Use a character to tell a story
Kenneth Anderson creates a fun, character-based illustration with an animation vibe and an emphasis on a clear narrative
Drawing characters is a passion of mine and I try to tell a story with them in every illustration I do. It can be subtle or forthright; as long as there’s some narrative in there, the audience can relate and it brings an artwork to life. This is important in the world of animation – every character design I do for a client has to have a sense of story behind them.
When ImagineFX asked me to do the cover for an animation issue I knew I had to get an element of this storytelling in there. I threw a few ideas on the table, but this is the one that stuck. I’m glad too, because it has some subtlety – a story that relies on really looking at the piece. Why is this girl not scared of the thing casting that ominous looming shadow over her? Her sketch reveals it’s just a goofy, friendly monster.
My background in traditional animation definitely influences my illustration style. It’s stylised and exaggerated, but I like to keep the colours and forms grounded in reality. I knew painting this would be tricky with the grassy background and heavy use of green – I find colour a challenge every time I paint. So I took it one step at a time, getting the elements I knew I could handle out the way and figuring out the difficult bits as I went. My workflow is simple but not completely linear, so this workshop is a rough guide to how I work.
With all that said, let’s get started!
1 Thinking, research and sketching
At the start of any new illustration, I mull over the brief and consider how I’m going to approach the work. I research anything I’m unfamiliar with and have a look at other artwork for inspiration. With the notes from the ImagineFX team in mind, I rough out some simple sketches, trying to find a distinctive idea and character in each one.
2 Refine the idea
There’s a bit of back and forth between myself and the team while we decide on a direction and lock down the image. It’s important to get the characters and composition right at the earliest stages. If the character doesn’t feel alive in a rough sketch, then no amount of painting will fix that!
3 Colour and value rough
Once the team is happy with the sketch I do a rough colour pass on a Multiply layer, switching to greyscale to check my values. I know the most prominent colour is going to be the green of the grass, so I base my colours around this. Red hair and dark clothes should make our character stand out.
4 Prepare the canvas
After some tweaks to the composition the colour rough is approved. I like to paint at a higher resolution than needed so I double the required image size. I create reference layers with the bleed areas and the logo indicated, so I can switch them on and off to get a feel of how everything is working in context.
5 Create grass brushes
Before painting, I create some quick grass brushes. I want to use my own so they’re consistent with the overall style of my artwork and have a more hand-drawn effect. They don’t need to be perfect – just good enough so I can quickly lay down some texture and then paint over the top. I have supplied these brushes with your resources – see page 65.
6 Red underpainting
I start painting from scratch with a default Pastel medium tip brush and using my colour rough as a guide. Because green will be a large percentage of the image, I plan to paint on top of a reddish underpainting. I want the red to shine through so the green is less harsh – a tip I learnt from James Gurney’s book, Color and Light.
7 Background block in
Using my custom brushes and a default Pencil brush I layer in the grass. I’m careful about where the grass is in relation to the magazine cover text and where it leads the eye: I want the viewer’s attention to be on the characters and not on the blades of grass, after all! I use Hue Jitter (in the Color Dynamics section of the Brush dialog) so that the colours vary. I’m keen for some yellows and blue-greens to be in there.
8 Bring in the characters
I copy the characters from my colour sketch and put them on separate layers. I have to be careful I don’t lose their energy as I paint them up. Using the rough characters as underpaintings, I start to block in their forms on a clipping mask. This enables me to paint without destroying the original layer information, merging the layers when I’m happy.
9 Continue the block-in
I do a rough pass of everything, focusing on good values and getting colours that work together while avoiding too much detail. I throw stuff out there and see what works, painting until things start to feel right. I separate elements on to different layers: the flowers, shoes and jacket have their own layers. It makes them easy to move things around.
10 Treating the shadows differently
I keep the main character and monster shadows on separate layers and start painting in cool hues to suggest the reflected “off screen” blue sky. I minimise details in the shadows and ensure that they’re strong enough to suggest a sunny day. I set the main monster shadow layer to Multiply, but the girl’s shadow is painted on a Normal layer because it doesn’t need to interact with a complex background.
11 Rendering details and colours
With everything roughed out I start to render the forms, using the Color Picker tool to choose colours from the canvas. I try to bring the colours to life by adding subtle reds into the face and hands, reflected light from the grass and more cool sky reflections in the shadows. This is an ongoing process throughout the rest of the painting process.
12 Overlay some yellow-greens
Once I have most of the elements in place, I add an Overlay layer on top of all the layers and paint in some yellowgreens. I find this helps to bring to life the glows and transitions between shade and light. I switch this layer on and off while painting, so it doesn’t interfere when painting on other layers.
13 More rendering and tweaks
By this point the major elements of the scene are mostly complete. I just need to tighten up forms and details and change any bits that I’m not happy with. I introduce more grass details, work into the flowers and adjust some colours in the faces of the girl and her dog before sending it to the ImagineFX team for final feedback.
14 Final polish
I get stuck into tightening up the details and making the changes requested by ImagineFX. I’m careful not to get too carried away with details because I want the image to maintain a looseness. I refine my Overlay layer and create a colour correction layer: my image is very green and I want to balance things out with some subtle reds. I also adjust the sight line of the girl’s eyes so that it’s clear she’s looking at the tip of her pencil to help her complete the sketch of the friendly monster.
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