Saturday, April 20, 2013

Lost in the Desert: A Few Steps Along the Way

Well, since I've been doing this painting for awhile now, I figured that I would post a series of pictures giving a rough idea of how I got from start to finish.

After refining the form and doing tweaks here and there, I've finally gotten to a point where I'm okay with where it's at. As with most paintings, I could probably keep going back and tweaking over and over again, but I think there's also a value in saying, "Okay! Okay! It's done now... move on!"

In this piece, my goal was to create a 100% imaginary scene, especially the character, which in this case is a little robot. I looked at a few pictures to get a feel for what colors I wanted, and a few pics to get an idea of how small sand drifts might look. By looking at those pictures for a few minutes, I was able to internalize my ideal color palette. I've found that doing these fully imaginary creations is definitely a lot harder than working from reference, but it's a good challenge, and I think it will help me grow.

Anyhow, let's start with...

1.) Rough Concepts

In this beginning phase, my goal was to figure out the basic mass and volume of the robot. I had some ideas in my head about how I wanted the body/head (cephalothorax?) to look, as well as how the limbs were oriented; I also had some ideas floating around in a sketchbook as well. Like most thumbnail sketches, I started from the left and worked right, doing small little drawings.

Now, in a professional setting, one would probably do dozens and dozens of these conceptual sketches, but I had a pretty clear vision (and I'm not getting paid), so I stuck with the third and fourth thumbnails on the top row. Then I started sketching in a 3/4 (or isometric) view of the robot, to get an idea of how the limbs might look as viewed from an angle. After that, I blew up that last thumbnail and cleaned up the lines, ending up with what you see on the lower right of the picture.

2.) Defining Linework

At first glance, this doesn't appear to be a big change from the previous version, but trying to get nice clean linework is definitely time-consuming, at least for me. With a pencil, it's a lot quicker, but I'm trying to get better at doing clean lines in Photoshop, and so I'm forcing myself not to do this stuff in pencil. Part of the difficulty is achieving a consistent line weight, which for me involves drawing, erasing, drawing, erasing, and so on. I also refined some details, most noticeably the camera/eye, the antenna, the little rivets on top, and the arms. At this point, I still wasn't sure where I was headed... I was just focusing on getting the robot done, and waiting till later to decide if I would make it a finished picture, or just a concept illustration.

 3.) Color Fills and Real-Life Maquettes

I've always thought it would be fun to make little models of the characters/creatures/machines that I dream up, but in this case, I found that it was going to be almost necessary for envisioning the way that my robot would cast shadows and receive bounced light. These little models are called maquettes by most artists, and they can be incredibly helpful in the creation process. I want to give a shout-out to James Gurney and his awesome book "Imaginative Realism", which sort of gave me the inspiration to try my hand at building a small model.

Before embarking on that task, I did a careful color fill of the robot, being as careful as possible not to stray out of the linework. It's rather like using crayons and a coloring book, and in my case, it's just about as hard as it was when I was 4 years-old. Luckily, unlike crayons, I simply went back and erased any color that strayed outside the lines.

For the maquette, I simply looked around my bedroom, err, I mean, my "studio", and found random materials. To make the head, I cut up the cover of some old manual, which gave me a nice, rigid, cardboard-like paper. After forming the top and bottom half of the head/body, I connected them together with masking tape. The legs were a bit more time-consuming... I took paperclips and, through trial and error, bent them every which way until they loosely resembled the leg structure I wanted. After that, I used them as skewers, sliding cigarette butts along them to simulate the general placement of each leg segment. After finishing that pain-in-the-ass of a step, I poked holes in the head/body, stuck the legs through, and then glued the top of the filters to the underside. I let it dry for awhile before messing with it anymore.

After that, I played around with lighting arrangements and decided I wanted the light to come in from the upper left of the painting. I snapped a photo, pasted it into the corner of the canvas, and set to work building up shadows.

4.) Building the Scene

After spending all that time doing tedious linework, coloring, and shading, I decided that I wanted make this into a full painting, rather than just an illustrated robot on a white canvas. I had a finished image in mind, but had to figure out how to get to that point.

First things first, I did a basic coloring of a background... I wanted this little robot to be on a trek across the desert, and so that informed my choice for the background color. I was also toying with the idea of the robot being a military tool, and having it stumble across an IED, but recent events made me feel like that wouldn't be an appropriate choice.

You'll notice that I've defined some of the form in the robot, but it's still incredibly rough and unpolished. The first thing I did when doing the shading was to color in the leg joints, to give the impression of a sort of rubbery, accordion-like substance that would protect the inner mechanical parts, but would also be flexible and bendy.

It was around this point that I wanted to throw in the towel, because, well . . . this is the really difficult part for me. As previously mentioned, it can be time-consuming enough to paint something that exists from mere observation, but to try and bring something imaginary to life can be veeeeeery difficult. At this stage, I had already been working on this piece on-and-off for a week or so, but I sucked it up and kept working.

The robot is starting to show some depth and volume at this point, and so now it's basically more refinement.

5.) More Detail Refinement

In a way, polishing up a painting and rendering a crisp, clean product is almost like reverse sculpting:  instead of starting with a chunk of granite or wood and whittling away at it, you start with a flat, 2D block of color, and you continue building it up with shadows, highlights, and details.

At this stage, I hit a turning point where I went from, "Holy hell, shoot me now," to, "Heyyyy... I think this is starting to come together!" Something clicked, and I suddenly was reinvigorated with energy. I could see what I need to paint next, and I started off . . .

First, while randomly browsing the Internet, I came across a photo of  Humvee roaring across the desert, and I noticed the nice, wavy texture of the sand. I thought it would add some variety to the background, and so I painted in some basic lines to suggest small, wind-blown waves. I also tried to create the impression that the robot's lower legs sort of sunk into the sand with each step, and so I tried to cover some of the limbs with little sand piles. The robot's front, left leg is moving up and forward, and so it isn't covered in sand.

I also studied some pictures of small cameras to get a basic idea of how my robot's "eye" should look. After adding detail to the lens area, I refined the shapes of the little rivets on top of the bot, and also painted the antenna back in. At this stage, I was starting to feel the image coming to life, and so I stopped for the night and dozed off while thinking up finishing touches.

I had gone from inspired, to overwhelmed and frustrated, to inspired once again.

6.) Finishing Touches

And now the moment of truth . . . after all the ups and downs of the creation process, I had some clear goals that would get me past the finish line.

First, from looking at my previous version, I still found some unpleasant, rough, choppy edges. I fixed this by carefully looking around the object and using a soft-edged eraser to make the outer edges consistent.

Second, I decided that I needed to give more volume to the parts of the robot that were in the shade. In some lighting, shadows obscure detail pretty well, and you don't have to play with them too much. However, in a brightly lit environment like a desert, even the shadows aren't really dark. In addition to direct sunlight, there is also reflected light that bounces off the sand and brightens anything in the shade. So, I went in with a reddish brown color and added painted along the edges of the robot that were in the shadows, trying to enhance the illusion of depth and form. I also added some darker shadows on various places, so the form didn't melt together and look muddy and confusing. I refined the beveled edges under the robot's eye some more as well, to make the lines a lot more crisp. I also added two little specular highlights to the lens itself, to give it more volume and to emphasize the brightness and direction of the sunlight.

After refining our robotic friend, I wanted to add more contrast to the background, and so I brightened up the crests of the sand waves a bit, and also added some random speckles of brightness here and there to suggest a bit of texture. Many professional artists use actual photos as texture overlays in their digital paintings, but I am personally still working on improving my technique, so I shy away from photo textures. Part of the reason to use them is that it looks cool and stylish at times, but more importantly, it saves time. If your art director wants you to kick out 20 concepts, you can save time with texture overlays, while still communicating your ideas. Since I've got all the time in the world, I decided against using them.

Next, I went over the upper left area of the canvas with a bright, almost white color... I wanted to give the image a lot of saturation, which I felt would help establish the hot, bright environment of a desert. Since I imagined the Sun to be high in the sky, off to the upper left, I exaggerated that by having the background exhibit that sort of bright-to-less-bright gradation of value. In real life, the shift in value would probably not be as evident in such a small area, but I felt that it would cement the robot into the environment more.

After sharing it on Facebook, I felt that the upper left planes on the robot weren't popping enough, and so I deleted the picture from my page, loaded Photoshop again, and went to work. This robot exhibits a flat paint job, otherwise known as a matte finish. Therefore, there are no very bright, eye-catching specular highlights; the light spread across a matte surface much more evenly. Even still, in order to make the robot pop out more, I chose a very bright yellow color--nearly white--and I subtly painted along the top edges of the form.

I stood back, did some squinting and assessing, and then I painted in my initials, and voila!

It's aliiiiiiiiiiiiiiive.

Thanks for reading :) I hope this post has been enlightening in one way or another.


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