Collaboration! Two samurai (artists) are more powerful than one.

Illustration Collaboration

Hey Go Media faithful! As Go Media has evolved over the years, we’ve learned that collaboration with other artists and designers can be a very powerful tool when trying to deliver the very best product to your client. Different designers have different skill sets. When Go Media assembles a team to work on a project some of those people may be in our firm and others may not. I recently had an amazing experience collaborating with a good friend of mine; Steve Knerem on an illustration for Cage Spawn Clothing. This article will be kind of a hybrid – half tutorial and half discussion on the idea of collaborating.

Getting Started

The design brief for this t-shirt design was fairly simple: “Make a sick looking Samurai t-shirt.” I’ve been working with Preston Bennet of Cage Spawn for a while, so he has total faith in my abilities. It’s nice to work with clients that throw you a simple concept and some ideas, and then just let you go to town. As with any illustration, I started by drawing some horrifically rough poses.

Preston selected pose #2. He liked the way the arms crossed, and thought we could frame up the CageSpawn type treatment between the tips of the swords. Here is the type treatment Jeff Finley did for Cage Spawn. It was actually a design “refresh.” We wanted to fix up their existing type treatment, which we thought could be improved upon. The existing one was just too straight and rigid. We needed to infuse it with some flow. I think Jeff did an amazing job.

Original Type Treatment

Go Media’s type treatment refresh.

Once I knew the pose that Preston wanted, I sat right down and tried to translate my uber rough sketch into a tight pencil drawing. I had plenty of Samurai images tacked up around my drawing table, was excited about the pose, and put in several hours trying to make the pose work. Unfortunately, sometimes the really rough sketches include some physical impossibilities. The exact positioning of the arms in this case were simply not working. In lieu of driving myself crazy, I decided to grab my camera and do a quick model shot. These photos don’t need to be anything fancy. I was just trying to get the pose clear in my head. I had a few tubes to use as the swords and here are the images I shot:

From those photos I was able to work out the following pose sketches:

I posted those for Preston to make a decision about which hand-position looked best to him. We agreed that it was #1.

In many regards, this is the most difficult part of the illustration process. Once I have the pose in place with the right perspective drawing all the armor and the mask/helmet goes fairly quickly. I made decisions about what the armor and helmet looked like through looking at reference photos of actual Samurai armor, and then making some of it up as I went along. Here is the illustration at about 80% complete.

Once I had the illustration this far along I planned on filling in the remaining 20% of the art while I was inking. But before I started the inking I went on vacation. And while I was on vacation I badly injured my neck and upper back. I was in so much pain that I didn’t sleep for three straight days. When I got back to the office, I knew there was no way I could spend 8+ hours hunched over a drawing board inking this piece. But Go Media had a deadline (in this case we were already way past our deadline.) I knew my injury wouldn’t go away anytime soon.

The Collaboration Starts.

Although, in this case the collaboration was born of necessity, Steve and I had been talking about collaborating on an illustration for months before this. I knew he was the guy to take over and get the drawing finished. Check out Steve’s work here: Once the ink was done, I could get it into the computer and take over the coloring and design. I already had great respect for Steve’s work, so I really didn’t give him too much direction. I wasn’t completely sure what I wanted to do with the bottom of the Samurai, the armor was incomplete and the flames were incomplete. I pointed all that out but basically said: “make it look sweet.” As I handed him my art I really felt like I was just giving him an inking job. But Steve decided to finish the pencils and get my thumbs up before he started inking.

When Steve brought me the finished pencil drawing I almost fell over. I was completely blown away. He didn’t just finish what I had started, he added a LOT. I wasn’t expecting the masterpiece he showed me. This is a GREAT rule in business and in life. Give people more than they expect. “Under promise, and over deliver” we say at Go Media. It turns normal customers into fans and advocates.

Here is the final pencil illustration that Steve showed me:

Meanwhile, Preston had a friend that was studying Chinese/Japanese calligraphy. He thought some original calligraphy would make a sweet addition to the design. I agreed. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure how I was going to put together the growing list of design elements: Samurai Illustration, Japanese Sun, Cagespawn logotype and now calligraphy! But it was very exciting to have all these great elements to work with. Normally, I like to work out the entire design layout in advance before I start drawing, but what can I say – this project just evolved this way, and I was happy to go with the flow.

Steve Takes Over

I couldn’t have been happier to get the bullpen call from Bill. Unfortunately it was at the expense of Bill’s injury, but nonetheless our talks about a collaboration project gave birth. My part of the journey began when I was visiting some friends out of town. I read the email from Bill on my phone and I interrupted my wife who was talking with friends saying “Awesome, listen to this!” In my mind I had to fly home right away, meet with Bill and begin my part of the collab. Well once I calmed down I responded back of course accepting the job.

Here is a lesson learned when responding to an email: make sure they receive your email! After I sent my eager response, I heard nothing from Bill…uh oh. My mind was racing thinking he called in some other help, so I called a few people at the Go Media office on a Thursday afternoon, emailed Bill again and got him on the phone where I accepted the job and we set a time to meet. Whew!

I landed at 5:20pm in Cleveland on a Monday and got to Go Media an hour later. So my point with all this is don’t give up, fight for what you want. Show your clients you are eager and willing to do what has to be done. That day the hand of Crom was upon me!

So I meet Bill and we discuss the project. He showed me what Go Media already had done for Cagespawn which was out of control awesome. I felt honored to be a part of this circle of excellence. I felt at that point Bill really trusted me to finish the job. It was a very professional experience knowing I was trusted, respected and someone digs my work. So the lesson to learn is: be a professional, you never know when you will get a call. Make awesome work because you never know who is looking. Own your game because someone is always looking for originality.

The Pencil Stage

Finally I sat down and I looked over the project and thought of all the illustration I saw Bill do for the past 5 years. I’ve always loved Bill’s style and characters so the tricky part is to retain all of what he did and add my fireworks to it…no pressure. I can say I really felt confident. In the past year and a half this confidence grew on me because I owned my game. In return if I was in the same situation and had to hand a project to Bill, I know that he would reciprocate the same excellence and pride. Lesson to learn, build relationships. That’s what business and friendships are all about.

I did my research on samurai characters, garments, weapons and what the essence of a samurai warrior is. Right away I shifted into “insane detail mode” which is usually my only gear. I looked at Bill’s character as a strong foundation to build upon. I added blood, banners, costume design, smoke, flames, hair and a solid light source and that solidified my part of the pencil drawing.

Remember add your own twist to something in the pencil stage. The worst that could happen is the client won’t like a part. So what. Erase it and set it back to the original state. Lesson to learn: take initiative to present something above and beyond because it might just come to pass!

A quick example is the blood dripping from the mouth and the hand of the samurai and also the hair.

So I take this drawing to Bill. I’m a little nervous but confident. Bill was thrilled and it made me happy knowing I over delivered. Lesson learned: GO OVERBOARD!! I do recall a high five exchange between us.

The Inking Stage

The ink stage is very different. You can have a shaky hand with the pencil but this is where breathing, patience, discipline, skill, and decision making come into play. When I start a drawing I like to attack my fears head on, with the face. I keep it simple at first and outline the jaw line, eyes and nose.

I use Micron pens because they don’t bleed and they have good flow. They do dry up so keep a fresh stock. I noticed there is a lot of symmetry with the helmet so paying attention to proportions is vital. The swords, arm guards and back body armor need to look the same too. These are at different angles so there is a little leeway with symmetry but they still have to be consistent.

The good thing is you lay this out in the pencil stage. Just remember INKING IS NOT TRACING. You still have to think this through. Some parts will need a thick line and a thin line. This is what makes a dynamic piece.

Probably my biggest concern was retaining Bill’s precise hatch marks and style. Bill is very sharp and clean with his edges especially when he inks. With a collab you want it to look as consistent as possible but you can see each artist’s hand. It is a challenge and a lot of fun. I simply had to rest in my own abilities and keep telling myself to breathe, be confident in my own game and have fun. Lesson to learn: Never think that you are so good that you don’t need to stay disciplined. Personally every project I work on has its own challenges and I am always working to prove myself better than before. (It keeps your internal edge sharp!)

I wrapped up my part on time, on budget and Bill took over the color and design stages. Overall it was a great experience to work with Bill. Make those connections with other artists, build your pool of networks and always stay connected. Sometimes the element of surprise is the most rewarding.

Here is the final inked artwork I handed over to Bill:

Bill Takes over on color and design.

When I was a kid I loved to color. It was a fun, carefree activity. I can remember when the only real challenge was “staying inside the lines.” As an adult, it’s a very different story. I don’t think I am a particularly good colorist. I haven’t really spent enough time doing it. Also, I’ve been exposed to the best of the best comic book colorists – for years. On top of the belief that I’m just not a very good colorist, I have the added pressure of living up to the standards Steve set by doing such a phenomenal job finishing my illustration. So, when I considered my task at hand, I’ll admit, I did so with dread.

For better or worse, collaboration will push you to “up your game.” You have a respected peer that will be closely examining, working with and depending on what you produce. The pressure is on. Unfortunately, I’ve procrastinated as long as I can. I have to get started.

I color so infrequently that I don’t even have a good process down. I have some sense of what I need to do, but nothing concrete. For about three days leading up to getting started I kept debating about how to do it. I could put the art in Illustrator and create vector shapes for each color. I’ve done this before and been very happy with the results. But this can be a very labor intensive process. To create the illusion of a gradient I may need to draw 3-7 shapes for each gradient. Although it’s a tedious process, it’s this particular segmented look of those faux gradients that I really like. It’s almost like the coloring is part of the illustration; each color segment forms contour lines that help define the shape of the object. It’s awesome. Here is an example of a piece I did using that coloring technique:

But I chose not to do that. Instead I decided to go into Photoshop and “paint” the coloring into the drawing. I chose this route primarily because this samurai was covered in fire. Vector coloring would have forced me to define the fire in hard shapes. I just couldn’t imagine how I was even going to pull that off. It would have taken me a year. Also, Go Media happens to own a Wacom Cintiq. If you’re unfamiliar with the Cintiq – imagine a large monitor that tilts and spins and allows you to draw directly on the screen with a pressure sensitive pen. That’s right, it’s a high priced designer’s toy… er… I mean, critical piece of equipment.

A Tip to Getting Started on Something You’re Afraid of:

So, I knew I was going to “paint” the coloring in Photoshop, I knew I was going to use the Cintiq and I had the final art provided by Steve, but I was still in dread. I didn’t really know how I was going to combine all the design elements (Japanese calligraphy, Japanese sun, the illustration, CageSpawn logotype and CageSpawn mark – the cthulu). I didn’t know what colors to use. I didn’t know how to restrict the color palette so that the printer could manufacture this shirt using a max of 4 ink colors. I didn’t know how to prep my coloring so it could be easily separated. My mind was a whirlwind of questions and fears. When you’re focusing on all the what-ifs and concerns it can really be crippling. When I find myself in this situation of NEEDING to start, but being afraid of starting I employ a little technique. I focus on getting ready to start working instead of focusing on what I’m going to do once I do “get started.” For instance, I don’t know how I’m going to color this art, but I do know I’ll need to scan the final inked art into the computer. Great! I’ve done it. I’ve started! I know I’ll need to set up a layered Photoshop document where my art is on the top layer, I need to set that layer to multiply and lock it. I know it would be helpful if I created a mask of the samurai so I can fill him in easily without going “outside the lines.” Also, I’ll need to make my Japanese sun – which I choose to do in Illustrator so I have maximum flexibility later. Essentially, I get started on all the non-critical steps of the project. And what I’ve found is that most of any project is just non-critical steps. Even the coloring itself, when broken down into small pieces, are each really not so critical.

So, here are each of the not-so critical steps I took to color this artwork, and a sample image of each:

I made a Japanese sun in Illustrator using a flag image that I found on the internet. But I needed my rays to extend beyond the flag, so I just extended each line further out.

Once I finished the sun I dropped it along with the CageSpawn logotype into Photoshop to workout the layout. I thought the sun would look good positioned over the shoulder of my Samurai.

I wanted my sun’s rays to fade out, but in a kind of grungy way. So, I stared by air-brushing black around the tips of the rays just to make sure they wouldn’t end sharply. Then I used some of Go Media’s Destroy Vector Packs to grunge up the tips of the rays. Finally, I dropped in a black background. This reveals how the sun will look… pretty cool.

Now that I have the sun in place, I continue just working away on “non-critical” steps… like filling in my samurai. I’ll be able to use this shape as a base layer of art and also a mask.

I knew that the flames would require a painterly style with lots of gradients. So, I switch over to my airbrush, dial back the Flow to about 15% and start “painting.”

I thought now might be a good time to give you a look at how I have my Photoshop file layers set up. It continues to get more complex than this, but this should help you understand how I work. When I was young I tried to work in as few layers as possible, and generally didn’t appreciate the power they provide. So, if you’re new to working with Photoshop and Illustrator and you’re not paying close attention to the layers – (like locking, linking and setting visibility) START NOW!

For my flames I kind of stumbled upon this pointillism gradient that looked really good and matched nicely with the style Steve inked the piece.

Because I was working with a lot of flames and glowing, I thought this shirt would look amazing on a deep red shirt, so I swapped out my background color and sure enough – it looked great.

Since the flames were lapping up around the logotype, I decided to also make it flame-like. And that worked perfectly with the shapes of the lettering. It really came together beautifully in the end. Here is the final colored artwork.

Now of course, I’m a HUGE advocate of presenting your designs to your client in the very best way. So, I just had to mock up this design onto a t-shirt. I used one of our t-shirt templates, but you could also use

Almost done. I still had the calligraphy, and I wanted to use the CageSpawn mark that I had designed on a previous project. Sounds like I need to design a back to this t-shirt!

One last plug… to add the splattered yellow effects around the lettering, I used our Vector Set 17 which has a ton of grungy elements.

At some point while I was “getting started” my fears and concerns faded away and were replaced with fun. I’ll admit, I even forgot about how the printer was going to color separate this. Looking back now, I don’t even know why I was worried about that. That’s not my job. That’s the printer (color separator’s job! That’s why they get paid.)

One lesson I’ve learned in life, business and art is – you can’t let the unknown slow you down. Go Media is an incubator of sorts to several companies that work out of our building. We’re periodically (more frequently than I would prefer) asking ourselves questions like: “Will this get us arrested?” or “Will the fire marshal shut us down?” We don’t always know, but we press on. You can’t let your fears stop your progress. Even if you do something, and your fears come to fruition and all your hard work is for not – I still think the process of doing, learning and experiencing are better than sitting on your butt doing nothing. Fortunately, we have not been arrested for anything – yet.

AND! Last, but not least – if you would like to pre-order this shirt from CageSpawn, go here: CageSpawn Ronin T-shirt Pre-order.