Work in Progress

The Making of 'Road' - illustration process

Hello friends! I recently completed an illustration which I'm excited to share with you - here's how it came about. This post was originally published on my Patreon; patrons at the Warung Wordsmiths tier and above will receive high-res files of this illustration as May's wallpaper!

It accompanies 'Road: A Fairytale' on Strange Horizons, an online magazine of speculative fiction.

When the art director for SH, Heather McDougal, asked which story I'd prefer to illustrate for May, I immediately gravitated towards Shalini Srinivasan's piece. For one, the weather in Malaysia that week was sweltering so I identified very much with the heat-stricken pedestrians in the story. Also, Road is a compelling protagonist - moody, weary, trying ever so hard but also prone to black hunger and fits of fury.

First, I spent a few hours looking for reference images online. It helps me a lot to do studies of these images so that I have a visual library to pull from later when developing thumbnails and the final illustration.

Studies done in pencil.

There's a mix of people from rural India as well as the streets of cities like Mumbai. I spent a fair amount of time reading about workers who carry out the cleaning of roads, gutters, sewage tunnels - for very little pay, and in very dangerous conditions - and learned that they are called conservancy workers or sewer cleaners. All of them are from the Dalit caste. When they die in poverty, often early, their jobs pass to their widows. Photographer Sudharak Olwe documented their lives over a period of a year; view his photos here.

Next, I came up with a dozen or so thumbnails and picked four to develop further. I try to show a different mood or aspect of the story in each option.

Colour thumbnails for ‘Road’.

Heather suggested a combination of C and D in a portrait orientation; it was important to show what went on underground, as Road ends up empathizing with the conservancy workers who descend into its depths. Depicting the passage of time by showing Road and its users going on endless cycles around the sun, flattened out and not quite subject to the rules of perspective, hints at the fairytale aspect of the story. I also wanted to suggest the sentient/living nature of Road through red hues in its textured cutaway. Seething, breathing, waiting...

I quickly sketch out a new thumbnail, add guidelines for the sun and curves, print that out and go over it with a pen to work out the details.

New thumbnail sketch, and refined sketch.

This refined sketch is then printed out at the same size I plan to do the painting at, roughly 12x18". I tape the pieces of A4 printer paper together and go over the back of the printout with a pastel pencil or stick, coating it in a layer of pastel. Next, I go over the lines with a trusty tiny bamboo skewer, pressing hard enough to transfer the pastel but not so hard that the underlying paper (Fabriano Rosaspina) is scored or dented.

Transferring the sketch to paper.

The result is reasonably distinct lines imprinted on the paper, light enough to be erased if needed. The pastel will dissolve in water, which is perfect as I'm going to ink over the lines.

Pastel lines.

And so we get to inking! For me this process is about laying down some lines, dissolving them with water to create washes, then going over again to reinforce lost lines - a slow push and pull with the medium. I use a Pentel colour brush pen with water-soluble ink for the gray tones, and walnut ink or pastel for the brown tones.

Inking very tiny people!

Ten hours and two sore shoulders later, I take the completed piece and scan it in. Since the full drawing is far too large to fit into my A4-sized scanner, I lift the lid out and scan in parts before merging them together via Batch > Photomerge in Adobe Photoshop.

Sometimes this leads to funny unintended results...

The Photomerge algorithm doesn't always fail, but when it does…

...and a bit of wrangling is needed to get the algorithm to stitch the parts up the right way.

Once that's sorted out, I begin tweaking and colouring the piece, taking care to preserve the texture of the pastel or ink washes. The formerly sanguine sun turns into a warmer, radiant yellow.

The sun’s borders are inspired by lotus motifs from Hindu and Buddhist art.

The vast majority of the tweaks are done non-destructively via adjustment layers and layer masks. I highly recommend learning to use them - they are a great addition to your arsenal of tools if you work digitally in any form.

Underneath all those adjustment layers, the original art remains largely untouched.

I also paint in the red veins running through Road; this is far easier to do digitally.

And so we arrive at the final illustration below. I'm very pleased at how it turned out. For me, it's a step closer to figuring out a line-centric way of painting that also includes washes and textures - a style that feels like me.

Life goes on, day after day, season after season, and Road sees it all.


Be sure to read Shalini's lovely writing on Strange Horizons! And Gallery-quality prints of this are available on INPRNT - use the code 'AGBOZA5E' for 10% off till the 4th of June.

What did you think of the story?

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.

The Making of 'Longevity'

Mee sua is also known as longevity noodles, symbolising long life. While it's commonly eaten on birthdays and during celebrations, there's no rule against having it on regular days when you want a hearty bowl of comfort and love. My mother has been making Foochow red wine mee sua for me ever since I was in her womb - safe to say that this dish is one of my favourites, and that nobody cooks it better than her.

When Light Grey Art Lab put out a call for artists to make pieces about the dishes they love, for the FOODIES exhibition, I knew right away what I would draw.

I begin by sketching out thumbnails for different ideas. This part of the process involves a lot of "what if"s. What if I change the camera angle? What if I show a close up of the mee? What if I incorporate symbols into the illustration?

Circles have come to symbolise many things in various cultures: protection, heaven, eternity, balance. The yin and yang, two opposing forces in nature that stand for dark and light, negative and positive, feminine and masculine, are encompassed within a circle. There are circular versions of the Chinese symbols for longevity, 壽 or 'shòu', which I wanted to incorporate into the outer part of the illustration. I remember concentric circular patterns on 18th century bronze rain drums I saw in the Royal Palace at Luang Prabang, Laos, which inspire me to try a similar layout here. And the DNA strands are a reference to my background in science, as well as how deeply this dish has been ingrained in me since childhood.

This initial step of exploring, developing, and researching ideas is the most crucial part of the process. One of my teachers once said, "You can't polish a turd", which is true - the flashiest rendering and effects can't save a boring or shallow concept, or something with a fundamentally wonky drawing.

Next, I head to the computer and print off a simple template that's made up of a frame in the correct dimensions, plus outlines of circles - faster than drawing them by hand. I then sketch the placement of the noodles, chicken, and other ingredients on this template. Using a lightpad, I can ink on watercolour paper over the guide, removing the need to draw and then erase pencil lines on the thicker paper itself.

All of the above - thumbnails, research, rough drawing, inking - constitutes around five to six hours of work.

The ink lines are scanned and cleaned up in Photoshop. I throw in a texture before I begin colouring, just so I don't have to look at the harsh white of the screen while working.

The first tedious step involves using the Lasso tool to mark out flat areas of colour for different elements on separate layers. Having them on separate layers is key because I can easily change the colour of, say, the soup without affecting the ginger pieces or noodles - and I can also turn the layer contents into masks. This flexibility is why I prefer to work digitally when it comes to colouring.

I then go in with a brush to add lines, marks, and texture. In fact, for this piece, there are only three brushes I use - one from Kyle Webster's watercolour pack, another for the rough texture, and the basic round brush for blocking in colours. You don't need many fancy brushes once you find a core set that you're comfortable using. Plus, the gradient tool set to low opacity is a great way to add subtle changes in hue or value quickly.

After that, I make decisions as to what colours I want the lines to be, keeping in mind that the central circle is the focus of the piece and that the DNA strands or ingredients on the periphery shouldn't stand out too much at first. In this close-up you can see that the lines for the ingredients have been given a china blue overlay, while the ones on the noodles are a darker maroon.

A few more adjustments here and there with Levels layers, and we're done! Time to resize it for print and send the files off. The digital part of the process took around eight hours. All in all, that's about fourteen hours clocked on this piece, not including placing the order with the printing company, composing a blurb to go in the exhibition, exporting files for the web, and writing this post.

Have you ever eaten red wine mee sua? Is there a particular dish which holds meaning and memory for you? Leave a comment and let's celebrate the food in our lives!


Love this piece?

6x4" postcards (with recipe!) and 9x6" archival prints are available at the Light Grey Art Lab shop.