Sunday, May 21, 2006

Fables 52 - Pinocchio

For the 52nd cover to Fables, I was told to depict a conflicted Pinocchio and Gepetto in a forest. Also, there was going to be a backup story featuring Rapunzel and one of the Crow brothers, so I was asked to incoporate that somehow into the image. Unfortunately, Vertigo didn't send me a script to read for this issue, but I tried to expand upon the concise information I was given.

> graphite on bond, 5.5 x 8.5" NFS.

My first sketch depicted father and son gathering wood while Rapunzel's hair cascades down the background. I liked this sketch, so I was disappointed to hear that Bill Willingham envisioned something quite different and wanted to feature Pinocchio more prominently. My natural inclination was to avoid melodrama and focus on the interaction between characters -- the feeling and composition created by the position of limbs, the direction of a gaze. In this case, the drama of the piece is diminished by its indirectness, ie the way the gaze is pointed into the picture plane rather than outward, the characters gathering/chopping wood rather than expressing explicit emotion, and the surreality of the hair.

> graphite on bond, 5.5 x 8.5" SOLD

The second sketch was far more direct, but unfortunately it didn't leave room conceptually and compositionally for Rapunzel's hair, which was something I hated to lose in the first sketch. But it was approved, and I blew up the sketch by printing it onto 4 letter size sheets, measuring 14 x 21".

> acrylic on grey Rives BFK, 15 x 22" NFS

I transferred the drawing onto a sheet of paper, drew the figure in blue pencil, fixed and coated the drawing with acrylic gloss medium, and proceeded to paint. At this point, I had figured out that I would incoporate the Rapunzel element in the logo and decided to paint it in rather than make another drawing and paste it in Photoshop. The colors were mostly ivory black, white liquitex gesso, and titanium white. I wish I had used some reference for the wrinkles in the clothing, but I was pressed for time, and finished the painting in a day.

> Photoshop, 7 x 10.5" @ 500dpi

After some quick color balance and level adjustments in Photoshop, I was done. I actually prefer the pre-manipulated version, but it wouldn't work very well in print. "Not enough contrast," as the cover police at Vertigo would say.

> Close-up on Pinocchio's face.

There's not much paint on the face, and a fair bit of the paper (coated with some transparent ochre for texture) shows through. Actually, this could act as an underpainting for a much more rendered and fully realized painting. I've always liked the directness and simple means of underpaintings, (Mark Tansey's work comes to mind), and sometimes the beginnings of paintings are more fresh and full of life than the finished product.


Logan said...

You are one of the best teachers Ive had James haha. I can't tell you how informative these posts can really be. This one is chock full of goodness.

Who did you study painting with by the way? Was it primarily Steven Assael?

8:56 PM  
anonymous10101 said...

I very much admire the first comp and it is unfortunate that it was not picked up. Compositionally the hair is extremely dramatic and juxtaposes beautifully with the crowdedness of the internal scene. Realized to a finished piece, I can imagine the depth and allure that this scence could evoke. Your compositions echo the maturity and yet playfulness I admire in N.C. Wyeth.

9:59 PM  
Felicity said...

Hi, I've been reading your blog and admiring your work for a while now, just wanted to say I hope you don't mind if I link you (not sure whether to tell you or not!) Your art is incredible, the finished work is amazing but I love to see your initial drawings, they have such energy.

11:51 PM  
Fairul Nizam said...

the first sketch is definitely better. :).

12:21 AM  
Tony Akins said...

I'm agree that the initial drawing (concept) is better.
Vertigo has Cover Police?! With this oppression NEVER end? The folds in the finished peice don't seem so bad, maybe on Gepeto's clothing it seems just a tad ambiguous (?)...but you're hearing from Mr. Ambiguous Folds.
Stellar performance, as usual, James. Thank you!

1:23 AM  
Jed said...

The first sketch is definitely superior. That head is just beautifully drawn; it's so expressive, cocked at that perfect little angle. I always like oblique views of faces like this when their pulled off well, where you can't quite read the expression. Since we're not quite looking at just the back of his head, we're drawn to that face, but at the same time, his expression is a complete mystery. Also , that big mass of hair that he's enveloped in just rocks.

There's a Keane Kid aspect to the face in the second one, but that's not quite a criticism--it's kind of appropriate. I read that first Fables collection, and as I recall, Pinochio was really pissed off at the blue fairy for making him a permanant little boy. So I like the idea that he has this permanantly beautific face, with this surly and kind of pissed off personality underneath.

Have you ever read the original pinocchio by Collodi? Pinocchio's a a real little bastard in the original. A real aggressive and destructive prick.

Also in the second sketch, and in the finish, the two figures look just a little less like they're engaged with oneanother, af if they just happened to turn up in the same place.

I tend to agree with the contrast thing, but that's personal taste. I find the first one a little murky. Wonder if this reads better in person, rather than in print or on the web, and I'm just missing something?

As for reference on the wrinkles: you gotta be kidding me. It looks flawless to me. But you're so awesome at cloth--I'm totally jealous of your satin.

I think your repunzel sollution was an inventive but unfortunate compromise, but it works, even though I miss that big mass of hair in the earlier sketch. At the same time, little graphic touches like this really make the image as a design more coherant. You're always so conscious about marrying the typography to the image, rather than just plopping it on their without a thought and after the fact.

Ultimately this isn't just a pretty picture but an illumination of a larger narrative, and there's a real sense of continuity with the Fables covers. This isn't just one more picture of batman kicking somebody's ass, but, without having read any further than that first collection, from your covers I get a real sense of this world that Willingham has generated with his collaborators, your own contribution no small part of that.

2:03 AM  
Fabio Moon said...

I like the first sketch a lot more as well, for the characters seem to have more dramatic poses, but I think the solution for Rapunzel's hair on the final version was brilliant, and much more delicate.
If you stop by in SP to visit the Lobo offices, stop by to talk with a guy called Grampa. You would most definetly like his work. He likes your a lot.

6:13 AM  
Anonymous said...

You know, I actually like both sketches. The first one is great in that it captures Pinocchio's desire for Gepetto's attention and approval. The second one seems to express Pinocchio being a little further down the road to disappointment, disenchantment...and a feeling of being lost. Likewise, I like both color schemes as well. The original painting has a much stronger sense of doom and gloom, which is certainly appropriate to the Homelands, and perhaps to Pinocchio's own conflicted feelings of his relationship with his father. The second has a very ominous feeling that reminds me of very early morning right before sunrise...and still has that sense of "something wicked this way comes". As for Rapunzel, I really love the way you incorporated her into the logo design on the final version. Your sense of design is always effective, appropriate and eye-catching without ever overpowering the actual artwork, and this is another fantastic example of that. One of my favorite Fables covers over the past year...and I'm thrilled that you've been painting again. :-)


8:34 AM  
M said...

I can't explain the joy I feel whenever I see one of your pictures. Truly it stirs some deep pits in my heart.

If you could have a more in-depth process explanation of your acrylic technique, that would be great.

9:08 AM  
Frank said...

I really wish they would have chosen the first sketch, I like it a lot better than the final version.

this art thing seems to really be working out for you.

10:16 AM  
michael said...

whether or not the first is better then the second sketch. They both are great and your work is inspiring. Thanks for the insight into your how you approach your work. I like that even though you explain your process, I still do not fully realize your process. That's what makes it yours. There is technique and then there is how you use that technique. Great work. Thanks for letting me see. Also, it is nice to see that even you have to deal with the police sometimes. good luck


11:01 AM  
Eli said...

I see what you mean with the folds but they work with the style of the piece. Time does often hinder the ablity to create reality. I too love the freshness of the underpainting. Often times I love the colour studies of Burt Silverman and Dean Cornwell even more than the final pieces. In the close up shot I love the hint of reflective light on the nose and cheeks. Even though the first illustration is more dramatic with the perspective you did a wonderful job of compromising. It seems like the art direction went in reverse to what the natural progression of storytelling would be by going with the straight forword perspective. Bad call on their part.

The work you put into your blog serves as great referrence and has been most helpful in so many ways. We often see the final products of great illustrators but never the process and you blog is a comprehensive tool for those of us that need to learn more about the craft as well as those who just enjoy learning. one more thing about the folds though, you can always refer to Albert Dorne for great fold theory when your in a time crunch. Thank you again for your instruction and beautiful work.

12:25 PM  
Lee-Roy said...

I really like your original concept for rapunzel's hair. Thanks for the notes on process.

12:27 PM  
ANIMIKE said...

How long does this entire process take you? I guess just the second sketch. I am floored by every piece you do and by the speed and quality to which you do them.

12:29 PM said...

Thank you for explaining your process.
It was very insightful and makes me want to pick up the next fables issue.

Since you're painting on top of your line drawing (it's on paper right?), do you mount it on board before painting so it won't buckle as you paint?

Beautiful work, and I also really liked the hair in the first one. It looks like a tree at first glance, and imagining it turn from tree to hair sounds like a great idea.


12:33 PM  
Anonymous said...

James Jean-ius

4:44 PM  
Anonymous said...

I truly admire and inspire your work. It's the first time I've seen someone be successful with the sort of thing that I'm drawn to. Whatever I'm trying to say -- I absolutely love it. I love the process, I love the ending, I just love it all.

5:13 PM  
Shawn Escott said...

Very powerful painting. I feel the fables logo is a little weak though. Nevertheless, that face is outstanding!! The underpainting really makes the image have depth.

10:14 AM  
Anonymous said...

GR- From an artistic point of view the first scetch is much deeper asthetically and conceptually. However, an illustrators' job is not only to make a pretty pictures but also to create visual support for the text (especially a cover artist). If this is not achieved and the image does nothing to help the story the artist fails as an illustrator, but not nessesarily as an artist. I wouldn't bash the editors for rejecting the first scetch just becouse they didn't think that it would not fit the story. Of course JJ already knows this. The problem was that he had no idea what the story was. Great concept regardless!

11:37 AM  
Process Recess said...

logan - I definitely had some great teachers at SVA, but most of my process has come from experimentation and self-learning. I learned oil painting from Steve Assael and Max Ginsburg.

anon101 - Yeah, NC Wyeth is the reason why so many of us fall in love with illustration in the first place

felicity - thanks for the support!

fairul - I might turn that first sketch into a personal piece down the line.

tony - I picked up the term, 'cover police' from Shelly :)

jed - thanks, there's a bit of myself in Pinocchio I think. Buckingham draws him closer to the original 'bastard' version, and I tend to soften things and make people look pretty while doing terrible things.

fabio - thanks! I love your drawings and inks. Looks like I won't make it to South America this summer like I had wanted, unfortunately, but SP is definitely on my agenda.

court - I do like both sketches, even though the first one didn't work out, I still enjoyed the simplicity of painting a straight portrait and exploiting the expression on Pinnochio's face.

m - I might post a step by step soon

frank - thanks, it was fun coloring your drawings

michael - the best pictures happen, I find, when there's significant risk involved, if things are going too swimmingly, then something is off.

eli - thanks, it's great to hear that people are getting something out of the blog. Sometimes the story behind the picture is more interesting than the picture itself. I love Dean Corwell's studies for his paintings, he had a great grasp of 'fold theory' as well.

lee-roy - thanks!

animike - making the sketches took about half a day, actual painting time was 1 day, and photoshop was 1 hour. But from the time I got the assignment to when I submitted it for approval was a couple of weeks. - the paper is heavy and made to be soaked in water, so it doesn't buckle, but I have mounted it on board in the past, and it works great that way as well.

anon - please take a look at

anon - I love the love!

shawn - yeah, the logo is not the strongest. Lately it's been getting in the way. I hope to eventually whittle it down to just an "f" like tried doing for Fables 25.

anon - good points, it is much more difficult sometimes when you don't have enough parameters or information behind the assignment. limitations can be liberating. But i've enjoyed assignments where I've been given one line and enjoyed the freedom to do whatever I wanted. Fables is unique in that you must be faithful to the characters and the story, there is history there, and if you're doing an image without the story, you must predict in a way what will happen and anticipate the images that can come down the line.

11:56 PM  
Scott Wright said...


11:37 AM  
Anonymous said...

hi james,

do you use any reference for the poses of your figures or is the human anatomy ingrained in your memory? i always struggle at the beggining of a project when i want to match an idea for a pose with a plausible representation of it. i often look at paintings or old life drawings or books, but the material isn't always there, am i just out of practice?


8:36 AM  
Shawn Escott said...

Hey James, are you going to enter this: , You should, I bet you have a great chance of winning it. Deadline in Sept.

7:14 PM  
Erica said...

I was wondering the same thing as Anonymous above; do you use reference images? I kind of assumed you've drawn the human form so often that you can imagine it from any angle/perspective.

8:45 PM  
Process Recess said...

anon - in this case, I didn't use reference for the bodies, but I used a portrait of a child for the face. I started out in school shooting plenty of reference for poses, so it really does take some practice to invent poses from imagination.

shawn - thanks for the link. That's a great site for reference by the way, but I'm not really into the contemporary work.

erica - i always conduct research before starting a piece, but I've always been able to draw out of my head at a certain level. Years of figure drawing really helped as well.

11:58 PM  
boredomsketch said...

Very interesting! although i can´t yet understand the last one. My favoritr are the 7seas and the castles. Your type choice works well with the illustrations. i guess that line work on the top in the first illustration makes irt a little appart from the rest although the type and the dog gives them that similarity.
One question for you, how do you digitalize your paintings? because it seems to be to big to scan on a a4 scanner... :)

But fantastic stuff as allways :D

5:12 PM  
John said...

Rule of thirds, James...

10:46 AM  
Anonymous said...


11:21 PM  

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