Year of the Snake

2013: Year of the Snake

The Chinese New Year, or Lunar New Year, begins on February 1oth 2013 and will continue until January 30th 2014. This follows the Year of the (Black) Dragon in 2012, a year which was predicted to be unpredictable.

2013 is the Year of the Snake – or, more accurately, the Year of the Black Water Snake – a year to show caution, plan diligently, act responsibly, and work towards your greater goals.

The snake is the 6th of the 12 animal signs in the Chinese zodiac. Snakes are considered to be a good omen, and people born in the Year of the Snake are considered to bring good luck and prosperity to a household; it is said that having a snake in the house will never see you short of food on the table. Beware though – for all their financial thoughtfulness, careful planning, charm and intuition, snakes can also be somewhat devious, materialistic and greedy.

The snake mainly contains the fire element from the 5 elements (Metal, Wood, Water, Fire, Earth) in Chinese Astrology, and is therefore in the fire group. As 2013 is a water year and the snake is a fire element, it is possible that both good and bad fortune may be experienced – so, what else is new!

My illustration celebrating the New Year is a coiled snake symbol, created with an ink brush pen on Canson Pastel paper. This sketched design was scanned into Photoshop, where I used various layer styles to highlight the ink effects of the original sketch (areas of wetter, heavier ink coverage showed as a separate tone on the scan), and I also added additional textures to create the finished effect I desired.

Also included in this design were references to two of the lucky components for the snake: the colours of yellow and red, and the directions of southwest and northeast (as seen in the background texture patterns).

Illustrations from the vault

Have finally scanned copies of a few more of my now very old, hand drawn black & white illustrations, produced way back in 1992. These are two individual strip panels for stories featured in the UK science fiction and fantasy magazine Interzone. These illustrations were initially sketched on a light weight drawing paper, before being transferred onto cold press illustration board and inked using a variety of different sized rapidograph technical pens, and brushes.

At the top are illustrations for the Ken Wisman story ‘The Dumpster’ and below that are images for Cherry Wilder’s ‘Bird on a Time Branch.’ Both were stories I enjoyed reading (which is helpful!) and it was a pleasure to determine exactly how to arrange and present the major story elements.

Shaded Path, Nuriootpa

My adventure with oil pastels continues: this piece is my second large format oil pastel ‘painting’, and the first true landscape illustration that I’ve ever attempted. ‘Shaded Path, Nuriootpa’ is based on multiple photos taken around Nuriootpa, a town surrounded by vineyards and rolling hills, located in South Australia’s famous Barossa Valley.

The creative process

For this image I decided to record the creation process, by taking photos at significant points or after reasonable progress had been made. Tracking the evolution of an idea like this became an interesting process by itself, as it was now possible to go back and view previous incarnations and watch my ideas come to life as I made decisions and settled on style and detail across the image.

Step 1 shows the base sketch and initial colour blocking – my key focus here was to develop the concept to the point where I could see the balance of trees, sky and foreground and decide if I was happy with the overall direction as a complete image. My white areas on the trees indicate patches of bright light and this helped me to plan the application of colour with the pastels, a media that require a bit of careful thinking, otherwise it can be difficult to build light into dark – unlike my reverse process for digital creations. I was still to decide exactly what effect I wanted for the path surface and was also intending to place a few extra posts along the tree lines.

In Step 2 I began to work up detail in what I believed were the important parts of the image: the area around the end of the path, the hill line behind the vines and the front right tree trunk. I was now focusing on the texturing of the trunks – beginning to build up layered detail and discovering how to generate differing varieties, as was desired for the right side trees especially. Further work continued on the rear trees and I also began to detail the grasses that would eventually fill both sides – I was undecided on what I would fill the smaller area along the right edge with until after I had completed the small grass section shown here.

I was really happy with the progress of the elements at the back of the image, as shown in Step 3. By now I had added streaky clouds to the sky and had created a slight glow effect with my cloud forms rising off the hilltops, which added some contrast and a nice sense of depth. The remainder of the trees and grasses had been coloured and I was beginning to sort out my thoughts regarding the path and shadow construction.

Step 4 was all about the shadows. By now I had decided that the path would be a natural surface, featuring short to medium length grass around the outer area and worn grass with soil showing through the middle track. Again, I planned out the light and dark patterns as basic forms and proceeded to gradually build up these areas, using a wide range of colours to ensure that there was plenty of life within the shadows.

Step 5 shows the completed tree shadows and the final path shape. I was continually adjusting various small parts and details, particularly the brightly highlighted grass areas near the tree lines and I was also blurring some of the branch shadows that required little defined form. At this point I could finally see the overall image coming together and was pleased that my original thoughts regarding both the composition and the colour palette were bearing pleasing results.

The major element added for Step 6 was the tree canopies. Most of the forms for the small tree branches and leaves were no more than suggested shapes and I was a bit surprised to find that this part of the image was comparatively quite quick to finish – unlike the tree trunks or the foreground path, which were many, many hours of detailed work to complete. I continued to adjust some of the trunks, with a lot of attention on the shadowed trunk (third from the right) which I had basically left unfinished from early on as I wasn’t really sure on how to execute the final surface texture and look that this tree required.

Shaded Path, Nuriootpa

I finished off with minor adjustments and additions across the entire image and corrected a few mistakes that I felt required some attention. Estimated time for completion would be around 35 hours, which is longer than I would wish, but as part of a learning process isn’t too bad for this type of image. The final result captures the mood and quality of light I was wishing to reproduce and has given me some genuine confidence to tackle further projects with the oil pastels.

In The Garden


Titled ‘In The Garden’ this is a portrait of a friend, and is based on an old favourite photograph of hers. Finished artwork is slightly smaller than A2 size and was completed with oil pastels on Canson paper. This was my first large scale pastel piece and provided some unique challenges, particularly in attempting to create fine detail and make specific marks with the pastel sticks. This becomes increasingly difficult as the edge is lost on the sticks through heavy use as layers of colour and texture build up, and the colours also mix and muddy to some extent. I learned a lot right through from start to finish about the required technique and approach for me to use with pastels and have already gained a much better understanding of how to produce the artwork I wish to see in the future.

My pastel coloured adventure

I’ve always enjoyed drawing with charcoal and chalk, and appreciated the abstract nature that many of the created marks seemed to express. Compared to other similar types of projects, that I would complete with pencil or ink, charcoal offered an extra layer or unpredictability and some fantastic results would appear, completely unplanned on numerous occasions. The unavoidable negative impact from working with charcoal or chalk is that they can be very messy mediums, and not something highly advisable for my current work space. Nice carpet and many small and dusty particles aren’t really the best of friends!

So, I wanted something that would provide me with a similar feel of adventure, but not be as harmful to the indoors environment. I’d considered oil pastels many times before, but never actually purchased any to try for myself. Now was the time. I knew that I wanted to start with an impressionist, broken colour style (optical mixing) and see exactly how they worked, especially in comparison to the chalky variety, that offer enhanced mixing and shading capabilities. I had a few basic sketches and small ideas that were good to go for an introductory experiment, so chose this duck-like form to start things off:


I was immediately enjoying the softness and overall sensation of using the oil pastels with this particular technique of copious small strokes, and was keen to tackle something with a bit more complexity and requirement for increased precision. This is only an A5 piece and I was intrigued about how much detail was possible at a small scale with these pastels. Overlaying the colours would only yield certain results, so some planning was necessary and it seemed unlikely that true definition would be easily achievable.

As a keen motor racing fan, I turned to my bookshelf to locate an interesting subject. A classic shape with just enough small detail was what I was seeking and I didn’t hesitate to try the following angle of the classic 1972 Tyrrell-Ford with Jackie Stewart at the wheel.


This was a larger piece (although still smaller than A4) and was a much bigger challenge. As I’d expected the small details could only be suggested and if I was to produce any further illustrations requiring such precision, then I’d have to work at a much larger scale to balance the natural tendencies of the medium. I’m happy with the finished result and found it a small challenge to suggest detail and achieve colour depth and transition, whilst working within a limited available range.

I’d quickly learned some very valuable lessons and gained some solid knowledge about how to tackle illustrative ideas using the techniques I favoured. Time now to move on and produce a portrait for a project needing something with a bit of individuality and colourful life:


Say hello to Billie-Rose – the subject of a pop ballad in this the CD cover image. Capturing the accurate likeness of a real person isn’t always the easiest and with a fairly loose and free style the task becomes slightly more difficult. To bring forth the youthful energy and charm that Billie-Rose has I’ve used a wide range of colours across the face and mainly worked with very short strokes and marks to create the facial forms. This piece was actually a bit smaller than the Stewart Ford above, but the lack of required small detail meant that artwork scale wasn’t a major issue.

The oil pastels have such a wonderful texture that they really add great depth to an illustration and add something particularly ‘artistic’ without a serious amount of extra effort. There’s still plenty of further pastel types and techniques waiting for me and of course, I’ve already moved on to newer work at a larger scale – likely to be the subject of a new update here, sometime down the track.

Illustrations from the past

First up, let’s have us a blast from the past – these are so old they’re only in black & white!! From the early 90’s these were magazine illustrations for Interzone (UK) and Aurealis (Aus) science fiction magazines. The following two were strips for Don Webb’s story, “Not of this World”. All of these were completed on cold press illustration board with rapidograph technical pens.


Next up is an early favourite of mine for “Where The Cold Wind Blows” by James Milton. I’ve always been fascinated by dinosaurs an enjoyed having a story to illustrate that required not one, but three of them! Note that the background wallpaper pattern references Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit. Beatrix was a brilliant illustrator (covering many styles beyond the tales of Peter) and a wonderful story teller. Her body of work is very impressive and a helpful inspiration.


Finally, this piece was for a story titled “Next of Kin” – unfortunately I’ve not kept a record of the author’s name. Always enjoy drawing plants and natural settings and the idea here was to camouflage the main character amongst the jungle surroundings.


A few more old magazine illustrations to come in a future update. Looking at these again, I’m thinking that newer versions may well be likely future projects (colour included this time) – especially those dinosaurs!