Four portraits of people with vegetation on their heads



Oh, boy. September already? I guess it’s time for some drawings of people with trees on their heads.

Actually, these are a few drawings for an upcoming issue of Monday Night I had to squeeze into Labor Day weekend and figured I’d share on my neglected blog.

28-Tree2 28-Tree3

This one’s a bristlecone pine. These are some of my favorite trees in the world.28-Tree4


And here’s a hipster with dandelions. I was sort of tired at this point and in no mood to cross-hatch any more complicated roots. Not too crazy about how the grass and leaves turned out, but hey, it’s done.


Here there be dragons

Smartphone photo realism, with flying dragons

Smartphone photo realism, with flying dragons

All right, I’ve fallen off the blog again. I have some pretty good reasons, but they’re all the same boring ones: work, work, work. But! I’m halfway through this next major illustration project, so I can finally take a break for another behind-the-scenes post about process. This makes for a good follow-up to my last post as the drawing style followed a similar process for all the panels.

For this project, I’m creating ten drawings for a somewhat magical-realist novel in which the main character takes photos on her phone. In this first image, the narrator sneaks a shot of her husband playing his favorite online fantasy game, which features flying dragons and a steampunk zeppelin. While I knew this would be a lot of work and require producing three images–the laptop screen inside the room scene, nested in the frame of the smartphone–I was secretly thrilled about the prospect of dragons.

Once upon a time, I drew many dragons and unicorns. Yes, I was that kind of kid.

When I was 11, there were no interwebs. There were colored pencils and my D&D books.

When I was 11, there were no interwebs. There were only colored pencils and my D&D books. It would take a few years before I figured out proper human proportions, but boy could I throw down a unicorn

Anyway, it was fun to look up pictures of dragons and zeppelins and figure out how to assemble the thing. Naturally, I started off with the initial line work.

Step 1: pencil and ink

Step 1: pencil and ink

I brought the dragons into Illustrator as I knew I’d be moving and resizing them around a lot and wanted to work with vector images.

Step 2: vector dragons

Step 2: vector dragons

Then I bring all this into Photoshop. The clouds were done with custom brushes. The moon is an actual photo of the moon with lighting effects.

Step 3: Photoshop!

Step 3: Photoshop!

Then I spent another hour or so rendering the zeppelin.

Step 4: Tedious rendering

Step 4: Tedious rendering

Once the screen image was done, I started the second drawing in pencil and ink. After a quick, clean-up in Illustrator, I brought the lines into Photoshop.

Step 5: Exterior drawing

Step 5: Exterior drawing

Then I drop the screen shot in, render with other textures, and finally create an exterior of the phone to encapsulate the whole thing.

Initial drawing

Initial drawing

The client, however, wanted the image to be bigger, so I zoomed in on the screen a bit more (top image). The fingers are off to the side so you still get a sense of what’s going on.

And that’s it for Image #1. Only nine more to go!

Digging up the old stuff

Recently, I had an idea for a comic/graphic story kind of thing when I remembered this odd piece I did over a year ago. I submitted it to a few places, but it’s hard to find a publication that will take a super detailed, multi-page comic. Or maybe I was just too lazy to find one. Well, after a rejection or two, I figured the thing was too much trouble to deal with, so I filed it away and forgot about it.

I’m basically a newbie with comics, though I enjoy the medium a lot. However, in terms of making them, they wreck havoc on my obsessive-compulsive/perfectionist tendencies. I find myself endlessly reorganizing the composition, agonizing over fonts, and reworking the story itself—which then requires more drawing and re-drawing. At the end of all that work, I’m stuck with this thing I don’t even know what to do with.

Still, it’s kind of fun. I’ve created one other comic before this, but if I do ever complete a third, I’ll probably use a less labor-intensive visual style.

Anyway, rather than let this thing continue collecting dust, I figured why not self-publish? So here it is.

Click each image to expand to a larger size for reading.

Page 1

Page 1


Page 2

Page 3

Page 3

Page 4

Page 4

Page 5

Page 5

Back to basics

Frida with tennis ball and tongue.

Oh, Photoshop, how do I love thee? Let me count the years. . .

Wow! Okay, so it’s been nearly two decades since I first started using my favorite software program. Back then, it was a wee 3.0, yet boasted these amazing things called layers (layers!) that any artist with a Macintosh Quadra and a love of all things flashy and new dove into and probably hasn’t resurfaced since.

These days, of course, Photoshop is nothing less than a magical machine of infinite image-manipulation. It’s a powerful program capable of wonders (and disasters), and anyone who works with graphics these days should know at least enough about it to be dangerous. Unfortunately, the seductive power of Photoshop also makes us forget that to be truly dangerous, we need a firm understanding of the fundamentals of image-making. And that sometimes, the most amazing effects are done by hand.

Frida will sit still for 3 seconds at most, which means these warm-up sketches are done faster than a Google search.

Since I’d been spending far too much time on Photoshop lately, I took an afternoon to reacquaint myself with some old school wet and dry media. I had to see if I could still pull off some decent pictures without my digital magic wand.

I recruited my loyal pup, Frida, as a model. Being a Boston Terrier, she tends to move around a lot, and this offered the additional challenge of keeping up with her.

I had to bust out the X-acto to sharpen the tip of my charcoal pencils. I was pleased to discover I could still whittle down a perfect point.

I had a bunch of chipboard and cardboard lying around, which I thought would make a nice alternative to paper. Then I dug up media I hadn’t used in a long time, including a small batch of Prismacolor markers. Does anyone still use these? I had forgotten how much I love those French grays! They still had that lovely smell of xylene in the morning—just another reason to work quickly.

Prismacolor marker. Frida looks rather cat-like as she prepares to pounce on a tennis ball.

Okay, there’s nothing earth-shattering about dog drawings. However, it was a great exercise to get out the old tools and work without the benefit of lighting effects and infinite do-overs. But another thing I’d forgotten was the sensual joys of these materials: the dry scratch of charcoal and the gorgeous surprise of an ink wash saturating the page. Even the markers challenged me not only with their toxic stink, but with the knowledge that their line would not erase. When I made my mark, I had to mean it.

Still knee-deep in a revision of my novel, I’ve been getting back to basics with that, too, and thinking about how fiction boils down to choice and consequence. After a decade of writing, I forget this sometimes as I’m dazzled by the whiz-bang shimmer of cleverness and postmodernism. By stories that are more special effects than especially affecting. As a reader, however, I find that such pieces won’t resonate with me unless I sense an emotional core somewhere, a reason for me to care beyond the spectacle. With my own work, I’ve been intoxicating myself with imaginative madness and forgotten that my characters have to make choices as well. That ultimately the shape of the book depends on mastery of the basics and a firm command of story—not simply clever illusions and allusions.

At any rate, for my drawings, I’ll be stepping back from Photoshop a bit more. There’s something lovely about the fragility of a Crow Quill nib and the screechy sound it makes. So what if my gouache gets overworked and I draw outside the lines? It’s a reminder that my hand was there.  If solid composition and technique demonstrate that the artist knows her stuff, a few imperfections only make the piece more memorable.

Couldn’t resist a touch of Photoshop color here. There’s really nothing wrong with digital tricks, so long as they’re used discreetly.

And now for lots of dots

Since the last post featured a detailed, graphite drawing, I’ve dropped back to ink for this portrait of Flannery O’Connor. I’m never quite sure if I prefer graphite to ink; like everything, it probably depends on my mood. But if you’ve read any O’Connor, you know she writes about grace and wickedness—light and dark—so ink did feel like the slightly more appropriate choice in this case.

I also wanted to try a portrait in the Wall Street Journal’s famous “hedcut” style, which replicates the classic, engraved look of currency. So I found this great video detailing the process and gave it a shot. Naturally, this method is time consuming and gives you hand cramps, so another savvy Photoshop user figured out a way to digitally replicate the effect. Like all digital shortcuts, it’s not perfect, but it does save you from placing a million dots into carefully contoured lines.

First attempt. The line quality was too comic-book and didn’t suit Flannery at all, so I decided to try a hedcut.

The result I came up with wasn’t exactly Wall Street Journal, but that’s fine. In fact, it’s great because when you’re trying to sort out your own style, it’s helpful to copy someone else’s.

I realize that sounds counterintuitive. However, the fact is you’ll never match someone else’s style yet in the struggle to do so, your own line will naturally emerge. This is why art students copy paintings from the Old Masters and why, in one of the first fiction workshops I took, the instructor assigned us to try writing in the style of our favorite author. I went for Kafka and, while my story failed, it forced me to take apart his stories and figure out why I liked them so much.

Anyway, I think my own, slightly garish and grotesque line came through. That tends to happen any time I work in ink. Either that, or things turn into cartoons. I just can’t help myself. After all, I learned to draw by copying cartoon characters.

An earlier attempt at hedcut style using bigger dots.

Fortunately, it’s time to shift gears back into some design work for a while and give my hand a chance to rest. Besides, I’ve killed all my pens.

I’ll close with a quote from Flannery O’Connor. She has a ton of great quotes (like: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”), but here’s one of my favorites:

The positives of negatives

This portrait is part of a promotional series I’m working on which recently got me re-obsessed with negative space. This was just going to be a straightforward pencil portrait of Gandhi, but as I started drawing, I remembered how difficult it is to draw glasses. They’re perfect shapes—circles, no less—which are really hard to do freehand.

Source: Wikipedia. I had to guess at some of the detail in his eyes.

I began the portrait in pencil. While the glasses came out okay, I was in hyper-obsessive mode and decided I didn’t like them. So when I brought the image into the computer, I made some perfectly round ones in Illustrator and slapped them on. This combination of flat and three-dimensional lines was very appealing, so I pushed it further by blanking out his robe. For some reason, the idea of negative space with Gandhi seemed to match. Something about nonviolent protest, the dignity and power of restraint—all these felt related. But mostly, it meant I could cover up those lop-sided glasses.

After I dropped in the portrait and the map, I felt like I needed another element, so I went with doves. I knew they would look super cheesy if I drew them, so voilá! Negative space to the rescue once more!

I found a bunch of dove images online, and then traced them in Illustrator to make these silhouettes.

Silhouettes transformed into brushes

After finding several bird images online, I traced their shapes. While I could have used these as-is, since I’d gone to the trouble of doing several, I went ahead and made some Photoshop brushes for future use. You just never know when you’ll need a flock of doves.

I love Photoshop brushes. Check out these cloud brushes. Boom! Clouds.

Anyway, I’m really enjoying the idea of quiet spaces and the implied shape of things. I love using negative space in writing to suggest oblique connections by way of imagery, or by writing dialog that reveals more about the characters by what they don’t say versus what they do. Sometimes it’s those places between things, the gaps in the conversation, that make the biggest statements.

Weird obsessions

What we talk about when we talk about tentacles

Recently, I was flipping through my 1978 edition of the Advanced D&D Monster Manual. I’d only ever played Dungeons & Dragons at one point in my life, back in the early 1980s when my dad was stationed on an Air Force base in England. Almost every summer weekend, my parents dragged us over to their friends’ house where the adults drank and played Mille Bourne until 2 am and my sister and I were stuck hanging out with their friends’ two boys who wanted to do nothing but play Atari or D&D. So I did a lot of both, not realizing that these Pepsi-and-Fritos-fueled sessions were to blame for sowing the little seed of dweeb that would later blossom into full-blown, nerd-girl dorkdom and a love of fantasy, science fiction, and retro video games.

Anyway, I was never a Dungeon Master, so I’m not sure why I own the AD&D manual. But for years, I combed its pages, dutifully copying its beasties and learning their histories and attack methods. Like all little girls, I was into horses, so I focused mainly on the more equine creatures like unicorns, pegasus, ki-rins, and even a demonic stallion from hell called a Nightmare. I loved the dragons and nymphs and lycanthropes and even a bizarre, dung-eating thing called a neo-otyugh.

Yet one of my absolute favorites was the Eye of the Deep.

The Eye is listed as Lawful Evil. Other Lawful Evil baddies include Boba Fett and Anton Chigurh.

Today, I blame the Eye of the Deep for my tentacle obsession. Because while I stopped drawing horses and dragons eons ago, to this day, I’m still fascinated by squids and octopi and anything involving long, feeler-like swirly bits. I love freaky, underwater creatures (like everything on this page) especially and most definitely if they feature all or some of the following: tentacles, big scary eyes, antennae, funky claws, strange mouths, and anything resembling brains or organs.

As I got older, the tentacle-thing manifested itself in other ways, such as my love of calligraphy and anything by the Art Nouveau master, Alphonse Mucha.

Ads for cigarette rolling papers never looked so gorgeous.

Source: Wikipedia

And then, of course, one of my all-time favorite artist/illustrators, Aubrey Beardsley.

I ♥♥♥ Beardsley

Source: Wikipedia

Tentacle-love also explains my zeal for Celtic knots, the grotesque and the arabesque, illuminated manuscripts, Japanese brush painting, the incredible designs of Marian Bantjes (especially this gorgeous poster), and definitely William Morris textiles. If there’s some voluted line swirling around like pea shoot or an elegant worm, you can bet I will adore it. I even worked one into my old logo.

The “S” has since been replaced by a squid.

So the Eye of the Deep got its swirly bits wrapped around me pretty tightly. I don’t think I’ll ever shake my tentacle obsession, which is why I opted to do my own interpretation of an Eye of the Deep for today’s drawing. I’d been jonesing to do some intensely detailed ink-work, and I figured the Eye would make a nice subject.

At this point, I realize the drawing will take forever and I kind of start to hate myself.

I wasn’t certain if I liked how the swirls were so closely packed together. Yet by the end, I thought they created a nice clockwork/steampunk look I hadn’t anticipated.

Sometimes, you just have to let the tentacles do what they will.