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.

Sketchboard Pro with iPad Pro 12” and Apple Pencil. There is a nice tray to lay the pencil along the iPad for charging, and even a hole where the camera is in case you still want to use it to take snaps.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

Knight & Her Mount

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.

Great Dan’gons

“Two Great Dan’gons and Their Owner” is a bit of humorous portraiture of our two Great Danes, Kumo and Sora, along with a guest appearance by me, albeit posthumously. Hopefully it’s not too hard to find me tucked away there in the picture.

The whole idea for this picture originated, ironically, from a picture I took of Kumo and Sora lounging around – rather adorably I might add – inside our house. But never satisfied with them as mere great danes, I wanted to transform them into dragons. Why? Why not!

More so, I thought we rarely see dogs transformed into my favorite mythical creatures, and more so I wanted to topple the great Todd Lockwood and his great feline bigotry toward dragons. But let’s be honest, while it pains me to admit it, cats, not dogs, are a better foundation for creating a dragon’s physique. Have you ever seen a dog’s head on a dragon’s body with wing and tail? I’m not knocking Never Ending Story … but Falkor‘s head looks like it’s going to fall off at any moment. It just looks a little silly. So I concede that Mister Lockwood might actually know a thing or two about drawing dragons. But I felt I had to try!

My normal workflow often starts on an iPad Pro (12.9″ first gen) using Procreate. I like this application for sketching and generally to get values and composition nailed. But I’ve found I do not like it once I move away from roughs, especially as I focus on details. Its too easy to have misaligned brushstrokes, even on the ginormous 12.9″ screen with a lot of zooming in and out. In the past year, I’ve introduced Corel Painter 2020 on a Wacom 22″ touch as my preferred platform to follow-through with detailed work around coloring and final rendering where the larger screen is invaluable for keeping track of everything at a glance.

I started this back in September of this year, but then put it down as I felt it was not going the way I liked. In particular, I was worried the values were too severe for me to properly pull off rendering without it feeling washed out. And as happens as an amateur, I still get overwhelmed at various points in production that basically force me to put a piece down and just walk away for weeks, months, and even years. Fortunately for this piece, after a few months of hiatus, I picked it up earlier this week in late November largely just to finish it from a “I start what I finish” perspective.

As things would happen, having an uninterrupted day to work on the piece was a bit of a watershed opportunity for me to constructively work through some of the anxieties I’ve had for the piece. It’s still not my favorite piece, but I feel I’ve gotten as far as I’m going to take it. In particular, the rendering of Kumo’s fur took me a few attempts to get something that I feel works good enough. Even so, I’m not completely satisfied with portions of the piece such as Kumo’s extended foreleg where I still feel like something is just not quite right. In my experience, I sorta need to mentally walk away from a piece for me to later come back and solve lingering issues.

Regardless, I think the piece has some elements I’m proud of. I think Sora is rendered perfectly, framing Kumo beautifully in the foreground with a sense of depth provided by Sora fading into the background. There is a sense of depth given by the atmospheric lighting that I quite like. I’m equally happy with the the tree and forest which has enough details to be interesting without being overwhelming. And I continue to chuckle whenever I think of the backstory of having been eaten by my girls, with Kumo now laying with my skull nestled in her foreleg while she looks off into the distance with her characteristic disinterested gaze.

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.

Continue reading “Dragon Warden, A More Critical Eye”

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!