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The Hobbyist Freelancer’s Process: Part 2

By April 14, 2015April 18th, 2015freelance, Uncategorized


Part One of my brief overview of what it’s like to do hobbyist freelance artwork saw me working on an iterative logo for the band Slow Train. This process involved an exploratory period, followed by further refining of the design and concluding with minor tweaks to a mostly finished image, all the while staying in constant contact with the client, an acknowledged old college buddy of mine Michael Kelly.

For Part Two, I was additionally commissioned to create a large banner that could be used by the band for promotional materials, as well as a large backdrop for the band while playing local shows. The initial idea for the final image itself was influenced primarily by myself with key tweaks and additions supplied at the suggestion of Michael to customize it to what he felt would best fit with the band’s theme.

Because this was a mostly-me driven project, the artist/client relationship of the previous blog entry will take a back seat, instead focusing more on the actual techniques and strategies I used while creating the artwork itself. 


Starting Out

Shortly after I was first contacted by Michael about doing the Slow Train logo, the idea of doing a banner for his CD release show was floated. I agreed that it sounded like it would be fun to do as well, and said that whenever the logo was done we could talk about where to go next with it. Michael had some ideas of his own, as did I.

After sending the email containing all of the final images for the band’s logo in mid January 2015, I sent off a brief email containing a quick sketch I had done.

postersketch          postersketch2

“One last thing. Here’s the beginning sketch to how I pictured the poster after our talk.”

The sketch, and all the ensuing artwork, was made using a Wacom 13 HD Graphics tablet in Photoshop CS6. Considering this was just an initial sketch, it was sent as a little file and done quickly.

The sketch was mostly to give Michael a sense of what I was thinking to see if we were both on the same wavelength. Fortunately for me, we were. His return email was positive and contained his initial thoughts on the sketch I had provided.

“I am so excited about this! I’d like to have a conversation because it’s easier to talk about ideas than putting notes on paper. But, as far as cut and dry details go, here are my initial thoughts just going with gut reaction.
 Bigger mountains
Larger first train car (where the engine is)
Love the smoke and “slow train” emerging from it idea!
Train bigger – …closer
Cowboy on horse riding alongside
1 engineer hanging out window in front of train w/ hat in hand
Bigger, more obvious tunnel opening
 Love the birds and overall feel! Train color Black or Gray maybe? Red gives a hokier feel than I like I think… Love the color of the sky. I am very much into this idea!”

Plenty of small details to be worked on, but for the most part Michael had liked the direction I took with the project.

This was fairly unique in how it developed. While the client initially had their own idea’s of what they wanted, most of which was gathered from phone conversations, I was inspired to submit my own design without being asked to. While I would not do this with many of my previous clients, I knew that Michael in particular was likely to be open to suggestions. Besides, in talking about ideas for the banner itself, it was more about a sense of atmosphere and including key elements, such as the train, a landscape and the band name. The fluid nature of the project meant I felt confident I could be a bit more assertive than I would have otherwise.

From here, the time frame in which I had to finish the project was entirely dependant on when the CD release party would be. A few weeks after the initial sketch, in early February, Michael let me know that he was shooting for a mid March date for the CD release, so he would need it about a week before so that it could be incorporated into his promotional materials. This left me with give or take two weeks to get him the completed artwork. With the time crunch on, I got to work.


Due to the size requirement needed for printing a banner, as well as the resolution required to have a quality print, I knew this was going to have to be big. After running some idea’s by Michael, we figured that the banner would mostly be used in small venues, and would need to be at it’s largest 6 feet across. The standard format for band banners meant that the final dimensions would be a 6 foot wide by 4 foot tall banner (3×2 ratio). 

The ideal resolution for high quality prints is usually 300 dpi. A 300 dpi painting, created on a 6 foot by 4 foot canvas in Photoshop would be a 21600 x 14400 image. 

Now, I have a moderately powerful Windows PC for 2015 that I built 2 years ago primarily for gaming. This includes both 64 bit Windows and Photoshop running off an SSD, 8 gigs of RAM, a top of the line-for-two-years-ago AMD graphics card and an overclocked i5 3570k. But I could immediately tell that this would be far, FAR too much for my computer to handle. Let alone the fact that I realized that 300 dpi worth of detail would be absolutely lost on a banner that is set behind a band, 20 to 25 feet away from the nearest fan that would be looking at it. So a full resolution banner print, while nice, would be absolute overkill. So I decided to cut the resolution in half, opting for 150 dpi as a concession. The loss in resolution shouldn’t be terribly noticeable, and it would help manage my computational limitations.

And as luck would have it, a 150 dpi 6 foot by 4 foot banner would actually reduce in size to a 300 dpi 3 foot by 2 foot poster. A quick Google search would reveal that 36×24 inches is in fact the exact dimensions of most movie poster sized poster prints, leaving the image as a moderately blurry banner to be seen from afar but a razor sharp poster print for use in the home. A secret win!

Having the logistics of how I would manage to make this banner figured out, it was time to get to work.


The Marathon Begins

Having to create an entire painting digitally is a time consuming process, especially at the resolution I would be working at. This would require that I produce 20 full 1080p resolution images (thats over 5 4K resolution ones) in a matter of a few weeks. I knew that this was going to be nearly impossible if I was to work in the traditional process I had been taught as a painter in school.

Normally, you begin with the basics. Sketching, blocking, defining, refining, and finally the little details that make the painting special are added in. While blocking in the overall painting would not be a problem, adding detail back into the image using the traditional method would was going to be far too time consuming.

Instead, I opted for the techniques that I had previously seen employed by many YouTube concept artists, first and foremost by Xia Taptara of idrawgirls. In order to produce very fast but effective works of concept art, artists such as Taptara will often combine various types of photographs with their blocked out digital paintings. After the basic composition, colors and lighting of the painting are established, photographs of landscapes, textures, objects and people will be layered into and on top of the basic painting that you already have.

This process allows you to achieve photo-realistic levels of detail in your painting without the time consuming process of rendering it all by hand. After you have layered in the desired amount of photographic detail, you can then go in and refine what you have placed down, tweaking and tailoring it to have as much of a hand crafted quality as you desire. To best explain the process, it is time to show some examples.




Here we can see the blocked out version of what I intended the painting to look like. A large, dynamic sunset set of rolling western mountains. A treeline breaks into a wide, open, golden field. The subject in the middle: a long train in profile, smoke billowing into the air. Written within the smoke is the band’s name, ‘Slow Train’.

When compared to the very first sketch, you can see the lineage. The time of day is the most notable change, a change that was smartly made by Michael himself.

Now to add in the detail. I have partially blended the photographs in the following image to give you a sense of how the two images are merging. For the photographs themselves, they were combined into four separate layers, consisting of foreground (grass), subject (train), middle ground (trees/mountains) and the background (clouds/sky). This will be made clearer a little further on how they all fit together. My initial sketch is overlayed on top of the photographic layers, which were manipulated to allow the majority of the color influence from my basic blocking layer to override their natural colors.



The detail is beginning to emerge. Specifically take note of the sky and grass. This was an effect achieved simply by layering the photos under my beginning sketch and using the ‘Overlay’ layer option on the first sketch.

You can see how adding in a layer of photographed grass is going to save me an EXTREME amount of time that would have otherwise been spent drawing thousands of small hash marks. Super efficient while achieving the same results.



Here are the photograph layers completely overlaid by the first color/lighting sketch. While mostly complete, you can see some of the rougher edges of the initial sketch bleeding through, as well as colors being too saturated and/or completely off due to the combined blending of the sketch and photographs. To fix this, a fairly time consuming use of a vector mask on the initial sketch layer helped to ease the edges into being barely noticeable, as well as then tweaking the hue/saturation of the image as a whole to help get the colors to still be vibrant and not so blinding.

I also removed the ‘Slow Train’ handwriting to make it a clean canvas for the eventual text.



After some work, this then becomes the final foundation for the banner. At first glance, it almost appears to be a stylized photograph that someone has taken of a real life location. When in fact (considering the later addition of the cowboy into the field) it is actually made up of 18 separate photographs.



After some minor adjustments (which I unfortunately don’t have a copy of), I sent the temporary picture to Michael and let him know that it was most definitely a work in progress, but I’d still like to know what he thought anyhow. He was so happy with the results as they were, he called me up right away to talk about the new changes from the first sketch, additions he’d like to see and then sent off an email to me with the minor points we discussed over the phone.

“Cowboy camping instead of tunnel
Water reflection without compromising sky
Conductor hanging out
First train car

I let him know that all of his points, as well as a mass overhaul of the image itself with further detail and customization added, would be the next step. And fortunately for me, venue complications pushed the release show back into mid April, giving me nearly an extra month to comfortably work on the banner.


The Long Haul or: A Touch of Magic

Now, leaving the 18 photographs, though stitched together and recolored, mostly as-is does not make this an impressive original work of art. It was time to add some hand-drawn stylings, and help make the painting really sing.

From here I will detail the specific steps I took towards putting the final touches on the painting.



  • Step 1: Added detail to the foreground grass by helping to define the lights and darks that existed. Fully drawn stalks of wild grass/wheat are added into the extreme foreground as well. Also replaced the low resolution background grass with layers of a new, higher resolution one.



  •  Step 2: Clean up the clouds, making them more dynamic, fluffy and painterly. Introduced stars peeking through the clouds, as well as added swirls, referencing the ‘Slow Train’ band logo.



  •  Step 3: Cleaned up the mountains that would be visible behind the train smoke to be added later. Fully rendered the background treeline, drawing in dead trees here and there. Migrating birds also added.



  • Step 4: The camping cowboy and his horse are added to the foreground grass. The heavily modified train drawing is also added into the picture.




  •  Step5: The smoke billowing out of the train is hand drawn in. The opacity of the smoke becomes less and less as it proceeds back, allowing the background to show through. Swirls are again added to reference the band logo. The key element that completes the painting.



  •  Step 6: Shadows are added for the mountains, treeline, train, and smoke. This was achieved by duplicating the smoke and train, adjusting the layer brightness to be nearly black, lowering the opacity of the layer, flipping it horizontally and carefully lining it up with the original train.



  •  Step 7: The ‘Slow Train’ band name is inserted into the picture. The smoke is adjusted to flow in and around the letters. A slight vignette is placed on the entire image, as well as applying an even painted texture to everything. This not only gives it a more hand crafted feel, but also assists in obscuring any minor imperfections due to lack of detail or use of lower resolution images.

Crossing the Finish Line

Here is the image that I started with.



This is everything that I then added to the original image, nearly all of it hand drawn and layered over the photographs (the only exception of which is the train, which itself was a heavily modified black and white photograph.)


Once placed together, we have the final, completed picture.


As you can see, the majority of the background is in truth provided by the initial slapped together, color adjusted photographs. But the addition of text, smoke, brush strokes and detail help to elevate it to a wholly unique and original work of art that has a painter’s touch (but was secretly achieved with some amazing shorthand techniques).

Upon completion, the full resolution files were upwards of 300MB and impossible to email off to Michael. Instead, I opted for a technique mentioned in my previous blog post and used to assist in delivering the large files. I sent off an email, detailing the different file types I had included, how to use the dropbox links I provided, and any other small details I may have forgotten.

“That should be enough to get the job done.
I have the original 1.5 gig file if you should ever need anything tweaked, removed, or another file format for the printer. Otherwise, you’re good to go. :)”

Everything was received on Michael’s end.

“Couldn’t help myself, I just read through the whole thing and I’m blown away… Thank you so much!
…Can’t wait for you to see finished product.”

Delivered with only a handful of days to go, it was off to the printers to get the banner made before the CD release show. I was given an update that the banner had printed well, and the next time I saw the painting again was in it’s live, banner-ific glory.




That just about does it for Part 2 of this two part blog series on having a hobby as a freelance artist. Hope it was informative and entertaining to some degree. I’d like to give a big thanks to Michael Kelly and the whole ‘Slow Train’ gang. Without them I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to make some pretty cool artwork. You can find their Facebook page HERE, their ReverbNation page HERE, and a link to Slow Train’s debut, self titled album Slow Train HERE ON ITUNES.


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