The Making of 'Listen'

'Rules for Communing with Spirits' by Christopher R. Alonso is the latest story at http://firesidefiction.com. It's an evocative tale about a breakup, learning to listen, coming to terms with control...and seeing spirits. Thanks to Pablo Defendini, Fireside's awesome art director and publisher, for the opportunity to illustrate it.

The story takes place among the Cuban community in Miami, and it was important that this be shown. I spent a lot of time researching the area, looking at photographs of funerals in those traditions. Since none of the spirits' faces are visible in the illustration, their clothes (guayabera, flowery blouse, etc) had to communicate the cultural context.

Exploratory sketches for the characters:

Figuring out clothing and heads for the spirits

Thinking about how the two main characters, Xenia and Caro, would look

When planning the image, I wanted to emphasise the relationship between Xenia and Caro and suggest a kind of slow, inevitable fraying. This was best shown in thumbnail D - their contrasting directions and the spirits flowing between them serve to further illustrate the growing gap. Pablo liked this idea too.

Rough thumbnail sketches

I developed D into a colour sketch. At this point, 80% of the image has been figured out, and all that remained was to paint it. Xenia and Caro were painted with ink on watercolour paper; each of the spirits was drawn separately on thin parchment paper.

Pencil drawings of the spirits

I then scanned everything in, composited, and coloured the image in Photoshop. This process allows me to be flexible and adjust individual elements even at a late stage. Getting the same degree of luminosity with a purely traditional approach would have taken a great deal more time, and going a 100% digital route loses a lot of the textures that are a key part of traditional media. 

The final illustration

Be sure to read the story online! This also appears in the first ever Fireside Quarterly magazine as a fold-out poster, alongside art by Kevin Tong and Michelle Wong and many other kickass stories and articles. If you subscribe you'll receive a print copy. Exciting!