Illustrator Samuel Berry discusses ten unique narrative scenes and what he loves about them...
Today you're joining me as I go through some of my favorite illustrations. It's a pretty long trip, there's going to be some talk about theory and usage of medium. Probably some flat out gushing and a tiny bit of feelings. I hope you're ready.
1. Tegn: Daily Drawing 218, The Word by Even Amundsen
About two years ago, Even Amundsen decided to start doing a drawing a day for a year. Most of these drawings were accompanied by a short story blurb. Out of all of those drawings this one is one of my favorites. Uleg has come down with his flock to confer news to Birker the dwarf and Mikel the fox. The posture of each character in this scene tells you a great deal about them. Uleg stands tall and proud while the other owls are more sheepish, they're almost bowing as they surround the three central characters. Birker and Mikel are unfazed by Uleg's splendor, apparent by how they stand stall looking directly at him. The use of lighting and rim lighting is excellent. It allows Amundsen to make separate value groupings for each element of the scene. The line quality is also something worthy of noting, in particular how it varies in between the owls and Birke and Mikel.
All of these aspects come together to tell an emotive and compelling scene that's part of a grander story. It's so compelling that this drawing was one of my first thoughts when I started picking scenes for this article. It's very easy for me to imagine the light flickering through the leaves as the two have a conversation. The elegant line work will always pull at my heart strings. Especially when it reminds me of old fairy tale books I used to read as a kid.
The Word, by Even Amundsen
2. By Blood and Venom by Even Amundsen
Double entry for Even Amundsen! I saw it last minute before finishing this article and just had to include it. Again, it's accompanied by a story blurb. What really gets me about this one is the lighting (which is a common thing for Amundsen's work.) It is dramatic and gentle. The shadows caused by it serve to emphasize the figures against the background behind them while also being compositional tools to balance the image. It shines a light on the scene, makes it very clear who is meant to be the focus; the woman being bitten. Which brings me to another thing I loved; the selective rendering, particularly the left hand woman's face and arm. So many artists tend to render everything until they accidentally kill their painting, but this illustration is a very good example of how to only render the things you want your audience to see. And yes, I'm aware this is a sketch of sorts, but my point still stands. That figure in the back doesn't need to be as detailed and rendered as the others. It would add unnecessary complexity if she was.
It's a really good scene and I'm glad I caught it last minute to include in this article because it has so much intrigue and personality, both of which are mostly due to how Amundsen treats the lighting.
By Blood and Venom, by Even Amundsen
3. Celsius 13 - Crone Drawing Variation by Jan Weßbecher
This is a variation of another scene Weßbecher drew. I highly recommend you seek him and it out - It's worth it, you won't be disappointed. First, let's start with the lines. Of course I want to talk about the lines! There's a lot of variety of lines that contribute to the overall feel of this piece. Outlines are thicker, separating each silhouette very clearly along for a clearer message. Thinner lines are used to convey detail and volume, while hatching is reserved for dark colors and shadows. It's worth mentioning that the use of dark shapes in this scene also adds a graphical element to it. Each character has some dark shape, be it clothing or shadows or both which help you further distinguish them from each other. The composition is solid and the scene is well framed within the top and bottom bars. I'd even argue that the narrowness adds a sense of urgency to the scene.
Speaking of composition, let's talk about the biggest reason why I love this drawing so much: the figures on the sides. The two characters do so much for this illustration. They create a sense of inclusion. You get the feeling you are standing in the space in between them, or at least a bit behind them, which is further reinforced by the left hand figure turning her head. Sure she could be averting her eyes from the scene unfolding in front of us but I like to think she's looking back at someone. All this amplifies the intensity of emotion we're witnessing. The expression on the girl's face is so extreme it is almost terrifying, despite being barely visible. Her body language supports it all and launches that grief straight towards the compassionate but not so much looking woman in front of her. The ambiguity of the scene only adds to my appreciation for it. It's easily an illustration you can just sit and look at as it "unfolds” in front of you.
Crone Drawing Variation, by Jan Weßbecher
4. Colossal Dreadmaw by Jesper Ejsing
Magic: The Gathering
card art always makes for great narrative illustrations. Jesper Ejsing's work exemplifies this; it manages to create a beautifully dynamic scene with very little. First, let's talk about the color or the style of painting rather. It has the feeling akin to water color and colored pencil combined a style that's very prominent in Ejsing's work. It adds that fairy tale feeling that I can't help but love. Second, the composition frames the focus of the illustration perfectly. The cliffs, rocks and vegetation make a triangle that's tight around the dinosaur and frees up the ship. Third, said triangle guides your eye up to the dinosaur before you pay attention of what's happening on the ship (no peaking!). So once you've seen the impeding threat (the dinosaur) you are directed to the ship by its gaze, which is when you notice that someone is getting out of the crow's nest while his comrades have already jumped ship.
Ejsing managed to capture that split second just before the dinosaur decides to attack. The men jumping, the look in the dinosaur's eye and how the composition frames it so you keep visiting each element in a circular effect. The flow of the image is entrancing, and it creates an amazing sense of anticipation where you can imagine the dinosaur simply walking away just as easily as it attacking. It's a good story and it's only a split second.
Colossal Dreadmaw, by Jesper Ejsing
5. Vastaya by Joon Ahn
Joon Ahn's organic style is always a joy to look at. It looks like a mix of woodblock printing, water colors and paint. It gives this piece a fantastical and dream like quality. This piece is part of a bunch of other illustrations meant to introduce the audience to a new kind of people in a pre-existing lore; the "Vastaya,” an animal human hybrid-like race that live in magical forests (there's more but that's the gist of it) They're all very good, but this one is my favorite because every single thing about it contributes to telling us about these characters and their story. Let's start by the trees since they make up most of the illustration. To the men on the ground, the forest is a wall and they have no choice, but to march alongside it. But to the Vastaya the forest is their ally and it supports them, literally and figuratively.
The lighting also serves as a characterization tool. The light shines bright on the armored men marching along the forest while the Vastaya hide in the shadows looking down on them. This lighting implies a stark difference in their philosophies. The armored men probably prefer head to head combat while the Vastaya lean towards a stealthier approach. The character designs being important go without saying, but I would like to point out how different each Vastaya is from each other while the men on the ground are very homogeneous, demonstrating another difference in philosophy and personalities.
The symbolism in this illustration is what sells it so hard. Ahn did an amazing job of designing his scene to tell the story without having to rely on the characters. In doing so he managed to tell the story of not only a few characters but whole civilizations.
6. Tellurion 037 – 03 by Matt Rhodes
This is a package deal. Matt Rhodes has been telling a story using single images to create something akin to a digital picture book. This is one of his most recent illustrations related to that project. There are so many things to like about this one that I'm just going to go down the list. The color palette is on point; everything on the boat is tinted orange by the sun passing through the sails while everything off the boat is blue. But even then, the bloom from the sun makes the orange bleed through some of the sky to make sure it's all unified. Rhodes creates a scene with in a scene by using the man doing a push up to frame the men gutting a fish, which in turn guides you back to the main subject.
This, in turn, draws you to the mechanical character looking at him, which is also framed by the edges of the image and a rope. This also brings you back by looking at the guy doing push-ups and I have to point out how even the rock formation on the right hand side is framed by the rope and edge of the boat and it mirrors what is happening on the boat which leads you back to the boat and the main action (I also find that the rocks look like an elephant and I really like elephants).
With that done I can finally talk about how clean and crisp Rhodes' lines are. I love the quality they have to them. They've very clear while still being organic and contributing to a good flow. If you look at the arms in the foreground, you can feel the tension in his muscles and how they twist around his elbow. It's so satisfying to look at. It's such a great scene with a good balance of humor and intensity. I can't help but say it's probably one of my favorites of Rhodes'.
Tellurion 037 – 03, by Matt Rhodes
7. Café Rouge – Voyage by Nesskain
Another package deal! And I'm cheating with a two panel illustration! This is from a series of two panel illustrations that Nesskain made a while ago. They're some of my favorite works of his and I highly recommend seeking all of them out. They're heartwarming and infinitely charming. Nesskain's style certainly helps with that. It straddles the line of loose and controlled and the shapes he creates with in his colors and lighting are easy to get lost in. When it comes to this illustration (and the others like it) though, I find a lot of its charm comes from its use of dual panels.
So, again we're faced with "a scene within a scene” but this time it's the same moment, twice but different. The two panels alone are very good but put together they play off each other and become great. The first panel gives you distance. You get your framing, your composition, lighting and the setting. You're a stranger watching this couple on a train. But it's this very distance is what makes the intimacy of the second panel so strong. Like how hot water feels hotter when you're cold. The contrast in between the two creates a very powerful push and pull. Your curiosity is instantly resolved and you get the see the relationship in between these two characters. Their expressions feel so natural and believable that it's hard not to fall for them over and over.
Café Rouge – Voyage, by Nesskain
8. Fallen Logs by Theo Prins
Theo Prins is amazingly good at telling stories with landscapes. He manages to give an incredible amount of character to the environment he paints with minimal inclusion of actual characters. This particular illustration is here because I love the atmosphere he created simply from playing with the lighting and colors. Lights and shadows play off each other to reinforce how deep into the jungle we are. Prins' detailed middle ground creates an "out of focus” effect for objects that are in the foreground further adding to the heavy atmosphere. A simple color palette used in complex patterns emulates a variety of colors. The impressionistic style adds personality to the fallen logs and the vegetation surrounding them.
It's a classic explorer's tale, but it's told by environment rather than the characters in it. Your eye follows the vegetation and fallen logs, which imply a story and history of their own. Urging you to ask what happened. Sometimes you come across a scene where the story is just that though; nothing else. You'll probably never know what happened to the trees and that's ok because the story they have is the one they're pointing to.
Fallen Logs, by Theo Prins
9. Breathe by Victor Mosquera
And we're here now, in Victor Mosquere's surreal world. It straddles sci-fi and fantasy, taking elements from both that remind me a bit of Moebius. It is very much his own style of art and storytelling though. I could have picked a lot of his pieces but this one stood out in particular. Its color palette is very rich and unified while offering amazing contrast of colors. The central composition gives it a sense of grandeur and majesty while also luring you into its mystery by having the lone figure standing in front of the giant head. Let's not forget the glowing ball inside of it along with the gemstone-like cross sections floating about. All these things draw me in and keep me looking.
While I like this illustration a lot, I do find that it thrives in the context of Mosquera's work. There is an overarching theme to it all and a narrative that I believe mostly up to the audience to figure out. I'm a big fan of standalone pieces that prop each other up into a greater whole.
Breathe, by Victor Mosquera
10. Issunboshi Panel/Keyframe by Ryan Lang
This is a painting that Ryan Lang made for a demo about how to create key frame illustrations for animation. If you look him up you can find the break down that lead to this. I'm a sucker for when I can see the actual illustration's story as well. It definitely adds something to it for me. Unfortunately, I don't know much about the context of these characters or the Issunboshi world, but that fact doesn't keep me from appreciating this piece fully and inferring my own story into it. I see a scene with a dying man and his three sons and or disciples. Square shapes symbolize stability and along with the light passing through the door frame it leads me to believe that they are in fact the dying man's heirs, or at least meant to uphold something after his passing.
I'm going to take a bit of a personal turn here so bear with me. I read somewhere than an artist's job is to take the past and pass it on to the future through the present. Obviously, me being me, I adapted it to martial arts: a teacher's responsibility is to take the teachings of the past (my master) and pass them on to the future (my students) and I see this idea in this painting. The three kneeling men are the present, standing in between the past (the sick man) and the future (the nature outside). It's a lot of projection and symbolism on my part and honestly, it's largely why I decided to include it in this list. It makes me think.
So there you have it, ten scenes I love and why! As you can see, there are a lot of reasons why you can love a piece. Writing this list was pretty interesting. It allowed me to ask myself the things I expect out of my own work. Where my focus is and maybe where I should direct it more. I think I might start keeping a log of why I like people's work when I see it. I recommend you do the same, or at least make a list like this. You might be surprised by what you find out about yourself!
Issunboshi Panel/Keyframe, by Ryan Lang
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