Back in February of 2015 I was asked to illustrate the Christmas cover for Guidepost magazine. I love doing Christmas scenes, as they are just an all around fun project on many levels, because –
1. I like Christmas, 2. Living in Hawaii, I miss the cozy feeling Christmas brings with itself and 3. I enjoy playing with lights and darks and that is what Christmas is all about, candle lights, fire, warmth, outside cold, inside warm.
So I thought this would be a good project to show how I work to create an illustration.
My briefing was to create two sketches showing a fireplace with a beautiful mantle and Christmas garland, roaring fire and a nativity scene sitting on top of the mantle. Sketch #2 should additionally have 3 stockings hanging of the mantle.
Both the client and I agreed on doing the final illustration without the stockings, as the whole scene looked a bit crowded We also decided to take out a few elements from the sketch (star above nativity and little trees sitting on mantle).
The two sketches sent to client
After the client decided on the composition and crop, I supplied them with a color sketch.
My original color sketch was too dark for the cover. They wanted it a lot lighter and the fireplace with a whitish tone.
This posed a little challenge as fire and light only glows and pops once there is contrast.
Once it was settled which direction we would go in terms of color, it was time to start the final illustration. Here it really helps to have done a fairly detailed color sketch, as now I can use the color sketch as my black and white base for the final illustration. This black and white image also serves as an excellent value study and gives me a road map of where to put my lights and darks.
I desaturate the sketch, so it becomes black and white. I use this sketch as my bottom layer in Photoshop. On top of that layer I add another layer in “multiply” mode and fill it with orange. As the layer is in “Mulitply” mode, I can see my black and white sketch through that layer.
I put my initial sketch on top of the multiply layer and create another layer in between the two to paint on. This serves the purpose of having a toned canvas to work on. It is always easier to evaluate colors, when not working on a bright white background.
Now the fun begins. In all my illustrations I use brushes that have a texture in them. For this painting I created a texture a while ago, by painting heavy acrylic gel by Golden Acrylics on a piece of masonite board. That gel needs to be applied in a way, that it leaves little raised mountains on the board. You can do this really well by using a thick bristled wall brush and scrubbing the gel on. Once the gel is dried, I painted a layer of black paint over it. I let that dry again and used a bristle brush to gently brush a layer of white over the top parts of the dried gel.
Once everything was dry I scanned this texture into my computer. In Photoshop, I open that texture file, go to Edit > Define Pattern and give it a name. When I open my Brush panel, under “Texture” I can select that newly created texture and link it to my brush. In the brush panel, I am also able to give the texture more contrast, brightness or depth. After I am happy with my brush, I safe it as a new brush.
I slowly begin to built up color. I will usually have my “Flow” value for my brush at 30% and my “opacity” anywhere in between 10% and 70%.
I find it helps to always start with my backgrounds or the larger areas, that I am certain about. I also try to never go into too much detail too early. It’s best to add elements gradually, fill up the canvas and go back later to put in more detail.
For each element of the illustration I create a new layer. The Fireplace is on one layer, the wall on another, the garland on another and so on.
I roughed in the garland. To make the pine branches look more real and speed up my work process, I create one little pine branch in a separate document, copy that branch , warp it a bit and copy and past it again and again till my garland has a more fluffy look.
I always stay fairly dark and gradually lighten my illustration. Often I will go back and forth, putting shades of lighter colors in with my texture brush and then toning it down again with a multiply layer and using a brush with no texture. Using this techique, helps me to unify the whole illustration.
I am gradually lightening up my illustration, putting in all the lights and reflections and things start to look pretty sweet at this point.
I am done with my illustration and sent it to the client.
They love it and decide to do away with the original concept of using a border around the illustration on the cover.
I wholeheartedly agree and am happy add a few inches at the top to fill out the whole 8.5″ x 11″ for the cover.