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.
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.
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.
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.
Above, I brought the tree sketch back in and adjusted its placement in relation to 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve been developing the design of Kvothe, the main character in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicle, for my thesis project dedicated to visually developing the story for game pre-production. Above are my color experiments for Kvothe as an adult. It’s helpful to make quick study of color combinations in the process of visual development before creating the final character painting. I chose these color combinations to compliment his hair, which is described as flame red. Some of the combinations are simple monochrome or complimentary, others schemes include more colors. Sometimes the simplest combinations are the most striking.
If you’d like to check out this wonderful series, start with The Name of the Wind here:
The Name of the Wind (Kingkiller Chronicles, Day 1)
…then proceed directly to book 2:
The Wise Man’s Fear (Kingkiller Chronicles, Day 2)
The overall shape, the silhouette, is the primary and most powerful way to identify an object, type of person, or creature. The ability to quickly pick out meaning from silhouettes, such as whether the thing we saw would help, nourish, or hurt us. Shapes are a kind of language that we learned first to identify, and eventually to communicate with. As artists, we need to learn this language and, how to manipulate it, to design effectively. Likewise, one helpful tip for testing if your design is clear is to look only at its silhouette and see if you (or better yet, if someone nearby) can tell what it is.
Silhouettes are created not only by strong, clear, shapes, but also contrast between those shapes and their background. That’s where negative space comes in – the shape that is not the subject itself, but what surrounds and contrasts with it.
Above are examples of strong silhouettes created by masters from the Golden Age of Illustration. From left to right are examples from JC Leyendecker, NC Wyeth, and Mead Schaeffer. At that time, artists were creating art for periodicals which needed to be quick reads (as opposed to paintings that would hang on a wall and be admired for a length of time). That meant that the artist would need to create silhouette shapes that viewers/readers could recognize very rapidly. They are great to study from.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned about creating strong silhouettes (and therefore strong paintings) is to put dark things against light things and light things against dark things. That’s why Leyendecker tended to use white backgrounds, many artists like NC Wyeth choose to shape clouds around key subjects, or shine light behind them as Mead Schaeffer did here. And where shapes overlap, such as in Leyendecker’s painting, there is clear contrast – the lady’s pale skin against the gentleman’s coat. Leyendecker also made sure there were holes in the silhouette shapes, such as the crook of the gentleman’s arm and gaps between him and the lady and the lady and the flowers. NC Wyeth and Mead Shaeffer in these examples also placed different colors against each other to create clear silhouette shapes. Shapes, and character gestures, can be pushed and pulled to character traits as well – the lady in Leyendecker’s painting on the left has a larger head than is realistic, but it emphasizes her sweet child or doll-like traits.
Title: My Zombie Husband
Medium: Graphite & Colored Pencil
Size: 8.5″ x 14″
Notes: This was originally a character design with a focus on rendering realistic folds from a collection of reference photos. In cases like this, I applied my understanding of fabric and folds in this to make an unnatural body with broken limbs look realistic – this character was based on four distinct poses to give the impression that the zombie had suffered several broken bones. I also took the opportunity to tell a story with this design. I then scanned the pencil drawing and digitally painted it, which adds additional elements such as the time of day and mood of the scene.
If you look for the clues, you can learn more about this particular zombie. Even though his ring finger is half-bitten off, he still wears his wedding ring. He’s missing a shoe, perhaps he was turned when he was getting ready for work one morning. Most people wonder what the role of the raven is. Is it and its flock assisting the zombies by circling above human prey? Did the flesh in its beak come from the Zombie Husband’s cheek, implying that the zombies will eventually be consumed by the ravens? One viewer wondered if the ravens were created by the remains of the US government to combat the zombie threat. But is the red glint in the raven’s eye suggesting that it too is a zombie, or is it merely a reflection of the gore around it?
This character was based on my husband (who was a fantastic sport modling those awkward poses and giving me great zombie faces). If there’s any special meaning in that, I suppose it’s that I don’t want him to ever die…and I do mean ever. : P
A 4-point turnaround of my Aphrodite character in Bruce Timm’s style. A turnaround is a series of front, 3/4, side, and rear view illustrations of a character designed so that all members of a production team will know what a character looks like from all points of view. Sometimes a 3/4 rear view is included as well. A turnaround is part of the model sheet package along with an expression sheet and “gestures” or poses. For more information, check out this more detailed explanation by Mike Milo.
Even though I completed this turnaround early on in the character design process, and so it isn’t as sleek as the newer gesture designs, the practice of developing Aphrodite into a 3D form led to the final, more sophisticated, look for her poses here and here. This exercise helped me become more familiar with her as a character and made it easier to discover the shapes that describe her form in more evocative ways.
It usually isn’t necessary to color turnaround illustrations, but I decided to do so with this early design. In the process, I learned a few finer points about outlining contour lines, coloring, and shading. For example, the form of her breasts and the gold bands that wrap around her gown are described better with this shading than in her gesture poses. This was a great opportunity to practice lighting a character consistently when viewed from different orientations.
I originally created this design of Aphrodite in Bruce Timm’s style as a final project for my Character Design portfolio. Tonight I went back and touch it up and tried out an alternate color pallet for her dress. Below are the two new versions, I’m not sure which I like more. The lavender makes me think of royalty and sensualness, as only the very wealthy could afford the dye to make purple in ancient times. As a plus, it also contrasts with her hair really well.
I also tried the turquoise-blue hue based on the triad rule. It brings out her eyes more and makes me think of life and her vibrancy. For more detailed notes, click here in the gallery.
Follow this link to see three videos of Matt Rhodes, Associate Art Director for the Mass Effect games, as he discusses the creation of the Asari, Krogan, and Salarian races respectively. I find his discussion of how he and his artists used model and animal references as launching points for their designs particularly interesting.
Designing Asari, Krogans, Salarians, and Batarians: Mass Effect: The Origin of Species – Features – www.GameInformer.com
Designing Turians: Mass Effect 3: Creating Garrus
What makes an alien race sexy and approachable to humans? What animal features make a race look predatory? Scientific and enlightened? How can designers differentiate members of these species? How would they look in different points across their lifespan? All of this must be considered when designing an alien character in addition to the practical elements of movement, weight, balance, and constructing armor and clothing.
- A-level work can be published in industry; so if you are consistently getting A’s then should be out working instead of taking out loans for school. Most students get C’s at AAU, with a few stars getting the infrequent A-. So feel good about getting high C’s and low B’s, especially before midterm. Grades are no more or less than feedback on your work. No one will care what your GPA was in school, they will care about your portfolio. However, aim for A-level work so that you will have a professional portfolio.
- Related to No. 1: If you are offered a job while in school, take it! The goal is to get work, not necessarily to get your degree. The timing might not be right when you graduate; in fact, it probably won’t because you’ll be competing with other graduates at the same time. You can always return to school and finish your degree if you so wish, or even receive educational reimbursements from your employer if you want to continue studying while working.
- Almost everyone in school is great at something and weak in other things. I’ve realize that compared to other beginning students I have more experience rendering texture and painting digitally; I also have an intuitive knack for picking colors. But while I can copy a figure given enough time, I have trouble imagining the human body in other positions or from different points of view, or capturing gestures quickly, or simplifying and stylizing it for animation, or foreshortening it. Once I have that down, I won’t need to learn much about how to “wrap it” in shade or color. If you’ve been admitted into an MFA program, you have something to offer and something to gain from school.
- Attitude is critical. Remember the tortoise and the hare parable, “slow and steady wins the race”. There are a number of experienced students, but some of them are complacent and others are resistant to trying out new things. However, with an excellent attitude towards learning, you can rise head and shoulders above other students with time, dedication, and practice. That’s the same attitude needed to get work in industry and to be the very best at the tasks you’re assigned. The artists with that attitude are the ones who are promoted, not the ones who are envious of senior artists on the team.
- A lot of students resist learning certain techniques, styles, or subjects because they think they won’t use them later on. In my character design class we’re learning to become “style chameleons” during the first half of the semester and “building our design vocabulary”. Many students want to stay in their comfort zones and draw in their own style, but that will kill the career of a new artist in industry. Learning to draw in different styles is a survival skill. If hired by a company (say, Disney or Lucas Arts) you would have to draw in the style of the particular project you’re assigned. Everything you learn adds to you “Batman’s belt” – your set of tools available for every occasion. Never stop learning. Keep your tools sharp. For more on this, read Dresden Codak’s article on Draftsmanship: Increasing Your Visual Vocabulary.
- Is it better to generalize and be able to do many different things, or to specialize and rock at one thing? In other words: “is it better to become a swiss army knife or a scalpel?” The answer: ideally you should become a swiss army knife with a scalpel attached. Be a rock star at one task and then be able to do many different tasks for a project as well. That is the best way to get yourself established in the industry and to keep yourself employed.
Wednesday, January 26th, 2011: New Graduate Student Orientation
Orientation was a required event for all of the new graduate students. We were there to meet the president and vice president of the Academy of Art University, our admissions representatives, and heads of our respective schools. I’ve quickly learned that AAU is very focused on creating professionals ready to enter the industry by graduation. And an event like this was a perfect opportunity to network and meet any and all of the new graduate students in one place. I approached it like a trade conference.
At Reed College, I quickly realized that the most interesting kids in school went there and places like it. I could spend hours talking excitedly (or ‘geeking out’ if you prefer) with any student there. At AAU, I have the impression that the most creative and driven aspiring artists go there. Same dedication, same ambition, same intrinsic motivation to learn and grow. Just my kind of people, but with a different focus.
I’m not the type to briefly exchange names and cards with as many people as I can in the time allotted. That may work for some people, and I’ll grant, it generates a lot of contacts. But I’m more comfortable with meeting 3-4 people at an event like this, talking in depth for about 20 minutes each if I can (or in a group if they know each other), and try to form lasting connections with them. These could be my collaborators or colleagues in the future, perhaps near-future if we combine forces in school. Hopefully we’d be ambitious enough to publish our own books or found our own companies. Such things have happened in AAU and schools like it.
I don’t know why people get nervous about meeting each other at an event like this. Ok, well, maybe I do because I used to be painfully shy too. I had a very negative inner monologue right up until I was settled at Reed. And maybe it does echo into my consciousness from time to time, particularly when I’m out of my element. But in reality, people want to meet each other. They are silently screaming, ‘Talk to me, please! I don’t know anyone!’ I know because that’s what I’ve thought. So I just dive in. Ask questions. Be like a reporter and interview people. People love to talk about themselves, so I give them the excuse, and my card. I love listening to them, especially when I find we’re obsessed about the same things.
After the meet & greet, I went with two new friends up to the welcome lecture. The highlight there was the spring show reel of the work that previous Masters in Fine Art (MFA) students have created. Some of their work was quite impressive. The video ended with the promise that we would create art like that. Many of us swore we would create art at that caliber. Yet some of us feared, deep inside, that there had been a mistake. We feared we weren’t qualified and didn’t have the talent.
Fear is perfectly healthy at the beginning of a long transformation such as this. It prevents one from being arrogant, complacent, and closed to new ideas. After-all, to understand is to stand under a concept for a while. But that fear isn’t completely warranted. Yes, there are schools out there that just want funding and will take (and pass) anyone. I’ve heard the horror stories. A school like this one, however, has a good reputation for working its students hard, challenge them, and pushing them out of their comfort zones. And a school like AAU reviews admission application portfolios for a reason – to find the potential in them.
Next we split into our respective schools. Those like me in the Illustration School convened with Bill Maughan, the Director of Graduate Illustration. I was a little tongue-tied meeting him, and this is why:
A professional illustrator and fine artist, Mr. Maughan received a Bachelor of Fine Art in Illustration from the Art Center College of Design. He has provided numerous illustrations for such companies as DreamWorks, Woman’s Day, TV Guide, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, CBS, Universal Studios, Wells Fargo Bank, Chevrolet, GMC, Franklin Library, New American Library, Avon Books, Pinnacle Books, Signet Books, Tor Books, Doubleday, Harcourt Brace, Knopf, Oxford University Press, Danbury Mint, Fenwick and others. Since the early ’80s Mr. Maughan’s work, both originals and prints, has been represented by major galleries and publishers, domestically and internationally. His works of art are included in private, commercial and museum collections. Mr. Maughan’s book, The Artist’s Complete Guide to Drawing the Head, was published in 2004 by Watson/Guptill.
When he’s not teaching Academy students the fundamentals — realism-based drawing, design concepts, value, form, color and composition — he paints in his studio in the mountains of Utah.
Bill (I feel a little irreverent using his first name, but that’s the convention at school), Bill has been illustrating long before I was born; to say that he knows what he’s talking about is a grand understatement.
Bill Maughan took the time to advise us at the beginning of our careers with AAU and after. He also reviewed what the midpoint reviews and final theses will entail for each focus (or track). Mine is the Concept Art track with a focus on games.
Midpoint review will involve a few of our best examples from each of the classes we’ll be taking (or new pieces in the subjects those classes covered, they don’t need to have been presented in class – I might be better at head drawing long after finishing that class for example). This is also when I’ll pitch my final thesis project in a written proposal.
The Final thesis for Concept Art will involve a entire ‘pitch’ for a film or game. Thumbnails, three character designs (only one can be human), a turnaround, a painted background environment, and the layout design of a room from several angles.
Yeah, kinda frightening! But this is also the master who saw our portfolios and essays in our applications and believes we have potential.
So while, even as I write, my stomach is twisted in knots at what is ahead, I have faith that the school knows what it’s doing and would have turned me down if I couldn’t succeed. I just have to apply myself and work very, very hard.
Q: So what are you offering today?
- Original Characters and creatures
- Landscapes and cityscapes both real from photo reference and imagined
- Book Covers
- Nudity you wouldn’t mind your mom seeing
- Your relatives and friends (not nude)
I work mainly in digital realistic and painterly styles, but upon request I can work in either comic book or animation styles.
Q: What’s that?
A: Full color head & shoulders of any character OR real life people if you have a good quality reference of front/side/3quarter.
Q: What do I need to provide?
A: Several good images of the character, plus a description of their personality, OR one good image of the real person and descriptions of their personality. If the subject is a real person, you’ll need the rights to the photo too (if you took the photo yourself, or have permission from the photographer).
Q: Then what happens?
A: I scurry away and sketch up an outline. I’ll show it to you and you can make your comments and I’ll tweak it. Once you’re happy with that, I’ll color and detail it in my painted style. I can’t accept revisions after it’s done, since portraits are quick and cheap. Unless, of course, it’s my own fault for getting something wrong that was clearly shown in the reference.
Q: What can I do with the image?
A: Print it, hang it up, stick it on your fridge, anything you like…just don’t make money off it or use it to create new artwork. If you post it online, I would also ask for credit when and where possible.
Q: What will you do with the image?
A: I’ll add it to my portfolio and use it for promoting my work.
Q: What else should I know?
A: I retain ownership of the final artwork and reserve the right to display it on my website, portfolios, and submit it to magazines or artbooks. It will however never be sold, used for profit, or licenced to another without your approval. You may use the image for non-profit purposes only unless agreed otherwise. Full licence agreement is available on request.
Q: I am totally cool with all that. How much?
A: Portraits……$50 US
Waist Up…….$70-$80 (Depending on costume and pose complexity)
Full body……$90-$100 (Depending on costume and pose complexity)
Scenes………$160+ (Depends on background detail, number of characters, size)$40 via Paypal.
If you want two characters in an image, double the price and subtract $10. For scenes, it’s generally $50 per extra character (eg. a three character scene would be $260).
Portraits, full bodies, and waist-ups come with simple backgrounds (ie colour gradients, textures, blurry detail) only. Adding a full background counts as a scene.
Q. Ok great, how do I hire you for a commission?
Contact Me first describing what you would like for your commission. Please provide a detailed description of the character (pose, appearance, costume, personality) and any visual references or inspiration. For commissions of real-life people, provide either one photo (I will reference it directly, guarantees likeness) or many quality photos from multiple angles (I will use them to figure out face shapes, results in unique image but may not be perfect likeness). I can then price your commission and you can return here to purchase it.
Commissions are first come, first served. Most artworks are completed within two weeks
I accept payments through Paypal only. 50% of payment is due upon approval of sketch (except for portraits, full payment is due upon approval of the sketch). Remainder must be paid before full-resolution 300dpi image is provided. Due to the fluctuating exchange rate all values are in US dollars.
To purchase your commission: