Paint a mythical figure
Gain an insight into Cynthia Sheppard’s art process as she paints a mythical deity while introducing plenty of heroic symbolism into the mix
When given the task of painting a character, many questions come to mind: “Who is this? What does this character do? Where do they live? In what time period do they exist?” Even if it’s just a relatively simple portrait, there’s always an opportunity to include information or symbolism in your painting that tells the viewer more about the character than just what he or she looks like.
Athena has classically been associated with war, and is often depicted with a spear and armour, but the usual road isn’t always the most appropriate for an assignment. In asking my questions, I begin to see her more as a wise strategist and protector, standing in a planning room of sorts, with scrolls and maps, releasing an owl familiar to scout some distant land. This workshop will continue to explore some of the other choices that I make and how they’re rendered.
In addition to composition and symbol choices, the workshop will serve as a stepby-step guide to the way I work on all my illustration assignments. I’ve learned over the years how essential it is to have a solid process to rely on; it’s the only way to make strong, consistent paintings throughout varying deadlines and life’s other myriad challenges. I’ll discuss how to hit the ground running with the planning phase: you’ll create thumbnails, gather reference and draw a line sketch. From there you’ll move into adding value, choosing a colour scheme, painting the background, and finishing the painting using a variety of techniques.
Start with a plan
Every painting should begin with a good plan. This will involve both knowing about your subject matter and figuring out how to compose that subject matter in a scene. That’s where the thumbnail sketch comes in. Do as many of these quick drawings as you can, so you have plenty of ideas to choose from. I like using pencil because it helps me stay loose and not become too concerned with details this early in the process.
I collect at least two kinds of reference before starting any painting. The first is photographic reference of either a model or objects, and the second is general inspiration. For a piece like this, I carry out an image search on Greek sculptures and motifs before sketching anything. I keep the figure and style references handy throughout the whole painting process, because I’m constantly looking back and forth to get visual information from them.
Take risks with poses
Making Athena look powerful and elegant means posing her at an angle where the viewer looks up at her. That angle on the face and neck poses a lot of challenges, because the jawline isn’t a hard edge but rather a collection of soft ones. Foreshortening the arm is also a calculated risk; be sure that if any limbs of your characters are shortened, they’re balanced out by other long limbs or the body’s length.
Draw a line sketch
It’s fine to begin a painting by delving straight into value and/or colour, but I like to begin with line. It’s a personal preference that gives me visual notes on where my hard edges will eventually go. I like to scan in my thumbnail sketches and work on top of them, because it gives me some guidelines to follow. I move forwards by interpreting and recording what I observe in my reference images.
Placing the lights and darks in the right places in your painting is the next essential step after the line sketch. Create a new layer under your lines and fill the background with a medium grey. Using a toned background will put the middle values in place for you and keep them consistent, enabling you to concentrate on painting just the highlights and shadows without having to worry about blending them together as much.
In ancient times, blue dyes and pigments were expensive or non-existent, but Athena isn’t a mere mortal, so having her wear a blue dress seems appropriate. The rest of the colours are chosen around the dress in a split-complimentary colour scheme, resulting in blue, orange (its complement on the colour wheel) and slight variations on each (warm gold, bluegreen, and so on). It’s a traditional colour scheme that works well for grabbing attention and co-ordinating with text.
Work the background first
It’s tempting to jump right in and render foreground details, but it’s always best to set the stage before the actors arrive on it. Even if it’s just a suggestion of an environment or landscape, begin by looking at reference images of similar places and getting a feel for lighting and colours. Here, I use a rich blue sky, an even richer blue to show the mountains in the distance, and increasing value and colour contrast of the buildings and rocks as they appear closer to the viewer.
The lighting on glowing clouds doesn’t necessarily follow convention. For glowing clouds, begin by imagining that the clouds are their own light source: the lightest part of each cloud shape should be towards the centre, not around the edges. When other cloud shapes overlap those bright centres, it creates the edge contrast that gives them depth. If you’re rendering clouds in a blue sky on a sunny day, also try making the clouds a warm yellow toward the glowing centre.
Shape and texture hair
You may have heard the advice ‘clumps not strands’ when rendering hair, meaning you should think about hair in terms of sections instead of painting a line for individual strands. I like to take that theory a step further, and plan for the entire mass of hair as one solid object, then break it down further from there. When it comes to curls, instead of long strands I treat each curl as its own separate rounded shape.
Create curling paper effects
Depicting realistic-looking leaves of paper is all about edge control. Start with an outline of the edge of the paper – the less straight the edge, the older and more distressed the paper will look. Next, shade only on one side, leaving the edge very clean. For an even cleaner edge, trace along your outlines with the Lasso tool to mask off one side. Finally, add colour and/or distress marks using a layer set to Multiply.
Achieve marbletextured skin
You can give a non-reflective object the appearance of smooth stone by adding highlights in the right places, both smaller and brighter in the lightest areas, and more pronounced in the darkest. Imagining that the background Greek statue’s surface is reflecting its environment, I sample some of the blue from the sky and brush it into the shadows. I also add smaller specular highlights on each of the muscles, to give them a glossy appearance.
Paint an animal companion
Because the owl is a symbol closely associated with Athena (and probably why we still think of owls as being wise today), I create an owl familiar on a new layer. Keeping this part of the painting on a different layer means I can’t use colours from the background to blend into the bird, but instead use semi-transparent brushstrokes at the backs of the wings to create the effect of motion, no matter where in the painting the owl ends up.
Create realistic embroidery
Athena is not only the goddess of wisdom, but also of crafts, so it seems fitting to picture her in a richly embroidered gown. First I draw a stylised olive branch motif in a single colour. Next, I lock the layer and paint highlights and shadows following the folds in the dress. This will make the pattern look like it’s directly on the surface of the fabric. In most cases you can also set the layer to Color Burn for a shinier, silky effect.
Remember to accessorise
Much like embroidery and other embellishments, using pieces of jewellery in a character’s costume can add a lot of visual interest. If the character comes from a specific culture, spend some of your research time looking up design motifs and details often worn in that era, and work them into the jewellery. Athena’s brooch, for example, is fashioned after a lion’s head carving and an ancient coin, and the scales around her neck from an Athenian statue.
Tell the story throughout
Don’t ignore details in the background. Even if the focus of your piece is a single figure or prominent foreground object, elements such as architecture or a landscape can enhance the story, or help reinforce traits in your character. In the frieze behind Athena, I want to play up the theme of protection of the city by depicting a hero fighting and defeating a fierce beast. To give the appearance of a marble relief, I’ll keep the value range very light, even in the shadows.