This past June I had the fortune of attending the Illustration Master Class. For those unfamiliar with the IMC it's a solid week of education, inspiration, and late nights in the studio with brilliant instructors and amazing classmates. We were provided with a few prompts to begin our piece for the week, I chose "alien and companion". Most of my current portfolio leans towards fantasy, and taking on a scifi subject would be a challenge. I had no idea how I would approach it.
For me, when it comes to an initial idea, there are many things I do. I keep a little sketchbook around, I jot down words, ideas, little sketches, phrases, anything reminiscent of how I'd like the final painting to feel, or anything that gets me excited to draw. The hard part of my prompt was the design for the alien companion. There are so many tropes we see when it comes to aliens: weird colored skin, big eyes, high tech suits and guns. I knew I needed to get past my will to mimic what I've already seen while still keeping it humanoid as the prompt had dictated.
I made some choices and collected some imagery to help my design develop: It would be a desert world they were in, it'd be low-tech, and I collected images of Arabic architecture and old machines to keep me inspired. Taking these things into account I began to make alien designs while looking at images of camels and beetles, and eventually I came close to the final design of my alien. I also decided that the story in this image would revolve around her: She was smuggling valuable artifacts out of war torn buildings to safe areas and the human was a hired body guard.
After a few sketches, I decided there needed to be a certain artifact we could see and be curious about, I mean, why would you have to hire a bodyguard if you weren't going to carry something that looked really cool? Immediately I thought of this great metal geomancy box I'd seen in the Arabic art section of a museum in London. An excerpt from the poem on it reads: "I am the silent speaker... the judicious one hides his secret thoughts but I disclose them as if hearts were created as my parts." And I decided that the artifact would simply be... a very curious box.
And now to drawing! The importance has been stressed to me a thousand times... do thumbnails. Don't think about the details of your piece, think of the broad shapes and the composition as a whole. I did plenty of thumbnails, here I share the first two as well the final detailed thumbnail. Once I'd made my final choices, I scanned it in and proceeded to do digital thumbnail studies for color and value (unfortunately, I seemed to have lost those between then and now).
Because I had limited time to finish my piece I tried something a little bit different when it came to transferring. I printed my thumbnail out, lightly, in a soft blue, and much larger than the original thumbnail. My plan for this was to draw the final image over the printed out sketch, scan it in, and then digitally remove the light blue sketch. It worked, mostly, though I ran into some problems digitally separating the lines of the light blue sketch from the pencil lines of the final drawing. If I were to do this again, I'd consider putting a layer of tracing paper over the sketch and doing my final drawing on that.
I printed the final drawing out very lightly on 140lb hotpress watercolor paper, and again, tried something new by mounting the paper onto a board. This was my first experiment with doing that, and I plan to try using that technique a few more times before sharing in detail how to make it work for watercolor.
And of course, the fun part, washes. When I finally get to painting, I keep some images around to reference for color and textures. I had pulled up images of bright parakeets, colorful clothing, beetles and jewel encrusted rifles. Always keep great visuals around to consume for inspiration while working. Whenever you feel stuck or bored these images will offer plenty on solutions you may not have thought of otherwise. Having these images around throughout the process helped me solve the issues I was having with the human's face and positioning. Reference images are so, so important, and if you can you should take your own.
I had challenged myself in other ways while working on this piece: there were two figures (something I had unconsciously avoided until now), and there was plenty of detail. I built up the washes to a point where they were beginning to feel solid, and then began detailing in the lines with a brush and acryla-gouache. Acryla-gouache is a great medium if you use a lot of linework in your watercolors. It matches the texture and consistency of a opaque watercolor, like gouache, but is perfectly waterproof once it dries.
Once the washes and lines are done, it's hours of back and forth, building layers of watercolor in the details, and then bringing up the line where you want it to stand out. In some areas that I really want to highlight or lighten up, I'll use a bit of gouache. For me this is tedious, it's really hard to tell how close I am to being done, and I tend to get in the zone while I'm doing it and skip lunch. This is probably the most time consuming part of my process, but it's what makes the painting complete.
I had a lot of fun, and a lot of great advice while working on this piece. So many people asked me about the box, and about the characters and their story that once I started thinking about it, I couldn't stop. I've been working on their story and the details of how the box works. You'll be seeing more soon.