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.


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

What Color Is An Astronaut's Spacesuit?

It's white, right?

Well, not so fast.

In an evenly lit environment like, say, a white room with a couple bright lights that effectively cancel out shadows, something like a spacesuit might look totally white . . .

. . . but then again, like this painting I did last night, our world is full of all sorts of lighting conditions. Even in the vacuum of space with nothing filtering the sun's rays, you can see a wide range of values and colors just in the spacesuit alone.

The white color shows only where direct sunlight is hitting the surface, and then in the rest of the suit you can see oranges, reds, and browns in the shadows, and on some of the parts of his body that are facing the Earth below, you can see the color of the planet bouncing a bluish tint back onto the suit. The strange little whatchamacallit that he is holding looks mostly grey and white, but there are some parts of it that are actually a light brown color. However, when all these colors are put together, they end up looking natural in relation to each other.

The overall color that the eye perceives an object to be is the local color, and it is something that any artist must train themselves to avoid focusing on too much. For example, an apple is red, a banana is yellow, the sky is blue, clouds are white, right?... Overall, that is the way we all understand them to be. Certainly nobody would ever say a banana is blue or a basketball is green, except in extremely unusual and artificial lighting conditions.

If we take a step back and really look, though, one can see that a given object can exhibit an almost infinite variety of colors, all at the same time, but a lot depends on the lighting. As you can see below, the colors on the apple and banana aren't all that shockingly different from the blocks of color I painted below them, and that's because they're photographed in a very sterile, white environment. But then take a look at the colors near the right for the sky scene... none of those are the colors of the sky; those are the colors in the clouds themselves. It's also important to note that none of those colors is pure white. Only in the areas of the clouds most directly illuminated by the sun do we find colors that are close to white, but few things in nature are ever 100% white. Conversely, few things in nature are ever pure black. This is one reason that beginning painters often have a hard time with painting realistic shadows.

A painter needs to really observe these variations in order to make their work look authentic, and it is absolutely crucial--whether in traditional or digital painting--when observing your subject and trying to decide which colors to paint with. An apple might have a local color of red, but there will undoubtedly be regions of these things that exhibit many other colors. If, for example, an apple is sitting on a blue tablecloth on your kitchen table, the bottom of the apple will exhibit bluish and purplish colors due to the light reflecting off the tablecloth.

In the astronaut painting above, although I used a reference photo, it was still necessary to try and separate the variety of colors on the spacesuit, especially in the shadow areas. You'll notice that many of the shadows are "warm" colors like browns, reds, and oranges. If I had just made them all various shades of grey and black, the painting wouldn't have looked convincing at all. Similarly, if I had just made the whole suit white, it would have looked flat, boring, and most of all, unrealistic.

For me personally, I started off by painting the black of space first, then I painted the planet below. A good general rule is to paint from the background to the foreground, and that's what I tried to do. With all things like this, you usually do a block of one color, and then fill in the details. When it came to the astronaut, I was very tempted to draw his silhouette with a whitish color, but really, the bright parts of his suit are the minority... most of it is not brightly illuminated. To sketch in a whitish color for his body would have been a bit strange looking, and perhaps even disorienting. Instead, I blocked in his silhouette using a dark, reddish-brown color... I started with the darker colors, and from then on, I worked into adding the brighter colors to the piece

Anyhow, I've also been working on another piece for the past week or so, and unlike this painting, it is completely imaginary... not surprisingly, creating a fully imaginary piece is a lot more difficult than painting something from observation. I'll be sure to post some pictures of my progress soon.


Saturday, April 6, 2013

Forever Fields

On Friday, April 4th, at around 1 PM, my family and I said farewell to a very good friend... this is my artistic tribute to her. I'm a pretty rational, atheistic sort of person, but in this case, I sort of like to believe Sierra is in a place like this now... towering flowers, hills and fields that go on forever, where she can run and run and run and play with other animals and people.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

I'm baaaaaack!

Well, I have been hard at work on a new piece, and I also have done some other random things here and there. From now on, I plan to occasionally take my time to work on some "finished" pieces, which will take longer than a day... however, I will try to post regular updates about my progress. Since it's just easier for me to do, you can also keep your eye out for my daily posts on Facebook, and I also try to spread the love to Google+ as well.

Before I get to the big boy, let me just post this quick little environmental study again... I should have posted these the day I did them (sometime last week), but I forgot. Once again, these are primarily exercises in choosing colors from observation...

And now, ladies and gentlemen... boy and girls... the fruits of the past several days labor... a mash-up of Game of Thrones and Adventure Time!

The original file was 6000 pixels by 3200 pixels, but I don't want the Blogger server to explode by uploading it here. I plan to make this available at a variety of sizes for desktop wallpapers... and I'm also looking into options for making and selling prints. The original size of 6000x3200 equates to 30 inches by 18 inches in print.

Anyhow, back to the grind! I'll be posting more as I work!

Hope you enjoy!