Used Books: Step-by-Step

2017. Gouache and acrylic on illustration board.

Step 1. Sketch

This piece began with a sketch on plain paper (not pictured). I redrew the sketch on illustration board using HB pencil. The initial sketch did not feature the border or the sign in the upper left. After the initial sketch, I took a photo and solicited feedback from some other artists online. They pointed out that the sign and the empty space around it took attention away from the central character. I went back and refined the sketch a bit more to try to solve this design problem. I used a compass to draw the circular border.

The above photo is poor quality for several reasons. I took the picture with my phone camera, which is not spectacular to begin with. Also, the pencil lines on the board are in reality extremely light. I had to do a lot of Photoshop shenanigans to bring the contrast forward enough to make the sketch visible. The reason I point this out is that the darkness of the lines in the photo could give the impression of a much darker, more committed pencil drawing at this point of the process. Keeping the sketch as light as possible in the beginning was key, because the drawing would go through several stages of revision.

Bearing down with more pressure to make dark lines would have been a mistake.  For one thing, erasing darker lines is more difficult, and tends to leave a ghost image. The other problem is that dark, heavy lines can make grooves and indentations in the paper or board surface, which can permanently mar the texture of the finished piece and make additional drawing and painting difficult.

Step 2. Refining the Drawing

After receiving helpful feedback on my sketch, I revised the composition to draw more attention to the raccoon instead of the background elements. I repurposed the sign into a poster, and reined in the background to the circular border. Some foreground elements break through the border, but this works because it helps suggest their forward position. I tried to carefully organize the book stacks, both to frame the character and to sustain the overall perspective from a low eye-level. The book stacks are conceived as basic rectangular prisms or vertical boxes. The large box form is then broken down into individual books, with a little bit of variation added to keep them from looking too much like plain vertical blocks.

After some further work on the drawing, I took a new photo and got some final feedback. I sprayed the drawing with workable fixative (outdoors! That stuff is nasty).

Step 3. Gouache underpainting with lift-out technique

The painting phase began with a thin all-over wash of a warm tonal ground. (See a previous post for another example of this technique). The ground color was a mixture of burnt sienna and warm yellow. I figured that the raccoon, being a cool gray, would naturally contrast the warm setting once the final color was applied. Then, highlights were scrubbed out with a clean damp brush. The lighting scheme is based on the notion of overhead fluorescent lighting, although the color temperature is warmer than what you would get with real fluorescent lights. The top planes are lit, and the other planes are form shadows. There are also occlusion shadows (see this Sam Nielson tutorial for more about those), but very little in the way of cast shadows. I used a little bit of burnt umber to lay in the darkest darks. For the books, I tried to balance between lighting the stacks as block forms, but also keeping an appealing pattern of light and dark with regard to the spines of the books versus the white pages. The books are facing different directions, so I didn’t want to have all the spines and all the pages all the same.

Step 4. Color

Once I was happy with the underpainting, I glazed and scumbled the final color with thin acrylic. Foreground books also got a little more emphasis with the addition of a painted outline. Because the underpainting is yellow, areas of blue have the most contrast. The raccoon’s fur is a cool gray, which seems more blue against the yellow background; the blue book pushes this contrast further. For the other books, only a very thin application of color was necessary. Stronger, bolder color on the other books would have competed with the raccoon and the blue book.

Finally, the piece was scanned and the border and white background laid in digitally.

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