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

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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.

Gather ref­er­ences

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.

Add value

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.

Choose colours

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.

Glow­ing clouds

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.

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