I have some very cool fans. One fan in particular, let’s call her Nikki, has sought me out at every Denver based comic convention I’ve attended for the past three years. Every year she buys multiple prints and always commissions an original piece. What is the one thing that all these originals have in common? Her obsession, Robert Downey Jr.
I’ve drawn him as Iron Man, Sherlock, Iron Man and Iron Man again. Yeah, she has a problem. This year was no different, actually it was, because instead of commissioning me at the show and getting a sweaty and frantic original at the con, she contacted me ahead of time and got a sweaty and frantic original that I got to complete in the comfort of my home. On a side note, those of you who make it a habit of getting commissions at shows, I much prefer the working from home method. Working at a show can be fun and exhilarating when you can somehow work the crowd and stay in the zone enough to hit on a great drawing. But there is nothing worse than handing over a finished drawing that you know reeks of distraction. Especially when the patron can see it.
So Nikki sent me a message about a month before Denver Comic Con. Should be plenty of time right? Well, sort of. What ended up happening was I spent four weeks wrapping up other projects and finishing some original pieces to display at the con, which left me about three days to complete Nikki’s piece. Nikki’s idea was simple enough, she wanted RDjr as Tony Stark in some kind of Man/Machine themed piece. I liked the idea, vague as it was. You see, I had been wanting to do a Tony Stark piece that harkened back to the old Arrow Collar illustrations painted by the massively talented J.C. Leyendecker. I suppose a common theme in my work is taking modern elements and framing them in a classic manner. I love the golden age of illustration. And part of me would really like to go back in time and experience life as an illustrator in the 20’s through 50’s.
Back to the piece. So, I’m thinking RDjr as Tony Stark in a Leyender Arrow collar ad that somehow hints at man becoming machine. Simple enough right?
First thing’s first. I need to dig up some reference material. I look over hundreds of pictures of RDjr and Iron Man and old Arrow Collar ads. As I’m looking through all of these images, I’m waiting for the spark of inspiration that goes off when I see a photo and it gives me a tangible and clever idea. In this case, that never really happened, so I just soldiered on, finding dozens of photos that I thought I could take elements from and piece them all together. Sort of like Frankenstein’s monster. These were the images I found that could help me the most.
Cool Leyendecker painting, check. RDjr portrait, check. Interesting robo-tech to round it all out, check. Now it was time to put it all together.
I often cut and paste heads and faces and make crude photoshop gag images for my illustrations. If I can just see where everything needs to be and how it’s all working together, my imagination can fill in the rest. I hit a bit of snag though. I really wanted this image to resemble an Arrow Collar ad. I always saw Tony Stark wearing a suit in it. But putting him in a suit interfered with some of the elements that would be important to the piece. Sure, I could have thought and thought and thought until I came up with a solution to the problem, but the deadline loomed and there was no time to waste trying to stay true to a personal decision. After all, this piece was for Nikki and I knew she would much prefer Tony Stark in his sexy black tank top. This sort of compromise happens all the time with my commissioned work. She was gracious enough to pretty much give me free reign on this piece. The very least I could do in return is remember who I was really painting it for. So that decision made everyone happy. She got her sexy Tony Stark, and I got a solution that worked well within my time constraints.
Once I have the finished drawing on the board, I hit it with a bit of spray fixative and break out my airbrush and acrylic paints. I basically start with the lightest/warmest color and work my way to the darkest/coolest one. Spraying wash after wash of paint, every color and value I add to the piece gives it a more finished look. It’s important to note that at this point, I’m mostly filling in my middle values and painting shadows. I do this until there’s nothing left for me to do except attack the highlights.
Now I break out my color pencils and start adding some highlights. See, before the color pencils, the painting looked finished, but kind of fuzzy. Well, with my pencils I start pulling out some areas of focus and all of a sudden the whole thing changes!
After I have my lighter values established and sharpened, I go back in with my dark color pencils and sharpen some of those areas as well.
Then break my Acrylic paints out again and I brush on anything that I want to be brighter than my color pencils.
The last step is varnishing. I like to use an acrylic gloss varnish. It makes the paints and pencils harmonize even more. And everything just has a richer tone to it afterwards. Plus, I like how it confuses people. I had so many people ask if I was painting in oil. It would be nice to paint in oil, but who has the time?
Truth be told, this commission didn’t even take three solid days, it was more like a half day, a full day and a half day…what ever that adds up to. And in the end, I got to work on a piece that I had wanted to get out for a while and I also made a very special fan happy. Everyone won!
I hope you all enjoyed hearing a little bit about my thoughts and process when it comes to commissions. I’m going to try to make posting blogs a more regular thing. Thanks for your patience as I wandered and rambled. I’ll get the rust off my words yet!
Thanks for looking and listening!