The Making of 'Omelas' / IMC 2018

In May, I had the opportunity to attend the annual Illustration Master Class in Amherst, run by the same amazing folks behind SmArtSchool. It’s something I’ve dreamed of doing for years. Since then I’ve constantly returned to the insights gleaned there when working on new pieces or thinking about career directions and goals.

I’ll do another post just exclusively for lessons learnt at the IMC. For now, suffice to say it was eye-opening, inspiring, and utterly refreshing to be among a cohort of people so driven and focused on making art.

From left: focus group critiques; gouache demonstration by James Gurney; the view in studio 101; Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell working on their paintings.

Attendees work on a piece throughout the week at the IMC, either following one of the prompts provided or using one of their own. I brought in something I’d been thinking about for a few months already - an illustration for Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’. If you haven’t already read it, I won’t spoil it except to say that it’s a story about a utopian city, perfect in so many ways save for the social contract it is built upon.

Many of the instructors talked about bringing an emotional, personal connection to illustration assignments regardless of the brief. There was one thing that also influenced my approach to the piece: the seven indigenous Orang Asli children who had run away from their abusive school environment in 2015. Five of them perished in the jungle and only two were found seven weeks later, thanks to a combination of negligence and disinterest by the authorities. I was a teacher in a public school back then and deeply shaken by the news. For students to run away and perish because they feared their teacher’s mistreatment - that is the worst thing possible.

There is a child in Omelas, far beneath the city in a dark room, and I would base that child on the seven children.

 Rough thumbnails. These were presented and critiqued in focus groups consisting of participants and instructors.

Rough thumbnails. These were presented and critiqued in focus groups consisting of participants and instructors.

Because this was a personal piece, my intention was to explore new ways of working which I normally wouldn’t with client assignments. I could spend much more time fiddling around, trying out things, and going on detours. Case in point:

Inspired by James Gurney, I made a maquette which didn’t end up being used, but was still insightful.

Preliminary sketches for the child, based on images from news reports.

Being in the same room as so many experienced artists, I have the benefit (and drawback) of receiving tons of helpful feedback and critique on the piece. Learning to decide which to use, to listen to the work itself, and to stay true to my original, quiet vision for it, is essential. Thank you to everyone who helped this come together!

Slowly building up the city with ink and white pastel pencil.

In between attending lectures, watching demonstrations, and trying to catch up with sleep, I spend time exploring what I could do with sumi ink - making large washes of textures, layering it slowly to build up the face and city. Wet-on-wet, the ink lays down in gorgeously soft gradations on Arches hot press sheets.

After creating all these physical layers, the next step is to scan and pull them all together digitally back home. My scanner is an Epson V370 that only takes A4 surfaces. Thanks to the wonders of technology, I can scan in parts, making sure to keep the piece aligned in the same direction to the scan bar so the paper texture is lit uniformly each time. Batch > Photomerge in Photoshop will usually do a good job of stitching the parts together, unless it fails in which case you might have to crop/ rotate the individual scans as closely as possible before trying again.

Some of the ink layers, with a preliminary digital wash of colour laid down with the round soft brush.

Working in Photoshop allows me to explore options in the middle of the process rather than needing to have a somewhat concrete idea of the final early on. I approach colouring in Photoshop the same way Justin Gerard does in this Muddy Colors post: building it up in layers set to various layer modes. Multiply, Soft Light, and Overlay are the MVPs here.

Because the story walks a fine line between abstract and concrete - the narrator asks the reader to imagine Omelas as they will - this could be reflected via colour choices that aren’t entirely realistic. A hint of nightfall, coupled with low sunset light bathing the city in a romantic glow, seems appropriate.

I paint the character and ripples on separate sheets of paper. Scanning them in, I position, skew, and resize as necessary.

Next comes adjustments to values and the texture of the paper in some areas. The granulation and tooth in the middle could do with some toning down, but I do want to retain it at the edges of the city and the bottom of the water. I duplicate the water texture layer, run a High Pass filter on it, then set that to Overlay. I save two versions - one with, one without this additional texture layer - so I can layer mask out areas I don’t want textured with the gradient tool.

And here we are, at the end of a long journey. While there are things I might have done differently, as far as learning goes, I’m pleased with the various things I discovered while working on this, both conceptually and technically. Can’t wait to put them to use in future pieces!

Stay tuned for an #inktober2018 project, up next on the blog.