Maleficent dragon finalI drew this about a month ago after browsing some impressive work on DeviantArt and feeling a lack of confidence in my own ability. DeviantArt can sometimes be terrible for that and I often have to just stop looking at it and concentrate on my own work.

I sometimes feel that my art lacks drama, and lighting seems to be a big factor in this. Adding the right light makes a painting come alive, it can guide the eye around a predetermined path and tell a story. I stumble around a lot when it comes to lighting. I have only a basic understanding and a total lack of intuition for how light bounces around and reflects off things. Landscape lighting is the absolute worst since the light source is so generalized, and I really need to conquer that one soon for all the Flypso landscapes I’ll have to paint in the near future.

A nice way to learn about things like this is to watch movies and take screenshots at interesting parts, then use them to study lighting, composition, expression, etc. I can’t remember exactly where I got this tip but I believe it was from one of the videos on Ctrl+Paint. This site was super useful when I was first learning my way around digital painting and it’s still one of my favourite resources to go back to when I need refreshers.

So I rewatched the movie Maleficent looking for some ideas. This scene caught my attention with soft blue moonlight coming in from the right and a fire burning on the left. The dragon (not Maleficent herself but her assistant, Diaval) is approaching some soldiers which I left out, and he is highlighted from both sides with the different temperatures of lighting. This could reflect Maleficent’s internal conflict in that story. I won’t say more in case anyone reading hasn’t seen the movie and is planning to, I wouldn’t want to spoil anything. It’s actually a pretty good movie and I’d recommend it!

It was super cool how the dragon came to life when I started adding subtle highlights from the fire. My favourite part of any painting is adding things like eye shine because it’s such a small detail but it makes an instant and very significant change to the painting. Overall I was happy with this painting but I do think it came out just a bit too dark. The scene is supposed to be dark, but I feel like it could have been better if it was a little brighter. I’m not sure how to address that without doing a lot of repainting, and I haven’t figured out what exactly I’m doing to cause it, but very often I am finding that my drawings come out darker than I intend. I think it could be a sign that I am still a little underconfident as an artist. Shadows are safer, since they only give you hints and leave the rest to your imagination. It could also be that I just want to hurry up and be done so I can go on to the next piece, instead of spending more time grinding through boring things like the texture of a wall.

There is so much to learn and so much I want to improve on, the hardest thing is getting a sense of direction. How can I focus when I want to know everything at once? I envy those people doing speed paintings on youtube, how they can just throw together an amazing landscape concept in a few hours, seemingly straight from their imaginations with the correct lighting and shadow and everything. I know it comes from a lot of experience and study, but sometimes I feel like I go around in circles with no idea what I’m doing or how to proceed. I guess the key to improving is to just keep going even if it doesn’t seem to be working, and eventually things just start to click.




How to Create Deep Blacks in Acrylic

This past winter I was hired for my first art commission. The client wanted a cow for her living room wall. I was eager to try something new, but had no idea how I would create the effect of shiny black fur using acrylic. As anyone who has ever painted anything in acrylic knows, using pure black doesn’t give the effect you want it to. Adding more black doesn’t make it darker, and trying to lighten it just makes it flat and grey. For anyone else who has struggled with this, allow me to share with you a little trick I learned while working on two paintings of animals with shiny black coats.

Unfortunately I don’t have a scanner big enough for full sized canvas paintings, so I have to use my iPhone to take pictures of them. It’s pretty much impossible to get a true representation of any painting using an iPhone, even in the best light. The problem is when the phone adjusts the focus it tries to compensate for the brightness/darkness in the focal area, and that can really mess with the contrast and depth of the colours in the photo. If anyone has some advice for dealing with this, please let me know! 

So having said that, here are two examples of paintings I did over the holidays which taught me a lot about painting in black.

The first is Sadie, my mom’s Boston Terrier. I painted this as a Christmas present, and it doubled as a practice run for the calf below, which was the commission project. It was super convenient that both paintings had exactly the same colour palette.



The key, I learned, is to use actual black very sparingly. Only for the deepest darkest pure black areas like a pupil. Often in any kind of painting, I find that it’s the surrounding area that brings out the thing you want to emphasize, rather than the thing itself. It might be difficult to see in the photos, but I used a slightly lighter colour in the iris immediately surrounding the pupil to add life and dimension to the eye, as well as bring out the deep black in the pupil itself. Since the pupil is a small area which is truly black, absorbing all light, it is ok to use just a pure black paint straight from the tube.

To cover large areas, you can actually mix black as needed using ultramarine blue and burnt umber. I had no idea blue and brown would mix black, but it worked perfectly! Thanks Google! Of course what you will make is not really black, but that’s the point. Pure black is flat, but with a mixed “almost black” you can adjust it to add subtle variation and shine, which creates depth. When you want to add life to something like an animal with a shiny black coat, use different ratios of blue and brown to adjust the “temperature”, and play with it to get the effect you want.

For the most part the ratio is flexible. More brown makes it warmer and blue makes it cooler. Experiment to see what works for your painting. A small amount of white helps lighten the mixture enough to bring out the shiniest parts without having it look flat and grey.

Hope that is helpful for anyone who has been struggling with using black in acrylic. It’s easier than you might think 🙂







Teg Avatar

This is the final piece in the series of avatars I’ve made for Flypso. That means we have decided, at least tentatively, what all five races will be. I’ve written notes, some history, and many scraps of ideas for each one. My least favourite of them all has to be the Teg.

Teg Avatar

Tegs are the desert race. Hulking, tanky, rhino-like creatures. They are at home among vast expanses of desolate wasteland, where they build their settlements underground. They wear heavy armour and use brute force to prove a point. The word “teg” comes from scientific terminology referring to plates or armour. Natural selection has favoured individuals with hard, bony plates on their faces and mountainous form. The Tegs have a violent history of war and destruction, and nearly wiped themselves out before establishing law and civilized society.

I dislike this race for a number of reasons which I won’t get into now, but Tux requested it, and in order to maintain balance and appeal to a range of players it seemed like a good idea to include a tough heavy armour type, and a race that would specialize in “heavy” crafting using stone and metals. This is not intended to be a combat focused war type game, so rather than drawing a snarling face and threatening pose, I tried to show intelligent looking eyes, and a friendly or neutral expression. Tegs are aggressive by nature, but that doesn’t mean they never calm down. More exciting paintings will probably come later on but for now the point was just to make a basic, neutral avatar.

Painting this rough skin type was very challenging. There is no easy way to do it, as far as I can tell. With things like feathers, fur, and sometimes scales, it’s possible to draw out a pattern and gradually vary that pattern, then finish it with shading etc. It’s tedious, but at least it’s repetitious and not too complicated. With this rhino skin though, that was very different. If you look closely at a rhino or elephant’s skin it doesn’t seem to follow much of a pattern, but at the same time it kind of does, and it’s very difficult to replicate that effect. The cracks tend to be deeper in some areas and more shallow, almost non-existent, in others. If you look closely at your own skin, especially around the knuckles, you can see what I mean. Try to follow some of the lines, then look at the lines that intersect those lines. It seems like a nice easy grid, but it’s actually pretty random.

Coming up with the Teg design was a lot different than the other races. I didn’t have a clear idea of what they should look like until I had sketched out a number of possibilities.

Here are a few sketches of early ideas that lost out in the end:

Originally the only criteria was just “desert/underground/cave dwelling people”. Initially I considered making a reptilian race similar to Argonians, but couldn’t come up with a design that didn’t seem cliche or silly looking. Then I thought more about existing burrowing creatures, and came up with what basically amounts to a weird mutant rat:


This one was never really considered at all, and Tux really wanted it to be tankier so I did something similar, but with some inspiration from ankylosaurus:


You can see from the level of detail that I was starting to get somewhere. I liked the plated facial armour, but wasn’t sure about the body type. Since this was going to be a burrowing race, I added shovel hands and some spikes on the forearms that could be used to chop and loosen tough soil. We were talking about special abilities, like the Hy’lox maybe being able to see infrared, so I tossed some movement sensing antennae on the heels. I don’t think those will be included in the final design since the Tegs themselves are pretty big and thundery, it just seems a bit illogical.

Finally, I scrapped the whole rodent idea and looked towards large ungulates like rhinos, and outlined a different body plan:


I’m still undecided on the shovel hands and arm spikes. I kind of like them, but Tux didn’t seem too sure. All he wants to talk about is user accounts and login systems *yawn*.

At this stage I was fairly certain of what I wanted to do, so I did another fairly quick pencil sketch of the face, outlining how the plates would lay, and then moved over to the computer to paint the final image.


It kind of sucked to spend time working on a character I didn’t find interesting or appealing and I had to drag myself through it. I guess that’s just part of being an artist for more than just my own entertainment. However I am still more or less happy with how it came out and the concept started to grow on me as it came to life.

So that’s it for these, for now. Next I will be trying my hand at painting some scenes for Flypso, while also working on the next installment in the soil life series.



Is Digital Art Easier Than Traditional?

A colleague recently asked for my opinion on this, and after struggling to find a good answer all I could come up with was “it depends”. I contemplated it for a long time afterwards, and still landed on the same response. It depends what you are trying to achieve.

Comparing digital and traditional art is like comparing oil painting with pencil drawing. They are just different. It may be a bit easier to pick up a pencil and paper because you probably have them lying around and you don’t need to worry about making a mess, but it’s also very easy to pick up a paintbrush and canvas. It’s just as easy to pick up a stylus and paint on a computer, if you have the right equipment. For all these tools and any other, you still need to have skill and inspiration to create art with whatever you have available. One could make art out of dead grass with the right inspiration. The tools are just a way to deliver ideas.

There are a lot of convenient shortcuts in computer painting that you don’t get to use in traditional art, such as sampling colours directly from an image, or the glorious, but limited, “undo” button. Layers make it possible to add drastic changes and then later change your mind and take them away. Yes, those things definitely make digital painting faster, more flexible, and more convenient, but there are also some things that are easier with conventional painting. I don’t have to worry about monitor settings distorting the colours in my canvas painting, and it’s a lot easier to do certain things like make dry brush or splatter effects and have them look natural with real paint brushes. There is something about physically putting the brush on the canvas and manually mixing the paints that makes physical painting a little bit more intuitive to work with than digital.

With digital, there is a lot of technical stuff that can get in the way and interrupt your creative process. Light tends to cause a very frustrating glare on the screen. I basically have to sit in the dark to paint comfortably on the computer. Sometimes the Cintiq stops detecting my pen and I have to reboot the whole system in order to continue. Sometimes I feel like I want to create a particular effect but don’t know how to do it and end up doing something differently. There is also a steep learning curve with digital painting programs and they can often feel limiting and intimidating, despite their impressive capabilities. In a way, that massive sea of possibilities makes it almost more difficult to be creative.

For all their differences though, I still use a very similar process when I paint regardless of the medium, and while my workspace is quite a lot less messy, it is actually pretty similar.

Here is a photo of my digital workspace for anyone who is unfamiliar with how digital painting works:


As with conventional painting, I have reference photos all around my workspace, and I have created a palette with a bunch of colours to choose from for my painting. On the left is the stylus which I hold like a pencil and draw directly on the screen. I still work from the bottom up, and do not copy and paste any photo elements into my paintings, everything is done by hand, so just like in conventional painting I need to choose the correct colours and use the correct brush strokes to get the effect I’m looking for.

All forms of art require practice, skill, and intuition. Whether one medium is easier than another depends entirely on the person using them, their level of experience, and what they want to accomplish.


Headaches and Charcoal

Panther Charcoal

This drawing was from a few months ago. I had a bad headache for six days straight and decided to try drawing something to take my mind off it. It’s probably no coincidence that this is what I ended up with as it depicts pretty accurately how I was feeling at the time. Surprisingly, the headache actually started to let up after I finished the drawing. Maybe the headache itself was an angry snarling beast that needed to be released onto paper.

This was also my first time using a blending stump with charcoal. I had recently bought a new set of drawing pencils that included one but at the time I had no idea what the white thing was and actually had to google it. For anyone who doesn’t know, this is what I’m talking about:



The white piece on the right is the blending stump. Basically, it’s just a roll of compressed paper that you can hold like a pencil. You use it instead of your fingers to smudge the charcoal and create nice smooth blending effects. When the stump starts to develop a thick layer of charcoal (or graphite) on it, you can use the sandpaper block on the left to freshen it up again and reshape the point if needed.

This thing makes charcoal a little easier and less messy to work with. My parents will probably remember a lot of black fingerprints and smudges on the walls and doors in and around my bedroom when I was a teenager. I didn’t know about these things back then and I always just used my finger to blend. Charcoal is still as messy as ever, but this thing does reduce that quite a bit, and makes it possible to create much more refined effects than you ever could by smudging it with a finger.

Another important tool to use in this kind of work is the good old kneadable eraser. If you’ve ever done any pencil drawing you probably know what this is, but for anyone who doesn’t know, here is a picture of one sitting next to a regular eraser: image1.JPG

The kneadable eraser is very similar to that blue tacky stuff you can use to put pictures up on the wall, and actually I have heard that you can use that stuff as a super cheap kneadable eraser but I’ve never tried that myself.

The kneaded eraser is AMAZING. As far as I’m concerned it’s purely magical. It can be squeezed and shaped into whatever form you need to create precise effects. You can make it round and blunt, and just gently dab or brush over the drawing to create softer highlights, or you can make a fine point for a more defined effect. You can also use it to clean up smudges and refine edges. It’s much more versatile and precise than a regular eraser, but not as effective if you have a lot to erase or need to clean up a large area. I consider both types of erasers to be equally essential to drawing with either pencil or charcoal.

When I get to a point where I start causing more harm than good in a drawing, I call it finished. It’s like when you’re curling your hair.. there comes a point where you just start messing it up the more you try to work with it, and you have to just stop and say you’re done. I find that drawing or painting in any medium is exactly the same. When I’m done with a charcoal drawing, I spray it with a fixative to keep the charcoal where it should be and move on to the next thing.

Watercolour Pencils

Watercolour pencils are amazing!  I picked up a set of these a few months ago and have been playing with them now and then. I wanted to try oil painting but the paints are quite a bit more expensive than acrylic, and I was already doing plenty of acrylic painting so  instead I considered watercolour. Watercolour paints looked rather messy and since I don’t have space for a proper studio at this point, watercolour pencils seemed like the next best thing. Turns out they are a blast.

Basically, they are just coloured pencils and you use them the same way as dry ones. BUT, when you brush over the drawing with water, the pigment dissolves into paint right on the paper!


I went all out and bought one of those brushes with water in the handle, but you don’t need that. It works just as well with a regular brush dipped in water, and I do prefer that for fine detail or very large areas. This brush also gives you a bit less control over how much water you’re applying, and it can quickly become too much so in many cases a regular brush is actually better but I do enjoy using this as well.

Here is a before and after:
kingfisher merged

On the left is the dry original drawing, and on the right is the final result after going over with a brush. The colours become richer and allow greater possiblities for blending and shading.

Of course it’s not as simple as just slopping water all over the drawing and it magically comes out perfectly. The water pulls the pigment around just like paint, and you can blend and mix colours right on the paper. The colour becomes richer, but also darker, so it definitely takes some practice and getting used to. It’s difficult or impossible to lighten it up or add highlights once an area is already dark, and going over a particular spot to correct something doesn’t work very well.

It’s a bit difficult to know how the colours will blend, and I think the type of paper has something to do with this as well. I tried a few different papers and noticed very big differences in the results. I ended up buying a nice pad of watercolour paper because regular paper tends to buckle and I found drawing paper didn’t behave nicely when I was trying to blend colours.

To help figure out how the colours interact with each other, the Faber-Castell starter kit I bought provided a chart and suggested combining all the pencils to see what they create. Here is that chart:

Epson_1 (6).jpg

The letters stand for which colours were mixed in each square. R for Red, O for Orange, etc. It’s very handy to look at the chart and see which colour I’m after, then know which pencils to blend to achieve that colour.

Eventually I decided I liked these quite a bit, so I bought a bigger set with a better range of colours to choose from. I wanted to paint more natural tones like browns and greens, and the original 8-piece starter set felt a bit limiting. Here is a drawing I did after using the new set:

Bluethroat brushed I definitely want to practice this more to get a better handle on blending and shading but overall these are a lot of fun to work with and it’s very easy to get a cool watercolour effect without mucking around with watercolour paints.



The Dreaded Human

Our game could have included only invented races as Ryzom does, but we decided that for our particular idea it would make sense to include humans too. The problem is, once you’ve been inventing these cool looking creatures with interesting features and abilities, humans start to look pretty dull and ordinary. Besides our big brains and useful thumbs, we don’t have a whole lot to compete with even within the natural world here on Earth. Without our built environment, tools, and technology, most of us are fairly helpless in the wilderness, and we aren’t exactly awesome looking either.

When designing a game it’s important to have balance. We can’t have one race that is way better than the others, just like we can’t have one lame race that nobody would ever want to play. For us, that lame race is the humans. I needed to think of ways the humans could remain human, but still keep up and compete with the others. It took some thought, but eventually I realized our strong point. Humans are special because we are not specialized. We are versatile, adaptable, and resourceful. Whereas the amphibious Hy’lox requires a humid environment and would struggle in the desert, and the Arborean excels in the forest but is inhibited without trees, humans can live quite happily in just about any circumstances. The human is a jack of all trades with the option to specialize however they see fit.

It turned out that painting a human avatar was easier and a lot less miserable than I was expecting. The human eye is quite interesting, and the face poses a unique challenge in that we are so deeply familiar with it that extremely subtle changes can create readable emotions. For the avatar I needed a face that was as neutral as possible and this was quite a learning experience.

I decided to start with a female for no particular reason, I just needed to pick one and I am female so I went with that. I’ll also do a male eventually, which will carry with it the challenge of deciding how to make noticeable gender differences for at least some of the other races too.

Human avatar female new bkg

I feel that I still need a lot of practice with understanding light and shadow, and it’ll be interesting when I try to paint a character with more textured skin, messy hair, etc. This is the most simplistic painting of a human I could get away with for this, but it works and I didn’t want to spend too much time on it with so many other exciting things to work on.

That’s four out of five races complete, last will be the desert people.

Creating the Hy’lox

hylox avatar final new bkg

At first it was difficult to picture an aquatic race that didn’t look hideous or cliche. I wanted them to be likeable and civilized, not some kind of frilly slimy monster. I think most people would agree that salamanders are pretty cute and I don’t recall having seen too many salamander inspired humanoid races before, so that seemed like a good choice. The smooth amphibian skin was nice and simple to paint. The only things I found really challenging here were deciding on a colour scheme and making sure I didn’t accidentally make a Murloc out of it.


At this point I actually only have this one pencil drawing of the Hy’lox. I don’t even have any rough sketches, and I honestly don’t even remember drawing this because it went so quick and I was in a frenzy of ideas that day. The legs are a bit off but otherwise I think the body is more or less how I wanted it. It has the elongated body and weak arms of salamanders, and I looked at some pictures of lionfish for ideas on the facial stripes and venomous spines. In the avatar I went with blotchy spots on the face instead, but these will have many different kinds of markings so there will be some with stripes in the future.

The Hy’lox is how I envision a civilized race that evolved along the amphibian line. The name comes from “Hyloxalus” which is a genus of poison dart frogs.

This amphibious race evolved in the steamy swamps and temperate marshlands of their home planet. They excel in botany and can make highly effective poisons and medicine. While their soft, weak bodies would leave them helpless in close physical combat, they prefer to avoid violence and tend to be a peaceful, diplomatic people. However, they have formidable natural and technological defenses at their disposal in the event that diplomacy fails. Their natural abilities include stealth, camouflage, paralyzing venom, and sticky substances that allow them to confuse, stun, or slow their enemies. If they cannot deter or escape from their attackers, the Hy’lox are well equipped with chemical weapons and explosives to efficiently disable or eliminate the threat.

Creating the Arborean

Arborean final.png

The Arborean was the first, and easiest playable race I designed for Flypso. They are the “elves” of the flypso universe. Quick, agile, sophisticated, deeply protective of the forest, compassionate and caring but somewhat snobbish, etc.

However, it was the most challenging in some ways. I wanted a tree dwelling mammal with a primate body, but I didn’t want it to look too human. I gave it bat ears and a tail, a panda nose, and fox facial structure, but then it ended up looking like a cat person. I added little horns but they didn’t make much difference.

I decided to accept that it looks like a humanoid cat, and move on. I thought it would be fun to paint the fur, but that ended up being so tedious I finally broke down and started using some fur brushes to speed up the process. I prefer to do things manually without the use of fancy photoshop tricks and brushes that basically do all the work for you, but I realized that even with fur brushes I really still needed to know what I was doing, so I was comforted by that. There comes a point where you have to value your time, especially when you are bursting with ideas that want out. I studied the faces of foxes, pandas, and hyenas to get a better understanding of which fur goes in what direction and to understand how to create depth and dimension. I really struggled to give the white muzzle any dimension since it is in such stark contrast to the rest of the face, and I am still not completely satisfied with the stripes, although the markings will vary from one Arborean to the next.

Here is the first sketch of the Arborean concept, which actually started out as a mindless unfinished doodle of a random animal (I drew the armour outline much later), and had absolutely nothing to do with Flypso.


When I started thinking about playable races, the idea for the Arborean came first, and when I opened the sketchbook to find an empty page, I noticed this doodle again, and realized this could easily be adapted to use for Flypso.

I sketched a full body concept and experimented a bit with what their light leather armour might look like. The proportions came out a bit weird looking because I was roughly basing this off of spider monkeys, but the problem I think is mostly because the knees are too low, and there is something wrong with the forearms. I think the forearms look like they are curved forward or something weird like that. It’ll take some practice to get this one to look natural but I think it can work.


I wanted to get some practice with facial fur patterns so I started drawing the face in more detail, still with pencil on paper. Eventually I got tired of this method and moved over to the Cintiq to get going on the colour version, using this unfinished drawing as a reference.