Painting the X-Men

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Mythos: X-Men, Page 8. 2005. Oil on board, 16 × 24″.

This is a cross-post with Muddy Colors—An Illustration Collective.

I've been a Muddy reader since the blog's inception, so it's a great honor to be a contributing artist. My favorite posts have always been about process, so I thought an appropriate introduction to my work should involve just that. Specifically, my first few posts will explore the series of styles and media I've employed over the years, as well as the reasons for shifting gears. I began my professional career as an oil painter, and have slowly evolved into a traditional comic book style over the last 10 years. Mythos: X-Men, featured here, was the first book where I felt comfortable with my style—prior to that, every page was a true struggle. This book was still challenging, but I at least knew what my goal was and how to get there. The only drawback was the amount of time needed, and this 23-page comic (plus cover) took me roughly 10 months to complete. I was also painting other covers at the time, but my output was not adequate by any measure.

1. Pencil Layout, 4 × 6″  2. Digital Color Study

While my media have changed since this issue, my mental process is nearly identical. I begin each page with a small layout to work out compositions and ensure legibility (although now I sketch digitally). This rough is then scanned into Photoshop for a digital color study.

3. Pencils, 8 × 12″  4. Finalized Color Study

Once approved by my editor, it's just a case of refining the draftsmanship and color scheme. It may seem like a superfluous step, but it removes any doubt when it comes time to paint. Doubt can be an inspiring opponent, of course, but not when I'm trying to meet a deadline.

5. Transfer to Board  6. Final Painting.

Using a projector, I would transfer the page to custom-cut, primed masonite with burnt umber, a fast-drying oil pigment, often using odorless mineral spirits to draw by wiping back to the surface. I wouldn't do a full-fledged grisaille underpainting, but important areas—faces, hands, etc.—were fully rendered. Borders were painted in acrylic and taped off. I ended up adding the borders digitally for print, but the extra effort allowed me to sell the original paintings. The palette pictured above is a cookie sheet that locked into place with 2 rubber door stops on the underside of the easel. It was easily removed for more detailed work. At one point, I used a glass palette so I could mix colors on top of my digital color study. It was a nice trick, but I got tired of cleaning the surface.

Panel 4

After that, it was just a case of mixing the right color and putting it in the right place. I would often paint directly on my digital print to ensure the right color mix. While I was happy with the results, this took far too much time and ended up being my last issue in oil. Scanning was a challenge in itself, and I ended up spending a month just removing dust and glare from the pages in Photoshop. That alone was enough to  send me searching for another way to paint. In my next post, I'll show how I made the switch to acrylic and gouache with Mythos: Hulk.

Panel 5

If you'd like to see more of my work, I've been keeping a personal blog, The Self-Absorbing Man since 2007. You'll find the most information about my technique under the Theory and Step-by-Step labels. If you'd like to know how to make Cyclops' optic blast "glow," this post on lightsabers may be of interest. And finally, a good deal of my work can be viewed at my art dealer's site, Splash Page Comic Art.


  1. Great!
    Thank you for this post, it's very interesting! It must be very difficult to work in oils on comic pages, but the result is very good.
    I'm very curious to know something about your switch to acrylics with Hulk.
    May be, in another post, you could talk about how scanning color pages and make the real colors match the colors on your screen ? I have an imac and its glossy screen is giving me some troubles :-)

    1. Yes, that's always been a problem for me. One trick you can try is with a "curves" layer. Scan in your painting with a swatch of true white (the paper) and a true black (your darkest paint) and use those as a reference in curves—there's a little eyedropper in the palette, one white and one black. Click on those, then the corresponding color swatch. Everything should fall into place.

      If this makes no sense, let me know, and I'll do a full post on it. Thanks!

    2. Thanks for your answer!
      The procedure you suggest is very good, I will adopt it for the future.
      Anyway, I still have a good image on my screen which corresponds to my real page but when my editor prints it he tells me my file is too dark and too saturated. And it should be because of the new imac glossy screens.
      Again, thanks a lot!

    3. Ah, I see. That's a different kind of problem—one that plagued me for years. This post shows how I finally solved it.

    4. Thanks! Now I know the direction to take! :-)
      PS: the blog of Mark Sweeney seems not to be any more on line.

  2. Can you put a picture of the projector and show how its work? plz

    1. I'm afraid I don't have a pic of the set-up in action. It was something like an Artograph Super Prism Projector, and I had to set it up on a rolling stand about 8 feet away from the board. I think I had to print out my pencils at postcard size to fit in the viewable area of the projector. The point is, it was a very involved process and that's part of the reason I stopped doing it after this issue.

      Projectors are great if you're painting very large, but I wouldn't recommend it for comics.


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