Morwenna's execution — a scene from the science-fiction series The Book of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe.
This is my process journal from concept to finished painting.
Morwenna whispered, "Will it be over soon?"
"It is almost over now." I had seated her on the block again, and was picking up my sword. "Close your eyes. Try to remember that almost everyone who has ever lived has died, even the Conciliator, who will rise as the New Sun."
Her pale, long-lashed eyelids fell, and she did not see the upraised sword. The flash of steel silenced the crowd again, and when the full hush had come, I brought the flat of my blade down upon her thighs...
—The Claw of the Conciliator, chapter 4, by Gene Wolfe
I started this piece with a clear picture of the scene already in my head, and a thumbnail to get it out on paper.
Sketching the characters and identifying the light source. I'm using a F pencil on A3 sketchpaper. I referenced the poses by posing in front of a full-length mirror, while choreographing the scene in my mind.
Nailing down the woman's expression.
Hardening the linework. I've moved from F pencil to HB pencil.
Linework pretty much finished. All the main features of the characters are defined.
Time spent on Phase 1 was about 3 hours.
What helped a lot was having an drawing buddy on online livestream -- they streamed their digital art, I drew along, and we chatted occasionally. Drawing in community was very energizing, it helped me get this piece off the ground and build momentum.
I scanned the A3 sketchbook in sections with an A4 scanner and stitched them together in my digital painting program (Clip Studio Paint). But before that, I redrew the executioner's legs to give him a more dramatic stance.
I did the linework, then "drafted" the major shadows. At this point, I decided that the scene needed to be more than just these two characters, so I blocked in the crowd that was present at the execution.
Cleaned up all the shading. I also reread the scene in the novel, and added some characters and details to give interest to the crowd.
Time spent on Phase 2 about 3.5 hours. I also did this phase of digital art with a livestream buddy -- we streamed our digital painting and gave each other constant encouragement.
At this point, I put the painting in front of my art community and asked for critique on composition and lighting -- and received a bucketful of feedback. The main issue they identified was the lack of a clear focal point, and how to direct the viewer's gaze that way.
I'd always intended the focal point to be the woman's face. But the fuligin cloak ('fuligin' is the fictional version of vantablack) was an issue: it dominated all attention (since it had the highest contrast of all the objects in the scene), and the blackness flattened out the figure of the executioner. I was always aware of the problematic cloak... and now that problem can't be avoided anymore! My art community helped brainstorm different compositional strategies to deal with the lost focal point and problematic cloak.
One artist's paintover suggestion on how to frame the woman using the background.
I considered a tight vertical crop to bring emphasis on the woman.
Other issues were lack of dynamism - the flat perspective and the executioner's stance in profile are not particularly dramatic. But this can't be changed without redrawing the entire scene. I was also advised not to use a square(ish) composition for any illustration -- rectangular is always better.
I already had some compositional ideas in mind -- especially the shadow on the woman's neck, which was an idea I had from the very beginning. The feedback confirmed that I needed to push those ideas further and make them more overt.
(It so happened that right at this time, I was watching Marco Bucci's YouTube series "10 Minutes to Better Painting" -- so I had those pointers in mind when I worked on this composition.)
Blocking out the background - for now just shapes to get the values right. I had no idea what objects they would actually be. The crowd is now the midground.
I also played around with the shape of the cloak.
Time spent on Phase 3 was 30-60 minutes.
I showed this draft to my art community. The background was much better but the cloak was sus. This was the sign to gather some references: search YouTube for videos on people moving around in cloaks.
Now that I'd established a good composition, it was time to create the final version. I still had no idea what the objects of the background would be, so I read the novel again to get inspiration. I do my best thinking with pencil and paper, so I whipped up these thumbnails in my sketchbook.
Drafting the background was something of a pain -- both the subject material (I painted both thumbnails several times...) and an appropriate tool (...using different brushes to find the best one). I drew and discarded a bunch of drafts before I got something satisfactory.
About this time I hit a low morale point: got frustrated, started doubting my ability to paint a background, and almost lost my confidence to continue. But I'm glad I pushed through the crisis and made it out the other end. The background below looked like crap, but I couldn't reach an acceptable standard at that point in time. Nevertheless, while it wasn't a great background, it was an okay background -- and "okay" is something I can roll with.
Now that the background was more-or-less finished, I can have fun cleaning up and polishing details. By this time I'd recovered my confidence in my ability to finish this piece. Yay! It's done!
Time spent on Phase 5 was around 4-5 hours. I painted this while livestreaming with a couple other artists.
The painting was finished!... or was it really? The more I looked at the above piece, the more the background jumped out at me. What was "okay" in Phase 5 now really looked sloppy.
I think it was important for me to roll with a sloppy background in Phase 5 -- I was losing my nerve, and at real risk of giving up. Even though the background wasn't up to standard, I needed to treat it as if it'd be part of the final work, and push on to finish the piece. Now that I'd regained my confidence, I felt more able to revisit it.
I repainted the background -- and now the piece is finished. Phase 6 took about 1 hour.
Total working time was 12-14 hours over 5 days.
I'm starting to establish an art pipeline that incorporates traditional drawing with digital painting. Going forward, I think this is a successful model I can keep refining.
The main learning point: I need to do visual development and composition much earlier in my process, as early as the initial thumbnail phases before Phase 1. I think I'm good at thumbnailing characters and poses, but I only had vague ideas of broader composition, and certainly didn't think of the midground (crowd) and background (buildings) until I was well into the painting phases.
I think my vague ideas were sufficiently strong that I could pull off a decent composition for Morwenna's execution, while doing justice to my vision of the scene in the book. But I think it'll be good for me to develop visual communication, background, and lighting alongside thumbnailing the figures.
I also have to keep improving my digital painting draughtsmanship, especially when painting backgrounds. The buildings can stand to improve.
This experience continues to confirm the power of doing art in community. Many thanks to the art community who provided a wealth of constructive feedback that corrected mistakes, made the painting much better, and helped me realize my vision; and the livestreaming buddies who worked alongside me and were a source of moral support.
Yes, I drew it -- while developing the initial thumbnail and doing some morbid research about historical beheadings (complete with photos).
The flash of steel silenced the crowd again, and when the full hush had come, I brought the flat of my blade down upon her thighs; over the smack of it on flesh, the sound of the femurs breaking came as clear as the crack, crack of a winning boxer's left-hand, right-hand blows. For an instant Morwenna remained poised on the block, fainted but not fallen; in that instant I took a backward step and severed her neck with the smooth, horizontal stroke...
—The Claw of the Conciliator, chapter 4, by Gene Wolfe