Making Of 'Mr. Reaper'
"Mr. Reaper" was made with a single objective in mind: having fun! I looked for a subject that I could mix the universe of heroic fantasy with a humorous approach, and what could be a better subject than the personification of death itself - the Grim Reaper? Such a great character gives an artist a lot of possibilities!
I questioned myself on what the personification of death should look like. I decided he should definitely be very old - possibly the oldest of all creatures. He should also be wise and have a certain mysterious feeling associated with him. I tried to transmit these ideas by giving him an extremely long white beard and the body structure of an older man with bony fingers, narrow shoulders, a large belly, skinny legs and a bent posture, using his loyal scythe as a support. A long smoking pipe also helped to reinforce his wise/wizard look.
For such a surreal character I needed a surreal set. So, the Land of the Dead seemed like a nice environment for the Reaper; a place where souls roam within a putrid atmosphere, filled with mysterious rock formations - and a pinch of humour here and there.
In order to reinforce the character's mystery, I chose to place the main light source of the image behind the Reaper, who should have a very strong and recognisable silhouette against a bright, gigantic moon.
The composition was laid out following the rule of thirds (dividing the image horizontally and vertically in three thirds). I also brought one main diagonal into play, marked by the scythe, and the circle of the moon (Fig.01).
Knowing that the main focal points should be placed at the intersection of the thirds' lines, I tried to place the character's head in the top right intersection; however, I was sacrificing too much of the character's posture and ended up placing his head in the intersection area between the thirds' line and the moon's circle.
I laid out a quick sketch and started painting each element with a flat shade of grey (Fig.02). This allowed me to study the depth between the scene elements, and also the distribution of values in the image.
One trick to verify whether an image has got good contrast is to remove its saturation by turning the image into greyscale. So, starting the process by studying the lighting situation before colour, guarantees that the final image will have a nice contrast.
As mentioned, one of my main goals was to achieve a strong silhouette by placing the character against a bright background, trying to make my character recognisable by looking only at its contour. Whilst studying the contour I decided to go for a humorous aesthetic, based on the concepts: elongated, curvy and pointy (Fig.03).
With the lighting and silhouette taken care of, it was time to introduce some colour. To keep the image values, I started by painting on top of the greyscale image with a layer set to Colour blending mode. I also created a layer set to Multiply and another to Colour Dodge, which allowed me to use brighter (colour dodge) or darker (multiply) tones of the same colour by simply changing layer and keeping the same colour on the brush. This is a really quick process when making your first colour decisions (Fig.04).
During this process, I noticed that my character would be a lot stronger if he simply didn't have a face. If the Reaper symbolises death, then a complete void in the place of his face could be the perfect metaphor for the unknown behind death.
The chosen palette is mainly dominated by cold green tones, representing the mysterious and monochromatic Land of the Dead, which contrasts with some warm orange/yellow highlights that drag your attention to the character's face.
At this stage, you'll notice that if you reduce the size of, or squint at the image, the global feeling of the image is already there. In other words, if the image sucks at this stage then there is a high probability that it will suck in the end, too! From this point forward, the detailing starts and any structural changes in the future will be very painful. So, it's better not to let any major compositional changes go beyond this point. When the miniature of your image looks right, it's time to proceed.
I was looking for a rougher, hand-painted feeling and trying to avoid a very clean and smooth finish. It was important that there was some texture in the painting, and so to try and achieve that "painterly look", I created a set of ragged edge brushes (Fig.05) which I used to make the whole painting.
Blending can be a great time-saving tool, however, it also tends to blur and smudge the texture of the painting. In order to avoid that smearing effect I have created a really nice blender that leaves some texture on the painting. Not a lot of people know that if you create a brush in Photoshop with some sort of scattering, and use it as a smudge tool, then you get a really nice blending tool that will keep the texture of the brush you are using. In Fig.06 you can clearly see how the smudge tool blends the colours in an uneven way, achieving an interesting texture. As this brush leaves a sort of subtle noise, I decided to emphasise it by using a strong Unsharp Mask filter.
From this point on started the laborious yet fun process of detailing (Fig.07 & Fig.08).
I started with the main character, having spent a lot of time working on his cloak and its draping. I tried to keep the values really dark in the cloak area to maximise the silhouette effect I was trying to achieve (Fig.09). Then came the detailing of the environment, where I introduced some more of the elongated, curvy and pointed details on the dying trees, on the skull, on the rock formations and on the castle, to achieve a unified and coherent aesthetic (Fig.10).
At this time I thought that the painting was finished, so I decided to post it in 3DTotal's forum. I ended up receiving some really nice feedback that alerted me to the fact that the character's feet were looking awkward and badly aligned. It's always good to have an extra pair of eyes looking at our paintings!
I corrected the feet and added a few more humorous details that I had in mind, as some eye candy for the observing viewer (Fig.11), like the hanging doll, the laundry rope on the castle, or the vulture resting on the skull.
To finish up, I created a layer with a coloured noise and overlaid it lightly (5%) on top of the image. I hope you like the final result (Fig.12).
I would like to take this opportunity to thank the online community for sharing their tips and techniques; they have been truly inspiring and fundamental to my growth as an artist.
To see more by Jose Alves da Silva, check out Digital Art Masters: Volume 9 and ZBrush Character Sculpting