Every month the Society of Visual Storytelling (SVS) runs a contest on their forum where illustrators are asked to create a piece of work based on a prompt word. I've been working on building my portfolio and the contest seemed like great motivation, plus, October's prompt was "misunderstood monster" which was right up my alley. Here's a little dive into my process as I went about making my illustration:
This was my first attempt at creating a large-scale digital illustration with a background and also my first time creating a complete composition since drawing class in college (~4 years ago). To prepare, I got onto svslearn.com and took a couple courses. I took Will Terry's creative composition class and 10-Step Digital Painting. Throughout this process you'll see me practicing some of the techniques taught in those corses. For me, the second half of the creative composition class is where I found the most value. Will goes through some tips for creating more dynamic compositions and developing a strong focal point. Then, he outlines a process for working up to a final composition from a thumbnail sketch. In this process he talks about taking the time in the sketching phase to solve your composition with value, which is something that I hadn't thought to do before but it really helped me develop a clear focal point in my illustration. I highly recommend this course if you are trying to level up your compositions!
Coming Up With a Concept
I was really excited to research different creatures and find one that would work with the theme "misunderstood monster." After some digging, I came up with two options, the Asp Turtle and the Donestre. The Asp Turtle is a giant sea turtle that moves so slowly that plants begin to grow on the top of it's shell as it floats at the ocean's surface. Sailors often mistake it for an island and doc on it's shell for the night. Their presence startles the turtle, causing it to dive and the sailors get swept up in the sea. On the other hand the Donestre is a guilty-hearted lion-human hybrid that can speak every language known to man. It uses this skill to lure travelers away from their parties where it devours all but their head, which it mourns with vigor. The Donestre hates its self and knows its actions are wrong but because of it's beastly instincts, it is doomed to repeat the infraction.
I though that the inner struggle of the Donestre would make a dynamic subject so that's the one that I decided to take on. I went into thumb-nailing... on a scrap piece of paper... which I lost so I can't show those to you (insert sad trumpet noise here). But here is the sketch I went with after I took a first pass at enlarging it:
The first thing I want to point out is the amount of rocks in this composition. It's like 75% of the picture. If you were to ask me the one thing that I struggle to draw the most, no doubt I would tell you it's rocks. They always end up looking like flat blobs of lines lacking any type of structure or detail. I have no idea what I was thinking. Anyway, the composition has the Donestre in a secluded cave where he weeps over the head of his latest meal surrounded by the skulls of dinners past. The viewer is peeping into the chamber through a narrow opening in the rock walls. Light is coming from an opening at the top of the cave. I looked at images of Hang Son Doong Cave in Vietnam as a reference, I really liked the structure of the rocks as well as the way the beams of light illuminated the cave walls. I tried to exaggerate the monster's sad expression and since tons of gore isn't really my thing I went with a minimal, cartoon-like representation of the severed head. I thought that this scene could be taking place in a different part of the cave from where he eats the travelers. In this scene, he's already devoured the body and cleaned himself up.
Solving the Composition with Value
My next step was to take my sketch into photoshop and quickly solve the composition with value. The eye is naturally drawn toward the lightest parts of a composition, the darkest parts of a composition, and the areas with the most contrast. The easiest way to create a strong focal point is to have a light figure on a dark background or a dark figure on a light background. My first instinct was to have the monster be light against the dark background of the cave (since caves are dark, right?). After working with it a little I began to see that the overall composition was going to be much too dark if I kept the cave walls dark. I decided to make the light source coming in from the top of the cave strong enough to light up the little chamber. The combination of the beams of light and the pile of skulls would create an area of light around the monster, which I kept darker to create a dark figure on a light background. I let the foreground rock walls remain dark since they would not be in the light, which created a nice frame for the scene.
Refine, Refine, Refine.
Usually I just doodle in my sketchbook until I find something I like, trace it over with pen, and call it a day. For this drawing, I spent several hours drawing, and redrawing my composition, making small tweaks each time. You can see in my first revision I fixed the arch of the Donestre's neck. I changed his shorts out for pants and boots that closer resembled medieval European times. I also gave the severed head a hat to try to imply the time period. I wanted to stay away from including a sword or armor since the Donestre goes after travelers, not knights. I also animated the skulls, giving them shocked, scared and angry expressions to add a little interest and a layer of story. I decided to close the monster's mouth in order to exaggerate the frown on his face, even thought I kinda liked all the teeth. In the second revision I fine-tuned the texture and added more detail to the rocks and skulls. I changed the lion mane to make it a little more droopy and less fluffy to reflect the monster's mood. At that time I also realized that I had no idea where the monster's near leg was going or how it was attached to the body so I redrew the foot and leg to look more natural.
More Value Studies and Color Studies
A technique that Will talked about in his 10 Step Digital Painting class was creating color compositions before going into your final paint. It helps with creating color harmony and allows you to try out a bunch of different pallets in a short amount of time before making a final decision. First, I refined my value study, then, I did a few thumbnails and I was drawn to the punchy colors of the last option. After receiving some feedback that the second yellow/gold thumbnail might work better to establish more of a fantasy vibe, I decided to try to take what I liked most about my last thumbnail and incorporate it into the more yellow option.
I added more of a cool shadow tot he foreground cave walls and the nooks between rocks, added a little more contrast the the lion by making his body more yellow and his mane more red instead of having his whole body a dark orange. using the cool purply-blue and the gold I tried to develop more of a warm glow around in the chamber and I ca, up with an option that I was happy with
The End in Sight
From there, I used the color study as reference to go into the final paint. Here are a couple process shots as I work toward the finished illustration.
I'm using the new year to double down on improving my illustration portfolio, expanding my list of finished dummies and manuscripts, and of course querying, querying, querying! Over the course of the next few months, I'll be participating in a couple challenges, showcases, and events to help me reach my goal of getting an agent and my first book deal.
I have always admired full-page children's book illustrations where the illustrator is able to cleverly incorporate the white of the page into the picture. I feel like sometimes I tend to over-illustrate, filling every square inch of the page with color and line so, recently, while I was working up ideas for the Prairie Writer's and Illustrator's Day illustration prompt, I challenged myself to try and incorporate more white space into my illustration.