In the Days of Legends

In 2009, I flew to Paris to see the gallery exhibition of a couple of friends of mine. A few months later, I happened to be in Los Angeles at the same time as one of these friends and it was there that the idea of the two of us having a show in Paris was born.  

 

This friend, Iain McCaig, is not only a brilliant artist but a wonderful storyteller and writer and it was his idea that we write a story together and illustrate it with our paintings.  He even had a concept we could build a story on. The idea was to combine characters from two different works of fiction whose origins could have dated back to the same time period. The two works? “Le Morte D’Arthur” and “The Arabian Nights”.  

 

I’m no writer but this opportunity was just too good to pass up so a few weeks later we got together and wrote some outlines for how we could take this nub of an idea and flesh it out into an actual story.  As the process moved forward, Iain began to get busy with other commitments so I pressed on with developing some ideas I had on my own with the intention of finishing a brief draft that I could then hand over to Iain for him to create his own draft from.  Well, a process I was expecting would take a couple of weeks ended up taking a little longer than that.  In fact, it was three years later when I finished writing my 453 page novel.

 

Now, I wasn’t working in a vacuum that whole time, Iain was always a phone call away to bounce ideas off of or just lend moral support and when I finished, he was the first to congratulate me. Writing doesn’t come easy for me and before this project began I never would have imagined I would someday author something of this magnitude and I have to confess if it wasn’t for Iain’s enthusiasm and encouragement I don’t think I ever would. But it did get finished and it was then that Iain pointed out the obvious; that the story I had written had become my story and with that generously bequeathed all interest he had in the project to me.

 

At this point you have to be asking, “How did this end up being  about writing a novel?  Weren’t you supposed to be painting all this time?!”. The answer, of course, is yes. However, the creative process can sometimes take an artist into strange and unexpected places and if your muse is leading the way what choice do you have but to follow?  I know this will sound completely unbelievable but I don't intend the novel to ever be read by anyone. Instead, the story it tells is to be expressed through the paintings it inspires. After all, I'm a painter not a writer.  

 

As you may have guessed from the heading above, the title of the story is, “In the Days of Legends”, which begins with a chance encounter between Scheherazade of the Arabian Nights and Sir Ywain from Le Mort D’Arthur and ends up becoming a sweeping adventure tale that takes us from what is today Iraq, through the Arabian peninsula to Egypt where we board ship for Constantinople.  It’s a story of love, betrayal, faith, and discovery all set against the backdrop of the Byzantine Empire.

The Artist

I was born and raised in Orange County, California.  After high school I enrolled at California State University, Fullerton and spent the next five years earning my BFA. After spending the next year working in the human resources department of a large mortgage company I quit my job and returned to CSUF to get my masters degree. After graduating I was lucky enough to get hired at  Industrial Light and Magic in 1991 as an assistant matte painter on Steven Spielberg’s “Hook” as well as a couple of other films ILM was working on at the time. After Hook wrapped, I returned to Orange County and spent the next year mostly unemployed but occasionally doing concept design work and a couple of matte paintings. One was for a TV movie and the other was for an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”. I didn’t know it at the time but that would end up being the last physical matte painting I would ever create. A month or two after finishing that show I got a call to come back to ILM to work on a new TV series called “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles”. The hitch was the matte work on that show would all be done digitally; primarily through straight paint work in Photoshop. As it turned out I really took to working this way and over the next three years me and the other artists in the department began to expand the kind of work we could do in that new medium.

 

By 1995 I was not only working full time at ILM but moonlighting on a few sci-fi shows on the side: Babylon 5 and a couple of Star Trek series. I was actually making better money with these side gigs so my wife and I decided I should leave ILM and work full time as a freelance artist. So in November of that year we moved to Washington State where I started my own visual effects company called BlackPool Studios. Over the years I have worked on over 30 feature films and countless TV shows - most of them forgettable but a few that I am proud to say I worked on.  

After about 20 years of creating images digitally, I began to think about working with paint again only this time in a fine art capacity and that’s what lead to what eventually became, “In the Days of Legends”.

The Process

As a painter, the thing that fascinates me most about the artists I admire is how they created the images that they painted.  Most of my favorite artists lived during the 19th century and what they left behind is the final finished painting but very little, if anything, about how they created it.  Being the 19th century, it would, of course, be plausible for many of these artists to use photographic sources in their work in addition to making color studies and compositional sketches but we don’t get to actually see the process of how they designed and painted their paintings.  

 

In the film I made about the hippodrome painting, you literally see it being painted from start to finish but that part of my process is actually the very end.  Of the three years it took to create the painting, seven months was spent on research and the design and creation of my reference model.  In the film you see me making a ten foot model out of cardboard and balsa wood and if I was creating this painting fifty years ago that’s the path I would have taken but since I use digital tools in my professional work today it only makes sense to include them in the development phase of the imagery I create in my fine art.   

 

A truly great artist can render believable images from their imagination.  Sadly, I’m not one of those artists.  What I’m good at is painting what I can see so if I take the time to create a detailed computer model of say the hippodrome, it will allow me to create an equally detailed painting.  Yes, it’s a tremendous amount of work (the hippodrome model is the most complex 3D model I have ever built both personally and professionally) but having the final image I am going to paint already completely worked out before I even start the painting is how I like to work.  I guess you could say this earlier phase is the truly creative part and the painting itself is just a copy of my reference material but the reason the final image is a painting and not simply a printout of a digital rendering is there's still that challenge of translating the image from my eyes, through my brain and to the brush.  By being interpreted through the act of working with an actual brush with paint makes for a much more compelling image than the reference I am working from.  Not only am I creating a handmade, one of a kind work of art, but the final image incorporates that extra layer of artistic interpretation as well.

The people in the foreground of the hippodrome painting are friends on mine in costume.  The way they are seated is rather complex for they’re not only seated around a curve but the rows of seats they are sitting on terrace away from us because they are supposed to be spectators sitting in a stadium.  

 

I photographed each person individually so I could have more compositional control over them when I assembled everyone together in Photoshop.  To shoot them in the proper lighting, camera angle and distance from camera, I made a chart showing each pose in relation to each other and to the camera.  Using this chart I could pose each person on a bench and move my camera away and above them the appropriate distance to simulate the terracing effect.  Instead of shooting with a stationary camera in an actual curving stadium (which we don’t have anywhere around here) I could shoot in a local location where I had control over the lighting and move the camera instead.  Figuring out how to shoot everyone was greatly simplified by the computer model I had constructed beforehand because in the model I could pose digital characters the way I wanted them to appear in the painting and once I had a group of poses that I liked, I could easily see where they were in relation to the camera and to each other. Using the digital characters as a reference, I could then pose the real people accordingly.

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Me on the right.  Rocco Gioffre on the left. Working on an oversized painting for the very last shot in the movie "Hook".

Below:  A matte painting of the inside of a Dyson sphere for an episode of Star Trek:TNG.

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