digital art’

Ghost Madness

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or how I create stuff.

At the start of this year I entered the Folio society book Illustration competition. The competition was to illustrate three different short ghost stories, one of which was The Treasure of Abbot Thomas by M.R. James, one of the great ghost story writers. The golden rule with illustrating a text is to read the story and then identify a particular part of which inspires a vivid image in your head. I found this line did it for me;

‘I was conscious of a most horrible smell of mould, and of a cold kind of face pressed against my own, and moving slowly over it,’

I found the idea of a horrible ghostly face pressing against the protagonists face a striking visual image, the horror for me, came from this unwanted intimate contact with a foul creature. What is worse is this scene takes place in a confined space, inside a well, at night.

So with text chosen I started sketching out the image. I work completely digitally and I will start sketching directly in Manga Studio, in black and white and work up the image to completion in Manga Studio. The reason for doing this is I have complete freedom to erase things, to cut and paste parts of the image and to quickly block in with areas of tone. This approach works for me because sometimes I have an image in my head which I then try to ‘shape’ on the screen but on other occasions I’m not sure what I want and through experimenting on the computer, an image ‘evolves’.

With this illustration I had a strong image from the text of the man’s facing touching the face of the ghostly presence. Here are my first three roughs;

ghost story rough 1  ghost story rough 2ghost story rough 3

There was also a mention of tentacles in the next line, so I included them. So far ok, but because it is all to do with the characters facial reaction and the horror he feels I decided to stop doing roughs and work on his expression. I found some models of older men from my collection of photo reference books and created this…


I liked the character I came up with so I cut and pasted him into a composition with the ghost.

ghost story rough 1

The big problem with this approach was that the character I had designed in isolation didn’t quite look right when placed in the composition, he wasn’t looking at the ghost who appears from a hole in the wall of the well when the hero finds the hidden treasure.

ghost story rouh

So I scrapped the background and started on a new ghost. But the character wasn’t working for me now, there was no sense from his expression that he was utterly terrified. So I started again and created a new character, again based on photo reference.

ghost story rough

I liked the face but the angle was wrong.

I tried a completely new composition…

ghost story rough

This was working so I worked it up, adding colour.

ghost story rough

Tech note, I added the colour using colour adjustment layers, mainly set to Overlay. This feature will be familiar to users of Photoshop but they have been available in Manga Studio since version 5.

I liked the composition, the ghost is not clearly described in the text so I was going with a faceless presence kind of thing. I wasn’t happy with it, the character was younger than I imagined (my wife said it reminded her of Doctor Who), so it was back to the drawing board.

I was happy with the composition so far so I just redesigned the hero and ghost… again.

ghost story roughghost story rough

It was working for me and the Edwardian setting of the story was coming through. But the facial expression was not communicating terror so ….

ghost story rough

The gritted teeth went.

Guess what, I wasn’t satisfied and started the whole thing again from scratch. It was both the expression of the character and the design of the ghost that wasn’t working, the shapeless mass idea was not coming through.

ghost story rough

On this attempt I used reference photos of an ape’s skull for the ghost and included a hand on the human character to add more context. Oh hang on now it looks like they are having a smooch!

Here we go again… I changed the human character completely and worked into the ghost skull character to make it more of a face.

ghost story rough

It was working so I added into it.

ghost story rough

Then I added colour (maybe it should have stayed in black and white but I thought it might look too obvious for a ghost story).

ghost story roughghost story rough

I felt is was working but needed something more, so I added a hand to the ghost.

ghost story rough

When I reached this point two things occurred to me, one the human victim looked creepier than the ghost and two, this was much more important, I had created this finished piece…. WITHOUT LOOKING AT THE SIZE GUIDE! The idea of the competition is that the winner is commissioned to illustrate the rest of the actual book, therefore the guidelines state that the images must be portrait format and must be in the size ratio supplied in the rules. I had ignored this pretty much and my image was far too wide!!!! There is an important lesson here, always use a size guide when a certain size is requested. Paste it into your working file if you work digitally or cut out a paper frame if you work on paper/canvas etc.

THEN I HAD AN IDEA. I’ll turn the human character from the last image into the ghost, this will give him a more solid look, more relatable. For the human character I found a face in a reference book. Note the size guide has appeared in my work file.    ghost story rough

 ghost story rough

This is the image with the previous human character, ghostified and pasted in as black and white line next to my new human character. Now it was working for me, it had that intimate horror feel I was aiming for.

I added a less intense and more limited colour palette, also I was adjusting the composition to fit in with the size/proportion guide.

ghost story rough

Finally I was happy with the result.

ghost story rough

Looking back I’m shocked at how many attempts I’d made at this illustration. There is probably a clear lesson here. I should have created far more initial sketches, different composition ideas, perhaps don’t focus on the faces alone, do more of the figures, express the horror through body pose maybe, even choose a different part of the story to illustrate. I would have suggested all those options if I was giving someone else advice, but I didn’t do that. I got obsessed by expressing that one line and the image it inspired. I don’t know if that’s a good thing to do but I enjoyed the journey. The other two illustrations plus the cover design are on the gallery page of my blog. I didn’t get on the shortlist for the competition in the end, but I learned a hell of a lot doing those illustrations.