The Curious Case Covered

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Jul 072014
Full title: The Curious Case of the Werewolf That Wasn't, the Mummy That Was, and the Cat in the Jar

Full title: The Curious Case of the Werewolf That Wasn’t, the Mummy That Was, and the Cat in the Jar

Today I’m taking a look at the creation of the cover for Gail Carriger’s ebook The Curious Case.

If you haven’t already, pop over to Gail’s blog for the story of how this cover came to be. Once you’ve done that, I’ll tackle a few bits in a little more detail…

Back? Okay, on with the show!

As Gail mentioned, she approached me about doing the cover. I was delighted by the idea because – while I don’t get as much time as I would like to read – I had thoroughly devoured the Parasol Protectorate series featuring Alexia Tarabotti. Intriguingly, this cover was an opportunity to paint her father, Alessandro, a figure who never appears in the books but whose history and reputation are a constant backdrop to the series.

How could I resist?

I read through the story several times. The first time to simply enjoy it, and the other times to make notes about scenes (foreground and background), characters, and most importantly what Alessandro was wearing. Alessandro masquerades as a fop but his love of quality clothing is no charade.

Then, I discussed the options with Gail and we settled on what we both felt was the best scene to depict because it evoked Egypt and was a good moment for a “hero shot” with the added bonus of nice warm lighting. The lighting in the scene is supposed to be torchlight but I had to cheat and make the scene brighter to give it a good readable thumbnail for the ebook sites. While an image with heavier shadows might have been spookier it would have denied us our one good look at Alessandro and it would have been out of step with the style of the paperback covers.

Given that, why are there no torches in sight? Well, one is carried by a character who stands roughly where the viewer is and the others are along the passage casting that strong light on Alessandro’s side. The decision to not include a torch in shot was for clarity and (hopefully) elegant simplicity in the composition. The viewer understands there are sources of illumination without having to drag their eyes away from Alessandro and the looming Ka statue.

Speaking of the Ka Statue, in addition to the many things that Gail explained to me about ancient Egyptian burial customs, I discovered that the statues obey a strict ‘six heads height’ rule. Here’s my reference and my initial drawing of the statue. The head was later re-done as the perspective needed to be as if looking up at the statue.


I have quite a lot of costume reference for the Victorian period but – much to my annoyance – I discovered most of it was focused on 1860 to 1900 while the story is set in the first half of the 19th century. So I asked Gail for guidance on the exact cut of Alessandro’s clothes, and she provided me with a selection of images and I did the rest with a little sleuthing via the internet and movies. I also researched cravats and discovered that the one worn by Albert in The Young Victoria is meant to be a particularly tricky knot that was much sought after by the gentlemen of the time. That was of course what I chose to give Alessandro given his high standards. Also, his cravat is white as colored cravats had not really become a thing yet.

You may ask, why go to all this trouble? Well, I feel that if a fiction is grounded in actual history, you owe it to the reader to not blow their suspension of disbelief by dressing someone incorrectly for the period. Of course, I may have gone further than was strictly necessary but I enjoy being as accurate as possible and frankly the research is fun.

So now that we’ve firmly established that I’m a fussy git, let’s take a quick whistle-stop tour of some of the moments in the painting’s creation:

One of the issues that arose was that I had to redo the Ka statue’s head to make it less zombie-like. Thankfully I had the original line drawing to guide me and given that I work in digital, matching color and textures is something that can be accomplished relatively quickly –


There was a lot of fine tuning to Alessandro’s face both at the line drawing stage and during the painting. Sometimes what works in a line drawing doesn’t translate well when fully rendered and shaded. Other times, the slightest change to an eyebrow or the turn at the corner of a mouth can have subtle but important effects as to how a facial expression reads:


Working digitally also meant that I could slightly rearrange the compositional elements if I needed to. When I first started laying out the composition we didn’t have a clear solution to the story’s exceptionally long title. For maximum flexibility every part of the rear wall was painted and Alessandro and the Ka Statue remained in their own layers until the very final iterations of the cover. Indeed, if you look at these last two steps in the cover’s creation, you’ll see that Alessandro’s position relative to the wall and the statue have changed.


This change was made so that the title wasn’t so cramped against the upper edge of the image while at the same time the title didn’t completely obscure the statue’s face. In addition, the final layout placed the focal character off-center which is consistent with the compositions of four of the five Parasol Protectorate books.

Finally, here is the finished painting in its entirety. I completed the entire image rather than just the area used for the cover as I have Gail’s permission to produce this as a limited edition print of a hundred. Details on how to get the print will be coming soon.


Footnote: Sand can be a real pain to paint. It’s incredibly difficult to find that sweet spot where its edges aren’t too soft, too firm or too granular. Sometimes – oh, who am I kidding, often – it’s the little things that’ll drive you crazy.

Seriously, Never Enough Goblins

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Mar 072014

Here’s the line work to four more of my ‘Goblins Through the Ages’ cards for the Pairs Kickstarter.

#3 is the modern day card who’s kind of a conglomeration of a bunch of the world’s ills these days, but I just think of him as the ‘Bond villain’.
#5 is a Victorian Occultist or is that starting to get redundant?!

#7 is some Robin-Hood style goblin.
#10 is the lowly prehistoric Cave-Gobbo.

The Pairs Kickstarter. has a week left to run. If you want one of these decks you better jump onboard as they won’t be available afterwards.

Mar 162012

As I mentioned yesterday, sometimes a piece of artwork I’m really proud of is lost to obscurity due to being attached to a common card. It doesn’t even have to be a junk common. Sometimes just being a regular common is enough for the artwork to fall off most players’ radars.

One such piece is Lys Alana Huntmaster from the Lorwyn set. Apparently this card was well received among players sporting elf decks of the time but the art never drew any significant interest.

The artists aren’t told the rarity of the cards they’re assigned anymore, but oftentimes – and with a little experience born of writing every Magic card art description for three years – I can make a pretty good guess. Why is this important? Well, if common cards are the red-headed stepchildren of CCGs, then it makes sense to focus your best efforts on the rare cards as that’s the art players will remember.

With that in mind, I try to make the art that’s destined for a rarer card more esoteric, more gnarly, more detailed or just plain more weird. I think if you’ve got two goblin cards and one’s a common and one’s a rare, regardless of the art description, the common goblin shouldn’t be too far from the average goblin depicted in the style guide, while the rare goblin should be a character, a paragon, an eccentric or a movie star, something that stands out from the herd.

Here’s the art description for the assignment:

Lys-Alana Huntcaller
Color: Green Creature
Location: Lys Alana, a large elvish ‘city’ in the Gilt-Leaf Wood. The Gilt-Leaf Wood is the forest considered most beautiful by the elves. The trees have a sap that elegantly coats the spaces between the bark, and when the sun hits it just right, it seems to be golden and shimmers as if gilded.
Action: Show an elvish noble who’s the city’s ‘master of the hunt.’ He has two striped dogs with him like the one in the styleguide. He’s blowing a ceremonial horn to call other elves to the hunt.
Focus: the elvish huntmaster
Mood: aristocratic, shrewd, elegant

So he’s an elf noble who holds a position of some seniority within this large elvish city? Totally sounds like at least uncommon material to me. If the art description had suggested he was any more important, I would have chosen rare. With that in mind, I start designing an elf who’s very upright and composed, one who has that quiet confidence that assurance of command can bring.

Here’s my first few attempts at the elf’s head;

Huntmaster Head Sketches

At first I was thinking of having the Huntmaster looking off into the distance, overseeing whatever task he was set to, but I soon came around to the idea of him making eye-contact with the viewer to drive home the confidence I wanted to convey. If I remember correctly, the Lorwyn elves weren’t the friendliest bunch which is why #2 is sporting a faint cruel smirk. #3 amps that up a bit to outright distaste. You may have noticed I’ve ejected the idea of him actually blowing the horn. Why? Well, the focus & mood entries in the art description are about how imposing this elf is, not about the activity of blowing a horn. You try to look elegant blowing hard on a wind instrument!

I’d nailed down the figure’s stance earlier and now came time to dress the elf. Lorwyn was a world of eternal midsummer so clothing tended to be sparse or open and airy.

Below is an initial sketch, followed by a figure sketch done digitally that would allow me to apply a variety of separate layers of outfits; the modern-day equivalent of a paper doll.

Figure round 1

Wow, those elves were thin. Next are a couple of stabs at the outfit. The second option seemed promising so I made several more iterations of the clothed figure…

Figure round 2

Looking back at these sketches now, I see that with the final version I pruned the design, removing some visual clutter – such as the knife wrapped around the leg – to aid legibility at final card size. For much the same reason, some of the other details became larger, such as the leaf drapery (shown in black) hanging off the cloak as it crosses his upper torso.

Here’s a closer look at the final drawing of the Huntmaster:

Final Figure

As you can see, his clothing is covered in stylized leaf and vine designs, with the ocasional bladed quality to their shape. Leaves are woven into his hair and form a faux beard too (that was a concept from the style guide I really liked) and even the pommel of his sword is shaped into a leaf design. Twigs are bound into the buttons of his gloves as a small show of ostentation rather than anything symbolic, or so my memory tells me. Finally, the horn is given exaggerated organic curves and bears a passing resemblance to a wyrm.

I’m not sure why I straightened the angle of his head. Perhaps I thought the tilt seemed a little coy and I wanted a more defiant look. Some decisions are pretty subjective and any other day I might have decided differently.

Next time, we’ll get into the actual painting of the gilded forest, and you can see just how easy it is to lose your mind with digital stippling.

Lots of dots

To be continued…

3D Goblin – Stage 3

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Oct 052011

I had to put the goblin sculpture aside a few weeks ago due to a new project making my schedule a little fuller than I’d originally planned. This is how far I got after a grand total of approximately eight hours work…

Goblin Sculpture Stage 3

We’re at stage 3. The significant geometry of the goblin’s head and shoulders has been done. Here’s a laundry list of the changes:

  • The brows got a little more furrowed.The nose got longer and the nostrils deeper. The flared outer parts of the nostrils got tidied up and better integrated with the face.
  • The lips and jaw had the planar brush lightly applied to them. For the lips this had the effect of creating a stronger edge to the lip line, better delineating the change from lips to surrounding flesh. For the jaw, this was a subtler change, removing a little of the curvature in the flesh, unifying the angles and giving the suggestion of bone along the jaw line.This is particularly noticeable in the middle image above.
  • The ears received a few tweaks in front and a significant amount of trimming in the back. At a certain angle (one I commonly use in goblin paintings) the upper rear of the ears had proven to be too chunky. By creating gentle slopes from the top and bottom rear of the ears that thickened toward the center I created the slimmer profile of ears I was used to but with a solid connection to the head that made it believable that the giant ears could be supported on the head rather than tear off under their own weight (ouch)!
  • The skin around the eyes was changed to compliment the alterations around the nostrils and bridge of the nose.
  • The skin of the cheeks that is forced upward due to the goblin’s smile was better blended with the upper lip. The previous version was a little too pronounced making the cheeks feel more like a significant protrusion than just cheeks pushed up and out in a smile.
  • The mouth was hollowed out more in preparation for the addition of teeth, gums and tongue. That’ll be stage four!

Yeah, even though at first glance the changes may appear to be minimal, there’s actually a lot of tweaks going on.

And there’s at least one more detail pass to do before moving on to a texture pass. Just look at this close-up to see that I’m still working on a relatively low resolution sculpt. The polygons are easy to spot.

Goblin Sculpture Close-Up

Finally, here’s a color test I tried out. This is just a proof of concept; a rough pass to see how a colored version might look. The eyes are especially bad at the moment as I’ve yet to learn how to use more than one material in a sculpt. The eyes obviously need to be more reflective as they’re currently quite dead which makes them bloody creepy, but not in a good way!

Goblin Sculpture Color Test

Sep 062011

While 99% of the stuff I’m working on at the moment is either not ‘ready for primetime’ or secreted away under an NDA, I continue to dink around with ZBrush, trying to add 3D modelling to my skill set.

You might ask “Why”? Well, having a broader skill base never hurts. Also, sculpting is fascinating to me as I’ve limited myself to 2D works up until now.

And that’s the primary reason for tackling a goblin head; I’ve drawn goblins in Magic for 15 or more years and while I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on how a Venters-style goblin looks (presumably better than anyone else!), it’s fascinating to test the nebulous 3D object I hold in my mind against the hard reality of a 3D sculpture.

It’s been especially interesting seeing how the over-sized nostrils interact with the giant nose and the minimal upper lip. And the ears continue to be a warzone of polygon brutalization to achieve some of the shapes found in the soft tissue.

Goblin Sculpture Stage 2

Anyway, this is not quite the goblin head you saw last time. I encountered some issues that couldn’t be fixed without generating bad polygon distortion so I took it back to the initial Zsphere sculpt and rebuilt. At this point, the sculpture is significantly more developed than the last one you saw, with more shaping and detail. Also, eyes and eyelids have been added and the mouth has been opened a little further to allow for an upcoming display of some damn-ugly teeth.

Prepare your scrolling finger… NOW!

Goblin Sculpture Stage 2

Oh, the other reason for all of this… ZBrush is a blast.

Aug 232011

I’m still grabbing time to try out Zbrush when I can – which isn’t much – and Eric Keller’s book continues to prove to be invaluable for navigating my way through the complex interface.

Well, I just got to try out ZSpheres and ZSketch and the appropriate tutorial is about creating a new dragon and I thought, “Hey, I like a dragon as much as the next artist but I think I want to try something else.” And of course, being me, that ‘something else’ had to be a goblin.

This is about 90 minutes work, so very early stages and a lot of screwing around trying to work out what certain things did. Consider this stage one and hopefully I get to show you a stage two and three later on…

Goblin Sculpture Stage 1

Zakis Trickstab (2010) WIP Part 3

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Apr 072011

The final stages of the painting await!

The first big change is the shoulder pads; they’ve been completely remodeled! Warcraft’s armor tends to be very intricate, even convoluted and sometimes the shapes can be hard to pin down quickly. It was only after looking at my ref for the umpteenth time that I realized the shoulder pads needed to be broader and the blade made chunkier with a little more curvature at the top and a lot less at the bottom.


If I find myself wondering how I missed this, I can console myself with the fact that no one at Blizzard caught it at the sketch stage either!
Time to get it done!

Zakis Trickstab (2010) WIP Part 2

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Apr 012011

On to the painting of the goblin. I have a few methods for painting pieces. They’re not wildly different, but there’s methods that work better for some images than others. However, almost all of them start with me blocking out the colors. ‘Blocking out’ refers to applying areas of flat color across an entire image to mark clearly what color (minus shadows and lighting) everything should be. I think my comic books roots are showing…

Block colors.

Prepping the underpainting.

Feb 112011

Man, that was a fast week. So it’s the last of my Transmet Art Book previews and I figured we’d end where we began, with Spider Jerusalem, this time accompanied by Yelena. Spider seems to have exchanged his furious expression for… well, what is that expression? Annoyed? Repulsed? You tell me.

Transmet Sneak Peek 5 - Spider & Yelena.

All will become clear when you see the final piece. Hopefully you’ve got a copy preordered. And since I mentioned it, you have until early evening on Valentines Day to make your preorder. This book is not going to be distributed normally so unless your comic store went and did the exact same thing I’m suggesting you do now, you won’t be able to find a copy, except maybe for an outrageously inflated price on eBay…

So, follow this link to the Transmet Art Book on Kickstarter.
It’s for Charity! Hurry, time is running out.