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.


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.

Wonder Woman: Bessie Coleman

“Queen Bess”: a model of determination, courage, and integrity. And cool goggles!

A month since I last posted. Yikes! However, I do have a good excuse: I’ve been busy rewriting my novel—92,000 words in eight weeks. When I work that intensely, it’s almost impossible to think about other creative projects, and therefore I took a hiatus from the blog, even though my list of cool things to draw has only accumulated. So while the manuscript sits and rests, I’ll take a moment and catch up on some visuals.

This illustration is the second in my Wonder Woman series, a set of portraits highlighting the lives and stories of badass women. I’m hoping to draw women from a range of backgrounds and experiences: artists, innovators, revolutionaries, or any woman who can inspire others by her aesthetic vision and/or the strength of her spirit (Adrienne Rich was my first Wonder Woman post).

Today’s portrait features Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman. I only recently learned about Brave Bessie last February, shortly after the film Red Tails came out. I’d heard of the Tuskegee Airmen, and since I’d been jonesing to draw some retro airplanes in a vaguely Pictoral Modernist style, I considered drawing them. But in the course of my research, I learned about Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman in the world to earn an international pilot’s license. The story of her determination to fly at a time when it was difficult for any woman to do so—to say nothing of a poor, black woman from the South—just blew me away.

Bessie Coleman was the 10th of 13 children born into a family of Texas sharecroppers. There are a ton of great sites out there detailing her family’s struggles and how Coleman made her way north to Chicago, where she figured out what she wanted most in the world. And how that happened to be one of the most remote and absurd things any woman could desire at that time: she wanted to fly.

Of course, being both female and black during a time when women had just earned the right even to vote, Coleman couldn’t find a U.S.-based aviation school that would take her. But she didn’t let that stop her. She saved her money, learned French by night, and then traveled to France, which was, in 1920, considered one of the world’s most racially-progressive nations. In seven months, she obtained her pilot’s license from Federation Aeronautique Internationale, then returned to the U.S. to earn fame as a barnstormer.

Coleman flew a Curtis Jenny. I’ve never flown anything, but I did jump out of the back of a Cessna once.

What I love most about this story is that, while everything and everyone in the world told Coleman her dreams were ridiculous and impossible, she figured out a way to make them happen. And because of this indomitable spirit, she changed history. Despite her tragic death during preparation for an airshow, she lived her life the way she wanted it and died doing what she loved most. She inspired generations of African-Americans to take to the skies, including Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to travel in space*. In the book Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator (1993), Jemison stated: “I point to Bessie Coleman and say without hesitation that here is a woman, a being, who exemplifies and serves as a model to all humanity: the very definition of strength, dignity, courage, integrity, and beauty. It looks like a good day for flying.”

So any time I think my own dreams are ridiculous and impossible, I look to the sky and think of Brave Bessie. Dream big, work hard, and tell everyone to kiss your ass while you make it happen.

It does indeed look like a good day for flying.

* Jemison said she was also inspired to join NASA by Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek. Yet another example of why Star Trek is awesome.

Wonder Woman: Adrienne Rich

An inspiring poet, essayist, and feminist

This Tuesday, Adrienne Rich passed away. I remember first reading her work as an undergraduate and realizing that poetry could be aesthetic and evocative while still being political and transgressive. This seems like such an obvious thing to me now but back then, it felt like a revolutionary concept. I was a fine arts major after all, and while I knew of plenty of visual artists creating this kind of work, my background in contemporary literature was sorely lacking. Rich was my introduction to poetry’s feminist voice.

Others soon followed: Plath, Angelou, Bishop, Stein, Moore—all the usual suspects. But Rich was the first. So when I heard of her death, it affected me with surprising intensity. I think that since I discovered her at such a key time in my development as an artist, she loomed large in my writer heart, right up there with Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Lorrie Moore, and Marge Piercy—all women I look to as guides in how to produce smart, funny, brilliant, and powerful work.

One of my favorite Adrienne Rich poems is “Planetarium“. You can hear her reading it on YouTube (starts at around the 5:00 mark). I like this poem because it celebrates Caroline Herschel, one of the first women of astronomy. I love space! In my next life, I will be an astrophysicist.

Art is not dessert!

Anyway, I think her death also struck me because lately, it seems as though U.S. politics has been hijacked with some kind of anti-woman agenda. The assaults against Planned Parenthood; the ridiculous personal attacks on Sandra Fluke; the sudden popularity of transvaginal ultrasound laws; Pennsylvania Gov. Corbett’s insultingly absurd comments; and so much more. It feels like another culture war is emerging to pull back on hard-won, basic rights that women have fought decades to achieve. Losing such a powerful crusader who spoke eloquently for the rights of women, gays, and all oppressed groups felt like just another blow.

Anyway, instead of simply ranting, I thought a more positive use of my blog would be to jump-start a project I’ve been thinking about for a while: the Wonder Women Project. What I’d like to do is showcase stories of inspiring and wonderful women and, naturally, draw some portraits! The group will include recognizable names, like Rich, but also some overlooked historical figures and everyday ladies with stories of overcoming adversity, creating great art, showing incredible leadership, and/or just being inspiring role models for everyone.

To start, I have two very excellent candidates to follow Adrienne Rich, but I’ll soon need some help with suggestions. . . I’ll be announcing another contest for ideas soon, and winning commenters will get free portrait. So stay tuned!

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.