The Process Behind the Angel of Jupiter

Well I finished up this Angel of Jupiter yesterday and thought I’d share a post about my process for any artists out there that might be interested. I’ve learned a lot from every angel I’ve painted so far, and refined my technique a little with each one, and this one was no different. The entire piece was completed using Photoshop.

I made the initial mistake in this process of trying to go straight in with colour and shapes too soon, and essentially skipping the line drawing stage. I thought that perhaps I was slowing myself down by always doing such detailed sketches before I started the painting phase, but my initial attempt at ‘straight to paint’ only proved how important it is to build on a strong drawing foundation. This was as far as I went with sketching at first. I knew he was going to be a mature man, on a throne, at the centre of a giant orrery, with some eagle symbolism, and the top of his head open. The themes would be circles, planets, cycles, wheels, golds and royal blue, he would be a little proud, arrogant even, like Zeus, but also peaceful, like a Taoist who knows the rhythms of nature so well that he simply enjoy their unfolding. So, with all that in mind, I sketched this incredibly generic warrior who seemingly expressed none of those qualities…


Then I dove straight in with colour and promptly threw out my orrery idea in favour of him being sat in some kind of tree throne which held the planets in its branches. In retrospect, its obvious that I only opted for this idea because an orrery is practically impossible to freehand without carefully drawing out all the perfect ellipses and spheres first, and wiggly branches are much easier. 

I was pretty excited at first to have something come together so quickly. Then I thought he looked too much like he was either deep underwater, or somewhere beyond our atmosphere in space, when he was meant to be more of a sky god. I also wanted more gold and metal generally, so I tried to add in more of a golden throne with slue skies behind.

And that’s when it became clear that he was broken and unsalvageable, and that I needed to draw and draw some more until I had something I was sure was worth painting. So first I did this guy.

Then with the basic composition in place I shaded him in. This was the final sketch before I started laying in some colours.

At this point I’m excited about it again, I really liked the drawing. Thankfully I’ve come to recognise that this is always a peak in the process before a hard drop into the beginnings of the colour stage. The drawing looks good, and then it turns into a kind of garish cartoon as I make my initial colour choices. I was prepared for that this time though so I only spent 3 or 4 days at the most questioning my worth as a human being and my prospects as a professional artist before it started to come together…

One of the main issues I noticed while laying in colours was that there wasn’t enough going on in the mid-ground to really give the sense that this was a huge, galaxy-tracking orrery. I also wanted the walls and window behind him to look rounded, like an observatory, and as it was it just looked like a flat wall behind him, and not very far in the distance. So I lightened and muted background blues to give a sense of distance, and added in these ‘arms’ holding up the planets behind him, coming off the central platform, which were also painted in more muted tones to give a sense of depth and atmosphere. I also added in a lot of detailing on his clothes and boots that I hadn’t originally planned, to further add to this theme of fractal complexity.

Finally it was time to add the special effects. Any kind of elemental energies and lighting effects always come last, so at this point I added the electricity and some colour layers to show it reflecting off his gold throne. I also added some shadows behind his head because I was afraid that his circular head piece looked too much like it could be part of the throne itself because of the way it was symmetrically positioned. And finally, it was finished. This is one of my favourite angels I’ve done so far, and I won’t make the mistake of trying to skip the drawing phase again. 

The Process Behind Moon Angel

After about six weeks of trying to squeeze in an hour or two here and there on this piece in between designing tattoos, I finally finished it! This here Moon Angel is the first of many angels that I’ll be painting for a new strategy card game that I’ve spent the last year developing and playtesting, which, I dare say, is pretty awesome. I become fully aware of its awesomeness at Christmas time a few months ago, when we set off to Colorado for two weeks and spent the days we were snowed in playing the game with my brothers, sometimes for 5 or 6 hours at time, and when I saw how obsessed they became with it, I knew I was on to something. 

Anyway, I thought I’d share some process shots of each piece as I complete them, if for no other reason than to encourage aspiring artists who might stumble upon this to realise that what seem like mediocre or downright terrible sketches may be the beginnings of a nice piece, if they just keep working on it. They say great stories aren’t written, but rewritten, and that’s true of art as well. 

For example, look at this sketch at the top! Nothing special, that’s where this one started. But once I’ve got a rough pencil sketch worth developing, I scan it into Photoshop and start trying out different ideas for it. So here I decided I wanted her face to be more bug-like, or more like a mask than an actual woman’s face, and also decided she needed some extra limbs to make her less human.

The idea for this card was that she’s a kind of shapeshifter, that can take on multiple animal forms at once, so I wanted her to look like she was in the process of transformation. 

Once I was happy with her general shape in Photoshop, I printed her out, lightboxed the sketch, and began a more detailed drawing. That’s when I added a lot of her more specific features, her tendril hair, her beetle feet, and played with another idea for her face. 

Then I scanned that in, and started shading it in black and grey on Photoshop again. The main changed I made then were to her horns, I just felt that the larger, wider, more antler-like horns fit the shape of the composition better, and I also decided that I’d swung too far and her face wasn’t human enough anymore, so I gave her more soft, feminine features. Once I was happy with the black and grey layer, I started adding some colour washes.

Finally  I started adding in more subtle colour effects, and giving more consideration to light sources and the reflections they would cast. Her face was still bothering me, and I realised that I could keep her feminine features but give her big bug eyes at the same time, and once I did that she had the look I wanted, alien, insectoid, dangerous, but also seductive, playful and wise.  

So there you have it. Next up, the Angel of Mercury!

Spiritual Maps and Personal Narratives

This is part three of a series of posts about my recent meditation retreat.

I’ve always been hesitant to seek out spiritual teachers. This is likely due to the fact that I read as many academic studies of religion as I do religious texts themselves, and when you examine these various traditions and communities from a distance it naturally makes you more hesitant to dive in and hand over control of your personal narrative to a guru or guide. That is the contract, after all, you’re relinquishing some measure of control over your sense of who and what you are, in the hopes that your teacher can help you transform those ideas into something better, or even cause them to vanish completely. This can be of huge benefit.

Perhaps you had a profound experience of great clarity, joy and insight, and then promptly slipped into depression and your life started falling apart. You were about to go get a prescription to help you survive this unexpected plunge into existential despair, but then someone convinces you to go on a weekend meditation retreat. You may meet someone there who listens to your story and explains that its a classic pattern they’ve seen hundreds of times, that you have gained insight into a fundamental quality of experience that Buddhists sometimes call dukkha or Knowledge of Suffering and that it’s a positive sign of spiritual maturation, and here is a technique that will help you find your way back to happiness.

If true, that narrative is obviously preferable and more powerful than being diagnosed with depression and becoming reliant on pharmaceuticals. On the other hand…you could end up like one of my tattoo clients who booked a session with some ‘healer’ to help her deal with her anxiety around giving birth, and after her consultation was informed via text message that a malevolent astral entity was attached to her womb which he could remove for her if she booked another session. Thankfully she had the sense not to go back, but there are lots of people walking around with exactly those kinds of ideas planted in their brains by various leaders within the spiritual scene. It must just be the long form conversations I get to have while tattooing people, but I seem to meet them all.

My first one-on-one interview with our teacher Carl was on day three of the retreat. I described my recent meditations to him and his eyes lit up, but then seemed disappointed as I tried to interpret the experiences for him. We had no shared conceptual language, and the little bit of Theravada theory I thought I understood wasn’t serving me well. Based on his reaction I seemed to be describing experiences that only usually arise after the attainment of some relatively deep level of insight, and yet I wasn’t able to express them in a way that proved I understood their significance, at least from a Theravada point of view. Our fifteen minutes ended with him basically saying ‘Okay, forget all that! Just do this simple technique…and you will see magic things’.

That evening he asked me to stay behind for a chat when everyone went to bed. He kindly wanted to make sure he hadn’t left me discouraged or confused. We got into a long conversation which went all the way back to my earliest peak experiences and meditation breakthroughs. I had diagnosed myself as having crossed a fairly early stage of insight on the Progress of Insight map used in this Burmese Theravada tradition, but after describing those experiences to him he again looked impressed and asked I was sure they didn’t represent something much more profound than I’d realised, mentioning certain later stages I thought I’d been striving towards. But then as he questioned me further I was again unable to put it into terms that he could confirm or deny the validity of, because I hadn’t gotten there following the Theravada path. So we left it as an open question that we’d have to talk more about later, and went to bed.

A few days later I had a breakthrough during meditation and saw something Carl had been pointing us towards. I diagnosed my own experience to him during our next interview, and we both agreed that it was the very first stage on the Progress of Insight map. I had been meditating for years within the linear model, trying to crawl my way towards the pot of illuminating gold at the end of the map, and now within the space of three days it had been suggested that I was already at the end of a whole chapter of that particular journey, and that I hadn’t even gotten started yet. This paradox proved to be the koan that sparked my own personal revelation. 

It finally occurred to me that both interpretations were dependent on the kind of language used to express them. When I described the vivid emotional impact of my experiences and their lasting effects, Carl recognised them as mirroring his own major breakthroughs. Yet when I tried to translate them into a technical, philosophical framework we could both understand, it seemed I understood very little of relevance yet to the Theravada path. I also realised that while I had been practicing some form of Buddhist meditation, however poorly, all these years, I had been doing so within a philosophical framework that I had drawn largely from my readings of western mystics and idealist philosophers. Consequently, my most profound experiences had largely involved experiencing matter as an aspect of mind, as if in a lucid dream, but never of seeing mind as an aspect of matter, as Carl was teaching me to do. As a result, I came to understand my breakthrough on retreat not as the first step towards experiencing ultimate reality, as it is often sold, but as the first step towards seeing the world from one possible perspective among many, the Theravada perspective, while I was apparently several steps further down the rabbit hold of my own, seemingly more western, tradition.

This was a major paradigm shift for me, and completely changed how I practice and how I think of ‘the spiritual path’ in general. It brought home to me how central the role of narrative is in spiritual practice, even within traditions that train you to ‘drop the stories’ or to experience ‘unfiltered reality’. We can likely peel away many unnecessary layers of mental baggage by following any one of these paths, but there will also be an underlying story or philosophical position that you are taking on board in the process. Which isn’t a problem so long as that narrative is recognised and freely chosen, otherwise we are likely to become fundamentalists or unthinking disciples of one sort or another. And it seems to me that the more we can become aware of the unexamined narratives that we’ve all imbibed, the more freedom we gain to wield our own thoughts as we choose.

And now for some fun, here’s a teacher I met on an ayahuasca retreat who I later found out trains people in the deadly art of repelling attackers using mental forcefields…This is a fine example of a narrative that no one should ever take one board, as you’ll learn for yourself if you watch the video. (By the way, this is in no way a comparison to Carl, who is totally awesome and as legit as they come). 

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