Step One: Sketches
Intruder is the thirteenth book in a long-running series of science fiction classics by award-winning author CJ Cherryh. This was a tale of taught political intrigue, and a good read, as always. But as an illustrator, it was a challenge. Much of what happens in Ms. Cherryh’s books is in the heads of the POV characters, and action is usually not of the chase-and-gunfight sort. Reading the book entirely is essential, to get a feel for the characters and the arc of the story. I read this one once, and then skimmed through it again before I knew what I had to do.
The main protagonist in the series is Bren Cameron, a human spacefarer who serves as the paidhi-aiji, something of an ambassador of the humans on a world of big, dark aliens called the Atevi. He has been on every cover but one. Various Atevi are also seen, and for this cover the client specifically wanted to see Ilisidi, the Dowager and leader of one of the battling factions of Atevi, and her nine year old grandson Cajeiri, who had not been seen on a cover yet.
The first trouble I had is that the Dowager appears in only one scene – the very last; I don’t usually like to mine the end of a book for material because it can give too much away. The second problem was that Cajeiri wasn’t in that scene with her, or with her anywhere else in the tale. The third problem was that there was no action at all in this book of the sort that lends itself easily to a cover—no guns, no chases, no space battles. It all happens indoors, and the tension is built upon political sparring.
In this book, two visuals stood out as good metaphors for the story arcs that I might use without giving too much away—a beautiful porcelain vase, and Cajeiri’s troublesome pet, a monkey-like creature native to the Atevi homeworld.
I set to my first sketches knowing that the vase was the primary Star of the painting, though Bren, Ilisidi, and the boy and his monkey had significant co-starring roles. Sketch number 1 is the barest form of the idea, loosely laid down with big strokes. It suggested a series of sketches of which number 2 was one, with Bren contemplating the vessel of his machinations (almost literally), and the others gathered round. Boring! I pulled back to a banquet scene for sketch 3 and found it far too staid and symmetrical, though there were some first hints at how the values might ultimately be arranged.
I did a number of sketches, moving in and out of the banquet setting, until it finally occurred to me to separate the boy from his monkey. It was only right, and added the narrative kick that sparked my interest. It was in this same sketch that I began to feel the relationship of Bren, Ilisidi, and another faction leader named Machigi. Also in this sketch I began to look for a way to make the vase alien and strange. Several stages later, simply turning Bren’s head made their grouping start to gel. By number 6, I began to see how this would work.
Sketch 7 was part of a series I did simply to reaffirm for myself that closer was better, because this was such a character-driven story, and that I did still want the vase to be centered in the scene. It gave it solidity and importance, and allowed the monkey to be out of sight of everyone, including the boy who is looking for him. The only kinks remaining were to find the best place for the boy—behind his grandmother’s back, not Bren’s—and to realize how important it was that the three adults not look like they were at all aware of either boy or pet.
I resized the sketch to be certain that it fit the book format and negotiated some background elements to add the final lines of movement. With the approval of the client, I was ready to shoot and gather reference, with this drawing as my roadmap.
Step Two: Reference
Good reference is essential. There are artists who make everything up out of their heads, and if you know your stuff you can do it. I do it more than I like to admit, but even if you understand light and perspective and anatomy very, very well, good reference will fill in the holes in your knowledge and add realism and life to the final image.
If I have learned anything in my career, it’s that when you find a good model, keep him! My son Tyler is a fan of the sorts of books and games that I illustrate, but he is also a theater major and a fine character actor who gets the subtleties I look for. Plus he has good facial features that are easy to adapt to my needs.
Other reference comes from my files of images I have shot over the years or gathered off of the internet. I spend a good day going through the pictures I’m going to use, organizing them and choosing the ones that best fit my vision. I arrange the chosen images together on my left-hand monitor, then take screen-snaps of them, name them and file them. By the end of this session, I had several reference collages, of everything from previous covers to old ladies, from architecture to vases.
It’s important in this day of copyright hyper-vigilance to never copy without permission. Nothing I find on the internet ends up in a painting. I only ever use “scrap” to add to my understanding of photos I have shot for myself or things I have invented: What makes one old lady look like a hag, but another look regal? What range of values should I expect in a white room? How does the light shine on and through the glazes on a porcelain container? And so on. Stealing is bad. Don’t do it. Moreover, it’s limiting. Why tie yourself to an image you’ve found which is probably not what you really had in mind to begin with? Let an idea drive the build-out; don’t start with a piece of reference and try to build an idea out of it.
With the reference collages stacked on my left monitor, I’m ready to start the drawing.
Next up: The Painting
Posted by Todd in Art!