Sometimes you don't know how a piece is going to turn out. It's the eternal conundrum: do you keep going with a sketch that's quite not working...or start over?
Then there are the times you don't know what the hell you're doing at all.
I've gotten better at resolving this over the years. At this point I can tell when something isn't going to go where I want it to, no matter how hard I try. One common sign of this is when I rework a certain area of a painting over and over and over. Other times I'll notice something is wrong when there is an abnormally huge gap between the preliminary stages and the final sketch. Art is a conversation. It'll go in places you don't always expect and, just like any dialogue, you should take warning signs at face value.
Sometimes, though...unpredictability is your friend.
Sometimes you're not sure where your art is going...and that's the best part. The pieces are laid before you, the ideas and the mood are there, but you haven't arranged them into anything resembling sense yet. This is, honestly, one of my favorite ways to paint. This illustration below originally started out as a bunch of ovals and circles. No thumbnail. No rough draft or references. Just a mess of blobs I shuffled around until they gradually formed an image in my head. This tends to be what I do when I'm having a hard time creating work and want to push myself. As is my wont, I go for a half-human creature.
What can I say? I know what I like.
This method of laying down shapes and shuffling them around isn't unlike whittling away at a block of clay. I elongated the oval, added a face and neck to the circles, then kept working from there. I tend to vacillate between sketching the old-fashioned way and laying down blocky shapes. The collision of the draftswoman and the fine artist. I wish I had the first few passes screencapped, but, again...I didn't know where I was going with this!
makes a mental note to screencap literally everything
Throughout this sketching and blocking stage I intentionally kept the other harpies in the backdrop and foreground more faded. It's actually a touch I wish I kept in the coloring stage. A little more atmospheric perspective would have gone a long way to tie the whole piece together. Live and learn!
Wings are one of my absolute favorite things to paint. I swear they're my therapy at this point.
It's fascinating thinking about how much of our life bleeds into our art without our knowing it. As I was detailing the wings and feathers I remember thinking about how much calmer I felt. How my normally frazzled mind finally slowed to a crawl. On a conscious level, I prefer complex work because of how easy it is to get lost in all the details. There's always something else to discover with every new viewing! On a subconscious level, however...I've realized I gravitate to details due to how they relaxe my mind and heart. When you're mentally ill? That's not a feature you can take lightly.
Flow is a psychological phenomenon where intense focus and relaxation has us losing sense of time. Painting is a popular way of achieving this, though you can just as easily enjoy flow by crocheting, knitting, playing piano, dancing or cooking. Any activity that gets your hands moving and your mind lost in the sway of your work. You know you've done a good job when you glance at the clock and wonder where the past three hours have run off to.
Once everything started coming together I pulled up a few references of crows over on Google. Even the most whimsical and freeform piece will be better off with a visual aid or two.
Color remains one of my strong points. I had no idea what sort of scheme I wanted to do here and, just like the sketching stage, I went with whatever felt good at the time. It's something I'm going to focus just a little less on going forward, just so I can give my technical drawing and perspective skills time to catch up. This isn't to say I still don't have areas to improve! I just know color theory isn't tripping me up as much compared to, say, urban landscapes.
I will master them one of these days
There's no shame in starting over. There are also times you have to give yourself a chance and push through with what you have, even when you're not sure what the hell you're doing. Especially so. You may just be surprised at what the deepest recesses of your mind spits up.
I've got more goodness on the way. Stay tuned!
Like the sun rises and sets, there is always hubbub in the art community around copying...and rightfully so. No self-respecting artist wants to be a glorified scanner, nor should they want to make a mockery of another artist's work for short-term gain. Then there's the whole 'getting sued' thing.
The word 'copying', however, should come with an asterisk: there's a big difference between mindless copying and studying. Any artist that wants to improve on a technical and personal level needs to know this. To study another's craft is to go in with the intent of bettering yourself. Of carving out your unique voice. This can be strengthening your composition by asking how, say, a commercial illustrator makes their work so readable. This can be improving your technique, such as figuring out a fine artist's strong grasp on light and shadow (though you should be studying from life, too). Perhaps your favorite artists have a certain style that just speaks to you.
All are valid reasons to pick up a pen and do some homework. That doesn't mean mindlessly copy and hope for the best. Studying is a conscientious act, with a goal to achieve after a set of repetitions. Studying from just one artist can increase the risk of copying, too, which is an easy enough problem to fix: have more than one inspiration. Just like a healthy diet can't solely rely on carbs, so too does a healthy artistic foundation need a variety of sources to pull from. Growing up I was surrounded by inspiration. I was heavily influenced by Pokemon, Final Fantasy and more books than I could shake a stick at. Jerry Pinkney, Janell Cannon, Mary GrandPré, Yoshitaka Amano and Pete Lyon are all incredible illustrators who did so much to capture my imagination (and still do).
To this day, I have more artistic inspirations than I can count. Commercial illustrators, fine artists, musicians, game designers, fashion designers. For now, I'm going to look at some studies I did in 2017 and 2018 of two of my favorite painting masters: Frank Brangwyn and Jeffrey Catherine Jones.
I don't remember where I first found Frank Brangwyn's work, but I do remember being completely floored by it. He's been a major painting inspiration for years for his beautiful technique and deceptively complex compositions. I say deceptively because, despite so many subjects and details, they remain relatively easy to break down into two or three parts. It's the base of any good composition: less is more. Also...his colors. Oh. They're so buttery I could cry.
I did these studies in grayscale, however, to focus more on tone and composition. They took me about an hour and a half to complete each, which will contrast the Brangwyn studies I did below. Doing these helped remind me how to gather up all my minor and major details in a way that's never confusing.
Jeffrey Catherine Jones is another illustrator whose work just pops. Bold compositions with simplistic backdrops, combining the best in contemporary commercial illustration and classical paintings. Compared to Brangwyn's mundane romanticism, her work leans toward moody. Surreal. Even harsh. I'm a huge fan of how she uses black. There's almost always a striking black spot somewhere in the work, to draw the eye but not necessarily overwhelm.
Both of these artists represent different facets of my work I want to continue nurturing: warm, dreamy romanticism with intense, somber surrealism. *chef's kiss* A match made in heaven.
Not every study needs to (if you'll pardon the pun) be a masterpiece.
The quick ones, in fact, kill two birds with one stone: they help you loosen up and they force you to understand complex subjects on a basic level. There's a reason why you draw certain subjects faster than others. If you can't break something down in a short amount of time? It's likely you have a weak spot that need tending to. While not all of these turned out very nice (indeed, only a few did), they put my shortcomings on full blast. Told me where I took too long. Showed me where I didn't feel quite so comfortable (like cityscapes).
These took me about twenty to thirty minutes to do. I also do studies that take a few minutes each, which I'll be uploading here in the future. One of my favorite resources is to put on a dance choreography video, pause at random intervals and draw the interesting poses I get.
These also took twenty to thirty minutes. With the exception of the top right-hand corner, I didn't push the values on these enough. That's something I need to be careful of in the future: muddy, middle-of-the-road values. Yuck.
I have plenty more master studies I plan on doing, as well as studying from some of my favorite films/shows. Inspiration is everywhere. Enjoy it!
Being concerned about copying is an important part of being an artist. I have to constantly beware the subconscious inspiration my mind takes every time I do a commission. The thing is...none of us are dictionaries. It would be more accurate to describe the human mind as a thesaurus: a dynamic, and flawed, compendium that takes in the world and approximates it with similar words. Would you rather attempt to flee the inevitable and risk subconscious copying...or be smart about your influences? Instead of turning 'copying' into a dirty word, let's be a thesaurus.
Study from the masters and always cite your sources. Don't be a morally bankrupt clown and rip artists off.
I have new studies coming up, as well as a process post on one of my favorite portfolio pieces. Stay tuned!
This is a piece of character art I did back in 2017, and one I'm still deeply proud of. It's a direction/technique I want to pick up again moving forward. I also figure it's time to talk about traditional and digital art, a juxtaposition that tends to get a lot of ire from gatekeeper blowhards.
In my previous posts I talked about how I like to combine a little traditional art with digital, even though working 100% digital is often faster. There's a certain texture to pencil sketches that translates very well to digital painting. I took a wonderful general painting class back in high school -- alongside mentoring under an acrylic painting professor from a local university -- that helped set a strong foundation for my work today. Contrary to what some say (yes, sometimes to my face), traditional art is not better -- or more real -- than digital art.
There's a pervasive -- and self-serving -- myth that a thing being harder automatically makes it better. Now, you won't get me saying traditional art doesn't have a steeper learning curve than digital. That is absolutely true. There are simply more steps involved. You have to prep the canvas (or wood or cardboard or-), create or transfer the sketch, mix your colors, protect your colors throughout several sessions, clean your brushes, preserve the final work, frame, package...yes. That is absolutely more work. But more work doesn't automatically mean better work. I've seen traditional art that's hardly moved me. I've seen digital art that's captured my imagination.
This purity myth is steeped in gatekeeping attitudes that equate more difficulties with success...usually by those who don't face quite as many of those difficulties (such as having studio space or money for supplies) in the first place. I will not, however, create more myths around digital art. Digital art is easier than traditional. It's still not easy. If you're not familiar with layering, masking, color theory, light and shadow, design, mixing up your references...? Going digital is not suddenly going to fix that, no more than buying a fancy set of Copic markers and Bristol board will transform you into an overnight art master.
In that regard...these two art forms are honestly not all that different. Digital art today is a brilliant tool to create art while saving space and money. It's painting without the mess. It's less costly. It's more flexible, especially if you're like me and constantly come up with new ideas on the fly. Already having a traditional art foundation just gives you a head start, as it makes the transition far smoother and gives your work a look that's not easily replicated.
Doing a traditional sketch filled in with digital colors gives me the best of both worlds: the tight, grainy detail of pencil with the rich, sumptuous colors of a few Photoshop sessions.
I've had this character since I was a teenager. I love him to bits.
My traditional art background includes acrylic, gouache, watercolor, colored pencils and China markers. I've never had the studio space to get down and dirty with oils, but I really want to in the future. ...And before you ask, yes. Acrylic and gouache have both been considered 'lowbrow' paints for decades due to their commercial associations, while oil has remained the highbrow standard in fine art circles. It's no coincidence that oil paints take a lot more money and space than acrylic or gouache. They also have a higher health risk. See what I mean with difficulty being equated with superiority?
I use traditional painting techniques in Photoshop throughout the entire process, including working dark-to-light and adding subtle gradients to make my brush strokes look rich. I'm also a huge fan of overlay layers and am constantly 'glazing' with the soft round to balance out my hard-edged brushes. You won't see me using more than five to ten layers at any given time, though I will regularly create new layers, add an effect, then flatten. It helps Photoshop run smoothly while keeping me organized.
You can see which areas are more defined and which are fuzzier, a balance I work with as I go to keep the eye traveling naturally. Contrast is an essential part of any style or technique, as it gives the eye stopping and starting points. It's like a guitar solo in a rock song or the blank space in a living room. Balancing out hard v.s. soft, textured v.s. smooth, bright v.s. dark is a give and take that's become second nature. Even then? Years of experience doesn't stop me from flubbing my composition or struggling through a pose. I'm still amazed I knocked this sketch out in one go without a rough draft.
Painter tip: you don't need to render every little part of the painting. Even if you go for a more realistic style. Notice how the final piece has areas with little detail and sometimes no detail, like some of the tassles and the edge of the (viewer's) left wing. This does the dual work of saving you unnecessary work and giving your painting more balance. A win-win.
I've touched on this in past posts, but I take a lot of inspiration from the Romantic and Baroque periods. Not just in terms of subject matter, but in technique. Oily. Lavish. Rosy. Evocative. Rich. Bold. Powerful. Luscious. These are all adjectives I strive for.
Be proud of your old work. Don't feel shame in taking a few steps backwards and revisiting a technique or subject you like. Most of all, don't fall for the myth that traditional or digital art is superior to the other. When in doubt? Do both.
For those interested, I also have a few leftover prints of this very piece that I plan on selling soon. I have more WIPs and studies coming up (as well as more art rants), so stay tuned!
I actually uploaded a few of these here back in 2017, but also left a few more buried in my art folders. For brevity's sake I'm going to dump all my studies of Donald's Glover's face (and one Bryan Tyree Henry) here.
I've grown tired of being embarrassed about older work, studies that turned out funny or sketches that were wildly off-base from the original idea. What's the point? Take a look at these, where I go from really knowing how to draw faces to not having a damn clue all in the same session. You can see me studying the same angle several times, because sometimes you're just not getting the hang of the thing. Maybe it's a subtle expression, maybe you're just warming up and can't draw right yet. No matter what, you keep going until you push through that wall.
Not giving up really is 90% of the artistic process.
I watched a few clips from Atlanta (before watching full episodes with one of my Discord groups) to get more candid angles. A good exercise is to let a video play and pause at random. There's nothing wrong with studying your favorite angles, of course, but it can help to understand how the face works when it turns or stretches in ways you don't expect.
Keep an eye on that wonky one in the bottom left...
...because you can see where I started having a little trouble. Donald Glover had such a simple 3/4th angle here, yet I had a tough time capturing the subtleties of his expression. Instead of deeming it a lost cause, though, I warmed up on some different faces, then returned to it. Eventually I got close enough to deem the study a success.
I then wrapped up the session with a color study based off one of his photoshoots. This one ended up looking a lot more 'marker-like' than most of my work, which I found interesting. It's not quite the finish I go for, but, eh. That's part of the process. You learn about what you want to do and what you don't want to do. Like fertilizer, art is never wasted.
There's more behind-the-scenes material coming up. Stay tuned!
We have to change our language before we can change ourselves. 'Oldie, but a goodie' is a term I've been leaning away from these past few years, for a very conscious reason. Why should something being older immediately require the 'but' qualifier?
I could detail an entire TED Talk on the cult obsession with youth in modern society and all the insidious ways it creeps into our everyday conversations. I could talk about the pervasive shame many artists have about old work and how it's misrepresentative of who they want to be. The constant qualifiers that spill out when sharing old art -- much less admiring it -- makes me sick straight to my gut. This phrase doesn't create personal progress. It's a roadblock in just a few words.
Let's switch it up. This is an oldie and a goodie: a pin-up illustration of a character I painted in 2015. He's a lion-headed magician with a chip on his shoulder, always a little moody despite the child clientele he often entertains.
Even though I complete many of my pieces completely digitally, every once in a while I'll whip out a pencil sketch for the base. It's something I plan on doing more, actually, because it gives me a velvety, oily finish I don't quite get with my purely digital art. Also, it just feels good scanning in a drawing and going to town. Coloring comes easily to me and it's nice to just fill in the lines and let my mind wander.
You can still see the edges of the paper where I scanned, even as the coloring is nearing completion. I've since learned ways of working around this. I create a separate lineart layer by adjusting the sketch's values, then using layer transparency and channels to separate the dark from the light. Saves you time and looks way better. You can find a tutorial on that here.
Hobby artists and professional artists? Let's change the way we talk about ourselves and our works. Self-deprecation doesn't actually improve your technical skill (no matter what some art teachers and industry gatekeepers will tell you about 'humility'). Running from your old work doesn't get you any closer to the artist you want to be. Art is an extension of yourself. If you're constantly browbeating your craft, take that as a sign to start chipping away at your personal growth.
What old techniques have you kept from past work? How does your new work lean closer to your goals?
Got more progress shots, recent doodles and, yes, old work on the way. Stay tuned!
Some of my favorite pieces come from just throwing down random shapes and making it work. This is yet another one of those pieces.
(and if you're curious about more posts like these, check out these studies I did of John Boyega's British GQ photoshoot)
This painting originally started out as a bunch of angular, blocky shapes because I just needed to paint something. I was stressed out and really not liking the fact I had barely any new work to post. Then I painted a merman over the random clutter and realized it'd make a great contribution to the #Mermay sketch event over on Twitter. I looked up a few references for the angle of the face (even the most spontaneous of art still looks better with a little help) and used my own hands for reference:
Not only did I study how my hands looked in the mirror, I took a minute to just feel along my neck. Figure out how each piece falls into place. The way the first and second knuckles curve over the throat, where the light would most likely hit first. It's about understanding something, not just copying and hoping you get a B on the test.
There's a lot of unnecessary shame that comes with using references for art, both for beginners and experienced artists who 'should be beyond references by now'. Unless you've got a photographic memory, it simply isn't realistic to think you can spurt out complete accuracy 100% of the time. Whether or not you even want complete accuracy is a whole 'nother can of worms, at that. Whether you're someone who leans toward painterly realism, like myself, or prefer a cartoony style, references are always going to be part of the game. It's how you use them -- and what you take away once you're done -- that you should be concerned about.
I use references because I'm not a dot matrix printer. Chances are, neither are you! I especially go into references with the goal of understanding how something works, so I don't have to rely on them quite so much. It's the difference between needing references 100% of the time or 40% of the time. A little quicker, right? It goes even deeper than that, though. Even the way you paint or draw a subject...it's obvious when an artist is just copying something down without further scrutiny. Likewise, it's obvious when they really get why something works the way it works. Why the cloth folds that way due to gravity and material. Why light scatters through skin to leave a certain glow.
It's a subtle touch I want bursting out of my portfolio.
I thought about coloring this (indeed, I did a few experimental overlays), but it just looked better grayscale. Winging it to the very end. Thumbnailing and drafting is important, especially as a working professional, but other times it just gets in the way of doing the work. When in doubt? Throw up abstract shapes and turn it into a dream.
now I gotta push myself to keep more progress shots of these spontaneous pieces, since by the time I remember I want to record my process the illustration's 90% done
Got more progress posts coming up, including one piece that's a few years old and a fanart I did last year. Stay tuned!
In the first post we took a look at one of the studies I did for John Boyega's British GQ photoshoot. I did a second one below that follows much of the same principles:
Owning your unique process.
I've made no bones about how my process can look wildly different from piece-to-piece. Sometimes I work with pencil lineart, which I do with basic copy paper and scan in. No matter what, the inner child in me loves creating her own coloring books. There's also a satisfying graininess that comes with blending traditional art and digital art. Pencil art + digital paint always appears a little tighter, a little more polished. Not so for these studies, however.
Other times my sketching process needs to be more loose. I'll need space to tweak on the fly. Erase, flip, distort, smudge, tweak the values. Digital art is brilliant in that regard, able to literally slice up your process into little pieces that can be viewed with redo and undo, and has given me so much more freedom to approach my art. No matter how many people try to push it down the lowbrow ladder.
(if digital art is automatically less valid by virtue of having extra conveniences, then acrylic paint, pencils and erasers, whiteout, gouache, charcoal and nearly every piece of equipment ever should receive the same energy)
I also can't stress enough the benefit of experimenting and seeing what happens. For example, the finished study below has a thin, bright line around most of the subject, which is an aftereffect of a masking layer + overlay layer. It was actually unintentional, but I ended up appreciating that thin, crisp glow and kept it in. When in doubt? Quote Bob Ross: "There are no mistakes. Only happy accidents."
Check out the photoshoot here and get yourself hopped up on inspiration. You'll never know what your next favorite technique or visual shorthand could be until you try it out yourself.
I have more step-by-step process posts and behind-the-scenes peeks on original work up next, so stay tuned!
Study what you like. Learn how it works through observation and action. Ask yourself why it resonates with you.
There are a lot of WIPs and sketches I've uploaded to Twitter over the years that were, inevitably, eaten up by the site. After all, it is a social media platform meant to be consumed on the fly. Because of that, expect to see a lot of my work from 2015-2017 being uploaded in-between new pieces/studies.
These are studies of John Boyega's British GQ shoot (shot by Daniel Sannwald) I did in 2017, the original project of which grabbed me by the neck and didn't let go. The bold colors! The splashy satin jacket! The shadowed, mysterious angle of his face! Oh, it was something I had to understand better. Thankfully, I saved some of the progress shots, which I will go into greater detail about below:
Don't be fooled by sped-up progress videos where incredible work seems to happen within seconds (and, yes, I have to remind myself, too). The final result took me a few hours to do -- including the quick portrait studies -- and remains an influence you can see in some of my original work. This is why you do studies: to learn through doing. To learn how to break down a seemingly complex subject into a series of bite-sized parts, then apply it to your work with meaning. Rather than mindless copying, you are having a deeper conversation with why you're an artist in the first place.
The first is a basic grayscale sketch. Despite the fact my portfolio is very colorful, I actually prefer to start grayscale so I can nail light, shadow and form. For some artists this step is replaced by lineart or by flats. It's all good! I'm actually trying to get better at throwing down blobs of color and working from there, since it technically saves me a step. Studies are the perfect way to learn about your process because you are filtering a subject through your unique lens. How one artist gets from point A to point B is going to look different than another's...and that's brilliant.
The second is both straightforward and a little exciting...because it sets me up for my absolute favorite part. Here I block in dark colors, which are admittedly hard to see here because of the harsh red backdrop. My preferred painting technique since, oh...2011 or 2012 has been painting dark-to-light. I will, however, switch to light-to-dark depending on the brightness of the final piece.
This third part is where I can get lost for hours. There is nothing quite like painting. Not unlike fishing, painting is simultaneously relaxing and involving. This is actually why I'm trying to make my digital sketches more painterly, as I've found myself straying from lineart these past few years (with the exception of quick pen studies or pencil lineart). If this preliminary process sounds a little random, that's because...it is! A dynamic technique lets me tackle problems from several angles. Again: it works for me, and I answer a lot of personal questions through studies like this.
Then we have the final version:
My goal with my work is to keep blurring all my influences together, subconsciously and consciously. Painterly realism inspired by the Romantic and Baroque periods of Western classical art, the boldness of pop art, the dreamlike nature of surrealism. Sometimes I'll lean just a little into my childhood sparkly anime influences (especially with my most recent pieces), then lean a little into impressionism. It's less juggling and more...leaning. Kind of like a dance, where the steps are known, but improv is key to letting the soul talk.
You can find John Boyega's British GQ photoshoot here and over here. I highly recommend giving it a look. Daniel Sannwald really knows how to make a simple portrait seem almost alien.
...Wait, didn't I say studies? That I did. I'll be uploading part two in a few days, so stay tuned.
Boy, I sure do a lot of portraits!
I wasn't crazy about how the one on the left turned out. I fiddled with it far too much trying to get the likeness accurate. The one on the right, by comparison, I painted while more relaxed, and it shows. It's amazing how much better art turns out when you're not twisting yourself up into knots.
Believe it or not, some of these portraits are meant to be studies for full illustrations. It's just organizing myself to get them done that's the problem. I might need to meet myself halfway with a little mental trickery: start a portrait study, then beef it up with a background or some supplementary elements.
Got a new piece up! I'm happy with how it turned out, though I can't help but chuckle at the process. My painting methods are nothing if not dynamic; sometimes I spend hours painstakingly working my way through references, thumbnails and rough drafts before I hit that final sketch. Other times? I mess around with blobs and shapes until it starts to look like something in my head.
...So when you don't see any progress shots of a piece, assume that the piece came about the latter way. Honestly? I'm not complaining. Some of my best work has come about by just letting loose and following my intuition.
Here I post WIPs, sketches, speedpaints, thumbnails and anything else thrown into the veritable stew of artistic process.