Sentinel Fantasy Book Cover Commission

This is my newest book cover illustration for the novel Sentinel by Melanie Jordaan (title may be subject to change). I was given several pages worth of scenes featuring various characters, locations and magic concepts. One of the difficulties I had was trying to fit as many of the important features into the illustration as possible, but I knew it had to focus on the Sapphire sentinel (the protagonist). A few scenes were discarded as being too dark for the tone of the book cover (i.e. great imagery, but not fully indicative of the novel itself), or too complex (i.e. too many competing features/ characters). The city is set on the top of a mountain, contains a crystal wrapped map room, and the background has an impossibly large landscape of a moat-like river and mountains in the distance. This almost became a secondary character to Sapphire.

These were the initial sketches I sent through. Most of the action has to be on the far right, where the front cover is. The left side should be fairly empty to allow for the blurb.

Sentinel Thumbnail sketches

I sent through the sketch based on option 6 as chosen by the client. The scene was one where Sapphire is looking back, watching as night changes into day. It's kind of a metaphor for the internal battle between light and dark the character goes through. I wanted the blue of her dress to pop, which is why I wanted the background to be oranges and pinks.

Sentinel Colour concepts

There were some final adjustments to the sketch which included some villages along the shoreline, removing the staircase and moving the moon. The client sent through a detailed description of the map for the floor. Colour concept number 1 was what was decided on. Her costume needed to be head to toe, with a veil covering her lower face. Although the architecture is more European gothic, I combined elements of Chinese garb and simple cotehardie of European style. The fabric is meant to magically flow as though touched by air. There's also very little decoration.

 Sentinel approved line-art

Sentinel approved line-art

The glass/crystal went through a few rounds of edits. This version I toned down as the ebook version looked quite pale. I'm not sure what version the client will go with.

Sentinel Cover Illustration - Glass more transparent

This is the approved final image. The background is toned down a bit because the crystal/ glass is more opaque.

Sentinel approved final image

 Detail of one of the villages... yes, details matter :)

Detail of one of the villages... yes, details matter :)

 Detail of Sapphire, the protagonist

Detail of Sapphire, the protagonist

Why I dislike unsolicited critique

A few weeks back I responded to a Facebook post where the person was going to provide unsolicited critique as though it was something that the artist should feel grateful for. They explained who they were going to go after and how they saw this helping the artist.

As an artist, I wish I could shout out to these people to PLEASE STOP.

I'm not saying that art critique is bad. It is not. Art critique and feedback is vital to development, and as an artist one of the best things you can learn is how to take critiques and feedback and use them to improve. Any artist that has been to art college goes through years of having their work pulled apart by lecturers and peers.

However there is a time and place for this.

Artists post art for various reasons. Artists paint for different reasons. For some it's a vocation, an emotional release, a job, a way of expressing and reacting to something. But art is not made for the sole purpose of having some random person on the internet to pull apart, however well their intentions are.

What is an unsolicited critique?

Unsolicited feedback or critique is when you judge the artwork publicly and offer your personal advice on the art. It may be as simple as 'you should have painted the dress red' or it could be a much more critical analysis of anatomical issues, or rendering issues.

Generally it does not provide information on how the artist can fix the problem and is often given by someone that may not be an artist. That being said, critique from anyone, regardless of their background can be valid. It's just that most artists know the 'code' for when and where it's appropriate to offer feedback such as critique forums or private groups.

It's not an opinion such as 'I don't like ponies in paintings'.

I used the example of going on a date with someone, and telling your date what is wrong with their clothes or hairstyle. It's often uncomfortable for the date, made without all the information at hand, and casts the person giving the feedback in a bad light.

Why wouldn't an artist want to hear what I have to say?

  • Some work is just a sketch. It will never go any further. It's a brain dump, a scribble, a fleeting thought, a bit of fun. Would you like every single thing you do analysed?
  • Sometimes artists just post it as a record of this is what I am working on.
  • A lot of art is directed by a client. By critiquing the art, you may be critiquing and criticising a client - who may be a company, or may be someone just like you. That portrait may be of a character that has lived with them since they were a kid and you've just told them indirectly that their ideas are crap.
  • Some work is cheap, it's done in a rush because of client deadlines or budgets. It is done. There will be no more fixing. The artist has moved on. It may have been painted 6 months ago and the artist has improved since then. The amount of times I've had people commenting on artwork I painted 15 years ago as though I painted it today is amazing.
  • Sometimes the artist knows what's wrong and doesn't need an additional voice telling them what they already know and are planning to fix later. Many of us are perfectionists and highly critical of our own work.
  • Some days the artist is just having a crap day and you pointing out their flaws, however nicely, may make them want to stop painting. Many artists struggle with mental health issues. Comments that you think are unimportant or throw away may have devastating effects on the artist's mental health.
  • Some artists are not mature enough to deal with critique and feedback. Your comments may fall on deaf ears, or more likely be taken as an attack.

Why am I really offering unsolicited critique?

Ask yourself what is the purpose of your critique and why you feel you need to give it, and publicly. Is it because you really see promise and want to help them improve, or is there another reason? 

Most artists like to assume you really think you are trying to be helpful, but the sad thing is, that if you ever want to work with the artist or engage with them in the future, by offering the unsolicited advice, you may inadvertently burn your bridges. Artists generally don't like to work with people that are overly critical because they'll unlikely be able to ever please them.

What should I do if I want to offer feedback?

Ask the artist first! 

Ask! Ask! Ask!

Some artists are cool with it, many artists find it rude and off-putting. Some may tell you to join a critique forum and post your feedback while the art is in progress. Some artists offer opportunities to provide feedback by posting WIP shots or asking for advice. Changes are much easier to make at that stage than once it's fully painted.

If the artist says 'no', respect them for their reasons. You have to remember at the other end of the internet is a person with feelings. It doesn't matter if they've been painting for 50 years or 6 months, 

What is my opinion?

I don't like it. I find it extremely rude. If you provide me unsolicited advice you'll likely be ignored, possibly even blocked. I won't get into an argument with you. If I want feedback I ask for it. I have to be in the right head-space for it. My clients I expect feedback from. That's part of the collaboration process. 

I'm fine if you want to ask me questions as why I chose to paint a certain subject or make a certain artistic choice. But I am really, really self-critical. I see flaws in every single painting I do. I know what needs to be done. But sometimes I am over a painting and just want it out the door so I can move onto something new.

What's your thoughts?

Pathfinder Elf Magus commission

This was a fun commission to do - a female elf sword and magic wielder. Although it's weird not painting backgrounds, it's also kind of a palette cleanser being able to just focus on a character.

Being a Paizo Pathfinder elf her eyes are somewhat different to the elves of LotR or elves you commonly see on TV.

Miribeth - female elf Magus

A detail version of the pace. This is close to full resolution as the painting is 8.5 x 11.5 inches @ 300dpi

This is the original sketch, but the client wanted to see what she looked like with a braid instead

Also, a few quick notes about my commissions. At the moment I'm not doing portraits of people. To be honest, I'm not really interested in trying to capture exact likenesses of people. I think they are great fun for the person receiving it, but for me, painting It stresses me out and I don't enjoy the commission at all. Maybe I'll go back to them one day, but for the moment I'll leave them for portrait artists that enjoy it.

I also only accept PayPal/ credit card. No crypto-currencies, no EFT, no Western Union transfers. I also only work with contracts. If you're uncomfortable with this, or cannot pay via my method of payment, please don't ask me about prices.

Ria - Tiefling Palading from Dungeons and Dragons

I love Dungeons and Dragons commissions. The world is so rich, there are so many playbooks, and unlike many visual RPGs such as Guild Wars or World of Warcraft, I'm designing a character from the ground up.

Recently I worked on a commission for a client I've worked with several times in the past. This time, he wanted a representation of his Tiefling Paladin, Ria (there's a long back story, but it's not mine to tell :) ) Being a tiefling, they have horns and a tail, and often times coloured skin that's not quite of this world. The skin and hair colour was very fixed in the client's mind and he provided some artwork as a reference, as with the symbol of Lathander, her God/ religion.

I always start with a couple of thumbnail sketches. In this case it was 4, but because I plan on reusing the poses I'll only show the one that we settled on. At this point they are really rough, the armour was combined from some different thumbnails, and the background was from a different sketch. You may be able to see some of my redlines from the pencil sketch this started from.

Unless the client says to go full fantasy, I try and keep the armour relatively realistic - that being said it is fantasy! I mix and match things from European 15th-16th century 

 Thumbnail sketch

Thumbnail sketch

This is the original sketch. Her horns were more pronounced and her tail longer. I hadn't designed the sword or fully worked out the background. This was a relatively simple background. We worked through a couple of different horn concepts and changed the tail length 

In this instance I decided to keep the armour standard steel, and focus on the background as defining the armour light. Lighting can really change the mood of a piece. Most clients tend to want portraits to be fairly well lit and not so gloomy but I always like to provide a few options

This is the final painting. Because it is not a detailed background (and the client wasn't charged for a detailed background) it is fairly painterly and more suggestive of a forest. It also helps push the character into focus. A lot of time was spent rendering metal!

 And here's a closeup of the face. This full painting is painted at 8.5 x 11.5" @ 300 dpi. 

And here's a closeup of the face. This full painting is painted at 8.5 x 11.5" @ 300 dpi. 

If you want your own character commissioned, go to my commission page to see my pricing and some previous examples

Balancing a day job, freelance illustration and illness

I started this post a few times. It was long and rambly with a lot of talking about art college and the beginnings of the internet business model. I decided to scrap it all and just keep it simple. I started making some notes about things I've learnt along the way, and I'll be re-posting over the coming weeks some old articles I wrote for EMG Zine/ Part time painter blog where I talked about specific techniques I've tried at one time or another to try and help productivity.

As a bit of background:

  • I've had an art business since 2003 when I got my first website and ABN. Most of my art income comes from painting commissions, though in the early days the majority came from originals and print sales
  • I've worked part time since I was 16, starting full time work in IT mid 2003 after several years full time study at university. I was still studying part time while running a business and working full time. I made a conscious decision to work in IT as I am one of these people that can't just be consumed by art... I like constant learning and being mentally challenged. The art business is more than just painting - you are an Entrepreneur, a one person shop. It's a lot of work and I tip my hat to all full time artists. 
  • I don't have a partner or children. So guess who gets to do all the chores :D But I have a cat who does not understand boundaries
  • I got diagnosed with my illness when I was 17. I was misdiagnosed for probably 10 years until my physical and mental health hit rock bottom about 10 years ago. It's a managed condition. I see doctors regularly, I'm on daily medication, I go through good patches and extremely bad patches. People judge you for it - especially as it's not a visible illness, and aspects are completely misunderstood. I daily have to manage what I eat, how many hours I sleep, and try and keep my stress low - yeah, work in IT, that's a low stress job! 

So here are some high level thoughts on balancing multiple hats.

According to plan...

 

Knowing your limits and setting boundaries

You know yourself better than anyone else. When you are not doing the art business full time (or don't have a lot of support), you are doing it around other things - family or work or illness. You have to be realistic about how much time you actually have for your business... and then think about how much time you have and whether you can actually commit to every spare hour you have. 

I get home from work quite often after 7pm at night after working a standard day. I have one day off a week that many weeks is half taken by doctors appointments. After getting dinner and getting my crap together for the next day (in theory there's cleaning dishes, maybe doing a load of washing) I am left with not a huge amount of time. I can't stay up late. My meds make me tired, plus I need sleep or my condition deteriorates. I sometimes will answer emails, do some social media, write a blog post, pack an order... but most of the time I've learnt I need to have wind down time for myself. I might game for half an hour or watch some TV or read a book. Years ago I used to come home, and paint or study until midnight. Nowadays I can't.

Knowing my limitations, I've come to the realisation that I don't work quick enough for freelance gigs like game cards or company illustrations. It's why I do private commissions because I have more control. I've only done one illustration for a game when I was overwhelmed and probably didn't have the energy. It took longer than I wanted (though there was no strict deadline), but I always felt bad about it.

What are your priorities

Priorities can shift at any time of the year, at any time in your career. Your business has to be fed and nurtured, some times it will take more energy than at others. You have to make a commitment to it. But, that doesn't mean your priorities are going to be consistent. When I first started, prints and products were my priorities. I had to change my priorities when the margins became really narrow and I worked out I effectively had 3 hours on a Saturday morning in which I could get to the post office. You would think this is plenty of time, but what happens when a family event comes up, you get sick, you have to go to a shop that's open in the same time but on the other side of town.

Priorities also are about what makes you happy or gives you satisfaction as an artist. You're compacting your art business time down into maybe a few hours each night and possibly part of the weekend. You will begin to resent your business if you feel like you are coming home to more work. Or you'll burn out.

Think about what it is about the art business you want to focus on and don't apologise for it. As long as you are professional, carefully consider what does and doesn't align with your priorities.

Preparation

One of the things I did badly when I started was reacting to things, rather than being prepared in advanced. I'm moving my print sales pretty much to fulfilment as the time cost for packaging items and going to the post office, even for one item is worth less to me than time spent painting. But while doing lots of print sales I found that sitting down and preparing a stockpile of prints, buying backing boards in the right size rather than hand cutting to size, and using prepared templates instead of a custom one all save time and energy. I used to have stickers for shipping labels but these days I've changed directions so don't do huge amounts of physical sales.

For commissions, I have contract templates, I should have canned email responses but I don't. I do however try to make my information about commissions clear and concise. Consider having a FAQ page... I think mine hit the dust when I rebuilt my website, but I did make a post about image usage because that is what I used to get the most emails about when I was first starting out. 

Also set up client expectations up front early. I have worked out I have to chunk work into thumbnails, sketches, and then the final painting. I give an estimate for the work explaining roughly when I'll be checking in, and try to stick to it. Unfortunately things don't always go to plan as you can't prepare for being sick or your computer dying, or thunderstorms preventing you from working digitally the only day you have off! 

Learn to say NO 

I cannot stress this enough. If a commission feels off, don't take it (working with a day job means I can be a bit choosy). I still take on work that occasionally the interest wears off on part way through, but I've learnt that some work or some opportunities can be energy vampires. When your time is limited, you do not want to be stuck doing something that takes up time you don't really have and makes you resent your creative business. Most of the time something else will come along that better aligns with your priorities anyway.

If at first you don't succeed...

There are dozens of techniques for improving productivity. Pomodoro, time-boxing, those tools that eliminate distractions, Rescue Time (for watching how many hours you spend avoiding work...) Try each one, and if it doesn't work, move on. Just be prepared that some things will work, some things won't. You are trying to work smarter, not harder. 

Build in down time

You are not a machine. You need to have fun. It is healthy to paint your own personal work, go to the movies, have family days, go on holidays, exercise (bleh), do things that you enjoy. I probably paint less these days because I game more than I used to when I first started my business, but I need that time where I'm not thinking about work. It's my thing that I look forward to. You have to have something you enjoy doing outside of work and family.

And don't feel guilty about it (unless it's interfering with deadlines and you're procrastinating)

 Build in downtime... go to the beach

Build in downtime... go to the beach

  

Don't compare yourself to full-time artists!

Oh man am I bad at this. When I don't feel like I've improved in years I have to remember other artists have a lot more time to practice their craft. They are working constantly in the arts industry... it's like comparing a top level athlete to someone who plays football on the weekend. It's OK to be slower, it's OK to have smaller sales and make less money, it's OK not to get the awards, it's OK not to have thousands of followers. 

They are working at it all the time. If it bothers you, turn off social media for a while and just paint or do something that makes you happy. I found that I had to stop looking at Instagram because it was seriously depressing seeing people doing amazing art all the time... and me painting maybe one full painting in a month or two. I stuck with twitter because there was more words than pictures, but I still could connect with other artists.

Get involved with artist groups

There are going to be other artists like you. They may be difficult to find but connecting with artists who understand having a hundred hats in the air is going to make you feel not so alone. (Or maybe that's just me). Artist groups and challenges can get you excited and out of a rut.

You're going to get overwhelmed at some stage

It's going to happen. Whatever you do, there are going to be times where there are simply not enough hours in the day, you're unwell and need to rest, or you've just overextended yourself. If something is not working, try to figure out a way to make it work. Try different techniques until you find some solution that works. Cut back on the things that don't give you what you need. Don't agree to things that you know are going to be more trouble than they're worth.

Well... there's probably more that I've forgotten, but that's probably enough reading for now! Hopefully this helps at least one other artist not feel quite so alone. If you ever want to chat, I'm on twitter where there are some great artists that interact on a regular basis. I'm in a few great Facebook groups - mainly One Fantastic Week though they tend to be more focused on full time artists - still a great group for connecting and asking questions.

If you know of any great groups for connecting with artists, let me know!