How your voices shape future art

Art is a social beast. It is created for people and is driven by people. A creator who doesn’t target an audience, even if that audience is a single person, is not a true artist. Art by its very nature carries a message. Otherwise it is just craft. The message in each art piece may not alway be obvious. A painting or a sculpture may be political by nature, or it may simply wish to share the deepest most personal corners of the artist’s mind. Regardless of the specific purpose of a given creation, art is always a conversation. A conversation between the creator and the observer. I, the artist, create something and send it out into the world for you, the audience, to interact with it. Your emotional and critical analysis of what you think you see is your response to me. Gathering hundreds of such responses across different demographics allows me to understand how my message was received, how it was altered by the eyes of the observers, and what emotion it evoked in which people, thus allowing me to alter my future works to either please or distress the audience further. Just as in a verbal conversation, it will take some back and forth communication before we establish if we are even talking about the same thing, and if we are do we agree on it. Unlike a casual verbal conversation I have to adjust to the fact that my opponent, for a lack of a better word, is not a constant. Instead I am conversing with an entity that is ever changing, ever evolving and adjusting, reshaping itself by taking on new individuals while shedding other.  This conversation is never ending. It goes on for as long as I create and share art, and its main purpose is personal artistic growth. In today’s world of social media it is easy for an artist to share her work with large number of people all over the world. One would think that a virtually instant acquisition of a large diverse audience would be desired and useful, but unfortunately it comes with a price. The feedback given by the digital masses is heavily diluted with comments that are not only unprofessional and biased but can also be detrimental to the artist and the art.

The internet has changed the artist/audience conversation rapidly and significantly, making it difficult for the artist to accept feedback as reliable and usable information. One of the biggest problems with the internet is that it has given everyone a voice without teaching people the ethics of communication. A hundred people looking at the same work of art will see a hundred different things. That is the beauty and the curse of creation. The infamous “like” button and the ability to instantly leave a comment, has opened a Pandora’s box of meaningless noise. Many people believe that their immediate personal emotional response is a legitimate form of feedback, and they have reduced their voices to single word statements like “awesome”, “great”, “terrible”, “disgusting”, “why”, “lol” etc. Whether these responses are positive or negative, they are completely irrelevant to the artist, or the rest of the audience for that matter, without a brief explanation of why. Many people don’t realize that they are branding something with a “yay” or a “nay” based solely on what they would or would not like to see in their house, and not considering the work as a whole.

For instance, when reviewing these two dolls the audience will be pretty divided. Some will prefer the sparkly blond angel princess, while others will be drawn to the gothic poet with messy hair and piercings. Personally, I would never make or purchase the angel doll, but I recognize that this particular one is made just as well as my gothic poet. I see that her dress is made with equal care and attention to detail. If it is handmade doll, someone clearly spent a lot of time and care one it. It took skill to attach the wings and design the crown. The character has personality and is clearly beautiful in its composure, expression and pose. If it is factory made, it becomes significantly less interesting to me, but I still can’t argue the fact that is of good quality and well designed. If I knew a girl who likes angels, I would consider buying this doll as a gift. I am not so blown away by this doll to leave feedback on her listing, nor am I so bored and disgusted by her pure stereotypical beauty that I will care to negatively comment on her. Coming across work like this, I make some mental notes, but I do not take the time to comment or review. It’s not necessary. My feedback, in this case, is irrelevant. This doll is simply not in my style. Looking at my own gothic doll, on the other hand, many people may praise her just for being dark and unusual without paying attention to the detail or reading the back story which I create for all my characters. Some others may immediately get offended and leave nasty comments based on their personal preference, failing to consider the skill and care that was necessary to create her.

What artists really seek is constructive criticism. In my opinion, if one is unable to deliver it, they should not speak at all. Constructive criticism, unlike the impulsive spewing of single word remarks, aims to collaboratively improve the overall quality of the artwork in question. It should examine both pros and cons considering style, motivation, occasion, and purpose. It should also provide specific suggestions for positive change or even just encouragement. One should aways consider the style and the media used when providing constructive criticism. If one is not knowledgeable in a certain art style or material, perhaps one should hold their tongue. Consider for a moment that you may not be the targeted audience. No one artist ever aims to please everyone. If you know nothing about digital art and what is involved in the making of a digital painting, you are not fit to review one. If you are opposed to all things gothic, reviewing a hand made gothic doll with “terrible” despite its intricacies and superb craftsmanship is neither helpful nor appropriate. You don’t like that style. That’s opinion, not feedback. Unfortunately, with all this noise it becomes difficult for an artist to take positive comments seriously as well. Just because your creation collected many “likes” and “<3″s may not mean that your skill level is really at its highest. Also, without specific descriptions about what exactly attracted the “likes” it is impossible to know which aspects of my art are making the audience happy.

When leaving a comment on a work of art that you see on Facebook or Instagram, or Etsy, or Deviant Art, consider first who you are leaving that comment for and what effect do you wish for it to have. Even if you don’t like something, ask yourself “am I so offended by this style and this message that I should take the time to tell other viewers about it and to let the artist know that he offended me with his creation?” If the answer is yes, by all means, put it in writing. But be courteous enough to write more than just a single emotional exclamation. Explain your position and use specific details. Otherwise, refrain yourself from a comment all together. Our digital age has made it easy for people to post things that they would not normally say to each other face to face. If you came to my home studio or a gallery show, you would most likely not scream “disgusting” while looking at one of my taxidermy displays. As a matter of fact, knowing that it is a taxidermy show and knowing that it’s not your cup of tea, you would probably just not go to my house or the show to begin with. If you don’t like what you see on my website or on my Facebook page, go somewhere else. The internet is huge and filled with a little bit of everything for every taste. What people fail to realize is that artists, true artists, put all of themselves into each creation. When you speak to or of my art work you are speaking to me directly. Consider, when leaving a comment, how the person who reads it will feel. Consider all the things that you are putting in motion. Consider how much courage it takes for artist to share their art with you to begin with, and now consider for a moment that maybe you just offended someone enough to stop creating all together. Words are very powerful tools, and most people use them carelessly. Imagine if blind children were given swords and bayonets and told they can do whatever they want with them. It would be a disaster in no time. Don’t swing your sword around just because you have it. Learn how to use it first and then make precise determined moves if any are even necessary. Do you want to use your weapon to defend a work of art or to stab it to death? Both are legitimate options. Artists invest a lifetime of training and self improvement to bring you a single work of art. All we ask in return is that you invest some time and care in your response to us.

Creating a romance novel book cover

When Callystin Collum approached me about painting her main character Sarah for a paranormal romance book cover, neither of us suspected how magical our working relationship would become. Before accepting the job I wanted to introduce myself and explain a little bit about how I work and where my inspiration and skill come from. I explained that I am a self-taught, life-long artist, who just happens to also have a classical art university degree which I hate giving any credit to. I described briefly how I work one-on-one with my commission clients, and how after ten years of working as a high-end exclusive tattoo artist “my style” is always primarily “my client’s style.” While my artistic hand is clearly recognizable no matter what work of art I create, the actual feel and mood of any creation is governed by the desires of my client. If I wasn’t able to adjust to various required styles I wouldn’t be much of an artist. Mentioning my tattoo career is alway hit or miss when talking with new potential clients. Some people still harvest very narrow and negative stereotypes about this art form, and about all those who participate in it. As always, I was prepared to be uninvited from this project based on my work history, but I was pleasantly surprised by Callystin’s response. She was very excited to hear about my experience in creating tailored tattoos for people all over the world, saying that she wanted to hire a tattoo artist to do her book cover since before she even completed the manuscript. Naturally I was intrigued and now it was her turn to tell me about herself, her book, and her characters.

It turned out that Cally’s main character Sarah was in need of a custom-made tattoo from someone with experience in just that craft. The tattoo is so significant in this book that it’s almost its own character. Cally didn’t have to do a lot of talking for me to have enough mental images to begin my work. She simply shared with me three of the 662 pages of her novel, and I knew everything I need to know about what Sarah looked liked and enough about her personality to portray that through body language and choice of clothing. One of the advantages of working with an author is that they tend to be quite articulate. After all, the readers have to see her character in their minds just as clearly as I was about to see her on my digital drawing page (for a more technical description of my digital painting process check out my article How I Paint Digitally). Cally had a few basic requests about composition and pose. She imaged Sarah with her back turned to the audience, which is a reasonable choice for a character with a meaningful full back tattoo. However, I felt that the requested glance over the shoulder was not enough to show Sarah’s personality. I wanted to reveal more of her face, so I took a chance and painted a wall mirror that would show a little bit more of her gentle girlish features with a daring splash of curiously, and also to show where her eyes are pointing (the next part of the arrangement I was to work on). Even though Cally did not imagine a mirror in the composition she fell in love with the concept and picked one of the three versions I provided her with. The version she selected, which is also my preference, is the one where the mirror reveals only suggestions of facial features, but not in full photographic detail. This book is clouded in mystery after all. Suggestions would work better on this cover than straight up full focus hyper details.

Now that I had Sarah’s body, face and hair painted and approved by Callystin, I moved onto the most important part – the tattoo. Sarah’s tattoo is complex enough for an artist to design for a real back. It would be a challenge to tailor it for a fictional 1200 by 2200 pixel painted character. I had to approach it the same way I would a real tattoo. Having read Cally’s description of it over and over again, I drew a fully detailed cat-o-nine tails whip with a braided leather handle and cherry blossoms scattered all around. I then wrapped the design around my character, curving and blurring it to match my painting style in this piece. Actually, the most time consuming and complicated part of the process was the amount of distortion I had to apply to my otherwise flawless and highly detailed tattoo design in order to make it look realistic in the given light and remaining true to my brushstrokes. The application of the tattoo to Sarah’s back was a week long project. After submission, Cally requested a few edits and adjustments, specifically in relation to individual tails and their direction, the placement and color of specific blossoms, and clearly readable text “Never Again”. After another few days of edits we arrived at the tattoo that we both agreed was perfect. The only final adjustment she asked for was the removal of visible scars from Sarah’s back. I imagined that most of Sarah’s scars would still be visible, if not for any other reason but for the reader to see that she has them. Cally had a very firm and specific request to remove the scars, explaining to me that the whole reason for the tattoo is to hide the scars all together. The audience does not need to know the full scar story from the cover. They will find out while reading. After discussing the technicalities of actually covering scars with tattoos, we came to an artistic agreement and I cleaned up Sarah’s back, while Cally cleaned up some textual details on the matter.

My next subject of interest was something that my author described as optional, but I immediately saw as inevitable. While Sarah is an obviously attractive young woman with an enticing full back tattoo, this is more than just a romance novel, it is a paranormal romance novel. I felt that the paranormal part was important to at least suggest visually. This is where Sarah’s glance direction comes into play. I specifically painted her looking down and at her hand, in order to have a platform to introduce a mysterious supernatural hand inviting her into its otherworldly haze. Now it all comes together. Now we know what seduces Sarah’s curiously. It is this human, yet animal-like, hand in the mist. This was probably my most favorite part of the project. I wanted the pale beastly hand to appear as mysterious as possible, revealing nothing of its character yet teasing the audience into having to find out. I wanted the viewers and the readers to be as intrigued by the hand as Sarah is.

Now that the mysterious hand was done and approved by the author, I moved on to polishing up the details on the image as a whole. This is a part of any digital painting where I create a lot of new layers, each with very minute but vary valuable information on them. I spent a full day on making sure that my light source was consistent, the parts that needed to be in focus were clearly in focus, while the ones intended to be blurred were sufficiently blurred. I played with darkness, contrast, definition and saturation on my fused layers, and of course scanned the entire image for imperfections, artifacts and inconsistencies. After a couple more back-and-forths with Callystin, we were ready for formatting.

Formatting a book cover is surprisingly more complicated than people realize. Correct resolution is the single most important factor. You don’t want any detail to be lost in the print. Color balance is also essential. The printed version has to look exactly as the digital version does on the screen. Finally, sizing mistakes are unforgiving. Depending on the publisher’s format demands, you have to make sure that your full cover spread, plus the spine, will not be cropped even a millimeter off from the desired layout. In order to achieve this, one must know the exact thickness of the book’s spine, which is calculated by multiplying the number of double sided pages by the paper thickness. To do this you must know the paper your author has chosen for her publication and her manuscript length according to paper style and size. As Cally was making last minute edits and adjustments, the thickness of her book spine also kept changing, sometimes by a fraction of a millimeter, but every pixel counts when it comes to professional formatting. I think for Cally, this must have been the only frustrating part of the project, understandably so. Well, good things come to those who work hard, and in time we worked out all the nagging technical details and the Fayhted Contender was ready for publication.

After three weeks of work and collaboration, Cally and I have become good friends and discovered that we share many similar views and opinions. I suppose it only makes sense, since we were able to work together so smoothly and quickly, understanding each other’s visions and motivations.  This has been an incredibly rewarding artistic journey, but in the end nothing could have felt better than receiving my own copy of Fayhted Contender with a personal inscription from the author on the first page. Reading someone else’s novel with my art on the cover took some getting used to, but since this book is so easy to lose yourself in I soon had no trouble forgetting about the cover art and following Sarah on her journey.


Callystin Collum’s Fayhted Contender is available on Amazon in print and in kindle versions.

A behind-the-scenes of drawing a coloring page

Many of you already enjoy my published coloring books and various individual coloring pages that I create from time to time to entertain my group members. I invite you now on a small journey behind the scenes of actually creating one of such pages. I create all of my line art designs in a program called Corel Painter, using a stylus to draw directly onto my Wacom drawing screen. (For a more technical description of the process check out my articles How I Paint Digitally and What Is Digital Painting)

It all begins with an idea. Once I have a clear character concept in my head (which is teaming with ideas at any given moment) I open a new blank document and begin a rough sketch with my pencil tool set to a charcoal or a rough pencil, and usually in a color other than black. I tend to sketch in purple or brown. At this point I am only interested in working on the composition. I freehand my characters the way that I would on a notepad with an actual pencil. I erase a lot to correct my lines as I shape the desired composition. I continue sculpting in this manner for the next hour or so, depending on the complexity of my design. In this case, you will be following the creation of “The Musician” page for an upcoming book. Since this is a book project, instead of a blank page, I am working on a pre-made “frame” page that will be consistent throughout the book.

Once I have my composition I create a new layer. I dim the purple layer a bit, and begin drawing clean black lines over the transparent sketch. At this point I have my pencil tool set to “single, circular, (soft) cover” and, generally working on a 2400 x 3000 at a 300 px/in resolution, I set the pencil/brush in the range of 3.2 and 4.2 at a medium to lower opacity, with a rest value of 70%, bleed 40% and jitter at 0.04. The combination variations on these settings are of course unlimited, and every artist sets his own stats according to personal preference. This is by no means an instruction manual on how to set your controls. This is simply what I find to be the most effective given my screen with its wear and tear, the pressure of my hand as I draw, the current tip of my stylus, etc. These numbers are set and adjusted according to so many variables that it would take a book to explain it all. For our immediate purposes, let’s just say that I found my sweet spot and I work with it for best results and consistency, in coloring pages only. I have completely different preferences for other types of digital creations. As a matter of fact I have several palette layouts saved in my window arrangements, and I switch between them depending on my project.

Once my clean black line work is done – a tedious and careful process – I can kill my purple layer. It is no longer needed. Of course I don’t have to erase it all together. I can dim it, or just make it invisible for the time being. Looking at just the black line work, I can see imperfections and inconsistencies. I now zoom in and out a lot, looking for anything that needs cleaner lines, smoother turns, etc. Because this is to be a coloring page, my lines need to be flawless.


This particular book will be a character centered fantasy compilation, with each individual page presenting a new character drawn in a style closer to my natural drawing style rather than a traditional color-in mosaic page. However, to compensate for this fluidity that may be intimidating to some colorists, each page will also be embellished with elaborate background designs and patterns. Knowing that I will be drawing this character, I already created her background pattern days ago. All of my patterns are my original creations, drawn in the same manner as I am drawing this page, and saved as .jpg files for further use. Now that I have my background pattern, I can copy and paste it onto “The Musician”, resized, styled, and otherwise altered to suit my needs.

In this case, I minimize my pattern and make it into a gel layer, which I place under the main line layer. Now I can play with cropping and shaping it to appear just in the oval behind my characters. There are multiple ways of doing this. The first being simply starting my design with a patterned oval, then dimming it to comfortably draw my characters in a different layer, and once drawn filling my characters with white inside the outlines, and then bringing up the background pattern. There are many other methods of creating this effect using the fill tool and multiple layer arrangements, and even multiple file combinations, but I chose to do this in a bit of a primitive way this time. When I began this page I had a clear vision of my characters and their positioning in relation to each other and the page, but I did not yet know where and how I may use the pattern that I created days ago, or if I would even use that pattern at all. Having left my pattern work to the last minute, and having under-layed it in a gel layer, I just work around with my eraser tool, taking off all unwanted spill. A bit tedious, I know. With all this technology you would imagine that I can just click this and drag that and voila! a pattern fill, but no. Now I sit for nearly half an hour carving my pattern out to fit its shape. Sometimes that just feels like the better way to do it. This way I know I have complete control of my edges and their cleanliness.

Now I look over my creation and take some time to add tiny detail and decoration. On this particular page, my characters are not wearing any fabrics nor ornaments, so my only decorative bits are the cello details. In some cases I like to draw very fine lines in the hair, giving it shape and volume that is almost realistic, but in this case the background is too thin and busy. If I add many new lines to the characters’ hair, It will be difficult to see its general shape. I chose to leave the hair on both girls nearly blank, with just enough lines to define its structure, allowing the colorist variation in coloring style. There will be many more characters in this book with very finely drawn hair.

Finally, when all is done, I create yet another layer to give my line work more definition. In these complex compositions with multiple layers of fine detail, I like to use lines of various thickness to make the design “readable” and not overwhelmingly complicated. I carefully outline my two main characters and the two tulips with a thicker liner. I take yet more time to slowly revise every single line at a very close zoom. This is the most important part of the entire project. Usually I leave it to another day. After having worked on this page for so long, it is difficult to see mistakes or imperfections. After I’ve been away from the image for some time, I review it again with a fine toothed comb. When I am satisfied that there are no artifacts, spills, or ghost lines, I fuse all my layers into one and save my .riff creation as a .jpg copy. I actually print the image on my layer jet home printer to make sure that on paper it looks exactly as it does on the Wacom. Looking at a printed version may also reveal imperfections that I failed to see on the glowing screen that I’ve now been staring at for days. If any final imperfections are located, I make the necessary adjustments, make more test prints until I am happy with the result, save my image as a PDF file, and it is now ready for publication.


I hope you enjoyed this little journey along with me as I drew “The Musician”. In a couple of months you will see it among several dozen other images in the new book flip-through.