be reconsidered. They did see it as a strong piece for a book cover wrap, a comment that pleased me since it was partly an attempt of use an aspect ratio uncommon to me that might work for a book cover. Maybe someday I will write a novel worthy of it as its book cover.
As a self-portrait, I’m still pleased with this piece. It was noted that the armor is actually the focal point of the piece as it holds the highest contrast. It’s definitely that I want to go back and remedy now that it has been called out.
This is my latest piece, and I’m still quite happy with it. Albeit, just give me time and I’m sure I will start to only see all its faults. But I think its one of my stronger pieces in terms of cohesive style, and where I leveraged my references to their best effect. That all said, it still suffers from low contrast.

In summary, even if you did nothing but attend these workshops, they are well worth the price of admission to Norwescon. I really appreciate people taking the time to constructively provide feedback; I always leave these feeling greatly inspired and re-invigorated to develop my technical and narrative skills so I continue to grow as an artists.

And to all my critiquers, thank you!

Norwescon 42 Artshow

I made it (again) to the Norwescon artshow; but barely, by the skin of my teeth. I have no idea why my teeth have skin on them; note to self: look that up.

It’s maybe not too surprising that I’m pretty euphoric at the moment. It’s a pretty strong show this year, certainly the strongest I recall since starting my annual pilgrimage to Norwescon about 4 years ago. But according to at least one very accomplished artist, a certain Mark Ferrari with whom I’ve developed a full-on artist crush for since he’s just awesome, it may be the strongest he has seen in the past decade or more. Which makes it an even greater treat and privilege to hang my work aside so many other very, very talented artists.

If you are at Norwescon this year – and let’s be honest, who is not – then do stop by my humble booth at panel number 10. I forgot some things given I did not expect to make it off the waitlist this year, but hopefully that will detract from the display.

That all said, as I reflect on the past twelve months since Norwescon 41, I do wish I had accomplished a bit more in the past year in terms of output. I mean Mark Ferrari did 56 pieces in the same of 12-18 months … he’s a beast! I had a pretty strong middle of the year, but sadly toward the end of the year my right should got pretty bonked up which caused me quite a bit of pain, throwing me a bit off my game. Yes, excuses! But one of the great things about shows like this is the amount of inspiration and new, higher bars you find for yourself by seeing art and talking to the artists themselves.

If you’re interested, you can also see all the artwork on display at my other site: Ward’s Pics. You can even purchase your own prints from the site, if that’s yer kinda thang. 😉


Back in February of 2018, I happened to be at CR Sandidge sipping on a glass of wine while sketching. As fate would have it, Miss Caris was also there to visit her mother, Athena. Now, for folks who don’t know me, I tend to fill in my time doodling things like eyes, trees, fantastical beasts, but especially dragons. Oh, I do like me some dragons.

Given that both me and Miss Caris were sharing our drawings with each other, the conversation eventually moved to Sabrina’s love of dragons and Athena’s desire to have a dragon-themed label for Sabrina. We talked some more that evening, and I told Athena I would happily design something for them. She said yes, and the rest is, as they, history.

I’m writing the below on the eve of the Sabrina bottle grand debut scheduled for April 20th, 2019. While I will not be able to attend the debut evening, I wanted to share a bit of how we got from that fine evening well over a year ago to today. The below will progress in chronological order, starting from concepts and ending with the final design; hopefully along the way I can share a bit of how we made it through the various turns to where we are today.


When I got home I immediately started drawing various roughs of dragons. As we had not yet discussed specifics, I was trying out various styles and motifs that I thought might work on a wine label. I tried a few cute and cuddly critters around themes of fertility and contentment. And if you look carefully, you might even find one or two concepts that look a bit like a bunch of grapes! And if you are curious, I wrote a post on how I took these concepts and further fleshed them out as personal projects.

Sketches, Line

As we I started sharing my initial ideas with Athena and Sabrina, it came out that they wanted a more Asian dragon. When I think of Asian dragons, I imagine something akin to what you might see at a Chinese New Year festival, large head like a tiger and a long, sinuous body that tapers to an end like a snake. So I started moving my ideas along these lines with the help of Sabrina who shared with me dragons she loves.


Dragon Emerges

I knew that having the dragon wrap around the bottle would really help sell the concept; and I thought it would really make the Sabrina stand out amongst its peers on a wine shelf as something unique and special. Below is one such idea where we start t see a more asian dragon emerge, with more rendering applied as we start to lock down on what does and does not resonate with all of us.

Concept, Warp (original)

At this point, we had a good direction to proceed. An asian dragon wrapping around the bottle; but, as evidenced with the above versus the final design you can tell that we were not satisfied with the dragon’s head, a prominent feature of the design. I still liked the idea of a dragon as a grape, as so I took this general shape and turned it into the below design concept.

Concept, Dragon

Its All in the Details

Given that everything to date had been done as a raster image (the dragon is just a lot of pixels), I needed to convert everything to a vector image for purposes of printing. This is an entirely different workflow than how I normally work with my artwork, but vector yields much better results when you want to print something that will require a lot of little adjustments to scaling, et cetera.

The below is a version that was getting close to the final version. You can see that I’ve extended out the horns of the dragon, and added visually interesting patterns to make it more tactility given that the final print would only include a few colors – I could not rely on shading to help achieve the results I wanted but instead shapes and lines.

WIP (v Feb 21)

We already knew that the we’d use the metallic ink for the logo, and I wanted to that ink elsewhere. So as the design emerged, the idea of the dragon conjuring an orb fit well with the theme, and would allow me to use this ink to help harmonize the dragon with the CSR logo.

But beyond that, we did not quite know what color(s) to use the for the dragon. And this is not as straight-forward as if I were printing to paper. On a wine bottle you have different colored glass, and the color changes on whether there is wine in the bottle or not. So finding a color palette that would work in all these situations was not straight-forward to say the least.

Color Study, Overview

While we did settle on a very simple palette of white, I would still love to do a run of bottles with a bit more more color. The below is my version of color that I really like.

Color Study, Variety

An artist is never really done, and that is no less the case with Sabrina bottle design. I was not satisfied with the amount of detail (or lack thereof), and I had a lot of issues with a solid white tail seen in the above image. So I went back one weekend, and spend time refining details and redoing the tail entirely to better balance with the text.

Final Version

In total, there is something like 80+ hours of love poured into the design over the course of 6-8 weeks starting in February of 2018. Since then I’ve worked with the printers and was ready to go for Athena and Ray when they were ready to finally bottle Sabrina. The day is here, so I hope you enjoy a glass or two – my only hope is that my own art pairs well with our preeminent artist and winemaker: Ray Sandidge.


CR Sandidge Sabrina 2018 wine bottle

About the Artist

Dragon Warden – Artist Self Portrait

I currently reside in Manson, Washington with my partner and our two great danes. We are very fortunate to live near her parents, as we moved out here for a slower pace of life, and still hope to start a family of our own in this lovely valley.

My day job more revolves around being the chief technology officer for an edutech startup called Varsity Tutors, so it may seem a far stretch for a person with my background to design a wine label, let alone draw a dragon. But I have a lifelong passion for creating art, and I grew up with equal passions in physics and mathematics as I did in illustration and art; albeit in high school I started steering toward engineering as my career path. Alas, that is for another story. Suffice it to say, I had experience in the past with publishing and graphic design from the mid 1980s when it was possible with a Mac and laser printer to do it yourself out of our basement. And while most of my professional career is centered on technology, I’ve worked very closely with designers and artists through out that time and thus have a strong working knowledge of process and technique. While I would argue I’m more artist than designer, I did have the distinct pleasure of designing Chelan Valley Family Medicine’s logo in recent years.

I’m looking forward to doing another wine label for C.R. Sandidge scheduled for next year. And I’m always open to chatting if you have ideas you want to see come to life, dragons or otherwise! Please do contact me!