A couple weeks ago, my friend Charla emailed asking if I could step in at the last minute to do some art for Greensboro Roller Derby’s “Flat Track Alleycat,” an annual bike race for charity. “Alleycats” are a style of bike race originated by bike messengers that involve stuff like checkpoints, treasure hunts, and other complications. GSORD is one of the best things to happen to my home town* in years and I was thrilled to help out. The process of getting Charla’s idea out of her skull and into something we could send a printer (I’ve yet to find a print shop that will accept human brains in place of PDFs, unfortunately) became a good example of client-artist dialogue.
The art’s for flyers and the spoke cards for the race. Here’s the initial concept from Charla, which was accompanied by some examples of circus-themed posters.
“The basic design concept is a centaur-esque being with the front half being a derby lady and the back part being a bike-ish thing. The general motif of the design is sort of vintage-circus themed.”
So, half-bike/half-woman centaur-like person. Honestly not the weirdest thing I’ve ever drawn. Let’s pull back the curtain and show you the gears and/or bloody pulsating organs of the illustration process.
STEP ONE: RESEARCH (“Research” meaning Google Image Search)
Something Charla acknowledged right away was the substantial difference between a horse and a bike in regards to proportion compared to the human body. In other words… bikes are skinny. My immediate assumption was that I’d have to do something extremely stylized to make the “transition” work. With this in mind, I started Googling art of centaurs to get an idea for how the ancient Greeks and “Old Masters” approached them anatomically.
Doing a Google Image Search is always fun. If your idea of “fun” is discovering whole new realms of poorly-rendered 3D pornography you never knew existed. This sort of thing occurs no matter the search**, but “centaur” is an especially illuminating subject. My utter lack of curiosity none-the-less satisfied, I eventually spotted the following bronze cast of the younger of the Furietti Centaurs.
I fell in love with the expression and pose, just as Europe did when the original marble was discovered. I decided to base my illustration in part on this image. This is a delicate area for illustrators: In general, you shouldn’t just pick something off Google and copy it. In fact, I know of illustrators that would accept nothing less than go sketch the statue in person, take their own photos for later reference, maybe sketch some horses while they were at it, and get a model to pose for them. I envy them the time, money, and relationships necessary for such a dedicated and privileged approach to their craft. I don’t possess those resources, so I instead pick my reference photos carefully so as to avoid stepping on the legal and ethical toes of another artist. In this case, because I only wanted to reference the pose of the sculpture and not the framing or composition of the photo, and the sculpture itself is a copy of what most believe to be a copy of a lost Hellenistic work, I don’t think I’m in a gray area. This is pretty firmly “homage” territory.
STEP TWO: CONCEPTION (Not the movie)
At this point, what’s floating in my head is something vaguely like this:
Only, you know, at least 25% more awesome. I’ve heard other artists talk about their idea process in almost Michelangelo-like terms, like the image is already there and they just have to “set it free.” For me, it’s more like giving birth when you didn’t know you were pregnant and have no clue who or what the father was. I really have no good goddamn clue what something will look like until the marks I make start suggesting things, and I follow those suggestions until the result looks good, or else bad and I delete it. When I started the sketch, the above was the sum total of my imagination. Eventually, I ended up with this:
As it turns out, trying to connect a bike frame to a woman’s lower half is… delicate work. It’s very easy for the result to look more like the result of the worst and most embarrassing biking accident ever. One other thing Charla had mentioned was a preference for old-school derby outfits, like high-waisted shorts, and as you can see I modeled the subject’s wardrobe accordingly.
STEP THREE: PROFIT CLIENT DIALOGUE (Wherein the infant mortality rate is high)
This is the point on any illustration project where I stop to show the client what I’ve done, and for good reason. As it turned out, Charla had pictured less bike and more woman–she was envisioning a pair of human legs with skates on the front. I realized that was going to be difficult to get across, because the result would easily look more like a woman with half a bike sticking out, rather than a hybrid being. At the same time, I saw why Charla would want the skates: The image just didn’t say “roller derby” without them. We needed some kind of compromise so the biker/rollergirl idea came across at the same time the novel blending of bike and woman did. After a return to the Wacom, and the addition of inks, we had this:
The solution we went with was to morph one leg into a bike, and keep the other a normal leg, with old-school skate on. You’ll spot subtle changes to her face as well. I really don’t stop tweaking any part of the image until the moment the final’s approved.
STEP FOUR: INTENSE SELF-DOUBT (also, finish the piece)
In this case, there was still the application of color to do, which is where all the decision-making the image has already gone through will be doubled. While I’ve kept in mind that I’d be coloring the image the entire time, exactly how I’m going to approach it is something I almost never settle on until the moment of truth. Often, it’s a process of trial and error. I don’t have any one style–depending on what’s called for, I might use solid tones, “cell-shading,” color-holds (wherein the inks themselves are given hues), or an out-and-out painterly method. Or more than one – I actually like contrasting methods for different elements. In this case, I went with something slightly painterly to mimic old circus prints.
In this case, there was also type choices to consider. That’s a whole other realm I’m only passing-fair at, and thankfully I didn’t need to over-think this one: I already had a selection of circus and other poster print typefaces, which I warped to match the backdrop and colored accordingly.
That’s the finished spoke card, with space for the participants to write their number. Greensboro residents can expect to see the flyer version around town soon.
STEP FIVE: WRITE LONG, BORING BLOG POST ABOUT IT
Big thanks to Charla and GSORD for asking me to do such a fun project! You can find out more details about the race at the Facebook Events page for it.
*I call Greensboro my “home town” often. Actually, I grew up in a tiny rural town 30 miles away, but Greensboro was both the closest “real” city and the only place with cultures that didn’t revolve around guns, God, and xenophobia.
**I once worked a job requiring I search a popular stock image site for entirely innocuous terms several times a day. Even then, nude women came up with surprising regularity, to the point I began emailing the results to my friends under the heading “Fun With Stock Photos.” A search for “lightbulb” might turn up a Photoshopped image of a nude woman wrapped in rusted barbed wire and walking on broken glass, like something out of a Clive Barker novel. Actually, most of the odd results were vaguely Barker-esque, come to think of it. Best part of the job, next to health insurance.