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!

Brightness, Process

Guard growth / ease pain

“Today’s agenda,” I told myself as I curled up into a ball of miserable pre-menstrual cramps this cold rainy morning, “is to be kind to myself because OW PAIN, and also a Patreon post.” This is that post.

I always want to get better. As an artist, as a person — that’s without question. Better implies, naturally, some measure of comparison, and this is where my problems begin. I look at the awesome people around me — family, friends, former classmates and colleagues, members of the wider social networks of which I’m part — and I’m staggered by the sheer difference between my shriveled inadequate little self and all these shining lights: brilliant writers and creatives, driven entrepreneurs, dedicated scientists, fighters for justice and the rule of law, passionate workers for social change — there are a fair few potential Nobel awardees among my networks, I’m sure!

Any comparison I make inevitably ends with me falling short, and it’s something that has caused me — still causes me, to be honest — a great deal of pain. This turns into self-flagellation, and familiar destructive patterns of doubt and despair: there really is no way I’ll ever become like Dr X (I don’t have a PhD) or Atty Y (I don’t have an LlM) or Ms Z (I’m not, in fact, involved in social outreach or making a difference in anyone’s lives).

What is one to do? The most obvious answer (not to compete or compare, period) is also the most difficult. I’m an inherently competitive person. I grew up pushing myself to get better, surpass, exceed, and I have to have some benchmark on which to focus. What point of comparison remains to me if comparing myself to everyone around me will just cause me to self-destruct?

O. Ez. Lyk dis.


The painting on the left is an unfinished gouache on watercolor piece I did in early 2015 (February or March, I think). I abandoned it because there was something wrong with it, and I couldn’t quite figure out how to fix it. The painting on the right is an in-progress gouache on watercolor, from June 2016.

Let’s do another!


The top painting is, again, my June 2016 in-progress piece; the bottom painting is its previous incarnation, which I scrapped because I got stuck (so, an April or May piece). The photo’s soft focus isn’t doing it any favors (oops!) but even then, I think the difference is clear. I had stronger fundamental lines and elements for the June 2016 piece, and the background was rendered with better technique.

I could go on and on (or maybe not; looking at my old pieces makes me cringe either with embarrassment or “wow I can’t believe I did that I’ll never be able to do it again“) but I think the solution is clear. As a goal, getting better is fine. I just have to ensure that, instead of engaging in a pointless competition against people who are 1) doing different things than I am, and 2) not me, I take it as a mark of progress, a surpassing of the old self, an exceeding of the capacity of the past.

I think you could almost call it growth.

The finished piece:


Notes: This post was written through the incredibly vital support of my Patreon patrons. The piece is an as-yet untitled painting of a genderqueer sea deity as cover art for a GlitterShip anthology. The title of this post is from The Wizard’s Oath from the Young Wizards series by Diane Duane.