Illustration Spotlight: The Ace of Spades (with process video!)
In addition to the usual words & pictures, I also filmed the creation of the Ace of Spades - check out the complete (if highly condensed) drawing and painting process for the card art below.
In other news: FIRST STRETCH GOAL UNLOCKED! Every copy of the deck will now be printed on casino-quality Bee stock. Thanks for helping get this project to the $40K mark! If you're as excited about this milestone as I am, consider taking a few seconds to share the Wicked Kingdom project on Facebook and/or yell about it as loud as you can from an upstairs window.
The Ace of Spades concept was one of the first that sprang to mind when I was brainstorming the aces. I wanted to create a skull sprouting leaves to become the core of a cabbage - an inspiration drawn from the backstory for the King of Spades: "...the cabbages that grow in unusual abundance from those dark plots of earth sometimes have the faces of men..."
I trace my thumbnail on Bristol, using a red Col-Erase pencil and a lightbox. With the rough layout transferred, I start fleshing out the image - still working in Col-Erase, which gives me a bit more flexibility to rework and erase than graphite. Because I want the ace to recall aspects of the entire Spades suit, I add some of the nightshade flowers from the Queen, and the twigs and grasses from the Jack.
With the rough sketch finished, it's finally time to begin the pencil drawing. I use mechanical pencils, and work directly on top of the Col-Erase sketch. While some of the red lines will show through in the final drawing, I actually don't mind the effect; they add some depth to the image, and hint at the underlying structure and gesture of the drawing.
I scan my finished drawing and print it out at reduced opacity on a sheet of tinted Canson pastel paper. To prepare the print for water media, I soak the paper and wet-stretch it to a sheet of Gatorfoam using gummed paper tape, then allow it to dry thoroughly before inking the drawing using a mix of brown and black acrylic ink. I'm aiming for a mix of subtle, washy areas and crisp lineart.
Some of the work at this stage will eventually end up buried under layers of white charcoal and oil paint, but enough of it will end up showing through that I still try to nail down the fine details and value structure I established in the pencil drawing.
I finish with an all-over wash of green watercolor to counteract the warm gray of the paper before moving on to the white charcoal stage.
For the final stage of the underpainting (underdrawing?) I switch to white charcoal pencils to build a sense of lighting and dimensionality, and pick out the details that were too fine or pale for me to achieve in ink. For how little white charcoal I'm actually applying at this stage, it lends a great deal of finish to the piece.
This is the point where the image starts to come to life; due to the nature of the white charcoal, small divergences from the original pencil drawing happen almost on their own and add complexity to the image (a few barely-intentional pencil strokes, for example, formed the beginning of the leafy textures in the skull). I try to build on these variations to stregthen the image whenever I can.
To prevent smudging, I apply three coats of diluted matte medium with a spray bottle. Three more coats brushed on at full strength protect the paper from subsequent layers of oil paint.
I mix a reddish-purple hue in oils, and thin it to an easily-workable consistency with walnut oil. Using a large flat brush, I dab the mixture into all but the lightest areas of the piece and blend with a paper towel for a thin, even layer.
I use kneaded erasers (a handy tool at every stage of the process) to clean up the edges of the piece and pick the wet oil paint out of the highlights.
With a small round brush, I fill in the deepest values and deepen the major outlines and key details like the crow feathers and the eye sockets of the skull. The end result is a mostly-monochromatic underpainting; the ink and white charcoal layers shine through in the lightest areas, and fade back where the oil paint is applied thickly. I let this layer dry completely before going any further.
The main glaze is a bright yellow-green, mixed with walnut oil until it's very thin and transparent. Applying this glaze over the natural variations of the underpainting and the purple tone of the oil base tone yields an extremely clear, saturated color over the lighter areas, and a more subtle, deadened shade over the darks.
My final glaze is a deep bluish-purple, applied sparingly and blended well. I use kneaded erasers again to pick up the wet paint, revealing the warmer hue of the underpainting below to simulate the slightly iridescent look of crow feathers.
While the glazes are still wet, I paint in opaque white highlights and details, blending most of the marks with a clean brush so they aren't too garish. I leave just a few important highlights sharp-edged so they'll really stand out.
Some very soft, diffuse highlights blended into the blue glaze of the crow's feathers, and the painting is done!