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?