August 20, 2012

Third set of Pathfinder oils

I just got home from a nice and much needed summer vacation on Vancouver Island.  It was great to be in a low key setting and have time to unplug.  While I was gone last week, Gencon was also in full swing. (For those that don't know its the biggest gaming convention and mecca for the stuff I do.)  At Gencon, Paizo released the first book in their new Pathfinder adventure path series, "Shattered Star" for which I have been commissioned to do all the half-page illustrations for the set of 6 books.  Its a big chunk of work that has kept me busy.

I was contacted in April to start this project and completed my third set of oil paintings for book one of this series.  All the commentary in this post was written in April as I worked on these illustrations so I could record my further experiences in doing oil paintings in a diary-like manner... fresh as I had thoughts... 

For this set I made my compositions to fit the frames I had already lying around.  I've been constantly looking for cheap frames and have a fair number stockpiled, so knowing what I had dictated the sizes I painted.  After this set I've now decided this is a bad idea.  For the sake of saving a small amount of money, I painted in formats too different from the final requested size and had to add space digitally before sending.  I need to respect the work more and get them decent frames that do the work justice and not determine my composition.

I'm not entirely happy with the paper-mounting technique I have been using.  It has both advantages and drawbacks.  I end up going over the line drawing with acrylic paint to strengthen it in the underpainting stage, so on relatively simple illustrations, its not going to save me time using the paper mounting technique versus transferring the drawing.   I've also not been able to get a perfectly smooth surface, and I always see priming lines when the painting is glossy and varnished.  I want to try using linen next time.  Below are the mounted drawings ready to paint...

You can see below I have 2 color studies taped above my painting in the (acrylic) underpainting stage.  When I print off the studies, they are always different than what I see on the monitor, so I end up printing a few with different settings and writing notes on them to tell me what areas have the correct colors.  I'll put an "L" for an area I think should be lighter, a check mark for stuff that is correct, etc.  There is no point doing a digital color study and then painting from an incorrect printout!

Again, I was making notes of my thoughts as I painted these in April... here they are....
  • Once I get an assignment that deserves it, try a larger sized painting.
  • Want to try a simple piece and use a more painterly, chunky style.  The sanded-smooth masonite and tiny brushes are great for detail, but maybe not a more gritty, action veneer.
  • Finding oil is too thin and liquid to paint fast with detail, so I always need 2 layers to get full detail.  Think I want to try painting larger, looser and with a monochrome palette as a way of trying to get a more active painting style.
  • Have decided oils (and me?) are maybe too slow for bulk gaming illos done on tight deadlines.  You need 2 layers for full brightness and sharp detail.  Need to think of ways to compose images that make the process faster: more monochrome areas, more alla prima look, etc.
  • Need to spend longer on the drawing to get more chaos/action into the poses.  Need to remember what good gaming illustration has going for it: more of an action feel through the drawing and paint application both!
  • Design much simpler contrasts.
  • Basically, dealing with oil paints is making me think in terms of image efficiency to do oils so fast with the properties of a gaming illo: need to design better.
  • This set didn't go as smoothly as the previous one.  I am atributing this to low physical well-being after the winter season and little activity.  Made a mental note to have a period focusing on fitness and see how it translates into my art-making abilities
  • Want to try the following:  a very referenced and realistic/detailed painting like the MTG (Magic the Gathering) style or quality finish. (would need to be a single figure and simple/designed)  Want to ALSO try the opposite: a very drawn/extreme action/fantasy scene with lots of chaos and cartoony qualities (would need to be very monochrome and loose in areas)  Want to try painting quite big and free (Frazzetta)
  • Going forward, I need to devise methods that are conducive to speed: more monochrome areas, paint larger and looser, etc.  I see why no one really does bulk oil paintings for RPG work.  Way too slow of a medium due to inherent transparency, etc.   Should be interesting to see where this goes.  Starting on #4 tomorrow and I only have 2 days, so I'm going to redo my color study to be more monochromatic for speed.
  • Basically, doing complex, multi-figure paintings in bulk on deadline is insane.  I need to take longer and achieve a finish or compose real simply... limited palette, extreme focus... think about the approach Brom takes with a highly rendered but fairly flat scene.
  • Have learned that oil painted illustration needs to do the things that are its strength and not have the same standards or attempt the same problems that I would tackle in a digital illustration on a deadline.  I have a new perspective now, not just looking at various imagery-painted and digital as imagery but looking at painted illustration as a solution to using this medium for a job on deadline.  I now see better why certain methods like Frazzetta and Brom work well in paint.
Below are the 4 "finished" oils that are photographed, quickly edited in the computer and sent to the client.

I did this one (below) in 2 days because That's all the time I had.  I've figured out that to do fast oils for this stuff, its beneficial to use a limited palette and work somewhat looser, plus have a thorough underpainting in acrylic so you can use just one layer of paint in  oil and have a full value range.
You can see I added a bunch of space to the left of the scene below to fit the requested format.  Again, not a great idea to make your paintings fit into cheap frames.  Still have to add a bunch of debris around the stairs and a second pass of detail overall.  

Already sold the one below for more than the commission fee, thus proving that this is a viable alternative to digital... of course I have to sell ALL of them to make that true!

Lots of detail still to be added to the last one as well... I basically have to take everything to 75%, finish them digitally and then go back later to bring them to completion...  I always make sure to write down on the back of my color study the paint colors I used so I can set my palette up weeks or months later and do the finishing details.

Anyhow... having a blast moving into oils!


  1. It's fantastic that you're sharing your experiences of switching media like this, Mike - many thanks.

    I love the textures you got on Box.

  2. Mike,

    Oils aren't inherently transparent. In fact, they have better covering power than just about any other medium. There are transparent pigments and opaque pigments, so my guess is that one or more of the following things is happening:

    1. You bought transparent colors instead of opaque colors or are choosing to use the transparent ones. There is usually a transparent and opaque color for most hue positions on a color wheel. Examples would be sap green (transparent) and chromium oxide green (highly opaque) which are very close in terms of hue position but different in terms of opacity and saturation. Raw sienna comes out of the tube transparent but you can mix the same color with cadmium orange and raw umber and it will be highly opaque.

    2. To save money you went with a cheaper or student grade set of oils such as Winsor & Newton Winton. Cheaper sets use lower pigment loads and add extenders which are transparent, so you lose color strength and covering power. Also the paint should be coming out of the tube pretty thickly, like soft butter, not in a liquid form.

    3. You may be using too much medium and not enough paint. If you add enough medium you can make an opaque color semi-opaque. It's called a velatura and it's useful for doing fog, veils, and getting skin to look soft, etc. You may be doing this by accident.

    I really like your results so far. I hope my comment helps you in some small way.

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  4. Scott, I know all that. Thanks! I do use high quality opaque pigments.

    Maybe I'm talking about liquidity/oilyness rather than opacity... the difference in laying oils down and getting opaque coverage and full values in one layer versus using acrylics, where after a minute the layer is dry and more coverage adds opacity. Oils will just move around if tickled and blended so when rendering you lose sharpness when using small brushes with medium.

    1. Mike,

      I see what you mean. I must be more used to loading up my brushes than you when I want something opaque.

      I find acrylics to actually be less opaque than oils by quite a lot. I tested it by taking a white board with black sharpee on it and covered one side with "opaque" colors in holbein oils and another with "opaque" golden heavy body acrylics. The sharpee was clearly visible underneath all of the colors I had in acrylics(about 20), including Titanium White and Chromium Oxide, two powerful covering pigments in oils, but was completely covered by the same colors in my oils. It was very frustrating for me coming from the opposite viewpoint of an oil painter trying to use acrylics.

      It's interesting how we get used to our methods and tools and get frustrated when we can't get the same results in the same way with supposedly comparable materials. I recently bought a set of fluid acrylics to try some more watercolor-like methods. I'm sure it will be frustrating for a while too.

  5. yeah, I think its also a time issue... if I am doing a character in a day, I cant spend alot of time plowing paint on an area and going over when I need to move quickly through all parts to keep on schedule. Brushes matter too, as a soft sable will not pick up alot of paint...

    1. Dick blick carries some very small bristle brushes that might do the trick for you:

      They might allow you to do more with less strokes and get the opacity you're looking for at the small size you're working at.

  6. Excellent work Mike, love the point of view on the second piece! The oils are working out really well for you.

  7. Damn, dude! Sick new pieces..Glad to see you're enjoying both worlds of painting ;)

  8. VERY COOL! Digging these a LOT! Looking forward to having a chance to see them in person! :D