Thursday, October 19, 2017

How I Illustrated a Children's Book for the First Time

Hey all,

It's been a while. I know. Sorry about that. But I ILLUSTRATED A CHILDREN'S BOOK.

You can get it here, and see some sample illustrations on my site and on my Instagram and Twitter page. Oh yeah, I'm getting REAL promotional here. Oh, I also have an Instagram now. Lots of changes.

But I'm also going to write about what it was like for me to work and complete a children's book.

It all started when Ashley Lauren West, a writer contacted me, asking if I'd be interested in illustrating a children's book.

I have to be honest - during the first couple of weeks of talking with Ashley, it all felt like a joke, like it wasn't serious, like how could I be the one to do something like this, surely I wasn't good enough, has she seen my work, is it even children-material?

And so on.

Fortunately, Ashley was wonderful, encouraging, and really helped me believe in myself while also allowing me to creatively approach the children's book in a way that made me feel very comfortable and confident.

I'll write separate blog posts for each illustration in more detail - here I want to talk more about how I approached such a big project and some of the struggles I had to overcome.

I've written about impostor syndrome, doubt, and self-defeating thoughts before and BOY does that come into play when you're tasked with a major project, especially one with so much weight as 'children's book'. This became much more apparent as I was telling people it was something I was working on.

"A children's book, that's amazing/wonderful/fantastic/great" was usually the reaction I got after talking mentioning that I had a project in the works. I loved the enthusiasm my friends had but their very genuine reaction concerned me. Of course, my thought even before I put pen to paper (and even after putting pen to paper) was always "what if I don't do well?"

It's something that I often think and can usually ignore, but when it keeps surfacing through the lifetime of a project, it becomes harder to ignore. Fortunately, there are pros and cons when working on projects like this.

1) They're collaborative projects.

I worked pretty closely with Ashley, getting her feedback and thoughts with sketches, color versions, and final pieces. What was most encouraging was that Ashley liked basically everything I was doing. Given that I was particularly sensitive, especially in during the beginning of the project, it was very rewarding to hear positive feedback.

2) You're working on multiple 'problems' rather than one.

I sometimes consider illustrations as 'creative problem solving' in a literal sense. That's especially true when I'm farther along some illustrations and I'm trying to figure out what's missing in an illustration. Sometimes if it takes too long for me to figure out, it gets frustrating but when working with so many illustrations, it was easier for me to just move to a different illustration and get farther along that one.

3) You see success along the way.

The book consisted of 12 illustrations and a cover. I worked on the 12 at the same time so it was very rewarding whenever I finished one, knowing that, hey, I can do this, and just had to continue doing it the 2nd, 3rd, 11th, and 12th time. This became especially helpful once I was more than halfway done. By that time, I knew where nearly every illustration was going, directionally, and it was an exciting pace to continue finishing each piece.

So those are the pros to the project. There were some cons - although I admit these are small complaints and one all illustrators need to get used to.

1) I couldn't show any of the work!

This was the biggest one for me. I constantly felt prouder and prouder of my illustrations but I couldn't be vocal or public about it. Since I want to continue my career in illustration - it was difficult knowing my portfolio was missing these images that I felt were some of my best work.

2) It didn't feel as personal

I know. On one hand, it's collaborative. On the other, it's collaborative. We're a complicated species and very often, contradictory. I wanted to work on images that were strictly mine. Although, that's probably the 'artist' speaking, and not the 'illustrator'.

3) I felt bad working on personal projects

This is a con I need to get over. I felt like I couldn't devote any illustration time to my own work because I had a children's book to finish! Of course, this is the wrong mindset and while it's easy to talk about how wrong it is, it's a little harder to put it in perspective.

Anyway, those were the specific pros and cons to my illustrating this children's book. But ultimately, it's been a HUGE opportunity that has led to so much more and I'm forever happy and grateful that I've been give this chance to do this.

As the weeks (possibly months) pass, I'll talk about some specific paintings, my process, my struggles, and what I learned along the way.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Process Post: Oh, To Be Free!

This painting happened accidentally in a way. After having finished my children’s book, which, at the time of this writing, is still yet to be published, I had many conflicting and contradicting feelings. I was both drained but energized – the children’s book took a lot out of me but I learned so much that I wanted to create something new. In a similar way, it felt good not having to create an image for someone other than myself, but then, it seemed difficult for me to create something without a prompt. Where would I start from? Where was my base?

I had started working on a big piece that tried to incorporate what I learned and utilized an existing sketch. However, that got nowhere fast after I quickly got to coloring it. I’ll likely pick it back up but it stalled me.

I often have feelings similar to writers’/artists’ block but I’ve always told myself that those things don’t exist. If you’re stuck for ideas, just start working. Start drawing, start painting, start writing.

I don’t always follow my own advice.

While I created small sketches here and there, I didn’t think much of them. There’s a very different mindset between what I create in a small sketchbook and what I end up creating digitally. In a funny kind of way (funny to me), I consider my digital work much more painterly than my non-digital work.

But then, I just got hit. I’m not sure it could be described as a bout of inspiration. More like an image in my head flew at me and smacked me in the forehead. I don’t believe in inspiration, but I do love when that happens.

Lucky for me, it happens a lot.

So I started sketching and ended up here. Unfortunately, I don't have the original version of the figure, but it went through a TON of refining to get to this place. Anatomy is still a weak point so my first attempts are always rough and I'm always trying to get better. So this black outline started off very differently and I had to keep redrawing it to get the positioning right.

Things were moving in the right direction – there were a few things I needed to fix, namely the positioning, the lighting at the top, and how I would position what you’d later see as the dissipation elements (for lack of a better/more accurate phrase) - which is what seems to be falling off the figure. You can see that the black line drawing looks very different from what I ended up moving forward with. I also have a different color-only version that I deleted from the final version.

For very personal reasons, I was pretty committed to using very primary and heavily saturated colors - blue, red, yellow, white (ish). Non-personally, this was new to me. As you may have noticed (or not, I don't mind) my color palette is largely, not saturated. It's very pastel, light, unsaturated.

This was not the case here, as you can see with the figure, and the background, which I played with a lot.

This was also the first time I used a mixture of brushes in my painting, starting with a flatter 'Oil' brush by Kyle Webster, creator of Photoshop brushes extraordinaire. You can see the first background here by itself here.

I've been playing with the idea of using his brushes because I know they're used by a number of artists I admire. The brush was helpful in laying down large swaths of color but it was too smooth. It felt unnatural, almost too easy, and definitely too much like it was done via computer. This isn't a knock against the brush. Actually, it means I need more practice with it to make it feel like it's not totally computer-generated. After all, the brush I use now is computer-generated, but I've found a way to use it without having the painting look too computer-generated.

So I started using the other brush to develop more texture within the painting itself. I painted over the background, and the figure - and you can see that the initial oil wash was helpful in just putting down a base color. This may be a technique I'll use in the future. You can see the textured version here. (This is only slightly different from the final background. I duplicated the 'stars' layer to make the brighter and then added a upper-right corner light, using Kyle's brush because it needed to fade)

However, I kept going back and forth with the additional flowy material (named 'flowy' cause I have no other better name for it). This took a lot of time. When I started with color, it didn't look right. And then I would draw it in like but then when I colored that, it also didn't look right. I needed to take some time to really think about it. Sometimes, it helps to draw it in another medium.

I came to a solution via another drawing which you can see here.

Interestingly enough, while this drawing started out as a study of how to solve the problem, it ended up turning out into an entirely different painting.

I came back to 'Oh, To Be Free' and started working on the 'flowy' elements much in the same way I did in the drawing and came back here, really enjoying the way the element made the limb disappear in a way.

I ended going in a different direction but still based on the pencil drawing. The 'flowy' elements ended up creating a void in the figure, which allowed me to play with space. From there I added the stars, the invisible elements (which I'm noticing is a pattern in my work), and cleaned up the figure a bit.

Again, while this piece comes from a very personal space, it's interesting because I was still able to learn and play with new tools. After a long bout of commissioned work that taught me a TON in terms of visual communication and problem solving, it was nice to take what I learned and apply it to a new piece.

Please enjoy, 'Oh, To Be Free!'

Monday, January 16, 2017

Process Post: Antigone, The Poster

Welcome to another process post. I'm really excited to discuss a piece that I felt really proud of and loved working on. This may be out of order with what I've created (I'm missing a process post I think) but whatever, I've been waiting to write about this for a while (though that's more my fault than anything else...)


The reason I value this piece so much was that it was a poster for a show I performed in! Before we even started rehearsals, my director, knowing that I was an illustrator, knew he wanted me to be the one to create the poster. I was pretty excited as 1) I had no knowledge of the play before so it was interesting to have something new to work off of and 2) posters weren't something I had much of experience with.

So. I started by reading the play for both role and art purposes. This was actually a pretty interesting process because I had to read with more attention than I usually do. Whenever I read a script, it's only natural that I prioritize attention to scenes with my character or that revolve around my character to get a stronger understanding of who I'm playing and why. But this time, I had to also focus on major themes, strong visual elements, and even specific scenes that could be called back to in the poster.

The story of Antigone, if I can put it simply, is a story of defiance. A young woman defies the King and tries to uphold tradition. The translation and interpretation that we were playing off of was a little more complicated, offering an honest approach to both sides, making it interesting. Still, Antigone is the clear protagonist and I wanted to show that. There were a few moments that stuck out to me visually. I quickly drew some sketches and sent them to the director. Here's what I had.

Sketch 1 was the most visually interesting to me. Antigone, multiple times [SPOILER ALERT], digs up a grave so her brother can be put to rest (against the King's wishes) or else his soul is doomed to torment. The act is constantly referred to, comparing Antigone to a mad woman or animal, ruthlessly digging up the ground. So, that's what I drew.

The next two images are a little more traditional, so to say. The end of the play [SPOILER ALERT] has a classical ending where Antigone is put to death, and her lover, the King's son, finds her and kills himself. Sketch 2 is a pretty basic representation of that but sketch 3 has what is, in my opinion, the most dramatic moment, where the King finds his son with Antigone. While in the play the King [SPOILER ALERT] finds his son dead with Antigone, I chose not to draw that in order to not give it away (in hindsight, these sketches also give it away).

My director liked the third option but thought that specific image of the prince holding the protagonist was done before and fairly cliché (he was totally right). Instead, he wanted to play up the themes of standing up to authority, tradition, and tyranny, major themes of the play. He asked to see revised versions of the third sketch and also one with just Antigone. I agreed with his feedback and gave him three new options.

This sketch phase was a lot of fun as it gave me a lot of play with different poses and emotion. My absolute favorite was the second one (click the image to see a larger size) because there is so much emotion behind it. Note that the king was holding a cane, as the play's description mentioned but in the first sketch below, I tried to make the king thicker to reflect our play's casting.

The director immediately chose the third one, finding that it best fit the story we were telling. By this time, we had already started rehearsal and it was clear that the third was thematically best. Antigone wasn't a love story, it was a story of conflict between the King and Antigone. The romance between the Prince and Antigone is more of a B-Story and provides an emotional anchor attached to the King.

I quickly moved to make the final piece. Honestly, it wasn't too much work. I kept nearly the identical pose - Antigone holding her toy spade that she used to dig up a grave (the first time) and standing up to the looming king. It was a good pose that conveyed confidence but also a bit of fear, given how small the character was in comparison to the shadow. You can see it here.

I didn't go with a black background because black stands out too much but I did go for a tunnel-like feeling. And after fiddling around a lot with the king's shadow, I settled on an abstract shape to represent the king rather than aim for a more accurate representation of the shadow. Note that the shadow is much darker than the background itself.

Looking back at it now, I'm not sure about whether or not I should've have added more detail, or at least a crown. But keeping it abstract works better because the play speaks very much in abstraction and principles. It reads like a philosophical debate, framed in a story from the past. For this same reason, I also didn't give Antigone a face. While I did work on it initially there were two reasons why I decided against it.

1) it didn't read well at that size and,

 2) I, again, wanted to keep an abstract element to the poster and I liked how it removed some of the human aspect of it. I also changed her hair and dress to better match the actor playing Antigone.

The other interesting part was the title. I went for something dark and angular because the play, ultimately, is a pretty dark tragedy with [SPOILER ALERT] nearly every important character in the play dying somehow, even a character we don't even hear speak! We just know that the character kills themselves as a result of the ending.

Anyway, that was a fun little image that I made. I didn't go out of my comfort zone too much (dark, pastel colors) but it gave me a totally different frame of reference to base my work off of. I also really enjoyed working with the director who had a really strong point of view regarding the play, giving me a confident sense of direction that was needed to create a strong image for the poster. You can see the total poster below, credits and info and all, if that's something you're interested in.