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 'Listen'

'Rules for Communing with Spirits' by Christopher R. Alonso is the latest story at 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!

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.