31 January 2010

Steampunk: Made The Old Fashioned Way

Pen and ink illustration for Steampunk Magazine.
{ click on the image for a closer look }

Getting back to my old love, Drawing, I set to making the final for this piece in pen and ink. I may have discovered something in the process that is unexpected, and it has to do with time. Basically because the technique of working this way requires long streches of time and concentrated focus, the mind tends get kind of "free." I found that there were unique thoughts surfacing through out the project while I was deep in the process, things that surprised me. I managed to capture one that goes like this:

"'CONCEPT' can be a guiding light during the process of creation. Each choice may not be apparent in the end result, and it doesn't need to be. In this way artistic intent can be infused in the work."

Now, those who know me will know that I am prone to a "loose" thought process, but this kind of thing even gives me pause for a moment.

I don't know if it's true or not, I don't know if it's universal. I do know that it seemed true in the moment, and that it feels like the real art work is being done, ever so gently washing over and through my thoughts.

The nuts and bolts scoop on the image itself is that it is for an article about Steampunks in today's society, at least that's part of a brief synopsis that I received. I decided to use nib pens and ink to work towards an old fashioned feel. It works with the subject matter, as well as being something that can't be done on the computer. { however it is not clear how well pen and ink 'reads' on the computer screen... good thing this is for print! } Much like a Steampunk Atlas, our craftsman has the weight of the world on his mind, but focuses his attention on the work at hand.

Much thanks goes out to the folks at Steampunk Magazine for including me in their publication. We're all looking forward to seeing issue #7 hit the stands!

Prints of this image are available upon request, please email me here.
Link to more pen and ink work from me
here, here, and here.
Link to Steampunk Magazine

19 January 2010

Perceptions: Finding Value in Mood and Tone

This post is the result of two different conversations with two different friends that I've had in the past few months. In conversation one; my friend said to me that one of the best ways to solve your own problems in life is to find somebody else, give them advice, and then follow it yourself. I don't doubt that he was talking about me to me.

In conversation two my friend and I were talking about our personal voice in illustration, I recommended to her that she take a closer look at the work that inspires and influences her, and examine them for all the qualities that she liked. In other words, the "why," as in "Why do you like that piece of art?" In doing this that she would be able to see the continuous thread that ran through all these disparate images, and that thread would be her personal preferences, her aspirations. Expanding out from there, she would be able to strengthen her own works by explicitly understanding her influences. Simple, right?

So, you see, this post is me, taking my own advice, and hauling some art into the light, expressing my perceptions of them in an effort to reveal qualities which I endeavor to imbue in future illustrations.

Mood and Tone; The concept

Two artists who are wonderful in the conveyance of Mood and Tone are John Jude Palencar and Alfred Hitchcock. Both of whom are able to create intense, and sometimes somber, moods in their works. I've been a fan of John Jude Palencar's work for quite some time, however it is rarely the subject matter he chooses which captivates me, but it is the way he portrays things, his technique, pallet, and composition. Which add up to the creation of specific moods through out his work. So, it is his use of the tools at hand which he chooses to express himself that I admire.

Because John Jude Palencar's expressions are often psychologically charged, that, I thought a nice companion artist would be Alfred Hitchcock. True, Alfred Hitchcock works in a different medium, but he incorporates many of the same tools to create the myriad of moods and tones in his work. He is a Master of composition, in the use of lights and darks, and also in his ability to imbue a psychological tension into his pieces. For this side by side comparison we'll be looking at a still image from Psycho that I pulled off the web, along with an image from John Jude Palencar's website. I should pause here to thank Mr. Palencar for his express permission to use his work here, as well as to credit the Opera Company of Philadelphia who originally commissioned the Madame Butterfly piece that we'll be looking at. Links to these sites can be found at the bottom of this post, please check them out after your done reading.**

"Put light colors next to light colors and dark colors next to darks, then where you want the viewer to descend, put dark next to light." ~ Harvey Dunn.

This succinct sentence holds the cornerstone to quality illustrations, and the nature of communicating with images. Part of what Harvey Dunn is talking about here is a strong value structure. A strong value structure is absolutely essential towards crafting and communicating with an image. If that structure isn't there, the picture will be confusing and ineffective. As artists we are communicators, and through the conscious use of the tools at hand it becomes possible to communicate those ineffable qualities of life, rendering visible the invisible.

Pretty heady stuff, but there is a simple way to view this as well:

To start with let's open ourselves to the wholeness of these terms, as they encapsulate multifaceted concepts.

Mood can be a slippery idea to get our hands on. People talk about mood all the time, but what are they really saying, what is a mood? As a working definition let's agree that mood refers to an emotional state of mind. We can talk about moods like, Joy, Elation, or their counterparts, Sadness, or Melancholy. One might go so far as to say that Joy and Elation could be described as being "light" moods, where as Melancholy and Sadness might be "darker" moods. It is this critical connection which follows through to Tone and Value.

Tone can be defined in lyrical terms. We can talk about Tone in musical terms; low and high, soft and hard, or quiet and loud. Consider the "tone" of songs by The Talking Heads, the Grateful Dead, Tool, Sonic Youth, or Alison Krauss. In most cases each song tells a story of sorts, and the tone of the song can put you in the mood of the song. Just for example take the simple story; boy meets girl. How many times have you heard that one! But, depending upon the tone of the song, it could be the blues, or a cosmic metaphor. The tones clue us into the mood. Perhaps not coincidentally, in the visual arts Tone also refers to the general effect of light and shade in a piece. Another way to say the same thing is that Tone refers to the general effect of the value structure in a piece.

Value, can be defined not only in terms of a relationship of dark to light, but also in our relationship to ideas. Ideas that we either judge to be, in it's simplest terms, good and bad, right and wrong, etc. Now, as you will have well learned by the time you are able to read this, there is a lot of gray area between these two extremes! That metaphor, the transition from dark to light, is best shown visually as a value scale.

So, I hope that you are now able to begin to see the line of connection that exists between Mood, Tone, and Value. They can all be descriptors for a piece of work, and as creators these become our tools with which we are able to draw out emotional cues in our work. After all, the very essence of life is a constant flux between extremes, it is not by any means monotonous, or of one tone.

The Images

There are many ways that an artist can communicate visually. For the sake of this post, we are going to focus on the value structures of each piece, and leave hue, saturation, and texture for another time. Therefore, I've shown the images with histograms next to them to give us a linear way to think about the value structures of the pieces. A histogram is basically a graph that describes black to white on the X axis, and intensity on the Y axis. This is a good tool to examine not only other's work, but your own as well.

This is John Jude Palencar's "Madame Butterfly" which was originally commissioned by the Opera Company of Philadelphia. Please take note of the histograms to the right of the image which show a heavy dose of darks. {you can click on any of the images to see them larger in a new window.}

To adjust our vision towards dealing with value, and for the moment forsaking his beautiful pallet, a gray scale version of the same image. Notice that the image still communicates very clearly. Try to become aware of the sense you get about the painting.

The thing that is most notable to me in this image is the sense of isolation. Her face is literally highlighted, which not only emphasizes her expression, but graphically sets her apart from the muddled and dark space in which she exists. Here, Palencar has adhered to the same strategy as was mentioned in the earlier quote by Harvey Dunn. If we take a moment to pause, and consider the value structure we can recognize that the majority of the image is dark, that is to say more than 50% gray. Even the highlights on the hair is around 50% gray! While most of the edges in the pieces are delineated by a shift in value, there's a lot of detail that is left to sink into the darkness. This is a very effective method for highlighting details and areas of focus, and allowing other areas that are not of as much importance to simply be implied. It is also an effective way to set the tone of the piece.

Can we expand the concept here and make the leap to viewing the value structure as a narrative element? Would it be correct to assume that Madame Butterfly has a lighter, or higher value ( value in the sense here of moral value ) than her surroundings? Is she a beacon of light in an otherwise dark place? I can only assume so, since I have yet to see the play. These kinds of unfolding meanings are through the linkage of Value, Tone, and Mood. When we take a moment to analyze good work, we can begin to play with these concepts of, in this case, isolation, moral standing, and an overall tone for the play.

Next, I've chosen to take a look at this still from Hitchcock's Psycho for it's similarity on the whole, of emotional and psychological tension. While the media is different I find that there are some good connections between the two images.

Here's Marion Crane. In this still she's been driving all day, tailed by a cop, and finally into the night. The whole scene is quite nice as it comes to this point, and slowly all light around her starts to vanish, save the dashboard light, which highlights her face. Also, notice the histogram at the right side of the image.

In both of these images we have an illuminated face set in a dark space. Setting aside for a moment the huge amount of emotional information transmitted by their expressions, we still can understand the mindscape, the tone of these two images, which is remarkably similar.

The space and light become descriptors, not just of the forms as they are but also of the overall mood. As the histograms show us, there's a heavy dose of darks in each of these pictures. In fact I don't actually think that there is any pure white at all in the image of Marion Crane. {poor Marion, we all know how this ends.} We can begin to generate our own associations with what the dark represents as a metaphor. Who wasn't afraid of the dark when they were a child? It's the unknown and we tend to fear.

Also, the darks can be a visual cue towards an inner space, towards introspection as a result of the isolation. This is accented by the image of the seemingly detached floating heads. The heads become symbols. It seems to me that both the images are pointing at an emotional state of mind, or mood, of isolation, of surrounding darkness, and a moral position. I wouldn't go so far as to say that these two pictures are implying the same state of mind here. The faces communicate quite the contrary. However, in working within the line of thinking about the Mood, Tone, and Value of the images, they are very similar, which is to say that both of the artists have utilized their tools in a similar way to help lead the viewer towards what it is that is being communicated.

We can get a sense from both of these images about the ideas that the artists are communicating with us; the sense of isolation and drama, of introspection, the moral and mental state of the characters. The foundations for these moods are rooted in a strong value structure, and build upon this foundation are more nuanced emotional details, transmitted through the faces of the characters. While there are a great many more details and decisions that have going into these two images, their foundations are very similar, and as with many illustrations which strive to communicate beyond the obvious and into the deeper realms of meaning, one must work with value to establish a concordance of tone and mood.

I hope that this journey has been of some benefit to you, and that you may take a second, third or more looks at you favorite artist, regardless of their medium. The pictures are talking, we only need to listen.

** Again I want to thank John Jude Palencar for his kindness in allowing me to use his work here, please find out more about him and visit his site { weblink here }

If you are interested in stills of Alfred Hitchcock check it out { weblink here }

If you'd like to see where I've started to utilize these concepts in my own work, look here and here.

12 January 2010

Book Cover: Pike

This is the second of the two book covers that I was asked to do for PM Press. Amazingly this piece was a great sounding board for the other piece The Chieu Hoi Saloon. Both pieces were a lot of fun to work on, and they provided a great point and counterpoint to work between. For instance this piece for Pike called for a cold harsh feeling, where as The Chieu Hoi Saloon required something warmer, although still gritty.

It was that "gritty" aspect that was one of the major challenges that I had to work with. Considering that often times watercolor, as a medium, tends to be softer and smoother. So, to build in some good ol' Noir Grit was a challenge. With this piece in particular you'll notice that I've spattered a lot of paint about, some to be the falling snow, and some to just be noisy on the picture plane.

Here is the progression from one of the initial concepts to final sketch. I was initially drawn to this concept for it's graphic quality. I liked the stark tree as an emblem of this character's family tree, that it would be desolate, broken, and dark, it's seen dormant during the wintertime. While the story's main character is actually Pike { for whom the book is named }, the character of the estranged grand-daughter, Wendy, is actually the epicenter of the story. She provides the touch stone between the main character and the mystery of his daughter's death. You can read more about my initial thoughts from the first blog post here.

Here is the expanded final sketch which shows both the front and back panels for the book. I had some fun putting that little wispy weed at the bottom of the spine. That's totally just for fun, I like books that have a tiny picture on the spine. Given the chance to do more book covers, I can see really pushing that tiny spine illustration.

When moving from here to the finish, I knew that one aspect that I wanted to show in both this and the other cover, was that the piece should be something that couldn't be created on the computer. I wanted it to be expressly "a painting." There just seems to be so many great up and coming artists working digitally that I don't even want to compete with them, so my answer is to create a something that is wholly original and difficult to do digitally. So, in this piece that is evident in the sky. The washes, upon washes are ripe with accidents and recoveries { I'll leave it to you to find those! } I found myself thinking a lot about the skies in pieces that I've seen by Sir Russel William Flint. While I wasn't directly looking at his work, it is strange to me that it would just emerge that way.

As with any piece of work, in hindsight I look back and see areas that could be stronger, but that is what the next piece is for! Stay Tuned, and thanks for reading along.

10 January 2010

Book Cover: The Chieu Hoi Saloon

January has been a very good month, 2 book covers ~ DONE!

The past few weeks have been quite eventful. there was the Holidays, followed by New Year's eve, sprinkle in t he social events, and you've got a busy month. Some where in all that, I made time to paint 2 cover paintings for the "Switchblade Series," from PM Press. As I mentioned in my previous post , Santa brought me a great gig doing 2 book covers. I am happy to say that both covers are done and on time.

The books are stories that were outside the scope my personal work, and so I was challenged to come up with images that would be appropriate for the stories. The cover shown here is for The Chieu Hoi Saloon. The other image will be posted separately.

The folks at PM Press were very nice to work with, and they allowed me full reign on these pieces. In turn I did my best to deliver work that would be conceptually strong and technically well done. I feel good about both those aspects, but as always, there's room to grow.

Here you can begin to see the genesis of the work. I submitted a couple of concepts that were generated off of the initial brief that was sent to me. The thumbnail I chose to use has strong graphic appeal, and speaks to the story with in. As I look at other cover artists whom I admire, I am often really attracted to work that, while based in the literature, resists being literal. This is not the contradiction that it may seem to be. My endeavor is to allow room in the image for mood and tone to creep in. Bearing all this in mind, I felt that this image would work the best.

Next was to expand the image from just a cover image to a wrap-around cover.
I struggled with a few things in this image. One was the gun in the shadow. For a long time I wanted to put something in the character's hand that would possibly cast a "gun-ish" shadow. Then at some point, I remembered that this is an illustration, and not a photograph! It's funny that I should have to give my self permission to do that, but hey that's life. Another area that I worked on was the perspective, you'll notice in the sketch that the street light in the upper left corner moves from the sketch to the final. I realized that if the guy is walking and casting his shadow that way that everything else in the image should be the same. In that way the internal logic of the image wouldn't be broken.

I am very thankful for the opportunity to do these book covers and hope that it will lead to many, many more such wonderful gigs!

Check out the companion image: "Pike"

05 January 2010

Rush Job

Yippee! 2010 is starting off wonderfully. A good client of mine contacted me for a rush job to spruce up their product information page. I had about 1 day to work on it. Everything went very smoothly, and I was especially grateful for the new brush pen that my sister gave to me for Christmas that allowed me just to flow from rough pencils to inked final. There was some additional challenge to create a readable flow with the bulk of information that had to be presented.

You can see the end result on the Ring Thing's Product Page. My initial contact with this project was noted as A Quick Fling, earlier on this blog. The astute reader will note that much of the graphics for their poster ended up being used for their website.

Still working on the book covers, those should be up by next week. Cheers, and Happy New Year!