Quetzalcoatl: The Feathered Serpent

This piece was another assignment from my CGMA digital painting class. The goal for this week was to make a creature design and have some fun playing with found textures. Seeing as doomsday is fast approaching, I thought it might be fun to try something a little Mayan.

The first thing to get straight is that the Maya actually called their feathered serpent deity Kukulkan (for the Yucatec Maya), and Q’uq’umatz and Tohil (for the K’iche’ Maya). Quetzalcoatl was the Aztec deity, but it’s also the name that’s the most fun to say.

First here’s my sketch:


And the final painting:

I started out trying to use cut-up photos for the plants but the lighting and textures of the different photos wasn’t blending well, and I’m sure you can imagine how much of a nightmare it is trying to cut leafy things out of their background. Eventually I came across the idea of blowing out the contrast on a few good plant images and then turning them into brushes. That worked really well.

The feathers and scales on the snake are all “based” on photos, but there was quite a bit of painting on top of them to blend things together.

Cloud Fields

While modern industrial cloud manufacture takes place around the world, the Flint Hill region of the state of Kansas is synonymous with its centuries-old traditions of artisanal cumulo-culture, or cloud farming.  Many connoisseur insist that clouds from the fields of Kansas, with their natural nacreous layers and hand hewn silver linings, are the finest in the world.

One of the benefits of living in Kansas is the opportunity to sample each season’s crop fresh from the fields. I must admit that I am a bit of a cloud snob. Kansas farmers produce dozens of varieties including some species found no where else in the world. While grows can occasionally spawn tornados and other severe weather events, such is the life in the Flint Hills.

This is a collection of plein air sketches and watercolors from around my home in Eastern Kansas.

From a few of the roads near my house, some (slightly) embellished to make the hills more hilly.

Playing with some different cloud shapes.

Watercolors from K-10. I have a habit of pulling my car off to the side of the highway to paint. I’ve met quite a few friendly Kansas Highway Patrolmen and wormen.

A few of the smaller grows in Desoto, between Kansas City and Lawrence on K-10.

A few larger studies. I really wanted to play with some of the colors. When you think of the Great Plains you often get this sort of drab golden Little House on the Praire look, but its actually very colorful here.

I must admit that the aerial views are more or less invented. I don’t have access to a helicopter or artist’s zeppelin (yet).

A few more views from nearer my house. That bottom one is actually a commercial farm, but it’s still pretty.

Last few, anti-clockwise from the top left that College boulevard, K-10 in Desoto, and College blvd. again across from the local elementary school.

Soviet-Era Vending Machine

From venerated laboratories of glorious Soviet worker’s paradise, we are presenting now newest in modern convenience. Never again are brave citizens to be having to stand in line for to buy essential needs.
Features of model is including:
– 5 mm armor exterior for to repel minor damage.
– state of art 6 1/2 bits computing control systems with Rotary User Interface (RUI).
– new streamline design, is weighing only 1800 kilograms.
– 10,000 year power supply Cobalt-60 gamma reactor core.

I’ve been taking a fantastic digital painting class with Eric D. Martin over at CGMW. This was for a prop design assignment. Can you tell I had fun?

Memory Lane

I recently read Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine. Although it was the subject of some recent unpleasantness for Mr. Lehrer, I liked the book a lot. One item he discusses is the way mixed neighborhood of houses, shops, and varying income levels like New York’s Greenwich Village foster creativity. I’ve always wanted to live in a city where I could walk everywhere and see new buildings stuck right next to historic old ones.

This is what I came up with, painted mostly with the lasso tool and a hard square brush. The idea is that the middle section of the image dips into a vintage photograph of the street as it was, and then dips back out again. First a sketch or two:

I knew early on that I wanted the whole image to be a flat on POV, but I couldn’t help trying out a few perspective sketches. Originally the style of the building and the colors were going to signal the transition, but I was worried it would be a little to subtle. I got the idea of having something in the image that overlapped the transition and I really like drawing Volkswagon Beetles.

I hope you like the layout of the sketches. My portfolio has so many sketches in it I’m looking for ways to clean them up a bit without taking away the sketchiness. I based the formatting on a number of ArtCenter student’s work I’ve seen.

Here’s a version with some of my reference overlaid. I wanted the colors to be really vibrant and eclectic. I found a ton of great storefront images, both historic and modern. I also tried to add a lot of little goodies for people who go hunting for them. For example, all the shops have names relating to birds. I think Emperor Chicken on the end is my favorite.

David Rakoff

I was very sad to hear that David Rakoff passed away. He is one of my favorite authors.

Back in my first semester in art school I made this poster based on his monologue Christmas Freud for my typography class. The larger words are from a fortune cookie, the smaller from David’s monologue, and the image is a painting, “American Prayer”, by Gottfried Helnwein.

I entertained ideas of sending him a copy but I could never get up the nerve. I wish I had.

The text reads:

I am the ghost of Christmas subconscious.
I am the anti-santa.
I am Christmas Freud.
People tell me what they wish for.
I tell them the ways their wishes are unhealthy or wished for in error.
— David Rakoff

Ghost Light

Here is a piece I made to play with color and light a little. I did this sketch almost a year ago for a halloween thing that never happened. I thought it would make a good candidate for some experimentation.

But first of all, here are some of the preliminary sketches:

I had this tiny sketch in my sketchbook of a lamp with water pouring out from under the lampshade that seemed interesting. Its the ketch in the upper left-hand corner. From there I started to think about ghosts and how you use lights to ward them off. Doing some research I happened onto this wikipedia page about the theatrical tradition of a ghost light. Theater owners would leave a light illuminated on stage to either ward off malevolent spirits that haunt the theater, or to provide light for the theater ghosts to perform on the stage when it was not in use, thus appeasing them.

Lights are supposed to ward off the goulies, but what if the light is the thing you need to be worried about?

I played with the idea of water or ectoplasm filling a child’s room from the lamp.  I also kind of like the way the fluid pouring out of the lamp looked like a whirl of a dancers dress so I experimented with having the poor haunted child dort of waltzing with the ghost as it filled the room. I liked the dancing but it don’t quite have the mood I was going for.

Here’s what I ended up with:

And here are my value and color studies:

I wanted to have a few different sources of light to work with, so I added large windows which could produce a cool light to counterbalance the warm lights of the ectoplasm.

Film Studies

I’m taking an online painting class for the next few weeks over at CGMW. As a warmup this week we did some digital studies of screen grabs from our favorite films. I used this as an opertunity to try a few different approaches. Here are are few of mine:

True Grit (2010) : Cinematographer Roger Deakins

I started this one with the lasso tool and just made big flat shapes. Then I came in with an opaque brush. I was trying to avoid any transparent rendering.

Road to Perdition (2002) : Cinematographer Conrad Hall but with a lot of direction from Max Allan Collins’ comic.

This one I started with soft brushes and then came back in with sharper brushes to find the details. I’m not a fan of this technique.

Tron Legacy (2010) : Cinematographer Claudio Miranda

I did this one in layers, working up the background in soft brushes, and the foreground figures in harder brushes on a separate layer. I got to try my hand at making a pattern brush for the dots too. I think I really got the feeling of the two figures, that Jeff Bridges on the right and Garrett Hedlund on the left, even though theres very little detail there.

Amalie (2001) : Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel

I was trying to stick to just one or two basic brushes on the others, but for this one I decided to play with a set of texture brushes the instructor gave us.

Missouri River Digital Color Study

I’m thinking a lot about color lately, trying to train my eye to decompose what I’m looking at into a pattern of palette colors. One thing that’s really helped is looking at the way other artists handle their colors. This week I’ve been studying pictures by John Singer Sargent, Nathan Fowkes, and Daisuke “Dice” Tsutsumi. Well, ok, lets be honest, I was procrastinating by looking at pictures on the internet instead of doing what I was supposed to be doing. But its for a good cause! I swear. Here are a few things I noticed:

Big Shapes and Big Brushes First, Little Shapes and Little Brushes Sparingly : I think this is one of those things that everyone knows but forgets when they sit down in front of the computer. At least I know I do. It really struck me, however, when I saw some of Dice’s work. Take a look at some of the color keys and environments he did for Pixar and Blue Sky. They’re all painted in a big scratchy brush. There’s no detail to speak of. There’re can’t be. There’s so much noise from that brush that anything small would just be drowned out. But they certainly get the point across. No fidgety details needed. The hairy brush look is pretty unique to Dice if you look for the underlying concept you can see it at work in a lot of artists old and new. Have a look at Mike Yamada and Kevin Dart for example. They do the same thing, just with simple sharp-edged shapes.

Color Counterchange (low frequency, high amplitude) : I’ve talked about the importance of counterchange before so I won’t get into it here. I bring it up mainly as an example of large, slow change to contrast it with the next point, which is:

Color Vibration (high frequency, low amplitude): This, I think, is one of the things that gives natural media such an advantage over digital because traditional painters get a lot of vibration and local variance in their colors for free. In digital its so easy to make large fields of pristine color or smooth gradations but natural looking noise is a challenge. This is what all those fancy texture brushes and scanned textures are making for you, but if you don’t realize it and just use them haphazardly then you won’t have control over the situation.

As an example take a look at some of Nathan Fowkes’ work, especially his watercolor flowers. When there’s something in the image he wants to really pop he’ll throw down a brilliantly saturated base layer, and then brush his darker final colors over the top, letting the bright under and the dull over fight with each other.

This is a quick study from a photograph of the Missouri River that I used to play with some of these ideas.

Apocalyptic Legless Warrior Sings

A few of my fellow TAD students and I found some time in our busy schedules this spring to have a few weekend photoshop speed-painting sessions. We would come up with a simple theme and then spend an hour sketching something out. Here’s one of my more successful attempts from back in March.

The prompt was: “apocalyptic legless warrior sings“.


I was playing with a few composition ideas about shape welding and massing that I got from James Gurney. It’s got kind of a “Godfather goes to Rio” look to it that makes me laugh.

The Daring Escape of the Misfit Menagerie

I have some exciting news!

I’m sorry I have neglected posting for so long but I’ve been engaged in a big project. I just wrapped things up a few weeks ago and now I get to share. I’ve been illustrating this book:

It’s called The Daring Escape of the Misfit Menagerie, and it follows the story of 4 misfit animals as they escape from a villainous circus master. The story was written by the super talented Jacqueline Resnick, and is aimed at the grade school chapter book market. The book won’t be out until December, but it’s already got a page on amazon with my name and Jacqueline’s and an ISBN number and everything. I feel so official!

This is my first time illustrating a whole book for mass market publication, and it sounds like this is Jacqueline’s first book as well (although a little birdie (@Jacqwrites) told me she has a set of more grownup thrillers coming out next year). If this book is any indication I’m sure she has a big career in front of her. The characters and events were so well written it was a pleasure to  illustrate them. I hope I did them justice.

I did 35 interior illustrations for the book in black and white ink wash, as well as the color cover illustration and titles. Once the book comes out I’ll share some of the pictures with you. I’m very proud of them, and a lot of that credit goes to my great art director and the book’s editor over at Razorbill.

It was a lot of work and a great learning experience. The first of many I hope!

iPad Painting my Juice

One of the reasons I got an iPad was to use it for painting practice. The iPad isn’t a cintiq. In fact it’s kind of difficult to paint on. But I see so many people making beautiful things with it that I have no excuse for not trying. After all, constraints make you more creative. Right?


This is a painting of my half empty glass of cranberry juice. I LOVE cranberry juice. The glass is sitting on a little coaster that looks like a Persian rug, which is itself sitting on my wooden coffee table. I used an app called Procreate, which I like quite a bit.


Creative Stilt Costumes

The more I get into art the more I think about clothing and costume designs. I’ve not yet had the time (or the nerve) to make myself a whole costume but it’s one of my goals. When I see things like this I feel like I had better get started soon. This is one of those squeal withy joy videos.


This design reminds me of a TV special I saw a number of years ago that showed some of the behind the scenes work by the Muppet designers to create costumes and large scale puppets for The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.

link: Abraham-Hicks and Art as a Process

Someone sent me to this video (really just adio) of a motivational speaker / theosophy guru called Abraham-Hicks. It’s a short segment of a woman (I assume an audience member) asking a question to the female speaker (Esther Hicks?) and the speaker’s response. When I first listened through it I dismissed it out of hand because of the jargon the speaker uses but one thing she says near the end has really stuck with me.


Pay attention at about 6 min in. Did you catch that part about the true work of art being the process of creating it? And that people are drawn to a good work of art because it “represents alignment with source energy”? I think she means that a work of art is interesting or beautiful to someone because looking at it reminds them of the exhilarating feeling the artist got when he or she was making it.

link: OnTheMedia Tim Schafer interview

Recently OnTheMedia interviewed game designer Tim Schafer of DoubleFine about his recent KickStarter campaign. The interview that aired was on the short side, but they’ve now posted an extended interview on their blog. Tim talks about some of his creative process and how he got to where he is today but I think one of the juiciest bits is right at the end.

Tim talk about the importance of building rich backstories for your characters, but then letting only little bits of that detail show through in what the player sees.


For composition class this last fall one of our assignments was an image about “dreamtellers”, which it was our task to define and then depict.

I decided that a dreamteller must be like a bank teller at an institution that issues dreams, so I set about working out what that would look like.

I started out making thumbnails, of which I must have made over 60. I started to coalesce around the idea of a teller window inside a huge statue of an owl decorated with clocks and star charts and other items related to telling time. Here is a progression of thumbs from early stuff to what became the basis for the final illustration:

And some thumbs from near the end:


I wanted to give acrylics a try so I took some reference shots and started in on an underpainting:

Unfortunately the painting started to get overworked and the others suggested I try something different. I ended up working digitally using my thumbnail as an underpainting and layering in a bunch of textures and the photoshop brushes I’d been working on in painting class. Here’s how things turned out:

The figures are not my favorite, but I had a ton of fun working out all the carvings and architecture.

Looking at this now with some distance from it there are a lot of little things where I don’t know what I was thinking. Because we built up the compositions for this project over such a long time the work on this piece dragged out over several months, far longer than I’ve ever worked on a single piece before. I wonder now if this is a good lesson in objective distance. After you’ve been looking at something for ages it’s hard to get a clear picture of what’s really there. Stephen King in his On Writing book mentions that after he finishes the first draft of a story he put’s it in a drawer for a while and doesn’t look at it for a few weeks (or maybe it was even months). Only then does he take it back out and start editing. I can see where that is a useful practice.