Friday, October 21, 2011

Ann Bonny and A Foray Into Digital Painting

I have painted the female pirate, Ann Bonny, seven times now.  The first five were for a card game called Anachronism, published by Triking Games.  That game has since vanished from the shelves of your local game store, but the images I did for that game have drummed up more work than any other images I have thus far produced.  To boot, I get requests to use to one image in particular come regularly — around two to three a year.  This is that image:

©MK3 International

As much as I'd like to sell the use of this image to the various companies and individuals that have requested it, I simply don't own the copyright.  The parent company of the publisher does, for this was a piece done as work-for-hire.

At this point, I could take the opportunity to step into the work-for-hire debate.  It's a worthy debate, indeed, and one about which I have mixed feelings.  For those not in the know, work-for-hire is when all copyright (and in some cases even the original, if one exists) are purchased from the artist.  This prevents the artist from selling additional printing rights to other clients down the road, and in some cases even restricts how the artist themselves can utilize the image (be it in self-promotion or the manufacturing of prints).  While this might seem like an okay thing provided that the monetary exchange is advantageous to the artist, the truth of the matter is that more often than not the rates offered are far below what organizations like the Graphic Artists Guild consider to be fair.

Now, having gone through the trouble of bringing everyone up to speed, I'm not going to delve any deeper into the work-for-hire topic.  Instead, I'll leave you with the pertinent information regarding the piece above.  I needed the work, Triking was my highest paying client at the time, and work-for-hire is fairly common practice in the fantasy, gaming industry.  Unfortunately, being work-for-hire and not owning the copyright myself, I now miss two to three opportunities each year to make additional monies on a piece for little to no additional effort on my part.

Thus was the case a month ago when I was once again approached about using the image.  This time, however, I put some effort into sleuthing.  You see, despite the fact that I don't own the image, I thought it worth trying to hunt down those who do — either the folks at MK3 or (if they'd been dissolved) whoever may have bought the assets from them.  After doing a bit of research, I was unable to confirm whether or not MK3, as an entity, even continues to exist.  Nor was I able to find out if they'd been bought, or folded into a new company.  I made a go of contacting the folks who used to run the company and had limited success.

What was my end game for all the legwork?  Simple.  Admittedly, it seemed pretty unlikely that I would get any money out of the deal, but I could at the very least gain exposure.  I figured at the very least, someone could make a couple bucks and my work could see the light of day and reach a new audience.

Despite doing my due diligence, as fate would have it, my search had a rather anticlimactic end.  I never managed to track down anyone who could tell me anything useful.  There was no one to point this new client to and have them work out a deal.  Even in the month since, I have been unable to confirm or refute any of the conjecture I've heard, nor have I gotten a reply from those who would definitely know something.  In short, I had nothing to tell my potential new client.

So that's it, right?  Another opportunity lost.  Well.... not exactly.  Like I said, I've painted Ann Bonny seven times.  While five of those pieces are out of bounds, I do own the rights to  the other two.  In an attempt to salvage the situation, I offered up usage to either of those versions.

Immediately the client was dismissive of one of the images.  It was the image of Ann Bonny from the original Badass book cover (link).  I completely understood.  It's part of a larger piece and really didn't work for them out of context.  The second image was a black and white painting of Ann, done for the interior of the same book.

While this image intrigued them, the fact that it was black and white was kind of deal breaker.  Still, I thought I could help them, so I did the obvious thing: I asked them if they'd be interested if I colorized the black and white piece digitally.

They were a little leery.  I don't blame them.  My portfolio isn't exactly brimming with digital work.  In fact, there are zero digital pieces in my portfolio.  Still, I assumed that between my own limited experience, and my wife's far more vast Photoshop knowledge, we'd be able to give them something useful.  To allay their fears, I offered to give them a progress shot within a couple of hours and based on that, they could run with it or kill the whole thing.  They agreed and I went to work.

The short story is that I painted over the original oil painting in Photoshop.  CS5 if you must know.  I turned the oil painting into a brown monochrome image, converted the whole thing into RGB, and painted on top of that in a new layer.  It's mostly just the paint brush and smudge tools.  Nothing fancy.  About as straightforward as my oil painting, really.

I started with the head and hands and worked out from there.  Once everything above the waist was complete, I blocked in the rest and submitted the half-finished work.  They liked it enough to ask me to complete it and I did.  A couple hours of work, an extra couple bucks made, and a lot of lessons learned.  Not a bad way to spend the afternoon.  Anyway, here's how it came out:

Admittedly, I am still new to the whole digital painting thing, and I can't say that I'm in love with it as a whole.  Painting with actual paint is an experience.  There is a smell of oil in the air.  You can feel the painting's surface through the brush much as you can feel the road through the steering wheel of a car.  All that unevenness creates all kinds of happy accidents along the way.  You can move the paint around with your fingers or a paper towel, or any number of other implements that they haven't yet managed to simulate digitally.

Digital painting lacks a lot of this.  There is no smell.  The physical surface is smooth and even.  The stylus is more a fat pencil than a brush.  It's a little colder to me.  A little less exciting.  As a result, I have resisted the industry's trend toward all things digital.

However, I do recognize that it's just another tool.  A tool that, used properly, can do great things.  I can't say as I'm to that point yet, but I've finally started giving it a real try.  My toes have been dipped, and I've even finished off a couple of assignments digitally (mostly because it allowed me to easily give more than one option to my art directors).  Whether I'll ever get to the point where I'm doing a piece from start to finish without ever using so much as a pencil... well... I'm really not sure.  For me, having the painting as an artifact — having that physical embodiment of my labor — is still important.  But, without a doubt, in this instance digital painting saved me and salvaged a situation that could have easily fallen apart.  It allowed me to do something I simply could not have accomplished with oils in the time I had to do it.  And to me, there's not a whole lot to dislike about that.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Of Anniversaries and Other Holidays

I'm way behind.  I was hoping to get a few posts in recently, but both of our schedules (mine and Amy's) have conspired to keep me from having more than a few random moments' peace and I've chosen to utilize that peace for things other than this blog.  Namely making some headway on prep work for a personal piece which would create more interesting (hopefully) content for this here blog of mine.

The point is I've been a little out of touch and I chose today to write for a couple of reasons.

The first and most important reason is because this is my eleventh wedding anniversary.  Amy and I have been together for close to fifteen years total and this date, while not a round number, feels pretty important.  Our lives are in a fair bit of turmoil to be sure (what with Amy being out of work and all), and despite the stresses and chaos surrounding everything I must confess that we're still incredibly happy.  I like to think that I'm Amy's biggest cheerleader and I can say with authority that she's certainly mine, so it should be no surprise that we've settled into a fairly low level of worry which is buttressed by routine and an ever growing search for our next step.  Still, I feel it worth noting that I'm insanely lucky that someone would be daft enough to put up with my outbursts, generally grumpy disposition, impending baldness and occasional need for reassurance to stick with me for so long.  Either Amy sees much that many do not, or she's projecting a lot that isn't there.  Time will reveal all, I'm sure.

I'd continue on about how awesome Amy is and how great things are, but all that has an audience of one and I've got a bit bigger a theme to talk about.

Back in college, I had an illustration professor who assured me that at some point birthdays, anniversaries, and all the major holidays (including but not limited to personal, discretionary, bank and federal) would become meaningless.  He was of the opinion that the things that typically tie a person's schedule together (the days of the week and whatnot) begin to blur together in such a way that even those days which stand out will eventually become moot to illustrators as we are enslaved to the deadline.  In his mind, before long we would work through Christmas, sleep an all-nighter off on our birthday, be busy making revisions on our anniversaries and never notice.

Ten years into my career, I must confess that I have certainly painted on Christmas.  I have slept off a hard work of week on my birthday.  And I will be pushing paint today on my anniversary.  But as I am now my professor's age at the time he shared this opinion with me, I am happy to say that such a fate has not befallen me. 

What my professor spoke of was the danger of being an illustrator.  It is a possibility of what may happen, but I believe that it needn't come to fruition.  While I have certainly put in many hours on such days, they have never stopped meaning something to me.  And because I continue to cherish them, missing some of those days can hurt quite a bit.  But if I wanted my life to be pain-free and easy, I would have chosen a profession other than freelance illustrator.  (Of course, which other profession I might pursue is an impossible thing to say as so many professions seem to share this problem nowadays).

So how does one avoid those standout days from eroding into the background of our daily grind?  I think it helps to account for them as much as possible, and to accomplish that I think the key is balance.  Easy to type, difficult to achieve.  The work doesn't go away and the deadline still looms, but so do these important days.  How different illustrators deal with this issue varies.  Some just always keep a six day work week with one mandatory day off.  Others will just sacrifice when necessary, take the time off and do the all-nighter to make up for the lost hours if need be.  Still others keep vampiric schedules where they work while others sleep, sleeping little themselves.

Personally, I don't have a lot of answers.  My schedule while seemingly regular, varies in unpredictable ways.  Even if it were regular, paintings can sometimes unravel, last minute changes can be requested, and plans can be ruined.  It's one of the biggest downsides of the business.  Still, I try and adjust my schedule as much as possible, take the days off that I can, then deal with the fallout as it happens.  But I'm lucky — I have Amy's understanding and support.  If things fall apart, we'll arrange alternate days off and celebrate later if need be.  The dates begin to mean less, but the days themselves never become meaningless... if that makes any sense.

Though I can't honestly say that I've achieved true balance, I continue to strive for it.  And striving is necessary.  Otherwise, I'll never even get close.  Still, I know a lot of folks out there struggle with this kind of thing.  My biggest hope is that they find a system that works for them, and I hope they get the support they need while trying to find it.

Finally, I hope that you all — even in some small way — feel as lucky as I do right now.