A few months ago I took part in the “Fuck Art, Let’s Kill” exhibition put on at Nick Caruso’s Bound For Glory shop in Staten Island. It was a death and reaper themed art show. I’ve always been a big fan of drawing skulls and reapers and as excited as I was to be a part of the show the idea of trying to come up with something nice and original that would stand out was daunting. I decided to try to paint something a bit out of my comfort zone. I stuck to my preferred mix of watercolors, inks, and liquid acrylics, but I tried to give the piece a renaissance feel using those media.
Before I’d started this project I’d downloaded a bunch of books from IllustratedMonthly.com to my iPad. I thought I’d just grab a variety and see what there was in them. They were cheap enough that I ended up getting a heap of really good stuff for a fraction of what physical books would cost. There was a lot of visual information there in a variety of styles. I found it handy when I was struggling for ideas in coming up with the composition for this piece. I flipped through the books on my iPad until I saw something that caught my eye. I saved the first two images (Ref. 1) because I was drawn to the composition. I started formulating the idea of doing a reclined death. It just seemed different. Like he was just kicking back like a dude on a lazy Sunday. There were some good examples of drapery in there as well. In the third image (Ref. 2), I really liked the candle’s being snuffed out and the light effects. The last image (Ref. 2) is the skull from the cover of the Illustrated Monthly book of skulls. I thought it’d be fun to paint an ancient looking skull with missing teeth.
I’ve always done my brainstorming sketches very small. I like to do two or three tiny versions so I can work out the composition before dedicating time to the details in a full size sketch. I meant to take a photo before trashing the other tiny sketches but I just kinda forgot. I chose the sketch whose composition I liked best (Fig. 1) and enlarged it on the copy machine to the size I wanted the final painting to be. I then laid tracing paper over the quick version and did some fine tuning to flesh it out (Fig. 2).
This piece is 12″ x 16″ and is on a piece of Windsor & Newton Aquarelle paper. This is my favorite paper to use for most every project. It’s similar to Arches cold press in terms of durability, but the tooth of the paper is much finer and allows for much finer line work when you’re using ink. I usually cut my piece of paper larger than I want the final image to be and mask it off with orange artist tape. It helps me keep my compositional constraints in mind by giving me a border where a frame would be. I also like to have an edge to test paint on that’s from the same ream of paper. Paper always ages differently and I think you have better results if you can test your colors on a piece of scrap paper that’s identical to the piece you’re painting on. You can see what my primary paints for this piece were in Fig. B. I used the FW Liquid Acrylic colors Flesh Tint, Crimson, Antelope Brown, and Purple Lake; the Dr. Ph. Martin’s Hydrus watercolor series Yellow Ochre and Burnt Sienna; and the Dr. Ph. Martin’s Slate Blue and Van Dyke Brown in the concentrated and transparent watercolors. The black i’m using is Speed Ball black.
After tracing the image onto watercolor paper in light pencil lines using a light box, I took an Exacto knife and cut out pieces of the tape where I wanted the image to extend past the border. I wanted the smoke and the scythe to break the border. I tried to avoid using any black outlines for this piece as it wouldn’t have matched the look I was going for. I tried to do things a little differently since this is an illustration and not a tattoo.
Using the grey washes I mixed up (Fig. 3), I started by blocking in the big areas of shadow in the painting (Fig. 4). At this stage of any painting I use primarily inks and liquid acrylics which are permanent after they’re dry. This allows me to do multiple layers without my colors blending together. I’m using the candle as the light source and pulling the black into lighter tones surrounding the candle.
I used a ruler and a pencil to make lines in random sizes radiating from the candle’s flame to the edge of the paper to give the impression of light rays. I used the different mixes of grey washes to pull the areas together (Fig. 5). I was trying to imitate the feel of the candle that’s in the top image of Ref. 2. I liked the tiny glow to it but wanted mine a bit more dramatic.
Next I started with color (Fig. 6). I used my same grey washes and the FW Liquid Acrylic Purple Lake color to start building up depth in the cloak. I work from light to dark and slowly add in the black . It’s always easier to make things darker than to make them lighter so I try to build it up slowly.
I use two types of paintbrushes when i’m painting (Fig. A). Both are made by Raphael; the black handled Martre Kolinsky 8404 are primarily used as outlining brushes for cartooning. They’re fucking expensive but will outlast any pen you’ll ever buy if you take good care of them and keep them in brush cases. I like using them for doing grey lining and textural bits. The other kind is a Raphael 8394. It’s a soft but durable synthetic brush. It soft enough that it doesn’t tear up my paper even if I layer color multiple times. I used the size 1 Kolinsky to do the wood grain in the handle of the scythe (Fig. 7).
After the grey lines dried I mixed up some of the Dr. Martin’s Van Dyke Brown and the Yellow Ochre in my palette. Again going from light to dark I started layering in the wood tones in the hourglass and the scythe handle. I used the watercolors here so it has a transparent look and lets the grey grain lines come through the paint (Fig. 8).
I started the hourglass by mixing the Ochre with just a bit of the Crimson and the Van Dyke Brown to do the sand. Then with a drop of two of heavily heavily watered down Dr. Martin’s Slate Blue and some of the light grey wash I started giving some shape to the glass. When it was dry I used my finest brush and some more brown to stipple the glass to give the sand some texture. I used a super fine pen as well to add a few dots of black as well to add more value (Fig. 9). Using the Yellow Ochre and the Van Dyke Brown I started doing light washes on all of the bones to give them a base tone (Fig.10). Light colors show changes fast so I always do small graduations and build it up slowly. I started out just using the washes and then left it to dry for a bit (Fig.11).
While the bone tones were drying I start blocking in the red. I used FW Liquid Acrylic Crimson to wash the areas with flat red and then layered in a bit of the grey wash while it was still wet to make it a richer red tone. I jumped back and forth with my grey wash in the bones and the red collar (Fig. 12). You can also see where I started adding the flat yellow tones to the medallion.
Once my first layers were dry, I could see where using the grey washes with the colors to build up my values had gotten me (Fig. 13). My next step on this piece was a little different for me. I started overlaying the image with charcoal to add to the textural tone and really give it that rich renaissance look (Fig. 14) I don’t feel like it’s an effect that could have been achieved with just watercolors. The tooth of the paper really held onto the gritty charcoal and added a whole new level of depth to the piece. Here’s where I referred a lot back to my skull reference for the anatomy and cracks.
I had stayed away from the candle until I had most of the other colors established because I was having trouble deciding what color to use. After looking at what I had I decided to go with a tan flesh-like tone. I thought it would work well to symbolize melting mortality, though I’m a little worried it looks like a dripping wiener. I used the FW Flesh Tint and the browns that I already had out and built up the texture and depth of the drips. I also mixed a bit of the Pen White into it to make the candle very opaque. Fig.15
Then I used my Slate Blue and watered it down to give the smoke some shape and filled in the gem on the medallion (Fig. 16).
At this point the wrinkles in the cloak had depth, but as a whole the image was still lacking it. Looking at the Ref 1 photo and comparing my own painting I could tell that the entire composition needed more shadow. It’s a hard thing to do at this point for fear of ruining it all. I did something pretty risky and covered the painting in Workable Fixative (Fig. C) I saturated it pretty well and let it dry. Afterward I used a larger size brush and gingerly started washing in heavy areas of dark grey washes and black. I was trying to create the vignette from the glow of the candle. I was really pleased with the technique and happy I didn’t totally screw it up trying a new technique. As much as I’d avoided using paints and inks that wouldn’t run when reactivated with water the concern is always there that the paper will get overworked and the colors will start looking muddy and not as vibrant. Comparing Fig.13 to Fig.17 you can really see the difference it made.
After the washes had dried, I pulled off my tape to get a good look at what the piece really looked like without the orange border changing the tone of the whole. With the tape out of the way I took a regular graphite pencil and added a bit more depth to the smoke and fine tuned the edges in the blue smoke. Lastly I took the Dr. Ph. Martin’s Pen White (Fig. D) and the finest Kolinsky brush I had and went throughout the whole piece adding tiny white highlights and light rays.
All in all I was really happy with this piece and was glad that I tried to do something a little different. Looking at the references that I’d picked up in Illustrated Monthly inspired me to take this in a direction that I don’t think I would have if I’d just stuck to Google image or my current reference library. Prints for this piece can be found in the store section of my website.