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.

Like any criticism, as an artist we have to ultimately decide what to adopt, incorporate, or otherwise disregard. So I had full agency to take this feedback as I wanted, and decided I really wanted to see what I could do as a means of pushing myself. Over the past week or so I finally picked up the piece and started pushing the envelope, as it were. And while I will discuss more as we go, I found the whole process of re-visiting a piece, even if less than a year since I did the original, very informative and even transformative as it forced me to take a very critical and objective eye to my own work.

The Original

Note how the viewer’s eye is generally forced out of the picture. On top of this, the more highly rendered and saturated area (B) competes with the main subject in area A.
The values are not too bad, but note how how the armor is overall darker values, while the main subject in Area A is closer than not with the dragon in the background.

As seen above, I’ve provided both a marked up version of the original along with a desaturated one to help provide context on composition and values.

First, on composition, you will notice there are a lot of elements forcing the eye out of the picture. From the dragon’s stare to its horns to is arched neck, the curves force you away from the main subject. I notated two major areas in dashed lines. Area A is the where the eye is meant to rest. One might argue that the color of the eyes with the high saturated blue successfully drawer the viewer in; on this point, I agree. But the rest of the face is lacking details of interest to keep the viewer there. Instead, Area B is rendered with more care than the face when it comes to details and deeper values and saturation, and as such even if a viewer strays to Area A they tend to drop down and stay in Area B. As this was not the intent, one can argue that the rendering is fighting the artist’s (my) intent.

Second, on values, the foreground and background are fairly similar values, especially both the dragon and the face. And where there are darker values that might draw the eye, they are in Area B.

To put it bluntly, poor compositional elements coupled to under-rendering in the main area along with over-rendering in supporting areas ultimately work counter to the main subject of the piece. If I were to grade myself, I think a C is reasonable.

Many Attempts

While I’ve corrected some of the issue found in the first one, in some ways I’ve added other issues. I might argue the scales help bring you toward the subject (yay!), but the other new elements take the viewer out.
I’m not sure I’ve really improved the values here, too much, albeit the values around the eyes are darker which I think improve things albeit other issues still exist from previous versions.

I will not share every subsequent version of the original piece – you can see a quick video embedded below if you are interested – but the above is representative of the intermediary progress I achieved in the past week. While the dragon had some of its issues resolved such as the scales, they did not overall work well with the sense of scale I was trying to achieve. I think the dorsal fins (or whatever you want to call the things on the spine) worked and did not work. They worked directionally, but it was obvious I really needed to refine them to ensure they were not competing my with my vision as an artist.

The inclusion of a moon in the far background was a bit of an inspired accident as it allowed me to added a compositional element that moved the viewer to the middle of the image while also allow me to explore backlighting which resulted in rim lighting around both the main and background subjects. This both calls these subjects out, while also helping me separate them from each other.

I was loathe to de-emphasize the dragon, especially as I wanted to create a connection between both the dragon and myself given that was central to the narrative that the main subject was the warden to the dragon. They have a kindred relationship, and I worried if I dropped I dropped too many details the dragon would literally and metaphorically fade into the background. A wonderful suggestion from one of the folks I met at the Norwescon Workshop was to have the dragon looking back on the warden, and that seriously worked like a charm. I also did some other tricks as using similarly high-saturation blues and greens between the eyes to help establish that connection I wanted to achieve. Overall, I’m ecstatic on how these two subjects are tied together from a narrative and compositional perspective.

Final Version (for now)

Dragon Warden, Redux. I’m not convinced this is my last attempt at this piece, but I feel I’ve significantly improved upon the main piece. Perfect? No. Better? Yes, or so I think.
Close up. Note there is significantly more details than before on the main subject that give the a lot of details for the viewer to explore. Even though the dragon does have a lot of details (I could not resist), the dragon is looking back on the main subject which allows the viewer to naturally move between main and background subjects.

You will notice a few changes in the final version. I used a completely different reference image for my self-portrait. Not only was the reference image higher quality, it was also from this week versus some years ago. This gave me substantially better material to work from with lighting that more closely matched what I was trying to achieve in this piece. I opted to give myself a beard I could never achieve in real-life (unfortunately) to further push the piece into the realm of fantasy. Another benefit of the chin beard (I think that is what they are called) is that it hid some of the armor details, and let me tell you that was like killing babies when I did that, but I do think it was the right decision to again force the viewer’s eyes up.

One possible issue with the reference image is that the focal length was a bit shorter than I’d have liked which results in some foreshortening, but I did not think it was enough for me to address. But at some point I may take a few head shots with a much larger focal length to see if changes my opinion.

I also got rid of the red cape, which I very much loved; but, I think it was causing some compositional issues with drawing the viewer’s eye out of the bottom left of the image. Additionally, there was an issue that it made my right deltoid look larger than my right which I need to remedy at the last minute. I opted for fur as it allowed me to try my hand at rendering it, and I think generally worked better to keep the viewer’s eye focussed between the main and background subjects.

Finally, while I did not add a vignette per se, I instead knocked back the saturation of the armor from the bottom of the picture, again relying on the human tendency to look toward high saturation areas.

Overall, I think the new version of this piece works much better than the original final version I published late last year.

25 second video that shoes various versions which I think nicely frames changes overtime as I’ve tried to correct issues.

What would I grade myself? Good question! I think I would give myself a B+, maybe an A- if I’m being really generous.

Did you like this post? Did you find it useful to you and your journey as an artist? Do you like the original or the redux version? Tell me in the comments below.

Author: Ward

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.

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