Friday, April 11, 2014

The Origin Story of the Head of Uulhj: “Jowls of the Mad”

Head of Uulhj: “Jowls of the Mad”

 An Origins Story by Kevin Holmes

Head of Uulhj: "Jowls of the Mad" painting by Mike Burns

Far removed from the world’s surface rests a network of caverns lined by the drool of the Uuhlj. In time since lost, a demonologist cult sought to unleash chaos onto the world by opening a gateway to a dimension of pandemonium, only to become quickly overcome by the madness they had sought to embrace. With much difficulty and after much death and destruction, a band of demon hunters with a foundation of experience backed by powerful curse wards and sanity charms was able to hunt down the Uuhlj. Though the demons were immortal, the hunters sealed them away in one of the darkest corners of the underground, binding them completely and leaving them with no possible means of escape.

Innumerous years passed as the stories of the demons, their cult, and even those who fought against them were lost to time, yet the demons remained, furiously gnashing against their indestructible shackles. As their bonds did not break, their bones began to twist, their flesh tearing over eons as their heads severed themselves from their torso. With their bodies bound, these demon heads drifted off through their vault to aimlessly roam the long since abandoned connecting tunnels.

Uuhlj are fearsome in a way very different from an adventurer’s traditional encounter in that they are remnants of an immortal terror and cannot simply be defeated. Though incredibly slow in nature, their sheer presence emits a terrible aura of madness, causing the afflicted to suffer from a range of detriments ranging from paralyzing confusion to sinister and murderous suggestion. Often those unfortunate enough to encounter the head of the Uuhlj are more likely to find themselves backstabbed by befuddled allies than they are to get reach the fiend’s proximity. Should the demon ever wrap the shambles of its jaws around an unsuspecting victim, that person’s mind would surely be lost to madness forever.

Careful preparation is the cornerstone of living through an encounter with the head of an Uuhlj. With the aid of powerful curse wards or sanity charms, adventurers are able to approach the demon heads from a careful distance. At a range, the Uuhlj’s already tattered skin can be torn further with much resistance, and though it is impossible to kill one entirely, mangling one beyond recognition would certainly immobilize it, though the demon shreds may still prove problematic to those who encounter them in the future.


Kevin was an old roommate and good friend of mine from college, and he has a good head on his shoulders when it comes to designing monsters and their back-stories. I didn't have anything super specific in mind when I painted this piece, but Kevin saw it and then wrote up his own idea for the origin of this monster, which I was very excited to include here in my blog. It was a fun experiment and I hope I we get the chance to do this again in the future. In the mean time, if you liked Kevin's story, you should follow him on his twitter page. He's in the process of building up his web presence right now, but if you're interested in seeing some of Kevin's future projects that would be the perfect place to be to find out about them. Thanks Kevin!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The birth of the "Head of Uuhlj"

I was at the laundromat recently without anything to do while waiting for my laundry to do it's thing when suddenly I pulled out my sketchbook and started doodling. As usual, I started out sketching a bunch of not so great drawings that looked really bad, but after enough tries I eventually came up with a sketch I liked and would later wind up painting...
"Head of Uuhlj"
Jim Pavelec's new demon book "The Golden Ones" was finally distributed, and since I donated enough to his Kickstarter for it I got a copy. It's a really amazing book full of some very impacting, and creepy artwork. It made me really want to sit down and take another stab at designing my own demon, and that's what I had in mind when I did the following sketch...
1. Initial Drawing
1. A tight drawing leads to a tight painting, so it's good to really put the effort into nailing the drawing. Looking back, there are a few things I could have described better at this stage, but overall I was happy with what I came up with.
2. Flat colors, hints of form
2. Here, I laid in some flat colors to help me separate the creature from the background. I knew I wanted this painting to have strong shadows, with a feel of emerging from the darkness, so I filled a layer with a dark purple to unify the colors and to give me a good base from which to build up my lighting.
3. At this point, I'm starting to figure out all of my forms and I'm trying to introduce some color variety so it has more life to it. Trying not to get too detailed.
4. Here, I introduce a spotlighting effect. This is where I decided that I would leave the lower half in shadow and illuminate the top half. I'm really thinking about the mood I want to get from this piece. I also hint at the lighting off camera with the red in the lower left and the glow in the upper right.
5. Pushing the lighting, trying to describe the tumorous forms on his face, borrowing a trick I saw in Donato's Mechanic tutorial video. I also decided this needed to exist in an environment, so I came up with the idea to add a staircase to help lead the eye up and around the piece, and I echoed the staircase in the background to give the piece some depth.
6. Since my environment is mostly blue/purple and along with the help from Stephen Najarian who gave me a paint-over critique, I came to the conclusion that red just wasn't working for a back-light, it just didn't make sense in the environment, so I in some bluish bounced lighting into the shadows, to make it feel more like it was a part of the setting, plus it gives a good hot/cold dynamic between my highlights and shadows, also added some colorful glow to the steps. I originally called this piece DONE when I reached this point...

7. Final
7. ...but then I got another really helpful paint-over critique from Sam Flegal, who encouraged me to punch up the colors and contrast in my values. I also got a lot of feedback saying that he should be more wet and slobbery. So I took another couple passes at the piece and I'm really glad I did because I think this new version has a lot more impact than before.

I mentioned on my Facebook that I had something special in store for this guy, but I'm leaving that for the next blog post, so come back Friday and check it out. Thanks for stopping by!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Meet Syrup, the D&D Vampiric Pixie

A friend of mine recently commissioned me to paint the character he's playing as in his D&D campaign. The description sounded pretty fun so I was eager to take a stab at it, he described her as a Pixie turned into a vampire who hates the sun, loves sweets and has a vendetta against birds.

Here are some of the sketches I did to test out some options...

I'm really fond of the shape of the hair in pose C, and I'm hoping I can have a chance to use it somewhere in the future, but in the end you have to go with what the client prefers, and he told me how important it was for her to have a hood on. Which makes sense, considering she's a vampire.

It was a fun job for sure. It's nice to have a specific personality and details to work with as opposed to just another generic fantasy character.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Taking the Journey to the far off land of New Yorkshire (aka NYC)

The last 3 months have been a crazy ride for me, and I've been wanting to write a post to sum up what's been going on lately.

On November 5th, 2013 I got an email that would completely flip my world upside down.

Back in April I applied for a position at an apparel design company located in NYC. After months of no response I had concluded that it was another fail to add to the pile. But come November, while I was at my part-time cashier job I got the email asking to come in for an interview. As someone whose had his eye on NYC since I graduated a few years back, I immediately said yes and setup an appointment for 2 days later. 

I was terrified. 

I had no experience designing clothes, and not much experience using Illustrator (one of the main programs used at the job) and I had no apparel portfolio. I spent the day before the interview working up a tshirt portfolio from scratch, hoping that what I came up with was anything close to what they wanted to see. I already knew 2 people at the job working in other departments so I had some help figuring out what to do, but there was still a lot of guessing involved. I wrapped up the portfolio and the next day I took an early bus from Philadelphia to NYC.

The interview went pretty bad.

Everything in my "portfolio" was pretty much deemed useless, and "rushed" (rightfully so) and there was a point where I just knew in my mind that getting this job was a lost cause. I felt defeated. But luckily I had one of my postcards on me, featuring my Beastermaster paintings. The guy interviewing me pointed to it and told me how this work is the whole reason he brought me in for the interview. He said I had a really solid understanding of composition, and that was mainly what the job requires. He then showed me examples of actual shirts the company had produced and everything started to click. I now understood exactly what I needed to do because I was staring at pages of perfect examples. I threw away my doubts and asked for a second chance. Now that I knew what to do I knew I could make a much better portfolio. Would it be good enough to get me the job? I had no idea. But what I did know was that it would give a much more realistic idea of what I was able to handle. I was given the chance. He explained how the process worked and he offered to send me some resources to use in my new samples.

The bus ride back home I was dealing with a whirlwind of emotions: excitement, fear, doubt, worry, anxiety, stress, hopefulness, you see where this is going. I immediately went to work on the new samples in between my work schedule. In about a week I had 3 brand new, really solid samples that I felt good about, and my connections who worked at the company were both giving me a lot of helpful feedback, though I was struggling with teaching myself how to use Illustrator and was getting very frustrated. I submitted the samples and held my breath for a few days. I got feedback asking for pretty heavy revisions on the designs, being told I wasn't required to do them but that if it were a day in the job he would ask for the changes. I was getting more anxious, but I wasn't ready to give up. I pressed on and submitted each revision and got an email thanking me for putting in the effort, and that they should be able to get back to me with their decision in a few days.

The wait was torture.

I did everything I possibly could to keep my mind off the outcome but it wasn't an easy thing to do. Then, *insert aol email chime*...I got the email and my fate was sealed...

I got the job.

And everything was great from there on right? ...if only

At the time I was living in my parents basement in Philadelphia, and now had 3 weeks to find a place to live AND move into it, AND had to finish up my final 2 weeks of work at the current job, which ate up a lot of my time AND had a major freelance project to finish up. Oh yeah, and Thanksgiving happened. I had never gone apartment hunting before, nor live in NYC before so I had a lot of stuff to figure out. I reached out to everyone I could, my network of artists, friends from school and anyone willing to lend a hand. I was completely overwhelmed and getting more and more frightened that I wouldn't be able to find a place in time with each passing day. I knew it could only be so long that the company could wait for me before I lost the job. My level of stress was only matched by the overwhelming amount of gratefulness I felt due to all of the people who were lending me a hand. People from everywhere were doing whatever they could to ask around and help me find a place and figure out how to get my stuff there, how to figure out my price range, everything. This combined with searching Craigslist ads and looking everywhere I could think, I really felt like I was doing everything I could. And it still wasn't coming together.

My time was running out and I became more and more upset at my situation and I was more emotionally exhausted than I had ever been in my life. With only days away from my start date I was losing hope. But then the heavens opened and a few more helping hands reached out and caught me. There was a moment when I knew everything would be ok, and that no matter what, I would be living in NYC on the exact day I wanted to start and everything would be figured out from there.

Since my move to the city I've had a lot of ups and downs, getting used to all the newness to everything, but I can definitely say it's all worth it. It's been a massive challenge but within the span of 2 months I was able to teach myself the basics of a new program, work up a new portfolio from scratch, visit NYC for an interview, do another handful of samples, get the job, find a place to live in NYC, pack-up my life, move-in, and start my job and it's something I'm immensely proud of. It's finally time for me to start taking care of myself and be an adult. I still have a lot of challenges to overcome, things are far from picture perfect, but they're a huge improvement.

I want to send out an immense thank you to everyone who helped me out in any amount during all of this craziness: My family, Eric Wilkerson, Marc Scheff, Danny Schwartz, Keisha Cedeno, Bernard Lee, Stephen Najarian, Randy Gallegos, and anyone else I may have missed.

A very special thank you to my girlfriend Amabel, who was one of my inside people at the company and kept me sane throughout one of the most insane stretches of my life. It's great to start this next chapter together and long distance can suck it. Thank you Ama.

To close out this post, I want to point out that before I got the email being offered the interview, I was feeling my usual crummy self about a lot of things in my life. It's easy to convince yourself things just aren't going anywhere, and nothing's happening. But if you lay out the ground work and make yourself ready for opportunity, once it appears you can be ready for it, and things can change drastically in a very short amount of time if you're willing to take a chance and take the plunge into the seemingly impossible. While working on my portfolio and my extra samples I was absolutely miserable, and all I really wanted to do was to stop working out it and get back to the usual crummy grind, thinking that it was pointless to even try, and started thinking how much it would suck to go through all of this trouble and have it all fall apart. But I worked through these thoughts and it was all worth it in the end. If you give 100% every time an opportunity presents itself, eventually one of those things is gonna come through. The day before I got the interview email I thought getting a job and moving to New York would be impossible. It's funny how many things like this seem out of our reach until we lunge at them full-force and all of a sudden it's reality.

Thanks for taking the time to read all of this and I'm excited to share new stuff soon :)

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Sporegorger Thallid's baby pictures and ageing - Process

I wanted to share some process shots of this piece for anyone who's into that sort of thing. At each step I'll go into what major changes I made as well as why I decided to do so.
Initial Sketch
1. I started with a rough sketch of what I want my composition to look like and the overall shape of my creature. The idea behind the piece was to show a fungal creature that was spreading it's spores on other fungus, much like the idea behind Sporesower Thallid.

Color study
 2. I then set the initial sketch layer options to Multiply, and create another layer underneath where I start to figure out my color scheme. I knew I wanted the creature to have a reddish tone to it so in order to make it pop I decided to make the background green. I also had the idea to make it look like the spores were revitalizing the fungus, so I made sure to make the main fungus red while keeping all of the other fungus green to blend into the background. I also knew from the start I wanted to have a nice purple tone to the spore cloud.

 3.  Here's where I dive in and really start getting to the meat of the painting. I wasn't entirely pleased with the head shape of the creature so I made it a bit more pointed. I also start emphasizing my lighting setup here with the highlights around the shoulder area. Added a vine overlapping the tail to add some depth. Added some patches of dirt to the ground to break up all the green.

 4. I add a mouth to the creature in order to give it some dimension. I felt like before it was looking directly off into the left, but with a mouth it looks like the head is in profile-view. I thought it would be interesting to show the underside to the red mushroom. I also start hinting more at the shadow on the creature's rear. Got the idea to cover the background trees in fungus as well.

5. Decided that based on my lighting setup, the far-side of the creature's back probably wouldnt be getting hit with as much light so I put it in shadow. I added some color variation in the green tendril areas of the creature and defined their shape. Started working on the spore cloud.

 6. Lots of background work, added more fungus to trees, added some grass to the foreground fungus silhouettes, added some tail spikes (ideally made of fungus) to the creatures tail based on a stegosaurus. Added some more color variation to the spore cloud using different layer options (Color, Overlay, etc.). Added mushrooms to the foreground to make the creature look surrounded by them.

 7. Start painting in the spores one by one. I wanted to give a bright glow to the spores in order to emphasize the idea that they are beneficial to other fungus. I was thinking of Donato's Mechanic painting from his Massive Black tutorial video, and trying to apply my spores in the same way he did with the bright stars in his star-field. Even more color build-up on the spore cloud.

 8. More spores! Spores everywhere, adding more glow to some, letting others remain in the background. I also started thinking that the creature looked a little bland, so I added some more fungal elements to his body. Added a glow effect to the hood of the red mushroom to even further emphasizing that spores=good.

 9. Adding more details and texture, adding some more foreground grass refining some shapes/silhouettes.
 10. The only change between steps 9 and 10 are 2 adjustment layers, Curves and Levels. This really helps up the contrast in the image and gives it a lot more presence. You have to be careful not to overdo it with the adjustment layers though, which is why I adjust the opacity of each adjustment layer to my liking. This is about where I first called the painting "finished".

 11. After posting the image up on Facebook and getting feedback from some of my artist friends like Stephen Najarian and Dennis Darmody, I made the greens in the background more deep to help make the bright creature pop, saturated the green parts of the creature, and added a blue hue to the creature's rear side so there's a nice transition from warm into cool / highlight into shadow. This step really made the mood much more dramatic and made the image pop a lot more. I also went in a added some more transparent areas to the spore cloud so it didn't read as a solid object.

Final Finished Painting
12. Added some final details/rendering, most notably added texture to the creature's body and some mucus going across the opening on the back.

I hope you've enjoyed this process post, thanks for reading!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Sporegorger Thallid - My REAL Inspiration Challenge Entry

I was originally going to submit THIS piece for the Art Order Inspiration Challenge, but I missed a very important detail in the rules for the challenge so I couldn't submit it. The image has to be 100% your copyright, and since I was painting a monster right out of Final Fantasy IX, it didn't qualify. I was pretty bummed about it because I was pretty happy with the piece, and also because there wasn't much time left to do another piece, and I was really busy at the time. The deadline had passed and I was really upset because I missed out on a huge challenge that had a window of around 4 months to do something for. Then miraculously (for me at least) the deadline of the competition was extended another week due to Jon's cross-country move and suddenly I had another chance to get in on the action. It was pretty daunting, from conception to finish I had to create a brand-new painting from scratch, and I only had a few days to get it done. After considering a few options I remembered the piece I did for the Nymph Art Order Challenge which I did THIS piece for. I had originally meant to give the nymph a fungal companion in a full-scene painting, but I wasn't liking what I came up with and wound up scratching the idea for a full-scene and just painted a standalone figure. I had done sketches of the companion creature before, but I hadn't quite nailed down the design of it yet so I decided to explore that creature some more for the Inspiration Challenge. Below is the painting I came up with...

Sporegorger Thallid - Art Order Inspiration Challenge
This piece came together more quickly than any other painting I've ever done. I don't know if it was my fear or missing the deadline a second time, or my excitement for getting another chance, but I knocked out a sketch I was really happy with and proceeded to keep right on painting. Over the course of 2 days I completed this painting, while spending a 3rd day on revising it based on feedback. I managed to submit the piece a mere 4 hours before the submissions page closed. It's probably one of the strongest paintings I've ever made based on some of the reactions I've been getting to it, and I'm really happy with how it turned out as well. This was a huge landmark piece for me even without it being for a contest. Below you can see the paragraph write-up I made for the piece as part of the challenge requirements, as well as a pic of some of the pieces I got my inspiration from...

Cards that have spent time in my fungus deck - my Inspiration

I’ve become a big fan of the card game Magic: the Gathering and I still have the first deck I ever owned; a fungus deck that I bought off the shelf that I’m always tweaking. It’s an item that has become very close to me. I’ve fallen in love with how the deck works and I’ve spent hours staring at these cards and their awesome art and I’ve always wanted to design my own fungus creature and design a Magic card around that creature. Drawing inspiration from those fungus cards in the deck, I’ve created my Art Order entry.

What the illustration would look like applied to a Magic card

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Learning from Crits, Part 2: Painting with new information.

A couple days ago I posted my Art Order "Inspiration Challenge" entry. I'm really happy with how the piece turned out, and a lot of that has to do with some of the decision making I dealt with while creating the piece. The crits from Illuxcon offered me some great insight of angles I wasn't considering when making a painting. In this post I'm going to use my latest piece as an example of some ideas I tried to incorporate based on the feedback I received on my portfolio. Here's the piece again as a refresher...
Antlion - Finished Painting
One of the things that Robh Ruppel talked about during my review with him was that I should be organizing me values in order to best serve the focus of my painting. I've stripped out the color of this piece to make it easier to see the values, and I've added some notes to the painting. The main thing to note with this image is that I made the areas of focus have the highest contrast (look at and around the face and mouth). Now compare the face of the creature to the values of the trees in the background, and the objects in the'll notice that there's a much more narrow value range in these areas, they almost blend into the other non-focus elements. This was a conscious decision I made to ensure that the viewer would keep their attention right where I want it...the face.
Greyscale image with notes
Now let's take this one step further by using a threshold layer to turn the image into 2 values, pure black and white. In this image you can see that composition for this image is really just a dark object on a light background. The creature is the focus, thus I want him to pop out from the background.
B&W Threshold layer
In the next image I want to point out all the elements that help move the eye around the painting. All of the arrows indicate different elements that direct the viewer's eye around the image. Almost all the elements in the piece are helping direct the eye around and back towards the focus of the piece (the creature).
Lastly, I wanted to talk about the importance of color arrangement. In this next image you can see I've stripped out all the values of the piece leaving just the colors. You can see the creature's shape still holds up, based solely on color you can still tell what the focus is. I pretty much placed a colorful monster on a blue backdrop, so anything that isn't blue is the creature, thus it stands out from the background and pops more. You can also see that in the appendages and body fur, the colors are more muted than they are in the face, saturation control does a great job of helping enforce the focal point of your image as well.
I'm no expert, and I know a lot of this might sound long winded and repetitive in some places, but I thought it would be fun to share some of what I've been thinking about in my work lately and maybe you can start thinking about it in your own work, or use this as a refresher if you already know all about this stuff. Either way, writing this all up helped drill the ideas into my head even further so I'm excited to bring these lessons with me into my next piece.