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The making of ‘The Joker’

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Date Added: 6th September 2017
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Freelance illustrator Khasis Lieb shows us the step-by-step workflow he used to paint the comic book supervillain, The Joker...


As a caricature artist, I always use photo references to understand the volumes I want to "deform", and my main goal is to be able to relight the face I'm painting anyway I want, and for that you have to understand how the face is built. This time I painted from scratch, using no reference whatsoever to challenge myself.

In this project of painting a portrait of The Joker we will see many things. We will see how to construct a character pose and how to enhance some features while keeping realistic anatomy (even if the character seems deformed, it stays believable in its volumes). Then we will concentrate on lighting and coloring - how to choose light sources to describe volume and how to use light to enhance a feeling and create an atmosphere.

Step 1: Thumbnails and final sketch

To start an illustration when it's not a caricature, I always spend time making small thumbnails in my sketchbook to try several compositions.

I didn't make many sketches because I knew I wanted to make a portrait of The Joker looking at us, but I had yet to decide how much of his body we will see and how I would compose him in the page etc. I tried positioning him off center and I tried landscape, but I settled on the idea to stay classical. But it's important to try and see what really works.

So when I'm happy with a thumbnail, I develop it into a sketch. There's no formula for me about how I want it refined, it's just different every time. It depends if I have a clear idea in my head or if I just want to go with the flow. But most of the time I try to not "finish" it too much. If I put too much time in a sketch, it will be harder to get rid of parts afterward.

The final sketch. I choose to start painting from this step.

Step 2: Intentions

Now it's time to start painting. I create a new layer underneath my sketch and fill it with a plain color or a gradient to choose my background ambiance.

Then I create a layer on top of that one and start putting large strokes to choose my lighting and color scheme. Here the colors were a no brainer as I wanted to make a tribute to the classic Joker, purple suit, white skin and green hair. The main light comes from the top left.

Here I put the general light and color intention I had in mind.

Step 3: Block-in

I added colors to get the base tone of the different parts. I enhance the main light (top left) and started to mark some rim lighting from the bottom right side of the image.

Then I created a new layer on top of the sketch this time, to begin to painting parts. I use this step to rework the shapes, and get more of an overall look that pleases me. As almost always when starting to paint over the sketch, I start with the eyes to get the expression.

Refining the lighting and colors. And starting to paint the features.

Step 4: Slowly get rid of the sketch

The main goal here is to slowly cover the sketch and use the lighting to create a sense of volume.

Here I paint over the shoulder on the left to achieve a precise sense of volume and mainly put my attention on the right side, and the secondary light.

As my main light was cold, I wanted to counterbalance it with a warm second light. The idea here is to enhance the personality of the Joker and his schizophrenic mind by putting two really different lights from the two different sides. It's something that may not pop into the viewer's mind, but the feeling will be there.

As I paint over and over the sketch slowly disappears to let place for volume and light.

Step 5: Rework, recompose and adjust

I imagine the joker to always be on the verge of snapping. So it was time to take a step back to let the painting aside for a few hours. I came back to it and tried different shoulder positions and head sizes etc... The hands were also too big, so by enlarging the head, it worked better compositionally, expressively, and proportionally. I added some light in the background, refined the eyes and painted over the sketch again.

The background is used to enhance the lighting. Also proportions changed a bit.

continued on next page >

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Readers Comments (Newest on Top)
J David on Wed, 06 September 2017 2:24pm
This is a really great illustration and a lot of helpful stuff in here. Thanks!
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