Aloft: A Perpetual Work in Progress
So, I just recently uploaded a picture to deviantART. A picture I’ve been working on for three years, and was never fully satisfied with. I don’t think I can fully articulate how much it means to me to finally have it out of my hair and out in public where I don’t have to worry about it anymore!
It started as I said, three years ago, when I was going through a rough time and needed some extra cash. I decided to put out a plea for commissions, just quick $10 sketches and small digital drawings and the like. I don’t think I got any bites, except for one; Mia, aka. Losmios, told me she wanted a commission. But not a piddly little sketch, oh no. She wanted a fully painted digital picture she could make fancy prints of. I didn’t know whether or not I had the time or the energy to pull it off, but I accepted it anyway. How could I refuse?
Anyway, it did turn out to be a little more than I could handle. I was rather intimidated and vowed to do the best work I could do. I had an image in my head of how I wanted it to look, but it just wouldn’t turn out the way I wanted it to. As such, it sat on my hard drive for all this time, during which I would randomly open it up again every few months, put a couple more hours into it, then close it up again. It wasn’t until I started art school and wanted to start fresh that I decided to bite the bit and just set it free.
So I have. But it seems so anti-climactic after so much work that went into it. So I’m going to post a series of WIP images to show you just how many iterations it went through before I finally came up with what I’ve uploaded today.
So yes, Mia gave me a commission to draw a picture of her pegasus persona. I opened up Photoshop and freehand painted, without references, a couple different equine poses, but I settled on the one you see below.
This really shows how sketchy the first pass on the pose was. I used one of Photoshop CS’s default brushes and just went to town. For the wings I used a photo I took of some seagulls as a reference. There’s no way in hell I could do that freehand!
So, after I settled on the pose I switched to the regular hard-edged round brush and started airbrushing, smoothing it out, adding shading, and a few more details. The entire pegasus was painted on one layer, something I had never done before. I had a lot of fun with it. Oh, right, and I decided to do it all in greyscale first, thinking later I could use one of Mia’s own techniques and colourize it. This eventually caused a lot of problems. But anyway, onwards!
Right! Here I added the mane and tail. I did those by painting in a semi-opaque, flat coloured mane shape. I used the smudge tool a bit to tease out some finer strands. After that, I just went in and traced out a bunch of locks from the main shape, adding light and shadow. It was almost like sculpting. At the very end I went in with a small round brush and added a bunch of small, straggly white hairs just to make it seem a little less plastic. You can see some of those in the detail picture I uploaded to DA.
This was my first pass at a background. I envisioned a bunch of mountains poking through a veil-like misty cloud layer, which the sun was just sitting on top of. In my mind it was very pretty and dramatic, but it’s the background I ended up struggling with for three years. Urgh.
I tried many times to paint the clouds in, but I could never get them looking anywhere near to my satisfaction. I went to another friend of mine, Katy Rewston, and she sent me her own little sketchy paint-over to try and show me how I might go about the clouds. I tried her suggestions…
… but yeah, they didn’t really turn out how I liked. (I also added some shading to the pegasus here, trying to make the lighting a smidgen more believable.)
Either way, the picture stayed like this for months. I just couldn’t get the clouds right. On top of that, I knew the mountains were terribly painted. I knew they were simply placeholders just to figure out the look of the background, but I didn’t realize how much of a pain they’d actually be when I tried to paint them properly. Anyway, I took a stab at repainting the mountains.
Well! They certainly looked like the best mountains I had ever painted. But right, they were in the wrong positions. So what do I do? I cut them up and try to fit them in the same places the old mountains were:
Okay, getting closer… but there’s still something off about it. I also added a bit more detail to the mountain in the foreground there.
So I was left with this. And there was something wrong about it. I didn’t have the same dramatic presence to it as the one with the crappy mountains did. I was so frustrated, I went to a digital painting forum for some constructive criticism.
And oh man, did they oblige. They certainly reamed me out for the background, and everything else too, but I learned a lot. They told me about a grid method often used to help with composition, so I stuck that on and went about reordering. After applying their feedback (and making another half-hearted attempt at clouds) I came up with this:
You can barely see the faint gridmarks in there. Anyway, this was a huge help, and I certainly loved the composition much more. But what about those clouds? And wasn’t I supposed to colour this eventually?
Here I started trying to experiment with the colour. The background simply has an orangy-color layer over top of it; the pegasus I actually went in, following the instructions on Mia’s tutorials, and made my first few attempts at colourizing it. And it really didn’t turn out so well.
No, it doesn’t look terrible, but it certainly wasn’t turning out how I wanted it to. The brown on the knees just looked dirty, and whenever I tried to make the socks white I just lost detail. And don’t even get me started on the spots on the wings; I never saved any pictures of my attempts with that, because holy crap, it just looked so bad.
So… it stagnated. I felt I couldn’t deliver a product if I couldn’t even make the subject look like the character it was supposed to be. And on top of that, I just couldn’t get the damn clouds right. It didn’t stop me from opening it up and trying it again and again though, over successive months.
I even experimented with using my own reference pictures for the clouds. Yeah, it looked super cool… but I’m not that great a photomanipulator. I also couldn’t find the type of clouds I wanted for around the mountains… and all sorts of other problems.
Then, using a simpler technique, I came up with this. And it didn’t look so bad! Basically I took the soft-edged round brush and added a bunch of opacity/size pressure settings and scatter effects, then went to town on the clouds. There are two layers here; a black cloud layer, and a white cloud layer underneath the black. The varying opacity in the black clouds made it look like the white showing through were highlights. I liked the effect a lot, but I sat on it for a hell of a long time.
At some point I opened it up and sketched out those misty clouds around the mountains, exactly what you see in the finished picture at the top of this post, but I can’t remember when. Obviously I didn’t think it looked that great at the time, because I closed it and forgot about it. But when I opened the file back up a couple days ago, I suddenly realized, hey; it doesn’t look that bad. Presentable, in fact.
Then I came up with the crazy idea: could I call this finished?
Well, even if I couldn’t or not I decided to anyway. I finally added a small colour overlay layer to give it some character and uploaded it. Now… it’s free.
Can I go now? Hehe!
Well, that’s it. I hope this was interesting for you! I hope you like the picture; I sure do. Hopefully it’ll stop haunting me now.