Oil Painting Process: "Book Cover" Covers composition, color, and using reference

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    Oil Painting Process: "Book Cover" Covers composition, color, and using reference

    (This is an edited version of a thread originally posted in the It's Finally Finished forum)

    This is the cover for a YA novel from Random House about a teenage girl who is a war chief in Arthurian (5th century) Britain. Oil over acrylic on illustration board, 12"x16".
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    I've been posting here for over a year and a half without showing much work, so I thought I'd make up for it by doing a step by step run through of my process.

    This was actually the sequal to a book I did the cover for a few years ago.
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    The art director wanted a similar image, but they requested more color and action this time, and a different weapon. After reading through the manuscript I did a bunch of quick sketches. This is the one they picked.
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    I'd talked to the AD about what I was planning in terms of color, but just to be safe I did a color sketch in gouache and sent it to him for final approval before I went ahead.
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    Once I got an OK, the next step was getting reference. For figures, I like to have my shots done by a photographer in New York who specializes in reference photography for illustrators. He's got tons of costumes and props, and can get anything he doesn't have on hand. He shot about four rolls of film while I "directed". These are the two shots I ended up working from the most, the left for the head, the right for the arm and body.
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    To be continued...
    Next time: I actually get down to painting.

    Last edited by Sepulverture; November 25th, 2009 at 02:18 AM. Reason: Cleanup and re-organizing - Sepulverture

    Tristan Elwell
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    This is great!
    Finally, someone's using oils instead of digital. (jk, I love digital too.) How long did you have to paint this. It seems as though not many illustrators use oils now adays, cuz it takes too long to dry. Do you always work your illus. with oils?

    When you do your color comps, do you always do them in gouache? Which do you prefer and why, gouache or acrylic? Ive worked with acrylic and I sorta like it, but ive just recently started working with gouache and like it much more, but Ive heard that it's difficult to get saturated colors. Is this true? (sorry for the barrage of questions)

    Can't wait to see the wip!
    Btw, I love the design of your shapes and values.Simple and not too flashy, but effective.

    -iwasink

    -http://iwasink.com/-
    DS Illustration
    "Get reference.
    There is nothing wrong with using a photo to help you see things.
    No one complains about life drawing,
    so take a photo.
    its easy, and will improve your piece greatly."
     

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    OK, I'm back. I'll answer some of i.w.i's questions, then on to the WIP shots.

    I actually had over a month from the time this was assigned until I turned it in, but the actual painting took five days. Figure in time for reading the manuscript, research, sketches, and the photo shoot, and we're probably talking a week's work total. It's hard to say exactly, though, because I'm usually working on a bunch of projects at one time.

    Drying time isn't really an issue. There are all sorts of tricks you can use to pretty much get oils to dry as fast or slowly as you want. I paint thinly and use Liquin, so the paint dries overnight. Any faster than that and you loose one of the chief advantages of oils, the ability of the wet paint to be blended and manipulated over an extended period of time.

    Most of the time when I do a color rough I'll actually do it in oils too, and it will be even smaller and looser than this one. But it's pretty easy to go back and forth between oil and qouache, they have much more in common with each other than either does with acrylics. The color and value range of guache is more limited, because the pigment particles aren't suspended in a transparent vehicle (it has to do with refractive indices and all sorts of other esoteric stuff).


    Tristan Elwell
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    Day One: Compositing the reference and underpainting

    After the photo shoot I got the film processed at a one-hour photo place. I get 4x5 prints plus a cd of each roll. It's much easier to spread out and compare a bunch of prints, but with the cd I don't have to deal with scanning. The film scans also contain more information than the prints.

    I use Photoshop the same way I used to use a Xerox machine and Scotch tape. I took the head from the first shot and put it on the body from the second, rotating and scaling it so that it fit. I also angled her arm up a bit more. Using Curves, I flattened out the mid tones and brough the highlights out. This did funny things to the color (although if I had remembered to convert to LAB it wouldn't have), but since I wasn't relying on the photo's color anyway I just desaturated it so it wouldn't be distracting. Finally, I extracted the figure from the background. I enlarged my pencil sketch to the size of the painting (12"x16"), dropped the figure from the photos in, and played around with the scaling and placement til it looked right.
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    For my painting surface I really like Strathmore illustration board. Unlike most brands it's white paper all the way through, so its absorbs the water from acrylics or gesso more evenly and stays smoother. For strength, I attach it to a piece of 3/8" foam core cut to the same size by binding the edges with white artist's tape. I toned the board a maroonish color with a few thin layers of acrylic, building it up in washes until I was happy with the tone. Then I printed out my combined sketch/reference, traced out the landmarks, and tranferred it to the board with Saral graphite paper. The drawing was tightened up and then I started in with paint. The lights and darks were developed with washes of acrylic, using gesso for white and ivory black with a little purple mixed in. Finally, the whole thing was given a thin coat of matte medium to make sure the board was thoroughly sealed from the oil paint that was to follow.
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    Last edited by Elwell; May 4th, 2008 at 10:38 PM.

    Tristan Elwell
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    Day two: starting in with oil

    Now we can finally get to the fun stuff! With the basic value structure and drawing taken care of in the underpainting I can really concentrate on color and paint handling when I go in with oils. I started out with her face, because that was going to be the most important part and would probably require a couple of layers for refinement. Notice how I simplified the values from what was in the reference and brought the shadow from her brows over her eyes. I realized that the combination of the angle of her cape and the drawing of her jawline made it look like her head wasn't attached to her body, so I fixed that. While I had those colors mixed I went on to her arm. I then put in the sky. Normally I would have done that first, but I knew I was crunched for time and I needed to rest my hand on the sky area to paint the face. With some time left in the day I started to get some color on the tunic, bracer, and sword.
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    Last edited by Elwell; May 4th, 2008 at 10:39 PM.

    Tristan Elwell
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    Day Three: Background and figure

    I started the day by reworking the sky slightly, then put in the background spears. I went back into her face and hand a little bit, and started developing her hair. Then I began to concentrate on her clothing, working on her cloak, tunic, belt, and bracer (which I made a little bigger). Started work on the horse's hindquarters, the saddle, and her leggings, then called it a day.
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    Last edited by Elwell; May 4th, 2008 at 10:39 PM.

    Tristan Elwell
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    Day Four: Almost there...

    More small refinements to the face, background, and hair, then on to the clothing. I decided the color of the tunic wasn't quite right so I glazed it down slightly. Her lower leg is completely repainted, the sword blade is blocked in, then it's on to the horse and saddle. The horse's mane gets a lot of attention, and I realize I have to put her other arm in. The horse needs more structure than I've given it in the underpainting, so I spend my time blocking everything in loosely rather than focusing in on details. Hopefully I can finish off in one more day because it's DUE!
    Oil Painting Process: "Book Cover" Covers composition, color, and using reference


    Tristan Elwell
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    Day Five: Finishing up

    One more day before it has to get turned in and a near disaster strikes. When I try to paint the sword hilt I decide I hate Hate HATE the design (or lack thereof) and it has to be completely redrawn. This involves quite a bit of color matching to the background to accommodate the changed shape, but in the end it works out. Fortunately everything else goes smoothly. The scabbard is painted, the saddle finished up, and I spend the rest of the day concentrating on the horse, and even get some sleep.
    Oil Painting Process: "Book Cover" Covers composition, color, and using reference


    Tristan Elwell
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    Very cool ! This gives inspiration to get back into painting.
    By the way, does the photographer you're dealing with has a website or something ?

     

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    Quote Originally Posted by egerie
    By the way, does the photographer you're dealing with has a website or something ?
    No, he's a real old-timer, doesn't even have e-mail. Part of why I like working with him is that he's been doing this forever, so he's a real link to history and traditions of the field.


    Tristan Elwell
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    I'm glad you posted this. It's the first of your work where I noticed your name and resolved to seek out other work by you, as I liked it so much. Mostly, however, I'm glad you posted it for the chance to raise what may be a sensitive question, regarding a problem I see with much fantasy illustration, which tends to involve the depiction of a pre-modern, generally medieval milieu. The characters look more like modern people in dress-up than actual people of the period.
    I can't quite frame what there is about these depictions that suggests moderns in dress-up to me, except to say by comparison the figures of Jon Howe and Jon Rush look "period" where most other fantasy illustrator's figures don't, yours included.
    But is it even a problem?
    This work is a cover for a book about a teen-age girl in Arthur's day. The target audience, presumably modern teen-age girls, will relate to an image reflecting their experience, that's just good-sense marketing. This all assumes the anachronism is intentional, rather than an accidental by-product of using photo-reference, of painting in fact "a modern person in dress-up".
    After all this, I guess that's the question, is the anachronism intentional or accidental?

     

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    wow man, nice work! So refined and yet you work so small(imo). The sequel cover is my prefered but both are blatantly excellent.

    Random story(I hope it was you they were reffering to) : Went down to the local art store(I'm in New Zealand) to get some canvas and got chatting to the couple who had recently bought the place. Saw that he was busy working away on an illustration(very slick pencil piece) and so scooted on over to check it out. So we get talking for ages about illustration and turns out this guy knows his shit inside out and has STACKS(as in more than 2000 he tells me) of books on illustrators from past and present which gives me the preverbial hardon. Turns out his name is Jim Auckland(appropriate considering he's just moved to the city of Auckland) and was one of your old art teachers... atleast I think so!. Bizzare coincidence if I do say so myself. Been back a couple of times since and milled over some of his books and generally geeked out on the fact I've met (bar Rusty) someone who is into this stuff as much as I am.


    ..again, stunning work!

     

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    hi! Good work man, i especially like the fact you're using oils, I love traditionnal rendering! the suggestion of the background is well done, the red and the weapons gives us just what the mind needs to imagine all the warriors behind!
    I'm french, and I would like to know if american editors are giving you a lot of time to do your cover, because oil is so long to dry! And also Know how much is payed a cover , to compare with french editors... bye!

     

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    Cory Hinman-
    You raise an interesting point. I agree that a lot of F/SF illustration can appear too reference bound, and it's something I'm guilty of sometimes myself, even as I work against it. I know that I always find it somewhat distracting when I recognize models, costumes, or props in an illustration, and it's only gotten worse as publishing has tended more and more towards what are essentially photo manipulations for covers. I generally try for as much accuracy as I can in a historical piece (within the demands of the picture), but there is a certain specificity to working with models and photos that can work against a feeling of timelessness. On the other hand, when it works, the right models, props, lighting, etc, can give you things you never would be able to invent.

    Lukias-
    I know Jim Aukland's work, but I never studied with him. Pump him for all the info you can, though, he knows his stuff!

    keul-
    I think I touched on a bunch of your questions on the first page. Drying time isn't really an issue the way I paint because of the acrylic underpainting, keeping the layers thin, and using a drying medium. It's very rare for the paint not to be touch dry in twelve hours or so. As for prices, I think on average U.S. rates are higher than in Europe because the market is larger.

    Last edited by Elwell; May 4th, 2008 at 10:22 PM.

    Tristan Elwell
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  18. #15
    Ellingsworth Guest
    Awesome stuff, Elwell. I have sort of a strange question, do you actually read all the books you paint the covers for? Yeah, I know. Silly question.

     

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    this pictures are looking very good!!

    but i have a question about your process. i mean staying so very close to your photo-reference looks not very creative to me.
    you would save time overpainting the photo in corel painter or ps. the result in print would make no big difference.
    i don´t want to say you where chaeting. i only want to know if it´s the artdirector telling you to have it that photo-look-like... -or is there a reason you are doing so?
    don´t get me wrong, it´s no crit on your process only a question.

     

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    The frontshot spear one is jawesome and the steps by steps are great. Do you ever transfer to digital? maybe to try/test quick alternatives?

    Alex

     

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    Ellingsworth-
    It depends on the project. Sometimes I'm given a very specific brief spelling out exactly the scene/concept the client wants for a cover, with descriptions of characters, costumes, setting, etc. Other times I'm simply given a manuscript, and my job is to read it and generate cover ideas. And anything in between those two extremes is also possible. Given the choice, I like to have a manuscript even if I also have an editor's/AD's brief, simply because there have been times in the past when I've caught errors in the materials I was given. Also, editors aren't necessarily visual people, and may not pull the same information I would from a manuscript. Although covers have to be prepared so far in advance for marketing purposes these days, that there have been times where I've done paintings for books that haven't even been written yet.

    Arne S.-
    I'm sure someone could save time working that way, but I would have to completely relearn my process at this point. At some point in the future I may decide to, or be forced to, switch over to working 100% digitally, but at the moment I'm so busy that I can't take the time off it would require to teach myself how. I won't argue with your opinion on creativity, but I will say that the creative process starts long before the brush hits the board, and if I'm doing a job that requires shooting reference, then I consider research, choosing models and costumes, and directing the shoot part of that process. Also, not every job requires or warrants a shoot; probably about 50% of my figure work is invented.

    alxcote-
    I know my way around Photoshop pretty thoroughly, but I basically use it for preliminary work and "post-production." I'll scale and combine reference material, and play around with color palettes, but I do very little digital painting as such. And when a job is finished I'll scan, clean up, and color correct it. Occasionally if I have to do major changes on a finished piece I'll paint them separately and patch them in in PS.


    Tristan Elwell
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    thanks for your answer.
    creative process starts long before the brush hits the board
    yes, you are definitely right. i wasn´t thinking about.

     

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    Thanks Elwell,

    Definately interesting to see your process, you're obviously great with handling traditional media, laying out successful compositions for print etc, It's interesting to see the level to which you work with reference too.

    I have to say that your work fails a bit (in my most humble opinion) when it comes to appeal and excitement. All the technical rendering in the world can't make a bored looking character feel exciting.

    I'd say your previous cover is more successful in that the character has a look that matches the feel of the piece... it being a more subdued scene. For an action shot like this new cover, the character doesn't look fully engaged.

    If the AD wants more action, give them ACTION! This girl looks like she could almost be yawning. Open her mouth more so she looks like she's actually giving a battle-cry. Arch her eyebrows and give her wild eyes that tell us she's charging into an arthurian-style melee that could be her last. Have her standing up a bit in the stirrups like she's on a charging horse instead of sitting on a wooden pommel horse in a photography studio. Push the expression so that your potential readers can feel her excitement and will want to be as excited when they read. What you've done instead is perfectly reproduce the image of your model's bad acting.

    I would say for you, this will have to start with your reference shoot, since you are directing them, it is within your power to get more excitement out of your models.
    Seriously... give your models 4 redbulls or a triple espresso before the shoot or something! Liven it up, play some death metal with the volume on 11, yell at them, get them PUMPED!

    You've got the technical ability, and while you may be a bit "reference bound" you are still directing your own photo reference, all you have to do to make your pieces more alive is too push your models (or not book them at 6 am) and if that fails, practice drawing some bolder, more expressive faces on your own.

     

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    I really like the sense of 'completeness' about these. Without being over polished they have have a welome feeling of being resolved.
    Interesting what you were saying about the problem of achieving 'timlessness' when using reference closely. There is a sort of reverse problem when working without any reference at all whereby the work sometimes displays a rather disconcerting 'insular' claustrophobia that is the result of ones own 'quirks' becoming distracting. As you say, the most satisfying feeling is when there is a marriage between one's own formal invention and the suprises that overwhelm us when trying to come up with equivalents for the 'stylessness' of mother nature.

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    Very interesting.

    I'm actually surprised by how little drawing there is or research on the values, those being replaced by the photo work and by tracing directly on the board. I understand that this is to save time and to add realism but the final painting curiously seems to have anatomy problems, with the torso and legs too short (is it because of the camera lens?).

    I know some people are going to tell me tracing photos and referencing colors or values from them is perfectly normal, but at the same time people like Marko D don't do it, so it seems to me more like a clumsy crutch that ends up producing stiff images.
    Nothing very wrong with that cover but it looks always too posed and stiff to me.

    Feel free to ignore me. Don't want to rain on the parade.

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    Simply stunning!

    Beautiful to see how u don t copy your reference but rather use it as a source of inspiration. U made her more beautiful then she already is in the picture. Thats the way people schould work on HQ pieces imo.

    Black_fish:
    people like Marko D don't do it, so it seems to me more like a clumsy crutch that ends up producing stiff images.
    Nothing very wrong with that cover but it looks always too posed and stiff to me.
    I don't think u can compare those two: Marko works for Marvel wich has to be verry dynamic. I don't think Elwell need such dynamic poses for a book cover...
    And besides I'm sure Marko uses refs also from time to time. It would b foolish not to do. In the sence that making use of refs. (like looking in a mirror for the hands or a global pose) saves alot of time...

    Bravo Elwell! *****

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    you're awesome! I saw you lecture in upstate NY a couple of years ago in a library, your stuff is killer in person. this is great, thanks!
    one question, instead of doing gouache sketches, wouldn't it be faster to do all the prelim stuff in photoshop?

     

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    For questions and comments, you can post in the original thread here.

    Last edited by Elwell; May 4th, 2008 at 10:49 PM.

    Tristan Elwell
    **Finished Work Thread **Process Thread **Edges Tutorial

    Crash Course for Artists, Illustrators, and Cartoonists, NYC, the 2013 Edition!

    "Work is more fun than fun."
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    "Art is supposed to punch you in the brain, and it's supposed to stay punched."
    -Marc Maron
     

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