The Making Of Night Stalker

When one of my agents mentioned process videos, I will admit that I had a bit of a freak out. I am such an intuitive worker that it’s hard to document a step by step process or anything I follow when processing my images. The other problem is that I often spend hours on an image going back and forth, playing.

What happens if I do this? What would this setting look like? A lot of times, when asking those questions and experimenting, the work takes me in a different direction than what I had originally intended.

When I started with Night Stalker, my original intention was a daylight scene with the silhouette set in. I start my edit in Lightroom optimizing the photo and making colour edits to set the mood. Then I’ll open it up in Photoshop and play around. It was then I thought it would tell a better story…..have more suspense….if it was a night scene. I had not done a complete day to night edit before so there was a lot of experimentation.

Anyhow, these videos require a bit of a learning curve on my part, so this is pretty basic and rough. I will be attempting to do more, and will hopefully improve on them.

The Making Of

I post images all the time of completed works, but never really talk about the technical aspects of making the image. Sometimes an image can appear to be quite simple, when a lot went into making it. Other times a complex looking image was very simple to do.

In the making of Shadow Soldier, I had drawn the silhouette of a military figure in vector format, and then was looking for the right setting to place him into. I am always trying to think like a storyteller, and how can an image help tell a story. What kinds of stories are being told and the characters that might be needed is always something I’m paying attention to. The suspense genre is popular, and I love making images for this category of literature.

Vector illustration of a man in military gear.

I had originally been thinking of a night scene. Maybe a forest or barren landscape, but when browsing through my photo library, I spotted one of a darkened corridor of a brick building. A narrative instantly popped into my head. The image had some problems I would have to overcome in order to make it work. Mainly that it was in landscape format and had unwanted elements (either side) of the composition.

Dark brick corridor photo.

I wanted the figure placed towards the back of the corridor. Needing room for copy space, I couldn’t just crop out the sides and get to the right vertical dimensions needed for a book cover. I would have to ‘invent’ some of the top and bottom of the scene; make up the cement of the sidewalk and bricks of the building.

I took several hours to come up with a convincing recreation of the building to fit the correct format. I also wanted to simplify the fencing seen in the background by the window so the background of the soldier wouldn’t distract the eye. I used quite a few different brushes to try to match the wall on the left side in the background.

Then playing around with colours, curves, textures, and such, I arrived at a the following image which has a strong narrative and would be perfect for a thriller, suspense, or historical novel.

Photo composite illustration of a soldier in the shadows of a brick archway.

What is the narrative in your mind when you see the finished image?

Pre Planning The Perfect Painting

Once I finally settle down on an idea for a painting, I get impatient and want to see the end result before I’ve even started. In my attempt to slow down and be more deliberate about my paintings, I am attempting to preplan them, by manipulating the reference photo to strengthen the design, and test colours.

One of the problems with trying to get mountain reference photos for paintings is that our Canadian forest is heavy. Unless one can get a special vantage point higher up or further away, which is usually not easily achieved (especially the further away one if you are right in the mountains), finding an interesting composition is difficult.

Take the following photo as an example. I wanted to paint the lakeshore and canoes. In the original you couldn’t see the distant slope and mountains. It was just a solid block of trees. I suppose one could make an interesting painting from that if you made the subject about the trees themselves, and found some sort of rhythm to them.

Altered reference photo

I’m not so keen on evergreens and think the overall photo would be quite boring as a painting. Previously I probably wouldn’t have attempted it and ended up with a dud to throw away. Now, I’m trying to work out the potential problems before I even get to the canvas.

I want to reduce the number of canoes, open up the forest and create a path to guide the eye through the painting, and give some colour to the sky. So I attempted to illustrate these ideas digitally on top of the reference photo, playing with both the design and colours. It’s just a rough roadmap to help me visualize what I want.

Digitally altered reference to plan painting

Now to see if this pre-planning results in a successful painting. What changes would you have made if you were painting this?

Mary Mary Quite Contrary

It’s been a really long winter here in Alberta. I had, up until Spring arrived a few weeks ago, hardly been out of the house aside from weekly trips into town for groceries, and the odd trip to a nearby city for appointments. I was decidedly housebound and eager to see green and get outside to paint. This funk had extended itself to my work at the easel.

I’ve had various paintings on the go over winter, and have a whole stack of sketches waiting to be painted, but my contrary mood has me bored with it all. When a conversation with a friend who was experiencing similar problems happened, we thought maybe doing some focused exercises together (via the Internet since we don’t live close enough for in-person visits) would help. So we quickly put together a small group with the aim of doing monthly exercises into different topics to help refresh or refine our painting skills.

Our first exercise was colour shifts: using different colours of the same value in larger shapes. I thought I’d start with doing some block studies, but the problem is I only have a couple of blocks. When I saw the candy jar with liquorice allsorts, I saw blocks of a sort. Perhaps not quite as easy as the solid colour wooden blocks that many artists use, but block shaped objects which could offer that spark of fun I am always looking for in my projects. So I set up a couple blocks, then thought “I need something else”, and saw the rubber duck in the bathroom and added him to the set up. “Why not?”

Before I knew it I was taking a left turn from my regular landscape work, studying some key skills I’d always been meaning to study, refining my skills in both painting and seeing, and most important…..having fun and getting excited to show up at the easel each day. Three little still life paintings featuring the candy have been done so far. More will likely follow. 

What A Sweet Duck – 8×10″ – Oil on paper

Identifying areas of skill that you’d like learn or improve on, and setting up some exercises to study and practice those skills is a great way to help get over any creative slumps. Even if it doesn’t directly help with a slump, you will have a reason to show up at the easel each day and be working to improve your painting abilities. Self-improvement can never be a bad idea; and showing up to the easel every day is half the battle. 

“Frustration is not an interruption of your process; frustration is the process.”
– Elizabeth Gilbert

Here is a list of other things I often turn to when I am feeling stuck or frustrated:

  • Do something completely different for a day or two. My muse always seems to show up if I go out and commune with nature. Go for a walk, or a drive in the country. Do some baking, or clean the house. Meditate or exercise. Don’t go visiting friends. Don’t do something that requires a lot of thought that isn’t related to your work. It’s okay not to directly think about your art, but you want to allow those thoughts to happen naturally. Spending time alone is important for allowing you to zone out and get in touch with your inner voice. 
  • Quit looking at other people’s work. If you are in a slump, your monkey voice is likely pointing out all the areas you are inadequate and how much better everyone else is. If that is happening, even slightly, unplug yourself from the temptation to compare. If you have to unplug the computer to keep yourself from checking into Facebook daily, do it. The world won’t implode in your absence! 
  • Grab your sketchbook and sketch whatever is in front of you. Don’t set up anything, just draw what is there now. Your coffee cup, the paintbrushes sitting idly on the table waiting to be used, your breakfast, the dog or cat, your spouse, whatever is in front of you. Don’t take more than 10 or 15 minutes. Don’t over analyze it and don’t be precious with it.  You are not creating art. You are exercising your hand eye coordination. Bad drawings, horrible drawings even, are to be expected. Do this once a day at least until your slump is over, or longer if you find it a valuable exercise. 

    A similar exercise is to use a small viewfinder and randomly place it on a magazine, newspaper, or other image and sketch whatever the viewfinder happens to land on. 
  • Start over: take an old painting that you don’t like and sand it down. Be sure to use proper safety practices by wearing a particle mask and surrounding your work area with dampened newspapers to catch the dust, which is toxic. Paint over this old painting with whatever. Taking a old painting that was likely to end up in the trash, and reusing it, frees you up from being precious with a new canvas. Who cares if you have to toss it in the end. It was likely going to end up there anywhere. Alternatively, use paper – coated or not. I like to use uncoated paper because there is absolutely no expectation for archival survival. In other words – I know it’s not going to last and can’t be sold, so I’m free to make a mess. 
  • Ask yourself why you paint. It’s pretty simple really. If you can get in touch with what inspired you to become a painter in the first place, you’ll be well on your way to ending that slump. 
  • Give yourself permission to fail. Along with this, give yourself permission to play. Just show up at the easel with your permission slips, and do something. Anything. No rules. “Today I am just going to play.” “It’s okay to produce bad work today.”
  • Read fiction, poetry, or artist biographies. Don’t read art technique or how to books though. How about W.O. Mitchell’s “Who Has Seen The Wind.”? Or watch a movie. Not those horrible American movies loaded with violence and special effects though. Look for foreign films. I have become a huge fan of British programming on Netflix. So many are well written, lack the crudeness of American television and film, but also have beautifully inspiring cinematography. A well written piece of fiction, be it book or film, can spark my imagination like nothing else. 
  • Do a master copy. Pick your favourite historical painter and do a copy of one of their paintings. 
  • Finally, take the Buddhist approach: “This too shall pass.” Everything is temporary. The world is always changing. Day to day, minute to minute. So just go with the flow and enjoy the beauty of rest and renewal. Oftentimes slumps happen right before creative leaps, so there’s actually good reason to celebrate the slump rather than trying to fight it.  

“The will to do springs from the knowledge that we can do. Doubt and fear are the great enemies of knowledge, and he who encourages them, who does not slay them, thwarts himself at every step.”
– James Allen 

What about you? What are some strategies you have used to help you overcome a creative block, or slump?