Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Guy Riding A Deer

One of the few down sides to working for many of my clients is that the work I display isn't current.  Due to contracts and non-disclosure agreements, I have to keep things under wraps until they've been officially spoiled.  A side effect of that is that I have to keep the stories of how the work came together under wraps, as well.  At least I have to keep specifics under wraps. 

I can't, for example, come out and just say that I am painting a giant fairy (which I'm not).  And I can't talk about how this giant fairy came together (or didn't) while everything is still fresh in my head (which it isn't because I didn't paint one).

To counteract this, I have three options.  Up until now, I have been relying on the first option, which is to try and recollect as much as possible when premiering the image on this blog.  The problem with this option is that my memory is absolute garbage, and my thought processes aren't always clear when I look back at the piece and try and deconstruct it in my head.  Add to that the fact that things get lost in translation between my brain and my fingers as I type, and the result is a pretty watered down version of the sequence of events that birthed a given painting.

The second option is to actually keep a log of the work as it happens and then regurgitate it when I am finally permitted to show it to everyone.  While this seems like a good option, it requires about the same amount of effort and forethought as taking consistent process photos, which is something I've repeatedly failed to do.  Besides, keeping a log of any given piece is a gamble.  The creation of each piece is not equally interesting and I may end up wasting valuable painting time while writing about something that is monumentally boring.

My third option is to go ahead and commit to talking about random pieces in generalities when it's pertinent, which is what I'm going to try today.  Then, I guess, when I'm finally able to put the piece up for public consumption I can link back to this article to add additional context.  Or something.  Hopefully it makes sense and is interesting.  I guess we'll see.

So, I've got this piece.  I can say that there is a man in it and that that man is riding a beast of some sort.  This beast has a real-life counterpart that I can utilize for reference.  For the sake of ease, we'll say that this man is riding a deer (which he is not, but like I said, it'll help me keep things clear, so you'll just have to accept that it's a deer).  I suppose I could have said elephant, but that's a longer word to type.  So, yeah.  Definitely a guy on a deer.

Wait.  Let me backtrack.

The commission as a whole included this deer rider, as well as two other pieces, and it arrived when I was only about a week out from my trip to Japan.  Despite the fact that I was desperately trying to finish up another commission and get it handed in before I flew off, I decided it prudent to try and knock out the sketches before leaving in order to synchronize my time away with the time I'd be waiting for feedback.

The sketches for the other two pieces were a synch and were my standard pencil on typing paper affairs.  They were a bit tighter than many of my sketches tend to be, and I was really happy with them.  The deer rider, on the other hand, was a nightmare from the start.  Despite the collection of reference I'd amassed, things just weren't coming together.  Not in pencil, anyway.  Contributing factors to my difficulties were that I have a hard time drawing deer to begin with, that my deer reference really wasn't spot on (despite extensive searches, I assure you), and that I have absolutely no experience drawing people riding deer, nor real-life experience of riding them, myself, from which to draw.  The result was a series of false starts that were more horrid eraser streaks than actual drawing.  So, I scanned my initial thumbnail in and started a digital sketch.

My digital sketches are pretty rudimentary at best and typically only involve three values slapped down as necessary in a fairly opaque fashion.  The main reason I tend to go digital in my sketches from time to time is that I can search for shapes faster and more easily.  Revisions are quick and efficient and I can always go back to an earlier version.

Before I knew it, I had a submittable deer rider sketch.  There was only one problem: it was kind of lackluster.  Nevertheless, with an "I'll fix it in post" attitude, I emailed it to the client with a note promising a second version if I had the time.

I initially planned to just walk away, finish packing for Japan and be done with it.  But, that sketch really bugged me.  It kind of sucked.  And I began to regret turning it in.  Given that I'd opened the door for a second version, I decided it was the thing to do. 

I took the original sketch and cut it apart in Photoshop, rearranging, resizing and refitting the disparate pieces.  There was no new thumb nailing, no forethought, no preparation.  It was just me moving shapes around a digital canvas, reacting to this or that.  Just my brain trying to find some means of hammering out a better solution.  After getting the basic pieces in place, I began to stitch them together with more digital paint.  It wasn't pretty, nor was it seamless, but it came together with more than enough clarity to get my point across.

The only notable thing about the end result was that I'd used no reference.  Everything was from the gut.  Whether or not this was a mistake was irrelevant to me.  I had managed to get a second version done that I liked better (and knew the client would, too), and once again, the idea of fixing it in post surfaced as a means to let my brain detach for a week in Japan and not fret over the coming job.

Cut to the point where I'd returned from Japan, had my various pieces approved, and prepared my surfaces.  For clarity's sake I will point out that my suspicion was correct and that the client liked the second deer rider sketch better.  I started to work, as I often do, on two of the three pieces.  One of these was the deer rider.  Very quickly, I became dissatisfied with the sketch.  The figure felt out of proportion, his size relation to the deer felt all wrong, and there were some major drawing flaws that needed fixing.

I went about reworking the deer rider a little each day, while simultaneously working on the other two paintings.  Each change I made to the deer rider felt fine until the next morning when I'd decide that the revisions weren't working either.  So, I'd end up scraping the piece and revising it again, searching for the right line, the correct angle, etc.  Every morning the process repeated itself, and the deer rider remained at a point where it was always changing but never closer to completion.

Before long, the other two pieces were finished, and it was time to really start working up this third piece.  Hard decisions needed to be made.  This is where I found myself yesterday morning.

Now, normally I wouldn't sweat this situation.  I still had plenty of time to get the piece done.  But there are two factors that made me rather nervous.  The first is that I ended up being REALLY happy with the other two pieces, and it kind of raises the bar for the deer rider.  I don't want to turn in two good pieces and one that no one will ever talk about again.  Second, I have a convention to attend this weekend, and I won't be getting any work done on the piece.  As it's due next Friday, I really needed to make serious progress lest I spend each night of the convention painting in my hotel room.

As I saw it, yesterday was a make or break day for the painting.  It needed to start coming together.  And so, I scraped it down once again, sanded it a bit, and started repainting the piece from scratch.

I went into it this time a bit more prepared, having found more reference to help me.  I blocked in the guy and deer virtually from scratch and began to do the same for the rest of the piece.  Happily, for the first time in its existence, I began to feel like the painting was coming together.  The guy riding a deer just might be at least semi-successful.  There was just one test: would I still feel the same this morning?

Surprisingly, yes.

Now, this is all sounding pretty standard.  Not a whole lot of meat here other than "Man Perseveres In the Face of Adversity."  Or perhaps "Man Tackles Guy Riding Deer."  But, there is something a little strange going on here.  Looking at the newly blocked in painting, it is clear that while I spent the last two weeks moving away from the original sketch, I have spent the last 24 hours working back towards it, and I am happy with the results.

Sure, there are some minor differences between the sketch and the painting.  Necessary proportion adjustments.  Corrections to the perspective on the deer's antlers.  That kind of stuff.  But the heart of the piece is clearly back in the same place it was as I frantically sat there slapping together a second sketch with mere hours to go before I needed to leave for the airport.  Now, for the second time during this piece's creation, I am relying more on my gut than anything else.

Will it end up being a good piece?  I really can't say.  There have been plenty of paintings that have surprised me in either direction.  There are sure to be flaws in the end, and just how fatal those flaws may be remains to be seen.  One thing, however, is certain: this piece is clearly telling me to let my instincts run the show.  For now, I'm going to let that guide me.  It'll be interesting to see where I end up.


  1. Man, Steven,

    This post seriously speaks to me. I'm not a professional illustrator, (I'm still a student) but I have had plenty of deadlines and I do completely understand the mental and emotional strain that kind of creative process puts you through.

    It sounds like you're a really hard worker and dont let yourself get down when you just cant put whats in your head down on the board. Its infutiating, i know for sure. However, I've seen plenty of your work so I know you knocked it out when
    you finally got it flowing. I can't wait to see it once you're allowed to post it. I
    hope it's a magic card!

    Thanks for the insight!


  2. Moe,

    It's been an uphill battle this week when trying to finish this piece. As much as I got in my own way, life has had a go as well. My water heater broke and tried to fill my basement up with water. Then my bathroom sink stopped working properly (having been clogged with the stirred up silt from the water heater debacle). Now, I am sick. Getting this piece nailed down has really been frustrating.

    However, if all goes well, it'll be finished tomorrow and I can rest over the weekend. If all goes well, that is.

    Every once in a while, you get a piece and a situation like this. The best you can do is hunker down and bull moose your way through it.



I welcome all comments, questions, and discussion so long as you keep it civil.