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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.

17 January 2013

Jon Hodgson Interview: Part 2

"I'm also strongly of the opinion that every piece of work is an exploration of some kind: Even if it's an exploration of doing something similar to what you've already done that is a new thing in itself.  As they say in Zen - you never cross the same river twice.  I really believe that."

New year, new start! Time to continue our correspondance with the talented Jon Hodgson, an illustrator and an art director at Cubicle Seven - a tabletop games company that gave us the One Ring and Dr Who RP.

In the last part of the interview Jon talked about he achieves the phenomenal sense of place and cultural authenticity in his works.

This time round it's time to dig deeper into the inspirations behind these works.

A: You mentioned that you are always still learning, I think this is the case for all artists. Even the legendary Syd Mead mentioned this constant learning process in one of his interviews. Can you describe some methods you utilize for conducting visual research and perhaps some artists that you look up to as a professional? Has your professional growth affected how you look and interpret art?

J: Something that terrified me fairly early on in my working life was watching one or two artists I knew and admired slowly grinding to a halt in their development.  In all cases I've seen it came about as the dark side of thinking you know what you're doing.  Whilst teaching others can definitely be one of the very best ways to learn I've seen on occasion that slightly more authoritative role bleed into an artist's work, where they believe they know what they're doing.   And then they stop learning.

I feel fortunate that I studied Fine Art, where in a lot of circles painters aren't even considered respectable until they are in their 50s.  So I was set up from the beginning to not to expect to have much of a clue until much further down the track. And perhaps most importantly that that is ok.  It's ok not to know things.  You do more exploring in unfamiliar places than you do in your own front room, if you like.  Exploration is a big part of learning, and learning is what we need to do to improve.  The more you learn the more you want to learn I think, so the more you put yourself in situations where you can learn.

I'm also strongly of the opinion that every piece of work is an exploration of some kind: Even if it's an exploration of doing something similar to what you've already done that is a new thing in itself.  As they say in Zen - you never cross the same river twice.  I really believe that.  As usual I'm being quite contradictory here, but I don't mind that.  The idea that there's one "truth", or that two conflicting ideas can't coexist in the same head is for me erroneous.

So as to methods - I read a lot of books.  For The One Ring work for example I stocked up hugely with reference books.  I also use the internet, but on screen reference just doesn't match the quality of printed material for me.  I have absolutely ransacked the British Museum Library Press for all their books on "Dark age" artefacts.  I've also spend many hours in the National Museum of Scotland.   This is all quite direct stuff - getting books, looking at things in a museum and that's great for information to add into images.  That can be a source of ideas, but it's not the only one for me.  Just looking at every day sights and sounds and smells is important. Keeping your eyes open, travelling with a camera and a note/sketch book being aware of one's surroundings is very important.  How light falls, how people move. It's all inspirational if you let it be.  

This will sound stupid perhaps, but thinking about things is something I do a lot.  Puzzling stuff out - why does this work this way? Why are images made this way or that way? Why do things look the way they do?

I do definitely look at other artists' work.  One of my big inspirations has always been an artist called Angus McBride.  I first came across his work in my teens on the Middle-earth roleplaying game, and then later in his many illustrations for Osprey publishing's military history books.  I love his loose yet precise style.  What really inspires me about his career these days is that he did everything. He wasn't in any way a specialist. He painted fantasy, military history, educational stuff of all stripes, with subjects from all eras.  I try to be like that.  

When I first encountered his work I was definitely responding to just the subject matter - I couldn't "see" his technique when I was 14.  As you get older and gain experience you can see more and more of how things are done.  Somewhat ironically I was given one of his original pieces a few years back and thought I would be able to learn more from seeing his work "in the flesh".  Somewhat mind boggling the guy painted 1:1, so what you see on the illustration board is almost exactly what's on the printed page. But then that's an education in itself!

Since it pays, in Honours year, to reflect and analyse any small piece of information that gets into your hands let's have a look at what Jon said and see how it applies to my project or my own personal development. I agree with what Jon says about personal development. It is a never ending process and it is sad to see some artists start feeling secure in their abilities and stop developing their skill. In my oppinion it happened to Syd Mead. As fantastic as his work is, it looks the same today as it looked 30 years ago. Feng Zhu is an opposite example. He has his own school now and as his tutorials progress his technique changes and develops.

Taking sketchbooks with you, a camera, being aware of your surroundings or reading books; all are very important things to an artist.These are the basic things that will drive your skill forward and as a bit of reflection, I should probably start doing it more often myself.

Keep an eye out for Part 3 of the interview. Thank you and goodnight.

Digital Sketchbook

Heads up, this is going to be a very, very long post. The reason is that I'm about two and a half thousand miles away from the university and hence will have to submit everything digitally. This means I have to scan my entire sketchbook and post it here.

This sketchbook is from the very start of the year, and a lot of ideas were considered. So some of it might have little relevance to the final project, but it is concept development and pre-production never the less. It'll all be annotated anyway, so sit back, get yourself a cup of tea, and let's go.

The idea was initially to create an interactive drawing manual. A bit like the Young Lady's Primer from the Diamon Age. With fun and interesting missions that teach kids how to draw and be creative through a set of mission that get gradually more complex and difficult. Starting from basics and going into perspective and textures and such.

The child would eventually polish his skills up so much to defeat the X number of demons of Aesthetics.
Quite a lot of work was done on that, but then the idea was discarded due to time constraint and limited scope for research. In hind sight I think it would've been an adequately complex project but let's continue.

I then went to Morocco and was so inspired by the richness of architecture, textures, patterns and fashion that I a project started to form in my head. Something to do with cultural context and relevance in computer games and film. Here are some sketches.

These sketches range from interior to detail to exterior sketches. I was just trying to soak in the fantastic atmosphere of the place. Then I started thinking how this sense of place is affecting people who watch movies or play games. How this authenticity help immersion and general enjoyment.

I got quite absessed with abstract landscapes and jungles. Some sketches are for Make Something Unreal Live 2013 project where the setting was a bland landscape with no cultural context or character.

While I conducted my initial inquiry into various cultures I stumbled across illustrations of Ivan Bilibin, a famous Russian illustrator who drew inspiration from the Slavic folklore. I did some digging around and realised that Slavic folklore is not a widely explored topic in contemporary video games and film. So I started working more towards that art direction.

Comparison of various patterns and styles from different cultures.

Russian hunter. Based on the stereotypical village man image. Beards were popular throughout the ages in Russia.

A nordic church study: Original

A re-design of the Russian hunter in a different setting. Turned out to be more Swiss than anything, due to the slanted beret.

A more Scottish looking version with a bastard sword, fur cape and a kilt.

A Russian hunter in a post apocalyptic setting based on Russian red army uniform. Reference

I worked hard on giving more character to the drawings I'm making. Things like pupils usually help, for example. I gave some animals a shot. Giving character to animals is a difficult task because, well, they are not human.

Russian bear, a confused animal.

Derpy giraffe.

More experimentation followed with various things and topics. This example shows a design of a futuristic building that has elements of Slavic wooden aesthetic.

Initial silhuettes, from reference: traditional Russian wooden churches and Stalinist architecture

I deviated slightly from the final image. Having looked at more works of Jon Hodgson I realised that what creates appeal in a lot of concept art are the characters. So I tried making something with that.

With this painting I identified two major holes in my skill. Female faces and detailing. Yes, she does look like a tranny, and no, I didn't mean it to be that way. Also detailing, working at an image until it looks good.

The slavic influences are obviously there but I somehow failed to design a futuristic setting. More of a weird mix of steam punk and Kievan Rus.

Well, this is about ready to be submitted.


14 January 2013

Illustrations of Ivan Bilibin

In the days before Instagram people sent eachother post cards. Below is a series of postcards produced by a famous Russian illustrator, Ivan Bylibin. Throughout his career he was inspired with Slavic folklore and had a hand at shaping the traditional Slavic aesthetic as we know it today (source). He is widely known around Russia as a great illustrator of Slavic folk tales and an icon of the Russian spirit.

His works provide an helpful insight into the haunting beautify of Slavic folk tales. His style, so graphic and simplistic, has been a base for much visual research.

The post cards he produced inspire that eerie beauty, so dominant in his work, and a helpful insight into the every day lives of Russian people.

This example of wooden church combines white, green and blue to create a homely feeling

The golden hour was chosen by artists from the ancient times to create drama and interest in the image.

The moon is just rising basking everything in its yellow, eerie light. What lives in the darkness we can only guess.

A busy day at a trading town. Notice the dominating wooden architecture.

The detail absolutely makes it. The traditional Russian Orthodox crosses indicate a gaveyard, which creates an eerie feeling in contrast to the relatively bright and happy colours.

I can stare at this image for hours. The sense of scale is spot on, the incredible detail is what makes this.

These illustratations combine incredible detail with seemingly simplistic backgrounds, thus creating a beautiful balance and a pleasant viewing experience. The colours are washed out creating a feeling of wistfullness, I even felt a little homesick. The beautiful wooden architecture, so native to the old Russia makes an appearance and gives the images a strong sense of place - something I strive for in my own project.

11 January 2013

Meeting with Ryan

Today I had a meeting with Ryan. With the latest posts about Stalker and WarZ I was afraid I was going a little bit off track. However after the meeting it was all sorted out and there is a clear plan in my head of where to go with this.

His pointers were to use more reference, to show where my ideas are coming from and to show what value this piece or that has, for my project or in general.

Acting on his direction I gathered some more reference images I will print out and stick into the sketchbook.

I also spent the last three days solidifying the idea and creating an art bible.

The story I am going to adapt is the story of Ivan, the Witch and the Sun's sister. This is a story about the travels of a young prince and his revenge. I will change things a little bit to make it more interesting and relevant to a modern audience. I also decided that this is going to be a video game.

Thus I "froze" these details, so I am not tempted to come back and tinker with them anymore. This will mean that I am concentrating more on the production.

I am currently in the process of compiling an art bible, which will have guidance for look and feel of the game as well as moodboards and a list of characters, props and environments that are needed. It is a long (9 pages!) document filled with information an artist would find useful. This is a first art/style guide I've done so I feel a little bit like the proverbial dog that has no idea what it's doing. The basic elements are all there: moodboards and sample concept art.

Here is the concept painting I created for this.

It isn't the most successful painting that I've ever done but it was a quick, 3-4 hour, job to convey the idea. I also cheated a little bit and used a tree custom brush to add noise to the background. The values are sometimes muddy and the colour is a little bit too monochromatic for my liking. I guess more planning is needed to make an image a success. The empty space on the right is not helping as well as the monochromatic colours. The image overall seems static and uninteresting. On the other hand the perspective is correct, the composition is solid and the lighting onditions are dealt with fairly well. Not my best, but also far from the worst.

Here are some comments I recieved online in this thread.

I think you're just getting ahead of yourself a little bit, rushing to add finishing elements when you should be focusing more on the structure of the image. For example, you've added some stampy trees in the background which are a detail that could be saved for later after you've nailed the overall value hierarchy and color scheme. The foreground and background are too similar - you need to push the background back and emphasize your subject. Similarly, you're adding highlights on the horse's tack and a pattern on the red blanket while you still have a lot of rough anatomy on both the horse and rider. Slow down and focus on what's important at this stage in the process

That is true, I did rush quite a lot. This happens when there is no planning to an image. As mentioned before, good planning results in a good picture. Bad planning results in a rushed, and generally bad painting.

Another small detail that will help you is to take the browband of the bridle and snug it up just underneath the ear. That is where the browband goes, always. Round out the eye and straighten the roman profile of the skull/nose a bit and you have a much more believable picture. It's nice that your rider is in the right place on the horse's back; I usually see people put them way too far back. You could, however, bring the girth a bit more forward as in the photo and define some semblance of a saddle instead of just a blanket on the horse's back. Overall, I think this is better than most horse drawings I've seen from people who do not deal with them on a daily basis

Another excellent comment here, pointing out some of the more practical ways to improve the painting. I will be dealing with horses a great deal over the next few months, so these practical tips are extremely valuable to me.

do more thumbnails and gather more reference before starting.
the composition is awkward, the proportions of man and horse wrong. you should gather 20 pictures of horses galloping and jumping, and do sketchy studies, before commiting to one in your image. etc. same for people riding. same for forest environments in autumn. etc

A long way of saying, "go draw more". It's hard not to agree with this comment. Perhaps one of the first things I should do when I get back to Scotland is to reword this image.

Hope this evaluation is useful to anyone who is reading.

7 January 2013

Slavic Reference

Dumping a lot of interesting reference images I found on Pinterest. To illustrate my pre-production method, which consists of gathering and studying images on the subject.

Beautiful Celtic patterns. It was on the Slavic page because of the style of the clothing and the hair band. Will be useful for reference.

Slavs were masters of leatherworking. This pouch made for re-enactment will allow to add this detail that will make the image more alive.

Example of Slavic jewlery from Pinterest. Again, it's all about the small details and various pieces of jewlery will add authenticity to my designs.

I liked the shape and the detail on the buckles on this one.

Modern interpretation of Slavic fashion. Intricate patterns. If the skirt was longer the dress would be historically accurate.

Excellent reference of medieval South Slavs found on Pinterest

A traditional wooden braid popular among all slavic peoples

Traditional costume of Cauasus region Slavs

Cosplay I found authentic and historically correct. More traveller than traditional Slavic, but the jewlery adds nice detail.

A painting of Perun, the god of thunder and lighting. Excellent costume and intricate detail.

Just look at those wooden windows. Beautiful detail, intricate pattern. So much character. Source:

Idols of Perun the Sun god. The Sun wheel is a common symbol in Slavic mythology

Slavic totem found on Pinterest. Excellent shapes and characters. Will add atmosphere to environment.

Veles, god of the earth, water and the underworld.

More beautiful wooden architecture examples.

Just look at those patterns and textures!

Very atmospheric Slavic village photograph from Pinterest. The roof is especially nice.

Another icon of Perun the highest god in Slavic pantheon.

A lonely hut in the Russian wilderness. Evokes a feeling of wistful melancholy.

Always thought these only exist in concept art world. Frozen rocks in Kamchatka.

Clear ice creates the world's largest natural ice rink.

Detail from walls in a restorated Romanian monastery. The patterns are staggering and very Celt like.

Russian patterns found on Pinterest. The colour scheme is off but the pattern itself is intereting.

An illustration by Ivan Bylibin.

Slavic tree of Life. By Ivan Bylibin.

Illustration to A. Pushkin's most famous work Ruslan and Ludmila. By Ival Bylibin.

Vector Russian pattern found on Pinterest.

Perun carved necklace.

Veles silver carving

Various slavic pattern examples.

A CD cover illustration based on old Slavic aesthetic. Good to see how things get re-interpreted and re-invented by contemporary illustrators.

Macro photography in a Russian forest. Atmospheric shots, very fairy tale.

Ladybug on a mushroom after rain. Also very atmospheric and feels like a fairy tale.

So there you go. There are quite a bit more on my computer, and the collection will grow. I'll post some more up soon.