When Aliette de Bodard asked me if I would like to do character portraits of her characters from her novel The House of Binding Thorns, I leapt at the chance. Quite literally: I was lounging on the couch when I read her message, and I jumped up across the arm of it and ended up on the floor, rolling around from too much glee. It’s difficult for me to articulate all my feelings about Binding Thorns; it is one of those books that I found quite practically transformative; I rank it together with other books that have meant immensely, immensely much to me — together with Rizal’s El Filibusterismo and Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Rilke’s work. One day I will find words to describe how much I love it; for now, I will just say I love it so, so much, omg.
As soon as I started work on the character portraits, I ran into a huge obstacle. Aliette’s work is full of shadows and darkness, the things that creep around at night; of ruin, destruction, decay. I didn’t feel that I measured up to that at all, as an artist; I loved bright colours, but that was pretty much it. How was I meant to portray all this weight — how was I meant to create something that did justice to people who were dark and fiery, bladed and sharp, when my art was nowhere near that level of intensity or grandeur? My work didn’t even try to approach darkness.
But then — of course. I just had to dare. To embrace shadow; to try and show the knife-edge between it and light. To try and to risk and to do things that I wouldn’t have called within “my style” or my purview or whatever. I just had to stretch a little further.
This is Madeleine, one of Aliette’s characters, at a very early stage of the process. I was very nervous about this; faces are not my strength, and definitely not faces I don’t draw often (read: anyone other than slim young women or femme-looking people — sorry, I’m trying to do better and learn more!). So I spent a fair bit of time trying to study the faces of older women to figure out what made them look a certain age, what lines or features would convey the kind of expression I wanted to convey; a sort of grim determination.
Someone once asked me what the longest part of my art process is. I think they were surprised when I said it was the pencils. It’s not that I take the longest in terms of actual pencil-in-hand time; but it’s finding the lines and where they’re supposed to go, and plucking up the courage to actually say: yes, this is where you should be. Finalizing linework, to me, is very difficult because it is such a huge part of the piece — it’s the bones, the foundations — and I’m always unsure of whether I’m doing the right thing.
It’s funny, I didn’t use to have this trouble back when I went straight to ink. But at that time all I really cared about was getting detail down on paper, giving my hand something to do. Now I care about things like composition (which I am very bad at) and character portrayal (ditto) and expressions and– haha! It’s so hard!
Things always flow a lot better once I’ve pinned most of the color down. Which is, again, not something I expected when I first started working color into my pieces back in… 2013? 2014? — I worried that the color would disrupt the linework. These days once I start my first color washes it feels like something unknotting in me, a sigh of relief. I think it’s because in many ways color is actually more forgiving of mistakes than linework is. Watercolor is known for being an unforgiving medium, but at least it’s more tolerant than ink.
I worked on the colors a lot, building them up. I know my watercolor technique is considered “wrong” by a lot of methods that teach about keeping things light and translucent. Opacity is undesirable. But, oh, I don’t know; I enjoy it, and I arrive at the vibrant intensity I want. (This doesn’t mean I don’t wibble or doubt myself all the time, mind. I do! I look at classical watercolorists and professional artists and have a little cry inside, every time.)
It was then that I had to ask myself: how dark could I take this? I’m not very good at shadows, but Aliette’s novels are all about shadows. Could I do this? I was very hesitant to try.
This delayed me for quite some time, but eventually something in me snapped — that part that gets tired of me being wishywashy and goes “oh dammit Mia, just do it” — and I picked up a brush and dragged ink over the edges of the painting. And as if, again, something had untangled all at once, I could paint once more, and deepen things, even Madeleine’s face, which I was very afraid to touch.
I’m glad I tried to be brave and took that risk. Doing shadows freed me up to do some really extravagant metallic highlighting on top, and that is always a joy to do.
Here are the other pieces I did for Aliette! I’m very happy with them (mostly) — just sad that the linework for Asmodeus (which I thought showed his expression more) didn’t turn out strong enough to convey the same expression after I did the painting, but that just means I have to work harder and improve on faces. Much, much work to do!
Thank you, as always, for supporting my art. I hope you liked this mini-process post; I’d like to do more in future!