Exalted: Holy Mountain

The Exalted Role-Playing-Game! Full of exciting martial arts guys and gals punching cities into the sky and colourful explosions! Most of the time! Unlike last time though, sometimes there are more quiet moments where flaming magic isn’t in evidence and it’s time for the kung-fu kids to just stop leaping tall buildings in a single bound, sit themselves down and take in the world around them for a change. You know, to help get the nuances of the setting across to both them and the reader.

Exalted Third Edition Holy Sanctum

So this is an environment piece depicting a city hiding away inside a series of organic-looking tunnels, chambers and thoroughfares carved with magic into the inside of a mountain. The people living there now didn’t do it, that was how they found it and they moved in. (You can see me thinking about wibbly, impossible rock carvings in bottom-right of the sketches below:)

Exalted Third Edition Holy Sanctum

So while this is a city, it doesn’t have a skyline to help impress its size upon the viewer. In the above sketches, I was trying to figure out a way to convey the size of the place and also its swiss cheese like nature. (Rock blocks your vision, y’know.) On the top-left you can see I was going to put the viewer at street level and show a giant ravine with bridges criss-crossing it fading away into the distance above. This was a good idea, but I thought I’d go for something that showed the overall hubub of the place, so I tried reversing the angle and looking down on the same place from above. It wasn’t really working, so I threw both of those out and went for a layered composition that had both bridges and streets. And some view distance to distant lights and buildings to make it seem bigger…

This was the rough I came up with:

Exalted Third Edition Holy Sanctum

This piece was the one out of the series that I didn’t actually draw any linework – with pencil on paper – for. I felt confident with going straight to digi-paint from the rough since it was fairly a limited-palette piece.

This is some of the ‘underpainting’ for the illo, grabbing the rough brushwork from the rough version and then spotting in big round brushstrokes from a distance to get all of the information in:

Exalted Third Edition Holy Sanctum Work-in-Progress

Here’s the next phase of painting: moving in and describing and modelling things properly, even the buildings in the distance. There was a bit of an Art Nouveau thing going on in this town:

Exalted Third Edition Holy Sanctum Work-in-Progress

Here I was working on giving the distant bits some haze, just like distant buildings would have in any open-air city. Also to suggest the lights and activity happening across town:

Exalted Third Edition Holy Sanctum Work-in-Progress

Glowing bits! The guys with the light sources on sticks are priests of the temple with the great big head above the entrance. Since this piece was worked in progressively lighter colours out of the dark background, it was getting pretty light down there:

Exalted Third Edition Holy Sanctum Work-in-Progress

And here at the finish I’ve started to take some bits of the architecture back into the subterranean gloom, to smooth its carving and also divert attention to other parts of the image.

Exalted Third Edition Holy Sanctum Work-in-Progress

And we’re done. Sorry if it wasn’t all as whizbang as the other images. There’s got to be a letup at some point I suppose. (More whizbang images are on the way.) The creative director on the book – lovely fellow Rich Thomas, who it turned out painted some of the Magic: The Gathering cards I liked back when I was a teenager – was really positive about this image. Shucks. And here I was thinking it was one of the weaker ones.

Next time: bear bits!

While we’re talking about Exalted, here’s a quick grab of the double-page-spread desert piece I painted in layout for the finished item, courtesy of the Exalted Third Edition Kickstarter updates feed:

Exalted Third Edition RPG book layout spread

Exalted: Flamey Shoutyman

The first from the next round of ‘Exalted’ RPG illustrations I did for The Oynx Path publishing house – who you may also know from their ‘White Wolf’ name – when I say ‘RPG’, I mean the offline, analogue kind of Role-Playing-Game that springs out of a printed book near some paper character sheets filled-in with pencils and dice clattering around, with graphics provided by our ape brains.

Exalted RPG Third Edition EX3 Solar Exalt Anima Banner 'Divine Glory' Illustration

You want to see the shouty flames bigger? Click if you can stand the heat…

Or in this case, a visual from my ape brain. So this is a ‘Solar’(fine, upstanding) ‘Exalt’(person with special powers) projecting his ‘Anima Banner’(special power lightshow aura) at the viewer. He might have just defeated one or both of those armies in the background.

Exalted Third Edition EX3 Solar Exalt Anima Banner 'Divine Gory'

Doodlin’ with noodlin’s! This was fairly simple as far as briefs go, but I still wanted to nail it if I could…

Exalted Third Edition EX3 Solar Exalt Anima Banner 'Divine Gory'

First attempt at a rough to show was a bit too close-up (the top one) so I started again. Exalted fans will also see that I started off with the wrong Exalt ‘caste-mark’ on the guy’s forehead. Exalts’ caste-marks also glow when they fire up their Anima banners.


The same pencil rough with some colour slapped over the top (and a tiny bit of repainting on the face) to make a colour-rough to show.


The linework that started off the finished thing! It was pointless drawing the flames of the Anima banner because they’d be ‘additive’ – rendered with light – during the digi-painting process, drawing them with the dark ‘contour-lines’ of a pencil would be silly.
Although most of the detail was going to be lost, I still had fun coming up with blazing sun motifs on the guys armour and detailing smashed-up siege engines and fallen troops.

Exalted RPG Anima Banner artwork process - pencil linework in Photoshop

A closeup of the linework before the colour palette gets unleashed…


Colour flats! About as soon as I did these, I realised that I didn’t really need them on this piece. Still, having the blocks down to pull selections out of later on is always handy.
Once again I took to isolating the colours from the colour rough and using them as a kind of under-painting to get the brushstrokes going. The worse thing is a blank canvas, as the saying goes.


A bit of the rough, soft painting on some of the lower layers from the piece. (Generally there are ’nuff layers going on. I discovered colour-coding the label layers in Photoshop on this series of images.)


A quick snap from while I was painting. The goal is to pretty much obliterate the pencil lines by painting over them and turning the piece into a proper painting as a result. This guy’s face was looking a bit too manic, so I made him assume a more determined look as I went on (check the final image for the difference) this should be someone that we feel some kind of connection with – even if it’s a small one because he’s flaming us – not a gibbering maniac who looks like he’s gonna incinerate us.

Exalted RPG Anima Banner digi-paint progress - character's face

Further to my previous waffle, here’s the guy’s face changing brushstroke by brushstroke…His hair was better here, but his face was still a little too drawn (oho) and eyes too buggy. More about the firey bit in a second!


Some of the detail going into the armour and the rest of yer man here. The gaps in here are for…


The firey flames of fire! (The fine checkered backdrop here means it’s transparent in a series of layers.) These came from all over the place.


Always eager to get a bit of our reckless industrial past into the drorin’s, this lot is mostly from photographs of welding sparks.


But before you’re thinking ‘Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century’ ending sequence, this is a similar thing but trying to get a bit of manga speedlines style rushing motion into it…
(Oh and the blue lines are guides for the dimensions of the final piece.)

Exalted RPG Third Edition EX3 Solar Exalt Anima Banner 'Divine Glory' Illustration

Last shout: here he is again, just in case you needed reminding. Click for a bigger shout…

Next up: soothing, darkened rooms!

The Burning Sands of Exalted

A piece of art for the 3rd Edition of the ‘Exalted’ Role-Palying Game from Oynx Path – formerly White Wolf – this is one of five environment pieces that each focus on a different ‘continent’ (it’s not that simple in Exalted’s world) that spread across the bottom half of two pages of the book as it falls open.

Exalted RPG 3rd Edition 'The South' setting illustration

You want the big? You click. You not click? You use finger. Wiseguy.

Exalted is a game that deliberately casts its main characters as ludicrously powerful semi-divine heroes that could step out of a colourful anime, manga with lots of speedlines or kung-fu film with flurries of fists, magic, legendary swords, explosions, dust clouds and other shiny derring-do that’s fairly unique to the setting, so it’s all loads of fun to draw.

Exalted 3rd Edition EX3 Logo

The book – thanks to the very sucessful Kickstarter campaign that spawned its printing will be an amazing thing in itself too; hard-backed, special endpapers, embossing on leather binding, metallic edging and metallic alternative covers… The list goes on, so once it’s out and in the hot little hands of role-players around the world (along with clutches of ten-sided dice, no doubt) it’s going to be a very lovely thing indeed.

(Talking of role-playing, I flippin’ love role-playing. I was introduced to it as an adult by some friends and I think it’s an amazing way to spend your time; collaborative, imaginative, story-telling with no need for any expensive or exclusive paraphernalia to get in the way of enjoying spending time with your friends. I love board and card games but it’s role-playing that puts you straight into the brains and personalities of the other people sitting around the table with you. Anyway, I’ve digressed far too much.)
Let’s talk about pretty pictures!

The piece was to not only show off the desert setting, but also to include pre-existing character. (This is one of the fun bits of being Work-For-Hire) Admiral Sand. So off I went to find reference for him. I also learned a lot about the setting. And what a Lunar Exalt is. There’s a lot to it. Lunar exalts are a bit feral-looking or were-wolf-y, it turns out. I did have some fun making up some caravan guards though. Notice me using what I thought was the ‘Exalted style’…

Exalted Environment

So the piece needed to have some draw but also pull the viewer in with a bit of human drama, so I started trying to figure out how to balance these in up with thumbnails in my sketchbook.

Exalted Environment

So this was the final rough thumbnail sketch from my sketchbook adventures – focus in on the Admiral (on the left) and the lead attacker of the tribe of Lunar Exalted (on the right). The Admiral’s trade caravan and the tribe of bandits serve as the setting.

Exalted Environment

This is the colour rough (with copious notes!) that I sent of to the Art and Creative Directors. There’s a few things to pick on here too, like how I didn’t want anything to disappear down between the centre page spine too much.

Exalted Environment

Next: scaling this up and producing some linework. I printed out the above rough and lightboxed off this linework with an automatic pencil, to get that kind of anime styling a lot of Exalted art has. If I ended up going over this later on with paint, that was fine. I just needed the shapes in there.

Exalted Environment

Next: I needed a quick source of some kind of underpainting to start off the piece and then work over the top of to give it some depth, so I knocked out some of the layers to just get this rough backdrop. It looks crap at this stage, but the worst thing with any kind of painting (digital or analogue) is blank canvas.

Exalted Environment

Next, I flatted in some colours of the characters just so they didn’t get lost. Note the note reminding myself about drawing on the blue-haired bandit leader’s luminous tattoos later on.

Exalted Environment

Knocking the linework back a bit, I got more into highlights and shading… I had started to paint in the harsh sunlight and shadows (complete with shadows being cast in the dust swirling in the air) that were in the rough, but… I just couldn’t make it work. It was too much. Just slapped down in a rough it worked okay, but when it came to the finished thing it was too much and it ruined the look of everything in the picture. So I opted for a bright, slightly washed out approach with bright colours reflecting the sunlight.

Exalted Environment

Next: one of the perils of going at it hell-for-leather towards a deadline: not having all of the information. It turns out that in the world of Creation in Exalted doesn’t use cool-looking elephants as beasts of burden – camels are okay though – they use an original animal called a ‘Yeddim‘! Here’s one being painted over an existing elephant:

Exalted Environment

So they’re big, shaggy, blunt-snouted quadrapeds. Kind of like wooly mammoths with no trunk or ears and wide mouths. Meanwhile, the entire piece was being worked into. Background colours were being put in.

Exalted Environment

Getting around to putting the odd detail in. I should have said before, this piece has loads of ‘bleed’ – spare space – around the edge so the layout artists could be a bit versatile with it. Also some of it could be lost as part of the printing process. So the ferocious guy in the top-right corner wouldn’t look quite so much like a disembodied head and pointy-stick in the final print.

Exalted Environment

Talking stuff through with the editors, two things came up about the leader of the bandits; one, she looked like Sonic the Hedgehog, Two, her face should actually be pointing towards the guy she was supposed to be fighting. At least someone was paying attention. I was probably getting too comsumed with trying to draw her face to look anime style. Anyway, here’s the old face:

Exalted Environment

And here’s the new one, which actually obeys the laws of psychics and perspective, and lifts the whole character, I think.

Exalted Environment

Getting there now, the lines were still getting knocked further and further back, and now everything was in place I was trying to establish more of a feeling of depth by hazing out the more distant characters.

Exalted Environment

Last leg now, final tweaks, desperately trying to get it to look more like painting than an illustration with linework and then colour afterwards.

Exalted Environment

Apart from knocking things even further back, I was now getting into highlighting everything to try and make the sun look more harsh. It also helped it look a bit more like it was lead by the brushstrokes. At this point, you usually lose objectivity completely and then that means you’re finished and it’s time to move on!

Exalted RPG 3rd Edition 'The South' setting illustration

You want the big again? You click again. You not click? You use finger again. You big wiseguy.

And then I was done. Phew. It was really good fun and I learned loads doing this piece.

Also, here’s a cropped version with just the main figures in, in case some of you are squinting too much at the previous pics:

I didn’t realise, but this piece was used as one of the rewards in the Kickstarter campaign for the book as one of a series of wallpapers. So that was cool.
You can check updates on the project on the update roll for the Kickstarter, or on the Facebook page for Exalted.

Local lads John Spelling and Dom Reardon did some pieces for the book too, so that was cool. John did most of the work that informed the final 3rd Edition logo above. It was nice that our remote little corner of the backwater island was well-represented in this world-wide project.

I did a few more pieces for the book of totally different things from the Exalted world and I’ll be sharing those soon. The other ones don’t involve quite so much sand in your pants, so check back for them sometime soon, Yeddim-herders.

Wall of Dredd

A little Judge Dredd sampler I’ve been sitting on for a while (not literally, it’d crease):
Judge Dredd cover colour sampler The linework on its own:
Judge Dredd sampler ink linework And the little thumbnail that started it all off:
Judge Dredd cover sampler thumbnail sketchSome composition roughs for the piece from my out-and-about sketchbook. (Which reminds me, it’s about time I uploaded a bunch more scans from that.)
Judge Dredd composition roughs At one point I was thinking about a Robocop homage/mickey-take. (Once upon a time – before the 2012 feature film was released – it was remarked that Robocop was the best Judge Dredd film that didn’t actually have Judge Dredd in it.) Oh and there’s a blob of Becky‘s wall marker on there too:
Judge Dredd cover composition roughs

Ask any British person and they will tell you that Judge Dredd haunts their dreams and flows in their very veins. (They’ll also start talking to you about the weather.) I’m no exception. (On both counts.) Other countries might have amazing heroes or incredible styles and opulent comic industries in comparison to our odd little transatlantic sideboard scene, but we have Dredd. Wether you like him or not, he’s ours. Going through my sketchbook to get roughs to post alongside the finished artwork up above, I thought I’d scan in some Dreddoodles too…

This is me thinking about the Mega City One Judges uniform before I started drawing the final thing:
Judge Dredd uniform sketches Judge Dredd uniform sketches

Further along that thread, Judge helmet doodles. Each one is different:
Judge Dredd helmet concept sketches

A doodle of Mega City One, which is as much a character in the story as Dredd is, and similarly, everyone draws it a little bit differently:
Mega City One - Judge Dredd Doodles

Shouty, stubbly Dredd with meaty neck. These last two are for when I was drawing a Dredd sample script for 2000AD.
Judge Dredd doodles

Dread again with some other friends, in red pencils this time, in case you were falling asleep:
Judge Dredd Doodles

Don’t worry, I’ll be over to shake you if you do nod off.
Judge Dredd Doodles

This one’s from 2003 or so, and is a bit embarrassing, but I do quite like the Judge Anderson down the bottom.
Judge Dredd Doodles

Another fairly early one. The little Dredd heads are an indication of the difference you can get between two Dredds:
Judge Dredd Doodles

And another. If you draw Dread’s visor with a straight top, he looks really dopey:
Judge Dredd Doodles Judge Dredd Doodles

Some Justice Department Techs and other folks:
Judge Dredd Doodles

Female judges are always cool:
Judge Dredd Doodles

Bulbous brainpan and that bloody bird. The eagle shoulder pad can be tricky:
Judge Dredd Doodles

Thanks for making it all the way down to the bottom of the wall of Dredd. Now please disperse in an orderly fashion before the authorities arrive.

Happy Holidays 2014!

Highly Questionable Santa - 2014 Wishing you and yours a Happy Holidays and all the best for 2015!

Could this be the end for Highly Questionable Santa..? (Quite possibly, because the artist can only think up so many scenarios featuring him…) If this is your first Santa-ing and for some reason you’d like to see more, Santas of Christmas Past are here.

And to all, brand-new or jaded in matters of ‘HQS’…

Happy Holidays 2013

Highly Questionable Santa wishes you a Happy Holidays!

Wishing you and yours the very happiest of holidays, and all the best for 2014!

Could this be the end of Highly Questionable Santa..?

Enjoy, and – as always – sorry.

(And if you’re a glutton for punishment – even of the capital’ variety – and want to look at HQS’ previous yearly assaults against common decency, click his tag…)

Subterranean Iron-Pick Blues

Little limited-palette digi-painting I did quickly after I’d just finished a long photo-shopping session. This is a Dwarf (yes, one of those Tolkein-esque fantasy things) from the indie game phenomenon that is Dwarf Fortress.

Digi painting of a Dwarf worker from Dwarf Fortress

He’s a worker of some kind and is just brooding away in the darkness at the bottom of the pump stack of his underground home, thinking about how he’ll only ever see sunlight again if he’s really lucky, and how he’ll be spending the rest of his life eating subterranean mushrooms…

I’d been curious about Dwarf Fortress for a long time after seeing it crop up again and again on the internet. It’s the game that inspired that Minecraft game you know, and it’s been called one of the most complex games ever made.
So when I had some free time after finishing the inking of the Evil Star graphic novel, I settled down with some tutorials and had a go. In ‘DF’ you’re in charge of a colony of dwarves who have to set up a sustainable home or gradually die. There are lots of ways for your little guys to die; be it thirst, hunger, madness, disease, infection, violence, violence by friends who have gone mad, wildlife, bandits, suffocating, trading disagreements, drowning, or more madness. The list goes on. And on.

I’ll leave Tim Denee to explain more about it, with the brilliant comics that really got me curious: Bronzemurder, Oilfurnace and Akrulatol.
There’s also a good intro here from a fellow called ‘Zweistein’. If you’re keen on finding out more, there’s ‘The Song of Onionbog’, the multi-media Fortress story ‘Bravemule’ and the ‘Glazedcoasts’ playthrough.

If you fancy playing the game yourself, get a New Player bundle pack – for Windows or Mac – and turn on the Ironhand graphics, ‘Soundsense’ sound pack and use ‘DwarfTherapist’ to actually control the little fellows.
Mostly though you’ll be needing some tutorials, which you can find here, here and here, and be prepared to spend some time on the Dwarf Fortress Wiki.


My pages from James Harvey and Ryan Humphrey‘s ‘Bartkira’ project – a community project comic by more than four hundred artists where all of the two-thousand-plus pages of Katsushiro Otomo‘s Akira manga are redrawn with characters from The Simpsons!
There’s a cast list of who’s playing who here, and some more information on the project from Ryan Humphrey here.
There’s a Bartkira Tumblr here collecting the pages that’re finished, there’s some amazing work on there, and just trying to step back and look at the project as a whole makes you dizzy, just as it should do. The very keen can check out the Bartkira tag on Tumblr too.

Bartkira double page spreadBartkira page Bartkira pageBartkira double page spread

Mayor Quimby is Mayor Nezu! Bart is Kaneda! Lisa is spiritual leader Lady Miyako! One of Lisa’s friends plays Sakaki, the girl bleeding out. Akira is played by Ralph Wiggum, so the iconic double page spread of the entirety of Neo-Tokyo undergoing a cataclysm just had to change from an orb of pure psychic energy to Ralph’s unsuspecting, dome-like mug.
I think my favourite character drawing in these pages is the little Principal Skinner / Colonel at the top of the last double page spread. The amazing thing was that the pages I was assigned were the very same ones I read in the UK’s ‘Manga Mania’ magazine in 1994 that completely blew my unsuspecting mind and reformatted it into manga-loving jelly. I’d never seen – or could even have imagined – comics like this existed before I’d seen them with my own eyes. (And never mind what seeing the Akira animated film late night on BBC television did to my – once again – unsuspecting mind…)

Up next, these are Otomo’s original pages below. The man is clearly a genius of penmanship (among other things) so these were pretty intimidating to work over the top of. I only had to come up with a more fat, basic, Simpsons style line over his frenetic panels though, so I got off lightly. I’d like to think I’ve learned a little bit in poring over just a handful of this guy’s pages.

AKIRA page by Katsuhiro OtomoAKIRA page by Katsuhiro OtomoAKIRA page by Katsuhiro OtomoAKIRA page by Katsuhiro Otomo

My favourite Bartkira pages that I’d seen before I started drawing mine were the ones that seemed to bring some Otomo, Groening and something of the artist’s own style to the table, so I tried to head off down that tangent. It had to be in colour too.

Here are some scans of the artboards I printed out and then started inking over the backgrounds of…

Bartkira drawings over Otomo Akira page
Bartkira drawings over Otomo Akira pageBartkira drawings over Otomo Akira page
Bartkira drawings over Otomo Akira page

I drew the characters on a separate piece of paper so the Otomo and Groening anatomies didn’t clash too much…Bartkira character drawings from sketchbook
a character drawings from sketchbook

Record Store Day 2013

April means it’s Record Store Day, and The Drift Record Shop in Totnes are doing something special: Gold Panda and Luke Abbott are playing gigs in the shop!
So the shop needed a poster to trumpet about getting some of the biggest acts yet to perform there, so I worked with Rupert at Drift to hammer something out…

The image needed to be fairly bold, with the act names popping out so people would notice, so I got into mixing up watery acrylic paint and writing out text with a rectangular foam brush on big sheets of newsprint paper over and over, trying to get it as bold and flowing as possible…

Texture, anybody?

You can see the water and the paint separating a bit here…

Record Store Day 2013 poster rough
Dropping the scans into Photoshop, I mocked this up…

Record Store Day 2013 poster rough

Record Store Day 2013 poster rough
If you seem into, you can see all the thresholded bristle texture and edging on here…

Record Store Day 2013 poster rough
Another mock-up. The texture wasn’t quite coming through on this one, although there were some nice bits.

Record Store Day 2013 poster rough
So it was time for a bit of a rethink, so we went for loose-based-on-formal, and it seemed to work. So it wasn’t long before Rupert did a bit of jiggery-pokery and had a poster!

Record Store Day 2013 Poster
The final Record Store Day 2013 Poster – click through to see larger!

The plan is to sell these on the day – the 20th of April – in the record shop, so anybody who comes to the gig can buy a poster too if they feel like it.
The posters on the shop counter.

xAnd some in the window! See you on the 20th!