With a carefully constructed composition that makes creative use of colour, it’s possible to create an image rich in magic and positivity without it being sickly sweet. That goal features in all of illustrator Andrew Groves’ work – the idea of recreating the feeling of discovering the unexpected, using as few shapes and colours as possible.
“Some of these [discoveries] are things I’ve actually seen,” he says, “some are not.” The chance find that forms the basis of the artwork in this tutorial is a sacred tree-stump temple for tiny practitioners of a unique style of woodland-based martial arts. It’s up to you to decide, Andrew says, whether he has actually stumbled upon this or not.
Before we go anywhere near a computer we’re going to need to do some research – not by doing a Google image search but by going outside and looking at things in real life. The artwork will be about chancing upon something magical. I’ve come across lots of unusual creatures and objects inside tree trunks, so I’m going to start my creative process by photographing some.
It’s a good idea to do some sketches based on what you found. For me, such sketches are about getting the rough idea down on paper.
Later we can think more about layout and composition, for which purposes you might need to do more research. I needed to find some martial arts stances, so I referred to a suitable book and watched a documentary on Shaolin monks. Fascinating.
Working in Illustrator, I divide my document into eight sections using guides. This gives me a framework for the initial composition. Next, I start building the layout of the image using simple filled shapes.
The tree stump is the first thing to tackle, as it is the focus of the image. At this stage the layout is still very flexible, so experiment with the placement of the elements. Consider the relationships between each shape, the distances between them and the negative space and what they line up with on the artboard. Only when you’re happy with the composition should you work on the details.
The reason I have been working in black and white is in order to concentrate on the composition. Once I’m happy with the rough layout I can start to think about the colours.
I tend to limit myself to using no more than eight colours as this maximises the number of ways of printing the image – for example, making screenprinting a feasible and affordable choice.
The main area of focus will be a stump-top dojo, or training room, so I added some depth to the stump. Continuing to use geometric shapes, I roughly created the effect of tilting the viewpoint so we see a platform on top of the stump. Adding anchor points allowed me to manipulate the platform’s path to make a more organic shape.
Having edited the branches to make them, well, more branch-like, I reviewed the layout. The whole image is symmetrical, and that can look a little boring. To create interest I moved the branches so they are no longer in line with each other.
Next I created a basic character, again using simple geometric shapes. I wasn’t too worried about the clothing or anything else at this point.
I drew each of the characters in their fighting stances I had researched and sketched, then moved them into position.
This was another good time to review the layout and make sure the characters were lining up with other shapes and guides. Observe that the distance between the elements and the edge of the artboard is the same on both sides.
Now that the layout and composition were nearly complete, I could add decorations such as a shimenawa – a cord that has ritual significance in the Shinto religion – around the stump. I tilted the cord to align with the tops of both branches, helping to create a visual relationship between the two characters. I also embellished the outfits.
Working in this accurate, geometric way can result in an image that looks a little lifeless, so I always try to add some looser details: wiggly lines on the tree trunk, smoke and some other details, drawn freehand with the Pencil tool (N).
Last of all, taking advantage of patterns I created to simulate stippling and crosshatching, I added some shading to key elements of the image. Now we’d better let those little fellows train in peace.
Andrew Groves is an image-maker and craftsman based in West Sussex. Common themes in his work include natural phenomena and wilderness exploration. His style has been called bold, geometric and graphic.