Monday, January 3, 2011

Behind the scenes: "Discover a Muse"

This image is a great one to kick-off the "behind the scenes" series of articles for my blog. It shows the amount of work I am often willing to put into an image to try and make it something special.. or just how truly neurotic and perfectionist I can be. It is a glimpse into my thought process, usually I come up with and discard many ideas in my head. But in this particular project, to my great frustration, many of my thoughts ended up on paper.

For those who don't know, this painting was done for competition on the ArtOrder blog. The requirements were simple: participants were given a zip file full of reference provided by model Veronika Kotlajic to use as reference and we were to come up with an image that embodied the terms: strong, independent and sexy. I hadn't entered in a competition since I started getting freelance work a few years ago, but I had a break in my work schedule that coincided perfectly with the competitions deadlines, so I decided to go for it.

Veronika has a few egyptian style tatoos that inspired me to go in an egyptian goddess route. After some thumbnails and digital composites with the reference photos, I came up with this:

Looking back, it isn't half bad. In fact having just dug up the sketch today I am thinking I might revisist the concept. But at the time it was just not happy with it. It was solid, I could have made it work. But it just wasn't a winner, it didn't have anything special about that was going to seperate it from the what I knew was going to be a tough competition. (and it was.. here are the entries). After some more drawing and much deliberation, I decided to abandon this concept. I wasn't getting paid for it, and I didn't think I could win with what I had come up with, so what was the point?

I had done this drawing about a year before, and even had it enlarged and mounted on a board.

I had just never got around to painting it. I figured it might be a good place to start. The composition wasn't quite working for me anymore, but it had potential.

Much drawing ensued and I came up with these two ideas:

I liked the simplicity and flow of the wing-arms version, but my friends told me it just looked goofy. So I went with the first option, had the drawing enlarged at kinko's and mounted it to a board, ready to paint the next day.

When I woke up I wasn't happy with it again. I had a pretty strong visual in my head of this angel doing circus style acrobatics in the air, showing off... being all strong, sexy and independent. Somewhere along the line that just got lost. At this point I was getting pretty frustrated with the whole thing. This wasn't suppossed to take this long, it was just a competition and I had other ideas in my sketchbook I wanted to work on. But with so many hours already invested I decided to stick it out and see what I could do.

I played around in photoshop and sketched all morning and afternoon and decided to go back to the original backflip I had, replaced the scepter with a less distracting sword, covered up the breasts (again, too distracting) and for reasons I can't remember, closed the eyes. Went to Kinko's late at night, got a new print, mounted it and went to bed exhausted.

I woke up and looked at, and was again unhappy.. and very, very frustrated. I can't remember exactly how the solution revealed itself to me, I am just glad it did... Looking back it is so ridiculously obvious, I can only assume all my frustration got in the way of my thinking clearly and prevented me from seeing it earlier... Mirroring the other arm for a more symmetrical pose got rid of more clutter and gave me the flow and power of the initial wing-arm version without the goofy anatomy. Since it was a simple fix I redrew the arm on the board, opened the eyes back up and got to work.

Banged out this color comp in PS pretty quickly and the painting went smoothly, even pretty quickly up until this point:

I was damn proud of the face and shoulder area I painted, but the background colors weren't quite working as well on the final as they had on the comp. No big deal I thought. I messed around with it digitally and came up with a better pallette and figured I would just glaze over it to fix it.

This project wasn't quite finished with me yet.. it just had to kick me in the nuts one last time. I ran into serious technical issues with the medium I was using (M. Graham's walnut alkyd) I guess if you mix too much into your paint the surface will become too slick and will not accept another layer of paint. So my glazing layer beaded up (kinda like water on a car hood) and my attempts to correct it by adding more mineral spirits into the mixture caused the bottom layer of paint to peel off. The mountains and much of the sky was ruined... There was not much to be done but to lightly sand down the area and just repaint it, silently cursing digital painters the whole time. I have since switched to Galkyd lite.

In the end though, this was the result:

All the blood, sweat and tears were worth it though: I got to go to Chicago and exhibit my work in Veronika's gallery, where she ended up buying the painting. I scored the cover of the book that was made from the competition, I got a fair amount of exposure and accolades from the whole thing... and I finally broke myself of a bad habit of jumping into the final stage of a painting before it is really ready to be painted.


  1. Thank for sharing your thought process. The painting is nothing short of amazing. I am glad you stuck it out because you really knocked it out of the park. It's such an honor to be part of your work. :) Veronika

  2. I have to second Veronika's comments. It was a great piece, but I appreciate it even more after hearing the trail of tears that were part of the process.

  3. Awesome composition, great color choices. This piece is dynamic as hell. Nice work, man.

  4. This is so great to see the process Michael thanks for sharing :) Keep up the awesome work!

  5. You really did an amazing job. Congrats on getting the cover!

  6. Stunning work man, that light is just out of this world.

  7. Thank you for sharing your process, the work on this piece shows that you are not only inspired as an artist, amazing attention to detail and flexible to change and then knowing when a piece is finished. The neck and shoulder area is amazing I agree and of course so is the model//muse Veronika ;) Beautiful work Michael!

  8. Thanks so much for the kind words everyone, I will try and get some more war stories up in the next little while.