I haven't traditionally painted in almost a year.
You heard that right. Despite what you may hear in snooty art circles, it's not necessary to draw or paint every day to keep a skill alive. In fact, taking a break can be just as beneficial as hard practice. As it stands, 2020 burnt me out pretty hard. Not only was I running out of steam juggling several gigs throughout a stressful year, I pulled a muscle in my neck and upper shoulder in the middle of a hefty project and found myself bedridden for a week. I was popping Tylenol every six hours, struggling to walk further than my kitchen and, at one point, found myself dissolving into tears of frustration. That injury also happened right when my period started!
Yeah. That was a fun week.
It's worth noting that digital painting and traditional painting are similar enough as it is, so I technically never fell out of practice. Still, it was refreshing to revisit my old supplies and dip into a well-worn skill. A friend of mine sent me a wonderful custom postcard not too long afterwards, which made my whole month. They're a fantastic illustrator and designer looking to try their hand at packaging design soon (and you can find their portfolio here).
What better way to say thank you than with some art of my own?
Their (gorgeous!) postcard is to the left, while their fursona is to the right. It's a very minimalist and striking design, which is just perfect considering the color scheme I want to use. I gathered up some references, warmed up with some doodles, then got started on a slew of thumbs and roughs.
Sometimes you need to start over fresh. There's no shame in it. Why waste effort picking away at something you could just re-do in half the time? Other times, though, you'll need to bite the bullet and push through. Knowing which one of these to commit to is part of being a productive artist. I've talked about it before and I'll repeat until I'm blue in the face. It's a gamechanger.
Now that that's out of the way...let me start this by saying I wanted to drop this piece like a cheap vase. Even worse? This was one of my favorite sketches in my sketch batch. Talk about artistic whiplash. It didn't help I was winging the color scheme and many of the supporting details (a habit I've developed since color theory is one of my strongest skills). I had a vague idea I wanted blue and gold, that I wanted everything fancy and dream-like...and that was about it. For once, my guesswork backfired and made me fudge around more than normal. This doesn't happen often -- I've winged crazier pieces than this -- but it cost me several hours that could've been saved if I fleshed out the draft stages better.
This was a good reminder of how badly a piece can backfire if you don't have the basics down. I thought of throwing my hands up in the air and outright moving on to another sketch, but something about this one told me to keep going. 'Make it work' is a phrase made famous from Project Runway and one I've adopted. It's a saying that tells you to work with your mistakes and find a way out of the hedgemaze you've built for yourself. I might just have to do a post on all my personal quotes one of these days.
(If you're curious about other pieces I've done, check out my recent post on the progress of 'Yasar'.)
As you can see, I did the work of thumbnailing out these outlandish outfits. Just, well...didn't actually think about everything else! From now on I think I'll hash out a quick color scheme in Photoshop -- a cluster of dots ordered from most dominant to least -- before committing. A few minutes to save me a few hours. Same with the big block of starry space. Yeeeah, I added that in during the last stages, too.
I was extremely happy with how this sketch turned out. Both the pose and silhouette were the right amount of elegant and playful. I also used a reference of a kid playing the flute to make sure the hands looked right.
This character's fashion is inspired heavily by classic JRPGs, magical girl anime and various architectural designs. While many of my characters have a certain theme, this one is intentionally all over the place. All the colors, all the silhouettes, all the patterns! The only rule is a visual smorgasbord: they're a lion child with a wild imagination that, fittingly, helps my imagination run wild. As such, I don't care too much about logistics when it comes to their outfits (beyond differentiating texture and a reasonable fit).
I've been drawing this character for years and enjoying every fanciful, floofy, extravagant clusterfuck they end up in. It just hit me that gold tends to be a dominant hue or focal point, an entirely subconscious detail. These were done back in 2015, all made up on the spot and something I still don't recommend you doing, ha ha. I can't believe winging it used to be my default. Reconnecting with my youthful spontaneity is a goal I still want to nurture moving forward. It won't replace the reliable structure of thumbnail-draft-sketch, but rather, support it.
In came the first problem: what even the hell color scheme? At the very least, I made sure to adhere to the basics. If you have a lot of cool colors, add a pop of something warm. If a certain color dominates up top, see what can contrast it below. It's like a math equation if math sucked less.
Even though I ended up veering away from the olive backdrop, I still like how it contrasted against everything else. Might have a green-and-gold centered piece later. Speaking of which, check out 'Green And Gold' by Lianne La Havas. Gorgeous song.
There may be a lot of working parts in this piece, but the face has the most pressure to be done well. It's what we tend to gravitate to as human beings, after all, and flubbing the expression/eyes/etc is like ruining the broth in a soup. The science behind the face is a fascinating topic for me and a big reason why I do so many portraits.
Oh, the gold decorations around the scepter ball drove me crazy. I kept fudging with them in the hopes they'd look better and eventually went, "Fuck this." Yes, you can give up and keep pushing in the same illustration.
I was given some very helpful feedback in one of the Discord communities I'm part of, particularly concerning the fish. While outside eyes thought they looked fine, this element just rubbed me the wrong way. They were too cluttered, and yet, not enough. These magical betta didn't provide enough contrast and took up so much space the eye didn't know where to travel. I didn't want to eliminate them entirely, though...
...so I went for the 'less is more' approach. The piece immediately felt more breathable. The eye traveled more naturally, too, from the shooting star down to the fish down to the face. I made sure to keep the shade close to the scepter, too, to tie together the color scheme.
A little .gif for those that missed my Twitter post. I'm loving making these so much I might start playing with simple animations in 2020.
At the last second I decided to go for a light lavender backdrop, mostly because there was already a lot of blue in the piece.
This piece was another lesson in 'just because you can, doesn't mean you should'. Just because I usually am able to wing my designs doesn't mean I should go into a piece flying by the seat of my pants. All in all? I'm glad I stuck with it. I'm going to celebrate what I did well and learn from what could've been better.
It's a New Year, ripe with potential, and I'm going to stick to growing my good habits. I've talked before about how I don't make lofty New Year's declarations, instead preferring to focus on the smaller baby steps that lead up to goals. Now, that's not to say I don't have some idea on what I want. I'm going to continue to test my skills and build my portfolio. I want to create breathtaking illustrations that tell captivating stories, with emphasis on character interaction and complex backgrounds. I want to design all sorts of unforgettable characters and creatures. I want to expand a little and branch out into concept art, 3D modeling and fashion design.
Here are some small goals I'll be doing over the next few months:
Reaching goals, big or small, means lots of thumbnailing, lots of rough drafts and lots of baby steps. Stay tuned!
I have so many characters. Jesus Christ.
It's to the point that even doing art of other characters I don't paint very often feels excessive. Like I'm choosing a favorite child. As it stands, I've only drawn Yasar a few times, despite the fact he's a prominent supporting character in a big (and very old) story of mine. I'd go into greater detail about his personality and history, but I'm viciously protective of my intellectual property. Maybe someday when I actually commit this story to a game or a book.
I like to separate character art into three categories: simple, complex and illustrative. The first is exactly what it says on the tin, with no background or any supporting elements whatsoever. The middle adds a little more, such as an item or animal. The latter is an illustration in all but name, with the focus still heavily on the character themselves. I take a lot of inspiration from fashion magazines for that last one, since they tend to showcase models in all sorts of environments that play second-fiddle to the subject. This character art is somewhere between a simple and complex, as the giant gilded egg fills out the space without any additional interaction.
Funny enough, even after extensive thumbnailing (see below), I still didn't have any idea what I was going to put behind him. Just...something. Something to round out that space! Throwing in a big fancy egg while painting ended up giving me an idea for one of his powers, since he's an illusionist that depends on sleight-of-hand and a jack-of-all-trades approach. ...Don't do what I did, though. Figure everything out in the draft stage. It'll save you so much more trouble.
Thumbnailing my character art was something I did sparingly in the past. Mainly because I internalized some bullshit ideas about how fast my art should be. Thumbnails and rough drafts were for illustrations, right? The complex stuff. The ones with backgrounds and action poses. ...Yeah, that's not true at all. Literally everything can be thumbnailed, from the smallest sliver of concept art to the most elaborate multi-character tapestry. Since my designs tend to be pretty fanciful, this step is extra helpful, allowing me to work out everything before committing to a polished pencil sketch.
also to the middle left you can see my main reference for the pose, particularly for the legs
Sketches take me between three to five hours on average, maybe a little longer. Thumbnails, on the other hand, are whipped up in minutes. Sitting down for an hour and hashing out a dozen thumbnails is peak relaxation. Sometimes I get so addicted to it I don't want to move on to later stages, even though later stages are also my favorite.
I've been working on a sketch buffer these past few weeks: painting is my greatest strength and it saves me time to have a bunch of pencil drawings ready to go. This was my favorite in the pile, so I decided to start off strong. To the right I added a flat to bring out the silhouette -- the key to any good character art -- and move from there.
I've been falling in crazy love all over again with persian and baroque architecture, so you're going to be seeing a lot of inspiration stemming from there, pastels and acanthus and stars galore
the egg begins
The soft brush remains my go-to for creating base colors. I love everything bleeding into each other. It's a very traditionalist approach to digital art and something I want to keep pushing; see just how buttery and iridescent I can get. I've been experimenting quite a bit with color burn, overlay and soft light layers to add more subtlety. I want colors so rich you feel like you could bite into them like a ripe fruit.
Remember: paintings are conversations. You learn as you go. I realized the legs looked kind of stringy, so I used the magic wand tool to thicken them. Also, I'm obsessed with this guy's pants. They are seriously satisfying to look at.
It took a few passes for me to figure out the most appealing color balance between the character and the egg. The teal ended up being a really tasty contrast with the pink backdrop: almost like a sandwich between the equally warm dominant colors of the character's outfit. I also made the head a little smaller and the hands a little bigger. Probably a sign for me to not get too lost in all the extravagance and keep in mind basic proportions.
A little progress .gif for your viewing pleasure.
I need fifteen more hands.
Worked on this on-and-off over four to five days. I need to start tallying up the hours, because I honestly don't remember how long it took me overall. I really wanted to push my painting abilities with this one. Interestingly, I feel more success not in the final result, but the process: of committing to a thumbnailing/rough draft stage, using references and getting back into traditional sketching. I also got to show off all my strengths in one place. Fashion design, color theory, character design, lighting, texture. I plan on getting more playful with my layouts, as well as focusing on dynamic poses.
I've got a pile of great ideas sitting in Photoshop, so this is one challenge I'll be happily meeting head-on. There's nothing quite so intoxicating as having a goal and being like, "Yeah? No fucking problem."
I have more character art on the way, which means more processes, more .gifs, more rambles. I'm also considering making the switch from Photoshop CC to a different digital art program. Stay tuned!
I figure now's a good time to talk about why I've learned not to make New Year's Resolutions.
I understand the appeal. The desire to just...rinse off all the bad, keep the good and glide into the future with a lighter spirit. The socially acceptable ritual of drinking like crazy and waking up with a New Year hangover? I certainly feel the urge in my bones, and it's not even Thanksgiving yet! I won't be doing it, though. I haven't for several years, in fact! I've learned New Year's resolutions tend to be, at best, dramatic declarations with little (if any) long-term payoff. They feel great in the moment, but once it comes down to keeping pace with your ambitions? Resolutions are a recipe for failure that shows in every deadline missed, personal promise delayed and mediocre result gained.
So I skip it...and instead focus on building good habits instead.
This is a subtle, yet hugely life-changing mentality that I've picked up from B2B writing/content marketing spaces. It makes sense, since the nature of that skillset is about crafting progress in bite-sized increments. Whether or not you're a freelancer, I highly recommend checking out Ed Gandia and BlackFreelance. They have several wonderful pieces that explore the benefits of shifting your mentality with smaller gestures, rather than going for a 'cold turkey' approach that has you falling back on old habits.
Good habits are just as hard to break as bad ones. For example, I brush, floss and rinse every single night, and missing just one night? It has me all out of sorts. I extend this same minimalist logic to other things, working backwards from the goal. Instead of just saying I want to lose a certain amount of pounds, I instead signed up at a local gym with my roommate for two sessions per week (as well as fewer sweets). Instead of just saying I want to wake up earlier, I instead push myself to go to bed an hour sooner. When it comes to art? Well, I want to improve my production, quality and outreach. But what do I have to do to get there...and will it be small enough to incorporate into my everyday life without a drastic overhaul?
For now...I'm focusing on traditional sketches. They're the foundation of most of the work I do and take the most effort from me. All those big goals of a shinier portfolio and fleshed-out projects? Those come later.
I'll be delving into my polished sketching process in further posts (which involves some jumping back and forth between Photoshop). For now, here's a peek at some of the character art I'll be painting over the coming weeks. I've also got some illustration sketches (not pictured) and recently started pieces. It's more than I've been doing for a while now and I'm pretty proud of myself, to be honest! I've got so many characters clamoring for attention, too, and it feels so good to get some* of them out onto the page. A few don't have names still, despite having fleshed-out backstories, personalities, powers...I'll have to start cooking some up instead of relying on codenames. Like Lion Head and Goat Girl. Tch!
*some being the key word lmao
I don't like losing my groove when I've got portfolio pieces to upload and commissions to finish. Keeping the ball rolling is one of the easiest ways to produce strong work with little effort. Need a breather? Switch over to another piece. Too tired to sketch? Just scan in a drawing and paint. This sketch buffer kills several birds with one stone. Never underestimate the groove.
I've mentioned before how much I just love to scan in traditional sketches and go to town with digital paint. I'm honestly vibrating with excitement over this sketch buffer, because that means just color color color color color. Oh, it's the best form of therapy! I've been using references for poses and outfits, finding that happy balance between learning as I go and making do with what I know. I recently checked out Noah Bradley's free figure drawing compendium for some ideas, when my full-body mirror ran short.
These are pencil and copy paper: nice and simple to keep my mind from twisting itself into knots (fancier materials can do that). That said, I will sketch on cardstock or bristol board from time-to-time if I want to preserve the drawing in the long-term. It's something I'll be considering when selling original sketches.
I'll likely be touching on this topic again as the holiday season unfolds. For now...I've got sketches to finish. Stay tuned!
Here I post WIPs, sketches, speedpaints, thumbnails and anything else thrown into the veritable stew of artistic process.