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!