Artwork, Exclusive Content, Process

Finding salvation in shadows

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.

Madeleine, from Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen series. Rough pencils.

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.

More or less, the final pencils for Madeleine.

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!

Madeleine with the color assignments done and mostly finalized

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.

Completed piece of Madeleine. The accents/linework on top are silver and bronze mica pigment.

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!

Francoise and Berith, from The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodards

Asmodeus of House Hawthorn, from The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard

Thuan of the Dragon Kingdom, from The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard

Thank you, as always, for supporting my art. I hope you liked this mini-process post; I’d like to do more in future!


5 thoughts on “Finding salvation in shadows

  1. I loved this mini-process post. As an artist myself who’s always doing something wrong according to this or that self-justified authority, screw their so-called rules. Do what gets you the effect you want. This is hard to remember and I feel a lot of self-doubt myself. My response was to withdraw from social media, which just seems to reinforce a lot of group think, artists included. These days I’m experimenting with heavy impasto methods in watercolor and gouache using a silicon aquapasto medium, it’s hard to get more blasphemous than that. ^_^

  2. says:

    I adore these images, and I adore the books. (So much richness. So many layers. Hope in the face of darkness.)

    I don’t think there is a ‘wrong’ in art, whether writing or painting or whatever – the difference seems to be that some people do things with conviction, and pull them off, while others hold back and fail. (There are, of course, many things that don’t work, but even that’s a question of degrees.)

    May I ask how long the Madeleine image took to create? This is something I have no concept of.

    • M says:

      Thank you so much for your kind words! And– yes. I’m starting to learn that, about the concept of “wrong” being a really nebulous thing. It’s hard, though! I feel so much lesser than people who do things the traditional way. But I think that just means I have to keep working even harder on my fundamentals.

      The Madeleine image took me a total of 15-20 hours at my desk, over a span of a month. I work pretty slow!

  3. iheartwombats says:

    These are amazing! I don’t think there really are “wrong” ways to use watercolor, honestly – I’ve seen so many different approaches that are all beautiful, and I love how you’ve combined it with ink and metallic highlights. The textures and colors are gorgeous – the overall effect almost reminds me of elaborately hand-printed fabric, somehow.

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