flame-broiled unicorn and dragon drenched in awesome sauce
I’m the creator and operator of this little corner of the internets, writing on all things related to art and more specifically my experiences trying to figure this whole thing out. I guess I’m trying to figure out life, too, but mostly I just post about art here.
I recently started playing D&D 5e on Camp D&D Online after backing it on Kickstarter. I tend to play magic users pretty much any chance I get, so for a change of pace I thought I’d play a melee character. For point of reference, some 35 years ago was the last melee character I played was a dwarf fighter with big dreams of becoming a paladin. It should be noted that this was in the days of 2e where such things were not, per canon, allowed. And as you might guess it with a bunch of teenagers, the DM refused so I just roll-played as if my dwarf would some day catch the notice of a human paladin who would induct me into the eternal order of protectorates. It never happened. Dwarf prejudice was a real thing, kids.
Before you worry about me, I also created a dragon-born sorcerer by the name of Unnis Kilyax, for whom I will illustrate later this week. But for whatever reason, I started with my first fighter in decades creating a warforged warrior who woke from a scrap pile of their brethren without memory of its past. Stone exudes a child-like innocence that sits uncomfortably with the fact that they are an elite, two weapon wielding mercenary which its named Sword and Axe. Warforged, if you don’t know, are decidedly simple and direct in all things including the naming things.
When I started sketching Stone, I thought I might go with a more straight-forward rendering using line-art and cell-shading. However, I really did not like the line quality, and I started to tweak I ended reworking the entire piece to be a more painterly rendering. Once I got done and let it sit for a few hours, opting to change some subtle shading around the mouth along with details on the face that I think help keep the eyes on the face.
Given that Stone is a walking automaton with a body that is effectively a full-body suit of armor, it did not make sense to have them wear a helmet. Interestingly enough, I hate the hood as an element from the perspective of character design, but I never figured out a better approach. I struggled how to convey that Stone was a fighter in a portrait, thus why I added a sword-like symbol over the forehead as a compromise. Admittedly, there is an error of mystery with the rather organic elements of the hood with what is otherwise an entirely metallic and mechanical humanoid.
I recently completed this piece, while partly in recognition I sorta suck (technical term for not good) doing horse bodies, largely inspired by my UX design team who have everyone who joins the team draw a unicorn. I love unicorns! I have a site dedicated to them and dragons; even if I do tend to stick to the later than the former, it is right there in the name: uni(corn) (dra)gons. On top of wanting to be a part of the team, even if but spiritually, I also wanted to honor our company with our color scheme of coral and midnight blue. In short, this is part love note to all of them (they know who they are) and the company I work at. Oh, we christened our design system “Radiance” so there is that connection in the picture, too.
I wanted to take a moment to note that I finally received by Sketchboard Pro, which I’ll likely post about separately at some point. I was lucky enough to be a backer for this on KickStarter, and so received mine a little after the first of the New Year. It’s a game changer, in my mind, for anyone seriously looking for a complete digital-studio using an iPad Pro 12.9”. Combined with Apple Pencil, PaperLike for that, well, paper-like feel, and Procreate digital app, you basically have a studio for on-the-go. I have to wonder if my Wacom 22” touch Cintiq may never get used again — seriously, this is how mighty the sketchboard pro is to me. It helps bring back that feel I had as a kid with a large sketch pad. There is ample room for your arms and hands, and really allows you to comfortably put the iPad in your lap. I love that it comes with feet, too, that allows you to put it on a table and use at an angle. I highly recommend you got get it, or gift to an artist in your life (assuming they own an iPad).
As discussed in my last post, my workflow is starting to settle down. As with any workflow, there is some iteration back and forth, but largely I go serially in the following stages, or:
Concept: You will note that I’m not spending a ton of time at this step in my workflow, at least for this picture. I’ve found that you can find a lot of create concepts and inspiration from Pinterest that can get you 80-100% of the way there, especially if you’re largely doing practice pieces such as is the case with this one. As you might surmise, at this point in my artist journey, I’m more interested in just practicing specific subjects that thinking through a larger visual narrative. I fully expect this will become a bigger portion in the future when I feel I’ve mastered more of the mechanical parts around execution.
Composition: Again, similar to the before phase, I only spend a small amount of time with composition since I tend to stay true (for now) to my reference materials. You will note that I changed the position of the right foreleg in my picture, but this was a relatively straight-forward adjustment. But beyond that, this piece is largely just a study of a single reference (horse) with some additional photo-bashing of the clouds to fill things out.
Color Schema: Depending on how far off from the references I will wander with my own color schema, its a good idea to think a bit about this before you start on your values. This is largely due to the fact that not all colors are created equal when it comes to values. For instance, you cannot just magically add a color layer on top of you values and just add any color you want. Don’t believe me? Go and try it, and be prepared to be disappointed. Or amazed how complex values to colors really is. If you do not know you want that sash on your warrior to be red before you start, you will quickly realize that all those brighter values you created over hours of painstaking detailed values are all for naught when you discover that your sash looks pink, not a deep red. So it does pay to know what colors you want to use before you start laying down your values. While beyond this post, I highly recommend you check out my post on color versus values fundamentals. In this piece, I knew I wanted to use coral and midnight blue. The midnight blue requires me to either take it literally and use it as a background color (boring!), or come up with a way to incorporate into other elements. I thought the idea of a black unicorn quite interesting in and of itself, and it also solved my needs for darker values to support midnight blue. Had I picked a lighter color horse (read: traditional white unicorn), I’d never get the unicorn to incorporate midnight blue expect as some accept item.
Values, Shapes: While I’m not entirely consistent (read: happy) with how I approach the development of my values, this is where I spent the vast majority of time for any given picture: developing my values, both at phase of rough and details. Why am I dissatisfied? What a thoughtful reader you are to ask! I truly want to develop a more painterly style focused more on shapes than lines, but I’ve such a strong historical disposition toward lines that I’ve not (yet) broken myself of this preference. As such, I have a tendency to build values in a manner similar to how I approach it with a pencil, slowly with a lot of fine strokes and blurring to get the desired look; versus say a painter that starts with their shape language and blocks out subject composition and value simultaneously.
Values, Details: This is the stage I, and I think, many (most?) artists like to spend their time since all the hard-stuff such as composition is out of the way. It’s a tough balance since while details are grand, they can play counter to a more painterly approach of figuring out where to draw the eye toward with detail, versus leave out details for deemphasis. There is where the use of reference photos can be a disadvantage, depending on the depth of field of the reference.
Gradient Map: Many apps have had this feature for many years, but Procreate recently added it to version 5x. I really like using feature as you generally what your shadows and highlights color shifted toward cools and warms, respectively. And of course, you can always flip that with warm shadows and cool highlights, all without changing your values. Other approaches such as just putting a color layer on top of your values and color shifting everything toward sepia is a good compromise (and is closer to how masters of old started their paintings before adding glazes), it does require more work in the next stage of colorizing. Regardless of your approach, never ever start coloring using greyscale as your values unless you really want to get a rather unflattering and flat looking picture. Especially if your subject is humans, there is a good reason why masters used sepia tone (burnt umber) for the under layer.
Colorization(i.e. Glazing): Prior to gradient maps, this could take me nearly as much time as I spent on the values. I now find I spend the least amount of time since most of the big decisions have all happened before this phase. Furthermore, it’s pretty straightforward to start all over and come up with a completely different coloring without too much fuss, muss, or hassle. This stage feels the most like an improvisation for me, and as a consequence, I tend to not get concerned if something is not working as its painless to change.
Highlights & Tweaks: The last phase is to try to add some punch to my pictures. That said, the real challenge at this stage is to not radically change your values you painstaking established in your earlier stages. Remember, values are everything to human visual recognition so changing your values, even subtly, can alter your picture. Before careful, especially as applying color dodge, color burn, add, multiple, et cetera do affect value. That said, this can be a fun part of putting a bit more zing in your picture before calling it wraps. Given I love fantasy artwork, I’m never adverse to a bit of color dodge to make a few things pop (read: glow) a bit more.
As you can see above, I did not stray too much from my references, especially of the horse. I thought it was already a very dramatic pose, although I did reposition the right foreleg a bit. The more I look at it, I wonder if I could have been even more suggestive with that foreleg of the unicorn right between rearing up and leaping forward, but so it goes with art. You get to the finish line, only to look back and see all the things you wish had done differently.
You might have noticed that I did a lot of desaturation from the gradient map to the final version. While I really liked the deeper saturations, I felt that for purposes of providing more depth and helping the unicorn stand out that I intentionally knocked back the saturation around it (read: desaturated), especially in the clouds.
If there is anything I wish I could do differently (read: better the next time) are the clouds. I’m never satisfied with my clouds as I feel I’ve not quite mastered simplifying the shape language without resorting to something that’s too simplistic. Someday I will create clouds I’m proud of; but, this picture is not that.
That said, I’m pleased with the results. My workflow is starting to gel for me, and I feel I can work through a piece in a few casual nights now while hanging out with my partner. It feels good to complete something that fits with my original vision, and at the same time is advancing my craft.
As it’s a new year, first and foremost let me welcome you to 2021! And given I just completed a piece, I thought it would be a good thing to welcome in the year by writing a bit. In particular, I wanted to go a bit deeper into my digital process as its built upon information gleaned from a variety of sources that may seem obvious to folks already deeply involved in digital art such as a game studio artists, it nonetheless took a bit of sleuthing to come up with a set of steps that work well (enough) for me. And that, I hope, proves useful to you, dear reader.
My own process, while has not dramatically changed in the past two or so years, I wanted to share here in detail in the hopes it may prove useful to others. While not specific to this article, as a side note I want to acknowledge that digital art has as steep a learning curve, if not more, than traditional means. With the luxury of unlimited undos, layering effects, and pixel-level manipulation of an image its possible to become quite overwhelmed with both the decisions you can make, but also understanding what options are available to you. As I’ve covered in the past, its important to have a strong grasp of color theory, and this is where I might start before reading the rest of this post, albeit it’s by no means required.
I recently replaced my first generation iPad Pro (2015) with a 2020 version, and in so doing reacquainted myself with Procreate. In the past, I’ve more relied on my Wacom 21” and Corel Painter given to do completed pieces, so it was a bit of surprise to discover for myself how far I could push my process through the latest version of Procreate. Everything shown below was done within Procreate, which is quite incredible given the software costs approximately $5 USD.
One area of my process that is weak, if not all areas, is the use of reference photos to create a new image. While I’ll use reference photos, I tend only embellish the original image, but not necessarily combine elements from various references to create a new image entirely. So I set out with this piece to do just that. I will begrudgingly admit that Pinterest is invaluable in this step, as I was able to find a number of photographs to help me ensure I create a cohesive piece, while at the same time really inspiring me to push myself.
In particular, two areas that I wanted to focus on in this piece was rendering metal and animal horns, areas where in the past I’ve skipped over references to the detriment of the piece. And unbeknownst to me at the time, I’d discover that rendering animal manes are quite hard, as hard or harder than rendering human hair.
For sake of comparison, the above shows the process in two steps from first roughs to the final version. (To help with he comparison, I’ve intentionally only shown the final in grays.) As you might note, the original mount was meant to be more dragon-like; but, I found it challenging to add an interesting dragon-mount that did not resemble a chocobo. In particular, for the composition I wanted to physically tether the knight to the mount, partly to address what I thought was an imbalance with the knight’s rather un-dynamic pose. Another reason to shift from a dragon-mount as I also thought it a good opportunity for me to draw something based a bit more on reality as it holds me more accountable to correct anatomy than I might get away with .
While looking for interesting horns, I came across four-horned animals referred to collectively as polycerates. To be honest, I did not realize it was even possible in real life, so when I ran across a goat I knew I had to figure out how to incorporate it into the painting.
While I was leaning toward a more goat-like head, horns or no horns, I ended up defaulting to a horse largely as it was something very un-me, as it were. I’m sure to revisit this as I think goat heads, especially their snouts and eyes are exceedingly fascinating and would look amazing when rendered with a dragon’s body. Regardless, I really wanted to push myself with this piece, and that includes taking on subjects not entirely within my wheelhouse, or if not wheelhouse, within my comfort zone. So goat horns and horse it is!
While both images above show the knight’s values, they are different in color schema. A traditional approach is to create values in a single color, as shown to the left. These values are often done in grays if you are using pencils or inks, or sepia if you are using acrylics or oils. If I were doing lined art or illustration, it would not matter since my values would be very simply, and there would be a few additional steps to add shadows and highlights via multiple and add layers, respectively. But given that this piece’s values were intact, any additional steps such as just noted would shift my values; but, more on that in a bit.
For a variety of reasons, you cannot just colorize shadows and highlights and expect a realistic, or even pleasing, result. While its entirely possible to use different color shifts for your shadows and highlights, generally speaking we shift shadows toward purples and highlights toward yellows or magentas. There is a variety ways to accomplish this. The way I did it for this piece is to color balance to shift my values layer as seen above in the right image.
After shifting my values I move onto coloring. The benefit of the afore-mentioned color-shifted values can be seen in the two images immediately above. The left image shows the knight colored using grays only. The knight on the right shows way happens when you shift the values to purples and magentas then add color in a blended fashion (in Procreate, I set the color layer to 75%) you get what I deem is a superior result without any additional work. Of course, as noted you can reproduce these results with more manual process of shifting your colors to purples and magentas, but this is both tedious and error prone since you basically need to repaint your colors with the same level of fidelity as you did with your values.
Another thing you will note is that the changes to the values right before I stated coloring and the final version. If I had purely colored this with no other changes then there’d be no difference in values. But as I worked, I used additional layers to add, color dodge, and even multiply to get things to my vision of the piece. In my experience, it’s easier to lighten things than darken them; this is not a technical limitation but purely a preference of mine during my process. I will readily admit I have a love, maybe too much a love, for color dodge but in this case I think it really helps the background lights come through the trees and foliage in a way that really helps set the mood.
The above shows all the major phases of the piece from original rough values of the knight on through to the mount, to adding a background scene, to coloring. While its not perfect, and is often the case, already there are bits I do not like, I’m reasonably pleased with the results.
My good friend, Matt Seilback, approached me a few months ago with a passion project of his. Matt and I met at my previous employment where he and I immediately found in each other kindred spirits. From the outside we are an unlikely pair, he a devote Christian and I an ardent atheist. And yet, our passion of art and shared sense of humanity quickly bonded us to each other. It’s been many years and at least one company separating us since we met, yet we’ve stayed steadfast friends through all that time.
Like the story of too many this year, Matt found himself in the midst of COVID-19 looking for ways to financially support his family. As artists, even in the best of the years this can be a challenge. Your artistic voice often must be very tamed, if not outright held in check, when working in corporate settings. This is not an incrimination of corporate work, just the nature of the needs of the company are not necessarily served by one’s own inner needs as an artist. Given his situation, it was an opportunity for Matt to see how he might step closer to creating a future where his artistic vision could be better expressed and harnessed while still earning a living for he and his family.
When he came to me, he wanted to start his own company, The Curious FilmMaker, that would become a door toward such a future. He was in need of a logo, and as a friend, I could not resist but to volunteer my time to help him get a bit closer to making that dream a reality.
One of the joys of working with other artists is their clear sense of vision for what they want. They also understand intimately how to work with another artist. This is no more true than with Matt; while he had a clear vision of the overall motif he wanted for a logo, he needed my skills to help bring his ideas to life.
There is nothing worse than starting out on a project where you get an early start, fall in love with a particular direction, only to discover your client hates it. Happen to you, too? Happens to everyone, and I’ve yet to find a person who enjoys that even when its our day-to-day job. It’s the nature of things for sure, but over the many years I’ve worked on graphic design for others, I’ve discovered the sooner I can narrow in on a client’s tastes the better. Once I get an idea of that, then and only then can I jump headfirst into ideas that will largely land with them from the very first rough draft.
We spent a day or two examining logos from other companies that inspired him, gathering notes on what aspects resonated with him. Whether it was typography, line-weight, color schema, or even theme, everything was game. This was largely an opportunity for Matt to more intuitively describe his tastes without having to articulate it directly; something most of us would find challenging to put down in words but effortless to do is just by pointing to examples. And this is exactly what Matt did for me: help narrow in on elements of design that he loved (and did not love), freeing me up to spend more time iterating on composition and content without getting bogged down on stylistic choices.
For those not in the know, Canva is an amazing tool for graphic design work. While it’s a web-only tool geared toward digital design with easy exports to PDF and other digital platforms, I found it superior in a lot of ways to more traditional tools such as Adobe Illustrator and Affinity Designer (which I love). Canva is frankly an amazing tool for rapidly prototyping, and in a lot of ways is a complete design studio for jobs such as this. I’d export progress to my local machine and then share in a common Slack channel for Matt to comment on. This allowed us to seamlessly collaborate when convenient for ourselves, especially as we both have other full-time jobs along with a two-hour time zone difference separating us. Even with this kind of asynchronous communications, it presented zero hinderance to us, and we maintained that sense of carefree collaboration and virtuous feedback loop that feeds the soul of every artist, myself included.
We wanted a logo that spoke of Matt’s passion for the craft and long-history of videography stretching back to the days of analog film. There were some attempts for more abstract design elements in the logo, but ultimately we decided on a more direct approach, including the silhouette of a vintage film camera that Matt provided. It was straightforward enough to use Inkscape to produce a reliable vector outline of the image, and then manipulate it to create perspective while providing a solid outline to allow me to separate it from the background when I composited it within Canva. Finally, given Matt’s passion as an artist is to reveal the quirky, the curious, the inner-most passions of his subjects, we wanted a logo that even in typography nodded to this quality of Matt, thus I settled on both a serif and sans serif font to juxtapose Matt’s rounded sensibilities in a modern setting.
I’m excited for Matt. He is an amazing friend and generous human being. But more than that, he is a visual story-teller who is out to tell other peoples’ stories. I’m excited to hear, and more importantly, see what he has to say. For my small part, I’m grateful to be a part of his journey.
There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
I’m not the first to post this quote … but I like it. It’s a good reminder that we are quite likely living through a pivotal inflection point of our country. That our tomorrow, whatever it will be, will look very different than our yesterday. And rapidly so.
I am hopeful that recent years are not for naught. For some it has only been a few years of challenge living in a nation divided, where hate has replaced acceptance, where bigotry walks our streets and flies our airwaves uncontested, where so many who fought for the right to be acknowledged and to exist as they were born have seen their inalienable rights erode right under their very feet.
And for others, these few years are but a drop in the bucket; for many they were born into a lifetime of living in fear for nothing more than being different than the status quo. And more than this, others still it has been an unshakable, unwanted, perverse family heirloom and legacy that has haunted their family through the generations; all waiting to see promises made that to this day remain broken and unfilled for so many.
Who does not want for themselves, their children, their loved ones the simple act of living in a world where they can openly walk the streets without fear of retaliation from the systems built to protect, where they can apply to any institution that is meant to employ them without wondering how far the stairs truly go for them? Who does not want to live in a world where we live only with the limits we impose on ourselves, instead of living and dying by the limits imposed by those who cannot see their shared humanity in every face they encounter?
For many of us, myself included, we lived with incorrect assumptions about our successes. We believed our success was largely, if not wholly, a reflection of our merit. We confused merit with our privilege. It is not that we are not without merit, but that our privilege as white, as male, as heterosexual, as being brought up in a middle-class family set in a community where college-education and high-paying jobs were the norm not the exception, gave us far more than our merit alone would have achieved if all things were equal. And because we believed in the inherent rightness of our merit, we thought by being color-blind that we were not racist or sexist when we believed everyone, regardless of their disadvantage and lack of privilege, to be able to achieve the same heights as us through effort alone. And if they could not, then our flawed narrative made us conclude that those without were themselves somehow lazy, unmotivated; they were without sufficient merit. That is the lie we tell ourselves, the narrative of the American dream writ large but not true for the vast majority of our nation’s peoples.
None of us are born equal. We are made equal by the compassion, by the understanding, and the support of all those around us who understand this fundamental truth, and who further subscribe to the notion that we are all equal to the rights, freedoms, and successes found in a life lived freely. This compassion is not costless; it requires us to share and make room for everyone. It’s a compassion that requires us to be selfless, and may at times require us to sacrifice so that others may share in all these things. But this is not to say it’s a zero-sum conversation; what we share is returned to us all many fold by the peace, prosperity and well-being that such selfless compassion engenders and germinates in all touched by it. Again, these things do not just happen; they require us all to lean toward each other, with hands and heart open for this kind of world to materialize.
The stairs we climbed as a nation are long, hard ones. We have faltered. We have slipped. We have scraped shins and broken bones in our ascent, and sometimes confused our descent as anything what it is: a falling away from grace. We have lost ourselves in the romanticized notions of a nation that only exists in our minds, only exists in our myth-making words. We cannot be great again, because we were never great to begin with. And may never be truly great in all that such ideals are just that: ideals meant to be unattainable, just beyond our grasp but still forever inspiring us to reach higher, with deeper conviction and stronger resolve. We are meant to struggle with our humanity, we are meant to wrestle with our imperfections. We are meant to accept these things, and in them find the peace that comes from accepting this simple fact: we are all equals to each other unto our own eyes and our own hearts.
Yes. It’s a scary time. It’s a time of turnover. It’s a time of chaos. But it is also a time of change. We are not truly lost till we stop accepting who we are. We cannot arrive at a nation we believe we to be until we accept the nation that we are. It is now a time for us to accept our racism. Accept our sexism. Accept our national legacy of hate. And change. Each and every one of us.