Sunday, April 05, 2009

The Road To Oz

So I've been trying to figure out for a long time how to make a living making pictures. I tried editorial work for a while, but I was never too terribly good at it. I didn't have the same feel for it that a lot of people I admire have. I've never been that interested in journalism or politics, and solving those kinds of illustration problems didn't come naturally to me, but I had it stuck in my head that if I wanted to be successful in the field, that was what I'd have to do.

So, in an attempt to emulate the people I admired, I tried to cultivate a very graphic, eye-catching style that I thought would appeal to that market. But somewhere I lost track of why I wanted to do this in the first place.

So David Maxine of Hungry Tiger Press asked me to do an Oz picture for his fanzine, just a one-off black and white picture based on the book, "The Road to Oz" for the magazine. I had always liked the Oz books as a teenager, and it seemed like a fun project, so I decided to make a color image instead (I could always grayscale it later), something that I'd have liked looking at as a kid. Looking at a lot of Winsor McCay, I decided to do something really lush and detailed. I've always been much more interested in traditional storytelling than editorial, and as a kid I really liked fantasy, and I had always wanted to make picture books and comic books.

And this is as close as I think I've ever come to something I would have liked to be able to make when I was a kid:

On my browser the colors always seem a little more muted on these blogger posts, so the real colors may be more brilliant than what you see here.

And here are some details:


Doing an image as complex as this would have been intimidating if I didn't approach it in pieces, and lately I've been drawing my figures separately from my backgrounds. I drew and inked each figure individually and then composited them into the picture later.

Perspective has always driven me nuts, and I've never been particularly good at it, but recently I've been using google sketch-up to put together primitive backgrounds that I can then work up and add details to:

And the finished background:

I've always been heavily reliant on photo reference, and usually take a number of photos of myself posing for each figure, but this time I didn't. Most of the reference I used was for for costuming and to get a general idea of fabric folds, but this time all the poses came mostly from my imagination. Here's an example of some of the reference I used:

I colored in on the computer, cloning in watercolor and dry brush textures on photoshop that I had scanned for things like the marble, the rust, and Polychrome's dress.

So I don't know where this is going to lead, but this seems to be the general direction that I'm headed in, with a new focus on Children's markets. We'll see how it goes. I'm kind of excited.

Click Here to Buy the Poster!


  1. Thanks Frank! You do awesome spaces all the time. I've always had a hard time with environments, and tend to just focus on the figures. Now I'm getting a little more ambitious. Tin Salmunic wrote a very inspiring thing once: don't decide what your limits are until you've tested them.

  2. Google Sketchup! Never heard of it but just watched the online video. I( know it's not THAT easy, but is it relatively intuitive? I may be nagging you for tips, after I try the free version. Seems like a great tool!

    Here's some constructive criticism on the GREAT OZ PIC:

    Look at children's faces in other artwork that you admire. Make the kids' faces look like children - button noses, smaller mouths, larger eyes. Softer and pudgier - not "FAT" but, you know, soft.

    Same with hands. Fingers and hands slightly pudgy, not long and slender.

    My humble opinion, of course. You may totally disagree, and if you do, the hell with me!

    I think this is WAY good enough to propose to a publisher. There is ALWAYS some new illustrated version of some old classic kids' book coming out. What's a great one that has not been re-done lately? Maybe an illustrated Roald Dahl book?

    I think maybe OZ has been done to death, and while this pic is great, the concept of this style of OZ book is not new. I'd think about some old book that I could bring new life to.

    Just thinking out loud here... Good luck, whatever you do with it!

  3. Oz HAS been done to death, but I was asked to do the image for an Oz fanzine by a good acquaintance. Oz is public domain so I thought maybe I'd do some posters, we'll see, but I didn't really put this kind of effort in it for that purpose. I wanted to see if I could do this kind of thing.

    Kid pointers: Well taken. The big mouth thing, whether accurate or not, I think I grabbed from Maurice Sendak unconsciously, and lets face it--he does draw weird looking little kids. The ski jump Dorothy nose came right out of the Neil illustration--like many illustrators of the day, he drew everyone with very odd victorian faces, and I kind of ended up somewhere in the middle, pulling off neither a contemporary version or a classic version. Next time.

    Google sketch-up: I borrowed the chair, staircase, pillar, and curvy back wall from the google 3d warehouse, put the whole thing in a sphere also from the warehouse, made the steps, floor and ceiling. It's sort of like working with doll furniture. Some people have made some crazy detailed stuff in there, and I try to stay away from that stuff so I don't forget to draw, but it's a pretty amazing resource. I print out the 3d image and put it directly onto my light box, then add details. I've been kind of self-conscious about whether this is "stealing" which is why I stick to pretty simple stuff.

    I've also found it useful for composition. I can make my basic scene and see it from various angles, crop it, get the scene I want. The original model had staircases going down both sides of the wall, and I was originally going to do it head on, but then came up with this.

    I also have a very useful gridded room I got from the warehouse--I can take sections from it, remove walls, top them one on top of another, etc. If you want the room or any other models that I have I'll be glad to send them or give you a link.

    It's a pretty intuitive program but sometimes its a bitch to move stuff around. I can only make primitives and if I need anything more complex I steal it from the warehouse. I'm not really very interested in making my own elaborate 3d models. The prospect of actually making my own curving staircase would have been pretty daunting.

    Check out the video tutorial. That's really all you need to know.

    Interesting you mention Dahl because I'm doing a James and the Giant Peach image to build my portfolio up with this kind of thing. I want to make at least 5 of these sorts of images, crammed with lots of stuff. My object is to draw EVERYTHING and leave as little as possible to the imagination. I think there's something inherently cool about super busy (but readable) pictures like this. There are people who draw way better than me, but don't necessarily do stuff like this.

    And of course I'd like to do some stuff that's not just updated versions of old stories, but I think the familiarity of this stuff might help my cause along. I asked for some advice from a guy who's done a lot of young adult and chapter book covers about how to approach publishers, and he gave me some really useful pointers, so once I'm done with my 5 pictures I'll start putting it out there. I've got a few other relatively kid friendly images to round things out, plus my editorial work to show range.

    Wish me luck.