A Fashionably Late Wrap-Up of 2013
Posted on 13 Jan 2014
An underpainting in progress, and something on the agenda for 2014: more oil painting!
Greetings and happy 2014 to everyone! Yes, it's traditional to publish one's yearly wrap-up on or around the new year. But given what a long and busy year it's been for me, is it any wonder that it took me two weeks to summarize it neatly?WHAT I DID IN 2013:
WHAT I NEED TO DO IN 2014:
- I stopped working for pennies. This wasn't an easy thing to do - not the least because earlier this year, my work really wasn't good enough to command industry rates. But after running myself ragged doing tons of low-paying jobs in 2012, I came to realize how precious my time and energy was. In 2013, I took a total pass on all those couple-hundred-dollar jobs that a new illustrator gets barraged with, and used my sudden influx of free time to actively work on improving my art - and the huge leap in quality my work has taken has absolutely justified the smaller number of jobs I've taken.
It's definitely not a stand anyone in any position could take. The first freelance job I took this year wasn't until May. The second freelance job I took? OCTOBER. It made for a pretty dismal year financially, but for those of you who might be concerned for my wellbeing (at least one, since I know my Mom reads my blog), I didn't starve. Living costs in Maine are outrageously low, and the art contests I won and prints I sold - combined with the ruggedly ascetic lifestyle I like to lead - kept me going. And, on a brighter note, the work started coming in steadily toward the end of the year - in the last few months, I've been lucky enough to take on a number of commissions back-to-back that fit really well with my art and my career goals.
I did break my own rule twice, by taking on a pair of lower-paying commissions for a company I really wanted to work with - and while I'm thrilled that I got to work with two of the industry's nicest art directors, the hours I poured into those projects reminded me just how much each piece I make costs me emotionally, physically, and in time diverted from my personal work - a lesson I'll be keeping in mind in 2014.
- I started taking illustration seriously. It's hard to look at your own work objectively - and it took until late 2012/early 2013 for me to really accept that my art wasn't such hot shit after all, buckle down, and start actually improving it. I started following the crits and paintovers of the late, great Awesome Horse Studios; I started sketching more and trying out new media; I stopped accepting my art for what it was and began thinking of it in terms of what I wanted it to be.
I think the turning point for me was clicking the "Purchase" button for a SmArt School course with Marc Scheff and Lauren Panepinto - at around $1000 this was the largest individual purchase I'd made towards my art, and I remember that making that payment felt like putting a down payment on a career. It was my way of saying to myself "Quit screwing around. If this is what you're going to do with your life, you need to go all in." Lucky for me, the course had more than just symbolic value - it served as a crash course for working with bigger clients in the industry, and encouraged me to start thinking seriously about what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go with my art.
- I learned to draw faces! In recent years it's become more and more apparent that I have some sort of mild face blindness going on (acquaintances are recognizable only by their distinctive facial hair and/or modes of dress) - which I think must have something to do with why drawing faces has always been such a struggle. It can take me hours to get a face the way I want it - I've erased holes in my paper trying to produce a face that looks even vaguely human more times than I care to recall.
I spent 2013 drilling relentlessly, drawing from photos and planar models and skulls, and doing those subdivided-egg-on-a-stick constructions that are the staple of every entry-level art class. Nothing seemed to be taking... until a month or so ago, when I must have crossed some sort of invisible labor threshold, because all of a sudden my faces look like faces on the first (or, worst case, third) try.
- I went to Illuxcon. I'd long been resistant to the idea of going to illustration conventions - every time I heard a professional cite conventions as one of the absolute musts of the business, I cringed and hoped fervently that this advice didn't apply to my own career. But a few weeks before Illuxcon 6, at Marc and Lauren's urging, I found myself making travel plans for Allentown.
It wasn't as terrifying as I thought it would be. Living in the middle of nowhere as I do can be extremely isolating; getting to cross paths with other illustrators who I'd halfway-met online, strike up new connections, and find new artists to keep an eye on for inspiration was an unexpectedly awesome experience that gave me some much-needed creative fuel for my own work. I was lucky enough to get portfolio reviews from Fantasy Flight's Zoe Robinson and then-WOTC's Jon Schindehette - both of them had a lot of positive and encouraging things to say, as well as helpful crits on aspects of my work that I'd sensed were lacking, but couldn't quite pinpoint the problems with myself. Floodgates opened and trepidations somewhat allayed, I've booked showcase tables for 2014 at both Illuxcon 7 (Allentown PA, September) and Spectrum Live (Kansas City MO, May).
- I (almost) got to work for Wizards of the Coast. While it didn't end up panning out into a commission, I was on the initial list of artists for a project - this was huge for me, as Wizards is one of the major players in the industry that just about every aspiring F/SF illustrator wants to work for. That my work has gotten to a level where it can be seriously considered by major clients was a huge milestone for me - and of course, there's always the hope that I'll be able to pull in another commission with them in 2014.
- Start marketing my improved work. I hate being exposed to advertising of any kind: tv commercials, spam, logos on t-shirts - all the stuff that exists to annoy people into thinking they need more stuff than they already have - so it's hard to feel like I'm becoming a part of that obnoxious static in the form of one more unsolicited email in an art director's inbox.
But, even I have to admit that advertising can serve a higher purpose - alerting someone to the existence of something that they genuinely need. I'm hoping that as my art continues to improve, it will become something that an AD will be excited to get an email or a postcard about - and I'll feel like less of an unwelcome nuisance when I market my work.
- More drawing. I've been seeing exponential results from every bit of practice I managed to squeeze into 2013. Now that my most vexatious hobgoblin (drawing faces!) is mostly under control, I need to start expanding my visual vocabulary even further. The great thing about learning to draw something properly is that once you do it, that knowledge will be with you permanently, and will have an effect on the quality of your work forever after.
I want to take some time in 2014 to figure out what specific subject matter I want to appear in my work, and hone my talents accordingly. Also on the list: oil painting. I'm currently in the middle of my first full oil painting since UCSB class of '08 (home of the Fightin' Underachievers!) and am really loving how much faster and easier it's going (seriously!) than my digital work.
- Turn over my portfolio. A few months ago, I finally had enough new and better work to drop the last of my outdated 2012 pieces from my portfolio. I'd love to keep this yearly turnover rate going - my work is constantly improving, and constantly updating the body of work I show online is a natural extension of this.
So, that about wraps up my wrap-up for the year. May 2014 be equally productive, more profitable - and end with a timelier blog summary than 2013 did - for all of you.
ImagineFX Rising Stars 2013
Posted on 06 Dec 2013
Awesome news I can finally share: I'm one of the winners in ImagineFX's Rising Stars 2013! The yearly competition honors up-and-coming artists in the sci-fi & fantasy genre, and I'm surprised and honored to have been featured among a bunch of really awesome artists. The recognition is hugely encouraging, and a definite motivator to step up my work!
Glowing, largely undeserved praise! (The cat is actually deceased. I should really update my official artist bio.)
ImagineFX has yet to post an online overview of the winners and their work, but it's absolutely worth checking out the rest of the lineup. You can find the issue containing the feature here
New Work: Hunt for the Black Lotus
Posted on 17 Nov 2013
Here's the latest: my entry for the Inspiration Challenge over at Jon Schindehette's ArtOrder blog. I'd fully intended to finish this out as a traditional painting, but the deadline snuck up on me and so the final piece is, as usual, digital color over a pencil drawing.
I had a pretty simple concept in mind: a character climbing through the illustration window of a Magic: the Gathering card into a world inhabited by [copyright-free genericized reinterpretations of] MTG creatures and objects. Getting this all on paper they way I wanted it to look turned out to be harder than I thought it would be - I wasn't sure exactly what creatures I wanted to include, or how they would be arranged, so my thumbnail process (usually so reliable) resulted in a lot of uninspiring arrangements of nebulous blobs.
I eventually mocked up the scene in Sculpey and cardboard, which served to remind me that sculpture is really, really not my forte - but also gave me a specific spatial configuration to build the scene around. I was finally able to get an awkward sketch and a color rough; some pointers from Levon Jihanian helped me retool the composition into something I was more confident moving forward with.
Something about the composition continued to bother me a little; halfway through the final pencil drawing I decided that the relatively empty upper third of the image was to blame and, for lack of any more suitable inspiration, I added in the zombified tree to fill things out.
I'd been concerned about cluttering up what was, admittedly, already a pretty busy image - after all, someone might say to me "Sure, the octopus, the imp, the angel with TWO swords and the adorable owls are all well and good, but a tree? You've gone too far!" and tear up my illustration permit. But as soon as I added the tree the composition resolved itself into the nice balanced S-shape that I'd been struggling to create with the original elements.
I'm much happier with the finished piece than I usually am when I wrap up a painting - the color and level of rendering are getting a lot closer to the internal vision I always have of what my work "should" look like. With this piece, I got a chance to absorb some of the art, information, and feedback from my visit to Illuxcon, and I think the end result is better for it.
Painting (Now With Real Paint!)
Posted on 26 Oct 2013
Digital artists have a hard time of it. We're used to accusations of "digital trickery," and have to answer questions like "isn't it amazing that a computer does this all for you?" To top it all off, traditional artists like to kick sand in our faces at the beach and "accidentally" spill turpentine down our laptops in art class.
I never really learned to paint properly. Most of my "paintings" in art school were Sharpie and paint-pen monstrosities on Masonite, and if I ever picked up a brush seriously while I was there, I certainly haven't done so since. Lately I've been wanting to get back into traditional media for a few reasons:
- I saw a ton of awesome paintings at Illuxcon. Living in Maine (scenic armpit of the Northeast!), the only art I ever see is online, so the difference between the digital pieces and the traditional pieces that I admire is nonexistent. Seeing paintings in person that I'd only ever seen on a computer screen drove home the difference, though - maybe it's seeing things at their original dimensions, or being able to see the texture of the ground it was painted on and the other physical characteristics that distinguish it from a shiny digital painting.
- I don't get a lot of enjoyment out of coloring a piece digitally. My favorite part of the process by far is the pencils; the digital coloring stage always feels like a somewhat arbitrary afterthought after all the interesting decision-making that goes into nailing down the drawing. Worse, I haven't been entirely happy with the end result of the process. I've been finding that the most successful digital pieces I've been doing are the ones that simulate a traditional look in some way - flat tones that feel like watercolor, or detailed areas with lots of brushstrokes. In a lot of ways, I think it would be easier to get these effects with actual paint.
- I'm officially going to be attending the Illustration Master Class next summer! The faculty is packed with some awesome artists who work traditionally or semi-traditionally (I'm in the group focus with Rebecca Guay, Greg Manchess, Scott Fischer, Iain McCaig, and AD Irene Gallo) and with so many experts around to assist, I'd love to at least have the option of traditional media for my IMC project. Since I definitely don't want to try to learn to paint in a single week, far from home and studio, whilst simultaneously trying to come up with the BEST ILLUSTRATION OF MY LIFE, I need to get cracking on this as soon as possible.
This little painting of an octopus headdress is my first semi-successful attempt. It's oil with a watercolor underpainting on gessoed Bristol paper, 5x7". I'd originally started out painting over an original pencil sketch, but botched it badly and had to start over using a dark blurry printout from a cell phone picture I'd snapped early on. Happily, the gesso covered pretty well, hiding the crappy image quality while leaving just enough of the printed lines visible to work from.
The underpainting is watercolor - mostly applied in large solid sections, allowed to dry, and then lifted out of the highlights with a wet brush. Once I had the underpainting the way I wanted it, I gave it a few coats of acrylic spray to seal it.
The finished watercolor underpainting.
I didn't have a specific color scheme in mind when I started out, but I took snapshots at regular intervals and did Photoshop mockups to help plan out my next move at each stage.
The first pass with oil paint.
Since I was working with a fairly rendered underpainting, most of the oil painting involved glazes to alter and deepen the colors, and detail work in the face (it seems like I can never draw a reasonable looking face in one go). This first pass was done as a single layer of paint, thinned with walnut oil, which I was able to quick-dry in a 200° toaster oven to save me the wait for the final round of glazing. I have yet to ponder the archival implications of this process, since I don't think Girl With an Octopus Hat is going to be remembered as my magnum opus, but in retrospect I should probably at least look into whether or not walnut oil will spontaneously combust under this sort of treatment. I watched it very closely.
Finished out with thin glazes to tweak the color.
On the whole, I think it was a worthwhile experiment. Maybe I did more painting in the past than I remember, or maybe there's some carryover from my digital work - but after the initial false start the process was surprisingly predictable and controllable. I can definitely see getting to the point where I can mimic (and improve upon) the look of my digital pieces with a little practice.
And, what good would the marvels of the internet do us without an animated gif to document the process:
Hours of painstaking labor cavalierly reduced to a few seconds.
New Work: Annick Press
Posted on 16 Oct 2013
I'm not, in fact, dead (although I can see where the absolute silence of my blog - punctuated only by the ominous buzzing of flies and the screams of scavenger birds - might give a different impression). I've been working! On multiple projects at the same time! A number of the illustrations I've been working on will be under the cloak of secrecy that is NDA for a few months/years, but happily I can share at least one of them - a YA book cover (above) for Canadian publisher Annick Press.
My initial thumbnail concepts.
The book is called Shifting Sands
- a trio of historical fictions set in the eras of Muhammed, Moses, and Christ. Annick Press had a pretty good idea of what they were looking for: they wanted a dramatic cover showing two children hiding from a Roman army on the move; a similar color scheme to my recent Full Blooded
illustration; and it needed to be done yesterday (or thereabouts). The subject matter was a bit of a change from my usual (note that the old-timey pieces in my portfolio cleverly sidestep the issue of real-world historical accuracy of any kind via the inclusion of ghosts, wizards, and giant snails) but with a combo of reference materials and Annick's willingness to indulge some artistic liberties, we arrived at a sketch whose balance of aesthetics plausible deniability suited all parties involved.
To my absolute delight, this project forged ahead with virtually! no! revisions!
(can you tell how exciting that is for me?) and, good news upon good news, Annick was pleased enough with the final cover that they decided to bring me on again for some additional illustrations for the same book - which is what I'm working on currently, which is why, although I'm not dead, things will continue to be pretty quiet around here.
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