The Art of Color: How my Grammy 2020 series helped my digital illustration process grow

Experience how the brilliant mind of William Pope, the art director of IBM and an artistry beast, transforms a concept into an ode to Grammy nominees of color.

Over the last year, my digital illustration style has mostly hit a place of comfortability, reliability, and consistency. They’ve been all good things, but none that satisfied my artistic drive. I needed a challenge. I needed a way to push my work and myself in order to make my next piece better than the last. Until I started a new innovative, illustration project, the path to evolve my work further had continued to elude me.

Back in 2018, I created my first Grammy Family series, where I celebrated the nomination of musicians of color through illustrations. The original purpose of this project was an experiment. On one hand, it showed how I could illustrate portraits during the show. On the other hand, it was a way to leverage content for social media.

The illustrations were designed simply with similar features to linework, rendering/lighting techniques as well as the same colors. You can really see it in the skin tones of Kendrick/Childish and Cardi/Bruno. All of them even have the same eye color. While realism wasn’t the goal, a stylized look was. The creative challenge was a success.

See for yourself: K-Dot | Childish | Cardi | Bruno 

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2020 Vector Portraits

After two years passing since I created this series, it felt like it was time to return to the project. But, this time, I’d push the concept a bit further. 

Recently, I’ve been testing out new techniques in Affinity Designer, a graphic and design software, which has drifted my style into a surreal, stylized version of realism. I can’t say I’m super excited about dancing closer to the photo-real line, but at the moment I’m fine where I have landed.

Another new addition to my style has been triangles. Over the last year, these three-sided polygons have been photobombing my artwork with greater consistency. When I started creating the Grammy series style guide, triangles would play a large role in the final pieces by serving as the connector from piece to piece.

Also, the goal was to create a loose coloring style for the base color where the color would exist outside of the linework instead of aligning with it. Once I added the color palette of magenta, blue, and white, plus skin tones, I was ready to go and I dove into the portraits. First up . . . H.E.R.: 

This was the first portrait I created under my new guidelines. For the ending results, I was thoroughly happy. For the process, I found a great portrait of H.E.R. from her performance from the COLOR series, a platform that uses color to feature artists and their songs by associating their genre and style with a color.

Using a similar method to all  of my portraits, I got her likeness down first then took liberties that I found most appropriate for the benefit of the piece. Of all the portraits, it was the easiest because it was mostly hair and most of her face was covered. A suggestion for emerging illustrators, the best way to start a series is to tackle an easy piece first to build momentum and your confidence.

Remember all that momentum and confidence I was talking about before … Well, this portrait destroyed all of it. His likeness is there, for the most part, but it doesn’t work for some reason. Something feels off. His head feels like it’s floating, the eyebrows didn’t come out right, his eyes as a whole, feel huge  to me.

While I thought his beard and hair came out well, I feel more, brighter highlights would have created a better sense of depth in the piece which I feel is lacking. At this point, I wanted to quit this whole project.

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Fail Hard, Fail Fast

 All I could hear myself say over and over again was “You should be working on your children’s book not drawing some random celebrity portraits for fun. Why can’t you stay focused?”

Well, I always have to follow my inspiration. That’s a weakness I have to accept. Plus, my book is another story… When I started this project, I was super excited. Then all of sudden, nothing was working out how I wanted. I hit a wall like the Kool-Aid man, but didn’t burst through it.

Normally, when I burn out on drawing, I stop working altogether. I do other things to reset my mind. Mostly with video games. Right now, I’m looking at you Assassin’s Creed. To cure what ails me, the act of stabbing digital Templars is what the doctor orders. Instead, I decided to watch a couple of YouTube videos in hopes inspiration would find me and drag me back to work. 

By luck, I came across some new videos by Mohammed Agbadi. In his video, “Bring your drawings  to life,” he looks at rendering skin and how light affects it. In another video about Handy App, Agbadi  reviews a posing app. With this review, I learned that shadows and skin tones take on the color of ambient light. After being inspired,  I definitely needed to add the techniques I learned in the videos to my unfinished Grammy portraits. Unfortunately, I couldn’t add them to H.E.R. or Khalid because they were already posted on Instagram.

Before I could jump back into the last two portraits, I decided to test the new techniques to  ensure and convince myself that I knew how to implement them into my work. Since these skills were shown while painting digitally, translating them to my vector brain would take a little more time. I didn’t want to risk ruining another portrait testing it out, I needed an illustration that was in progress that would allow me to jump in and go crazy with a low risk of failure or no expectation. Finally, I found the perfect Illustration.

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When I was trying my hand at live streaming, I started the above illustration. Since then, I’ve stopped creating live video, and the image that I was developing went unfinished. For me, it was the right piece to use for this experiment.

As you can see the massive  leap in lighting, shading and color use when comparing the unfinished with the final piece. In the final rendition, I focused on adding color to the nose due to blood gathering in the area it changes how the skin reacts to light. Subsequently, I decided to add some discoloration to the neck that worked its way up to the ears.

Choosing a complementary color makes the gradients blend better especially if you let them fade across a longer distance. In this case, they start fading at the chin and end near the base of the nose. As well, I threw in some lighting on the neck, because highlights and shadows make all the difference and don’t cost extra.

I was so excited by the progress made on this piece that I jumped back into the Grammy Family series the next day. Let’s get it, Lil Nas X.

Man. I punched this illustration in the face. Likeness. Lighting. Subtle details. I used a lot of the techniques I learned from the videos from earlier. Even though he’s wearing a blue cowboy outfit, there’s a lot of subtlety in the lighting. Look at the folds of his turtleneck. How the light creates a gentle shadow by his ear. He even has a whisper of a mustache. The thing about this illustration is that the original reference photo was the opposite colorway. Blue background and red suit. Which I found ironic. You may not. I’m willing to discuss this if you’d like.

The culmination of this entire project is the Lizzo portrait. The lighting is so on point that I sometimes don’t believe I made this. I went into this illo with the intention to capture a regal vibe as Lizzo just exudes the presence of a queen with all that confidence. But, I also wanted to capture the emotion she infuses her music by closing her eyes and keeping the lighting on her soft.

I’m really proud of the reflection of the bamboo earrings on the side of her cheek. By the way, do you see those dope earrings? I’m a fan of my own art as you should be.

By the way, up until this piece, there was no ambient light in any of the portraits. Not one. The portraits were brighter and full color. Therefore, I added this magenta filter and it gave the illustration a mood and emotion. I loved the results  so much that I went back and altered the portraits to what you see above.

If you look at the IG posts for 28, 29, 30, you can see the difference between what’s posted here and what’s posted on the ‘Gram.

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Grammy Family 2020 — H.E.R., Khalid, Lil Nas X, Lizzo 

If you look at each portrait in this series, you can see the growth of the techniques from portrait to portrait. I’m really proud of myself for sticking with my plan and not quitting. It took a small detour, but even at that moment, I learned that there’s always room for growth and room to learn more.

Throughout the project, I had to remember, “Nobody will believe in you until you believe yourself first.” I knew this project had value and because of it, I feel I’ve moved into a new artistic home that feels very comfortable. Now that I’m here, I think I’ll stay awhile maybe work on a new series. Right after I finish my next book . . .

William Pope aka Chez Chez La Pope stands at the helm of Digital Mercenary. He is an art Director, illustrator co-creator of The Whiskey Lifestyle and other ventures. You can find his work on Instagram.

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