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.