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.

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.



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.

Pareidolia for the Modern Painter

This is another cross post from our little collaborative project at Pixeldiggers. If you get a chance hop over there and see what everyone else is up to.

Pareidolia (that something like pear-e-DOLL-i-ya) is one of those big fancy doctor words that every artist should know. It refers to the phenomenon of seeing something meaningful in what is in reality completely random. Think: seeing a bunny in the clouds, or a man’s face in the moon, or the disapproving face of the Viking God Woden in the scorch marks of your morning toast.

For most people pareidolia is little more than an interesting trick of the eye, but for an artist it’s a fantastic way to generate ideas. If you’ve ever had the experience of sitting down to your instruments and thinking “I just don’t know what to draw”, pay close attention.

Pareidolia works because your brain is a pattern matching machine, especially for shapes that resemble faces. (If you’re interested in how this works, I highly recommend Jeff Hawkins book On Intelligence)

It’s so good in fact that when you give it something vague and formless to look at it can’t help but interpret what you see as something it’s not. This can happen by accident as in the examples above, but you can also provide your eyes with something random to look at on purpose and then coax an image out of the chaos.

As part of a digital painting assignment this last semester we tried this method out as an exercise. It was so much fun that I’ve used it a few times sense and I thought I would share a little about what I’ve learned so far.

Your first task is to make some kind of visual noise to work with. One approach, and the one we talked about in class, comes from Scott Robertson on his Gnomon Workshop DVD, Creating Unique Environments. Scott uses large greyscale markers to make interesting organic shapes on a dozen or so sheets of paper, then scans them into photoshop layers where he overlays and blends them with different blending modes until he sees something interesting.

Another approach, this one from Chris Oatley, is to take a random photo from the web and then zoom WAAAAAAY into small sections of it looking for something interesting.

For my first attempt I dug through my art drawer and pulled out every used up charcoal stump and mislaid tube of paint and spent about an hour randomly smearing things on different scraps of paper. Then I scanned them all into layers of a single photoshop file at very high resolution (600 dpi). Then I spent about an hour zooming in to different portions looking for interesting shapes. Here’s one of about 6 sets I came up with:

The first thing I realized after doing this is that not all random stimulus is created equal. I had a lot of trouble finding interesting shapes, but on Scott’s DVD he picks them out one after the other. The reason is that even though the shapes he was making were random they all had organic structural shapes, so when he went looking for landscapes and buildings the building blocks were there.

Still, I did find some fun things. I especially liked that one on the bottom left so I opened it in a new documents and started laying things over it, painting into it, running filters against it, and after about an hour came up with this:

And then this:

It’s nowhere near finished, but it’s certainly a good start on something.

That first session was so much fun I thought I I would give Chris’s technique a try, so I zoomed way in on a section of that painting, then started layering, cropping, and painting again. Here’s the result of that:

So you can see how things can change quite drastically.

One thing that was bugging me about this process was that the results were so random. I wanted to see if I could control things a little more. This next time before I started working I thought about the kind of image I wanted to create. I’ve been looking at a lot of ink work lately, people like Mike Mignola, Ale Carloni, Alex Toth, and Francis Vallejo so I thought this might be an interesting target to aim for. I also had just finished watching China Town, a really fantastic Film Noir, and I had the idea of those 1920’s cars with the giant headlights in my mind.

I got out my bottle of ink, some bristol board scraps, and some masking tape. I put strips of tape down at random on the paper and then made a mess with the ink. Heres a scan of some of the results:

So just like before I scanned these into the computer at high rez, but this time instead of zooming and layering, I used the lasso tool to cut out random shapes which I pasted into a new file. Then I started moving the shapes around like puzzle pieces until something started to emerge.

After a few hours of moving and only a little bit of painting, here’s what I got:

Other than some of the fine details like the face, the car’s grill, and the skull emblem on the door, everything here was pieced together like a collage with only a minimum of straight painting. Here’s the final version:

I’m still not confident that I have a good handle on steering this process where I want it to go, but I think that’s probably part of how it works. It does seem that you can at least point things in a general direction by the sort of raw materials you put in at the beginning.

If nothing else, it’s an interesting exercise in composition and visual metaphor and a good way to hone your skills in identifying both.

Speedy Digital Portraits

These were a couple of quick portraits I did in digital to try out some brush ideas.

This first is Dorathea Mort, the mug shot subject I mentioned in a previous post about glazing.

This one I painted from a still from the movie True Grit. It was one of my very favorite movies this last year. This is actress Hailee Steinfeld done up as Mattie Ross.

Professional Hands

Working on hands this time. In this case I did master copies.

This first set is from Alphonse Mucha. Mucha’s work is what we all think of when we think Art Nouveau. It’s all about the play between flat graphic shapes and subtle rounded forms and lots of organic curly cues. These were done in photoshop:

And these were pencil on paper:

This third set are based on J. C. Leyendecker. Leyendecker was a rough contemporary of Mucha’s, but he worked in a very different style as one of the golden age American illustrators along with people like Norman Rockwell. Leyendecker did a lot of magazine covers and so had to work quickly. His style is all about getting the point across with a few strokes. He’s one of my favorite artists. These were done in photoshop:

This set is based on sketches by James Jean, a contemporary illustrator. His does these sketches with single lines in pen, so they’re basically impossible to copy. It was fun to try though. Mine also pen on paper:

I’m not sure who this last set are from, the file wasn’t properly labeled. I believe it’s someone contemporary. If anyone recognizes them (as if my copies were good enough) let me know. Mine are pencil on paper.

UPDATE: turn out these were from Jerome Witkin. He’s a contemporary figurative artist.



Faciamus Mala Fecit Apparatus

As a rule I am generally opposed to self portraits. When I have to do them they generally end up pretty weird. A case in point:


Yes I do own a shirt like that. And the tie. And the silly giant jacket. But I usually don’t look this moody and wistful, (usually). Just think of it as the 3 story tall mural in the lobby of my evil corporate headquarters. Somewhere there’s a little plaque with a title like “Faciamus Mala Fecit Apparatus” (he made us make evil machines), and under that orange thing on the left theres a little expresso bar.

The portrait is all done in digital but I layered it in with some goodies scanned from my old engineering texts. I have this old book of machine parts that is full of wicked diagram drawings like these. For you chemistry nuts out there that’s a zinc oxide molecule on the left. Believe it or not I have an entire book about zinc oxide.

Part of the assignment was to make a few custom brushes so here are the brushes I used in the painting. The ones on the right are things I made.


Wouldn’t It Be Loverly: Renovated Gothic Church Art Studio

Our big project in perspective class this semester was to design an ideal art studio for somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million. That will buy a lot of chocolates and enormous chairs, but I wanted to make something pretty cool to put them in as well.

I’ve always had a thing for houses made out of converted buildings. I heard once about this decommissioned nuclear missile silo that someone converted into a house, the star feature being the 20 ton silo cover door which could be opened in less than 10 seconds with the aid of several rockets.

Missile silos are pretty cool, but an art studio needs light and silos a more of a subterranean affair. When you need windows there’s only one way to go. Gothic churches.

I’ve seen a few churches converted into houses as well, but most are smaller country churches and I wanted something big and stony like churches are meant to be. Here’s the basic layout I came up with:

The section to the far left, what the cathedral folks would call the narthex, is 2 stories with an entrance hall and some small rooms on the bottom, and then a large open office on top with 20 foot celling. The middle section, the nave, is large and open with a split level staircase to the 1st and 2nd floors. On the far end where the apse and alter would have been is closed off to form a library and reading room. Pretty swanky huh?

Here’s a measured floorplan I drew up in sketchup. You’ll see by the measurements that this is pretty small for a gothic church. We call that Bijou in the real estate biz.

Drawing this thing in perspective was a bit of a challenge. I did quite a few studies. Here was a first attempt based on the sketches above:

And here is a study of the staircase:

One of the techniques we studied in class is called a plan projection. It’s a process where by you can plot out your perspective drawing from a measured floorplan and elevation so that you know everything is precisely the correct size and location in perspective. It’s a time consuming process but it works like a charm. In order to do the projection I needed an elevation to go with my floor plan above, so I made this rough model in sketchup:

Once you get these two as guides, you line everything up on a drawing table along with your drawing paper. My setup looked like this:

And here’s my first attempt at the drawing:

Not too shabby, but I decided I wasn’t completely happy with the angle on things, so I started over. Here was the final result:


I decided to try coloring it a bit in photoshop as well. If you look carefully, there are 3 cats hidden in the picture. You can see 2 of them in the detail above.

Along with the overall view I also did a shot from the interior. This time I decided to forego the plan projection and just do the drawing on my own measurement. I settled on a shot looking at my work desk up there on the second floor in the extreme left of the drawing above.

This drawing had a lot of overlapping elements so I actually used 4 sheets of paper overlaid on one another to keep all the parts separated. Here’s what that mess looked like:

You can see all the construction lines I used to plot everything out. A good example is that circle floating in the middle of the page. That’s how I mapped out where each of the 5 legs of the chair base should go.

Here’s how it looks all cleaned up:

I got a little carried away in this one and added some subtle shadows.

Glazing Portrait

So as I mentioned in the previous post, we did a number of painted portraits this semester. That last one was all about direct observation of color. This assignment was about observing value. We painted several studies of the portrait in monochrome and then added color through glazes later.

I got the original picture from a very interesting collection of mug shot photos taken by the New South Wales Police Dept. around the turn of the century.

Isn’t this picture fantastic!!! The Historic House Trust has a collection of hundreds of photos like these up on their website. The caption of this image reads:

Dorothy Mort, criminal record number 518LB, 18 April 1921. State Reformatory for Women, Long Bay, NSW

Convicted of murder. Mrs Dorothy Mort was having an affair with dashing young doctor Claude Tozer. On 21 December 1920 Tozer visited her home with the intention of breaking off the relationship. Mort shot him dead before attempting to commit suicide. Aged 32. Part of an archive of forensic photography created by the NSW Police between 1912 and 1964.

The photos are all haunting and amazingly detailed.

So anyway, here’s how my underpainting went. I took a photo part way through and then again at the end. I was trying very hard to map out the planes of the face and make her features more angular with the intention of rounding things over when I got to the color stages later.

Because the original photo is in black and white I was going to need to make up the colors for her face so I decided to do a digital paint over to play with a few things. Honestly it didn’t go that well. This was the best of the lot.

When the time came to add the color I decided to take a different tact. This same week in figure class we were working on master copies and were discussing the idea of using another artist’s images a touchstones. I’ve always liked this portrait by Edward Kensella:

In fact, I’ve got a really bad laser printer copy of it on my wall. The color laser printer amps up all the colors and really saturates everything and it gave this picture this angry red glow that is totally absent in the picture above. It seemed like an interesting place to start from. Here’s what I came up with:

Originally the idea was for the color to be a transparent glaze over the underpainting, and it was at first, I swear. But as things moved on and I kept adjusting it turned unto a rather opaque paint over. The glaze still comes through in the eyes. You can see where the black is now a deep red. I’m pretty happy with it.

Oil on board, about 8 in x 10 in

Comp Studies

Here’s a little exercise I’ve been doing lately that I’m really enjoying. Take an image that you really like (painting, illustration, photograph, movie still, whatever) and do a little thumbnail size study.

Don’t worry about the details, that’s why you’re working so small. The idea is to get past the content of the picture and see the underlying composition: lights and darks, warms and cools, the big puzzle pieces.

Here are a few of my examples:

These are digital greyscale, originals on the left and my studies on the right. You can click for a slightly larger view, but really the point is to see things small so you get away from the details. The pictures are from my favorite book: 

Here are a few from famous paintings – 10 points if you can name them all. I wanted to try a few outside of the computer, so I did most of these using my fountain pen. I also tried a few in gouache so I could study the color arrangements.

These are a few modern works. From the top left: Chris Van Allsburg, Gianni De Conno, Shaun Tan again, a photo from my favorite photographer Lartigue (look him up, he has a very interesting story), Eric Fortune, Jens Claessens, Shaun Tan again again, and Peter Nguyen.

This is a good way to deconstruct works of art you like and see what makes them so appealing. It’s also a good way to rehearse successes, get a feeling for what makes a composition work so that you can apply those lessons to your own work.

Parasite Character Sheets

You may remember from my previous post that I did some character designs of parasites for a client. I wanted to post some of the followup work.

The parasite design we finally settled on was a sort of bug-eyed worm with a big gaping mouth. Once the clients picked the sketch they liked I did a few more variations on the selected design acting out some of the actions from the proposed scripts:

There was a little bit of a debate as to whether he should have arms or not but eventually we decided they weren’t needed.

Here’s a rough turnaround of the final parasite design they selected:

The clients really liked this guy because the parasite would be doing a lot of screaming in the videos, and this guy is basically all screaming mouth.

In a number of spots the parasite is accompanied by a cow that does various nasty things to the parasite (all well deserved, I assure you). Here are a few quick designs I put together for the cow:

They ended up choosing the one in the top right hand corner.

(All images and video copyright © 2011 Bazillion Pictures)

Photobooth Reference on Tumblr

Finding good reference images can be difficult, especially of people. In an ideal world we would all be famous artist working under a wealthy patron or at a prestigious Academe d’Art with a whole stable of models and costumes to work from, but we lowly modern artists have but Google Image Search, and Photobooth – you know, that program that lets you take pictures of yourself with your webcam.

Well some brilliant chaps have managed to collect some of those images from a bunch of working illustrators and start a blog called http://photoboothreference.tumblr.com/. Not only is it a great place to see people you respect making ridiculous faces, it’s a good place to find some interesting pictures to sketch from. Here are a few digital sketches I did about a month ago:

This is Nicola Rowlands. She is a british illustrator of many beautiful things.

And this is Si Smith.

Thanks for the photos guys!


I just discovered this new computer drawing application called Alchemy.

Alchemy is design to help you generate ideas visually. As you draw either lines or filled shapes, the program takes your drawing input and distorts and transforms it based one one or more modules you activate so that what comes out the other end is a pseudo-randomized jumble.

The idea is that you can generate these distorted images and then, like finding figures in clouds or in the burn patterns in your toast, you see new ideas in the randomness. You can then export your jumble into another art program like photoshop or skechbook and refine the image into what your brain comes up with.

There are all sorts of distortion modules and generators to help you make images. It can even listen through your microphone as input. I’ve only played with it a little bit, but I can already say I’m going to be using Alchemy a lot in the future. It feels like a great way to generate shapes for things like character or vehicle/architecture design.

Here are a few things I made yesterday in about an hour. Sort of Fishy/Space Shippy/Something or Others: