As many of you might be aware, a lot of artists—freelancers especially—earn money through commissions. The process varies from artist to artist. You send references or a character description; they send you a sketch for approval. Once approved, the artist will clean up the sketch, ink it, colour it, and send it to you. Some artists ask for pay in advance. Some want half-now, half-later. Some don’t make you pay until the final piece is done. I’ve purchased artwork this way, often with very little coming from my end in the way of description.
Working with an actual concept artist, however, was a different experience. It taught me not only how a writer might work alongside an artist in a project, but about the characters I was getting drawn.
The artist in question is Mildred Louis. She was an animation student as Sheridan College, now looking to get a career in visual development, and is currently working on two major projects: A graphic novel called “Catalyst” and a Magical Girl web-comic called Agents of the Realm. She’s a legitimately awesome artist and a super nice person and I was glad to have learned so much from her.
Now, I’ll start by saying she was one of my first experiences with an artist who didn’t use an anime-esque style. I had fallen out of buying commissions for many years until a friend told me about Mildred. Intrigued by the idea of an actual concept artist drawing my characters, I decided to check her out.
Once initial contact was made, I had to send in a description of my characters. However, Mildred’s range of artistic styles—going from extremely realistic to expressive animation style—meant that there was more description to be had from me than I was used to.
The characters I chose were from my current writing project. Their names are Vianna and Fahrad, and this is what I knew about them at the time:
Vianna—multi-ethnic, but with more prominent African features; paler skin; short hair; endless freckles; mid-thirties; blue eyes resting on black sclera.
Fahrad—early-to-mid twenties; dark hair and dark eyes; a trimmed beard, but no mustache; handsome; Middle Eastern features.
And the basics of their relationship: mainly that Vianna is an information broker, and Fahrad is her assistant. However, she treats him more like a younger brother and they sometimes look like gossips when they’re together. They are not intimate or romantically involved.
With that description in hand, Mildred took to her art and eventually sent me several headshots, asking me to select which features I liked.
This marks the first point where the artist influenced the writer. Truthfully, I had Vianna’s appearance more solidly engraved in my mind than Fahrad’s, as he was newer character. I had a vague outline and a vague age.
So, Number 2 was extremely handsome, but appeared older than I would have liked. Mildred agreed that it might be the beard. The second set of headshots came in a bit later.
He ended up looking obviously younger, but more cute than handsome. And honestly, by that point I’d become attached to the beard and the almost “Prince of Egypt” look of the first head sketch. If anything, I thought I’d just make him older to keep those fine features. Mildred said it would be easier to show the age difference once both characters were in a picture together.
(On a head sketch side note, I always appreciated how Mildred drew Fahrad smiling, as opposed to having a neutral expression like Vianna did. It definitely fit more in with the personality I had in mind for him, even if it wasn’t wholly fleshed out at this point.)
The real questions came in when their outfits had to be designed. When choosing your character’s wardrobe, you have to ask yourself several questions. What’s the climate like where they live? Where do they sit on the economic scale? What’s their personal sense of style? These were all questions Mildred would need answers to.
I had already determined that Vianna and Fahrad’s city-state, Serrok, had a rather warm climate. Something around what you might expect in Mediterranean countries. However, it’s also a large trade city, so daily-life was heavily influenced by that. As such, the resultant fashion was a fusion of Middle Eastern and Indian styles, especially in the summer.
Money-wise, Vianna is well-off, so I knew their clothes would be nice. However, I didn’t feel it would be in Vianna’s character to own anything too extravagant. She prefers pants to dresses and toned-down designs. Fahrad, being in a more servile role, wears well-made, but simple clothing.
And colours! I had to delve into Fahrad’s backstory for this. He was pretty much raised by a sect of priests for the world’s resident Death Goddess, the Blue Lady. Unsurprisingly, members of her order wear blue. As such, depending on the culture, there might be different restrictions on the colour. Some places consider it an absolute taboo. Some only wear it as a mourning colour. Some don’t care.
In Serrok, wearing blue outside of the order is considered odd and slightly unlucky, but there’s no rules against it. I figured Fahrad might not be used to the idea of wearing other colours, and would stick with dark blues even though he’d been out of the order for several years.
Fahrad’s colour choices, and Vianna’s slightly sinister appearance might have been what led Mildred to think that Vianna also wore dark colours. I had imagined Vianna to be a woman with simple fashion tastes, but undeniably fashionable. She always wears vibrant colours.
Clothing settled, Mildred asked about something I’d never thought of: jewelry. I actually had to think on this one. I knew it wouldn’t be something Fahrad would wear, but what about Vianna? The only accessories I had in mind for her were gloves. Thinking on it, I realized she probably has simple jewelry tastes as well. Mostly bracelets or anklets, but no earrings, finger rings, or necklaces.
There were a few suggestions, but the end result was this:
(Throughout this whole process, I did send Mildred pictures of clothing or people as references. In some cases, the images made their way into the concept. Sometimes, I had a set idea of what something should look like (Fahrad’s belt, for example, was far different in my mind) but then Mildred would draw her interpretation and it just looked so much better.)
So, faces approved. Outfits approved. Time to wait on the sketches and colours. Now, I did learn some more things about the artistic process from sketch to colour. Sometimes, an essence that was in the sketch gets lost upon being coloured. I guess this is why some artists groan about ruining their awesome sketches as soon as they’ve tried to colour it.
He squints when he smiles. Ugh. That’s so cute. I needed the squint back in the coloured version, at least a little bit.
During the whole waiting period from initial contact to final product, I was thinking heavily on these characters, and Mildred’s fantastic work played no small part in that. By the time I was waiting for the finished product, my vaguely made-up characters were more fully fleshed out. In the end, her completed piece even left me with new questions.
Her work is wonderfully expressive. I can easily see the scene unfolding now. Someone has sought out Vianna for information she might hold. Perhaps this someone is being targeted for assassination. Perhaps they are the subject of a scandal. Perhaps they have deep connections to some big incident. I can see this person giving their plight and, once they finish, Fahrad leans in and whispers something to Vianna.
What did he say? Whatever it is, he seems to think it’s funny. Vianna seems very pleased. Whatever he told her must be useful.
Is this just a day of work, or will this turn into something that could shake Serrok?
What the heck does Fahrad have in those glowing bottles?
Working with a concept artist was enlightening. I feel like having someone to ask me question and help interpret my vision has led me to know more about these characters in a shorter period of time. To see how writers and artists can work together was throughly educational. And, I now have a reference I can look to for consistency in their appearances.
Or just grin stupidly at because of how good they look.
I recommend an experience like this to anyone. I will certainly be calling upon Mildred’s skills in the future.
If you’re interested in seeing her work (which you should be), you can find her here:
Mildred’s art blog: Adventures in Concepting
Her web-comic: Agents of the Realm