Saturday, 18 December 2010

Happy Christmas!

Happy Christmas
If you were on my Christmas Card list this year you will no doubt have already received a card. I had originally intended to make it a very busy scene with ladders leaned up against the snowman and lots of people enjoying the weather, inspired as I was by a recent viewing of Breugel's 'Hunters in the Snow.' However in the end I deleted most of the population in favour of something much simpler.
Intial ArtRage Sketch
3D Reference
An initial sketch using ArtRage's chalk and oil brush tools was used as a background over which I traced some basic 3D geometry to check the perspective of other elements. Something I enjoy doing occasionally and for the 15 - 30 minutes it takes to put a simple 3D scene together, you get an awful lot of reference information back. Relevant reference material doesn't always present itself, but you can always make your own. Cinema 4D also provides a basic artist mannequin which is useful for quickly posing and placing humanoid figures. Happy Christmas one and all!
Click on images to enlarge.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Oil Pastels

I do love oil pastels, they might just be among the most flexible art materials in existence and I quite honestly can't believe how little we see of them in the public arena. I realise to make such a statement is to invite derision from certain circles, but please allow an indulgence...
Although I had previously dabbled in oil pastels and noted their potential, the image 'Luca' (left), a portrait of my lovely Godson, is the first oil pastel painting I ever completed. It was painted with what I now know are considered 'student quality' pastels, usually characterised as containing more wax and less pigment than artist quality pastels - you can see the hard waxy marks, which I think actually add something positive to the painting, so their lack of blending qualities isn't necessarily a bad thing.
The image used up my supply and the search for replacements unveiled other brands. In the UK the three most popular art shop brands I found were Royal Talens Van Gough pastels, Caran D'Ache Neopastels and Sennelier Oil Pastels. Although there seems to be some confusion, I would consider the Van Goughs student grade simply because their colour chart states that all pastels are marked either +++ or ++ for lightfastness. The first equates to 100 years lightfastness under gallery conditions and the second 25-100 years. Although a century sounds a long time, I'm guessing anyone considering an art investment would prefer a little longer. After all, if you are mixing ++ with +++ you are surely not promoting ++ to +++, but rather demoting +++ to ++, which could mean there is a chance your artwork may disintegrate within the lifetime of the buyer. Probably not good.

The Senneliers and Neopastels, however, are in a different league. You can tell just by using them and perhaps the best way I can describe both types is to say they feel more like oil paint in stick form, particularly the soft buttery Senneliers. Where the Van Goughs blend into mush when painting white over dark, for example, the other two brands are beautifully opaque and most of the time the white sits atop any colour like oil paints. But even where this is not the case, because oil pastels contain wax, they never dry like paint. This means you can rework an area simply by scraping off parts of the painting or use fixative over areas you want to amend. It also means you can employ really nice sgraffito effects.
Sparkle - Senneliers
There are differing opinions on whether oil pastels should be fixed or not. Some people prefer to keep them unfixed but mounted behind glass. Others use fixative spray such as Sennelier's. I like to rub slightly watered down acid free PVA glue over the finished work with a finger. Slightly unnerving as it is white when applied, but very quickly dries clear with a satin finish. The pastels are stable enough not to be disturbed by the light rubbing action.

Backlight - Sennelier/Neo
Although they never dry, oil pastels are also never wet, which means they are perfect for open air painting (en plein air.) Not that I'm an expert on the subject, but lately I've been trying to make a point of going out to paint on the spot because it is both good practice and good for the soul. There are no levels of abstraction to wrestle with such as paint tubes/pans, brushes, pallets, water, rags, oil or turps. No time spent pencil sketching, applying or removing masks, no pre-mixing colour since it is all done directly on the painting surface, no waiting for layers to dry. All I need to pack is a multi medium sketchbook, an old crayon tin full of pastels, a craft knife, a blending stump and a sheet of kitchen paper. The image 'Backlight' (above left) nicely demonstrates the medium's directness. While walking through Edinburgh Botanics I wanted to catch the low Autumn sun. I only had perhaps 15 minutes before the sun moved
One For Sorrow - Sens/Neo
behind the background building, so speed was an issue. In the time it takes to pull a sketchbook and a tin from my rucksack, maybe 10 or 15 seconds, I was painting. 'Backlight' and 'One for Sorrow,' also an open air painting finished in studio, both demonstrate the opaque nature of artist quality pastels where light colours are overlaid on dark. Applied pressure and a twist of the wrist creates really nice impasto strokes. The finer branch, leaf and grass highlights are the result of scraping away pigment - sgraffito.

Self Portrait - Sennelier
On the subject of speed and convenience, for various reasons I quite often find myself waiting in the car for small amounts of time. You can wait and do nothing or you can wait and sketch. Sometimes that means whipping out my ipod touch and firing up ArtStudio, but that is another subject for another day. On this occasion I started sketching the car mirror with grey pastels and soon realised I was in fact drawing myself. I really like this image, don't know why.
Self Portrait 2 - Sens/Neo
On yet another occasion I just could not sleep. You know, lying there in the dark, restless, brain won't switch off and legs won't stop twitching. Well eventually I just got up and started sketching Self Portrait 2 (right.) The light source was a single bedside lamp. It isn't an exact likeness, but I like the fuzzy sketchy quality, particularly around the eyes, which are normally the first point of contact for viewers and therefore rendered sharp. The whole thing nicely sums up that restless quality our friend insomnia sometimes brings. 
Click on images to enlarge.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The Apple Agency

Apple Agency Screenshot
This week, my agency have been kind enough to put a sheet of my work on their front page. By way of thanks, small gesture though it may be, I thought I'd write a potted history of The Apple Agency.
Simon Burr started out as a traditional illustrator over a quarter of a century ago. I've seen his work and it comes as no surprise to learn that his business soon flourished despite the considerable hurdles. To put that in context, before the digital age an illustrator would have to travel the length of the country to meet with clients, travel all the way back to carry out instructions then do the same thing over and over again until the piece was approved. When fax machines first came out he jumped at the chance to own one despite their phenomenal cost and terrible output; it at least meant the client could approve work without an all day journey. The workload became so huge Simon began sharing projects with fellow illustrators and eventually went on to set up The Apple Agency. I'm sure all his artists will agree Simon's illustration knowledge is an invaluable part of the process! Soon after the agency was established, he realised he needed to expand and enlisted the help of an old friend, Iain Blenkhorn, who also quickly became an invaluable. It is a rock solid setup!

Simon Burr
I first came across the Apple Agency about 7 years ago while looking for work online and noticed they were based in my home town, Scunthorpe (up the iron!) Luckily, Simon and Iain saw a chink of potential and gave me a chance. We have since worked on hundreds of projects together. Bizarrely their office turned out to be within walking distance of my parents' house so I always felt fate was in a philanthropic mood that day. Long may it last!

Click on image to enlarge.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Random Creation 1

You know how it goes. After weeks of punishing deadlines, the current crop of jobs are finally done and all is quiet in the office. The last thing you'd expect after endless eons sat at the computer is more of the same. Yet once the deadlines are gone your first thought is to do what you were going to before work came in - for example, play with those Painter brushes. So you start doodling. Nothing in particular, but sometimes the image becomes a little more coherent than abstract scribble. Occasionally you might even finish it in a sitting or two, but more often than not other work comes in and the doodles sit on your hard drive for months until they eventually get backed up and erased.
Then one day some time in the future, you're searching for something and come across a dvd full of unfinished doodles. 'I'll copy those back to my hard drive and work some more on them,' you think. And so the cycle continues.
Well, recently I came across a couple of said doodles. They are nothing special. In fact their existence is utterly meaningless other than to get filed under the heading, 'Random Creation.' When enough of them get filed I will put together another Blurb book called just that, 'Random Creation.'

Trust Me, I'm Your Dad!
Quite obviously, there is only one story I know of where an apprehensive boy has an apple balanced on his head. I'm not sure why this came out toon style because it is actually a very serious tale which ultimately lead to the birth of modern Switzerland. Then again, neither style or subject matter were planned, which is why this post heading contains the word random!
Needless to say the image depicts that infamous moment in 1307 when William Tell, crossbow hotshot, was forced to split an apple on his son's head or face execution of both by newly appointed Austrian overlord, Albrecht Gessler.
This composition should follow the balanced rule of thirds by placing the focus of the image (a human face) in the top third of the frame, but instead it augments tension by placing the boy's head at the centre of the image; my intention was to simulate the bullseye of a target. Furthermore, all the major limbs reinforce the effect by leading the eye to the centre. Not that your eye needs leading there; we will always look at a human face first no matter where it is placed in the composition.
As is my want, the tree also has character. It looks frightened because the apple is exactly in line with its heart.
This image began as a simple excercise in using Corel Painter's oil brushes, which are simply delicious.

Oh dear, the leaders of two tribes have agreed to parley for peace but things are not going well. How familiar does that sound? The little guy has lost his temper and used the mano cornuto - horned hand, a gesture which can mean several things, but in this case aimed squarely at an enemy is a curse.
Mano cornuto is a gesture I grew up with. Any Italian of my Parents' generation has probably used it as protection against malocchio, the evil eye. I believe many cultures have the same thing, but Italians inherited it from the Romans. I can't quantify that statement with irrefutable scientific proof, but Romans used it, Italians use it. Heck I still use it now whenever I see a lone magpie screaming, 'one for sorrow!' There is something very powerful about mano cornuto and this will not be the last depiction of it!
Parley was sketched in ArtRage with its gorgeous oil brush.
Click on images to enlarge.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Them Were 't' Days

I'm a bit rubbish at this online networking lark. Tweeting? I still haven't found an answer to the obvious question, why? *Insert: I have come back from the future to inform myself the answer may have finally been found!* Likewise my Facebook page is forgotten for weeks on end and I somehow never get round to learning its conventions.

I do know why this is though. Time is speeding up. That's right, you heard it here first. Time is not uniformly linear. There's probably a beautifully powerful yet astonishingly simple mathematical formula which perfectly describes the relationship between accelerated rate of passing time and age of the entity measuring that rate. In other words, I really can't be bothered learning this stuff because I'd never get the time back. Better to spend it creating.

Having said all that, I did recently remember to check my Facebook page and was pleased to find a greeting from Sarah Godsill, who happened to be on a little 80s nostalgia trip. I met Sarah on the fine art course at Newcastle Poly, but perhaps my most vivid memory of her was as unofficial artist in residence at the legendary Jumpin & Hot Club. She would feverishly sketch  acts as they did their turns and sometimes that meant sketching me as part of a busking jazz band called 'The Bats.' I love the expressiveness of these sketches and they are somehow more intensely nostalgic than photographs. That is what happens when artists draw and paint people; an extra sprinkle of magic.

These days Sarah is still capturing the spirit of occasions. For example, the brilliant images below are the result of time she spent with cast members rehearsing West Side Story. You can also find some more events illustrations here:

Click on images to enlarge.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Anna Keren Scatola

In a blatant and unashamed act of sheer nepotism, I'd like to announce the launching of my wife's website,

Anna is a Costume Cutter and Soft Furnishings Maker. She's not much of a braggart but I, on the other hand, get positively bloaty with pride whenever I see her work in the public arena. The complexity of some of her creations are mind boggling and many of my personal favourites were interpretations of Neil Murray's fantastic designs at Northern Stage (Newcastle Playhouse, UK).

However, the sweet stuff doesn't stop there. Working from home as a freelancer has its benefits, but also its downsides, the worst being lack of feedback from creative contemporaries. Internet forums do a great job in that respect, but they're no substitute for face to face chat with someone who has a natural creative eye... before you ask, no, she is not standing over my shoulder with a baseball bat!

If the website design looks familiar, it is because we used mine as a template! I admit I'm no web designer but this aside, we both agree that despite the plethora of flashy bling which can - and does - furnish virtual abodes, we both prefer simple, elegant unfussy interfaces which easily guide users to the actual content.

Click on images to enlarge

Monday, 20 September 2010

Publication Across the Nation

Recently I unexpectedly came across four of my images in publication. The first is in this month's portfolio section of one of my favourite magazines, Artists & Illustrators. I'd submitted the Dalkeith Oak a while ago and completely forgot about it, only to open the page with a whoop. The other three came with my purchase of Maxon's recently released Cinema 4D R12. If you can love binary, then Cinema 4D is the most huggable collection of ones and zeros I could hope to encounter. I, like many quite literally owe my current career to it! Well now I love Maxon even more because on flipping through the Quickstart Manual I found my Squirrel, Hedgehog and Zebra renders, all using their amazing hair simulator. Click on images to enlarge.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Catching the Rays

Computer generated imagery is just
plain fun sometimes. Recently my agent, Simon Burr, gave me a great job collaborating with artist Nick Veasey. Nick specialises in x-raying everything and anything to astonishing effect. His images are endlessly fascinating and I guarantee if you click on the link you'll not leave his website in a hurry.

Some things however, are simply not solid enough to capture, so we were given the task of creating an impression of how the eye, ear and brain might look x-rayed. The images were made and rendered in Cinema 4D; fresnel effect and transparency are your best friends!

Click on images to enlarge.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Posion Diaries: The Mandrake

I've recently been creating a series of plant characters for the Poison Diaries project which are planted in groups of 4 at the poison garden -
The first batch has been up for a while now so I thought I'd highlight some of my favourites as we go along, starting with the Mandrake.
Atropa Mandragora has a rich historical relationship with humans and was used for both good and bad. Medicinally, it has helped people sleep, soothed pain during operations, cooled skin complaints, calmed the mad and warded off demons. In the wrong doses Mandrake causes nausea, rapid palpitations and madness (quoted from The Poison Diares by the Duchess of Northumberland.)

The roots often split to resemble
human limbs and some believed new people could literally be grown from the plant. When harvested, the mandrake was said to scream so loud it killed anyone nearby. The solution was to tie a pet dog to the plant. When the owner ran clear of the scream, the dog ran after its master pulling the plant up, therefore killing the dog instead. They don't farm like that anymore!

Most subjects require a few options at the concept stage but the mandrake was pretty much accepted at first attempt. We decided to change the shape of the scream for the final 3D image.
I like sketching concepts in ArtRage, usually on a canvas texture with a thinned oil brush, but there are so many other options in ArtRage it makes me giddy. Another nice touch is the ability to load, resize and rotate reference images which float over the canvas.
The sketch is then brought into acclaimed 3D package, Cinema 4D and 'traced over' with 3D geometry. The 3D model is textured then cameras and lights are set before the final shot is rendered.

Click on images to enlarge.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Bounty Hunter

Chiaroscuro. What a magnificent word. Charged with drama, substance and history, chiaroscuro literally means light-dark or contrast.
Andrew Graham-Dixon is to blame for this image. In a recent repeat of his excellent documentary, 'Who Killed Caravaggio?' I was reminded of the genius painter's sublime work and immediately set about creating a dimly lit image without any plan or idea of its contents. Eventually the painting grew into this. A bounty hunter brings his vampyre prey to you the viewer, who is prepared to pay handsomely for every one delivered alive. Why? I have no idea, you'll have to ask yourself that question. The gun is, of course, loaded with a silver bullet.
Having finished it though, I realise there is another chiaroscuro painting fighting to get out and its title is already known; "Who Killed Caravaggio?"
Click on image to enlarge.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Lair of the Firehorse

This image started as a series
of abstract brush marks using Corel Painter's impasto brushes. Eventually this delightful creature grew from the flames. I don't know what a firehorse is, though having just googled I learned that in the Chinese horoscope, a Fire Horse is 'highly strung, powerful, inconsistent, alluring and motivated by strength of will.' So downright pigheaded then...

There is something I really like about natural media software oil brushes.
Of course logic says it shouldn't matter whether you can see an impasto effect because content is king right?
Well, maybe, but software impasto does seem to affect the way we make marks, and just as with traditional impasto, the texture adds another layer which is inexplicably compelling.

One of the most exciting things about creating random images is that they can quickly develop into bigger ideas and taller stories. This one stands out as a myth well worth exploring further and rest assured I will dear reader, I will...

Click on images to enlarge.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

The Wigtown Martyrs

In 1685 during a period known as
'The Killing Time' in Scotland, two women were tied to stakes driven into the sands of Wingtown Bay and left to the mercy of incoming tides. The eldest, a sixty three year old widow called Margaret McLachlan was set further out; doomed to drown first in the hope it would make her young friend, eighteen year old Margaret Wilson, swear an oath to the recently restored King Charles II and renounce the Covenant. The teenager held fast and drowned along with her comrade. The pair were buried in the local churchyard where they still lie.

Some accounts say Margaret Wilson did recant, but her executioners heartlessly decided to 'let her rot' anyway. Nice.

Though I love all things historical, it wasn't the history of religion or politics which inspired this image; my motivations were threefold:

1. John Everett Millais 
I've always admired the genius Pre-Raphaelite, especially his most famous painting, Ophelia. But it was this image, 'The Martyr of Solway,' which first introduced me to the subject.
From wikipedia: 'Painted in 1871, it hangs in Liverpool's Walker Gallery. Although the painting today shows Margaret wearing an open-neck blouse, when conservators x-rayed the piece, they found that the figure had once been a nude looking sharply to the right. In fact the head and torso had originally formed part of Millais' 1870 painting The Knight Errant, which portrayed a naked rape victim tied to a tree. A medieval knight is depicted cutting her free, having killed her attacker. The painting received negative reviews, leading Millais to cut away the head and torso section and add a fresh piece of canvas to paint it anew, with the woman's head turned distinctly away to the left. The original figure section was added to a new canvas for the 1871 Martyr painting and was repainted with chains and the more modest blouse.'

2. ArtRage's Oil Brush
Or more accurately, Simon Dominic's enthusiasm for ArtRage's Oil Brush. In a recent tutorial for digital art magazine, ImagineFX, fantasy artist extraordinaire Simon eloquently reminds us just how much fun ArtRage is. The oil brush is simple, elegant and allows anything from realistic impasto effects to thinned washes through a simple 3 dial settings panel. Mighty fine interface design!

3. Cormorants
Cormorants are a feature of Scottish Coastlines which I'd wanted to paint for a while. This particular one regularly stands on a small pile of debris in the middle of the Water of Leith drying out its wings. Wigtown Martyrs seemed like a good opportunity to include the little fellow; perched at the top of Wilson's stake wings outstretched, it gives the mood a brooding mythical air and is reminiscent of that most iconic symbol of martyrdom, the cross. In Norwegian myth it is said the Cormorant comes with warnings from the underworld.
The image actually looked more balanced by removing the bird and extending the stake upwards, but in this case I felt this top heavy unbalacing suited the subject matter.
The sharp eyed among you might also notice the Union Jack is in fact a 1606 'King's Colours,' version, which did not yet include St Patrick's cross.

Click all images to enlarge.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Old Oak Tree

Perhaps I shouldn't say this out loud - I love trees. I've always loved them, but while recently making illustrations for Piggotty Wood I became just a bit more than a tad obsessed.
As a result every tree I see now seems to possess some kind of humanoid feature, so I decided to get it out of my system and paint of few of my favourites, beginning with an old craggy oak. This fellow sits alongside many of his brethren in the grounds of Dalkeith Country Park near Edinburgh. That pesky badger charged me a fortune in modelling fees. I say painting, but this image was actually created with Sennelier oil pastels. If they were good enough for Picasso... Click on image to enlarge.

Coincidentally, I recently saw a programme on The Glasgow Boys which featured, among others, a young artist called Jack Frame, who heroically hauls his full kit around to paint the most magnificent paintings of trees. I'm hoping this means we tree geeks are about to get tree chic. See Jack's work here.

Friday, 4 June 2010

The Poison Diaries

I literally could not believe my luck when recently picked to do some illustrations for The Poison Diaries flash website.
Over the last few weeks I have worked with the Duchess of Northumberland, Zoƫ Watkins of FourteenFiftyFour and Chris Minett of 20:20 on what has become an all time favourite job.
Work continues on plant characters so keep checking the site for updates.

If you can get hold of a copy, I must also recommend the stunning original graphic novel by the Duchess, featuring outstanding illustrations by Disney animator, Colin Stimpson.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

The Ballad of Piggotty Wood

Badger cub Joe was born to a world where good folk are cowed. The subjugation seems impenetrable until one day, a chance encounter with an ancient tree triggers the fight of his life.
Huge thanks for continued support of my personal project, a picture book, 'The Ballad of Piggotty Wood.' I am delighted with the overwhelming positive reaction it has had and am currently thinking of possible scenarios for a sequel. Piggotty Wood also played its part in getting my current batch of work which will be announced shortly. You can order the book in hardback or softback from