November 29, 2011

Between the Dark and the Light

I still take on illustration jobs, but it’s rare enough that I get the time to do some decent painting, so when a guy I owed a big favour to asked me to do a poster of a role-playing game he’d run with his mates, based in the Star Wars universe, I thought I’d record the process. If you’re into illustration – either doing it or just looking at it – you might find this interesting.

I always start a picture by doing a thumbnail sketch, drawing very loosely to map out the composition – setting out where all the pieces of the picture have to go, and what size they’ll be. This is a stage that normally won’t be seen by anyone but me, so it’s little more than a scribble, but it’s a vital stage nonetheless, as I don’t want to be moving big elements around once I start fiddling with details. This is a complicated composition, as there are a lot of distinctive characters which all have to feature. What’s even harder, is that the focus can’t be on any one character, as they all represent players, so each one has to be given a decent position. Normally in a picture, you’d have a few key elements that attract the eye, and everything else would be placed around these in secondary positions.

After the thumbnail comes the finished pencil drawing. Now I have to work the details out properly – I have a lot of pictures to follow as references for the characters and the ships, but they all have to be changed to match the brief for the picture. This stage takes a lot more time – in this case, the best part of a day. I’m not too concerned with shading yet, if I’m going to be using a heavy painting style, as I will here. But I will normally give myself some indication of the direction of light. This picture is going to be absolutely filled with light sources, so there’s no real point worrying about shading at this point. As you’ll see with the next part, I’ll be painting over everything first anyway.

I create the logo in Photoshop and trace it off. I could do it freehand, if I wanted to give myself a real headache, but there’s no need. This is being hung as a painting, however, rather than printed as an illustration, so I will be painting the logo into the picture. If this were an illustration job, I’d place the logo in using Photoshop or Illustrator after I’d scanned in the final picture.

After I’ve done the pencil drawing, I’ll scan it in and email it off to the client to make sure everything’s the way they want it. If there are any changes, I want to do them at this stage – it’s a lot easier to change a pencil drawing rather than a painting. As it turns out, there was one change that came a bit late, but not a major one. If you can see the character with the beak halfway on the right-hand side, his beak needed to be closed, which only came up after I’d done the first wash. That’s the kind of thing that’s much easier to change in pencil than with paint.

After I’ve got the all clear to to start painting, I draw the picture again – onto a heavy painting paper this time – by tracing it using a light-box. If the paper’s very heavy, or your layers of paint hide too much of the linework, you need to use carbon paper or the like to transfer the drawing a piece at a time.

With the drawing done onto the painting paper, I then stretch the paper, by wetting it so that it swells – and often buckles – and then taping the edges down with a gum-paper tape. As the paper dries, it contracts again until it’s perfectly flat and can then be wet with paint without fear that it’s going to buckle or curl again. This is the way I work; other artists will use card so thick that it doesn’t buckle at all, but you can’t trace through that stuff. Don’t mind the distortion in the photo that makes the edges look like they’re bending – that’s down to the slight fish-eye effect of the lens of of my camera. It’s just not made for photographing this kind of stuff. Something I’ll have to sort at a later date.

After the paper has dried and flattened out (a hairdryer can speed the process up a bit), I lay down the first few washes of background colour with a large flat brush. I start with a strong green, then gradually add black and blue to the green paint as I go. I’m using acrylic here, which won’t budge too much once it’s dry. Gouache will cover better and give a flatter colour, but it can lift back up when you lay another layer of paint over it. Sometimes that’s a good thing, but I want a solid base here.

The area around the eyes at the top of the picture is the only part that will be painted using a light style (painting with light washes, then gradually getting darker, as if I was using watercolour). For most of this picture, I’ll lay down the dark colours first and then paint lighter colours on top. This is where you really need to have a clear image in your head of what your end result will be, because you have to hide a lot of your drawing under these washes before you bring it out again. If you were inclined to worrying that you were going to cock things up while painting, this is where you’d be getting butterflies in your tummy.

The darker and heavier you go with the paint, the more you lose of your drawing, so either you reinforce your drawing as you go, or you draw it on again afterward. In this case, once I’ve laid down the darkest washes, I go over a lot of the linework with some thinned down black acrylic, to make the drawing more visible again. I also do some of the finer work around the eyes, with the same shades that I use for the washes.

Now is the time to start thinking seriously about where the light is coming from for each element of the picture, as this will dictate how I paint the lighter shades of colour, and where I can put down darker shadows. There will be a lot of different colours, but I want to keep some of this blue-green in the shadows of each element wherever possible, to help hold the picture together.

As I said, you need a strong sense of what your picture is going to look like at the end. If I had photos as direct references for all of these elements, this would be a lot easier. Anyone doing a real film poster would have plenty, but it would take ages to set up and shoot all the pictures I’d need – not to mention the expense of models and props – so I’m pretty much doing this all from my head at this stage.

Whenever possible, it’s best to start from the top left corner down – if you’re right-handed – so you’re not reaching across your finished work too often. It’s also the direction your eye takes across the page, because of the way we read, at least in English-speaking and European cultures. I paint in the lighter parts of those eyes, the spaceships at the top, the explosions and the blast from the jet-pack on the Boba Fett lookalike. There’s also a malevolent figure emerging from the flames in the middle there. These elements are now pretty finished, but there’ll be some retouching later as I go back around for another pass when I’ve got more of the picture done. While I’ve got some yellow on my brush, I do a few of the Fett character’s pieces of armour that are the same colour too.

Then I paint the remaining figures on the left side, again, trying to keep a hint of that green in the shadows wherever possible. It unifies what is otherwise quite a scattered composition. The black ‘darksaber’ in the middle of the picture acts as a mast, which helps too. I’ve got to add markings to the blade and a bit of a glow, but basically it’s little more than a flat black area running up through the centre. That character in the flames is now reaching out for the jedi who’s leaping away from him. Notice that the armoured figure beneath them is all brushed steel at the moment; that’ll change on another pass.

I had originally intended to have stars in the background, at least behind the ships, but the picture’s so busy already, I decide to leave them out. With so many sources of light, I need as many dark areas as possible for contrast.

Now I finish off the darksaber, add some shadows to the eyes at the top, and go to work on the figures on the right-hand side. The character with the beak now has his beak closed. He is an old, wise character, in contrast to the young swordsman below him (the blue-tinged character between them is a ghost-like mentor for the younger one). The different lighting of these two characters reflects their two roles, but it’s only after I’ve done the younger man’s lightsaber red, that I realize it’s supposed to be blue. This changes not only the sword itself, but also the highlights on the character’s face, hands and clothes. As I’m using a heavy painting style, this isn’t a major problem. If I was painting with watercolour, with loads of translucent layers making up the dark shades, it would be.

I change that red light to blue. I also give the armoured figure in the bottom left corner a green tinge, and paint in some yellow highlights to tie him into the picture around him a bit more. The final figure in the bottom right corner is in an action pose, deflecting a shot from a blaster with his hand, jedi-style. As with the jumping figure on the other side, to show his full body, I have to show him much smaller in comparison to the other figures. This also gives the composition a bit more variation and balance.

All the most enjoyable stuff is done now. This has been a fun job. At this point, I’m going back over things, strengthening shadows, defining the odd detail a bit better, doing what I can to pull the whole picture together . . . and anticipating doing that logo. Lettering is always tricky when you’re painting, and this font is unusual, in that some of the letters are designed to join up, while others don’t. Oh, and this has to have a gold effect, an uneven colour that makes keeping the edges even all the more interesting.

I finish up by painting a black frame all the way round, its edge broken only by the blue lightsaber on the right. As is the case with any illustration larger than A4 that I do on the drawing board, I can’t scan it myself. So I have to take it to a place in Dublin to be scanned. If this was a job for print, I’d then do a bit of retouching before I send it to the client – I do a bit on this scan anyway, even though the original will have to stand as it is.

Though I work a lot in Photoshop, I haven’t yet switched to doing painting digitally, and part of me will never want to, even though it makes sense for commercial illustration. The software is getting better all the time too, although a lot of digital painting still looks a bit too greasy or plasticky for my tastes. But there’s no getting round the fact that, soon the day will come when work restraints will mean taking the painting onto the screen, switching my pencils, paintbrushes and paper for a stylus and tablet. I do have to admit to being sorely tempted by the prospect of being able to back artwork up as I go, to play with textures and photos, and being able to hit ‘Undo’, when I cock things up. But you can’t feel graphics under your fingertips, or smell the colour as you mix it, or see the textures and sheens of the different types of paint, see the sweep or stipple of the brush in the surface. Do your work onscreen, and you’ll never be able to hold the original in you hands.

Back when I made my living entirely from illustration, there were some jobs I just didn’t care that much about – I did them to pay the bills. That kind of stuff I’d happily do on the computer. But though the phrase might seem trite, with very few exceptions that I’ve seen, digital painting has no soul. And I say that in the full knowledge that I’ve just produced what amounts to fan art of the world’s biggest entertainment franchise (or is that Disney?). I do other stuff too. It’s just that I haven’t spent most of my life learning how to paint (and as you can see, I still have a lot to learn), to see that work in a printout. So, wherever possible, I say: Keep it live. Keep it messy. Keep it real.

November 10, 2011

Chairing and Blogging for CBI

Children’s Book Festival has come to a close, and I’m starting to catch up on all the things that have piled up on the desk while I’ve been running around like a blue-arsed fly, and shouting at defenceless children. One of the things I’ve got to swot up for is the Green Inking Comic Event this Saturday. I’ll be chairing the proceedings.

This half-day seminar will take as its inspiration the increased visibility of graphic novels and comic books by Irish creators and/or concerning Irish themes. The event will take place at the Seminar Room in the National Library of Ireland from 10am until 1pm.

Here’s the schedule for the day:

10.30 – Luis Bustos
CBI and Instituto Cervantes are delighted to welcome Spanish graphic artist Luis Bustos, creator of Endurance, which chronicles Ernest Shackleton’s voyage.

11.15 – The O’Brien Press
The O’Brien Press introduce their new collections of graphic novels for young readers.

12.00 – Panel Discussion
Irish graphic novel/comic book panel with Rob Curley of Sub-City and Atomic Diner, Tomm Moore of Cartoon Saloon and illustrator, animator and printmaker Cliodhna Lyons.

I’ve also just done a guest post for Children’s Books Ireland, telling the story of a typical morning for me during Children’s Book Festival. I’ll have to do a proper round-up for myself soon (now that I’ve mostly recovered), but in the meantime, you can check out my piece on the CBI blog.

November 7, 2011

Something Old, Something New

My brother sent me this and I thought it was pretty cool, so I’m sticking it up here. Somebody’s built a life-size motorcycle that looks remarkably like Flash, one of the ancient, living machines known as engimals that appear in the Wildenstern Saga. You can see Flash on the cover of ‘Ancient Appetites‘.

‘Merciless Reason’, the third Wildenstern book, is coming out early next year, and I’ll have the front cover for you to look at pretty soon – it’s all but finished and the designer and illustrator have both done a brilliant job, but there’s just a couple of tweaks to do.

I also received this bit of video, and wanted to include it too. Basically, it’s a demonstration of how a superconductor can be made to act like a levitation device, though I suspect we’re still a few years away from hover cars yet. Don’t ask me how it does it. Apparently it’s a quantum thing. The guy doesn’t explain it very well (it’s ‘locked’ there, he says). Even so, it’s excellent.

November 2, 2011

The Uncharted Territory

On the 10th of October, Phil Hogan, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, announced that the Library Council (An Chomhairle Leabharlanna) was being dissolved. Bad as this news was for the council, it was a far worse omen for the future of the nation’s libraries. Particularly given the burnt-earth policy that is causing libraries to close all over the UK. In my view, the dissolving of the Library Council suggested that Mr Hogan, and the other people responsible for this decision, may not fully comprehend the value of public libraries. Perhaps this lack of comprehension is a result of the clumsy tools used when those in power attempt to assess and document that value.

My wife, Maedhbh, is a librarian – one who loves her job, and the whole idea of public libraries. One of her convictions is that every member of staff in a library should have to do a ‘niceness test’. It sounds like an obvious quality to look for in people who will be dealing with the public. But one can only imagine the complex psychological analysis that would result should Human Resources ever attempt to put such a test into effect.

And yet, treating people decently is such a fundamental issue, and a key element in the success of any library (or, one would assume, in any service or business). The problem is, being decent to people is difficult to measure on a chart, or with statistics. So this post is devoted to those qualities that are almost impossible to quantify, but whose effects are tangible, and undeniably important. That Uncharted Territory.

It would be a mistake to label any public library as a mere lender of books, or even one that has expanded to music, films, games and other products. It is more than a drop-in centre for people looking for information on education and training, local services, or for free use of a computer. A library, for me, first and foremost, is one of the few branches of the public service that not only supports everyday life, but enriches it.

One of the key ways it does this is in the way it offers a public space, where people can make contact – with the public service, with the state, and with each other. As shopping centres take over from town centres, as we lose the seating in our streets, as larger shops take over from local businesses and we build over the natural places people congregate, that public space is becoming all the more important.

We need to feel that the public service is still there for us, instead of being made to feel – as we increasingly do – as if we are there for it. As if our lives are constantly steered down channels gouged out between business and state. There must be a branch of the public service where we don’t begin our participation by taking a number, or a seat in an impersonal waiting room; where we don’t have to speak through a pane of glass, or have a form filled in before we reach the counter. We need a place where our participation is not merely facilitated, but is encouraged and welcomed. Where it’s okay to just come in and spend some time, to sit and read the papers all day, if you want.

There are some who would argue that the internet has put an end to the library’s reason for being – an information resource that is free to all – and to its staff as guides to help you find your way through that information. Now we have iPhones, Internet Explorer, Firefox, Amazon and Google. People who believe this are missing the point.

Where else will you find a venue in the centre of a town, that is as comfortable holding a traditional music session, as it is hosting events for Science Week? A place where parents can bring their toddlers on a Saturday morning; where teenagers can congregate round computer screens, safe, but unsupervised. Where a local artist can hold his first ever exhibition, or a knitting group can meet every week over a cup of tea or coffee. A place where you might have a children’s book group, followed by an adult one. A place where you can come and study if you can’t find the space or the peace and quiet at home.

Think about that for a minute: a publicly-funded, well-resourced place, complete with expert advisors, where a person has room and time to sit and think. A place where you can better yourself, but at your own pace. A place to sit and work out ideas; where someone might study for college, or plan a project, or start a business.

A library is a public space where things are allowed to happen, where new events and projects can be encouraged and supported in a spontaneous, organic, community-driven way that does not require previous experience, or qualifications, or pages of forms, or a grant application, or a marketing strategy, or a business plan. It is a place where a community can develop and grow, and engage with the wider world. Like many public servants, librarians are there to help, but their role allows them to be flexible in the ways they can help. A public library means different things to different people, and a good librarian can find ways to enable people to do things that they otherwise could not.

That librarian can provide a venue for cultural events, for education; they can provide the headquarters for some community organization . . . or they can spend more time than is necessary chatting to some old woman, because they know that might be the most human contact that woman has all day.

Libraries are one of the very few branches of the public service that inspire loyalty, and even love in the people that use them.

We live in a country where a sense of community is more vital than ever. We are governed by leaders focused on bleeding their citizens dry to reinvigorate zombie banks run by failed businessmen. There is so much emphasis on what we must have less of, but thinking small is no way to solve our problems.

If the government is serious about coming up with smart solutions, with a smart economy – if it wants to convince its citizens that its purpose is to do things for them, not to do things to them . . . then until it comes up with some wondrous institution that does more and does it better, it needs to leave our bloody libraries alone.

November 1, 2011

Just What the Hell is a ‘Young Adult’ Anyway?

If you’ve been to any of my talks, you may already have heard me say that, for me, the definition of a ‘Young Adult’ book is something that appeals to both young and adult readers. Looking at it this way, you could say that most of our entertainment – whether it’s written down or shown on-screen – is ‘Young Adult’.

I’m not the only who thinks so. The Library Journal in the US ran a recent article discussing YA literature, and who read it. And the answer to that, it seems, is pretty much everybody. . . . . . . .

There has also been an outcry about the desolate wasteland that children’s publishing apparently threatens to become, due to the lack of interest young people today have for books. Y’know, what with their minds being poisoned by electronic entertainment devices of every kind – though Sam Leith in ‘The Observer’ takes much the same point of view as me, arguing that these are just new ways in to reading.

But surely these new kinds of media are pulling our newest batch of trainee adults away from books? I certainly would have thought so. However, according to an article on Timothy McSweeney’s site entitled ‘Young People are Reading More Than You’, it seems this isn’t the case. Thanks to the Inis blog for pointing the article out.