The Making of “Cursed by the Cthaeh”

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Earlier this week I posted this painting “Cursed by the Cthaeh”, a portrait of Kvothe Kingkiller from Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicle. Today I want to show you how I made it. If you think this painting came easy, it didn’t. It’s been a long time coming, and here’s the full story.

Step 1: Understanding the Concept

I try to research the subject I’m illustrating because starting out well-informed leads to both inherently better visual storytelling and clues that readers familiar with the story will recognize. For those who haven’t yet read this series, I highly recommend both The Name of the Wind and Wise Man’s Fear. They’re excellent reads and I find there’s more to uncover each time I read them. Without spoiling anything major, I’ll just hint that it’s a tragic story of Kvothe’s rise and downfall, and his downfall begins at this moment when he meets the Cthaeh in its tree. Other elements include a cloak made of shadows, a pin of silver pipes, light blue flowers in the tree, red butterfly wings below the tree, an ancient sword, a lute, and of course Kvothe’s flame red hair.

The first image in the process of creating Kvothe

The second image in the process of creating Kvothe
The third image in the process of creating Kvothe The fourth image in the process of creating Kvothe

Step 2: Sketching

I began with a very rough figure drawing, pictured in the upper left. By this point I had already done the research into the clothing I wanted to reference and just needed to add Kvothe’s personality and mood into this scene. He’s a heroic character, so I began with a hero’s pose and used a wonderful cloak reference to visualize my first idea. I decided that it wouldn’t make sense for him to stand there posing under the tree, so I revised the sketch and drew him walking towards us and away from the tree. Above, you’ll see my transition from that first rough sketch of Kvothe into something more refined and finally loosely sketching out the Cthaeh’s tree behind Kvothe.

For the tree reference, I researched ancient gnarly European oaks and java willow trees. They have powerful twisting branches and roots that seem to reach everywhere, like dead spider legs or octopus tentacles. Placing the tree and Kvothe together like this makes it look like the tree is trapping him in its roots and branches, and as if knot in the tree is the Cthaeh’s eye or portal through which it speaks to those unfortunate souls who draw close enough.

Value studies Color Studies

Step 3: Value and Color Swatches

One of the best pieces of advice I learned about composition was to clearly define the foreground, middle ground, and background clearly with both value and color. I experimented with a few graphic combinations and settled on No. 4 and F. Placing Kvothe as the darkest shape against a light background centers the focus on him and places the Cthaeh’s tree further in the background while allowing me to hint that the tree has symbolically cast a shadow over him. And one of Kvothe’s most iconic features is his hair, so I chose my colors to compliment it. I also decided on a color for the ground plane that was in the same family as his shadow cloak because I wanted it to feel like it was melting into the ground.

The fifth image in the process of creating Kvothe

Step 4: Setting up Value Structure and Basic Color

At this stage, I wasn’t worried about perfect mark-making or blending, just setting roughing out the color and values. I kept to a dark pallet for Kvothe and played with a gradient for the background.

The sixth image in the process of creating Kvothe

Above, I brought the tree sketch back in and adjusted its placement in relation to Kvothe.

The seventh image in the process of creating Kvothe

Next I played with ideas for the tree, letting a swirly mist creep out of it, but in the next step I discarded the idea. Kvothe also went through some changes here. I received great feedback from my mentor, Chad Weatherford, that I would tell the story better if Kvothe were looking over his shoulder and visually reinforcing his relationship to the tree. I also went back to my references and chose a specific actor to “play” Kvothe in my mind’s eye.

The eigth image in the process of creating Kvothe

Step 5: Color!

At this point I stopped selecting colors from the pallet and just sampled them from the canvas with the color picker. I spent time developing the mid-ground and background, the tree, and underlying colors. I also began to mask out part of Kvothe’s shadowcloak to reveal the ground and roots behind him. Lastly, I painted out an extra tree branch so that the two remaining ones would make a frame around Kvothe’s head and I could let light break through the tree branches to draw more focus on him.

The ninth image in the process of creating Kvothe

My background is with traditional paints so I like to work from dark to light. At this stage I brought in some lighter colors, especially around Kvothe. Then I added a few photo textures of roots, bark, and moss into the picture on Overlay layers and continued to paint over those. I also decided to open up Kvothe’s body still more to the tree and switched his posture. Here, his right foot and left hand are forward as he walks towards us. I was also mindful to switch which side his sword hung on and continued to render and develop him, including his wonderful flame-like hair. I used a layer mask to vanish more of his shadow cloak and added rim light not only to illuminate Kvothe but to add a lost and found line where the edge of his cloak ends and catches the light.

The tenth image in the process of creating Kvothe

I added more overlapping foliage and rim lighting and defined the edge of the hill. I also drew on other colors from the scene to suggest distant parts of the forrest and to unify Kvothe with his environment. I think the faint conte-like marks give it an ethereal quality, which is perfect for a scene that happens in the fae realm.

The eleventh image in the process of creating Kvothe

Step 6: Lighten it Up

It was time to bring in the lighter values and unify the piece, revealing more of the underlying colors. I did this in layers – there’s a gradient of color that fades from dark and more opaque from the bottom to lighter and more transparent at the top, which also helps unify Kvothe in the foreground with the rest of the scene. I also lightened up the tree and the background behind it to reveal more colors, but was mindful to make them lighter than Kvothe in order to stay true to my original value plan. Lastly, I softened the texture of the canopy of leaves in the background and faded some of the branches out to show more depth.

Close up of finishing touches on Kvothe;s face

Close up on the final touches on the shadow cloak

Close up on the finishing touches on the Cthaeh

Step 7: The Finishing Touches

The final details are best seen in close-up. Until this point I had worked zoomed out so that I could see the whole piece at once, but when it comes to the details like these, and the three most important areas of the piece, I zoomed in and spent more time rendering. In the first close-up you can see how I refined Kvothe’s expression and facial features, particularly shaping his nose and the crease between his brows. In the next close-up, I added details like the red butterfly wings on the ground and light blue flowers in the tree (both were story elements from the book, and both colors I drew from elsewhere in the painting). I thought about adding a live butterfly either on Kvothe’s shoulder or by the “eye”of the tree, but it was too distracting. Finally in the last close-up I finished the “eye” to give it more character.

Kvothe portrait process

Enjoy the painting, and thanks a million to Chad Weatherford and Justin Howard for their advice!

Edit: I came back to this piece after additional feedback I received from Cynthia Sheppard and added more warm yellow light into the background of this piece, rounded out the rim light, adjusted Kvothe’s chin, and the color balance. Then for fun, I added dappled light patterns. The result is updated at the top of this article.