Painting the Rocketeer: Step 1


I recently completed a new painting for an art show currently on display at the Creature Features gallery in Burbank, California. The group show is themed around the late Dave Stevens’ wonderful comic book creation The Rocketeer that many people also remember as a fun adventure movie of the same name produced by Disney back in 1991.

I have been enamored with Stevens’ character from his comics that absolutely oozed fun and excitement in the storytelling combined with the most amazing drawings. Dave painstakingly researched every little detail of the late 1930s time period, and then put all those details into his art including Art Deco sensibilities, every line and bolt in weapons, and every crease in the fabric.

Of course, when the movie came out featuring Billy Campbell in the title role, Alan Arkin as his mentor, Jennifer Connelly as his girlfriend, and that cool rocket pack all while resisting Nazis, the adventure was captivating!


Taken in 2011 at a 20th anniversary screening of The Rocketeer in Hollywood, here I am with Cliff Secord/The Rocketeer himself, Billy Campbell, who happens to be holding my replica helmet.


When I moved out to California 20 years ago, I became acquainted with Dave, and was able to chat with him about his work. It was just an inspiration to be around him now and then. When the opportunity for this show came up, I had to be a part of it if not for any other reason than to thank Dave posthumously for the inspiration he instilled in me. It is hard to believe, but Dave Stevens passed away nine years ago much too young. Cancer.

When my old pal and fellow artist Andy Heckathorne heard I was working on this piece, he wanted to see a step-by-step progression during the making of it. It has been a while since I’ve explained my process here on the ol’ blog, so perhaps it is time to do so with this piece.

Whether you are a student of the arts wanting to know what it takes to do professional work, or perhaps you are a potential client wondering why a “simple” piece of art costs what it does, the explanation of these steps over the next five days will give you an insight into the complicated process of what it takes to create something from a blank piece of paper, some paint & pencils, and twenty-six years of professional experience.


When creating illustrations for clients, they will approach me with their ideas for what they want in a picture. You sketch out a couple of roughs of the concept for them, and then go through a period of revisions to get the idea worked out, and then multiple passes at the final drawing. When creating for myself, such as this painting, the process is a little more streamlined only because I don’t have to do revisions for someone else’s vision.

It all starts with a concept. To get myself in the right frame of mind, I re-read all of Dave Stevens’ Rocketeer comics, and watched the movie again. I even looked at old World War II propaganda posters to get a feel for the artistic time period. Then I started sketching VERY rough thumbnail ideas of what the piece could be. Clearly the Rocketeer needed to be depicted in in his full outfit, and I decided to draw Dave’s comic book rocket pack – not the revised version from the movie (as cool as it is). This was a show in tribute to Dave, so Dave’s rocket it was going to be!


These are just 9 of the 15 or so rough ideas I sketched out in search of the perfect concept.


These thumbnails are incredibly loose with no real attention paid to anatomy or detail. They are just meant to quickly get a rough composition down with the action/scenario in place, then to dash out another one as the ideas were filling my head. A recurring theme was creeping into several of these sketches – the Rocketeer fighting Hitler and Nazis.

As the Nazi thing was mulling through my mind, I remembered that Dave Stevens also created storyboards for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones also fought Nazis! Hmmm, what if the Rocketeer and Indiana Jones teamed up? This next sketch was the result of that musing.


The Rocketeer and Indy? Now THIS was an idea that excited me!


By the way, all of these rough sketches were drawn on my Cintiq. The Cintiq is a computer monitor that you can draw on with a stylus. I use Photoshop as my drawing application because I can work things out on layers, resize bits and pieces, and just get it all figured out before taking the art to the traditional steps for a real bonafide painting.

After that last rough sketch, it is time to work out the details of the final drawing. I won’t bore you with all the stages of that, but just know that it usually takes several passes to get the sketch to the next level you see below.


I drew Indy, the Rocketeer, and the Nazi soldiers in different colors just for the sake of visual separation for myself. This was the final drawing that would inform the final painted piece.


After getting the drawing worked out, the next thing needed was a color comp (“comp” being short for comprehensive). Again, Photoshop is used for this process. It is convenient to work out any color problems on the computer, then I make a high quality print on my 8-color printer, and keep that at the drafting table where I will mix paint to match it.

You can see in my color comp, I decided to get a little artsy with the interpretation of the Nazis. The viewer’s attention needed to be instantly attracted to the middle where the two heroes are. Having all the soldiers looking and pointing their guns in that direction is an obvious way to draw the eye, but by keeping them the color of the background with just some highlights will end up putting even more emphasis on the middle. Also, by having a mostly red canvas, this piece will really stand out on the walls of a crowded art gallery. I wanted people in the room to be naturally drawn to this painting.


Indy & the Rocketeer are not intimidated by their surroundings.

So, that’s it for Step 1 today. Come back tomorrow to see the beginning of the painting process!

The Fellas

A couple of weeks ago I shared with you the fact that Paul Coker Jr. drew me into his story in the August 2016 issue of MAD Magazine. He later gifted me with the original art which I received two weeks ago. Since he poked fun of my Disney past (CLICK here to see Paul’s version of me), I thought I’d make him a thank you “card” that was Disney themed. So, it was time to draw the fellas again – Mickey, Donald and Goofy.

I liked how the finished piece turned out, so I thought I’d take you through four of the major steps in creating the painting.

STEP 1: Sketch the Image

I tend to sketch out all my illustrations on my Cintiq monitor. I draw with a stylus right on the screen using Photoshop. I am a sloppy sketcher. Lots of extraneous lines come out of my pen as I look for the right shapes. Quite frankly, when it is a piece just for me, I don’t need to be any neater. I know where I’m going with it. If I am working on something for a client, I would likely clean up the sketch by going over it one more time to make it less sketchy.


Mickey, Donald, and Goofy in all their blueness.
A few sketchy characters.


STEP 2: Underpainting

Well, before I start the underpainting, I need to transfer the art from the computer to actual watercolor paper. I print out the drawing in black so it is nice and dark, and I put it on a lightbox to trace it onto the final paper. It is at this time where I draw nice clean lines, and I finesse the drawing a little by making little tweaks to improve it.

Once the pencil drawing is on the paper, I did a purple underpainting of all the shadows. This is a little thing I picked up from Jack Davis who just passed away this week. (CLICK HERE to see the eulogy I wrote for the National Cartoonists Society’s website.) The idea is to let the purple do all the hard work of creating the shading when I lay down the colors in thin layers later.


It's kind of neat to see them in this monochromatic stage, but this is just one step in their quest for color.
It’s kind of neat to see them in this monochromatic stage, but this is just one step in their quest for color.


STEP 3: Upperpainting

This is simply picking the final colors and painting them down quickly over the purple underpainting. I say “quickly” because A. you don’t want the paint to streak by drying before you can continue the color, and B. if you linger too long, you will start to smear the purple underpainting and get a muddy mess.


Almost done. Colors are in place, but now for some final touches.
Almost done. Colors are in place, but now for some final touches.


STEP 4: Final Details

This final step involved using colored pencils to give the characters an outline which tightens them up, and I added colored pencil here and there to accentuate the shadows and to create highlights. Very rarely did I use white. In most cases, the highlights were created with lighter shades of purple, pink, blue, etc.


Here are the fellas all finished with colored pencil and a little paint splatter tossed on for interest.
Here are the fellas all finished with colored pencil and a little paint splatter tossed on for interest.


So, there you have it – a super quick tutorial on how to create an appealing piece of art in a relatively short period of time. The more you do it, the less time it takes. Also, this fast technique creates a certain  loose quality to the art which gives it more energy.

The Making of a President – Step 1

That’s a pretty austere title, isn’t it? The Making of a President. While I don’t fancy myself a political puppeteer making it possible for certain people to take possession of the Oval Office, I do, from time-to-time, make images of presidents. Today I wish to share with you the methods used to make the illustration of John and Abigail Adams that I posted here yesterday.

First, this started with an idea from Jenny Dillon, the art director of Clubhouse Magazine. She needed an illustration of the Adams family (not the creepy one) in a presidential home looking like they were in love with lots of love letters strewn about them. Specifically, she asked that I make it look like they were taking a selfie as I had done once before with Abraham Lincoln.

The first thing I needed to do was a little research into what John and Abigail looked like when he was the President of the United States. As best as I could decipher, these are what they looked like from old art made of them back in the day.


Paintings (no cameras back then, kids) of seasoned versions of Abigail & John Adams.
Paintings (no cameras back then, kids) of seasoned versions of Abigail & John Adams.


As I always do, I worked out my initial rough sketch of the shmoopy-faced couple digitally on my Cintique monitor. That is a special computer screen that allows me to draw with an electronic pen (a stylus) right onto the screen. For this, I used the Photoshop program.


This is my first rough of an elderly Abigail & John Adams still in love after a lifetime of love letters.
This is my first rough of an elderly Abigail & John Adams still in love after a lifetime of love letters.


First sketches are just that – a first pass. It is the first time artist and art director can see what the possibilities are with the concept. This means there is time for refinement. When I was a young illustrator first starting out, I HATED drawing things more than once. It was a by-product of youthful impatience. I always felt my first drawing was genius. I was stupid. Being able to go back and work on poses, expressions – even the environment – not only gives you a  chance to improve the scene technically with a better drawing, but it also gives you reason to think more about the image and perhaps come up with more ideas to make it better.

Upon reflection, the first sketch made our happy couple look like old geezers. This was primarily an article about love between a courting couple in a kid’s magazine. So, I took a second stab at it making Abigail look younger, again based on old art created of her.


Here is my second take on the happy couple, but while Abigail looks like a blushing schoolgirl, John Adams looks like an old creeper by comparison. Another version is in order.
Here is my second take on the happy couple, but while Abigail looks like a blushing schoolgirl, John Adams looks like an old creeper by comparison. Another version is in order.


Guess what? Now Abby looks young and cute, but in the arms of a creepy old man! Yikes! Even though John was nine years older than Abigail, there was no reason he should look like the age of her grandfather. So, one more pass should do the trick.

By the way, the brown tones and pink I threw in there were just to make it easier to see what is going on in the art since there is so much detail. It doesn’t necessarily mean that will be the final color scheme. You can see I left it out of the last sketch below since by this time all parties involved just needed to see little tweaks to the drawing.


Old art of a young Abigail Smith and John Adams.
Old art of a young Abigail Smith and John Adams.
Ah, now Abigail & John Adams look a bit more relatable to each other. This love stuff is HARD!
Ah, now Abigail & John Adams look a bit more relatable to each other. This love stuff is HARD!


To make John Adams appear younger, I gave him a little more hair on top (perhaps even more than his young portrait showed), darkened his hair, and gave his face more angular features – less rounded. This one was a keeper!

Tomorrow I will show you the next steps using traditional art methods (real paint & paper believe it or not!) in creating the illustration.


The Violet Varmint

Every now and then you have a dead moment (so to speak) at work waiting for your next assignment. Such a moment was upon me today, so instead of surfing the net or getting a sixth cup of coffee, I decided to start doodling. While keeping things very sketchy and rough, the doodle kept expanding in size, scope, and hideousness until it arrived at this heaping hulk of a concept monster.

Is he a brute with beastly intentions? Perhaps a misunderstood miscreant with a  heart of gold? Or maybe it is someone who just regrets not having taken better care of his teeth in his younger years.

Whoever he may be, he most definitely is a sketch who evolved in a moment of a little workday idleness.


purple monster
Genetics can sometimes be cruel.

The Preparation of a Samurai

I’ll bet you thought I was done talking about my painting that is on eBay this week being sold to raise money for some friends. Well, I’m not. Just as if it was your birthday, I have a bonus gift for you – a peek at the art that happens BEFORE the art!

When I create an illustration like the one I posted on Monday of Usagi Yojimbo attacking, I always do a preliminary drawing to plan my own attack for the final art. Working on a Cintiq (a special computer monitor that you can draw on), I sketch out my scene using Photoshop. First comes a really rough sketch to get the idea out on the page very quickly. Most folks would have a hard time understanding the image at this point, but it is just meant to give me an idea of the overall composition. The size and placement of characters and scenery are worked out in this stage.


Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo
You can see the initial drawing is pretty rough. The birthing process is never pretty.


In the case of this Usagi Yojimbo piece, the tighter digital sketch that came next (seen below) clearly identified the details of the scene. Then, so as to prevent a lot of experimenting in the painting stage, I worked out all the color choices right onto the rough sketch which was then printed out and taped up next to the final paper on my very non-digital drafting table. This made it so much easier to follow when mixing paint and laying down the watercolors.


Stan Sakai Usagi Yojimbo
The image is all planned out now, and ready for paint! Just stay away from the business end of that blade!


If you compare this final color sketch to the final painted piece I posted on Monday, you can see that even more changes were made to the drawing when I transferred it to the watercolor paper. A sugegasa, a Japanese conical hat, was added, along with one of Stan Sakai’s little lizard creatures that often make an appearance in his comic book Usagi Yojimbo. Otherwise all the details are there ready for the traditional makeover as a watercolor, gouache, and colored pencil illustration!

If you are interested in owning the final piece that will be published in July by Dark Horse Comics in The Sakai Project book, it will remain on eBay until this coming Sunday, May 4. CLICK HERE if you’d like to bid on it!

If you would like to see other great items by fans and pros that have been sold and will be sold, CLICK HERE to visit the Facebook page of CAPS – Comic Art Professional Society. They are selling all this great Usagi art to help Stan & Sharon Sakai with medical bills (all was explained in my previous post)!


June & Squirrel

This past Saturday night, March 1, was the opening of  Moosylvania: A Group Art Show Tribute to Jay Ward (curated by Phillip Graffham) at Van Eaton Galleries in Sherman Oaks, California. Hundreds of people came to see the art by many local Los Angeles creators.

My Jay Ward Studio tribute piece focused on Rocky & Bullwinkle, but instead of “moose & squirrel” as so eloquently referred to by Boris Badenov, I painted “June & Squirrel”. My friend June Foray created the voice of Frostbite Falls resident Rocket J. Squirrel all those years ago, and continues to perform him today at the age of 96. She recently recorded him for a short cartoon that will run in front of Dreamworks’ new Mr. Peabody & Sherman movie. (June was also the original voice of villainess Natasha in the classic cartoons.)


June Foray
“June & Squirrel” was created entirely in gouache with the big circles and necklace details in colored pencil.


June had asked me earlier in the week if I had a piece in the show, and I told her, “Yes, but you will have to come see what it is.” It was thrilling that she came out to the show Saturday night, and equally thrilling that she seemed pleased, and not offended, to have been portrayed in paint.


June Foray
Chad Frye with the grand dame of voice actors, June Foray.


In case you are curious, perhaps you would like to see the preliminary drawing made in the planning of the painting. I usually work out my ideas in Photoshop where this was sketched and colored. Then I print it out and trace it down onto watercolor paper where it gets the full-on traditional treatment. And no, no compass was used for all those circles. They were hand painted and painstakingly outlined in freehand with a Lilac Prismacolor pencil on the final piece.


June Foray & Rocky
This is the rough concept of “June & Squirrel” worked out in Photoshop.


If you are in the Los Angeles area, please swing by Van Eaton Galleries to see all the art. Some amazing creations are on display until March 15 (beware the Ides of March). My favorite is a seven foot tall sculpture of Rocky & Bullwinkle carved out of a tree with a chainsaw by artist Johnny Daniels.

Also, please check out The Art of Jay Ward Productions book by Darrell Van Citters with a forward by June Foray. Darrell and June were both signing the book at the show, but you can also find this great tome on Amazon!


Step-By-Step: Yogi Bear’s Pic-A-Nic – Step 1

Recently I created a traditional watercolor painting of Yogi Bear, his buddy Boo-Boo, his girl Cindy Bear, and the Ranger for inclusion in a Hanna-Barbera themed art show at Van Eaton Galleries in Sherman Oaks, CA. (Photos from the opening night reception are in yesterday’s post.) Van Eaton invited over 100 artists to participate in what is a spectacular display of creative interpretation of the Hanna-Barbera stable of characters. The show will be on display until April 20. (CLICK HERE for details if you would like to go see all the work!)

When I was first approached to contribute, I was slightly hesitant. You see, I grew up watching Looney Tunes cartoons, and even some Disney ones on the side, but the Hanna-Barbera shows rarely saw face time in our family room. So I didn’t have any childhood fondness from which to draw – literally.

I did, however, help my pal Dana Thompson paint a Yogi Bear children’s book back when I was a young illustrator. The book had been penciled by famed Hanna-Barbera designer Iwao Takamoto, and I remember how we enjoyed looking, with great admiration, over Iwao’s very precise and brilliant pencil lines. So, with fondness for that experience, Yogi Bear was destined to be my subject.


Yogi Bear book
Penciled by veteran Hanna-Barbera designer Iwao Takamoto about eighteen years ago, Dana Thompson recruited me and fellow illustrator Julie Speer to help him paint this Yogi Bear children’s book on a tight deadline.


To make it interesting for me, my mind wandered into the realm of parody. Exactly one hundred fifty years ago in 1863, Èdouard Manet created his massive 105 by 85 inch oil painting titled The Bath which later became known as The Luncheon on the Grass. He had created his piece for a group artist show in Paris, but the jury rejected it. Its subject matter was deemed unfit for the tastes of the day, and they didn’t care much for his technique and seeming ignorace of perspective by having the figure in the background appear far too large to be natural. So, Manet entered it in the Salon des Refusès which was a show of rejected paintings put together to spite the big show. Many pieces from the rejected show went on to define the modern art of their age.

While I don’t anticipate any controversy with The Pic-a-nic on the Grass (my parody title of course), it seemed like a fun way to portray the Yogi Bear cast in that natural setting along with the picnic basket that was always the focus of Yogi’s energies.

So, as with any artistic process, it must begin with a drawing. These days I generally do my preliminary work on a Cintiq tablet (a fancy monitor that allows you to draw right on the screen with an electronic pen). I work in layers in Photoshop so that I can resize and redraw bits and pieces here and there to get my composition just right. In this case, the setting was already figured out for me since I was doing a parody of an existing piece of art. I don’t often do this, but I imported Manet’s painting into Photoshop, and literally traced his environment.

Then I drew, and redrew Yogi Bear, Boo-Boo, Yogi’s girl Cindy Bear, and the Ranger along with the picnic blanket containing elements from Yogi’s world and Manet’s painting.


Èdouard Manet
You can see that my drawing closely follows the layout of Manet’s painting.


The next step was to get that digital drawing onto actual watercolor paper. After figuring out what I wanted the final size to be, I printed out the drawing in two pieces onto Strathmore Layout Bond paper, taped them together, then traced them down onto my watercolor paper using homemade graphite paper (same concept as the old time carbon copies one might have done in the days of typewriters).


watercolor paper
On top is graphite paper made by rubbing a soft pencil lead on one side of tracing paper. The graphite side faces down onto the surface of the final watercolor paper, you place a drawing on top, then trace down with a pencil.


The watercolor paper I used was Strathmore’s rough textured Watercolor Block paper. The paper comes in a stiff stack that prevents the paper from curling up when you apply wet media to it. I actually prefer Arches brand because I feel I can have more control over the paint on Arches, but I still have some of this Strathmore in the studio and decided to use it for this piece.

Once the drawing is down on the paper, you can erase the graphite and redraw areas if you feel it is necessary. I then taped down the borders of the image area with white Artists’ Tape (low tack so it peels up easily later, but also helps give you a clean edge to your painting if so desired). It is now ready for paint!

Come back tomorrow to see the first steps in the painting process!

Parasite Illustration for Answers Magazine ………. (part 2)

Yesterday I shared with you three concept sketches for an illustration about parasites for the 2013 Jan-Mar issue of Answers Magazine, the quarterly publication of Answers In Genesis. If you guessed that the sketch of the sports fanatic was chosen you would have been correct.

Murphy’s Law dictated that the red sketch had to be chosen because it was the one that had the most detail in it. I love detail because it is fun to look at, but at the same time, I loathe it because it is pretty time consuming to pull off. The art director also loved the detail, but wanted some of that detail changed. Below you can see the first version of the scene again (it is the same as in yesterday’s post), and then the altered version so you can see what changes were made. I drew these in Photoshop on the computer, so breaking parts off and changing them is a little easier to do than if it had been drawn on paper.


Parasite Illustration
This was the first version of the sketch. Notice the food on the table are cookies and chips and soda. 
Hungry Beast
Some of the bagged junk food has now changed to more elaborate junk food like pizza, hot dogs, and fried chicken. Apparently parasites don’t care about cholesterol.


Now, the above is still just a concept drawing. While most of the detail is present, this is in no way ready for final art. The next step is to do a final “pencil” drawing to tie down everything as it will look in the final. The art director needs to see the final tight drawing before he can give the approval for the illustrator to move forward into final color. The drawing below is the final drawing, again created on the computer for ease in making any edits to the design. This time they liked it as is.


Parasite illustration drawing
This is the final drawing created for the magazine’s approval before moving into the color stage.


You can see how the final drawing really hasn’t changed much, but all the details are made clearer – some are even new additions. Once approved, then the toughest part begins – creating the final painting. Many of my illustration colleagues create their final art completely on the computer these days. I have done that now and then, but for the most part I prefer to make a real watercolor painting with colored pencil accents. There is something about the real painting that computers cannot completely replicate – kind of a handmade feel to them. I almost always can tell when a “painting” was done on the computer as opposed to paper or canvas.

That being said, I will create my own personal color composite of the piece on the computer, especially for something as complicated as this. It helps to make those color choices where you can erase and redo. Watercolor on paper is not easily undone.

I don’t usually show the color comp to anyone because it is sloppy. It is just something to aid in my process, and won’t necessarily be precisely followed in the painting. So, here is the rare peek…


rough color comp
My personal color comp. This was where I decided to make the floor wooden. You can see crop lines in there to indicate the printed area of the illustration, but one must ALWAYS paint in a generous “bleed” area around the image in case the client needs to shift it or change the dimensions they originally planned for.


Tomorrow I’ll share with you the final painting along with a couple of “in progress” moments!