I thought that I would try to lift aside the curtain for you and reveal some of the mysteries of the thinking process that I make in producing a piece of art.
This, my first, full-fledged commission, “Companions to the Moon” began as an inquiry from an art buyer asking me if I would consider painting a piece like my iconic Stardust’ image for him. He had seen the painting at the previous San Diego Comic Con and had been disappointed when told that it wasn’t for sale. I love that particular painting, and knowing that I might be tempted to sell the piece at some point, I had given it to my wife as a gift and was just simply displaying it at my table.
So initially I declined the offer. Over the years I’ve been asked numerous times about commissions but had never felt like I had the necessary time in my work schedule to pay proper attention to such a piece. Then too, I had never wanted to be just a hired hand, drawing or painting whatever that particular client dictated. Ideally, what I most wanted was to be paid to do “art from the heart.” I had just been thinking about several images that had been floating around in my head for some time. And also wondering if these images might never be painted because of constant deadlines with my book publishing work. So I wrote this particular client back and described one of those “art from the heart” pictures. I quoted a price that would allow me the time to lavish the attention that the image deserved and still be able to pay the bills. I also gave a timeframe that was flexible enough to work such a painting into the present workload. There was a quick reply saying, “Yes, sounds great to me.”
Here is my initial, rough pencil sketch, done on 8 1/2″ x 11″ copier paper, of that idea. The image does share some similarities to the ‘Stardust’ painting. Both are set in the deep, moonlit woods and filled with all sorts of fairy life. This preliminary drawing is rendered more elaborately than I would normally do for a simple concept sketch, as I generally like to work out all my finished ideas on the actual board that I will be working on. With this sketch I’m still just trying to establish the overall composition as well as attempting to convey the general mood of the piece. There is no practical sense in adding all the countless details that will be necessary to achieve the painting’s finished look until after the client says that he (or she) likes it. Then, too, it is extremely boring and tedious to have already worked out all the details of a piece at this early stage and then have to redraw them all onto the actual working illustration board.
After the sketch was approved, I then enlarged it on my copy machine to the actual size (16″ x 23″) that I was going to paint the final piece. With the aid of a sheet of transfer paper, I traced the enlarged image off onto my preferred paper (Strathmore Series 500, 4 ply) and hours and hours of redrawing later I arrived at this finished pencil drawing. For me the process of drawing involves quite a bit of looking through art and reference books that fill my studio. This is not so much looking for how someone has already done the same idea and trying to copy their approach — where would be the aesthetic fun in that? — but seeking random visual inspiration. What I might be looking for is a particular color of moonlight that a certain artist has used in a painting, the toss of a horse’s head, an interesting pattern in a dress or the peculiar twist of a tree branch. Hopefully my subconscious will store all these details and when I start to draw it will be able to access that visual information. For instance; after looking through numerous photographic books on trees and taking a long, observant walk through a nearby woodland, the rather generic tree from the sketch has become one of my favorites, a beech, and in the process assumed much more character and detail. As you can see I’ve also added lots of new characters into the drawing, placed details into all the costuming as well as specific facial characteristics for all those denizens of my latest fairyland extravaganza. I find that it also helps if, as I draw each of these characters, their particular story plays out in my thoughts. This mental process seems to add a certain reality to each elf, fairy, boggart, dragon, mermaid, root system or cat. But you have to be careful and not allow any of these inhabitants of Faery steal the spotlight for themselves. Every character, be they humanoid or rock or tree, needs to be integral to the picture as a whole.
Choosing which of these pencil lines to ink and which to leave in their graphite state is dependent on the overall mood I’m looking for. Since, early on, I’d decided that this image was going to be drenched in moonlight with a strong diagonal moonbeam flooding down onto the Faerie Queen herself, I inked most of the piece with a sepia tone rather than a harsh solid black line. The light brown of the sepia ink makes it easier to dissolve certain forms back into the moonlight-and-shadow mood that I was seeking. You may notice that all the fairy wings are rendered in a pale blue ink line. This makes it much easier to visually suggest the translucent look of all those gossamer wings. After years and years of painting with a transparent medium (FW inks) I’ve found that you can leave out many of the ‘hard’ pen outlines and replace them with pure color for a better effect. Of course, only experience and patience will tell you which of those lines to leave in and which to take out.
Painting the first washes of color onto a piece can be an exceptionally scary process. I kept putting off applying those initial layers of color and worked on other projects for a week or two. At last I finally decided to jump right in and start painting. I mixed up a pale blue-gray color and washed it over most of the image except for those areas that were to be directly around the glowing lanterns and the interior of the Queen’s moonbeam. A mono-toned wash of color like that will help to unify all the disparate pieces of your image. Also, if applied properly, it will give you a good sense of where your light source (or sources) is/are going to come into play throughout your image.
At this stage I’m just trying to solidify the form of the tree since it is so central (both literally and figuratively) to the success of the finished image. Most importantly I have to establish the depth between the tree and the various other pictorial planes in the picture. Like I said earlier, with so many characters, both large and small, occupying the same composition you have to be very careful to choose which to spotlight and which to render in such a way as to make them part of a pattern of “secondary discovery” for the viewer. The diagonal moonbeams help to do this by throwing the multitude of faerie creatures cavorting through the limbs of the tree into color silhouette. All those beasties are still there but don’t distract the viewer’s attention from the central character of the Queen herself. The secondary light sources from the multiple lantern-carrying elves that fly throughout the piece help to establish a visual rhythm into other areas of the piece and are subtle enough to not distract the viewer from that moonbeam and its lovely inhabitant. This kind of piece, filled as it is with so many characters, is fun to produce as you can layer in lots of “hidden” stories amongst the multitude. With a patient eye you might happen upon the Japanese anime character Totoro (a favorite all-time film of mine!) as well as the dragon Balsaad from the ROSE series I did for Cartoon Books. I’ll leave the rest of these hidden stories up to my discerning viewers to discover for themselves.
Finally I’ve arrived at a finished piece, which I hope that you will enjoy.