Friday, 14 January 2011


I mentioned in my previous post that one of the areas I have been concentrating on in my work is value range. This is especially important in creating a depth of field and allowing different elements to read clearly one against the other.

I tend to work from back to front, and maintaining the right value range is one of the more challenging apsects. It is important for me to visualise the whole painting, even though I am only working on one small part of it. At the start this is even trickier as there is nothing else on the page against which to judge the values I am laying down.

I have developed techniques to assist me; the simplest is to first lay down paint in the areas of the lighest and darkest values. This then provides the ends of the spectrum I am working within. Additionally I usually create a loose digital value study of the line sketch, this helps reinforce the mental map I already have, besides aiding with the lighting scheme.

Fightback! - The Value Study.

Painting digitally one has the useful tool of being able to switch modes from full colour to greyscale, this gives a quick and simple check of the values. Clearly this tool isn't available to the traditional painter, but I have recently starting using a tool which approximates that approach: Artgizmos Selectatone Tonal Spectacles.

Selectatone Spectacles.

The spectacles are fitted with a red filter and by donning them it lets you look at a work in progress as a monchrome image. I have found this a very useful addition to the arsenal of approaches for helping determine the value range, and it is easier than standing at the other side of the room whilst squinting.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

2010 –Contemplation and Reflection.

The personal always impacts on the professional, whether it be a change in childcare that results in a corresponding change in my work routine, or flu that lays you up for a couple of days. However I have always felt that is the rough and tumble of the freelancer, and that being professional means accommodating those disruptions within one’s schedule without showing those upheavals to your employers.

This last years work has been particularly impacted upon by the personal; in August my Mother was diagnosed with the return of her pancreatic cancer, and that it was now terminal. I took advantage of the one thing a freelancer has, flexibility, and heavily rolled back on my schedule so that I could take as much free time as feasible to be with my parents. Her decline escalated as the year progressed; she fell very ill in December and passed away on the 22nd. I was very fortunate that I was able to spend the last few days with her.

Much as I tried my best to balance my deadlines, and maintain a professional service there was an inevitable impact upon my work, especially due to the unpredictable nature of the illness. I can only thank the art directors working with me for their support and understanding.

Whilst freelancing is essentially ‘piece rate’ work, and therefore naturally inclines one to work longer hours, striking a good work/life balance is essential for one’s well being. This was brought home again by the valuable time I managed to spend with my Mother, but also by my own health difficulties earlier in the year.

From 2009 I had been suffering odd twinges in my right wrist, elbow and shoulder. Typically I dismissed this as symptomatic of computer use, and a short-term problem easily fixed by taking breaks that limited my time on the PC. Around Easter 2010 the condition dramatically altered to the point where I experienced shooting pains down my whole right arm from shoulder blade to wrist and was unable to hold a pencil. Very worrying.

Visits to my Doctor, and subsequently a physiotherapist, diagnosed Repetitive Strain Injury. A condition that had probably been compounded by a poor computer set-up, but which actually stemmed from years of drawing and painting that has lead to compacted nerves at the base of my right shoulder blade. A point that is part of the network which sends/receives the signals down my arm, thus leading to all the pain along with the ‘golfer’s elbow’ I have also acquired.

I have adopted methods to counter the symptoms – better computer set-up, a lumbar support cushion, fitting foam grips on my pencils, posture awareness, and a series of stretching exercises.

I am glad to say that these have all offered considerable benefit, but I am now living with and managing the condition. This means accepting the general low level aches and pains, but also that pulling long work sessions over several days will cause it to flare up badly.

First use of Gel mediums leads to softer edges
and more texture in the background.
(Oh, and I also swapped this with Erik M Gist at
IlluXCon for one of his masterful zombie pieces)
The demands of sharing childcare for a 3 year old had already altered my schedule before this year, and I had also made a conscious career decision about the commissions I want to work on; in particular this has meant that I am now focusing primarily on covers, card art and full page interiors. I have very much wanted to focus on the quality of my output, rather than the quantity of it.

I am aware that some freelancers are very mindful of their hourly pay rate, and will always favour the most economic commissions. This might mean that they would prefer to work on four quarter page illustrations – single figures with minimal backgrounds – over more complex full page images, which pay equivalently, but take more time.

In some ways I have reversed this approach; I want to work on pieces that most satisfy my artistic drives, and those are the more complicated multiple figure compositions, further I feel that this presents the opportunity to create work with a greater impact. It is hard to stand out from the crowd with a simple quarter pager.

I think that this last year has seen my approach rewarded, especially with one of my main clients – Wizards of the Coast and their D&D range. I feel that I have managed to create some powerful images, and that this has fed through into repeat cover work, whilst being trusted with producing a good outcome with complicated briefs, or more often being given lots of leeway with a refreshingly sparse outline.

Tightness Vs Looseness works to create focus.

However this approach to producing personally satisfying and professionally strong work has not been based solely upon the size of an image or it’s complexity. I do consider my drawing and compositional skills create a solid bedrock for my work, but I have also felt that there were areas of my art that could be developed to aid readability and impact. In order to strengthen the focus of my images I have been especially concentrating on edges, tightness/looseness of my mark making, value range and lighting, though my efforts have in no way been limited to these areas.

Constant evolution of ones work as part of the striving for improvement seems to me an essential necessity in the life of an artist - stagnation is anathema.

Part of the evolutionary process has involved a re-examination of the tools I use. At the start of the year I began to introduce some gel mediums into my work, this has allowed a different approach to blending and glazing, and have proven especially useful when wanting to soften edges or create a looser feel to parts of a painting.

Latterly I have revisited artists’ acrylics; for many years I have worked exclusively with miniature paints, I enjoyed their consistency, opacity, fine and vibrant pigmentation, along with a very rapid drying time, interestingly it is the variability in these qualities that I have now enjoyed experiencing in my work.

I felt it all came together in this one to create a strong image:
Composition, Lighting, Saturation and Value Range.

I have been genuinely excited by these explorations, and the vistas that appear to have opened up to me – indeed discussing these possibilities was an enjoyable part of a lot of my conversations at IlluXCon – of course there is always the concern that by pushing forward one can leave behind something of value. I have started off down false turnings before, but hopefully have a clearer vision and more wisdom these days.

The last year has been challenging in a number of ways, but I do think I have managed to achieve a better, and necessary, work/life balance, whilst combining this with artistic development that has also fed through into professional and career progress. I look forward to the coming year, with all its challenges and opportunities. It certainly helps when the first bit of feedback I received from an Art Director this year included the following comments; "You made me a happy man when I saw these… one of my favorite card paintings ever…great foreshortening and dynamic angle. You just proved yourself a monster on these.”