Sometimes, paintings just need more work than you set out to give them. They reflect your state of mind so well, that at times we manage to ignore what’s in front of us, when we should follow what’s going down.
This is the sequence of painting two images of a six story run for Tor.com. The stories were written by Michael Swanwick and art directed by Irene Gallo. (The first one, “The Mongolian Wizard,” was just published.) They have a touch of steampunkiness to them, along with vaguely recognizable historic elements. I read them both about three times each, then started as usual, with a slew of thumbnails.
Because the stories are full of so much great imagery, I thought I would design montages for each installment, thereby giving each story a unique flavor, and the overall series a cohesive look.
After the first set of thumbs, and much discussion about whether to paint scenes vs montages, Irene and I thought the bottom thumb (second to last page above) could be used as a base design and modified for each story.
This is a much rendered sketch for the final of the first story, “The Mongolian Wizard,” and even at this point, Irene was a bit reluctant about the approach. I had shown her stylized thumbs, but my sketch was more realistic. This was the point at which she got nervous about what the finishes would look like.
This second sketch is closer to what I had in mind. A little more distortion and personality, which she thought sounded good.
Based on the first set of thumbnails, I started the second story, “The Fire Gown,” and did just one page of thumbs.
And the final sketch. Irene felt there was a disconnect between what we were talking about vs what we were looking at. I just figured the stylization would come out in the paint.
First painting done. But even now, way in the back of my mind, I questioned some of the color.
I moved on to the second piece, with Irene asking if this one could be brighter. There was extra pressure for these first couple images to be right because Tor.com would be wedded to the look for the entire series.
I was happy with them. By this time I had finished both pieces in about four days, and shown them to Irene. Silence. I finally asked her impression of them. Her response was that the first pass was off.
The problem with the first painting was two-fold. The large head caused a rather awkward space in the center of the composition, and the stylization of the whole piece was inconsistent. And also, the second painting would need to match the first.
Now, I was in trouble. How was I going to fix these pieces so that they were accurate to the story, and still be nice images? Other deadlines were pending for me, so I promised I would make good on the designs and decided to give it a rest for about a week. Luckily, she had some time.
I went into an immediate slump. Had this happened earlier in my career, I would’ve probably panicked, not slept for days, and fought off pounding headaches. Instead, I relaxed and let my mind dwell on the problem. When I did that, it went to work in the background, and foggy solutions started forming.
The large head had to change and the colors had to meld together more. I finally explained to Irene my master-plan for fixing them both. She shared her fears with me about whether I could pull it off, and frankly, I wasn’t 100% convinced either, but I trusted my experience.
I made some sketches of pieces that would be dropped into the actual paintings, old-style, on the original. I didn’t want to correct it digitally. (I know...but I wanted originals in the end, not pixels.)
Below are some shots of the process. The first step: I sanded the board to scrub out the main head, but that failed. Next, I had to paint it out completely to white, so I used a palette knife to smooth titanium white over the head and waited overnight for it to dry. After projecting my drawing over the white patch, I penciled in the outlines. I covered this with an acrylic wash, and then laid in the oil.
This rescued the first story and I moved onto the next painting, with the same steps as above. Irene was delighted on how effective the changes were.
I was even more happy with the second piece and Irene was elated that they were better compositionally, and with the colors being different, yet holding the set together. When Michael Swanwick saw them, he felt I had captured his characters accurately, saying, “These pictures make me happier than I can say. Above and beyond the fact that they portray the characters as I imagined them, they really sell the stories. People are going to start reading the text hoping for exactly the story that’s there.”
There are times when one has no idea how something will play out. I’m not one for relying on faith alone. This problem came down to trusting the process I have been working with for decades.
This post originally appeared on Muddy Colors
Gregory Manchess is an artist and writer working in New York and Portland.