Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Night Prelude, Part 1

The instances of people actually picking up a phone to hire me have been rare. In fact, I think it's only happened once in my twelve years as a full-time freelancer. The rest of my work has come via emails or through one-on-one interviews. That my most recent job became the second time a telephone was used in order to commission artwork is just weird. But then, the whole job is kind of weird. But a really good weird. The best kind of weird there is, actually.

The task handed me was to create art for Careless Juja's third album. I must confess, I've never heard of this musical group due to the fact that they seem to have recorded music more recently than the mid-90's. But musical taste and knowledge were happily not an issue. What mattered was that the man on the other end of the line knew what he wanted and was insanely flexible. Even better, I wasn't being hired because I was some artist who happened to fit the bill. I was being hired because he actually liked my work and wanted me, Steven Belledin, to paint something. Told you it was weird.

The great thing about all this was that the phone conversation was simple and straightforward. This is what I want on the cover of my album filtered through your sensibilities and here's what I can offer for that. The offer and the job itself were absolutely my cup of tea, and what's better is that I really needed some new work that I could hang on my wall at Spectrum Live this May, so it was very well timed to boot.

The assignment was simple: a moody portrait of a woman inspired by the character Sonia Belmont from the Castlevania video game series. I was left to interpret that as I pleased.

Once again, my ignorance spilled forth as the last time I played a Castlevania game, the protagonist was called Simon Bellmont and I had to blow into the cartridge to make the darned game work. But this lapse in knowledge wasn't an issue, either. Without even asking, I was supplied with a brief synopsis of Sonia's role in the Castlevania franchise, as well as a bunch of images from the more recent games for my consideration.

Looking at those images, I have to confess that I was a little worried. The reason for this is that the games take place between the 15th and 18th centuries, but the costuming more closely resembles what one might find in a modern pleasure dungeon. It's not authentic in any way and, quite frankly, there's more skin showing than is practical. While that started to set off some degree of alarm, I was assured that this was the opposite of what was needed of me. In fact, my most recent Badass cover was what brought this client to me, and he appreciated the fact that I'd managed to avoid any unnecessary sexualization of the image's only female character. The supplied art was merely a starting point to be accepted or ignored as I saw fit.

Whew. Told you he was flexible.

I took the provided reference and I set it aside for the time being. Then I went about doing research on era appropriate fashion, which in this case was European clothing from the mid-15th century. Very early on, it became clear why the concept artists behind the games abandoned any attempt at historical accuracy. Simply put, clothes from that point in history aren't exactly cool looking. So what does one do when faced with this dilemma? Easy. One makes stuff up.

A little pulled from this era, a little stolen from that era. Sprinkle in some elements in keeping with the tone of the reference, and throw in a touch of a knight's surcoat. Top it all off with a London hood, and bam! Just as out of place as the aforementioned reference, but much more in keeping with my own sensibilities.

This is how the thumbnail came together:

There she stands in a field of brambles lit by a flash of lightning, holding her whip.

While this did get approved, I though it a good idea to show this thumb to some friends and the consensus seemed to be that having her stand in deep grass made her feel short and took away some of the elegance I might otherwise achieve. My concern with pulling her out of the grass was that it might begin to feel that she was standing in front of a backdrop more than existing in a real environment. But on the other hand, I couldn't argue the shortness. At the end of the day, I ended up stealing heavily from their advice and put it all together in this sketch:

To be sure, my concerns aren't really addressed here. But I kind of don't care. Besides, so much can change when paint finally starts hitting board. Fleshed out volumes and the establishment of space can change a piece drastically, so I'm going to move forward and see where it leads. If my concerns bear fruit, perhaps a solution will present itself along the way. Or not.

So this is about where I'm at. I've got a 20"x20" wood panel prepared and the drawing is transferred. I'll be doing some acrylic painting to seal the drawing and kill the white space. Should be an interesting ride.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Personal Piece Update 9

So, a lot's been going on behind the scenes of late, and I'll be able to talk about the biggest and most important aspects of that fairly soon (still not pregnant or getting a divorce). In the meantime I thought I might discuss where I'm at with the personal piece.

First and foremost, I've finally gotten all of my reference ducks in a row. While I may or may not end up using some of the reference, I've finally got all the pictures I need to finish this thing. What I don't have is a canvas that's as tight as I'd like it to be. And I've been working on that.

Prior to The Weight of Mid-World, more than a decade had passed since last I worked on stretched canvas. Given how positive an experience I had working on that piece, I decided that canvas was the direction I'd head for the larger personal piece that I was brewing.

Unfortunately, between the assembly of the materials and the moment I finally started laying paint down, almost a year had passed and the stretched canvas had endured a move from Boston to New Jersey. Unbeknownst to me, the house we now live in is a much less humid environment. As it turns out, the drier the air the looser the fabric. Humidity actually tightens the stuff. Lacking the humidity as we do here, the canvas had become looser and looser. I consulted the internet and trolled for answers to this dilemma on Facebook and overwhelmingly the water trick was recommended (though not without its detractors).

The water trick is simply the application of water as evenly as possible in order to dampen the back of the canvas, followed by ample drying time (or in some opinions the application of a blow drier or exposure to the sun's radiation). In theory this would shrink the fabric and tighten the whole thing up. I did this several times, and while it did actually improve the situation, the surface is still not quite as tight as I'd like it to be. Rather than continue to find a means of stretching it further, however, I have decided it a wiser course of action to await the more humid summer months and see if that helps things naturally. Also, I fear that were I to tighten it any further myself, added humidity might cause the canvas to tighten enough to tear.

If the painting never reaches a level of tautness that I find satisfying, I may end up purchasing a board on which to mount the canvas. At the moment, that's my last resort. In the meantime, I've chosen to push forward, but I doubt I will ever use stretched canvas for such a large piece ever again.

In attempting to tighten the piece and giving it ample time to dry, I lost a few days. Still, I did manage to make some progress, as you can see below:

You're correct in saying that while progress has been made, it isn't hugely substantial. However, there's more new work there than you might realize. I am starting to lay down glazes to build up some darker tones at top and bottom. Shadows are starting to be worked out and I'm finally finding ways to articulate the ware and decay of the environment that satisfy me.

Of the changes made, the more obvious ones can be seen in the window, which now sports broken panes of scummy glass as well as leading. More subtle changes include shifts of proportion and tweaks to thigh and calf width, as well as some facial value nudges.

Struggles include the shadow that the hanging leg creates and the mass in the lower right corner. The leg shadow is now wider and more accurate to the lighting of the body, but I dislike how it lines up with the end of her shirt and the underside of the thigh. I'll probably end up breaking up the line of that shadow when I introduce some ivy into the equation.

As for the dark mass in the lower right, initially it was meant to be crumbled building debris. Then, a about two months ago, I got the idea that it might be cool to have rusted and broken armor there instead. Right now I'm not so sure and am beginning to wonder if my initial instincts weren't more "right." Fortunately, I have a lot of other work to do and can continue to ponder that decision. At some point, I'll likely just go ahead and mock both options up in Photoshop and see which I end up liking more.

Besides this personal piece, I have begun work on an illustration for an album cover. I'll include all the details for that tomorrow, and will continue to provide updates as the piece progresses. So, check back then and I'll set the stage for that piece.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Badass: Ultimate Deathmatch Interior 5

Here we are, at the fifth and final day of Badass week. So Steve, you're probably wondering, of all the interior illustrations you did for Badass: Ultimate Deathmatch by Ben Thompson, which was your favorite? It's a happy coincidence that you all were wondering such a thing as that's exactly what I planned on writing about today! Without further ado, here is my favorite interior:

I know, I know. Skulls and death again?

Yes. Yes, my friends. Skulls and death again.

I remember overhearing a high school classmate of mine looking at some paintings I had up at my alma mater some years back during an alumni art show. I actually don't remember which pieces they were, but I can at least tell you that they were thematically similar to my typical fare. "Well," my former classmate said, "it's got blood in it, and it's about death, so it must be one of Belledin's."

At the time, I found it pretty jarring to be summed up in such a way. I mean, I wasn't thrown into some sort of existential crisis or anything, but having my work so neatly encapsulated kind of left me a little disappointed. Nowadays, I'm not bothered by it. Most of the blood and guts stuff that I've done just happened to have been assigned to me. I don't ask for such assignments, but I'm not in the habit of turning them away, either. As is the way of the business, successfully completing such assignments to the satisfaction of the client inevitable leads to similar work. When painting for myself, such horror imagery is not what I gravitate towards at all. Sure, there might be death lurking just under the surface, but if extrapolated to its furthest extent, to show something alive implies death anyway, so I essentially can't win.

The point I'm really slowly driving toward is that the subject matter is not the reason this is my favorite interior of the lot. The reason for my favoring it is also not because I think it's the best piece I did for the book (though it arguably is). I like this illustration the most simply because it came closest to living up to my initial vision. After working through the thumbnails then moving on to the finished sketch, I had a clear idea of what I wanted this piece to be. The end result got pretty darn close to that idea. Extremely close, in fact. It's a rare piece that I see through rose-tinted glasses.

Is it a creepy piece? Yup. Is it kind of messed up? Indeed. But I'm happy to say that this isn't an idea that came out of my head for a change. It's an idea that came out of some other guy's head long, long ago in the Teutoberg Forest. While I just happened to be the one chosen to depict it, that guy made it a reality.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Badass: Ultimate Deathmatch Interior 4

Here's another interior for the newly released Badass: Ultimate Deathmatch that I painted in oils. As was the case with the piece I posted yesterday, this piece is also more atmospheric in nature.

Here we have a painting of Kono Michiari that is done on illustration board that measures 8" x 12".

It's funny to me that I got picked to do this piece. One might have guessed that Brian Snoddy might have been assigned to it given his extensive knowledge of samurai and the fact that he actually owns authentic samurai armor. While my own knowledge isn't completely lacking, I don't have as much confidence in it. I suppose that's why I instinctively came up with a scenario that called for so much of the composition to be cloaked in shadow.

This reminds me of a similar circumstance I heard proposed by a comic book artist when I was a kid. The artist — whose name I cannot recall — was talking about human anatomy as it applies to superheroes and suggested that those folks who weren't confident in their anatomical knowledge might want to consider utilizing a superhero's cape to cover up as much as necessary to get the job done. I'm a fan of this concept, though it should be noted that shadows and cloaks aren't always being employed to disguise or conceal an artist's shortcomings. Sometimes it's just the right thing to do for that particular piece.

Sure, this one's a dark piece, and I'll admit to wanting to conceal certain details in the samurai's armor, but the shadows I've employed are just as much about the mood and reinforcing the lighting scenario that I've chosen.

Anyway, there you go. If you want to learn who Kono Michiari was and have a good laugh while doing so, or if you want to see other illustrations I did or the illustrations done by the other fine artists who contributed to the book, then I encourage you to go ahead and get a copy of Badass: Ultimate Deathmatch by Ben Thompson. You know you want to.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Badass: Ultimate Deathmatch Interior 3

So I've shown you a couple of the digital pen and ink pieces, but what of the black and white oil paintings done for Badass: Ultimate Deathmatch by Ben Thompson? Well, here's one I did for the chapter on the fall of Constantinople:

No real story here beyond the fact that it's oil on illustration board and measures 8" x 12".

I'm sure there will be some of you reading this that will be curious as to why I chose oil for this piece and the digital pen and ink for another. I wish I could tell you, but I honestly only have a vague notion. These were done about a year ago, after all.

I suppose that part of the choice came down to confidence in a given piece. I knew that I'd have flexibility with digital pen and ink on those pieces I wasn't too sure about, and could fill in large blanks while still completing them out in a timely manner. The oil pieces were more or less ready to go and often depicted some sort of atmospheric affect, which is something oil is probably better suited to dealing with. But that's about all I can recall.

Anyway, Badass: Ultimate Deathmatch — as well as author Ben Thompson's other books Badass and Badass: The Birth of a Legend — are out in stores now and and are also available on Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, and can be bought from an independent bookstore via Indiebound.org.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Badass: Ultimate Deathmatch Interior 2

Yesterday I stated that I decided to go digital on the five pen and ink interiors for Badass: Ultimate Deathmatch in case changes needed to be made (link). Well, if there's a piece that exemplifies what I'm talking about, then you need look no further than this one.

Sure, it may seem innocent enough, but this portrait of Master Sergeant Roy Benavidez took the longest of the lot. By far. Why? Well, I ended up doing this one twice. This was a classic case of first piece started and last piece finished. Essentially, as I completed each piece, I grew dissatisfied with this one in particular and ended up scrapping all but he head of the first version (though even that got quite a revision). I'm happy I did, too, as this one is quite an improvement over the original.

Normally I'd show you what that first version looks like, but after digging around on two hard drives, it looks like I failed to save that the piece in that state. All I can tell you is that the drawing was terrible and that there was a lot more line work muddling the piece visually. When redoing the piece, I ended up leaving out much of that stuff resulting in a much cleaner image. It could be argued that the result is too clean, but I'm happy with it nevertheless.

Anyway, if you'd like to find out about Master Sergeant Roy Benavidez's exploits and learn what makes him such a badass, you might want to pick yourself up a copy of Badass: Ultimate Deathmatch by Ben Thompson, which just happens to have been released today!

And hey, if you don't like what you've seen of the work I've done for the book, maybe you'll want to pick it up for the illustrations done by these other awesome artists:

Brian Snoddy
Matt Haley
Manny Vega
Benjamin Dewey
Miguel Coimbra
Thomas Denmark
Rhonda Libbey
and Thom Zahler

And if you're still not sure you want to buy it, maybe another look at the cover will convince you.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Badass: Ultimate Deathmatch Interior 1

I'm still amazed that the Badass books fell into my lap the way they did. What started out as the promise of interior black and white work for the first book has yielded so much more, and I'm grateful that it came together for me in such a way. Tomorrow, March 12th, the third book in the series arrives in stores. That's right, folks, you can own another bit of Badass with Badass: Ultimate Deathmatch, by Ben Thompson.

While I detailed the bits about the cover art a while back (link), I thought I'd share a few of the interior pieces this week in celebration of the new book's release. But first, I want to talk about a decision I made in regard to these interior illustrations.

If memory serves, I did five interior illustrations for the first book. Being an oil painter, it seemed natural that I paint these pieces in oil. I did the same thing for the second book, where I initially did six interior paintings. With this most recent book, I agreed to ten paintings. Now, I'd toyed with the idea of making these pieces digital on the previous books, but my instinct was always to try and paint them digitally. I never actually followed through, however, as my digital skills aren't what you'd call... good. Then, towards the end of the second book's production, a last minute illustration was required and I was asked to quickly put something together. Time was limited, so I agreed to do the illustration provided they would accept pen and ink instead. This wasn't a problem, the piece went out on time and everyone seemed pretty happy with the result.

With this third book, I was faced with a challenge. When I accepted the ten pieces, my schedule was wide open and all seemed right with the world in our Massachusetts home. As the deadline grew closer, and it became clear that our lives in Massachusetts would be turned upside-down resulting in our being dumped back into the New York metro area again, I suddenly found the timeline to be rather compressed. Given my previous experience with the interior illustrations on the other books, I knew exactly how much time I was going to need to accomplish ten paintings, and I had less than that. So, with the permission of the author, I decided to do half the pieces in pen and ink.

But then I got to thinking about things a bit, and I revised my plan slightly. Due to the potential for changes or edits (mostly of my own making), I decided to go with digital pen and ink instead. The time this decision bought me was crucial, and I was able to turn everything in on time. Thus far, I haven't heard a single complaint about the end result, either, so I guess I did okay.

Anyway, here's a digital pen and ink I did for the War of Arauco chapter of Badass: Ultimate Deathmatch.

If you want to find out about the War of Arauco as well as many other amazing conflicts throughout history (and laugh a lot while learning about it all), then you should probably buy the book. Just a suggestion.

Hey! Here's the cover:

And here's a link to the author's website where you can find out more: Badass of the Week!

Friday, March 8, 2013

Personal Work and a Plan

As promised yesterday, I'm here with some art-related stuff.

I'll give you the big picture. I've committed to a spot at Spectrum Fantastic Art Live 2 in May, and about a month ago I started to think very generally about what I'd be showing there. While it may seem kind of early to begin planning all that, I assure you that for me it is not as the quantity of stuff I plan to bring — and indeed specific pieces being excluded or included — will have an impact on how I decide to make my way to Kansas City. One scenario may require a car ride, another might allow for a plane ride and a few boxes being shipped.

Unfortunately, my planning didn't get so far as determining a means of transportation. Very shortly after beginning to ponder what might hang on my wall at the show, I realized that I'd sold much of the new work that I would like to have included. Admittedly, this is a really good problem to have. In fact, it seems like there would be nothing to complain about. And, indeed, I am not complaining. However, the fact remains that aside from one or two pieces, my wall would end up looking pretty much exactly like it did last year at the first Spectrum Fantastic Art Live.

In the past, I've not always been quite so good at keeping my walls fresh at shows like Spectrum or IlluxCon or even GenCon from year to year. But, I've grown increasingly aware of the issue, and over the last couple of years have tried to make an effort to turn that around a bit. Ideally, at shows I do annually, I would like to have at least half of the wall be fresh, and I would have been really close to reaching that minimum this far out were it not for my terrible, terrible, good fortune.

So, that explains the problem. The solution? Well, there's 30"x40" of unfinished business on my easel right now, and I'm committed to getting that done for Spectrum. Here's what she looks like at the moment:

Once again, I'm sure you'll notice that there's little in the way of new ground covered. This is due to having assignments to paint and being away several weekends for Magic tournaments over the last couple months. It's also due to the fact that the canvas has grown really loose and has become irritating to work on. The cause of this looseness, I am certain, is the dryness of the air in my house. Whether or not it's worth getting a humidifier for this lone piece is not something I've decided on yet, but I'm starting to wonder whether it might not be a good idea. Either way, I've spent a bit of time over the last week attempting to tighten the thing up a bit without going too crazy so as to keep the whole thing from tearing once the humidity ratchets up again. Fortunately, it's noticeably tighter and I'm ready to get back into it again.

What I have managed to do is to start finishing the figure. I've made a couple passes at the hand in the lap, gone over the back leg, and repainted some of the face yet again. At this point, however, I'm going to need to collect some additional reference before really breaking tons of new ground. This should be remedied next weekend, during what will amount to a reference trade between me and Matt Stewart. Do I smell a blog crossover?

In the meantime, I've begun another assignment which I'll be able to include on my wall at Spectrum, as well. It's a painting for an album cover that I'll detail at a later date. I'll probably do a few process posts as I did for the Valentine painting last year, so you all can once again witness the complete lack of planning and logic that goes into every one of my paintings.

Next week, I'll be posting some interior black and white pieces I did for the latest Badass book, Badass: Ultimate Deathmatch, in celebration of its release on March 12th (in bookstores everywhere, as well as Amazon). Hopefully you'll all dig that.

This is what Badass looks like. Well, this Badass.

Further up the line, I'm planning to do a few small, 4"x6" paintings without any plan, reference, or idea. My current plan is also to restrict the brush sizes and the time allowed for each, and just react to the marks I make until something magically appears. No idea how they'll turn out, but I'll post any that are worth posting (and probably at least one that's not). They may not end up on my Spectrum wall, but they should at least be fun.

Lastly, intermingled with the above, I'll continue to post other bits here and there. I have a couple new Frequently Asked Questions in the pipe, as well as some other posts that at present defy any clear description as they're still all over the map. Hopefully I can hammer those into something worthy of reading, but that will remain to be seen.

Today's agenda is all about thumbnail drawings for the album cover, but first I shall deftly shovel some snow. Cheers!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Many Thanks

Alright. I've written this post five times now. I'm not even sure why I've had to, really, as the whole point of this post is to thank a lot of people. That kind of thing is and should be easy. But it's not the thanking part that has me flummoxed, it's all the stuff leading up to it. You know, all the context and background bits where I explain to you, the reader, exactly what I'm thanking these folks for. I have tried hard to be succinct in my explanation, but I've been oddly unable to tidy the mounds of words that have been piling up. Instead, I've repeatedly worked my way into a corner, have pushed the previous wreck aside and started over with a new approach in mind. I tried extreme pruning and cutting things down, but they stopped making sense. I also tried mending more than one version together, but the disparate points of view made for a lot of work in the blending. An interesting exercise if you have the desire to follow through on it, but I do not. So, for a week now, I've been at an impasse.

Then, rather suddenly, I came to the realization this morning that I was over-complicating things and I once again scrapped the most recent iteration so I could write this version. The final version. Or at least what I hope is the final version. In this version, there is no exposition. There is no track laying. There is only thanks, followed by a brief explanation of those thanks. That's it.

So here goes.

Thanks to my friends, my fans, and the fine folks in the Magic community for pummeling me with your support, encouragement, and your very kind words. Thanks for all the emails, messages, handshakes, smiles, and joy. Thanks for reminding me that I'm part of a greater community and that I have value within that community. Thanks to the students and up-and-comers who've shown me how much my work has meant to them. Thanks for the quotes, the movie suggestions, the offers to lend an ear. Thanks for being there, thanks for the propping up, thanks for the love.

Thank you. Thanks you. Thank you.

It's been a long year, and the funk of self-doubt has loomed over every brushstroke and been an unwelcome sidekick for far too long. I see light through the fog now, and many of the folks I've met over the last couple months — not to mention those I already know — have been a huge factor in that. While I don't know that I'll ever be all sunshine and cartwheels (lets face it, I never really have been) I've been feeling noticeably less Eeyorean of late, which is encouraging. It helps, of course, that the days are growing longer, that the tax hoops have almost all been jumped through, and that I've ended up with a hunk of time in my lap to concentrate on a personal piece or two. But the fact is that two decisions I made in an attempt to deal with my dour headspace turned out to be instrumental in getting me out of my rut. The first was the post wherein I came clean about my feelings (link). The second was agreeing to go to three Magic tournaments over the last couple months.

During these appearances, I was thanked an awful lot. As much as I could, I offered my own thanks in return. As I see it, were it not for players, for fans, and for collectors, I simply would not be able to do this for a living. And were it not for my friends, colleagues, and the illustration community as a whole, the endeavor would be a lot harder and infinitely more lonely.

And so I thank you all so very much.

I'll be back tomorrow with some art updates.