Thursday, August 26, 2010

Patterns In Prison

I'm working on a bunch of articles with a bit more substance, but in the meantime, here's something I did in college.

This is a piece I did in my Sophomore year at Pratt Institute.  That would have been 1996 or 1997.  The professor would have been either Rudy Gutierrez or Don Albright, though I think it was Don.  The assignment was to illustrate a story about inmates who had started making clothing in prison.  I don't remember if the clothing was haute couture or not, but I certainly addressed it as though it wasn't.  In case you're wondering the piece depicts sewing patterns hanging out in a dingy cell.

This was done during an almost two year phase during which I abandoned oils almost completely and used mixed media.  This piece started with Dr. Ph. Martin's Water Soluble Inks on top of a pencil drawing.  I then did a layer of pen and ink, followed by some acrylic paint, capped off with a bit of colored pencil.  Between each layer of the various media, a coating of acrylic matte medium was applied, followed by a coating of Krylon Crystal Clear acrylic spray.

I think I went a little overboard with the toothbrush spatter.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Badass Black and White

In the fall of '08, I was contacted to do some interior pieces for a book called, Badass.  The weird thing was that I was asked to do some black and white work.  To that point I hadn't really done any black and white work, but it was a fun project so I went for it.  The strange thing in retrospect was that I decided to do the work in oils rather than pen and ink.  I've always loved black and white oil paintings and it seemed to me to be the natural way to go.  I also looked upon the job as an opportunity to practice digital painting, which I did for my sketches.

Originally, I was told that the 6 pieces I had done would be spot images at the beginning of each chapter and should fit into a 6" x 6" square (the book has a 6" x 9" proportion).  Thus, I painted all but two of the six pieces square, deviating on the remaining two thinking that they would be cropped to fit the space.  This is where a second strange decision came in: I made the paintings 100% of their reproduction size.  They were tiny, 6" wide oil paintings.

When the book was finally released, my heart sank upon discovering that the design team decided to turn the illustrations into full-bleed images on the pages opposite the chapter starts, resulting in all of the images being severely cropped.  This wouldn't normally be a problem for me, but I had made the paintings so small that the cropped images had to be blown up in order to fill the taller space.  The printed versions were at least 50% larger than the original paintings.  The bad news is that the compositions weren't designed for the taller proportions on most of the pieces.  The good news is that the designers who'd made the decisions on where to crop had a good eye and did pretty much what I would have done.  All in all, the end result could have been worse, and I didn't complain — they offered me the cover after all!

Anyway, here is one of the interiors.  It depicts Eliot Ness and is one of the two that wasn't square.  I believe this piece suffered the least cropping.  Digital sketch first, then painting.  In case you're wondering, I did print out the digital sketch and paint on top of it, but the sketch was completely covered by the oils.

Eliot Ness sketch, full of 1's and 0's.
Eliot Ness painting, full of Titanium White and Ivory Black.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Rare Pen and Ink

Look!  There be actual illustration in this illustrator's blog!

Hot off the drawing board is a piece I did for a book interior.  I know I'm allowed to show it, but I'm not sure if I'm allowed to talk about the book, so I'll keep that mum for now.  The real curious thing about my ten years illustrating in the fantasy and sci-fi gaming business is that I have only ever been asked to illustrate a dragon twice.  The odd thing here is that this drawing wasn't even for the gaming industry, but rather for mainstream publishing.  Weird.  And it's in pen and ink.  Even weirder.  The only pen and ink I've ever been paid to do.  Weirder still.

So, without further ado, I present the sketch then the finish below:
Pretty straightforward sketch.
Pretty straightforward finish.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Climbing the Ladder

Recently, over at Jon Schindehette’s ArtOrder blog, he’s had several artists describe how they “made it” in the business.  “Making it” is a phrase I shy away from because I don’t like to get too comfortable.  This is not to say that I am critical of people who use the phrase or honestly feel that they have made it, it’s that I choose not to apply that phrase to myself.  In my mind, it’s essential to keep the precariousness of my position at the forefront of my brain.  Thinking this way ensures that I am always prepared for the worst and that I continue trying to push my work as far as I can in order to keep my clients happy lest the worst actually occur.  Consequently, I really don’t feel like I’ve “made it” at all, and so I can’t offer such a story.  But, I suppose I can tell you how I got where I am.

Let me begin by saying that it is criminal in many ways to gloss over my formative years given how substantial the contributions of the teachers who inspired and trained me as an artist were.  Rather than get into it at this point, I will concentrate instead on those more immediate events that directly led me into the business and leave the tales of my education for another date.

I graduated from Pratt in 1998 with a portfolio full of book and editorial illustration that — like so many student portfolios — had little congruity and didn’t gel as a whole.  The book work mostly targeted the young adult market while the editorial work was fairly standard political and social commentary.  For several months I called and mailed work to many art directors throughout book, magazine, and newspaper publishing and even managed to get interviews with a few.  I mailed postcards and packets, did drop-off days and cold calls, but what I failed to do was update my portfolio and after a year of trying had no work to show for my efforts.  So, I got a job and ended up in public relations.

One of the best friends I made in college was a guy by the name of Jeremy Jarvis.  We met our freshman year when he lived a few doors down from me in the dorm.  He, too, wanted to be an illustrator and after graduation began pursuing a very different facet of illustration than I had: fantasy/sci-fi gaming illustration.  Initially I had no interest, but one day he called me and offered me work.  You see, after working in the gaming field for a while, he eventually was asked to art direct a game for some small-time company that would require a lot of artwork to be commissioned.  For some reason, he thought of me, and just like that, Jeremy dragged me into the field of gaming illustration.

As I said, I had a job at this time, so I could only paint at night and on weekends.  So, during the week I worked my eight hours, came home, painted until I couldn’t keep my eyes open and went to bed.  Rinse and repeat.  I painted twenty-one pieces for Jeremy, but through no fault of his, I was only paid for three.  I was pretty frustrated by the experience, and it would have been nice to have the money, but it wasn’t a total loss because I now had a new portfolio of gaming art.

Being the friend that he is, Jeremy then gave me a few names of people to call and send my work to; people in the gaming industry.  I did as he suggested and was shocked when I started getting work with my new portfolio.  The companies I was working for didn’t pay very well, but I still had my job and I was still getting paid to improve and diversify my new portfolio.  This improved portfolio got me work from new, better paying clients, which in turn, improved my portfolio further, still.  Through this method, I went from company to company until I finally got my foot in the door at Wizards of the Coast.

In April of 2001, I got laid off from my day job.  My wife and I discussed our situation and she encouraged me to take advantage of being laid off and make a go at becoming a full-time freelancer.  The gamble paid off.  By the end of 2001, I had consistent work from Wizards of the Coast and several other companies, and was successfully paying our bills.

In 2005, I flew out to Washington for a friend’s wedding and seized the opportunity to meet with all the art directors I’d worked with in the Seattle area for lunch.  I was going to be visiting the Wizards of the Coast offices, so I took a shot and emailed the art director for Magic, who at the time was Jeremy Cranford, and asked if I could meet with him while I was there.  I was surprised when he said yes, and so the date was set.  To say that it was one of the scariest interviews of my life is an understatement.  This is partially because I was out of practice, and partially because I wanted so bad to work on Magic.  Through some miracle, I managed to stumble my way through the interview, and after bluntly, constructively, and critically reviewing my portfolio, he agreed to give me work.

Today, my most regular client is Magic and in an odd twist of fate, it is now art directed by my friend, Jeremy Jarvis.  My career has been built upon hard work, long hours, sacrifice, and trying to make the most of the opportunities presented me.  Many people opened doors for me along the way and I have many to thank for where I am today, but Jeremy Jarvis opened the first door and so I say this: I got where I am because I have a really good friend.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Luck and Computers

As my luck would have it, the logic board on my computer decided that this morning would be a good time to call it quits.  This meant that I was completely unable to start my computer at all, let alone retrieve any necessary data for the various jobs I'm working on.  This will be the case for the next 5-7 business days while some guy somewhere hems and haws over the computer's repair.  Fun!

The loss of the various files I need is a painful one.  I'm already behind on several assignments due to Gen Con, and this will ensure my being even tardier.  Fortunately, my art directors have thus far been understanding and I'm trying to keep minimal any burden upon them.

I'm sure you're wondering what this means for the blog (though likely you're not wondering that at all).  Well, I have one entry in the pipe that I can publish as soon as I'm finished editing it, but must wait until my (hopefully) repaired computer returns before I can publish anything else with actual substance.  With a little good luck, I won't have to do the ad-libbed song and dance for too long and can get back to my regularly scheduled program.  I thank you for your patience.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Circle on the Oaktag

A random memory.

When I was very young — I have no idea how young due to my memory’s noncommittal attitude, but my best guess would be somewhere between the ages of 4 and 6 — I attended another kid’s birthday party.  I can’t recall whose birthday party it was, nor my association to this person, so it’s entirely possible that my mind has conjured this story from cobbled together memories of elementary school projects and Sunday School classes.

Either way, there was a birthday party, and as is the case in many children’s parties of the time there were various organized activities planned to keep the kids occupied and the adults’ nerves in check.  It is during one of these activities that the actual memory part of this memory kicks in and the vivid scenes of what transpired take hold.

At one point during the party, I remember being herded along with the other children into a room that contained one piece of oak tag paper for every child laying on the floor in a row and a box of crayons accompanying each.  At first glance, I remember feeling elated that I was being presented with a chance to draw and show what I could do.  I was in my element!  I rushed in and claimed piece of oak tag and, as I knelt down to start drawing, I noticed “it”. 

“It” was a circle drawn two thirds up from the bottom of the paper in permanent, black marker and as I looked up at the adults in the room to get a read on the situation, it was explained to the lot of us that we were to draw anything we wanted on the paper and we should feel free to utilize the circle in any way we wished.  Hmmmm...

You know, for kids.

Immediately all the other children dove into their drawings and went for the jugular, while I froze and began to ponder what I deemed an unsatisfactory situation.  The restriction of the black circle wasn’t the problem.  I’d tackled coloring books before, and what are coloring books if not restrictive?   No, it was the fact that the circle was drawn in permanent marker.  We were provided with crayons and it was made clear that permanent marker was off limits, and so I was unable to outline anything in a way that was consistent with the circle.  In short, the two different mediums were at odds and the aesthetic challenges this would create were more than I cared to tackle.

The other problem I was facing was that the circle itself was perfect.  I’m not sure if it was traced around a coffee can or if an actual compass was employed, but there it stood in all its circular perfection, the only mark upon an otherwise clean, white surface.  I knew that no matter how hard I tried, I could not live up to the perfection of the circle and, as we were not provided with straightedges or compasses, the aesthetic dilemma deepened.

After several minutes of pondering, I looked over at the other kids’ papers and realized how far behind I was.  I saw trains and dolls, teddy bears and space scenes — a whole host of imagery being poured out all over the papers that sat before them — a glorious sight to behold!  But to me, they were all rendered ugly by the black circle that cruelly stuck out on every one of them, defiantly clashing with the vivid lines and fields of color that began filling every page.

Finally, after being chided by one of the adults present, I tested the waters.  For some reason, a clown came to mind and I began an attempt to utilize the circle as its head.  After only a minute or two, however, I recoiled in disgust.  My work, too, was just as ugly!  I hated that circle and I wanted it gone.  So, I did the only sensible thing: I flipped the paper over and started drawing on the other side — the side with no circle, no restrictions, no rules.

I remember the relief I felt as I began to draw that same clown the way I wanted to draw him, and how effortlessly the drawing flowed.  I remember my heart soaring as I colored furiously.  I remember the suspicious looks of the other children as they watched my furious creation.  And I remember being chided once again by the adult in charge for not following the rules of the game, and their attempt to flip my paper back over to the circled side.

Given how much larger they were, my protest went unheeded and the paper was returned to its original position, its ugliness staring up at me and forcing me to once again flip the paper over and return to the clown I had so defiantly started. At this point, I began hearing words traded about me by the various adults in the room and I remember my heart sinking.  I wanted to please them but I didn’t want to compromise my artistic vision.  What could I do?  I pondered my predicament for a while and finally — wanting to be liked more than to be right — obediently I returned to the drawing with the circle, half-heartedly following directions and finishing it at last, allowing us all to move on to the next planned activity.

I really don’t remember much about the rest of that party, but two things of which I am positive are this: 1) I threw away that drawing when I got home and I don’t regret it; 2) I was never invited to any of that kid’s birthday parties ever again.

In some ways it is ironic that I was pulled toward a profession that is at times so full of guidelines and restrictions.  There are many times when I am bound by a circle on a page and have no choice to follow directions lest the adults in the room start chastising me, or talking behind my back.  I guess the difference is that while I’m still bound by the rules of the game, I’m the one who gets to draw the circle.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Gen Con 2010 Wrap-up

Another Gen Con is behind us and I want to thank Barbara Fisher and her crew for doing yet another fine job at keeping the artists in line and treating us like royalty.  Barbara and her staff have an exceedingly difficult task to perform and somehow always seem to make it all look so easy.  I don't personally possess the patience or the people skills to pull off the logistic nightmare they have to endure, so the fact that things run as smoothly as they do is truly mystifying to me.

It was also really cool to get to hang out with so many incredible artists.  I had enough fun for two people and can't believe how hoarse I got from chatting and how much my sides hurt from all the laughing.  This was arguably among the best looking shows I've ever had the honor to be a part of, and it has made me want to work that much harder for next year.

Finally, to the fans, I thank you for your kind words, support and your gratitude.  I wouldn’t be where I am today without fans – both of my work and the games I’m lucky enough to work on.  You’re all great and I look forward to coming back next year to sign and chat with you all.

And now, some pictures for your enjoyment:

My Booth at Gen Con 2010
 ©Amy Belledin

Some of the many cards I signed. I think I signed over 1000 on Saturday alone!
 ©Amy Belledin

A good look at my thinning hair while signing.
 ©Amy Belledin
This guy won an uncut sheet of foil cards. Pretty swanky!
 ©Amy Belledin
 ©Amy Belledin

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Gen Con Ho!

Tomorrow I set sail for Indianapolis, Indiana for the annual geek-fest known as Gen Con.  For the uninitiated, it's a 4-day gaming convention where many companies come to show off their latest and greatest, and tens of thousands of people come to play.  Nestled in the main exhibition hall one can find a gated area that for me is the highlight of the con: the Art Show.

When I started attending Gen Con 8 years ago, the Art Show was much smaller and in its own room, but it outgrew the space provided, was moved to the main hall and now boasts somewhere in the neighborhood of 80-90 artists who are there to meet and greet fans, show off their work, and sell their wares.  Then, every night after dinner, the artists congregate and before long the sound of laughter drowns out all other sounds, faces tend to grow more ruddy and the tales being spun become that much taller.  In short, it’s a good time.

The thing that I really want to get to, however, is the business side of things.  I've been asked many times by illustrators who are interested in gaming art for recommendations on how to get started.  Depending on the person and the state of their work, my advice may vary, but the one thing that stays constant is my recommendation to attend Gen Con. 

Gen Con affords a starting illustrator two big opportunities that otherwise may be hard to come by.  The first opportunity is the attending artists.  By and large, illustrators in the field of Fantasy and Sci-fi art are among the most generous I’ve ever met.  I’ve been the beneficiary of more free advice from my fellow artists than I can ever repay.  They’ve reviewed my portfolio, given me techniques to try, and even pointed me towards companies that may be willing to hire me.  I cannot stress enough the value of this and how far it got me, personally.

The second opportunity Gen Con provides is the art directors.  Gen Con is well attended by art directors for the various companies attending the convention — as well as others whose companies are not attending— and they are there to look at work.  Some art directors (like those for Wizards of the Coast) have specific schedules and sign-up sheets making it easy to get face time with them, others are floating about and must be hunted down but are out there nevertheless.  Even if you don’t get work from an interview or a portfolio review, the critiques gained from such experiences are worth your time.  Every bit of input these art directors give you can be spun into gold if you give it a chance, especially if you walk in with an open mind.

The other nice thing about the art directors attending is that if you have worked with them before, it’s great to meet them and get to know them in person (as often so much of what we do is through e-mail now).  Oftentimes, strengthening a relationship you already have is just as important as creating new relationships, and there are few better opportunities to do this with many of these art directors than at Gen Con.

Personally, I have been blessed with many bits of advice from both the artists and art directors at Gen Con, and I still ask for their advice to this day.  I’ve gotten a lot of work as a result of attending and over the years I’ve gotten to know collectors and fans who’ve further enriched my time there.  I believe it has done the same for many other artists and I believe Gen Con can do it again for those of you out there who are just now trying to get your foot in the door.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Frequently Asked Question 1

Without a doubt, the single most commonly asked question of me at conventions is some variation of this one:

So, do you they tell you want to paint or do you come up with the idea on your own?

The most concise answer to this question is that my clients do, in fact, tell me what to paint. However, this response is an over simplification, and so I try to expound upon what the client tells me to do versus what I come up with on my own, citing specific examples for clarity, and trying desperately to make it sound interesting. I will now attempt to do just that here.

Illustrations tend to be commissioned to fill a specific need, and the client sums up this need in the art order. An art order can vary from client to client, but they all tend to have some basic information included, like due dates and the size of the space the printed image needs to fit into. What does tend to vary — not only from client to client but job to job — is the art description.

Art descriptions come in many shapes and sizes from a single sentence that merely hints at what is needed, to several, single-spaced pages that detail everything down to color palette and composition. Sometimes the descriptions aren’t descriptions at all, but rather a series of reference pictures attached to an email, which serve the same function.  Despite their many varieties, the type of descriptions I most often get are like the ones below:

ART ID: 96882    TITLE: [Phobian Phantasm] SIZE:      SKETCH DUE: 11/4/2005 12:00:00 AM   ART DUE: 12/6/2005 12:00:00 AM ART DESCRIPTION: Color: Black Location: Ice Age setting Action: Show an evil horrifying eyeless, snake tongued ghost/spirit of your design. It needs to be able to fly/float/drift somehow. Focus: the ghost Mood: Needs to be scary as shit Notes: This is a flying creature. It should be shown in flight.

This is a test of your imagination. Be creative. ===================================================== 

ART ID: 96875    TITLE: [Hibernation's End] SIZE:      SKETCH DUE: 11/4/2005 12:00:00 AM   ART DUE: 12/6/2005 12:00:00 AM ART DESCRIPTION: Color: Green Spell Location: ancient icy forest Action: This spell represents the hibernation season coming to its end and the forest beasts reemerging to feed. One way to show this is polar bears coming out their dim, frozen caves. Focus: emerging beasts Mood: hungry =====================================================

These just happen to be Magic descriptions, but many of my non-Magic clients give about the same amount of information. At first glance, there’s not a lot there; both descriptions are about the same length and contain much of the same information. Upon closer inspection, however, it is clear that what was asked of me in each is very different.

While I was told that I needed to paint a “Phobian Phantasm” in the first art description, it was up to me to define what the Phantasm actually looked like, and so I pretty much got paid to paint something that I came up with. Of course there were a couple constraints listed that hint at a direction, but the blanks were mine to fill in, and it led to this:

Phobian Phantasm     ©Wizards of the Coast
The second description had a more straightforward path that required less invention, but was more about creating the proper mood, a good composition, and a compelling image, resulting in this:

Hibernation's End     ©Wizards of the Coast
This was the first Magic job I ever got and the Art Director, Jeremy Cranford, provided me with two very different problems to solve. While not overly constrictive in this case, there are almost always guidelines to follow and there is often a chance to invent and create within those guidelines. At the end of the day, there is always some invention going on, even with the pieces that have several page long art descriptions. As artists, things are filtered through our minds and hands and transformed, and through that transformation, we can’t help but make a piece our own.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Regarding the Name...

Push and pull is what I call one of the last parts of my painting process.  When my paintings are almost done I do one final evaluation and add finishing touches like highlights and glazes that push some aspects of the painting back in the painting's space and pull others forward.  It's the last attempt to make certain that I'm leading the viewer's eye around the painting as intended.  It's a finishing touch, but it's also essential.

I suppose there are philosophical implications to the phrase, but in truth I wanted to call my blog something other than "Steven Belledin's Illustration Blog" and I happened to like the way Push and Pull sounded.

There are many art and illustration blogs out there and I often feel that I have little to contribute that hasn't already been covered thoroughly in one of them.  Nevertheless, contribute I shall and I will attempt to entertain along the way.   Here's hoping the ride is a good one...