Premature Rendering (Or, How to Kill a Painting)

Too many paintings have lost their lives to premature rendering because their artists didn‚Äôt know what else to do.‚ÄĚ – Chris Oatley

The most frustrating thing¬†for¬†me as¬†I was preparing to graduate from college was knowing that I’m not good enough as an artist. Not yet. Especially when it comes to digital painting.¬†When I look at my art it all feels off, like I missed the point of everything. I couldn’t pin down what was wrong, I just knew it was.

But it’s finally becoming clear to me, slowly but surely.¬†I would focus on the character and add the background almost as an afterthought. But the environment needs to be as much a character as the figure(s) you’re drawing in it.

I would forget to¬†pay attention to¬†basic composition (which is something you can learn about in Framed Ink by Marcos Mateu-Mestre¬†OR for free at Today,¬†watching a lesson from Chris Oatley’s Magic Box course gave me another piece of the puzzle: I’m a compulsive premature renderer.

You’ll notice if you look at any of my galleries that I don’t work in color too often. It’s not because I don’t like illustration; it’s because I have a tendency to hate my colored work as soon as it’s finished. And it’s no wonder. My typical process was to draw a figure, ink it, slap some flat color onto it (without paying attention to composition OR color design) and¬†THEN decide to add a background.

Yeah. That doesn’t work, and I can’t believe I never noticed that ’til now.

Unfortunately for this environment sketch turned sci-fi illustration, I didn't give it's composition very much thought; instead I jumped straight to rendering.
Unfortunately for this environment sketch turned sci-fi illustration, I didn’t give its composition very much thought; instead, I jumped straight to rendering.

Digital Painting 101

I’ve been¬†researching Photoshop techniques for digital painting this past week because my current process is too slow and clumsy to¬†be effective in a professional setting.¬†The following videos are the best I‚Äôve found introducing basic techniques. And they‚Äôre short, so you don‚Äôt have to worry about getting bored.

When I first watched these videos, I’ll admit I knew most of what they demonstrated already, but the little tricks and tools I didn’t know have completely changed how I approach digital painting. And for someone who’s not experienced with Photoshop, these will be pure gold.

If you don’t watch any other video, watch the last one. The artist does a painting only using the techniques he shows in the first four parts.¬†It’s amazing what can be accomplished with such a simple process.

Part One: Navigation

Part Two: Brush Basics

Part Three: Mixing Color

Part Four: Layers

Part Five: Putting It All Together

Source: Ctrl+Paint

Reading List

Michelle’s Must Reads

  • Framed Ink: Drawing and Composition for Visual Storytellers by Marcos Mateu-Mestre
  • Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels by Scott McCloud
  • Drawing Words and Writing Pictures: Making Comics: Manga, Graphic Novels, and Beyond by Jessica Abel
  • Beginner’s Buide to Digital Painting in Photoshop from 3dtotal Publishing
  • Character Mentor by Tom Bancroft

Haven’t Read Yet But Come HIGHLY Recommended

  • Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter by James Gurney
  • The Skillful Huntsman: Visual Development of a Grimm Tale at Art Center College of Design by Khang Le
  • Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist by James Gurney
  • Directing The Story by Fancis Glebas
  • Prepare to Board! by Nancy Beiman

Useful for Reference

  • Comic Artist’s Photo Reference: People & Poses by Buddy Scalera
  • Facial Expressions: A Visual Reference for Artists by Mark Simon

Feedback From Salison

In my very first post, I asked for feedback on my strengths and weaknesses as an artist.

The wonderful and talented SALISON responded with a visual critique that has been insanely helpful, so I thought I’d share it.

Here’s my¬†original drawings, some character design sketches from K’tharis, my graphic novel that is currently a work in progress. Wangari is a very strict, military minimalist type of person, so I tried to convey that stiffness in her posing.

Captain Wangari 3It came out a little flat, however. This is the critique Salison gave me on it:

Salison's Crit

I had forgotten how important composition¬†is when¬†designing characters. I spent the last year trying to perfect my anatomy, but unless you’re working in photorealism what matters more is the gesture of the pose, its readability and interest. And Salison totally called me out on that (THANK YOU).

The book she mentions, Character Mentor by Tom Bancroft, is an INCREDIBLE book. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in character design or animation. It’s also on my Reading List.


So here’s the before and after. I put in the back hand, as Sal suggested, and tweaked everything else, including her outfit, to create a more deliberate, dynamic pose. You can still see the rigid element of her personality in the new version, but now it’s conveyed¬†in a more commanding and active manner than before.

Aaand because I liked the new drawing so much, I went on to ink and color it. It’s not finished quite yet, but here’s the inking and flat colors:


Finding Inspiration

Where Do You Find Inspiration?

The answer is different for everyone. I always start with¬†something basic I want to¬†convey, such as a single¬†idea, scene or emotion. Impulsive writing/drawing is great for practice¬†and finding¬†inspiration, but you¬†should never¬†use them¬†without revision. You have to plan your projects out, or else you’re more likely to hate it as soon as you’ve finished. I know this from experience. I keep notebooks and Word files to capture fleeting story ideas or inspirations. I always have one with me no matter where I am so I never forget an idea. It doesn’t matter how silly or clich√© your idea might be, just¬†jot it down. You can always come back to it later.

If you’re looking for an idea, look¬†at things you like. Watch your favorite movies, read¬†the books you’ve read a million times, look at art you like. Analyze what makes you like them so much, and think about how you¬†can incorporate those elements into a future project. Don’t limit your search by the specifics you want for your project. You want to know where my first idea for K’tharis came from? The Little Mermaid. While watching this most favorite movie of mine, since early childhood, I wondered what it would be like as¬†a sci-fi movie, and I proceeded to¬†re-imagine it scene by scene. No creativity or anything, just simple translation from one era/genre into another. It wasn’t original in the slightest, but I still wrote it down. Three years later and countless revisions later, I’m developing an entire alien culture for a graphic novel that has almost nothing in common with its original inspiration.

Books & Websites for Inspiration

Whatever stage¬†you’re in regarding the creative process, sooner or later you will hit a wall. Whenever I struggle to find inspiration, I hop on the net and wind up¬†wasting HOURS collecting pretty pictures. But when I finally resurface I feel revitalized and have a whole new collection of references.¬†“Art Of” books are also a great resource. Studying the art of other people’s projects you like can help you find your own style and inspiration. Here are a few of my favorites:

    • You can find almost anything on Pinterest, especially historical costumes and photos that are exceptional as reliable references for a specific time period. Futurism and science fiction are a little more difficult to find. You can¬†browse out my pins HERE.
  • If you know a movie or video game that inspires you, see if it has an art book. Many have “Art Of” books in which they show you the artistic (and sometimes writing) process of creating the movie/game, or illustration books that are a collection of amazing art done by other artists.
Art Book Examples
Art book examples

Music for Inspiration

Music can be a HUGE asset in finding inspiration.¬†Again,¬†go through some of your favorite songs and consider how they influence you. Is there a story being told, a thought or emotion that¬†expresses what you want to convey in your story or character?¬†Make a collection of songs that speak to you, even¬†if they’re not relevant to your current idea or project. You can always draw on them¬†for inspiration later.

At a certain point lyrics will actually distract me from the thoughts I’m¬†trying to¬†develop, so I’ll switch over to instrumental music and soundtracks with the same feel I’m going for in¬† my work.¬† Sometimes I¬†just put a soundtrack album (such as¬†TRON Legacy,¬† Skyrim,¬†Mass Effect, or any album from Two Steps From Hell) on repeat and listen to it for an entire week.

Sometimes you need the lyrics in a song to give you possibilities, but other times those words can be too forceful or distracting. Instrumental music can¬† give you all of the mood or emotion you’re looking for while still allowing for your own interpretation.

If you listen to no other instrumental music for all of time, check out the song “Lux Aeterna” (aka Requiem¬†for a¬† Dream) and these modern groups: Trans-Siberian Orchestra (specifically the Night Castle and Beethoven’s Last Night albums), Piano Guys¬†(they do instrumental¬†covers of popular songs) and Two Steps From Hell.

Feedback for Inspiration

And finally, just TALK to people. Ask for their input. It’s hard for some people (like myself) to reach out to others, but some of the best¬†developments I’ve made in my stories were inspired by the suggestions of others. If you don’t like talking, that’s okay! Letters, email and private messages work just as well.¬†Just tell someone you trust¬†what you’re thinking and get feedback.¬†Your idea doesn’t have to be perfect or finished. In fact, it’s better if it isn’t; you’ll be less attached to the work you’ve already done and willing to make changes. Just be open-minded and listen to what they have to say. Maybe you’ll inspire them and they’ll suggest something you hadn’t thought of, or maybe they’ll give you some feedback¬†and/or constructive criticism.

Oh, and if you can, keep a record of the conversation so you can go back to it later.¬†Good¬†advice¬†doesn’t always click right away. Even if you get bad advice or someone doesn’t like your work, learning to deal with that is an essential part of being a creative professional.