Welcome to the second installment of my ongoing series about process; a step-by-step walkthrough for illustration.
Step Three: From Thumb to Rough
Now we have twenty-five compositions, but only one will survive. The first step in choosing the best thumbnail is easy: many of the thumbs will be boring, awkward, or just won't read. Pay attention to the overall shapes present in the composition, where dark shapes are on a light background, and vice versa. You should be able to identify the subject even at this stage.
The second step is to take the search for readability up a notch. Which compositions tell more about the subject than what it physically is? Which ones convey the subject's origins, emotions, and purpose? In this example, I'm looking for compositions that tell the viewer how the hippo rider operates as a powerful, amphibious soldier.
The third thing I look for is a bit harder to describe, and I believe it is something that comes with a lot of experience in looking, or being a visually oriented person. Sunlight shining through leaves and spiderwebs, the reflected light on the underside of a cloud at sunset, the rough textures of concrete under a streetlamp, a backlit figure on a hillside: some things grab the eye and hold onto it. Just like the sublime feeling that comes with listening to particularly good music while drunk, sometimes perception overrides the stream of consciousness, and allows us to just experience the outside world without the internal monologue. The greatest paintings have a certain charisma that draws attention to them and conveys drama. It could be the violence of the moment, the glory of the light, or the harmony of the tones and colors. Something stands out about these pieces, and it can start as far back as the thumbnail sketch. Certain thumbs will pop out at you, and you won't be able to explain why they are better than the others, other than that they are more evocative.
After narrowing down my choices, I am left with three thumbs, each with different elements that I like. Moving counter-clockwise from top left, I like the first for its drama and the how it seems to convey the power of the hippo, I like the second because the rider is clearly shown, while sending the eye back to the hippo with the line from the bow's arrow to the hippo's face, and the third conveys the purpose of the hippo riders as amphibious cavalry. The fourth, at top right, is a new thumb that I drew based on the other three, that will be the foundation for my rough sketch.
When handling a rough sketch I try to retain the loose sense of experimentation that I talked about in Pt 1 when handling thumbnail sketches. At this stage I have a general idea of the finished piece, but elements can be easily adjusted before they are defined. Now is not the time to add details, it is the time to define the major elements of the piece, to make sure that they work together to define each other.
Try to make sure that overlapping forms are clearly one in front of the other. Putting something in the foreground barely touching something behind it takes away the sense of depth. Also look out for lines that confuse the form rather than defining it. Sometimes lines from one object may look like the continuation of the lines from another, and both objects lose clarity. Hold the image up to a mirror, or if you're working digitally, flip it accordingly, to make sure that everything still looks good. Our brains do strange things, and the mirror quickly points out to us where a shape is wonky or a curve is weird.
In the next installment, I'll talk about arranging tones and moving into the final drawing.
11 months ago