March 14, 2012

First 3 paintings in oils... and lessons learned

Last fall, I got the call to do 3 half-page illustrations for the Pathfinder RPG.  Just as I was easing into the days before Illuxcon and trying to finish some ongoing projects, I had to do these images quickly.  When a client calls from a good company I hate to turn them down.  Inspired by Illuxcon, I also wanted to make some oil paintings so I decided to jump head-first into the unknown waters of painting for an illustration job.  I have been putting this off for years, but it finally felt like the right time to try it; the assignment being interiors and not more high profile, like a cover.  Paizo (the publisher of Pathfinder) is also known for being "artist friendly", and I felt more relaxed about experimenting with something new.

From past experience I learned that its better to say yes to a job and then compose the images to be less work by good compositional planning, such as showing the scene close up, or having alot of sky to minimize the work.  Having said that, I forgot these lessons and proceeded to sketch some fully fleshed out scenes with many figures.  I was in a hurry to just get started painting because of the unknown issues I was going to face, and I just did one thumbnail for each picture and went with my first thought.  In hindsight, being slower and more thoughtful at this early stage would have helped. I should have explored and chosen compositions that were far simpler and less literal!  The book was for a Pathfinder adventure called "Distant Worlds" where the characters are exploring different places in the universe...

Example of one thumbnail idea...

I spent about 1.5 days drawing time on each and drew them directly in Photoshop without figure reference.  Getting done the drawings fast allows me the time to hear back from the Art Director for approval and then proceed to the painting process, allowing for surface preparation and drying times. I really had no idea how long the paintings were going to take, so out of fear I just worked to get to the painting stage as fast as possible, not taking reference photos.

I did thorough color studies on the computer, which both gave a solid roadmap to paint from as well as serves as a backup and start for a digital painting in case things go badly in oils or you run out of time.  This is what happened on the third painting, as I only had one day to get it done, so I did the painting afterwards, and submitted a quicker digital version for the job.

One trick I had learned the previous Illuxcon was to take illustration jobs not based on the pay, but on the potential for the subject to make a nice original. (selling the original then becoming the main financial reward) For the third half-pager (ship one), I thought the scene had potential to be more "universal" if the Pathfinder character was replaced.  The pathfinder character, being a middle-eastern costumed adventurer just didn't go with the rest of the space theme and would make an odd painting.  I drew a spaceman holding a balloon in place of the requested character to turn the original into something better for that format.  My intention was to make a painting like the one above, and then digitally alter it to have the requested character before sending to the client.

Lessons learned from first illustrations in oils:
  • Compose paintings that have the right amount of elements and complexity that you'll have time to bring to a finish quality.  Since I'm making an original that has a long lifespan, it needs to have the refinement to stand on its own as a wall-picture worthy of someone's money.  Generally, I need less elements and complexity with a higher polish.  Smarter composing, overall.
  • I realized that if the goal is to make wall-paintings, you need to keep in mind what people will want to buy for purely decorative reasons.  They buyer may not know the characters and franchise of the original assignment, so a composition that reads more universally is probably going to appeal to more people.  While these things are not largely under your control, be mindful of liberties you can take with the art order.
  • I need to better adhere to my color studies.  I tended to be undisciplined in sticking with the colors arrived at on the computer study.
  • Bring each area to a finish while painting, as you'll probably not have time to go back and refine.  
    I learned its better to be disciplined and refine each area while the paint is wet and mixed on your palette.  Some areas (like the large cave walls in the first one) never got the detail they needed.
  • Upon seeing the finals in print, I expected more of a "translation" of the image... meaning I thought it would look different shrunk down.  Basically, you can see all the detail and you'd better paint tight if you are expecting it to look polished in the end, especially next to smooth digital art in the same book.
  • As an original, the viewer is going to look closely at the details over a long period of time; you can't get away with the image getting tighter (through reproducing smaller in print), so there's no fudging hands, faces and important details that you may otherwise be able to get away with on the computer.
  • Take reference photos!  This is the difference between cartoony illustration and a more realistic "sophisticated" look, that probably is even more important for the painting as an object.
  • Take proper photos at the end... know how to color-adjust and hand off a high-fidelity product to the client.  I made some mistakes and had to send the client sub-par photos this first time.  There's alot to get ironed out, and that's why it took me so long to make this leap!
  • Identifying subjects and assignments that can make sellable originals is key to deciding on when to put this effort into a project that could otherwise be done a little faster on the computer.  Do you really need to oil paint that spot illo of a flask??
  • Oil paints, being inherently transparent are able to be their most crisp and detailed if multiple sessions/layers are used for an area.  While its best to attempt finishing each area as you go, crisp details will usually require another pass.  Budget your time accordingly.
  • It took me about 1.5-2X the time to do a painting in oils than on the computer.  I would say the majority of that time was just preparation of the surfaces, palette and cleaning up.  The actual painting process was not significantly slower.  Factoring in the cost of supplies, I can accurately say oils is twice the time/money cost than computer illustration for my personal style and speed.  If I can sell my originals for the same price as the original commission, then I end up even.   Obviously this math will vary by artist, size, subject, etc.
  • I'm not sure if my oils have the ability to equal my digital work at this point in terms of sheer fidelity and finish.  I'll have to do some more paintings and take longer on them to better assess if I can fully change my process over to paint for higher profile jobs.
In summary, the lessons I learned from my first fantasy oils:  Two words comes to mind: "Intelligent Crafting".   "intelligent" because you need to pick your subjects and compositions with an eye to the speed of painting on a deadline and sale-ability of the original.   "Crafting", because I found once I was working on a physical painting and not a computer file, I was beholden to the object and its' refinement to stand up to viewing 30 years from now, representing my skill as an artist, and judged as art outside of its illustrative function in print.  This demand by the original "art object" brought the results to be viewed with a higher standard... a good thing if you have the time to give it.


  1. Excellent post Mike, those pieces came out great!

    I did work for clients in traditional materials for years before jumping to digital, and you're definitely right about the most important factors being time and accurate reproduction. I usually sent my originals directly to the publisher (they were acrylic or mixed media, so I didn't need to worry about drying time), but the old drum scanners mauled the color, so I started scanning or photographing them myself.

    To be honest, I don't miss the mess, the supply cost, or the gut wrenching feeling of hearing an art director ask for revisions on a traditional painting. But I sure do miss having a new piece to hang on the wall, there's nothing quite like the luminous surface of an original (or a well used favorite brush :).

  2. Great great great post! Beautiful pieces! :D And thanks for making me feel like a real hack! :P Really awesome, I hope I get a chance to see these in person!

  3. A fantastic post. I very much like your point about composing images: "...then compose the images to be less work by good compositional planning, such as showing the scene close up, or having alot of sky to minimize the work." It is something I will have to keep in mind in the future to help reduce the time it takes to paint each new illustration. Awesome colors in the three paintings.

  4. Thanks guys... starting 4 more today, so I'm trying to keep in mind what things were critical the last time. It was very gratifying to break through this personal barrier and become stronger by the experience.

  5. Great post, Mike! It's really cool hearing about all this process and getting some insight to your approach with this particular project. The pieces turned out awesome :) It's cool seeing them up on the shelf together, the colors you went with really make it a nice bunch. Your lessons learned are fantastic and I think anyone reading this post can (and should) take your experiences to heart and kept in the back of their mind when working on projects of their own.