Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Curse of Maleficent

Ladies and Gentlereaders!

This is the very week that Maleficent comes out in theaters and I reckon there has never been a better time to sit back and type out the big ol' process post that has been a'brewin for the last few weeks since the book's come out.

For those of you who are completely lost- I recently illustrated The Curse of Maleficent- a YA chapter book tie-in for the upcoming Maleficent movie. It's on shelves now, and can be procured on Amazon if you're so inclined! So far the feedback has been extremely positive, and I am blessed and honored to feel so supported by you guys- best corner of the internet ever!

SO! All that said, it seems as good a time as any to talk candidly about the process of putting a project like this together
This is likely to wax a little more technical than my usual sentimental/philosophical- so if you came for the arts, welcome! For the feels, see my last entry :)
Other warnings: I will be pretty chatty- hopefully that is of interest to some of you, and if not there are plenty of pretty pictures to scroll to! Also: Spoilers! If you want to see the movie/book without foreknowledge of the events to come, don't read this yet. Okay? OKAY!

A little background might be helpful, no?
I connected with Disney Publishing many moons ago at my first ever comic-con in New York City...
(chime noises, flashback begins)
I was just a youngling, shopping my student portfolio around from table to table- and I noticed a fellow standing alone by the Disney booth. I wandered up and asked is he was looking at portfolios (he wasn't really, but "you know...why not? hand it over") He would eventually become my friend and editor, but it started with a happenstance encounter and a little bravery (perhaps more than a little naivete).
My takeaway? Always try.
You never know when someone is going to take an interest in your art, and you'll find yourself moving in a lot of surprising directions if you keep trying, asking, seeking. You miss every shot you don't take.
We stayed in touch, and a couple of years later the right mix of my availability and their need came together- book time! More or less- actually, the first thing I was asked to do was a few test illustrations based on some early movie stills, to see what my style/interpretation would look like for the project. So we'll start there!

I've gotten a lot of questions about my process over the years, and while I've done a livestream or two showing how my work comes together on the page- the actual drawing part is only a piece of the puzzle. Illustration of any kind starts with the idea, and the idea starts properly in...the thumbnails.
My favorite professor often quoted a mentor of his: "The final work is the [excrement] of your thumbnails"

Words to live by, as far as I'm concerned. It's been my experience that almost all the hardest, most important work is done in the thumbnails and the color study- everything after that is icing. The composition, storytelling and basic design are all in the sketches & thumbs- and (again, just my approach) they are best when detail is left entirely to the side. I actually blunt my pencils on purpose, and draw only half-an-inch high to start- it helps me to forget all the unnecessary detail and focus on the whole: What is the bigger composition communicating? How can I tell the story just through light, dark, shape and pose?

The first thing I tried to pitch was a bold, graphic collage-style piece where Aurora wandering through the forest would be framed in the folds of Maleficent's cloak. Not a bad idea, but they were looking for more literal scenes- we took this direction up to color study and then switched tacks

Of course, the next phase started with more thumbnails- you can see also some of my first sketches trying to nail down Maleficent's look- some of them are a bit embarrassing to me now; it takes some searching sometimes to get where you want to go.
For this project in both representation of the character and the scenes I was trying to find some way to marry the feeling of an animated feature with the look of the live-action movie. I didn't want to literally draw Angelina herself- but try to get at the look & feel of her version of the character in a stylized way that still recalled the classic animated villain. We went back and forth on a few iterations, but eventually found a version everyone, including the lady herself, was happy with o_o

 We honed in on 3 pieces we wanted to try in order to get the portray the range of the character for the test- The strong, more innocent side that was new for this film, the villainous and the tragic.  

The first tester, and still one of my favorites from the whole project, is a rare portrayal of Maleficent- framed against the rolling fields of the world beyond her home, something about this look & moment really spoke to me. I really wanted to capture the breathless sense of hopefulness and adventure, as well as the strength that Angelina brings to the character.

This first piece was also the first experiment in style- I really wanted to bring some of my watercolor experiments to bear, but couldn't find a way to efficiently marry actual paint and my digital process for the book. So I started to use my first ever customized brushes in photoshop (I know! It's taken me a while) to try and reproduce the gesture and spontaneity of watercolor and sketch.
Lineart on the characters with lineless, painted backgrounds was something I wanted to try in order to recall the look and feel of an animated film. It's definitely a style I want to explore more and take further in future work, lots of fun to do!
I discovered that backgrounds are less intimidating and frustrating when I get to paint them! Win-win! It also has the virtues of being faster and leaving some of the world open to the imagination of the reader (WIN-WIN-WIN-W-). Working in line on scenery and architecture has always felt very confining and stressful to me- but wandering around in the summer with my watercolors taught me that I don't hate landscapes at all- I actually love them, but I was approaching it the wrong way to unlock that. Painting more loosely feels like I've unshackled myself and I can just run at it- waaay more fun for me.

But striking the right balance between line and "paint" was a hard fight initially- sometimes it clicks better than others...

This one I haven't posted before- because I just don't feel it worked out as well. The work is all tighter, but it lacks some of that gestural, dreamy quality that the first illustration had- everything's a little too clean and for whatever reason the moment doesn't quite connect. It's not quite the right expression and pose for the character- there are a lot of things I would do differently, but it was full of good lessons.

Correcting my course slightly, I started in on the 3rd test piece- which wound up being a great favorite with the folks at the Mouse House since it married the look of the first tester with a fully-realized Maleficent in a more iconic stand-there-and-feel-feelings kind of mood.
I tried to bring my own interpretation to how I wanted to draw the forest- taking inspiration from Mary Blair and Eyvind Earle's amazing (inimitable) work on the original animated film.
I think this one sold the team on the look- shortly thereafter we were off to make a book! (such a great day!)

The first round of thumbnails and my commentary for my editor. Warning: SPOILERS ABOUND!

Which began with- you guessed it- THUMBNAILS! Hooray!
I spent a good chunk of time working out thumbnails- I happily recall the angst (oh, golden hindsight), sitting in coffee shops with a nub of a pencil, pacing around trying to figure out how to squeeze everything in. Figuring out thumbnails is like fitting too many dishes in the dishwasher...they never quite fit and it's always kind of a panic until it suddenly all does and you wonder why you were ever worried in the first place. This is especially true of comics, but was also super true in this case as well. 

By this point I had been given very guarded access to the film's script, and received a whole bunch of preliminary screen-shots and concept art to base my work on- at the time of writing this, I still haven't seen the final film- so I'll be just as surprised as anyone to see how it all turned out! 

It was also at this point that I started to do my own research for the project- knowing the general direction I wanted to take it, I still had never done a book like this before. My good friends Adam and Courtney let me raid their prodigious children's book collection for inspiration and I went out and bought myself a book of N.C. Wyeth's illustrations because GUYS THAT DUDE KNOWS WHAT'S UP. When it comes to high-adventure and storytelling-through-strong-composition, accept no substitutes. Looking at Wyeth's work reassured me that there was merit in letting extraneous details fall away and focusing on the emotion, color and composition in broader terms. Not familiar? Stop reading this and go GET YE SOME WYETH

Shortly after locking in the main thumbnails (which was after some back-and-forth with the editors- always way better to do that early on, rather than later down the line when the pieces are all painted and shiny) I did something I'm very glad I did- I threw together a "color script": just a collection of color studies for the whole book's worth of illustrations so I (and, importantly, my editors) could see the whole thing layed-out at once. This gave me a strong base to work from- no matter how large the project was, I knew where I was going and what I still had to do.

Before we were quite off to the races, the studio wanted to see some final-ish iterations of the two main characters (Maleficent and Aurora) in my style, based on the film designs before they could sign off. Looking back at these drawings now, they're a little funny. I almost didn't want to post them, because they're far from my favorite drawings of the characters- but figuring out these two was part of the process- and I think I got better at it as I went along. Gotta start somewhere!
 Luckily, this was close enough to move forward with (though I'm glad I got more confident in drawing them as I went on)

A note here, I think, about drawing female characters; It's not traditionally been a strong suit for me, at least growing up. As a young human male, I grew up drawing other human males of the grimdark superhero variety and only much later down the line became comfortable with drawing 1) women 2) children 3) smiles. You see those? Hard. Journey.
It may be hard for some of you to believe, but the House at Happy Rock was once located on Dudebro Grimdark Island where there were no cooties allowed. Ugh.
 If dudebro hangups are hard for you to get your head around, you can't even imagine- I had a hard time using the color pink. Because that was a lady color. It was a few years of art school and some soul searching to realize: you know what? I love pink, Disney, and musicals. I want to know how to draw things that are cute, characters that smile and People Who Are Female. It was actually hard for me to reconcile that with some serious straight white dudebro baggage, but I'm so glad I did. It's been years since emerging from the grimdark, but I feel a profound sense of victory- being asked to illustrate a book whose principle character is one of the coolest Disney women of all time? In a Wicked-The-Musical-esque story of adventure and angst?? It's a hard-fought dream come true.
And here's the other thing (sorry, this is a long aside)- coming out of the world of dudebro comics, and recently out of the video-games industry, I was so excited about the opportunity to tell a story in which women are actual characters- not just objects or set dressing; where they have complex emotions and motivations, are both good and flawed, and are treated with the dignity we afford most male characters all the time. That is a solution I want to be part of, I don't even want to give blogspace to describing the problem. I was raised by and around women with incredible strength of character, and many of the artists I look up to are talented, driven women; I see no reason not to celebrate that whole half of the human population, and have been embarrassed and dismayed by the portrait recent events have painted of men and our outlook. Anyways- the way that has to do with art and specifically this book?
I just wanted to design and portray the characters as people in the best way I know how- not saying I'm perfect at it. My biggest hope was not anything more than to depict the women of Maleficent as people experiencing a range of emotions and living fully through their stories. It's a shame that's even remotely rare.

Alright, I think I've made my point. Where were we? Ah yes- thumbs!
By this point, between color study and thumbnail, with sketches, source material, and research to hand, all the hardest work was been done. All the biggest thinking and decisions were made and all there was to do was draw and paint. I find that if I can set myself up to get to that place, I am much happier and less panicked (and more efficient!) than when I am throwing sketches and thumbnails down on the fly.

I holed up for a few months and worked steadily through the book's worth of illustrations- with varying degrees of success and satisfaction- the illustration at the top of this entry is, I think, my favorite of the whole set- but since I've been given permission I figured I'd show you guys a few more :D

In no particular order, some of my favorites from the project:

The rightmost illustration was originally intended to be the cover of the book- which is why you won't find it in among the pages. I'm still pleased with it, but I'm glad we decided on another direction. While it may not see print, at least it can have a life here on the internet :)

An in-progress shot of the piece that would eventually become the cover- it wasn't designed as such! But it turned out well enough that my editors decided it would make a better cover than the cover we had drawn up! I think they made the right call :)

The final image had to be extended several inches to fit the cover dimensions- of course it would be the crowd scene :p It turned out for the best, though

Next time I do a project like this, I'll pay more attention to when the focal point lands DEAD-IN-THE-GUTTER. Rookie mistake- the print of this in the book makes it look like Maleficent is suspiciously eyeing a mysterious horse that has shown up in her wooded glen >_<


On the left- still one of my favorite drawings of Maleficent from the whole thing- once I had this version of her down, I tried to apply this attitude and feel to the rest of the project.

This is another favorite that never made it to the final book for story and film related reasons. Alas!

The spinning wheel itself! One of the classic moments, it occasionally felt surreal to be illustrating

Since this is my already a pretty indulgent blog post, I may as well go all the way. Above is a little collage I made for myself once the whole thing was wrapped up- a collection of my favorite bits, color and drawing moments from the whole set. Everybody has their down days when you look back on your work and you can't find anything to like. I photoshoppped this together to remind myself of what I did like, and to remember what I'd like to try again in the future!

A mysterious fairy who never made it in to the final product! A fellow named Marcus, I was invited to design- more about him I cannot say

So, to wrap it all up I'll close with this last image. Another cover I mocked up, that was never used- but still lives here on the internet for all to see! Yay internet! One of my favorite depictions of Maleficent herself from the set.
Overall this project was an enormous blessing and a great learning experience- I hope some look into my thought process has been helpful for the sort of person who's been curious!

If you're like what you see and would like to order the book for yourself, have at it here: 

If you'd like to see what I've been up to since (I have no doubt I shall blog about it imminently), I am currently the lead illustrator on The Dawngate Chronicles- a fantasy webcomic telling the story of Waystone's new MOBA game. And I have been loving it! Comiiiiics! :D

If you'd like to track me down elsewhere, I am active on Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and Devianart
Much love and God bless you guys- more art soon! Thanks so much for reading



Unknown said...

Nick, I am so unbelievably impressed by your illustrations!! The highest of congratulations are certainly in order! I hope everything goes well your new project and I'm really excited how it all turns out. I'll be looking for your book in stores! -Bethany Greenfield

Jon Neimeister said...

I'm glad you included the snippet of Maleficent behind the circular windows in your collage of favorite things; that bit of painting, color and edgework is a beautiful moment from this set! All in all a fantastic project and you did an outstanding job on it, big congrats and thanks for sharing so much insight in to the process! Reminds me I really need to spend more time in the thumbnail stage.

Anneliese Mak said...

These are all fantastic. Thank you for taking us on the journey of the book's creation! Your use of colour, light and line all lend so well to the medium. Congrats again on achieving and completing such a beautiful piece of work.

Ofir Brown said...

Very nice illustrations!! Your art is featured on my blog:

Max said...

Amazing work! Loved this post! Are any of the brushes you used on this project available for download?

Anonymous said...

The mistress of the animals (and the woods) should not be violated and mutilated, since only she is capable of loving all creatures with UNCONDITIONED LOVE, including loving humans (domesticated-civilized „little beasties“).

Philipp can only love what he „knows and what he can trust“, hence he fails to awaken the girl.

No wonder that all fairy queens, magicians and shamans have died out in „our“ world of iron cages (buildings, cars, electric current wires, mobile phones, …), iron wings (drones), and iron coins (money)…

By the way: there is also some „master of the animals“, but even he has died out in „our“ iron(ic) world as well…

laka said...

I already buy the book... It's gorgeous!!!
your work is amazing!

Lady Teacup said...

Oh my gosh, I am gawking with excitement (and awe and also grinning stupidly as I type this!)

I'm so happy that your work is being showcased more and more. You've got a gift, keep using it and producing such beautiful imagery.

THANK YOU so much for sharing all this!

Congratulations again and I'll be getting my copy!!!

Young Vo said...

Awesome work!

Tom Bancroft said...

This is awesome work! Just incredible and very inspiring. I heard of you on the Comics Coast to Coast podcast. Fan now.

Solitarybird said...

Your art is breathtaking and captivating, thank you for telling us so much about your creative process!

You have such a wonderful respect for women that carries through in how you drew them, it honestly shines through! I was amazed to hear you used to avoid drawing them, but I can empathize growing up hating pink and obsessed with grimdark heroes and manly things... and I was a girl! Blame it on society's messed up value system, driving us to look down on anything feminine. I'm making up for lost time now, embracing cuteness and the subtler shades of pink I always secretly liked.

Jeff Maka Merghart said...

this looks AMAZING!! Cant wait to get it! Great work Sir!

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Ana Cook said...

Your work is amazing, I just followed you in every social network I have.

Illustration inspires me and this post has too. Thank you for sharing all your work and process, it is extremely useful and inspiring.

It is a real pleasure reading posts full of life and authenticity like yours.

P.D I loved what you said about thumbnails... totally agree!

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Bren + Lucy said...

Loving your pictures and the really unique way you have put your story across - you're an inspiration and I am following your journey - awesome work!

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