Commission: A Bride, a Groom, and a Boat

Paul Russell

When I started offering my services as an illustrator, I thought that my ‘angle’ to distinguish myself from other artists would be to create ‘fantasy’ images –as in portraying the subject as Jedis, wizards, or other type of fictional characters.

Well, I guess this would also fall into the category of a ‘fantasy’ image, although of a different kind: Way back in April a friend of Paul Kimball, Paul Russell, contacted me because he was interested in me creating a very special commission. Because his engagement plans had to be inevitably postponed due to the Coronavirus situation, he wanted me to paint a lake scene with him and Donna, his bride. He provided several reference photographs of the location, as well as pictures of the two of them. Paul was very specific in the kind of image he wanted –something I appreciated– and directed me to portray him wearing a traditional Scottish Highland formal attire, while Donna would be wearing her nurse uniform.

Photo taken by the lakeside, used as background reference. Different compositions and close-ups were studied until Paul and I came up with the right one.

There was one more very important detail Paul requested: Moored at the lake’s wooden pier, he wanted a red boat, which had belonged to Donna’s late father, as a way to symbolize his presence during their union. Now, I’ve been asked to create greeting cards and birthday presents before, but this is the first time I’ve been asked to paint a wedding commission, and its relevance for both Paul and Donna didn’t go unnoticed on me, which is why I devoted myself to create the best work I could.

Photo of Donna’s dad’s boat, used for reference. The challenge here was to paint the boat, which is shown here with daylight lighting, as how it would look with the dusk lighting of my background. The intense oranges and yellows from the lake reflections were used for the highlights, while a a dark brown color was used for the shading for consistency (if you want warm shadows you use warm colors, and viceversa)
Screenshot of the Autodesk Sketchbook file, once the background had been completed. The main figures are drawn with clean ink lines and a ‘block’ neutral tone is applied on a separate layer underneath. Later I locked the transparency of this layer, and replaced the gray with all the colors needed for the figures (the hair was managed on a separate layer, too). Later Paul requested certain changes on his facial features to improve the resemblance.
In this other screenshot all the main colors have already been applied, and some elements are kept on different layers to add more control, in case changes need to be made (for instance, Paul asked me to remove the poppy flowers from their lapels, since the photo had been taken on Remembrance Day. As you can see, the figures are still completely flat, and that’s because the ‘shading’ and ‘highlight’s that give the illusion of tridimensional volume is also applied on a different layer on top. Notice also how a subtle blush on the cheeks and noses of Paul and Donna was applied, which is useful in order to avoid ending up with faces with too little color variety (those subtle skin changes are further enhanced when the shading and the highlights are applied). BTW the figures are ‘rotated’ because being right-handed it’s more comfortable working that way for me.
In this screenshot the main ‘flat’ colors have been turned off, in order to show the layers in which the ‘shading’ has been applied in order to give volume to the figures. These layers are ‘blended’ using ‘Linear burn’ which I prefer to use instead of ‘Multiply’. The color puck on the upper left corner shows the dark brown that was chosen for the shading, in order to give the kind of warm shadows you’d expect to see in a setting sun scene like this one. Notice however how this color was NOT applied to the faces and skin portions of the figures, and that is because currently what I prefer to do is to create a mix of my main shading tone (in this case, the dark brown previously mentioned) combined with the main skin tone of the figures, using one of Sketchbook’s synthetic paint brushes. The end result of that mix is what is used for the shading of the skin portions and the faces, which I feel gives a nicer and ‘gentler’ shade that looks fairly realistic, and consistent with the shading of the rest of the objects in the scene –if the purpose of the illustrations was to make a more dramatic scene, I’d probably experiment with other colors. In the end the goal is to try to get an approximation in the screen to the image you envision in your mind.

Close-up of the main characters, with the shading applied to the figures for volume and shadows. The obvious advantage of working everything in separate layers is you have a great deal of control over everything that happens on the illustration –the drawback is you can easily get confused if you don’t organize and label your layers! More than once you notice a detail you want to erase or modify, and end up turning dozens of layers on and off until you find the right one 😅

The same close-up, but now with both the background scene and the highlight layers turned on. It’s always important to remember where your main sources of light are coming from for coherence (in this case, the setting sun between the two figures). There’s also the compromise one needs to do between absolute realism and the desired artistic effect –I knew that if I followed the reference dusk photo too accurately, you wouldn’t really be able to see both Donna and Paul’s faces! Therefore a light source directly in front of them was also pretended. These highlights are put on top of the rest of all the other layers that are part of the two main figures.

Back since my days when I was still working in the Interior design industry, I’ve been obsessed with photorealism and the way light behaves in the natural world. 20 years ago convincing photorealism was a sort of ‘holy grail’ only achieved by top Hollywood studios using incredibly expensive software and very powerful desktop computers, but over time the programs became more affordable, and Moore’s law allowed even the most modest architect studios to acquire computers robust enough to create photorealistic 3d renderings. This type of work became something of a specialty for me, and I spent many days (and NIGHTS) tweaking and experimenting and cursing in front of a computer screen in order to create decent computer graphic images of how our architectural projects would look like, once completed –it also needs to be said that, as a result of this trend, clients have been completely SPOILED, and they all expect to receive as many of these CGI renders as possible, oblivious of how time consuming they really are.

But now that I no longer work with 3dMax or AutoCad, I realize that I still obsess about attaining photorealism in my work; which can be something of a crutch because (a) it takes a loooooong time to make 2d drawings look like 3d objects; and (b) because I fear this approach might hinder me from experimenting with other types of techniques and styles which, although not photorealistic, would still create very appealing illustrations. Like always, I keep experimenting and finding new tricks and techniques which can be further applied on the next project (in this case, one new thing I learned is painting the hair of the main characters on a different layer as the rest of the faces, which allowed me to have a ‘softer’ look and even mimic tiny hair strands on the sideburns or other areas).

Nevertheless, I feel I did a very good job with this project, and both Donna and Paul were very pleased with it as well. I’m really honored to think my artistic abilities were useful in creating something which will be cherished by both of them for many years to come.

If you also would like to contract my services for a special family heirloom of your own, leave a comment or write me an email to absurdbydesign[at]gmail[dot]com 🙂

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