Saturday, 8 January 2011

2010 –Contemplation and Reflection.

The personal always impacts on the professional, whether it be a change in childcare that results in a corresponding change in my work routine, or flu that lays you up for a couple of days. However I have always felt that is the rough and tumble of the freelancer, and that being professional means accommodating those disruptions within one’s schedule without showing those upheavals to your employers.

This last years work has been particularly impacted upon by the personal; in August my Mother was diagnosed with the return of her pancreatic cancer, and that it was now terminal. I took advantage of the one thing a freelancer has, flexibility, and heavily rolled back on my schedule so that I could take as much free time as feasible to be with my parents. Her decline escalated as the year progressed; she fell very ill in December and passed away on the 22nd. I was very fortunate that I was able to spend the last few days with her.

Much as I tried my best to balance my deadlines, and maintain a professional service there was an inevitable impact upon my work, especially due to the unpredictable nature of the illness. I can only thank the art directors working with me for their support and understanding.

Whilst freelancing is essentially ‘piece rate’ work, and therefore naturally inclines one to work longer hours, striking a good work/life balance is essential for one’s well being. This was brought home again by the valuable time I managed to spend with my Mother, but also by my own health difficulties earlier in the year.

From 2009 I had been suffering odd twinges in my right wrist, elbow and shoulder. Typically I dismissed this as symptomatic of computer use, and a short-term problem easily fixed by taking breaks that limited my time on the PC. Around Easter 2010 the condition dramatically altered to the point where I experienced shooting pains down my whole right arm from shoulder blade to wrist and was unable to hold a pencil. Very worrying.

Visits to my Doctor, and subsequently a physiotherapist, diagnosed Repetitive Strain Injury. A condition that had probably been compounded by a poor computer set-up, but which actually stemmed from years of drawing and painting that has lead to compacted nerves at the base of my right shoulder blade. A point that is part of the network which sends/receives the signals down my arm, thus leading to all the pain along with the ‘golfer’s elbow’ I have also acquired.

I have adopted methods to counter the symptoms – better computer set-up, a lumbar support cushion, fitting foam grips on my pencils, posture awareness, and a series of stretching exercises.

I am glad to say that these have all offered considerable benefit, but I am now living with and managing the condition. This means accepting the general low level aches and pains, but also that pulling long work sessions over several days will cause it to flare up badly.

First use of Gel mediums leads to softer edges
and more texture in the background.
(Oh, and I also swapped this with Erik M Gist at
IlluXCon for one of his masterful zombie pieces)
The demands of sharing childcare for a 3 year old had already altered my schedule before this year, and I had also made a conscious career decision about the commissions I want to work on; in particular this has meant that I am now focusing primarily on covers, card art and full page interiors. I have very much wanted to focus on the quality of my output, rather than the quantity of it.

I am aware that some freelancers are very mindful of their hourly pay rate, and will always favour the most economic commissions. This might mean that they would prefer to work on four quarter page illustrations – single figures with minimal backgrounds – over more complex full page images, which pay equivalently, but take more time.

In some ways I have reversed this approach; I want to work on pieces that most satisfy my artistic drives, and those are the more complicated multiple figure compositions, further I feel that this presents the opportunity to create work with a greater impact. It is hard to stand out from the crowd with a simple quarter pager.

I think that this last year has seen my approach rewarded, especially with one of my main clients – Wizards of the Coast and their D&D range. I feel that I have managed to create some powerful images, and that this has fed through into repeat cover work, whilst being trusted with producing a good outcome with complicated briefs, or more often being given lots of leeway with a refreshingly sparse outline.

Tightness Vs Looseness works to create focus.

However this approach to producing personally satisfying and professionally strong work has not been based solely upon the size of an image or it’s complexity. I do consider my drawing and compositional skills create a solid bedrock for my work, but I have also felt that there were areas of my art that could be developed to aid readability and impact. In order to strengthen the focus of my images I have been especially concentrating on edges, tightness/looseness of my mark making, value range and lighting, though my efforts have in no way been limited to these areas.

Constant evolution of ones work as part of the striving for improvement seems to me an essential necessity in the life of an artist - stagnation is anathema.

Part of the evolutionary process has involved a re-examination of the tools I use. At the start of the year I began to introduce some gel mediums into my work, this has allowed a different approach to blending and glazing, and have proven especially useful when wanting to soften edges or create a looser feel to parts of a painting.

Latterly I have revisited artists’ acrylics; for many years I have worked exclusively with miniature paints, I enjoyed their consistency, opacity, fine and vibrant pigmentation, along with a very rapid drying time, interestingly it is the variability in these qualities that I have now enjoyed experiencing in my work.

I felt it all came together in this one to create a strong image:
Composition, Lighting, Saturation and Value Range.

I have been genuinely excited by these explorations, and the vistas that appear to have opened up to me – indeed discussing these possibilities was an enjoyable part of a lot of my conversations at IlluXCon – of course there is always the concern that by pushing forward one can leave behind something of value. I have started off down false turnings before, but hopefully have a clearer vision and more wisdom these days.

The last year has been challenging in a number of ways, but I do think I have managed to achieve a better, and necessary, work/life balance, whilst combining this with artistic development that has also fed through into professional and career progress. I look forward to the coming year, with all its challenges and opportunities. It certainly helps when the first bit of feedback I received from an Art Director this year included the following comments; "You made me a happy man when I saw these… one of my favorite card paintings ever…great foreshortening and dynamic angle. You just proved yourself a monster on these.”


  1. I am really sorry to hear about your Mum passing, must have been a very tough time for your family. Glad you were able to spend some time with her.


  2. Thanks for sharing Ralph- sorry to hear about your old mum, but glad to hear some of your health issues are being better managed; if it's any help I used to be a physiotherapist in my preillo days and you might find some kind of core-stability exercises helpful, Pilates or similar (sounds a bit wanky I know, but it works). It creates a more stable base for your upper back and shoulder girdle to work from generating less strain :)
    PS Lord bless three all year olds- I'm glad I'm not the only one dealing with these issues. However your work 2010 has inspired me to focus on more dynamic composition in my own pieces...THANKS HEAPS :)

  3. Sorry to hear about you Mum Ralph, god bless her and it was good you got to spend the time with her and your dad before her passing.Hope she went peacefully and I'm sure she really appreciated having you there at the end. Hope your personal health issues clear up this year, as you say try to get a bit of excercise in now and again mate, we are all rooting for you chum.

  4. Oh! Love that Minotaur piece Ralph, how long did that take to paint? The eye is drawn straight to the Minotaurs face.You really have a knack for drawing the viewers eye exactly where you want it.

  5. Hi Ralph

    Very sorry to hear about your Mum. Here's hoping 2011 proves to be a less challenging year for you.

  6. First off: I wish you a happy new year, even tough you don't know me.

    Second: Can you please elaborate on what a good computer set up makes?

    Third: I hope everything works our for you.

    cheers Sascha

  7. First off: I wish you a happy new year.

    Secondly: I hope everything works out for you.

    Third: Can you please elaborate on what a good computer set up should look like?

    cheers Sascha

  8. Ralph - So sorry for your loss. My condolences.

    In terms of your work, there's no doubt that you have continued to improve. For what it's worth, your superb Value control inspired me to work harder on mine.

    It was a pleasure to meet and chat with you last year too. Although I've always enjoyed looking at your work on a screen, seeing it in person was so much better. A real treat.

    All the best for 2011 sir!


  9. Hi Ralph.

    You don't know me, but I have been silently following, and enjoying, your work for a bit more than a year. I was very sorry to read about all the negative events in your personal life. But I am also very happy to learn that you have not only pulled through them professionally, but turned some of them around and used them to improve yourself as a professional and artist. Let me explain: through your illness and paternity, you have become aware of the necessity to find a healthy work/life balance, and you have done so perfectly. It has, indeed, impacted on your professional development, but, I believe, for the better: your decision to focus on quality rather than quantity has immediately proven as a strong, positive decision. Through each one of your pieces, you are now showing what makes you an incredible and unique artist: many times, when someone talks positively about an artist, the word "talent" inevitably comes out. I think that talent is overrated. You have it, of course. That's so very obvious. But what strikes me by following your work is the workmanship: in everyone of your paintings, you show a deep knowledge and control of technique, applied knowledge and "savoir faire" (for lack of a better, english word). I consider that everything in your latest pieces proves you a master, and only hints at all the time, passion and dedication that you have spent to develop yourself as such.

    That is why I am happy to see that you can harness personal events to affect your professional life positively. Because with your unique, masterful art, the world is a more exciting, inspiring and hopeful, happy place. And not just for your clients. Thanks for sharing your gift with us.

  10. Rowena: Thanks, it has been, and is very hard, but I am very appreciative that I had the flexibility to be able to drop everything in order to spend several important days with my family.

    Tommi: Thanks for your abvice. I do feel I am managing the RSI quite well, but more exercise (of the right kind) wouldn't go amiss. I did make the mistake of doing some gym work that screwed me up again for a while. I now favour the low impact of swimming.

    Atom: Thank you. I'm trying to recollect how long 'The Master' took me. I think about 1/2 days to sketch then a further 4/5 to paint.

    Jonathan: Thanks very much - and all the best to you too. Maybe see you at GamesExpo again?

    Sacha: Thanks. I am no authority, but my advice was to make sure that my natural eye level is at the centre of my monitor, and that when using the mouse my arm is by side with the forearm at right angles and level. My natural inclination is to hunch forward, and I was reaching forward to use my mouse. A combination that mirrored my (poor) drawing posture.

    I am sure that there must be places on the web to find out the best set-up advice. I certainly felt an immediate benefit after changing my workstation. just gald I don't work digitally.

    James: Thanks. I am pleased you feel I ahve got better control of my value range, and I certainly don't think this is an area you should have any concerns about.

    I would we will meet up again this year. It was great to have a proper chat with you - so Gamesexpo then?

  11. Mayec: You were posting as I was...

    I was very touched by your comment. Thanks a lot for taking the time to write it. It is support and feedback such as yours that helps drive me on to aspire to continually get better. Thansk very much again.

  12. My dear Sir Awesomness, I follow your work on DA and your talent as a fantasy artist never fails to amaze me! I am so very sorry for the loss of your dear mother, mine is 86yrs & I treasure every moment I have with her. I am so glad you were able to spend the time you could with yours. I am sure your presence at that time gave her joy and though it was the saddest of times for you & your family, you gave to her what she needed, your love! God bless your Mother, you and yours & help you with your loss.

    I am sorry to hear about your problem and know what it is like as I suffer from it also. Keep working at managing it, I also find massage a great help and there is a marvelous oil called Elmore Oil, made here in Australia but sold where you are, it is for inflamatory problems, works wonders!

    Your art is a constant inspiration and loved not just by people who love art, but all gamers too, you make their game come to life!

    God bless you and I look forward to so much wonderful art yet to come from your awesome talent!

    Karen, aka, DroUltrinnin-61 on DA.

  13. Hey Ralph,

    Sorry about your mom, but am glad you got the time with her. My Pop died Dec. 11, 2010, and was fortunate enough that my schedule allowed me and my family to drive the 500 miles to spend time with him before he passed. I think can honestly say I understand what some of what you went thru, and if you ever need to talk with anyone, just give us a ring.

    Your work as always seems to be spot on for each piece!! Truly inpsirational, your compositions and angles are something I look to when thinking of a piece. Each new piece is something to look forward to.

    I too have what an arm shoulder hand thing on the right side ( my drawing side), as well as the left, my doctors are calling it carpel tunnel, but the thing about the shoulder blade hits way too close to home and am gonna have them check this out.

    Thanks for the info and inspiration.

    All the best to you and yours.


  14. I too follow you on deviantart and love your art(Giselle-M). My deepest condolences to you and yours. You are an inspiration with how you manage your personal and professional life.

    I too have the same problem with my right shoulder. I have been trying the same things you describe to help it but when you have a deadline or over do it, the shoulder pain can be quite debilitating...balance is key!

    The comment from the Art director must have tickled you pink...such an awesome thing to be told!

    I wish you all the best in this new year and will eagerly await more of your artwork.


  15. Ralph -Very sorry to hear of your loss and that is was a tough year for you. I can sympathize with scheduling jobs with a child in the house. It is very tricky and even though my boy is 6 now, we still have to juggle childcare duties and be very on top of the "family calendar" . If you come up with any brilliant solutions, let me know - I could always use advice in that area! All I can say , is that it does get a bit better once they are in school for a longer part of the day.

    As for the hand pain - man...that is common problem I've been hearing amongst illustrators. I was experiencing extreme tightness in my right hand and through some doctor visits, it all came down to "work-related stress" . The best thing I did was take a 5 day vacation with the family. I did not draw a single thing those days...nothing. My hand felt 100% just needed that break. That might be an option...just giving your body some ample time to heal. I know with maddening deadlines it is very hard.

    I love the ambition and large-scale feel in your work. It is very inspiring as is your constant evolution and improvement as an artist. For someone who I consider already successful and continue to push forward is very inspiring and motivating for myself.

    Your work rock sir. I do hope you make it out to IlluXcon again - it would be good to hang some more. Cheers -S.

  16. Glad you are continuing to produce such inspiring paintings, and looking forward to seeing what you produce in the year to come.

    Very sorry to hear about your mother. My grandmother also died close to Christmas. Mortality sucks.

  17. Karen; Thanks very much for your thoughts and words, and I'll look up the oil.

    Trcay: I offer my condolences to you too. It see ms that we have a lot to empathises about.

    A loss around the time of the Holidays has been especially hard - with everyone else around in such a different frame of mind. I hope that you are coping okay; thanks very much for the words of support, which I'd like to extend back to you.

    I hope you can manage to the situation with your arms, and all the best for the coming year.

    Giselle: Thanks very much for your words of support - which are much appreciated. Take care of yourself and thanks again.

    Scott: 'fraid I've no great childcare solutions. We have the mixed blessing that Anne and I both work from home, but we are also both trying to run our careers. A simple division of labour acros sthe board is all we've managed. At least now Leo has some time at nursery, and come Spetember will be starting school, so I think that will signal the biggest change.

    I have come to realise how prone artists are to work related injuries, and this seems to apply to both digital and traditional work practises. Glad to hear that a break helped alleviate you're own condition. I've had long breaks, and now know that this ain't going anywhere, but I do now know how to manage it, and haven't had flare-ups to the point where I can't work; then again I now stop before recahing that point.

    Thanks also for the commenst on my work. I do feel driven to create better work, and if anything recent events have spurred me on. Your comments mean a lot to me - oh, and I have alreday paid to tatend IlluXCon - so I'll be there, and look forward to meeting up again :)

    Gordon: Thanks for your comment, and my sympathies for your Grandmother's passing. All the best to you.

  18. I wish you all the best for this new year ! Sorry for the loss of you mother ! Your art is great and I hope you will have a tremendous year in painting !

    Jérôme (who bought you a painting of dyingearth some years ago at dragonmeet)


  19. Thanks Jerome, and I hope we meet up again some time.


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