Painting from your Imagination

For this tutorial, I won't be discussing any painting techniques or Photoshop tips as these are already covered in depth throughout my existing tutorials and DVDs. The point behind this tutorial is to share some of the creative thinking behind my painting and to offer some practical steps on turning your ideas into a full painting...without relying on references.
I had been planning to paint a picture for some friends of mine who have supported me since I first started painting. It was important that it should have some depth and artistic merit. I wanted a painting that would make people think.

I started thinking up some ideas and making notes, but none really stood out. I decided to put it to one side for the next few days and see if anything inspired me. A week later my friend and I were discussing our visions of the afterlife and how heaven and hell were portrayed in movies and literature. During this discussion, he told me about a passage in the Bible known as "The Rich Man and Lazarus" (Luke 16:19-31) where hell and heaven are separated by a chasm. I began to envision how this might look. Questions started flooding my mind...

What if I was in heaven and my loved ones were in hell? What if I could see them on the other side of the chasm...would I be willing to sacrifice my position in heaven to be with them? Heaven would surely feel like a dark and sad place if I was alone there, knowing that my family and friends were suffering in hell.

Then I remembered the painting I planned for my friends and the my idea started to take form. It had so many levels and so many ways of being interpreted. It challenges the notion of heaven and raises lots of questions about love, human nature and was exactly what I was looking for...
The Idea


After coming up with my idea I closed my eyes and took some time to envision it in my mind. From here I decided on a brainstorming session where I made a very crude sketch and scribbled down all the characteristics I wanted to feature in the painting. Aside from the obvious features and colour choices, I got the idea to make hell appear jagged and sharp in contrast to heaven's smooth and rounded appearance. This is a traditional art technique known as "form language" where shapes are used to create moods and to represent certain characteristics.

I also decided to give the female wings and make her appear as an angel - widely recognised symbolism that would tell the viewer that he/she is looking at heaven and hell. I then decided her wings should be on fire, indicating that she can no longer return to heaven and that she has made the ultimate sacrifice for her lover. However, some people may view this as punishment for her defection - a statement about God's spite and intolerance. I felt that such touches worked well because they were open to interpretation and appealed to religious and non-religious people.

My original intention was for it to be viewed as a romantic gesture, but I realised it could also be interpreted as something much darker, that the male figure could in fact be a demon, deceiving the angel and luring her into hell. It would also raise questions about why her lover is in hell in the first place. With a painting that is so clearly about two extremes, I liked the idea of separating the optimistic viewer from the pessimistic viewer, the believer from the atheist and so on. I knew then that it was important to keep the symbolism subtle and not to spell anything out to the viewer.
My idea had complexity and worked on many levels, but they didn't all come at once. Big ideas never do! Some of the meanings developed from my brainstorming session, while others were pure coincidence.

The key was to find my starting point and to build on a basic theme. One idea inspired another as I gained momentum and the concept started developing into something more detailed and deep.

The sketching process helped me to figure my layout and give me some idea where all my elements would fit. No need to work in any detail at this point because I knew things would be changing a lot throughout the course of the painting.

My next step was to start thinking about colours and tones, and a more structured layout. This I would achieve via a series of thumbnails... 

One of my biggest problems as an artist is that I get too caught up in details. As a result I fail to see the big picture. If you look at most of my paintings you will see it for yourself...the texturing and details are highly intricate, but my shapes and forms are often quite basic.

For a painting like this I needed to take an impressionist approach. One way of doing this was to work on a small small that it would be impossible for me to get lost in details. This would force me to focus on form, colour and tone only.

Working at a size of 400x300 pixels, I began blocking in the main features of the painting - hell, heaven and the chasm between.

Next I started adding some form, including the jagged rocks and peaks. I also added in a firey sky.

I could go from here to adding in some more features. At such a reduced scale I was still working with an impression rather than intricate details and it was allowing me to see the full picture, as if from a distance.

However, as I continued to develop my thumbnails I felt as though I was straying from my vision. It was looking bright and colourful, almost cartoonlike, whereas I held a much more sombre picture in mind. I also felt like the tower and the bright lava stole too much attention, which would cause a big problem once my figures were painted into the scene.

Luckily, a thumbnail doesn't take long to paint so it's not so hard to scrap it and go back to the drawing board... which is exactly what I did.
second attempt

I began working exactly as I had done with the previous thumbnail, creating an impressionistic view of the scene. This time I decided to keep things subtle, less saturated and less sharp.

I blocked in the jagged peaks of hell and then sharpened them up with finer strokes and hints of backlighting. I also added some sillhouettes of sharp peaks fading into the misty chasm.

There was still a lot to add, but I was a lot happier with this  attempt. Although it appeared less eye catching than my previous effort, the mood was exactly as I wanted it. It appeared more lonely and isolated and the background was subtle and wouldn't steal attention from the characters.

I still had the choice of adding in lava and a tower, trees and other such features, but this could wait.
My next step was to resize the thumbnail to my working size. In this case I chose to work at 2500x1500 at a resolution of 300. Ideally I would have worked much larger, but my CPU isn't fit to handle many layers at large screen sizes so I had to work within my means.

At this stage I simply needed to add in some of the details and texture. I began adding in some rock formations, sharpening the peaks and painting in some other spikes. I also added a trickle of lava. Most of the colours and tones I was using were already established during the thumbnail, so I picked most of my colours directly from the image with the eyedropper tool.
Here you can see exactly what I was talking about earlier. This is a typical example of me getting caught up with details. Although I liked the rugged and jagged rocks, it was looking way too detailed, too sharp and was beginning to look quite cartoony again. I realised that I would have to remove a lot of the detail if I hoped to make this work.

There were a couple of things I did like, however, such as the foreground spikes. I felt that they added some depth and perspective to the image. I also liked the faint formation of a tower and indistinct silhouettes in the background. They worked because they were subtle and not too detailed. I reminded myself to leave them that way.
I softened a lot of the sharp edges and fine details and overpainted some mist to give it a much softer and more atmospheric appearance. I also added some more subtle details, like bandages around the foreground spikes, some crosses, stakes and wisps. I started to add in some environmental colour too, which helped the landscape appear more natural. 

I then made some colour adjustments, strengthened the lighting and began adding in some grass, flowers and foreground trees to heaven's side. I decided to paint in some streams and waterfalls, and thought a faint rainbow at the bottom would make a nice touch.

The more time I spent with the painting, the more ideas sprang to mind. I could now see my vision taking form and could see what worked and what didn't, and then make changes accordingly.
Sketching the Figures

With the landscape taking form it was now time to look at my figures. I used a photo of my friends to reference the faces and their shoulders in order to capture their likeness and their general proportion to each other. I then started re-sketching them into into different poses and positions. It was difficult working without references here, but I had the shoulders and heads as a proportion guide. At times the legs were too long, arms too thick, but it was just a matter of erasing and re-sketching until it clicked.

I originally sketched the male figure with a suit and glasses, which is how he appeared in his photo. This just wouldn't work however. For the angel (and the viewer) to feel sympathy for him, he had to look poor and dejected, so I decided to remove his glasses and the top half of his clothes and put him in torn and tattered rags.

I considered giving him some devil horns and devil wings, but as soon as I sketched them I felt they were too cliched and just not subtle enough. It would also make him appear evil and make it more difficult for the viewer to see the romantic interpretation of the painting.
Positioning the Figures

This might seem like common sense, but where you place key elements within a scene can have a major impact on the entire image.  Of course, the figures needed to be on the left side of the painting, but I also needed to consider their size. First of all, I wanted to make sure they didn't cover too many important features, and secondly, I wanted them to appear quite small in order to emphasise the grand scale of their surrounding environment.

Another thing I considered here was "the rule of thirds" which is a compositional rule used by many artists and photographers to add mood and drama to their work. After dividing the screen into nine equal pieces, I positioned my figures on the lower left intersection. While I don't believe this rule applies to all compositions, it seemed to work effectively here and really served my purposes. Positioning the figures here opens up the right side of the screen and leaves heaven looking empty and lonely. What's more, it allows the viewer to see the chasm and into distance, creating a sense of perspective.

With the figures in place, it was now time to start adding in the finer details and textures and generally bring everything together.

I added some more features to the heaven side of the screen, with foreground trees, flowers and rocks, making sure it remained quite rounded and smooth.

One thing was bothering me at this point however. Although heaven, theoretically, should be brighter and more colourful than hell, it was causing too much contrast. As a result, it made the painting look like it had been split in two, which I felt was a bit too cliched. I really wanted the painting to look like a complete composition rather than two paintings tacked together.
I began desaturating the colours of heaven, the clouds and the background to help blend the image together as a whole. I also wanted heaven to appear somewhat dreary and for hell to seem more dominant as a result of the angel crossing over.

Once I found a better balance, I started adding in more details, including the face of the male figure, more detailed waterfalls and I had another go at some lava streams, which didn't turn out so great in my opinion.

I added some barbed wire to hell's side just to give it a more sinister mood.  I added some scuffs and marks to the skin of the angel and the male, and decided to add some tears to her clothes.

I made her intentions clear as she embraces and kisses her lover, but I wanted his pose to appear more reticent. I felt that it added some mystery and left room for interpretation
Final Stages
Leading up to the final stages I spent time finetuning and adding in small details and touches. I recoloured the background, darkened some areas and added some hints of blue to the left side of the screen. I removed most of the lava trails and added in some flying embers instead. As a final touch, I got the idea to paint a glow effect on the tips of the angels legs and wings, suggesting that her purity is fading away as she enters into hell.

This isn't my best piece of work in terms of technique, nor is it the most eye catching, but I'd like to believe that it raises questions and challenges the viewer to look beyond the surface and form their own interpretations.

In summary, the best advice I can offer is to start small and rough and take it one step at a time. Just like writing a story, you have to start with the basic elements - character, plot and setting - and the more time you spend creating these elements, the deeper and more developed they will become.

“And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.” (Luke 16:26).
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