Commission: The Force was STRONG with This One

This is Andrew Mark Sewell’s latest commission: His younger son Owen (pictured on the front) was going to turn 18 on May the 4th (a very special date for every Star Wars fan out there); so because of this Andrew came up with the idea of portraying all of his children (Owen, Ryan the older one, and Amelia the youngest) and himself to make a little homage to one of the more iconic, classic Star Wars posters out there, pictured below.

From the moment he suggested the theme to me via email, I knew this was going to be the most challenging illustration I have ever made. It wasn’t just a matter of putting all the elements and figures together (have you counted how many X-wing fighters are in that thing??), but I also knew that the proper way to carry out this homage was attempting to be as faithful as ever to the style used by the original artist.

One of the things I love the most about old illustrations is that there is a deliberate yet seemingly carefree way in which artists used their brushwork. I suspect that in some cases this was an issue of necessity, since if they were working under a tight deadline, they couldn’t afford to ‘polish’ the work; but the end result gives the piece a sense of ‘raw power’ and intensity that is lacking when you overdo things too much.

Another thing that you hear being repeated over and over again in art-devoted Youtube channels: Do NOT blend your colors! What they mean by this is that in order to achieve that uber cool old-school style, you should just apply the colors on your canvas without trying to unify them seamlessly –something that has become synonymous with computer graphics, I might add. One of the reasons for this, I think, is because with a digital medium you can ‘zoom’ in to your work as much as you want so you can literally paint pixel by pixel; yet that has the offside of not letting you see the composition as a whole, and you are also not allowing the eye of the viewer of doing some of the work for you.

Take for instance the two examples below, which are close ups of actual oil paintings: normally a viewer is not supposed to admire a painting with his nose touching the canvas; what you would do instead is take two or three steps from the painting, and from that distance all those separate splotches of colors are unified into a whole by the viewer’s brain. Humans are pattern recognition animals, and this is something artists have been exploiting to their advantage for thousands of years!

So, as you can see, the challenge of the modern digital artist is having the cake AND eating it, too –i.e. using the enormous advantages of modern digital tools, but having the end result look as if it was done with traditional media.

And this is not just a matter of picking the ‘right’ digital brush for the job –somehow EVERYBODY thinks there is a magical set of brushes out there, and if you can download them and use them, you’ll be able to paint just like those professional artists you admire. WRONG! The trick (or at least, one of the tricks) is trying to work as if you’re actually using paper or canvas, instead of a digital screen and a stylus. And that means giving away some of that digital freedom we enjoy so much –but of which we grow so dependent of, in return…

If you have checked out one of my earlier tutorial-ish posts on this webpage, then you might have noticed that what I like to do is have LOTS of control when I’m creating an illustration. Overall my process could (more or less) be boiled down to:

  • Make a sketch (either on paper and later scanned, or fully digital)
  • ‘Inking’ (drawing on top the sketch with clean, clear lines)
  • Making a layer beneath the ‘lines’ layer to apply the color(s)
  • As an extra step, duplicate the “lines” layer and unify it with the ‘color’ layer, painting the lines with the same colors by locking the transparency (this helps you preserve the same smoothness of your ‘ink’ lines if you choose to erase some of them for stylistic purposes, as I often do.
  • Apply other layers on top of the ‘color’ layer using ‘Multiply’ or other blending modes in order to paint shadows, lights, reflections, etc. Sometimes I get two or three different layers just for the shadows alone (light shadow, intermedium and darkest shadows) depending on the composition. Oh, and each element (face, body, hands, etc) is usually clustered into different ‘subgroups’ of layers, too!
  • The original ‘lines’ layer (or layers) is usually never combined until the very end. Either I paint the lines with the same colors used in the ‘color’ layer but blending it with Multiply at a very low transparency (30% or less) or I leave it on Normal blending mode but with a slightly darker tone. Here it all depends on the effect I want to capture –i.e. ‘cartoony’ or more realistic.
  • Continue adding layers until you’re done 🙂

As you can see, the advantage of this approach is that I have a great deal of control over what appears on the final illustration. Keeping all the layers separated also allows me more liberty whenever the client asks for certain alterations –I can just tweak or edit a few things on separate layers, instead of messing around with just one layer in which ALL the colors and lines are applied (which can be pretty gut wrenching!). But the downsides are (A) You end up with a $#!t-ton of layers that can easily drive you crazy if you are not organized enough; and (B) Somehow the end result feels too ‘clean’ and ‘lifeless’ if you know what I mean.

Which brings us back to the ‘Sewell Wars’ commission, and how I chose to do things COMPLETELY different from my usual approach. Aside from using ‘synthetic paint’ digital brushes (which simulate the way real paint flows on a physical surface and how they blend with other colors in the canvas; the downside is they are HARD to control) what I forced myself to do was applying ALL the colors of a given section under the same layer (none of the safer layers upon layers blended together using Multiply or whatever; what you see is what you get, people!) while at the same time trying my best NOT to overblend the colors so the brush strokes would be more perceivable.

Another thing I chose to skip on this one was the ‘inking’ step of drawing on top of the sketch with clean, crisp lines. Instead I decided to just go for it and apply a base color (the predominant tone of a given area, say Luke’s karate-like shirt) using a ‘conceptual’ brush that was neither too soft nor too hard. From there I just locked the transparency so I wouldn’t go beyond the shape and apply colors from middle tones to darker ones, and then adding highlights if needed.

One obvious characteristic of the original Star Wars poster is that the tones are deliberately intense in order to add drama to the composition –i.e. the shadows are too dark and the highlights are, well, too light!– and also so the figures can stand out and be easy to ‘read’ over a black background. But since I was getting the feel that in all my previous commissions my tones were a bit ‘bland’ (one of the results of relying too much on blending modes like Multiply instead of actually applying darker tones on the figures) this was a great exercise that forced me to be bolder.

Screen capture when I was in the middle of painting Owen’s face. I like to keep reference pics around the work so I don’t lose perspective of what I’m doing (or rather, WHERE I need to end up). Notice the patches of color left of the figure, which were my ‘palette’ (directly extracted from the original Star Wars poster using the ‘color picker’ tool) applied to achieve the skin tones. The middle spot on the second row from top to bottom was the base color; from there I moved to all the colors in the rows below it to achieve the shadows (even though sometimes pure black was also used occasionally) and the two spots on the top were for the highlights (even though sometimes pure white was also used sparingly). The daunting thing about this process is that for the longest time you feel it’s NOT going to work –you see those tones separately and think “no way I can use oranges and browns that strong!!”– but you just need to keep working on it until suddenly it all fits together.
Screen capture in the middle of painting Ryan’s hair. As you can see, I did end up ‘cheating’ a bit and using a bit of Overlay and Soft Glow in order to paint the highlights, but I can assure you the modern digital trickery was kept to a minimum with this commission. Also, in the end Andrew requested I give the boy a ‘gruffier’ look (apparently, our Solo is more afraid of hair brushes than facing storm troopers!)

As in all commissions, some parts of the process were easier than others. While I had the advantage of recreating much of the original 1970’s poster (like Luke and Han’s bodies, Vader, the Death Star and most of the spaceships) Amelia and Andrew (Leia and Obi-Wan) had to be painted with the same ‘formula’ as the other figures, so they wouldn’t look out of place –i.e. using a similar palette of bluish tones as in the original figures.

Screen capture with Amelia’s close up. Yes, once again a few digital ‘cheats’ were used in order to attain a correct tone for the lips and also the cheeks, but compared with the many layers I usually use just for ONE face, this was certainly a downgrade!

After I sent the finalized illustration to Andrew, he requested a few minor corrections, and he also wished if I could repeat what I did with the Blake’s Seven commission and have individualized images of each character. This is the reason that, no matter how much you want to recreate the ‘old-school’ techniques, you still need to keep EVERY figure as a separate subgroup of layers!

As a result of this ‘trying new things’ on top of the usual challenge every commission brings, this project took considerable more time than I expected –good thing I had a good head start so I wouldn’t be too close to the May 4th deadline. Memo to all would-be patrons: if you ask for a commission with a very short deadline, you’re NOT gonna get a happy camper out of me.

I also realize in hindsight that my personal objectives were only partially achieved, because in the end I couldn’t escape the temptation of over-blending my colors so I could attain that ‘rough’ look I was trying to capture, especially with the faces* –it’s the problem of working on something that is intended for someone else, I guess. If this had been done just for myself, I would have risked attempting something even bolder.

Still, it all turned out better than I imagined, and Andrew was very happy with the result. I too was very satisfied, since this is no doubt my best commission… yet.

Remember, if you also want to be ‘one with the Force’ with your own personalized commission, you can always leave a comment here or sent me an e-mail.

(*): One thing I should point out is that all the images shared in this post are JPEGs (except the screen captures, which are PNG) with a much lower resolution than the final file sent to Andrew, which was designed as a medium-sized poster to be printed at 300 dpi. So some of the ‘roughness’ I did achieve (especially with the bodies of the figures) ended up being less noticeable due to the image compression of the JPEG algorithm.

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