Rocket Girl Redux: Step by Step
By Adam Guy Hays
A while back I decided I needed a new banner, as I’ve been using a shitty Kinko’s copy of one of my old ones for while now. I thought it’d be a good excuse to do another step-by-step of my painting process. I’ve included the photos of the references I used. I’m a big believer in having true life references for all projects.
I started with an image that my business partner Mike Bellamy drew and that has been our shop’s longtime logo. I wanted to keep the overall composition more or less the same but make my own version. I changed up the proportions, added a tiny RR logo , and gave the girl more Alphonse Mucha styled hair. I love that art nouveau stuff.
Typically when I’m sketching I like to use Prismacolor Col-Erase pencils on heavy vellum, which can stand a fair bit of abuse from erasing and sketching. The Col-Erase pencils are pretty good at staying where they’re put and not smudging too much. Some details in here are just plain pencil too.
Before starting any illustration project I like to do a few things that I think help in the long run. Basic stuff that most people know, but I’m just saying to put it out there. Here’s a quick list:
1. I always like the final painting/illustration size to coordinate with a standard frame size. iTeems like a no-brainer, but the dimensions of Arches watercolor blocks (which are a favorite of mine) are not the same as standard frame sizes. The blocks are meant to be masked to allow bleed areas and test areas on the same page. The 10 1/4 x 14 1/8 block paper looks crappy in an 11 x 14 frame. Mask it down to 9 x 12, 8 1/2 x 11 or even smaller. That way if you want to make prints of your artwork you’re not paying extra for cutting or passing the cost of a custom frame job onto your customers. Even an awesome print of an odd size painting can end up in the bottom of a stack of things to frame one day because the custom framing price is too much to spring for.
*For this project, using a standard size didn’t matter as much to me, as I was just planning to have a large-format canvas print made to use as a convention banner.
2. Always quench your paper before you start your project. (I don’t know if that’s the right word, but it’s what I call it.) Take the loose sheet of paper and brush lot of plain water over the whole thing. You can even use a spray bottle or a mister. Then hang it to dry with bulldog clips or lay flat to keep it smooth. Let it dry for a hour or so before starting to lay down your lines. Watercolor paper sits around on shelves and on display and can lose a shit load of it’s humidity. Something about quenching the paper before anything else lets you do your inking easier and keeps your colors more consistent on the page.
*For this project I used a big brush and some coffee grounds here and there to dirty up my paper. I always start with a little dirtiness to keep me from freaking out if I spill a drop or a loose speck gets on the page. If it’s already dirty, it’s much easier to just roll with it.
3. Label the back of your watercolor paper as BACK. Cant tell you how many times I’ve started inking on the wrong side because I’d flipped stuff a couple times on the lightbox. I label the back and establish my guidelines in light pencil for where I want to tape the paper to my vellum when I get to tracing and inking.
4. I like to have more than one lamp at my station. One on the left and one on the right. I hate trying to paint in the shadow of my hand, and for my technique I find it crucial to be able to see where I’ve laid water down before color.
5. Use a coffee mug or something else heavy for your water. Spilling and ruining your painting will wreck your day.
6. Keep your brushes and water clean and your palette dirty. I haven’t washed my palette in the 6 years I’ve had this one. Watercolors always reactivate with just a touch of water so rinsing it out is just a waste.
After I’m happy with my sketch I’ll use the pencil guidelines on the back of my paper and artist’s tape to adhere the vellum in place. Artist’s tape is great. It’s a little less sticky than masking tape and usually less acidic.
To ink this project I used Faber Castell Pitt pens. They’re more of a pigment liner than a regular pen. They come in multiple colors and in a variety of sizes.
I like to vary the line weight a lot in my projects. I grew up on comics and always drew with pen and ink. So a lot of my paintings use those same techniques. I’ll do a lot of textures with these pens before I even pick up a brush.
I tried to give the flight cap a distressed leather feel. I know that the final product won’t show most of the texture but it let me get a feel for the depth and where I wanted to put the wrinkles in the cap. At this stage I just did the outside perimeter lines in the hair. Later on I did the hair’s separation in yellow ochre and gold lines to give it that platinum blonde look. When I’m painting I like to try techniques that I usually avoid when I’m tattooing. You really cant get away with doing yellow lines in a tattoo and hope for longevity, but it’s great for something like this.
This is the final pen lined drawing plus some pencil lines to establish where the star frame goes. I didn’t want a heavy line on those. You can really see in this photo how dirty my paper was in the beginning. I think it would drive most people nuts but to me it’s kind of freeing.
The next step is to go into the painting with black ink. I like using Speedball super black ink. It’s consistent to work with and dilutes easily into washes. I like to approach illustrations like a chromo lithograph photo., by doing a fully rendered black and grey image first using permanent ink (watercolors wont bleed it) before overlaying color on top of it. Liquid acrylic black works too, but it’s a little glossy and has some plasticity to it, and some watercolors don’t saturate correctly on top of it. Ink is better if you’re going to lay color on top because it allows for more even saturation. If you’re going to add in black at the end liquid acrylic works well and looks super black. I use an old empty syringe dropper thingy to keep my washes consistent. I pre-mixed some dark, medium and light washes. If you look at the photo you can see my ratios.
The brushes I use are Raphael Kaerell. They’re a good intermediate synthetic haired brush. I like a good in-between that’s not too stiff and soft enough that it won’t damage the paper if I work an area a lot.
I keep my palette on the left. I’m right handed. I don’t want to bump the palette or the rinse cup with my arm or drip shit across the painting dipping in and out. I only use one brush at a time. The same one does water and paint. I also don’t “spitshade.” That’s where you use your mouth to rewet your brushes. I use Dr. Ph Martins Liquid Watercolors and a heap of them say how toxic they are on the side of the bottle. Years ago I used to spitshade all the time and would go to bed with the worst heartburn and stomachache all the time. It turned out all the paint was eating away my throat lining. So now I use a damp sponge or a paper towel to wick away excess moisture from my brushes.
Using one of my medium brushes I brush water onto the area I’m trying to paint. I stay within the lines and try not to wet more of an area than I can get to before the water dries. You can always re-wet an area, but there’s a certain sweet spot as the water is drying when you touch paint to it and it just floats on the water in a semi-perfect gradient. After wetting the area I pay attention to the light from my lamp and when the section looks damp, but not shiny like there’s still water on the spot, I dry my brush off on the paper towel and dip into my lightest wash. When I place my brush to the area I’m painting I always set it down on the spot that is supposed to be the darkest and feather out in semicircles to the lightest point. Then I rinse my brush out in the water. Dry it off and work in reverse. Quickly I go back to the lightest area with my damp brush and feather the edges smooth. I continue dipping in and out of the various washes to build up my contrast. I’m didn’t do any straight black at this point. In this instance I left that until after I finished the color so it didn’t get too dark.
Here’s what it looked like after I finished with the flight cap.
Next I did a little light gray shading on the cheeks and around the eye. This is where my reference really came in handy. I also did some hazy shading around the perimeter of the circle and star to add more depth.
After the black washes were dry I moved on to my Dr. Ph. Martin’s. This stuff comes in a wide range of colors and in transparent and concentrated varieties. The brown here is Van Dyke in transparent. The transparent colors are great because the black shows through even after I’ve overlaid the color, which adds value and gives it a much richer look.
Onto the skin tone. I used FWLiquid Acrylic’s Flesh Tint plus whatever else wa dry on my palette. Don’t ask me what it is. If you look close at the photo of my palette there’s a speck of a pink in the left hand corner that I was grateful for when doing the rouge on her cheeks. I use the liquid acrylic in areas that I wont be re-working the colors much. It’s rich, opaque and permanent. Not a paint for dilly-dallying.
At this point I did something I regretted. I used this transparent watercolor from Martin’s for the lips and diamond logo on her cap, which was fine, but using it in the big star was a bonehead move. The star was done in pencil, so there was absolutely no border between the two different colors. As soon as I moved onto the border of gold on the star the colors kept bleeding together. Live and learn. I also used that red Pitt pen to add texture to the lips and do the cap’s trim and stitches. I could have done it with a brush but I’m an illustrator not a purist. Whatever gets the job done. The red gradients were done by wetting the area next to the girl’s face except the tiny border of white I left. Then filled the corner of the star with color and blended it out to be smooth. Ish.
Next I moved on to Hydrus, which is a more pigment heavy watercolor made by Dr. Ph. Martin. It’s re-workable after it’s dried and will run if you get other colors on it. Hydrus is a lot more opaque and rich looking than watercolor which is important in the lighter tones. I used Yellow Ochre for the darkest areas of the hair. I was just trying to get some tones in there and planned on adding the structure later.
To help hide some of the leaky red I went into the gold color with a Prismacolor marker called Goldenrod and upped the value to a darker tone. I used the marker because I figured it would be less wet and give me better control.
For the goggles I watered down some Slate Blue from Martin’s and worked around the perimeter of the goggles to give them a see-through look. This is why using the Liquid Acrylic flesh tint was important. If I had done this section with watercolor it would have bled all over the skin tone and ruined it. Instead I was able to overlay the color with ease. I mixed the blue and the brown to up the contrast on her eye shadow. Then I mixed that blue with a little flesh tint to make a light blue for the pupil.
After everything was dry I ran through the whole thing with Copic Toner grey markers. There are various tones here—light, medium and dark. I use them where I need to up the contrast. In this case, mostly the eyes and goggles and some drop shadows here and there.
Next I used Pen white ink and a fine sable brush to go through the whole painting adding shiny stuff to it. Texture on the hat to give it that leather look. Glean on the metals. Wet lips and a twinkle in the eye. This stuff makes a huge difference.
Done and done. Real happy with how it came out. Hope ya dig it. Part 2 will be about the lettering