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Glasgow, United Kingdom
An illustrator and games artist living and working in Scotland. I have various hobbies: coding, travel, art and games; and I enjoy writing about them.

11 December 2012

Jon Hodgson Interview: Part 1

I've always tried to follow the idea that each image has a massive stack of reference used - not simply in the coarse sense of "photos I copied", but in terms of a lot of reading, a lot of understanding about what you're drawing and why it looks the way it does.
Not long ago an extremely talented illustrator and a great art director Jon Hodgson agreed to do an e-mail interview with me.
Thus far Jon has made over 200 pieces of card art for collectable card games, solo illustrated 15 books with 30 plus illustrations each for Warhammer Historical, has provided cover art for some 30 gaming books as well as numerous pieces of packaging art, made illustrations for the biggest roleplaying game in the world - Dungeons and Dragons, as well as for some of the smallest. At one point he was a story boarder for the children's animated show Bob the Builder
 Needless to say, I was excited and anxious to tap into that well of experience and talent.

Without further ado, here's the transcript of the first part of the interview. More parts will be posted as the replies appear in my inbox. Unfortunately, due to health issues Jon won't be able to reply for a while, thus I hope to treat you with the next part of the interview after the holidays. Merry Christmas and a happy New Year!

A: The images from The One Ring section on your website have a great sense of place to them. They feel very authentic. Can you tell me how you achieved this quality, and perhaps some of the inspirations behind these works?

Jon: It is very gratifying to hear you say these pieces have a sense of place.  This is something I really strive for in my work.  This drive tracks back to the purpose of these illustrations, which have the implicit purpose of making the viewer feel like they are in some senses "there".  Whilst of course this is in many ways a cheap magician's trick, that's the business we're in.  And it's a trick I enjoy watching myself!

I'll probably talk in circles a little bit about this topic to pin down the route to achieving this.  First up I'm always still learning.  I've been full time for getting on for 15 years now, and I probably feel I know less truths about making images than I did in year one.  I believe that a few years back I reached a place with my work where the day to day scramble to pay the bills was somewhat alleviated.  Of course that never goes away completely, but you do get to a point where finding clients takes up less time.  With a solid client base to draw from there's less self promo to be doing.  Which in turn let's you focus a little more closely on what you paint and what you want to paint.

To find answers to the questions about what I wanted to do, I looked to what I like to look at myself, what inspires me, what I'd like viewers of my work to feel or think about.  The escapism inherent in fantasy art, and the solidity of place in Tolkien's writing were both big influences on the need for these pieces to convey that feeling.

There are a lot of roads into this for me: I've always obsessed about light and location, not that it necessarily comes out as the most obvious feature of my work.  This is something that I think prior to beginning the One Ring work I was beginning to think about more closely.

Getting the chance to illustrate Middle-earth, a defining presence in my interests since childhood, really kicked a lot of things into stark focus for me.  As well as looking inward to find some answers to what I wanted to do, I also constantly look around me.  I had found a general feeling of uneasiness with the dominant way of doing things in the fantasy art field.  I had been working for the biggest clients, but wasn't satisfied on a personal level with the work that it was necessary to produce.  Growing up in the UK, and never really being into US comics I found a lot of the US comic tropes needed an uneasy fit.  It took a very long time to pin down why I wasn't happy, and these are well paid, prestigious jobs, so one is always wary of being too critical of the hand that feeds.  However to be happy in my work, and thereby make the best work I knew I needed to follow a different star for a while, if that makes sense?  

So getting a chance to make these wide open, landscape based pieces that showed the "where" rather than being dominated by the "who" was highly fortuitous.

Equally living where I do, in the heart of Scotland, and being lucky enough to have a pretty epic view from my home it is no surprise that stuff needed to come out.

So that covers something of the drive to make pieces like this.  How I actually went about it is probably more difficult to talk about.  The easiest things to say are about technical issues.  Making sure you're describing a place with the illusion of 3 dimensions.  A level of internal consistency that suspends disbelief.  This is very important - "realism" is a complete red herring, but internal consistency is very important.  There are some simple devices at work like loads of overlapping so that we want to enter into the scene and look around, lots of implied detail in the areas which are not key focal points: This is a careful balancing act of giving enough to engage, but limiting the supply of information in other areas so that we want more.

Other entry points to imparting a sense of place were the use of 3D modelling software - so many of the buildings and locations were simply constructed in 3 dimensions, so that I could try out a lot of different view points to find the best one.  This I find a highly useful tool that provokes a lot of questions - where are we as the viewer?  What do different view point of a scene bring to it in terms of the look of the final piece and the usefulness of it.  For example, a really brooding atmospheric shot will have different framing than one that is all about showing the layout of an iconic location.  In general on The One Ring we've tried to balance these two things.

Which leads into another part of the topic - the utility of a given illustration.  Within a gaming manual illustrations can serve any number of purposes, often more than one.  With something like Middle-earth it seemed worthwhile to create a lot of illustrations that showed locations in a "useful" way, so that the players in the game could share a collective idea of what a location might look like.  That seems really useful, adds a lot of value and offers a springboard for play.  The end users might not instantly recognise this aspect, but it is something that has to be deliberately employed on the part of the creatives involved.

When it comes to ideas of authenticity this was all about the research. I was already hugely invested in the history of the period Tolkien was drawing on - crudely put "The Dark Ages".  For me effective fantasy always has one foot in "reality" in one way or another.  So using real world cultures, clothing, buildings, and adding the smallest of twists to make them fantastical was the way to go when showing Middle-earth.  I've always tried to follow the idea that each image has a massive stack of reference used - not simply in the coarse sense of "photos I copied", but in terms of a lot of reading, a lot of understanding about what you're drawing and why it looks the way it does.

Huge thanks to Jon for writing such an elaborate and indepth reply. Hope to hear from him soon!


6 December 2012

Motorcycle Diaries: Scotland 2012

This blog post is long overdue. I apologise for that and make a promise to write important posts like this without delay.

This summer was a good one. Filled with many hot days, hundreds of miles of road and roaring of motorcycles. Excitement dillusted with weeks of office work. Fun, stressful and extremely rewarding work never the less. But when work is done and dusted, and summer is almost over, it's time for adventure.

Our big adventure this year was a trip around Scotland on our 125cc motorcycles. A lot of planning went into it. The one important thing one has to remember about a 125cc motorcycle is that it is slow. Slow and doesn't have the accelleration power to climb steep hills. We of course did not know anything about this. What added to the adrenaline and excitement is that our oversized rucksacks would sway dangerously from side to side on sharp bends and would cause some serious sore backs and blisters in the future. We did not know any of that; we had a route, some points on the map, money for petrol, some food and the undying Russian motto: "Avos'!". A word that Wikipedia translates as: philosophy of behaviour or attitude in which a person ignores possible problems, dangers or hassles and, at the same time, expects a favourable outcome. And so, counting on our luck, we set off on our adventure.
Heavy rucksacks, low powered bikes and unrellenting enthusiasm for adventure.
Within a few hours of riding through the flat farmland of Angus we suddenly hit the jaw dropping sight that was Glenshee. To say that we were in awe would be an understatement. Breaks started to smoke as we screeched to a halt beside the uneven single track road. Before us, and as far the eye could see was the pale-green beauty of a Scottish glen. Harsh grey sky was above us, giving everything a fresh yet sombre feel. We stayed for a long while, and little did we know that this is only the first stop in a queue of many, many others.
The formidabble beauty of Glenshee

Abandon hope all ye who enter here.
With reluctance we left the glen behind and continued on our way. There still was a lot of road between us and our destination - Inverness. The Old Military Road took us higher and higher into the hills and we made another stop somewhere along the A939, just North of Ballater. One of the guys decided to unscrew his rele and lost a screw in the tall grass. While everyone was looking for it and cursing him playfully, I sat about half a mile away beside the road, waiting for the perfect shot. As soon as they finished with the rele and roared past me, I frantically pressed on the camera button.
The sky was so close I could almost touch it
Getting over the Cairngorm mountains took most of the evening. It turned out, quite unexpectedly, our motorbikes can't climb mountains, especially with 120kg of extra weight. As we limped up hill in first gear, reaching maximum speeds of just below 10mph, I had a moment of reflection and contemplation. My meditative state was so deep I completely forgot to take pictures. In all fairness, it was difficult enough trying not to fall off the overworked bike backwards, downhill. Speaking of downhill, coming down the other side of the Cairngorm hills was the single most terrifying and exhillirating experience of my life.

At sunset, tired, sore and hungry, we reached Inverness, but our day was far from over. We still had nowhere to stay and we got lost in the city. As tiny as Inverness is, it has a surprisingly confusing traffic system. At this point our spirit of adventure and youthful enthusiasm were swapped out to tired grumbling and having a dig at eachother for the tiniest of things. One of us even expressed his anger to nearby horses by forcefully feeding them bits of grass, as a stress relief method, we were assured.
Even the beauty of the Scottish North could not cure the tiredness
After an hour of arguing and another 30 miles of road it started to get dark and we made a decision to stay in the woods of Glen Strathfarrar. A decision which became the biggest mistake and the undoing of the entire trip. One word: midgies. If you are not a fan of millions of flying insects biting your face, arms, ears, neck and even private parts; as has been found out after a careless attempt at attending a nature call. If you are not a fan of that, stay away from Scotland. Unless of course, unlike us, you are smart, and take some form of anti midgie spray. However, we weren't. The madness of this moment is difficult to describe with words. We set up tents in record time, swearing and slapping midgies off as we went. We smoked our entire reserve of tobacco in a space of an hour. We even fashioned a DIY flame thrower from a lighter and a deodorant. At one point it really made sense to scratch your skin off and sit in the river. There were no midgies in the tents, and we were thankful for that. Still however we didn't get a wink of sleep because our entire bodies were covered in bites and itched. Nedless to say, there were no pictures taken of this agony.

The next morning we were on the road in less than 20 minutes. Riding along, running from the madness. At one point I pushed my bike to the limit of its power, doing 65mph along a tiny country road. Not, thinking, blinded by the insane itching. The race stopped near Loch Lochy. We missed every castle we wanted to photograph and rode right past Loch Ness - one of the most important locations on our "To-See" list. Our good mood was back and morale was restored earlier, in Drumnadrochit, during a large breakfast. We were full of enthusiasm and ready for new adventures. In addition we started to see the funny side of our midgie insident.

Riding along a windy road along Loch Lochy we had a great idea. We will strap a camera to one of the bikes and record our fantastic surroundings.

The sunset cought up with us at the base of Ben Nevis. This behemoth is the largest mountain most of the guys have seen. It just sat there, glistening in the sun right in front of us. We also had a chance to appreciate the monument dedicated to the British SAS troops of the second world war. I have upmost respect for these men, because you have to be a very special kind of dedicated to force yourself through the selection.

Unfortunately, however badly we wanted, we decided against climbing the mountain in the dark and wet. After many hours of standing around we decided against it. There was nowhere to leave the bikes, we were not at all dressed for climbing a mountain in the dark and everyone was pretty tired. On top of all that the midgies started to eat us alive again.

Our disappointment however was reinbursed when we came through Glen Coe. Under the grim skies the glen looked magnificant and imposing. I almost expected to be attacked by Orcs!

We stopped for a while to change into dry socks and enjoy the breathtaking beauty a while longer. Not to say we were all happy little bikers - it was bucketing it down with rain and we were wet and shivering. My leather got so soaked it resembled an overweight sponge. However the awe inducing vistas we were seeing were all worth it.

Before I conclude, a small tip for all the riders out there. Do not, under any circumstances spend 18 hours on the road in a wet and cold day. In fact, just don't do it at all. Having passed Perth we all started to fall asleep. I cannot emphasise enough how dangerous it is.

But soon it was home, hot shower, cup of hot chocolate and a warm blanket to sit under and reflect on our amazing adventure.

My apologies for not writing this earlier. This year's been hectic.


5 December 2012

Make Something Unreal Live Pitch Report

It's been a crazy couple of days. We went to London and competed against 11 other teams for the place in the final. Ultimate prize being 5 Unreal Engine 4 comercial licenses and legal support to get our studio off the ground. In monetary terms, 5 licenses would cost close to £500,000. That's half a million pounds. A sum that is completely mind boggling to someone like me, who lives on 6 grand a year income.

First impressions of London are breath taking. It's a true metropolis: people, cars, concrete mix together into an intoxicating whole. There are always places to go to, things to see and do. Everything is big, from prices to architecture. Grey concrete buildings dominate central London and even hobos can give you advice on what brothel to visit and where to get the best coke (don't ask, it's a long story).

It was a stressful time for me, because we were still one painting short. I found a solution by placing my laptop inside a cupboard in the hostel and spending a few hours hunched over inside there. This is the result:

Gotta say straight away that this is probably not my best ever painting. But that simply illustrates the importance of proper planning and preliminary sketches. When in the past thumbnails and value studies were done prior to rendering, this time round there was simply no time. Plus, it's fairly difficult to paint in a 6 man dorm. Especially when everyone is there, behind you, is stressing out as well. So what's exactly wrong with this image? A lot of things. The perspective does not work, and the background seems to be sitting on a completely different plane to the structure in the middle, which in turn is sitting on a different plane to the character in the foreground. The structure is wrong. The composition is plain and fairly boring, there isn't much interest or drama. The shapes are blurry in the background and sharp and solid on the focal structure. That creates disbalance and unnecessary contrast between the elements. The local colours are bleak and do not add anything to the image. The lighting is messed up and not much effort was put into highlights. The concept is interesting however, and that is what saves the painting. There is interest in the idea that something is glowing in between the stones, shining from the inside of the structure. This creates mystery. The colour transition between bright blues and greens to the oranges and yellows on the structure creates a pleasant contrast of tones and thus adds to the feeling of mystery. The character figure, even though stands out like a sore thumb is anatomically correct and makes use of the Windmill principle that Gurney talks about in his blog. Overall thus the painting is not an epic failure, however it's not a spectacular success either. Simply the best effort I could muster in the extremely stressful and uncomfortable conditions.

I would like to talk about the competition a little bit. The results, the four teams that made it through to the final, were quite predictable. Perhaps I am growing more cynical, but before the results came in I predicted which teams would make it in. Everything's happened as I predicted. Now I'm not saying that a huge multinational company like Epic would politicise its competition for maximum value and publicity...

In any case, we didn't make it through. However the judges loved the art direction. My art direction. And having recieved a compliment from the CEO of Epic in UK, a member of Welcome Trust and heads of various other video games studios, I'm quite chuffed. Time to stare at Syd Mead to get my ego deflated again.