I was taught that characters are the most important part of any painting. This is because as people we are drawn immediately to other people. When looking at a painting the person would first focus on the eyes, then the face, then the person.
Therefore, before I begin to add characters I always ask myself what is the most important information I want to translate to the viewer? What do I want the viewer to feel and think when looking at the illustration?
In this case, I want the viewer to feel the wonder and magic of this ancient ocean coming to life. The character of Elatsoe is our guide to the emotion. It is she who as people we will look at first. If I express the emotions she’s feeling well, the viewer will feel that same emotion.
Though Elatsoe is the most important figure in this painting, she is the one I will draw last.
Working traditionally with ink, this may not always be the case. I tend to work left to right when cleaning up my drawings, because I am right handed. This prevents accidental smudging of the ink. Digitally, I do not need to worry about smudging my work, so I always leave the most important part of the painting as last.
If I had to guess why, I think it is because I feel I will gain more knowledge while I paint the less important characters. Therefore, once I reach the main character I will be as highly skilled as I can be at that moment.
What are the least important characters in this illustration?
The sea creatures in the back.
However, I do not draw them first. Why? Because these characters exist to fill out the composition and as such, I need to know what the characters in front are doing first.
Therefore, I am left with the middle ground and foreground sea creatures and Kirby.
Kirby is the most important character next to Elatsoe, because he is her best friend and also because as humans we relate more to pets than we do to ocean creatures.
I decide to begin with the flying fish in the bottom right corner.
As you can see I am looking at the reference and trying to figure out how to bring this creature to life. The key is not to copy the realistic illustration from the Smythsonian Museum, it is to take that information and translate it into the illustration style I’m working with.
I start working in a spiral, illustrating the creatures at the front because they are literally pointing at Elatsoe and Kirby.
Why did I not start with the shark? Because Elatsoe is looking at the shark, making the shark more important than the rest of the sea creatures.
As I continued to draw the sea creatures, I’m looking to find interesting line texture while creating a solid, 3D creature.
However, as I’m drawing, I’m thinking that something is missing. Then when I reach the shark, I get this brilliant idea of adding Navajo designs directly to the creatures surrounding Elatsoe. You can watch the Eureka moment happen in the video below:
I always intended to add Navajo designs to my work, however I did not really know how I was going to do this until that moment.
Storytelling wise, it made sense to me. Since Elatsoe’s gift brings these creatures to life, they are clearly magic next to her, but once they leave her sphere of influence they look as they did in real life.
Why are trilobites not created in the Navajo inspired design style? Because I wanted them to stand out from the other magical creatures that are forming around Elatsoe, since they were the ones who first started the vision.
If this was an animated movie, I would have the trilobite appear as a Navajo design, then morph into a realistic looking creature. Therefore, the new creatures swirling around Elatsoe start as Navajo designs and morph into realistic looking creatures as they swim away and while the magic is strong. If they were to disappear slowly, they would revert back to the design style before disappearing.
With the sea creatures drawn, the next character to tackle is Kirby.
Initially, I began drawing Kirby with Procreate’s Studio Pen. However, after finishing the design, I found Kirby felt too clean.
Therefore, I chose Mercury Pen and drew him in a more organic finish.
This pen just felt like it made more sense.
Finally, I’ve reached Elatsoe. I also used the Mercury Pen.
It took me drawing all the other creatures to discover the final solution for the main character. However, as you will see even my final solution is not quite as final. As an artist/illustrator, I have to be prepared to make changes at any stage if what I’ve created does not work as well for communicating the story.
In the following article, I begin to add colour.
H.O.O.T.s of Wisdom
Really think about what you wish to say with your illustration, both on the intellectual and the emotional level. Illustration is not about making pretty pictures. Illustration is about problem solving and communicating. Function over Form.
Figure out what part of the illustration is the most important and try to work on that part last. As you work, think about how the other elements of the illustration are supporting what you wish to say with your work and that most important part. In this case that was Elatsoe and her wonder at the magic. In another illustration it may not be a character at all. The most important part of an illustration is the one that communicates the story and emotion you want the viewer to understand in that specific moment.