Earlier this week I posted this painting “Cursed by the Cthaeh”, a portrait of Kvothe Kingkiller from Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicle. Today I want to show you how I made it. If you think this painting came easy, it didn’t. It’s been a long time coming, and here’s the full story.
Step 1: Understanding the Concept
I try to research the subject I’m illustrating because starting out well-informed leads to both inherently better visual storytelling and clues that readers familiar with the story will recognize. For those who haven’t yet read this series, I highly recommend both The Name of the Wind and Wise Man’s Fear. They’re excellent reads and I find there’s more to uncover each time I read them. Without spoiling anything major, I’ll just hint that it’s a tragic story of Kvothe’s rise and downfall, and his downfall begins at this moment when he meets the Cthaeh in its tree. Other elements include a cloak made of shadows, a pin of silver pipes, light blue flowers in the tree, red butterfly wings below the tree, an ancient sword, a lute, and of course Kvothe’s flame red hair.
Step 2: Sketching
I began with a very rough figure drawing, pictured in the upper left. By this point I had already done the research into the clothing I wanted to reference and just needed to add Kvothe’s personality and mood into this scene. He’s a heroic character, so I began with a hero’s pose and used a wonderful cloak reference to visualize my first idea. I decided that it wouldn’t make sense for him to stand there posing under the tree, so I revised the sketch and drew him walking towards us and away from the tree. Above, you’ll see my transition from that first rough sketch of Kvothe into something more refined and finally loosely sketching out the Cthaeh’s tree behind Kvothe.
For the tree reference, I researched ancient gnarly European oaks and java willow trees. They have powerful twisting branches and roots that seem to reach everywhere, like dead spider legs or octopus tentacles. Placing the tree and Kvothe together like this makes it look like the tree is trapping him in its roots and branches, and as if knot in the tree is the Cthaeh’s eye or portal through which it speaks to those unfortunate souls who draw close enough.
Step 3: Value and Color Swatches
One of the best pieces of advice I learned about composition was to clearly define the foreground, middle ground, and background clearly with both value and color. I experimented with a few graphic combinations and settled on No. 4 and F. Placing Kvothe as the darkest shape against a light background centers the focus on him and places the Cthaeh’s tree further in the background while allowing me to hint that the tree has symbolically cast a shadow over him. And one of Kvothe’s most iconic features is his hair, so I chose my colors to compliment it. I also decided on a color for the ground plane that was in the same family as his shadow cloak because I wanted it to feel like it was melting into the ground.
Step 4: Setting up Value Structure and Basic Color
At this stage, I wasn’t worried about perfect mark-making or blending, just setting roughing out the color and values. I kept to a dark pallet for Kvothe and played with a gradient for the background.
Above, I brought the tree sketch back in and adjusted its placement in relation to Kvothe.
Next I played with ideas for the tree, letting a swirly mist creep out of it, but in the next step I discarded the idea. Kvothe also went through some changes here. I received great feedback from my mentor, Chad Weatherford, that I would tell the story better if Kvothe were looking over his shoulder and visually reinforcing his relationship to the tree. I also went back to my references and chose a specific actor to “play” Kvothe in my mind’s eye.
Step 5: Color!
At this point I stopped selecting colors from the pallet and just sampled them from the canvas with the color picker. I spent time developing the mid-ground and background, the tree, and underlying colors. I also began to mask out part of Kvothe’s shadowcloak to reveal the ground and roots behind him. Lastly, I painted out an extra tree branch so that the two remaining ones would make a frame around Kvothe’s head and I could let light break through the tree branches to draw more focus on him.
My background is with traditional paints so I like to work from dark to light. At this stage I brought in some lighter colors, especially around Kvothe. Then I added a few photo textures of roots, bark, and moss into the picture on Overlay layers and continued to paint over those. I also decided to open up Kvothe’s body still more to the tree and switched his posture. Here, his right foot and left hand are forward as he walks towards us. I was also mindful to switch which side his sword hung on and continued to render and develop him, including his wonderful flame-like hair. I used a layer mask to vanish more of his shadow cloak and added rim light not only to illuminate Kvothe but to add a lost and found line where the edge of his cloak ends and catches the light.
I added more overlapping foliage and rim lighting and defined the edge of the hill. I also drew on other colors from the scene to suggest distant parts of the forrest and to unify Kvothe with his environment. I think the faint conte-like marks give it an ethereal quality, which is perfect for a scene that happens in the fae realm.
Step 6: Lighten it Up
It was time to bring in the lighter values and unify the piece, revealing more of the underlying colors. I did this in layers – there’s a gradient of color that fades from dark and more opaque from the bottom to lighter and more transparent at the top, which also helps unify Kvothe in the foreground with the rest of the scene. I also lightened up the tree and the background behind it to reveal more colors, but was mindful to make them lighter than Kvothe in order to stay true to my original value plan. Lastly, I softened the texture of the canopy of leaves in the background and faded some of the branches out to show more depth.
Step 7: The Finishing Touches
The final details are best seen in close-up. Until this point I had worked zoomed out so that I could see the whole piece at once, but when it comes to the details like these, and the three most important areas of the piece, I zoomed in and spent more time rendering. In the first close-up you can see how I refined Kvothe’s expression and facial features, particularly shaping his nose and the crease between his brows. In the next close-up, I added details like the red butterfly wings on the ground and light blue flowers in the tree (both were story elements from the book, and both colors I drew from elsewhere in the painting). I thought about adding a live butterfly either on Kvothe’s shoulder or by the “eye”of the tree, but it was too distracting. Finally in the last close-up I finished the “eye” to give it more character.
This week in Noah Bradley’s Art Camp we’re studying figures, gestures, and flesh tones, and one of the assignments is a long digitally painted color study of a full figure. I highly recommend this class to anyone who wants to level up their digital painting skills, especially for professional illustration or concept art.
I chose to reference Jenni, from Art Models 7: Dynamic Figures for the Visual Arts. This book is full of amazing model reference photos in dynamic poses and comes with a CD in which every gesture is photographed from 360 degree angles. She posed with another model, Misha, as if slain by her, but I concentrated on just Jenni and painted Misha out. I included the reference photo below so that you can see not only how closely I matched it, but also the quality of the photographs on the CD. I highly recommend adding this book to your collection.
Tracing is not allowed in Noah’s class, and we’re only allowed to use photographs later in the program after practicing drawing from life. In this I referenced a photo, while I studied the relationships between the different shapes. It was fun to try drawing Jenni with her face upside-down – and this time I didn’t flip the canvas vertically to check my work – I wanted to practice painting people from different angles.
Sometimes I practice figure drawing and painting when the models are clothed so that I can study how they drape on the model and the different materials and textures people weare. But nude figure studies are also helpful for studying all of the musculature and what’s going on underneath the layers of cloth. So it’s a trade-off. This particular study is also preparation for an personal project I’ll be making later, based on a nightmare I had recently, for which I’ll need a nude reference.
I’ve been developing the design of Kvothe, the main character in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicle, for my thesis project dedicated to visually developing the story for game pre-production. Above are my color experiments for Kvothe as an adult. It’s helpful to make quick study of color combinations in the process of visual development before creating the final character painting. I chose these color combinations to compliment his hair, which is described as flame red. Some of the combinations are simple monochrome or complimentary, others schemes include more colors. Sometimes the simplest combinations are the most striking.
If you’d like to check out this wonderful series, start with The Name of the Wind here:
The Name of the Wind (Kingkiller Chronicles, Day 1)
…then proceed directly to book 2:
The Wise Man’s Fear (Kingkiller Chronicles, Day 2)
The overall shape, the silhouette, is the primary and most powerful way to identify an object, type of person, or creature. The ability to quickly pick out meaning from silhouettes, such as whether the thing we saw would help, nourish, or hurt us. Shapes are a kind of language that we learned first to identify, and eventually to communicate with. As artists, we need to learn this language and, how to manipulate it, to design effectively. Likewise, one helpful tip for testing if your design is clear is to look only at its silhouette and see if you (or better yet, if someone nearby) can tell what it is.
Silhouettes are created not only by strong, clear, shapes, but also contrast between those shapes and their background. That’s where negative space comes in – the shape that is not the subject itself, but what surrounds and contrasts with it.
Above are examples of strong silhouettes created by masters from the Golden Age of Illustration. From left to right are examples from JC Leyendecker, NC Wyeth, and Mead Schaeffer. At that time, artists were creating art for periodicals which needed to be quick reads (as opposed to paintings that would hang on a wall and be admired for a length of time). That meant that the artist would need to create silhouette shapes that viewers/readers could recognize very rapidly. They are great to study from.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned about creating strong silhouettes (and therefore strong paintings) is to put dark things against light things and light things against dark things. That’s why Leyendecker tended to use white backgrounds, many artists like NC Wyeth choose to shape clouds around key subjects, or shine light behind them as Mead Schaeffer did here. And where shapes overlap, such as in Leyendecker’s painting, there is clear contrast – the lady’s pale skin against the gentleman’s coat. Leyendecker also made sure there were holes in the silhouette shapes, such as the crook of the gentleman’s arm and gaps between him and the lady and the lady and the flowers. NC Wyeth and Mead Shaeffer in these examples also placed different colors against each other to create clear silhouette shapes. Shapes, and character gestures, can be pushed and pulled to character traits as well – the lady in Leyendecker’s painting on the left has a larger head than is realistic, but it emphasizes her sweet child or doll-like traits.
Angelo Bronzino (1503-1572), who’s real name was Agnolo di Cosimo, was a Florentine Mannerist era painter. The painters of this era were known for breaking the established rules of Renaissance Europe painting and emphasizing artifice over nature. Stylistically, his work has an intellectual sophistication and seems to emphasize compositional tension and instability (such as the way the lady in the lower right holds her book open) rather than balance as in earlier Renaissance painting. Though realistic in their rendering, his execution of Mannerist painting feels detached and unemotional, even cold. At times the expressions on his noblemen portraits (often belonging to the great Medici family) seem stoic or haughty. The arrangement, poise, and quality of rendering of all details clearly communicate the wealth and nobility of his patrons.
By creating these compositional master studies, I learned how Bronzino arranged his sitters in regal postures and the values and colors behind them to focus the viewer on the shoulders and face. I also noticed the same elements repeated, such as the scrolling curved-arm chair and narrow black book often used as props. I spent less time on each of these studies as I have with previous ones, challenging myself to capture the composition and important details and textures with less time. It provided excellent practice mimicking shape and values as well as edge control.
Though born to American parents in 1856, John Singer Sargent began painting under a leading French artist named Carolus-Duran, who emphasized painterly freedom and study of the works of Frans Hals, Rembrandt, Sir Anthony van Dyke, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and the Spanish master Diego Velázquez. Though he painted and won acclaim for genre scenes and subject pictures, the demand for portrait commissions defined his reputation.
Through these greyscale composition studies and color studies I get a feel for how he wove impressionist techniques he may have learned through association with Claude Monet while focusing with more realism on key areas like the face and hands in these portraits. In this way, the impressionistic style compliments the realism and enhances it.
Title: Study of Daenerys Targaryen
Size: 8.5″ x 11″
Notes: This is a study of Daenerys Targaryen I worked on from a still frame of the final scene of HBO’s Game of Thrones Season 1. In this scene rises from the funeral pier cradling three newly hatched dragons. I chose this to study this shot in order to practice my digital painting skills – particularly rendering form and texture – and because I hadn’t yet painted a dragon.
I started with a lineart sketch with the scratchboard pen, then rendered the forms with dull conte, worn oil pastel, and a touch of digital airbursh with generous blending – all in Corel Painter. Working in greyscale first helps me concentrate on getting the lighting and forms right before I introduce color. I took some small liberties with the design and adjusted the lighting slightly in order to make Daenerys and her dragon read better.
Title: Self Portrait
Size: 8.5″ x 14″
Notes: This piece was an exercise applying new techniques I recently learned for digital painting, in particular when applied to portraits. I thought it would be wise to try this out on a portrait of myself before applying it to a family member, friend, or client. In the end it was a wonderful opportunity to experiment with brushes I hadn’t used before and learn to create digital portraits more efficiently. I was also surprised by much of what I’ve learned from traditional oil painting worked for the digital medium – it really goes to show how interconnected the disciplines of art are!
I’ve also included the draft sketch as a before-and-after glimpse at my process. It also served as the first layer of the painting. Big thanks to my friends and fellow classmates, especially Ideation: AAU’s Production Art Community, for their excellent feedback to help kick this up a notch!
Alex is available for freelance, internship, and contract positions. If you would like to work together, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alex Bond grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, studied Psychology at Reed College in Portland Oregon, and completed a thesis project on Internet RPGs before discovering it was a lot more fun to draw cool things for the entertainment industry herself. She returned to the Bay Area in to earn her MFA in Illustration at the Academy of Art University and pursue a career in art. Her splendid knowledge about people, creatures, and history; her mad research skills; and excellent team playing nature are assets on any project.
Alex is passionate about the potential of digital art and interactive entertainment, and is deeply interested in the growth of both mediums. She believes art in the application of games serves to immerse the audience in a character’s point of view and is constantly searching for ways to enrich these mediums. She brings a unique and diversified perspective to her career as a digital concept artist, matte painter and compositing artist combined with regular jaunts out of the studio to practice traditional plein air painting.