Self Crit 001: “Turtle Kingdom”
The plan here is to start a series of articles wherein I self-critique some of my illustrations. I’ll document my strengths as well as where I lacked the finesse needed to pull something off. I’ll also discuss process. I’ve appreciated when artists I admire have done that and I’d like to pay it forward.
It’s a self-involved premise for an article series, but if I put in the effort and talk through my approach, others may find it interesting or helpful. We’re all working to get better at the things that matter to us. I think it’s cool to share in that journey, so off we go.
How I Did It
I did all the illustration in Procreate on an iPad Pro 12.9 with an Apple Pencil. I think the iPad offers the best tablet drawing experience out there for people that just want to make art. It’s portable, responsive, and powerful. I had a Cintiq 16 for around a year and finally sold it because I much prefer the iPad. Procreate has its flaws, but it’s the best straight-to-the-point drawing app for iOS at the moment.
I exported the final art out of Procreate and did some levels and color adjustments in Photoshop. I also did a few final tweaks to the piece in Lightroom. I did that because Lightroom makes specific color adjustments super easy. It was important to me to get them dialed in for this illustration since the colors were the stars of the show.
As you can see in this video, the approach was fairly straightforward. I like starting with a rough “blue pencil” line sketch to block out composition. Then I start building elements and adding further detail in layers. I try to do this in stages rather than tackling all the things at once. So ideally I’d draw the rocks, then add moss, then fallen leaves, then foliage. I mostly stuck to that plan, but I still jumped around to change elements when things felt out of balance or too busy.
For this piece, I used a technique where I freehand select areas and then fill them in with a grainy shading brush. I like this method because these brushes add a lot of character, but can be unwieldy unless you constrain them into a defined area.
When I paint with a grainy brush inside a selection, I can build up color along the edges of that selection and go lighter in other areas. This is great for implying shadows or highlights. I used this technique throughout the rock formations in this illustration. I also use this method with a grainy eraser to lighten up areas that got built up more than I intended.
I’ll then go over top of the grainy bits using a rough line brush with a nice pressure-based taper. That works great for details and to define edges or lines that the grainy brushes don’t handle well. For reflections, I copied the ground elements and flipped them upside down. After tinting the reflections blue, I blended them into the water to help sell the effect.
I rendered the trees with a medium-width brush to get the base color. Then I went back over top of that with a narrower dry brush to get nice texture-y shadows and highlights. That helps imply the bark without getting too deep in the weeds on details. This is a stylized illustration and it’s more about the feel of it than achieving realism.
What Went Well
I think the biggest victory in this piece was the color palette I landed on. I found some color harmonies through a bit of trial and error on previous illustrations that really came alive in this piece. I’m a big fan of the way the peachy color used in highlights and the saturated oranges and reds play off the cooler tones in the water.
The tan hues of the background add some needed contrast and breathing room from what are generally pretty dark and saturated colors happening in the bottom half of the illustration. The whole ensemble turns out looking pleasant and sorta retro. That’s fitting because I was drawing inspiration from WPA travel posters and classic children’s book illustrations.
I ended up with some good diagonal movement and sort of an S-shaped composition. That gives the viewer a decent path to follow as they take in the work. The trees frame the space and interact well without causing too many awkward intersecting lines or tangents. I try to avoid those when putting together an illustration like this.
If you watch the process video, you’ll see that I drew a lot more fallen leaves and also some reeds in the water. I later decided they made things too busy, so I pruned that stuff back. There’s a delicate balance to strike between adding details and allowing your artwork to breathe. You want to create space for key elements to come forward and should give them the chance to shine.
This is a vague and subjective thing, but I think this illustration ended up with a pleasant vibe. The colors were largely responsible for that, but there’s also something about a woodland/aquatic landscape that is inviting to look at.
I have plenty of room to improve, but I’m generally pretty happy with the look I landed on here. I think the rock formations and trees especially look pretty solid and are drawn in a fun and loose style. It’s not photo-realistic at all, but It reminds me of real places I’ve been. That sense of familiarity in a figurative image is enjoyable.
What Didn’t Go So Well
Reflections in Water
There’s a trick to rendering reflections in water where the height of the reflection relates to whether the landscape and objects above it are receding. If they are, the correct thing to do is make the reflections shorter than the objects above them appear to be. The opposite is true if they are leaning towards the water.
My rock formations slope back from the water and I didn’t think to carry that through into the reflections at all. It slipped my mind even though I highlighted these exact concepts in my copy of “Drawing Scenery” by Jack Hamm (great book, highly recommended). Whoops.
This is something I’ll try to remember next time around.
Foreground to Background Transition
I struggled with figuring out a way to make the water fade into the background. My other background elements are made to look far off by fading their colors and level of detail. This is a trick known as atmospheric perspective and is a great way to create the feeling of depth in a landscape.
Well, I just couldn’t find a way to sell that effect with the water towards the back of the scene. Gradating the water looked weird and so I kinda gave up and made it a consistent color all the way back. It doesn’t look terrible, but I know there’s a better way to achieve what I was aiming for.
I’ll study other illustrators and do some reading to figure out better techniques to handle that. When in doubt, seek out examples of more experienced people doing the thing you’re having trouble with.
Turtle Head is Kinda Janky
Both the head and neck on the turtle looks a little weird. I was aiming for drawing a red-eared slider. It’s a species of water turtle native to the southeastern US. I didn’t get the head and neck anatomy or coloring right.
It looks a little weird. Reflecting back on my process, I recall feeling a little burnt out on the project by the time I started on the turtle. So I accepted good enough instead of striving for better. I don’t know about you, but I suffer from this sometimes when working on a beefy project. It starts looking close to complete and I’ve put in a lot of hours, so I get impatient and race for the finish.
Finishing strong is something I’m going to push myself to do more as I go forward.
Needs More Turtles!
I should have added in at least another turtle or two. If you ever see these little guys hanging out in a pond, there’s usually going to be more than one. Again, I attribute this to my running out of steam at the tail end of this project.
Turtles are are a lot like cowbell and I’ve got a fever!
Left Side Trees
I didn’t quite get the colors of the trees on the left side to look right. I wanted them to be different from the right side trees as they’re meant to be another species. What I landed on seems off to me when I look at it now. They appear almost too flat. I should have spent more time tweaking that until it felt better.
I Phoned it in on Shadows
Not much to say here. This illustration would have benefited from a more thoughtful use of shadows. I really only included them under the turtle and fallen leaves. A few shadows cast by trees or other foliage would have gone a long way towards creating depth and making the scene feel more dynamic. That being said, it would be important to ensure they didn’t make the scene too busy.
This was my first one of these and also my first article I’ve written for any reason. I probably kept in too much fluff, but I should get better as I go.
I’d love to hear any feedback you have: what was interesting, what wasn’t, what you’d like to know more about, what I could show more of, etc. I may lean harder on the critique or process side depending on what floats people’s boat more, so please let me know!
Thank you for reading and also a big thanks to my buddy Dirk HCM van Boxtel for giving me feedback on this article while I was writing it ❤