How To Paint a Portrait of Your Favourite Game Composer

Some music for your reading pleasure?

I have a love-hate relationship with tutorials promising the secrets to drawing idyllic flaxen locks, glossy anime eyeballs, or more abstract themes like “how to draw scifi”. It’s well-intentioned that others are trying to get people’s art from point A to point B or build excitement over creating in general, but they will never teach those people how to see. In my experience, drawing is far more seeing with your brain than it is drawing with your hand. Anyone needing honest titles for tutorials should consider something like “How I Drew Something That Was Scifi”.

When I do tutorials on creating good artwork, they end up being abstract, nonlinear, and involve steps like:

“Don’t kill yourself when you probably should have.”

Yes, that’s seriously Step 7 in one of my art tutorials from last year.

Sure, it’s extreme, but it drives home the point that there is no shortcut to sharing genuine experiences with others and no need to be something you are not. Our lives will be an arrangement of joy and suffering nuanced beyond any two people taking the exact same path. That’s why I boldly hypothesize that the best art is any that genuinely reflects the artist’s current experiences. The facts that I have divorced parents or that I participated in Christian school education for over seventeen years are as much a part of my art as what application I choose to boot up for digital art that day.

So here we are. You’re expecting a tutorial? I will gladly give you one on my tribute to my favourite game composer, Jessica Curry. I don’t have much to speak on technique but you’ll learn more about the process than in your typical tutorial, promise.

I. How long should I expect this to take?

If you asked me how long this image took to paint, there are an infinite number of answers. If you aren’t a creative professional, you’d believe the answer is:

“This image took three hours to paint.”

And surely enough, if you watched me paint this particular image and timed me, you’d also say, “Yep, took him three hours.”

On the other end of this spectrum would be the Carl Sagan’s quote: “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” And so, I propose an obnoxious but more honest answer to the question:

“This image took between three hours and one infinity to complete.”

If this wasn’t pro bono (don’t worry, I’ll explain) invoicing that estimate would be tricky! You could guess by the tone that I’d love waxing existential and metaphysical on this, but I’ll give you a more accessible answer nestled lovingly between 3 hours and apple pie galaxies:

“This image’s incubation included two all nighters, about six version iterations, an hour of notes, some article and interview hounding, countless hours mindfully listening to music, and plenty of mornings outside of my freelance noodling away in tunnel vision. This image took around 60 hours to complete.

II. Studies

Normally I work in commissions that are more flexible, abstracted, with lower time budgets, serving as more fine art than illustration. And I could feel the difference in this assignment: my conventional illustration gears were rusty. Instead of taking time to get out some notes, I had jumped right into comps and studies.

Just a few of the sketches in Alchemy

I had a slew of Jessica Curry’s profile photos to use as references, but most of them were camera shots up close from a webcam. Any artist copying those would likely get a stale or skewed image. As much as I love the KISS principle—Keep It Simple, Stupid!—I had foolishly planned some more complicated ideas only possible if I were able to light and shoot my own references. Since this image would be a surprise I wasn’t going to contact The Chinese Room for help, limiting me to my slim references.

Because this job was to accompany an interview with Jessica centered around her work for Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, some visual references to the album artwork were appropriate. I don’t have a PC nor a PS4, so I had to listen to the soundtrack and play off the album art:

English Pastoral scenes, butterflies, a couple in clothing with a contemporary aesthetic? This imagery is about as unconventional as it gets for today’s expectations of videogames, and couldn’t be more fitting for the soundtrack (or my tastes in games!).

III. All Nighter #1

I started a large comp on newsprint planning on a vignette of some sort, knowing my traditional/digital process is still heavily exploratory to me and would provide some fun variables to unpack. This was my first all-nighter in some time. I was resolved to get this image done by the end of the morning:

Original done in sharpie, charcoal, whiteout, acrylic, prismas, and packaging tape. Top left: all nighter. Top right: Noodling for a few mornings later. Bottom half were done more recently

Along with the album art I wanted to give reference to Jessica’s open letter to the games industry, detailing her current “it’s complicated” relationship to The Chinese Room, a recently diagnosed degenerative disease, and other challenges. Originally I played with the idea of a single dark streak going behind the head which could be later morphed into a reference to a disease, a growing idea, or a potential career venture. After playing with TCR’s origami logo, I felt it better to remove the visual association all together out of respect. The visual elements representing hardships seemed heavy-handed, so I let them go for the time being.

IV. Escaping Crippling Depression

My first all-nighter happened in January, barely a month before I was moving to a completely new city. What this image will not show you is that January was the most intense month of my life. In less than one month’s time I had started finalizing plans to divorce my wife, tapped into substance abuse for the first [and last] time, started planning my suicide, experienced a wild awakening of my sexual and religious identities, and finally received an offer from a friend to move to a completely new place. With this job and many others still in my queue, I drove to Bettendorf Iowa from Cincinnati Ohio, 420 miles away.

This had such a profound effect on my art that I knew I had to document it here, and this train of thought germinated into the lecture I gave in Atlanta.

V. Taking Notes

This step should have been completed from the start, but better late than never. Being in a new home allowed some clarity of mind. I took it as an opportunity to take notes on the commission as I would with my private clients: try to profile abstract emotional or spiritual needs as quickly as possible, then set out to reach them. These notes were a result of that open letter linked earlier.

Even as an unpaid job, this image meant the world to me. There were moments when Rapture’s soundtrack brought me peace when nothing else would. This woman’s life and work had touched me more than she may ever know! In all the times I applied to AAA studios and had portfolio reviews with ADs, no fear of failure felt quite like this. This anxiety, when paired with my relocation to a new home, made it easy for me to shy away to my paid and more comfortable work, and so this job was moved to the back burner, again.

VII. All Nighter #2

My ambivalence about the urgency of this assignment shifted gears last week. A friend of mine linked me on Facebook to an article on Rapture; it was slated for release on Steam the next day! I felt this would by my last chance for a fresh deadline, so I switched gears from my regular commission work to finish this out. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the last image wasn’t sincere enough, so at 23h that night I started from scratch and messaged my client an update at 6h that morning.

Never let me work late into the night.

The end result was just… awkward and bore little resemblance at all to Jessica. Through the all-nighter I lost sight of my the notes I took earlier, slamming my head into a proverbial art wall for seven hours before sending out an image as a proof that I at least tried. I told my client I felt it did not hold a likeness but with fresh eyes I’d check it out tomorrow.

Here’s the message that was waiting for me when my friend saw the image:

I agree
We cannot publish this. I think that Jessica deserves the best.
Her features aren’t defined
The background is off
That last one worked much better.

I hated reading this because it confirmed my suspicions. Yes, my image really was ugly. Yes, I’m still being plagued by the anxieties this job held from before my move. No, I’m not clutch-enough to autopilot this assignment in an all nighter, and no, after this “last” push I still wasn’t done. In moments like these one should acknowledge that a misstep will bring us closer to our solution, but like any difficult truth, that is easier said than done. And of course Jessica deserves the best, but am I even fit to deliver that in my current state?

VIII. Finding the Pattern

In my worst moments, I was tempted to shy away from my purpose and curl into a little ball until I disappeared. In its unfinished state, this job would prove to me that I was under the residual effects of my nightmare from months ago.

To prove that my past was not going to contain me, I had to respectfully acknowledge and then advance beyond my feelings. I tried one last time.

Note how the first stage doesn’t look embarrassing. Normally a good art omen.

I recalled that a previous video interview with Jessica had particularly pleasing lighting to it. As I mentioned earlier, part of my lack of success was from a lack of an exact lighting/pose reference, so I went with the earlier vignette concept applied to some frames from the interview, and things naturally clicked into place. My minor colour edits at the end were done in the last three hours. This image doesn’t flex heavily, conceptually. It’s definitely a small and simple idea that didn’t meet my loftier expectations set by my earliest drafts, but at least this time it was useful.

After my shortcomings from earlier that morning I had no clue how this image would be received. It’s easy to forget what “good” looks like with your nose to a grindstone and poor sleep hygiene. But my friend loved it and it’s now being used for the article. And so, this image took tens of hours, and also took only three hours to complete, and finally this obstacle is behind me.

Well, mostly behind me.

IX. Dear Jessica

Now that this image is done, and you know a bit about the struggle, I though I’d share the final part of this “tutorial”. It’s why I did this image in the first place.

I’ve been taking commissions since 2007, and switched to full-time illustration in 2011. Up until 2014 I was trying so hard to fit into the entertainment industry and other facets of illustration, but things never stuck. Countless ADs and reps dropped the ball on me. So many artists loved my work, yet I could never get hired. For 2012–2013 I was even an art director for a start-up that never paid me a cent and disrespected me the entire time. I never fit cleanly into the big picture because I promised myself I’d only take on art jobs where I could improve individual lives directly, or at least help create/sell things that make the world a better place. When my philosophies weren’t being manipulated they were barring me entrance to the places that satisfied my peers.

I grew tired of technically excellent art that does nothing to push culture forward. I went from worshipping the newest and glossiest AAA concept art to yawning at it when it has nothing to do with an artist’s individual expression. As a former videogame addict and a current freelance artist, I now only have time for games that will either make me a better person or foster community. Like The Chinese Room’s Dear Esther did, like Rapture probably will, whenever I get to play it.

When my friend chose to interview Jessica and asked if he could commission me to do a portrait of her, I initially declined. Jessica is creating these masterpieces while dealing with the unfair implications of her gender in her chosen industry AND a degenerative disease. She’s kicking all sorts of ass in the face of adversity while creating work that rocks me to my core. Can I contribute to all that positive momentum?

And so I decided to do the image for free. I know, I know, that’s something professionals should almost never do, but hear me out. This work accompanied a friend’s article for his non-profit zine with a good purpose, it’s a thank-you gift to a composer whom I love, and since it’s not a paid job I’m okay with showing all the absolutely atrocious artistic and emotional collateral leading up to this point. Maybe I’ll just tag Jessica Curry on Twitter and point her here. Maybe I’ll send her an email. Maybe one day we’ll collaborate together, or at least have a great chat. I can think of no one else I’d rather have composing music to my most personal pieces. Truly, her music was a language I already understood, and it left me feeling like we’re already friends.

X. Bottom Lines

I like ending my lessons with simple concepts one should apply to one’s life. I imagine these are the final steps of the tutorial.

  1. When you find art that calls out to you, it’s not a fluke. Pursue that call fervently. Don’t diminish your soul’s longing for something greater than yourself.
  2. Let your positives and your negatives influence you. Jessica’s work is great because it’s real and it’s hers, not because it’s trying to emulate a formula for compositional excellence.

My love to you all, and warmest regards to Jessica Curry,

-J

Say hi on Twitter, or get the more intimate chunks of this story through exclusive notes, art, comics, and illustrated lectures on Patreon.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.