Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Outer Limits

The avian alien of "Second Chance"

Greg Manchess

The original, fabulous old TV show, The Outer Limits is 50 years old. My favorite of all those productions, it was shot in black and white, and didn’t affect any of my fascination with a show that was primarily science fiction stories every week.

Lately, Creature Features in Los Angeles celebrated those years with an exhibition and invited artists to participate. I caught word at the last minute, and had to paint something. The attraction was too strong.

The only difficult decision was deciding whether to paint in black and white or color. Since I had no idea what the color of some of the characters were in the show, I just made it up, thinking of these as a series of 12"x12" paintings.

The man of super intelligence from"The Sixth Finger"

One of my favorite episodes was “The Sixth Finger,” starring David McCallum of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. fame. A man of average intelligence is advanced into the future, his brain developing at an alarming rate, and uses the power of his superior mind to manipulate the now primitive world he sees around him.

“Second Chance,” starring Simon Oakland, is about an amusement park ride pretending a trip into outer space. Oakland plays an avian-like alien that has turned the ride into a real one. First time I realized the vacuum of space will kill you instantly.

“The Bellero Shield” starring Martin Landau, featured the most gentle, and wise, alien. I was affected by the creature’s benevolence in a violent situation. And everyone could use a Bellero Shield.

The alien of "The Bellero Shield"

These were so much fun to re-watch and then paint. If you’ve never seen the show, forgive it for it’s limited budget FX, but praise it for the stories and serious make-believe.

Other favorite shows include: two Martians that come to Earth to study a murder by slowing it down with a time-dilator; a down-and-out human is changed into an alien to spy on crash landed aliens; a pilot is thrown forward into time by only a couple minutes and must get back; two soldiers of the future cross time to fight it out in our present time (the story was the basis for Terminator, and written by Harlan Ellison).

The Outer Limits exhibit has just closed. But check out the other shows that Creature Features has coming up this year. Contact them and see if you can submit. This year they’ll celebrate with shows on Godzilla, and the Planet of the Apes series, from books to movies. Can’t wait!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tales from the Wilder Forest Kickstarter

By Justin Gerard

Friend and fellow MuddyColors contributor Cory Godbey is running a wonderful little Kickstarter for a project that I am very jealous of.  It is called Tales from the Wilder Forest. A Collection of fantastic little bonfire short stories by Cael Jacobs which Cory is currently illustrating.

The Kickstarter has already hit (and more than doubled) its original goal and is now taking the last of the orders for the project. You should check it out.  It may be the only way to get a hold of the books. And it ends April 15.  THAT IS TODAY. TODAY IS LITERALLY THE LAST DAY.  Leave now and check it out on the Kickstarter page.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Comic Book Coloring — Part 1 of 3

Ink on bristol board with digital color, 11 × 17″.

For my next 3 posts, I'm going to focus on the art of digital comic book coloring. Although a rather narrow subject, I hope to address some broader concepts that apply to color in general. Today's post, however, will be a bit of a primer since many of the topics will be on the technical side.

I almost always color myself, but that's not the case with most comics, especially those produced by the major publishers. More often than not, the tight deadlines necessitate a division of labor in which the colorist and letterer are the last people on the assembly line. For our purposes, we'll begin with an inked page.

The process starts with a good scan. The typical comic book page is drawn on 11 × 17″ bristol board, on which a template has been printed. I scan pages at 400 pixels per inch (ppi). Since my inks usually have blue-line pencils underneath, I scan in full color, which means they can easily be filtered out. (I have a Photoshop action to automate this process, which I hope to make available soon.)

Daredevil #10, Page 15. 2012.
Ink(ed by Joe Rivera) on Marvel board, 11 × 17.25″.

Cropping, although fairly simple in concept, can streamline the overall process if done consistently. I have a crop tool set to the desired dimensions, 4125 x 6262 pixels, with the "Perspective" option checked. Since this allows the corners to be dragged independently, I can match them precisely to the corners of the printed border. Aside from keeping all your page files consistent, it keeps everything perfectly aligned — this is especially helpful when matching up digital elements with analog artwork, i.e. panel borders, logos, or 3D models. You can read more about the cropping process here.

raw scan vs. bitmap TIFF, 200% zoom

Although our original scan is 4125 x 6262 px, the final color output will eventually be 2/3 that. That's because inks are saved in a different file format, a bitmap TIFF, which reduces the colors in the image to just 2, black and white. (You can control the specifics of this transformation under Image > Adjustments >Threshold.) While this saves a ton of memory (a typical page is under 500 KB) it requires a higher resolution to avoid a pixelated look.

Flats without inks

I then send the file to my assistant, Orpheus Collar, who colors the image on a separate layer. This process is called flatting, its purpose being to break up the the image into shapes, rather than to produce a finalized color scheme. Flatting makes it easy to select and alter patches of color. What he returns to me is an RGB file with at least 2 layers, more if there are "special effects," pictured below.

Elements that will "glow" can be isolated on a separate layer.

There are plenty of tutorials on-line, and even some automated plug-ins, but I'd like to go over the basic concepts. The inked page goes on the top layer, the mode set to "Multiply," which makes all the white pixels transparent. The "flats" layer goes below that. The key to easy selection is making sure the flats aren't anti-aliased, meaning that no 2 colors are blended at the edges.

Brush vs. Pencil

In order to preserve those hard edges, I use the Pencil tool when editing the flats (as opposed to the Brush tool). If I use the Magic Wand to select pixels or the Bucket to fill them, the tolerance must be set to "0" to avoid blending colors.

Ink on bristol board with digital color, 11 × 17″.

Lastly, I color every page at full resolution, just in case I ever need a bigger version. It's also to avoid a mistake I sometimes see colorists make. If you downsize your inks in their native, 2-color format, the inks will look pixelated when printed. Also, if you downsize your flats before coloring, it may not preserve the hard edges you worked so hard to create. While there are a few ways to avoid those issues, saving reduction until the last step makes everything easier.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Observations from the Old School

-By Tim Bruckner

If you want to be a commercial sculptor, you’ll need to know Zbrush. That, as far as can see, is the current reality. More and more companies require it. And more and more of my colleagues are using it or are learning how to use it. Zbrush has changed the way product is created, which in turn, has changed the way it looks. But at what cost?

Traditional sculpture is very inefficient. It takes way too long, requires way too much effort and can be frustrating for an Art Director or Product Manager in that changes to a piece require the services of a hands-on sculptor. You can mouse click on a traditional sculptor all day long and nothing happens. You can mouse click a function in Zbrush and you’re done.

Just to be clear. I am old school. Any more old school and I’d be churning my own butter and waiting for Edgar Burgen and Charlie McCarthy to come on the radio. I’d be buying war bonds and reading Photoplay.

In the old days, before a piece was started, a traditional sculptor (TS) would have a conversation with their AD (art director) or PM (product manager). A conversation over the phone. In real time. Over the phone. Both the TS and the AD or PM would review the art/design for the sculpture. They’d discuss interpretation and engineering. How to make the piece factory friendly. Separate at the shoulder? Are the hands part of the arms or do they plug in. What about capes? You ask any TS what their least favorite thing to sculpt is and capes will be near the top of the list. They are a pain in the ass. Aside from trying to make the thing look as if it’s in motion (which is often what its supposed to look like it’s doing.) there’s the issue of tolerances. A cape for a cast resin piece will need to be made differently than a cape produced for PVC. There’s weight, support and factory production issues to consider.

Then, there’s reference. Before the proliferation of image hosting sites, the TS, with their AD’s help, would compile as much reference as possible. This ref would come from books, magazines or comic books. Typically, a TS would have a cork board or some such thing, covered with reference.

Sometimes, an ambitious TS would scan images to create image sheets. The down side to this method of reference accumulation was the time and effort it took. The up side of this method was the time and effort it took. The TS was forced to spend a lot of time with an array of images. And the more time they spent with them, the better they understood what they were looking at and the relevance of some of the design preferences of the artist. Every artist has a bias. A stylistic imperative. It’s up to the TS to recognize it and incorporate it if they can.

So, armed with a game plan, work can begin.

A TS starts a piece considering the practical. First step, an armature needs to be built. No two TS’s build an armature the same way. The only consistent factor is, it will need to be rock solid and contend with a fair amount of abuse. A TS will only build a weak, unstable armature once. There are few things more frustrating that laying up clay on an armature that wiggles or wobbles or worse, starts to fall apart. The key to building a good armature is for it to be solid enough to support the clay and be flexible enough to be easily repositioned.

Ok. Armature built. Now, its clay time. These days, there’s such a variety of clays available, it’s a little intimidating. In the old days, the rotary dial days, there were maybe three or four. Once a TS found their clay, They were reluctant to switch. Why? Because they’d developed and intimacy with it and switching would be akin to breaking up with a lover or abandoning a loyal pet. And am not kidding. Its not that a TS won’t switch. But it ain’t easy. Often, they’ll consider changing clays because their needs have changed. The way they work will have changed and they’ll need a material to respond to that change. A TS may find a brand they like but may use different firmnesses based on the job. A softer clay for larger pieces and a more firm clay for smaller pieces. So far, I’ve been talking about traditional oil based clays. But many TS’s use a polymer clay, like Sculpey or Fimo and will mix them for a specific density. And then there are specialty clays and water based clays. A TS working today has more choices for sculpting material than any other time in history.

Regardless of the clay a TS uses, the relationship between artist and material is unique and personal. It’s a collaboration. I’m not the first one to admit that there have been times when the clay is smarter about the job I’m working on than I am. As a TS develops a piece, they’re responding to the way light plays over the forms, how shapes relate to shapes. As a TS draws their thumb through clay, something happens. In that draw, a flow of motion is created, a character is indicated. Something so subtle can change the course of the way the piece develops. I’ve worked on pieces absolutely determined to sculpt hair a certain way. And then that unexpected shape presents itself and I’ve had to rethink the entire design. Is the clay actually smarter than I am? Probably not. Probably not. But there’s been times when a piece will want something different from what I intended and I’d have to pretty damn dim, not to pay attention to it.

And then there’s the TS’s relationship with light. Real, coming through the windows, shinning through the skylights, sunlight. Or, an array of studio lights. Either way, its real. The ability to see the piece in its natural environment is invaluable to the TS. No art is more affected by the fluctuation of light and shadow than 3D. With 2D, every element is controlled by the artist. With 3D, unless a TS comes to your house, with a flashlight and a reflector, the way their piece is lit is entirely up to the collector. Low angle light changes the look and character of a piece as does over head light or side sourced light. As the TS works a piece, they reference it under a variety of lighting conditions and those variables inform the piece.

Working with clay invites the TS to explore the vagaries of the human condition. The tilt of the head, the poise of a hand, the turn of a foot and the importance and necessity of aysetmery. And why is that? Because, often a TS will work through the action physically. The character in the sculpt is supposed to be wielding a sword. Want to know what the arms do in relation to the hips? Get up, grab a broom handle and wave it around and you’ll know. What if your character is supposed to be standing heroically. Hands on hips perhaps? Cape blowing in the wind of resoluteness? No better way to know what that looks like then to do it. Physically becoming the character helps inform it. And having the clay, right in front of you to work those issues out, grounds it in what we identify as a living gesture. As a TS, I can tell you, when you do act out your character, its best if you do it alone. It is rife with potential humiliation for a senior TS to be caught twirling around his backyard trying to get a sense of how it would look for Supergirl to experience flight for the first time.

Working a piece in clay gives the TS a greater opportunity for reflection and critical evaluation. At the end of the day, the TS will cover their piece and leave the work behind. Its not that they have stopped thinking about it. But they’re not looking at it. They come back, a gallon thermos of coffee and what could maybe pass for breakfast and see the piece with a different set of eyes under different light, at a different time of day. This reevaluation isn’t exclusive to TS’s. Every artist reflects on a piece in progress in their own way. The difference between a TS and a Digital Modeler, is that with the DM, the conditions under which they last saw the piece are exactly the same. The play of randomness is removed.

When it comes right down to it, Zbrush is a tool. Whether a sculptor uses a rake or a stylus, the quality of the art is the result of the skill and imagination of the artist who uses it. Good art is good art, it don’t get much more simple than that.

So, maybe the days of the TS working as a commercial sculptor are numbered. They probably are. Budgets are shrinking. Deadlines are being tightened. Many of the properties destined for product live as digital flies already. But there will always be place for traditional work. Maybe it will survive and thrive with smaller companies interested in exploring properties not tied to the pulse of now-media. Or, maybe traditional sculpture will find its renewed relevance in the exploration of characters alive in the pages of cloth bound books. It could happen…

In the late seventies, early eighties, acoustic music was considered on its way out. Why would you want to hire a musician to play something you could mimic on a synthesizer? Whole records were produced where the only living thing on them was the vocalist. But things settled out, as they always will. And this will too. We are too intimately tied to the human condition not to want to see it reflected back at us in our art. And somewhere that reflection will be created by a human with hands knuckle deep in clay.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, my buggy awaits…

Friday, April 11, 2014


by Greg Ruth

Time and again I seem to be required to craft two fully fleshed out final paintings for every single cover, mostly for’s short online fictions, and it’s not a bad thing at all. Sort of. To date I still can only speculate as to the cause for this recent phenomenon, but I think if not fully on target, this theory hits close enough to brave an article about it.  Not by request am I tasked to do this mind you, but by the process of making the pieces. Within this practice, at each turn are different causes for this seemingly time-wasting habit, which makes it hard to solve if solving it is even a good idea at all. So I’ll cleave out a few cases and hopefully you’ll see why.

To be fair to Irene Gallo, (my art director on these images), the initial issue is that I tend to make final pieces before showing them- note to you who are starting out in this business: DO NOT do this! Or at the very least try to avoid it. But if it's just the way you work, find enough luck or providence to locate an art director or editor who will allow for this insane practice. It does, by cutting out the sketch process also cut their input out, and this can be troublesome for all involved. So if you work this way, you have to also understand you must be ready to work a whole brand new piece if the one you chose doesn't fit the bill. It is the price of this freedom, but despite the excesses of work it creates, can be more than worth it. Sort of.

The practice of approaching a job like this will require of you two things- that A.) you complete the piece early enough to apply changes where needed to meet deadline, and B.) be prepared to do it all over again. This approach essentially cuts out the usual and essential preparatory process of thumbnails to sketches to painting that helps an AD or editor jump in and head off blind alleys or fuzzy themes, or any number of misfires an artist can do when crafting a cover. SO there’s that. And these days, most cover images are ultimately submitted through committees for approval. And this practice can foil the best intentions of that system. That said, personally I find after having done dozens of covers over the last twenty or so years, I can grok a cover fairly determinately through reading the story or full manuscript, (you should ALWAYS read the material if time allows- there is no better way to find the right image to pull from than doing that. Summaries and editorial suggestions never come close to the level of originative quality you achieve when the narrative speaks to your creative process directly). But in the case of Tor, Irene and I have a funny kind of simpatico with each other that allows for this to happen where in other cases it should not. She is a deft enough AD to know what appropriate assignments to throw my way, and I trust her enough to know that and her judgment when assessing my art for them. This kind of relationship is the golden ring of illustration- a practice best served by the alchemy of having one person wading deep out into the creative waters, and another on shore holding the tow-line to make sure the artist doesn’t get too far out or caught in the undertow.

First up as evidence of all that I warn you of, is SING by Karen Tidbeck. Unlike many of the harder assignments I’ve gotten from Irene and Tor, this one was filled to the brim with potential visual cues. That can sometimes be a burden, and was so in this case. The first image as you see here, while being interesting to various degrees is breaking one of the important Manchess rules of good cover work: it’s saying too much at once. So the response to this, after pondering it from both sides, was a simple reduction. The thing I adore about Irene in this process is that she guides me to this by a well worn practice of imponderable quiet, or simply by saying it may say too much, both leaving me to find out how to fix it. Which is fine because that’s my job.

So as is my usual I begin wracking my brain for a solution- usually involving trying to utterly rethink the entire premise of my approach, a period of panic that leads me to realize that the solution, in this case, was already there in the picture: Just focus in on the bird in the man’s mouth. When you’ve got a case of an overly baroque piece like this, it is often true that the best way out of the bramble patch is indeed simply zooming in on one of the myriad pieces and making that the image. It automatically simplifies and by expressing a smaller more singular aspect of the narrative, (without spoiling it mind you), it reads better visually.

This was largely the case for my effort towards Carrie Vaughn’s truly extraordinary short story, THE BEST WE CAN, except that the simplifying resulted in a total tear down and rebuild. What made this story different, and such a terrific challenge was its main themes were essential un-illustratable: The disagreement of politics, the imponderable vastness of space, and the passage of time. This first image below does technically achieve hitting those key points all at once, but maybe too well. Perhaps feeling an uncertainty about any one of them I sinned against the singular again and included them all in a single piece, which always and inevitably results in an image that is muddled, or at worst, pretentious.

So, because this piece followed too closely on the heels of Sing, zooming in on the astrophysicist reaching for the barely seen approaching object was out- it simply would have too closely cleaved to the earlier cover, and double dipping should always be avoided, or at least done so with great amounts of time between the two acts. So in this case I found the solution in closing in on the scientist thematically rather than literally from the existing image. She needed to have more of a presence if we were to focus on her, and that meant her character needed to be addressed more fully, and in this case, totally reinvented. Especially if she was going to break the fourth wall and look at us, the reader. The result was in many ways a portrait of the scientist, and the focus of her works being more broadly expressed than specific to the object from the interstellar story. Which in the latter’s case meant leaving that approaching mystery to the mind’s eye of the reader, always preferable to hitting them over the head with it in my opinion.

Ultimately, Irene stepped in unusual form and took the image a step further in cropping it as she did for the final- which I loved. Oftentimes you will find the need to paint portions of a piece that will get cropped out and never seen again. This is a necessary evil of the craft and a good thing in the end. It’s always better for the ultimate goal to prune back from too much than to have to try and build out from nothing. And oftentimes that extra stuff that’s never seen goes a long way to informing the final more cropped piece. Don’t be afraid to do this and be brave enough to let even the most precious little part of the overall piece go for the sake of the final effort.

Next up, in this farcical journey of overworking, we come to my favorite example, Lavie Tidhar’s really luminous DRAGONKIN. I’m not overly prone towards high fantasy, though I seem to have done a lot of it over the years now, but this was my first opportunity to draw a proper dragon and I was jazzed to try and tackle it. (Now for the record, this piece was created a good deal of time before the others above, but is I think the best and most extreme example of this madhouse practice, and as such, suitable for the end note). The theme of this tale that all three pieces share in common, is the notion of the story of a young girl who suddenly remembers she is in fact an ancient dragon hidden within human form. Great territory for drawing an image. My first go at it was to approach it as a portrait- which was predictable, pat, and ultimately terrible. But then, I went on to what turned out to be one of my most favorite efforts of that year... I was certain as anything it had hit it right on target. But it wasn't. Irene brought up that as much as she liked it, it was the wrong piece for this story, it felt too young, and so on... which was totally right. At the end of the day our job is to absolutely service the story, whether we write it or not. Nothing else matters if the mark is missed. It doesn't change how I felt about this drawing, but it did mean I had to do it again.

So nest up was to go for something older, more severe even if ultimately more on the nose. There's an invisible target in this kind of project that you only know you've hit, when you hit it. And for this it took two broad misses to find the target. The previous one, no matter how much I liked it,  didn't get coupled with the story in the end, but I still had it, and it still got seen, and we can think the internet for this: there is always a place to put these things now. Everything can have a second life.

I had a painting teacher at Pratt who warned us all that in the early-mid stages of the any painting: If you have a favorite part, erase it. Any portion that you covet, should be removed. Meaning, don't neglect the whole picture for the sake of one small portion of it. You could argue this all represents a lot of time wasted that could have been avoided by a sketch process or some more thought, and you'd probably be right. But you could equally contend that it took going through these previous pieces in order to find the final, and you'd be right also. Whichever is true I won't tell. You can figure it out for yourself and (you'd always be right). But whichever way you swing it, make sure you do it on-time and hit your deadlines. Because if you don't you might lose the chance to do this all over again.