Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Pirate Queen - Completed Dialogue with an Artist Project

And my pirate queen picture is finished! The final illustration measures 11"x14" and is a combination of brown colored pencil, ink washes, and digital painting.

Basically, this was done for a project in which we were asked to pick an artist and create a piece of art that was having a "dialogue" with that artist. We asked to treat it more as like a conversation than as trying to make a piece of art in that artist's style. We could most certainly be influenced by that artist, but we should still be creating something that is our own.

I picked the artist Kinuko Y. Craft. I've loved her work for years, and her attention to detail and beautiful color schemes have definitely been an influence on the way I work. The work she has done illustrating fairy tales and myths for children’s books were how I was introduced to her work, and those images have become some of my favorites of hers. I grew up loving to read fairy tales and adventure stories, and would spend countless hours imagining and sketching out the tales that I had grown to love. Apparently, this is not all that far removed from Craft’s state of mind when she is working on a project. In an interview with Locus Magazine, Craft was quoted as saying, “My mission is, I really feel, to tell my version of the story. To show my reaction to it. That's why I spend so much time on it. The more time I put in, the more something lives in the image. I actually live in the book while I work. I function much like an actor taking on a role. The outside world fades away. . . I think I've been in a fantasy world all my life.”

I love reading different versions of fairy tales, and her depictions are a nice addition to that library. However, as much as I love Craft’s work, one thing that I have noticed is that a large amount of her illustration work, especially for children’s books, often feature ultra-feminine damsels, princesses and young ladies in need of being rescued. Not all of Craft’s work is like this, but enough of it is that it really stood out to me when I was looking back through her images to prepare for this project. This is not entirely Craft’s fault, either, as most fairy tales are about the damsels that need rescuing. Heroines are found more often in modern stories, films, comics, etcetera, and can appear in all different forms.

I love Craft’s work, and think her paintings are absolutely beautiful, but I thought it would be fun to use this dialogue project to offer a counterpoint, or an alternative, to a princess. I wanted to produce an illustration that would look right at home in a storybook environment, but would still show a strong female character. I also knew that I was not going to use this illustration as deep analysis of feminism or sexual roles in stories and society, but wanted to treat it exactly like an actual dialogue with the artist I had chosen. I wanted to make an illustration that would be something I would like to see Craft make. I decided to use the illustrations that Craft did for Cinderella as my starting point. While looking through the book’s illustrations I found myself thinking, “What would be the opposite of a princess?”

The immediate answer that came to mind was, of course, a pirate. I enjoy pirate stories as much as I enjoy fairy tales, so I thought that offering a pirate as a counterpoint to one of Craft’s princesses would be perfect for this project. Even though Craft works as a traditional painter, I knew I wanted to work in my style of digital painting for this project. I gathered reference images from photos online for things like the background and for the chair that the female pirate in my picture is sitting in. I prefer to take reference photos for an illustration when it’s possible, and since Craft also takes reference photos for her work and I knew that I definitely wanted to collect that resource for myself. To get my reference images for the pirate queen, I dressed up (yes, I own a tricorn hat), set my camera on a timer, and shot my own reference photos. I also looked up images of pirate costumes from films, history books, and Howard Pyle paintings. References images of ship interiors and carved wooden chairs were also found.

After playing around with layout options for my illustration in Photoshop, I then drew the picture on 11”x14” watercolor paper with brown colored pencil, which nicely mimicked Craft’s step of making a detailed pencil drawing of her planned image on her painting surface. The next step was to paint over my pencil work with washes of watered down ink. This has been my preferred method of working for the past two years now. I like to do this as preparatory work for digital painting because it gives me a nice base to work from. It also keeps the image from looking too digital, or too smooth and shiny, because the watercolor paper and any pencil, ink, or paint I use before bringing the image into the computer helps to lend an organic texture and feel to the piece. Craft uses watercolor for her under painting, and I prefer to use ink washes.

It is at this point that my chosen media really begins to differ from Craft’s, but I still kept her method of working in layers in mind when I scanned my drawing in to the computer and started painting it in Photoshop. I usually tend to work with lots of layers in Photoshop when I work digitally, but I especially enjoyed working this way after reading about how Craft likes to work in layers with her painting. When I try and explain digital painting to other people, I always stress the fact that you need to have at least some kind of basic understanding of traditional art media, especially paint, if you want to be able to be any good at all with digital painting. Taking what I learned about Craft’s working methods and translating it to my own way of working with the computer simply underscores this fact. I find too often that people think that using a computer to make art is taking the easy way out because the computer “does the work for you.” This couldn’t be farther from the fact. Using a computer to make art might make some things easier, but at best it is simply another tool that one can use for art. Craft uses a paintbrush to finish her work. I use Photoshop and a digital Wacom tablet.

In the end, I’m happy with the way this project turned out. I was able to create a strong image that was also inspired by Craft’s rich color schemes and attention to detail. I would love to see Craft try her hand at illustrating some nautical adventure tales. She would undoubtedly be able to add her wonderful artistic flair to those types of stories quite easily. In a perfect world, I would be able to sit down with Kinuko Y. Craft and talk about what kind of stories and images inspire us to draw and paint, but for now I think that this artistic dialogue will do.

I know that's much wordier than I usually get here, but I had promised to explain the project and I thought it would be nice to explain a little bit of my working process for digital painting.

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