The rescue of Triskele. Process journal.

23 September 2022 - Reading time: 15 minutes

Severian rescues the dog, Triskele.

The latest in my slow, long-term project to illustrate one of my favourite SF novel series, The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe.  This is the process journal for this piece.

...I laid my dog on a client's bed and cleaned him as well as I could with sponges I had carried down from the examination room.

Under the crusted blood his fur was short, stiff, and tawny.  His tail had been cut so short that what remained was wider than it was long. His ears had been cut almost completely away, leaving only stiff points shorter than the first joint of my thumb.  [...] His right foreleg was gone -- the upper half crushed to a pulp.  I cut it away after I had sutured up his chest as well as I could, and it began to bleed again. I found the artery and tied it, then folded the skin under (as Master Palaemon had taught us) to make a neat stump.

Triskele licked my hand from time to time as I worked...

The Shadow of the Torturer, chapter 4 'Triskele',
by Gene Wolfe (The Book of the New Sun)


A slideshow of the entire painting process.


Phase 1: Scene composition: thumbnailing and lineart (on sketchpaper).

After reading through the scene in the novel, I started by thumbnailing some ideas.  Image composition was easy for this scene: I already had a strong visual in my mind's eye, including the overhead camera angle and a sense of the lighting.  The thumbnails were mostly about organizing the two characters in a pleasing composition.

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I began the sketch on A3 sketchpaper with F and HB pencils, since I find proportions and perspective much easier to plot out on paper than in a digital canvas, especially for establishing the correct perspective of the setting.  Triskele's and Severian's poses were drawn mainly from imagination using form construction principles.  I used photo references of mastiff dogs for Triskele.

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I encountered some trouble with Severian's head position so I had to look up figure drawing references in the end.

In the meantime, I was doing research and looking up photo references on: different breeds of mastiffs, animal limb amputation and recovery, surgical tools.  Kinda macabre, especially a photos search of pet dogs recovering from amputations... but it was mighty informative!


Phase 2: Lighting composition: thumbnailing (on digital canvas).

With the lineart mostly finished, it was time to digitally thumbnail the lighting and values.  I already had a rough idea of the lighting, and did an initial "freeform" painting to get those ideas out of my head and onto the canvas.

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Grouping the values into a coherent hierarchy proved to be tricky.  At first I thought of a foreground/midground/background value hierarchy, and attempted that here -- but the process felt confusing and didn't sit right with me.

I showed this version to my art community for critique and received a lot of valuable feedback.  The main suggestion was to ditch the fg/mg/background hierarchy and instead regroup the values according to light and shadow, which is more suitable for a close-up character scene like this.  Dividing the value scale clearly into light and shadow would then allow me to adjust local colour/values as needed, without compromising the overall "read" of the image.

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I'd already known about light/shadow value grouping and have used it for other drawings, so I needed that reminder to use it for this piece.  I redid the value thumbnail, and found the process much simpler and smoother than my initial fg/mg/bg grouping, which in retrospect is more useful for landscape/environmental paintings.

Identifying the light source/direction, and using it to block in shadows.

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Adjusting overall lighting.  At another artist's suggestion, I roughed in a secondary light from the lower left that shone towards Severian's back, but didn't use it in the end.


Phase 3: Scanning and digital lineart.

With a sketch on paper and a lighting/value thumbnail in hand -- it was time to do the digital painting.

I scanned the sketch in separate parts with my A4 scanner, stitched the pieces together in my art program (Clip Studio Paint), and used it as the foundation for the digital sketch.  This was the time to fill in all the details that didn't make it into the paper sketch: Severian's clothes, the surgical tools, and other set dressing.  The perspective of the ground plane and the surgery table were finalized using CSP's perspective rulers.

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Refining and finalizing the sketch; here I reread the scene from the book and adjusted details to be more faithful to the text.  I debated whether to do a cleaner "lineart" pass over the sketch (which is what I'd always done for past paintings), but decided to forego that and launch straight into painting.


Phase 4: Painting - first steps.

I recently finished watching Ronnie Williford's Taking Control of Color: a short online course focused mainly on traditional painting with colour.  Ronnie began with some colour theory (which was extremely useful), then spent the rest of the course doing painting demonstrations.  One of the demos was painting with a limited gray palette, varying the "temperature" of the grays to create a surprisingly colourful image.  This was the first time I saw a demonstration of colour temperature, and learned Ronnie's thought process of how to adjust grays to be "warm" or "cool".

So far, I've stuck to a grisaille/monochrome palette with my New Sun illustrations, so using a limited gray palette for this piece seemed like a good way to start learning something new.

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Blocking out the flat colours.  Triskele started off as warm gray (7% colour saturation on a red hue), Severian was neutral gray (0% saturation), and the background was cool gray (11% colour saturation on a blue hue).  To maintain this limited colour palette, I relied entirely on Clip Studio Paint's HLS (hue, lightness (value), saturation) colour sliders for this piece, instead of the colour wheel.

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Establishing the strong primary light source on a separate painting layer.

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I'd been posting WIP images to my art community on Discord all along.  Here I was informed that, in spite of using CSP's rulers, the perspective of the surgery table was still wrong: its left end was decreasing in size too quickly for such a shallow perspective and camera angle.  I'd also refined the sketch during Phase 3 so that Severian was sitting with knees under the table, but I didn't adjust the height of the table legs to suit the proportions.

It turned out that I made a mistake on one of the vanishing points while setting up CSP's perspective ruler.  I fixed the ruler and repainted the table at correct perspective and height (and my art friends confirmed that it was now correct).  Just goes to show that a built-in tool can't substitute for real understanding of fundamentals -- one can misuse a ruler due to ignorance and get things wrong!

The corrected perspective ruler, before I repainted the table.


Phase 5: Painting - rendering details.

The rest of the painting phase was painting shadows and details.  Painting shadows was relatively easy -- I just had to follow my light source guide.  But how to do details such as fur, folds in fur, clothing, folds in clothing, skin, hair, metal...? So this is what it means to "render" (in digital painting terms): using different types of brushes, mark-making strokes, and colour/value, to create details that differentiate surfaces and show visual interest.

This was entering unknown territory.  Everything looked rudimentary at first, and it was a challenge to juggle texturing/rendering while maintaining a handle on values and edges.  But I think I got somewhere in the end.

Brushes: I used a few specialized texture and translucent brushes, but the vast majority of the painting was with one textured square brush with fixed opacity and size.  (This one on Clip Studio's Assets store.)  I'm slowly experimenting with different brushes and finding the ones I like -- and this one seems quite promising.

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The last image editing step was "playing with sliders": adjusting levels and contrast to get the best value spread while following my value thumbnail, since I didn't really achieve that in the painting process.

The background looked a little empty, so I added some abstract texture.  In retrospect it would've been better to spent more time visualizing the rest of the setting and doing a more concrete background, but I'd run out of focus by this time.  In future, I'd incorporate this background dressing into the thumbnailing process.

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Value comparison between the thumbnail and final image.  I was a bit timid and could've been more bold with pushing the painting into a wider spread of values -- value range is a perennial challenge I face both in traditional and digital art.  Something to keep working on.

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And finally, the image crop to create the final illustration at the top of this blog post.  I'm still learning what a good image crop/frame looks like.  I tried to find a balance between allowing the composition to look interesting by spilling out of the frame, while maintaining breathing space and clarity.


Debrief.

I didn't keep close track of time for this piece, but I estimate it took 25-30 hours from pencil sketch to final painting, over a period of 3 weeks.

When I made my previous process journal, Morwenna's execution, I was just starting to test a hybrid traditional drawing/digital painting process.  This piece is a greater refinement of the process, and I'm definitely going to keep using this hybrid method to make digital illustrations.

I'm trying to move away from an art style that relies heavily on lineart, to a style that is more painterly.  I think this piece is a good development in that direction, especially when I made a conscious decision to skip a "lineart pass" over the sketch, work on painting better edges, and adjust the sketch layer to blend better with the painting.

I've also been learning how to "render" -- ie. paint image details using different digital brushes and tools -- in smaller digital piece.  This one is the first major piece where I've had to focus on rendering details.  I think I've made a good start, and I want to keep refining the process.

I've been searching for a "gateway" to learn more about colours in a systematic way that also suits my process.  So far, Ronnie Williford's method of painting with grays makes most sense to me. This piece was a good dip into that, especially in choosing a starting palette that harmonized while remaining very gray and desaturated.  In retrospect, I ended up not really applying the colour temperature principles from Ronnie's course.  But since my New Sun project is deliberately monochromatic, I think it'll be a good place to keep learning how to paint with grays and colour temperature.

I received valuable critique from my art community, especially in phase 2 when I got confused with how to organize values.  It was quite tricky to manage all the different moving parts in this painting: playing with local values and rendering detail while maintaining strict value hierarchy.  I didn't succeed as well as I'd hoped, but it was a rewarding challenge and the painting is good enough for now!

Overall, painting Severian and Triskele went very smoothly.  I didn't get as frustrated with it as I have with previous pieces -- which is surprising, since I always hit a wall with something in any painting, and have to push through doubt and disappointment.  While I think I could've refined the rendering even more, I'm happy with what I achieved here.

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Thanks for checking out this process journal.  I've been quite productive with art lately, hopefully I'll get around to posting about more projects.

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