Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Spirit Summoner - A Walkthrough

Spirit Summoner
Monster manual III - chapter start artwork.
Dungeons & Dragons. ©Wizards of the Coast
Acrylic, Approx 21" x 19".
Original Artwork for sale; £1200

The Monster Manual III has now hit the stores and I can share the Gnoll Spirit Summoner I created for the book.
I really wanted the central, shaman-like, figure and the spirits to stand out in this image. To that end I chose warmer less saturated colours for the background, which was rendered with softer edges and lower contrast than the foreground. The latter has tight definition and saturated cooler colours with higher contrast. The difference between these two approaches is what helps keep the image clear and readable.

The following is a walkthrough showing how I arrived at this final point.

The Line Sketch

My starting point is a line sketch done with graphite onto board. I like to resolve a lot of the aspects of the image at this stage, and subsequently create a tight render.

About a third of the way in from the left you can see a faint vertical guide line that marks where the guttering will fall on this double-page spread.

My Working Space

Here you can see my set up. The painting is mounted onto the drawing board, with palettes and reference in place. Note the helmets tucked away at the back right. The nearest being sat on a floor standing speaker - music always helps.

The First Pass

I always favour working from back to front, with the focal elements usually rendered last. This is no exception, and you can see that I have painted in most of the background and am moving onto the foreground.

I have also loosely blocked in the ghosts. As I want them to have softer edges, and fade into the image, it is easier to do that if I introduce them from the beginning. This prevents me painting up to them and inadvertently creating an unwanted edge.

The central figure has been masked off  which enables me to paint with big loose strokes over and around him without worrying about dirtying him up.

Terrain Completed

Most of the fore and background elements have been completed. I also softened the orange somewhat and brought in a touch more green. This helps lower the saturation and gives some greater contrast for the flames to work against.


The Gnoll has had the masking film removed, and you get the sudden glare of white paper, but also those nicely kept crisp edges.

Mapping In

Before going into a full render I like to map in the basic colours with a dilute wash. I did the same with the background when I started. This helps confirm the colour choices I have already made, because if I did dislike them now would the easiest time to make changes.

Dressing Up

I approach elements within the picture much as I do the whole, back to front, or in the case of figures inner layer to outer. This means that items which would overlap something else are painted later. Much easier and more flexible than painting up to the edge of something. At this point I have completed the fur/flesh and mapped out where the glowing magical light will fall.

Fully Clothed

Continuing on  the figure is completed. During the process I might well revisit areas to check the whole ties together. This might mean redoing shadows on the fur, or darkening areas of the body to make sure the overall effect is consistent. I might paint elements seperately but I will rework any of them to make sure it pulls together as a whole. This can often include throwing in non-local colour in the shadows or highlights to help with the unification.

Spirits Begin To Emerge

I feel like I am on the home straight as I move onto the last figures. Though I naturally worked my way through the spirit figures, one at a time, I didn't try to bring any of them fully to completion at this point. I knew that it would be necessary to have another pass to get the values right throughout them, and I certainly didn't want to get too dark at this stage.

Working with acrylics it is a lot easier to darken an image, rather than lighten it. That is especially true when you are working with dilute washes, as I was with the spirits, as opposed to a more opaque finish, like the Gnoll.

The End

The Hyena spirit on the bottom left demonstrates that final revisit across the painting. The blue has been tweaked and the value range extended both ways, lighter and darker.

This is true of the whole painting. A last pass across the whole painting is very important. I don't want to create a disjointed piecemeal painting, and it can be too easy to focus on individual elemenst whilst neglecting the whole.

Of course this is not truly the end. I now needed to scan the image, make colour corrections, then decided any digital tweaks. In this case I upped the saturation on the Spirits and dodged some highlights to get some more intensity into them.


  1. Awesome work, I enjoyed peering into your process.

  2. Thanks Shaun, glad it is interesting :)

  3. This is very interesting, I've been meaning to work with acrylics for some times and this look into your process helps a lot.

    It'd be great to see how you approach different illustrations too.

    Nice work!

  4. Hey Ralph,

    Your work is so awesome! Beautiful piece of artwork!!! Thanks so much for posting your process behind this. This information is very helpful. I have a question about scanning your work for publication. Working in acrylic on board, does the acrylic have a glossy finish to it once it's dried or do you add something to it to dull it down for scanning? Also, the size of this piece is 21"x19" making it too large for a 11"x17" scanner. Do you have a large bed scanner or do you scan the work in pieces then pull it back together once it's digitized?

    Thanks for the great post!!!
    Gene Snyder

  5. have you ever consider making a time-lapse video of you painting, with a commentary? i think it would be really cool and much more detail into the production of your amazing artworks, for all of those who aspire to your level of creativity.
    Not that I'm ungrateful in any way for this very generous insight into your art production.

  6. Thanks for all the comments.

    Felipe: Glad that the walkthrough was helpful. I tend to be quite methodically in my approach to a painting, and working traditionally I think you have to be.

    Gene: Very pleased you like it.

    The acrylic tends to have a matt finish when dried, but recently I have been using a medium which tends to give a slightly glossy edge. Neither presents a problem when scanned.

    You are right about the size issue. This was scanned in 4 parts, then stitched together. This is no problem beyond the time involved.

    Oll-e: As I work over several days the time-lapse approach would seem problemmatic, but maybe I should look into it further. Thanks.

  7. Fantastic walk-thru, Ralph! Keep em' coming!

  8. Awesome illustration Mr. Horsley. I just picked up the book today and the print looks great, right up front on pages 4-5. And thank you for sharing your process. I always find it very educational to hear about other artists' processes; especially since I am still nailing down my own. I do have a couple questions, when and if you have the time.
    Do you create color comps first before jumping into the final? I think I see some at the top of your work area in the photo, but I can't be sure. And if you do, do you create them traditionally as well or digitally?

  9. It's so interesting to see your process! I usually work back to front and to a degree least to most interesting, as well. ;) Really love the magic sparkles around the hyenas - i assume that's some sort of splattering effect?

  10. I read in your descriptions that painted this on paper rather than on canvas. What kind of paper did you use?

  11. Thanks for all the comments.

    Glad; I am planning to take more photos as I paint, so hopefully there will be more :)

    Lance; Glad to hear it looks good in the book. I have yet to see a copy myself, so am looking forward to it.

    I usually have a clear colour plan, sometimes just in my heda, but occasionally I do a quick digital paint over my scanned in sketches. You are right that you can see one of these in the workspace photo.

    Cacodaemonia; Pleased to hear this wa suseful for you, but no splatter effect. It is a big piece and I just did those effects individually.

    Aljoša ; I paint onto board. It is mount/matt board. It is robust and has a smooth white finish.

  12. Great stuff Ralph, I really enjoy your walk thru's and processes keep posting my friend! :)

  13. Thanks Atom. Pleased to hear it :)

  14. Very cool! I really appreciate you posting your process like this. Definitely inspires me to give acrylics another try after so long. :)

    - t

  15. Such an awesome tutorial of your process, Ralph! Thanks so much for sharing it with us all :) Amazing piece!

  16. Tanja & Eric thanks for the comments.

    Apologies for my delay in replying, but I have been away for a few days break.

    I am very pleased that my walkthrough is useful, and I hope you do pick up the acrylics again Tanja :)


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