Portrait process

Warning: This blog may be hazardous to your health

Many of my favorite illustration blogs do more than show cool pictures—they actually walk through the steps of how a particular image is made. I’ve picked up a ton of great ideas from these posts, so I figured it’s time I made my own.

For this particular task, I recruited a volunteer subject: the intrepid Ms. Trixie Pants, who offered a suggestion on my Famous Faces challenge several weeks ago and, as a result, won a free portrait. Of course, she didn’t realize that in winning this portrait she would be a victim on my blog. But given that Ms. Pants is a fearless investigative reporter and editor of an groundbreaking blog about how all the animals on the planet are planning to annihilate the human species, I figured she’d be up to the challenge. And she was!

Every portrait starts with a photo. I suspect this one was taken when Ms. Pants realized her identity would be revealed to the world.

The famous muckracker, Ms. Trixie Pants!

Generally, I’ll jump right onto the computer and digitally trace the image with brushes and paths. This results in a very smooth, perfect line quality (like the David Foster Wallace portrait in the last post), which is infinitely editable. My control-freak side loves working digitally as I can erase and manipulate my lines to my little heart’s obsessive-compulsive content. However, in this case, I decided I’d go the old-fashioned route and start with pencil and ink, largely to see if my hand skills are still what they used to be.

So I printed out the photo and did a graphite transfer into my sketchbook. With a few pencil touch-ups, I had a simple line drawing.

Any six-year-old can do a graphite transfer

One thing Ms. Pants requested was that the portrait reveal the hazards she encounters during her day-to-day tasks of informing the world about the mortal threat of animals, a danger summed up by her blog pseudonym, a north pacific giant octopus is going to kill me. Given my own fondness for cephalopods, I had no problem incorporating a giant octopus.

Ask for tentacles and you shall receive

Next up is inking. I was surprised to find some old, serviceable brushes, though my India Ink made a weird rattling noise when I shook the bottle. Clearly, I’d been drawing digitally for too long. A splash of water solved the problem so I could give the drawing some substance.

I actually love inking

This reminded me of that scene in Chasing Amy when Banksy makes a compelling case for inking. While pencil lays in the basic form and composition, ink gives a drawing shape and body. Tell ’em, Banksy! Inking is where it’s at.

At this point, I finally scan the image into Photoshop and lay in color.

This is the cartoon stage

This is the most tedious part. I really need to hire a gang of monkeys to handle this stuff. The colors are easy to change, so I just select random hues from the default palette.

Once the flat color is laid in, I start playing around. The composition felt too static, so I rotated everything, which required a little redrawing. Bummer I didn’t think about this during the pencil stage, as I could have made her hair swirl around. Too late now. I convince myself it doesn’t look too bad, then I change the line color and start thinking about the background.

Now it's getting interesting!

At this point, I discover that the North Pacific Giant Octopus is a lovely scarlet color. Its skin also has a beautiful, velvety texture.

That is one badass octopus

Image source: ARKive

Nearly finished! Now it’s just a matter of few more color tweaks, a bit of lighting and shadow, some masking, a few color overlays, custom brushwork, more modeling, more gradients, additional effects, a touch more color mixing, a hint of chiaroscuro, additional line hues, new highlights, masked texture, size adjustments, and layer merging. And boom! Thirty-five layers later, you’re done.

Of course, this isn’t the only way to do a portrait. I can also work from several photos and/or a flesh-and-blood sitting to generate an original composition. But that’s a whole ‘nuther kettle of fish I’ll have to save for another post.


6 thoughts on “Portrait process

  1. Pingback: Words of inspiration | McGillustrations

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