‘Start to Finish’ illustration process by Lynda

StarKade by James White

Also titled “I don’t know the correct way, but here’s how I do it”.

A little while ago I posted the Creative Spark documentary Lynda shot here in my studio, introducing me and my work. Well, while the crew was here (and seeing my silly passion for illustrating wrestlers) they decided to shoot another piece focusing on my process. So here’s the result, the ‘Start to Finish’ of my Undertaker illustration.

Beware: I say “aesthetic” around 40 times in the first 2 minutes. My limited vocabulary really shines.

This is the first time I let anyone step into my space to record my process. I’ve had people request Signalnoise tutorials a lot over the years, but I don’t believe in teaching through “Push this button, now push that button” methods. So when Lynda brought up the idea of filming me in action, it was a great opportunity to discuss the nuts and bolts of my process while not being a typical “paint by numbers” thing. I’m a fundamentals guy, so you’ll see that there aren’t any fancy tricks or secret ingredients in my work.

This is the kind of stuff I do by myself in my office… just making it up as I go along. So it’s no lie when I say it’s weird for me to see this video out there. But I hope you enjoy getting a glimpse into my process, and it encourages you to experiment with your own art and design techniques.

5 Years Ago

5 years ago today, everything in my little design world changed. Yeah, that’s a pretty high-falootin’ thing to say but it’s the absolute truth. Let me explain…

In 2007 after the release of my first and only book, I was trying to figure out what the next logical step in my career was going to be. I mean my “personal” career. I was working at an agency at the time but worked feverishly on my own little projects outside of the office. My book kind of summed up everything I did in my twenties and put all those unfinished projects to rest. And for a bit more perspective, I registered Signalnoise.com in April of 1999. I was flopping around like a fish on the wharf during those 8 years trying to find my artistic voice. Inspiration without direction. For downloadable evidence see the Signalnoise Graveyard and the myriad of Signalnoise logos.

I was hanging out with my pal Chris Toms one evening when I decided to start a blog. Nothing profound since blogging had been around for years prior, but I never considered Signalnoise to be a blogging platform. Maybe this new direction would give me a reason to update my site with new work? It was worth a shot. Within days Chris had me set up on his host and WordPress functionality was installed. On the evening of October 23rd, 2007, I wrote my first meagre post aptly titled Signalnoise in development:

If you happen to come across this blog please be aware that it is under construction. I am currently building a better compatibility between my personal site and my Flickr account. I’ve come across a few wonderful Flash applications that make a seamless connection to Flickr accounts, something I’ve been searching for.

So, thanks for your interest. Please come back for something better once the foundation is built.

What a knucklehead, huh? In the days following I would write a few little posts on the creative process, started breaking down some of my personal techniques and experimenting with some different art styles. Again, nothing profound. I think I had 13 visitors on my site that month but I didn’t care. That’s when everything changed… I stopped creating art based on trend or acceptance and started creating art for myself. I started having fun. I started to play. I started to explore.

For the first time in my career, Signalnoise.com had become to backbone of my work rather than just a display tool. I wanted to keep it fresh, which meant creating new art and content. They fed each other. A few short months later I was contacted by an up-and-coming design blog to do my first online interview. The email came from a guy named Fabio Sasso and his little Abduzeedo website would expose my art to the world.

Why am I writing this? Well, I get asked by a lot of students and design professionals about how I “did it”. And the truth is there’s no secret ingredient. I made a decision and stuck with it, started small with that goofy little post above and have been building Signalnoise pixel by pixel ever since. Back then I never would have guessed I’d still be doing it 5 years later… but I probably wouldn’t have cared either. I was having fun, and that’s what counts.

So today I’ll be reflecting on the last 5 years and the ongoing journey with this little website. It just might get a little weepy.

Birth of the Signalnoise logo

Started playing with the spectrum, probably sampled from the Commodore 64 logo.

Overlapped those suckers to see what other tones the shapes produced.

Circles are cooler. Less aggressive.

No wait, how about some cubes with different darknesses? Might look cool.

What if the cube sides were different colours. That's fun. Maybe too "kid's room".

What if the cubes were ripped up and unfolded. That's weird.

Back to basics. Lets try some overlapping squares in a radial layout.

Skew that thing, all modern and whatever. Skewing is hip, right?

Still liked those overlapping circles from before. Try those in the radial layout.

Discovered the overlapping corners on the squares above make nice little leaf shapes. Cool!

Started combining some of these little experiments, which resulted in the first version of my rainbow sun.

I then simplified my previous logo last year into the current version.

I was hanging out with my buddy Nathan the other day who I actually worked with at an agency a few years ago. He told me he was rooting around some of my old files looking for something and came across a big Illustrator file full of logo experiments. Now, these experiments were actually for a client at the time but what I was building and exploring was axed before it was even shown. Bummer, right?

But everything happens for a reason. I liked the progression and experiments so much that I ended up using them directly to develop the current Signalnoise logo. When people in the office weren’t looking, I’d open that AI file to play with it and eventually landed on my rainbow sun. Funny how that happens, huh?

So, shown here for the first time are the little steps and experiments I noodled around with. Very different directions that all led to my final. A big thanks to Nathan for sending this file over, I hadn’t seen it in years.

Welcome to the Vacuum

The time between Christmas and the New Year is something I like to call the vacuum. It’s really the only time of year when phone calls are sparse, email calms down a bit and the amount of responsibility tends to be a bit lower. A lot of people have vacation around this time that spans the week. Not all, I realize.

Since my parents live only an hour away, I go home for the annual White Christmas and hang out there for a few days before heading back, leaving me with around 4 days to do what I want. The vacuum. I started using this little time period a few years ago to relax a bit, think about some new projects, anticipate the new year and tinker around with some fun little designs I’ve wanted to do for a while. I stay up late, listen to music, and fire around some graphics.

This year is a bit different. I spent the last 2 days breaking in my new iPad which I’ve lovingly named Yeti. I want my iPad to solve problems in my workflow and general communication, so I’ve been using it to do research on creative flow, idea generating, brand focus and all kinds of nuts and bolts stuff. Reading Seth Godin’s Blog has been a huge help. In short, lots of note-taking.

I found it difficult during 2011 to keep up with everything. My email inbox is a damn mess and has been for months, resulting in missed opportunities and delays which I’m not happy about. Huge problem. Recognizing that weakness, I’m focusing most of my energy on a remedy or rhythm. Something that will use my time better

Welcome to the vacuum, everyone. Hope your holidays have been going well.

Roy Scheider portrait in an hour

This afternoon I gave myself an hour to do a digitally painted portrait, just to see what I could manage given the time constraint. I want to do more of this kind of work after using this process for my Hobo With a Shotgun and Drive posters. I completed this in 58 minutes, despite being interrupted by a phone call. Rock n’ roll.

I knew right away who I wanted to paint, the main character from my favourite movie. Chief Martin Brody from JAWS, played by the late Roy Scheider, based on a frame from the movie just after the shark’s big reveal.

Evenings, Weekends and “Sick Days”

Here is a topic that has been spread throughout my broadcasts, posts and general creative process for most of my life and something I should have written a focused post on before now. So I want to take a few minutes and talk about something important to me based on my own experience and how I live my life.

The foundation for the Signalnoise platform was built not because I had a business plan, or an entrepreneurial escapade or a project manager telling me what do do. I built everything on my own time, because I had to. Because it’s fun. What a lot of people don’t know is that I worked as a website designer for about 12 years before making the leap to go full freelance only last year. While I was working at various agencies it was evenings, weekends and “sick days” that counted the most. If you look in my Gallery, 80% of that stuff is personal work.

I would work 9 to 5, run home to grab some dinner, then work until 2am on the many personal projects I had on the go. I never stopped, and there were huge stints where my friends wouldn’t see me because I was at home drawing, or animating in Flash, or creating a series of art pieces in Photoshop, or redesigning my website, etc. To me, the stuff I was doing during evenings wasn’t “work”, it was stuff I couldn’t wait to get home in order to keep going on. I loved doing it … it was a lifestyle, not a hobby.

Weekends were the same, only then I could spend a huge chunk of daytime hours plugging away on those personal projects. There really is nothing better than a rainy Sunday and a clean schedule. I would set my alarm real early to get a jump on that prime real estate. I’d plop in front of the computer or drawing table with a nice coffee and that would be my day.

“Sick days” are in quotes because … well, maybe once or twice I called in sick to work in order to stay home and work on my stuff. Your place is never quieter than when people think you’re sick. But that’s bad advice, don’t do that.

We live in a world of constant distraction. I’m not talking about the day job, I’m talking about everything else that eats away the hours so you constantly hear people saying “I wish I had more free time” or “I’d do more designing is I weren’t so busy”. In my experience, that isn’t caused by a lack of free time, it’s because that time is eaten up by social stuff, television, video games, general goofin’ off, whatever else. Using your free time wisely is a choice, not something you hope happens on it’s own. Signalnoise would not exist if I didn’t pour those hours into it. I had to. I read about all those classical artists from back in the 16th century or whatever creating because they were compelled to create. I guess it’s the same for me, and has been since I was drawing at the age of 4.

Obviously everyone’s life is different, comprised of infinitely different things. Sometimes it’s just not feasible to steal time away, and I understand that, but everyone should try to make the time to do what they love through whatever means. It’s a no-brainer to me.

If you are a creative person you should look forward to evenings, weekends and “sick days”. Genuinely look forward to that time. Not because you can sit on the couch and shut your brain off, but because that’s when you work on the stuff that truly matters. The stuff you create for you, from your heart.

When I was in grade 1 I remember racing home from school to keep working on that drawing I started the night before. Things really haven’t changed. It’s a lifestyle, man.

Hobo With a Shotgun: Poster process

If you’ve seen my Back to the Future presentation at any point this year you would have seen me tell the story of Hobo With a Shotgun and my involvement with the design of some of the elements. I’ve posted about the film before and talked about it on my broadcasts several times, but up until now the full behind-the-scenes gear was only shown onstage. It’s about time I retire that section of the presentation to launch it online for everyone to see.

It’s my favorite story to tell, my favorite project in recent years, and best of all it was all done for friends in order to help them with their project. That’s what it’s all about. We support each other around these parts and Dartmouth blood is thick, especially when being splattered onscreen. I was thrilled when Jason Eisener and Rob Cotterill asked me to design a Hobo poster. While not being the official one used, it was a wildly entertaining challenge. So lets load those barrels and get to it.

• Some Hobo poster thumbnails. Working out a concept.

• Full Rutger Hauer drawing, blue lead and ink.

• Digital concept mock-up #1.

• Digital concept mock-up #2.

• Digital concept mock-up #3. Boom!

I knew early on that I was going to digitally paint the poster, something I’ve been wanting to attempt for a while. A huge challenge, totally out of my comfort zone. I’ve been a big fan of guys like Drew Struzan and Bob Peak for a long time, so doing something like that offered up some unique obstacles which challenged my entire proces. Before I got to building the actual poster in Photoshop, I needed to have things planned out properly and extensively.

Shown above are my original concept sketches and digital mock-ups. I even went as far as doing a meticulous drawing of Rutger Hauer to get myself in the groove of capturing likeness in Photoshop. Again, something I’m pretty unfamiliar with. The digital mock-ups were unsuccessful from a design standpoint, but man, I still love that one of the Hobo blowing away the person looking at the poster. So funny.

• Palette samples.

The great thing about working with the guys is they have a really specific style in mind, and they can express it in art samples. Crazy helpful. Shown above are some color examples Jason sent over that he used as inspiration for the lighting and palette of Hobo. Bright pinks and purples are top priority, which I didn’t know since I hadn’t seen the film at this point. This really put me on the right path. Here are some digital mock-ups I put together with the new colours in mind.

• Digital concept mock-up #4.

• Digital concept mock-up #5.

I started some new mock-ups with the proper palette and vibe and things started to click. Again drawing on inspiration from Struzan, I collaged together some of the photos Jason sent over to get the composition nailed down. I can see a big Star Wars influence in there, which was fine since me and the Hobo guys are all kids of the ’80s. VHS culture, man. You might be able to see a Bill Sienkiewicz vibe in there too, I was looking at old Dazzler comic covers at the time.

• Vector colour palette test.

Once the composition was coming along, I decided to do a vector colour study before moving onto the digital paints. Having the photos were great, but I wanted to dilute the composition to know exactly what my palette was going to be. So I got rid of the details and roughed up the above image using simple shapes to represent the areas.

I should also mention that you’re going to see changes in layout and characters as we go. The poster was a total work in progress in terms of what characters would go where, even during the final stages.

• Starting in with the digital paints, blocking stuff in.

• Close-up of paint progress. More texture and detailing.

After all that planning I was finally able to leap into Photoshop and start building the paints. I took a semester of foundation paint at a local art school back in 2004, and even though I didn’t enjoy it that much I took from it some important techniques which lent itself quite well to Photoshop. I learned to block things in and layer colours on top of one another to build palettes and texture. Very helpful at this stage.

Shown above are my initial steps. Really rough and simple at tis point as I mapped things out. A big challenge was to let the brush in Photoshop act like paint. It was oksy to get a bit messy with it and let strokes fall outside the lines. It suited the content, y’know?

• Digital paint mid-point.

After many, many hours of digital painting the palette was starting to get away from me, as shown above. It didn’t have the life those initial compositions had and the colours were not near what I wanted. I did the “morning after” test, you know, when you sleep on it then wake up and hate what you’ve done? Yeah that. So I took an entire day, ripped apart my layers one by one and started adjusting everything. Added some new effects and dry brush textures to this thing.

By the end of the day, this is where I was:

• Palette and atmosphere revision.

Now we’re talking. This was where I wanted to be. I dug it, the guys dug it. We were off to the races.

• Final Hobo With a Shotgun poster.

So after a great many hours painting textures, splatters, characters, lighting and effects … the final poster emerged. The scene changed as I went, but it captured that initial flavour we all really wanted. Something fun, and cool, which would be very happy on the cover of a sun-bleached VHS box.

In the end, even though this wasn’t used as the official Hobo poster or box art, I wouldn’t trade this project for the world. It was created for a killer movie, a killer Dartmouth movie, for my friends. And it offered up some real challenges which put me in a place I wasn’t familiar with. I learned a huge amount by working on this thing, about the medium and about myself as a creator. To date I’ve only printed 2 of these things at full movie poster size, but more are in the pipeline for sure. You’ve been warned. There you have it.

And finally, if you haven’t seen Hobo With a Shotgun yet … what the hell are you waiting for?

Action Thriller 4: Time-lapse process

I recently completed work on a CD cover for my friends over at Imagem Production Music for the 4th installment of their Action Thriller series. In short, stock movie trailer music for action films. Awesome. So they had me come up with a concept for the cover and go to town. I had this image of a leather-clad biker in my head for a little while and this seemed like a suitable stage for the guy.

Just before I started the labour of creating elements in Illustrator, I turned on the screen recorder in hopes that I’d have enough footage to create a time-lapse video of the process. It worked, and stands at a full 12:43.

You can see my entire 6-hour stint creating the cover you see above, from concept to final as I flew around Illustrator and Photoshop building the image from scratch. I didn’t cut anything out of here, this video is complete with screw-ups, experiments, good ideas, bad ideas, menus, buttons, layers, stock photos and the occasional iTunes appearance. All of the little decisions I made along the way. Nothing to hide, here. All secrets revealed. What you see is what I saw.

I’m a big advocate of helping people out, so I hope this video does just that. These things take time, some planning and a LOT of messing around along the way. I’m constantly telling people to have fun with what they do, and I hope this video is a testament that I’m still working under that mantra. If it looks like chaos … well, it is. The good kind.

Sidenote: this is the second piece I’ve done that features this leather-clad biker character, the first being my fake Signalnoise movie poster back in December. He’s my own 1980s indy action film character, perhaps a pseudo-Signalnoise mascot. You’ll see more of him in the future.