Making Of 'Mantis Queen'

The Mantis Queen came about through my desire to push the boundaries of abstract form within my work whilst maintaining what I deemed to be a coherent, clearly identifiable character silhouette.  For a while now I have been incorporating abstract patterns and shapes into my own work and I wanted to see how far I could push this.

I scoured the web and my personal archive for images to inspire me, something to act as a catalyst.  Quickly, I settled on the Praying Mantis as the basis for my subject.  The varied and exotic forms of this almost otherworldly insect made it ideal for the type of patterns and shapes I wished to use.

I used Photoshop CS3 from beginning to end, and I started with a series of basic thumbnails (Fig.01) to establish the kind of direction I wished to take the painting in.  


I used a limited palette, as at this stage as I had yet to establish the colour scheme.  Not worrying about the colour scheme allowed me to focus on the form of the character and overall composition.  I knew as the piece gained clarity in my mind that a colour scheme would become clear.  From the thumbnails I decided a blend of human and mantis characteristics was best.

Giving the character human characteristics would help to ground her in our world, making her easier to relate to and make those non-human elements all the more disturbing; thus giving the piece more impact.

With the thumbnails complete and general direction established, I moved onto the first stage of painting. I covered my canvas with a number of texture brushes, including a standard chalk brush to remove the dreaded white. There's nothing more intimidating than working on a blank canvas, and it also helps my initial colour choices as the bright white of a canvas can affect your perception of value, leading to a washed-out palette. Keeping with the large palette brush I sketched in the basic form on a new layer (Fig.02).


I quickly blocked in the darks to lights (Fig.03), giving the various features more volume.  At this stage I was not focusing on blending strokes; I was just putting marks down, keeping the piece developing quickly.  On a new layer I laid out a few shaped brushes that I felt were sympathetic to the forms I observed on my Praying Mantis ref.  The inclusion of these shapes helped to start the painting down the road I intended, and it prevented me from inadvertently creating too literal a representation of the shapes I'd interpreted from my reference.


Through studying my Praying Mantis reference I was struck by the delicate frills which adorn the body. Images of the fashions established during the era of English Queen, Elizabeth 1st, were conjured up in my mind.  I knew I wanted the character to appear quite regal and so I decided to tap into this idea.

By taking these design cues I wanted to blur the line between the Queen and her costume, so they became an extension of one another; creating a state where the viewer wouldn't be sure how much of the regalia was costume and how much was the character herself.

The painting shifted course slightly to accommodate the blending of these new concepts. The colour scheme also had to become much clearer in my mind.  I chose to use reds and creams which I felt were befitting on the royal status of this emerging Queen.  I used a brush set to overlay to wash some more reds into the painting.

I quickly painted a Praying Mantis onto the Queen's hand (Fig.04).  I felt this would add a little more story to the image and would also act as a marker for the source of inspiration for the character.  The cannibalistic tendencies of the female Praying Mantis towards the male during mating are well documented.  I ensured the mantis on her hand was male by adding 8 thorax segments, as opposed to the 6 or 7 seen in females.  This is a small detail I discovered during the research phase. So the male tentatively sits on her hand - is he her pet or a light snack?  It's up to the viewer!


I played about with using several different species of Mantis for the Queen's companion to make sure I had the most suitable (Fig.05). At the same time I continued to refine elements such as the hand using a round blending brush; the colour palette began to mature and I continued with the inclusion of my patterned brushes.  I chose to keep the face simple so as to act as an oasis in all the detail and naturally draw the viewer's eye to this location.


I kept the pattern work on several normal layers so as not to damage any of the elements in the process of painting.  Through the laying down of these shapes I started to see larger shapes appear in the myriad of patterns.  I always try and keep the number of layers to a minimum, flattening them down when I'm confident.  Here I flattened several of the pattern layers against the base character layer.

I used a brush set to colour dodge to pick out the patterns I liked, and used the colour burn tools to push back those features which I didn't.  The painting could have all too easily become very chaotic, so it was important to pick out the shapes which really worked and lose those that didn't.  It's all about studying the shapes within the shapes and not allowing your preconceptions of what you think the image is going to be obscure the possibilities that the mark making process can create.

At this point I stepped away from the painting for a while.  It was important to allow the painting to settle and to go back to it with fresh eyes.  When I do this, the first thing that strikes me is how the colours of the Mantis Queen are competing with the background.  I focused so much on the character and shape picking that I had ignored the colour balance issues.

Taking a break allowed me to identify this.  I hue-shifted the background to lift the Queen up off the page.  I chose a warm blue which I felt complimented the reds and creams of the Queen (Fig.06).


At this stage I settled on the form of the Queen's little companion.  The Queen is so exotic that I didn't want the little Praying Mantis to draw too much attention away from her.  I chose the archetypal Praying Mantis form and used the more natural green pigmentation to set him apart from the Queen.

We're on the home run now!  Using a soft round brush set to overlay I saturated the reds of the Queen a little more to make her more 'punchy'.  I created several soft light layers over the Queen. On these I focused on adding detail to the face using speckled brushes to give the impression of skin pores and variation in pigmentation where blood vessels may run closer to the skin. It was a subtle change, but one that stopped the character looking too waxy (Fig.07). 


I flattened the image and duplicated it.  On this new layer I applied a slight Gaussian Blur to soften the detail.  Using a soft-edged eraser I then cut back through to the original image underneath around focal points such as the face.  Softening some of the details in the periphery brings the viewer's attention right into the centre and holds it there with the glare of the beautiful, yet creepy, Mantis Queen of the Insect Dynasty (Fig.08)!


Custom Brushes

In total I used approximately half a dozen patterned brushes.  These ranged from simple triangles to ornate swirls inspired from tribal patterns.  All these brushes were hand drawn as simple greyscale images in Photoshop which I then defined as a brush preset.  In these presets I look at factors such as shape dynamics and scattering and I experiment with these until I have a brush which I feel creates an interesting mark that I can use.
It's all about playing around and having fun; tweaking until you get the look you're searching for.  It takes a bit of time, but it's worth the investment!  Where viable I wanted my tools to be as unique as possible.  My own mark making skills helped my brushes make signature marks unique to me (Fig.09).


There's a lot of trial and error involved; I've spent many an hour on brushes which I've then used once or twice and then thrown away, but that's part of the process of finding what's right for you.  Once you have the brush, you need to find out how to use that brush appropriately, understand how it works; is it a brush suitable for architecture for example?  Or better suited for foliage?  It's not enough to have a huge list of brushes and not know how best to apply each of them.  It's a constant leaning process.  I am forever adding to and deleting from my brush set.  Making your own brushes shouldn't be intimidating, it's just about getting in there, mucking around and experimenting!

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