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The Practice of Painting

Nick Harran is an aspiring concept artist who shares with us the creative practices he learned and used in Gilles Beloeil’s Environment Painting & Design course.


Like a lot of people in the concept art field, growing up I was very much interested in video games and movies. I loved the different moods, colors, and worlds these places would take you. So obviously when I found out this could be an actual job I had to give it a shot. Rewind it back a bit; I live in Long Island, NY, and went to Queens College. There isn’t a wide array of entertainment design schools here like there are in California and even then, they’re still out of my price range. I never thought I could actually be good enough to become a concept artist, so I figured I would just have to settle on becoming a graphic designer. However, even after graduating, and working, I still wasn’t totally fulfilled. I wanted to become a concept artist. And now that school is done, I realized I could now just work at it on my own. But bills still need to be paid! So I then got a job as a painting instructor at a paint bar where I still work today. The hardest part about working in Manhattan was, after working a long day and commuting, I never had the energy or the drive to further my concept art education even though I knew that was what I wanted. I did everything from watching youtube videos to buying books to get an education on my own, but it just wasn’t the same. I had no one to interact with, get critical feedback from, or even just hold me accountable to a deadline. Then I came across CGMA and everything changed. I could still maintain my schedule, my job, and my life while saving money and not quite moving to the other side of the country just yet. I found that it was the most cost-effective way to get an education in concept art and environment design and start myself on the path that I always wanted.

Introduction to Painting and Values

I have actually never done this exercise before and found it tougher and more engaging than a typical study. Generally, when doing a photo study I can fall into the habit of shutting my brain off and copying, which is something this prevents you from doing. You have to think more about the local value of each object and how that would be affected by different lighting scenarios. So definitely more brainpower is required.


So the assignment for this week called for 9 thumbnails, I submitted 21 and did about 100 in total. Because you’re exclusively working in black and white at such a small scale it’s really fun and easy to just keep pumping them out. Obviously, there are quite a few duds in there, but since you don’t spend too much time on each one, you forget about it, try not to repeat that mistake, and move on. I don’t know about other artists, but when sketching, I always fall into the same compositions of a giant castle or fortress on one third and a little explorer on the other third. In order to combat this my instructor, Giles Beloeil, suggested using different overlays on our layers of thumbnails to get different arrangements of light and dark shapes, some “happy accidents” and something we wouldn’t have necessarily thought of before. This definitely helped with breaking up the same old predictable compositions. I also referenced some photos here and there to get some inspiration on some smaller shapes.


For the different lighting scenarios, I tried to hit those ones with the sharp contrasts and strong diagonals of light blasting through the scene, those always read nicely with the darks over light and lights over dark. I also tried to get different directional lighting with the sun directly facing the camera. Then to go in another direction I went for different weather and night lit scenarios. I would say similar issues came up as the week 1 assignment, and that was trying to stay accurate to how the light influences the local value and to the extent that it does.

Color Techniques

I always found coloring one of the most complex things to tackle. When working from life or from reference the color is right there, you just have to capture it and make it better. When working off of a black and white sketch, you either lose all the vibrancy in your colors or lose the readability that makes the black and white so great, to begin with. So it’s definitely a balancing act. When doing a traditional painting I start with a wash of color. Giles suggested doing the same thing with a color overlay layer, to start the shift in your thinking from black and white towards warm and cool. I also overlayed some photo textures and broke it up with the mixer brush to help get a more traditional feel and break away from the sterileness you can sometimes get with a digital medium.

While working on coloring, I broke up the big shapes, mainly the beam of light shooting across, figuring with a rocky beach it wouldn’t just be a crisp line. It would also pick up the little rocks and the medium rocks that were there and that would help add more interest and depth than just one giant rock on a beach.

Interior Shot

I really liked how my exterior shot with the pirate and the ship came out, so I wanted to continue with that theme. I love the cinematography and lighting in shows like Blacks Sails, in the cabins with the captain and crew standing around a table, scheming; the color that’s something like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest with the teal color grading for night scenes to give a dark and ominous mood. From the beginning, I knew I wanted the big glass windows with the teal moonlight shining through. From there it was just a matter of placing candles and a chandelier to highlight the pirates at the table and then my third light source, which was a candle at the closest desk, to highlight some paraphernalia and bring in more life to the scene with objects. With such a small space the depth can be hard to sell. So I tried to think of it no differently than I would selling depth in an outdoor space, in that I pushed what was in the back of the room further back by lighting it up and really creating a fog in the room to help silhouette and push back some objects.

Finalization of a Painting and Conclusion

The heavy lifting for the paintings was mostly done, but having a couple of weeks in between revisiting them, along with the instructor’s feedback, you can easily point out the areas that are lacking. With a fresh pair of eyes, you can more easily spot errors with value, shape design, or even story. While having one gunslinger in a canyon is cool and all, adding another creates a story. Is he meeting an old friend? is it an enemy? and ambush? Just things, that while you should be thinking about at all times, can slip your mind.

The checklist Giles provided was a tremendous help. Like, spell checking an essay, going over the checklist forces you to evaluate the painting with a more specific goal in mind. Instead of asking yourself “does this look nice?” you’re asking “Is there an entrance into my painting?” or “are there any tangents?” With more specific questions you get more specific answers. You can call the piece done once the painting has passed each of the tests and you feel like adding more wouldn’t necessarily “add more.”

On my original pirate cove painting, Giles pointed out that my darks were in competition with each other, flattening out the scene. So during the polish up, I lightened up the rocks with some glowing orange bounce light from the sand, pushing them back and the pirate forward.

Final Thoughts

I think the overall skill of taking a concept from an idea in a thumbnail to a fully realized painting was improved the most during this course. He walked us through his methods and workflow that resulted in a final piece that was both readable, but also retaining a sense of painterly touch that I found really appealing to me. I thought both the thumbnails and the polishing assignments were the most fun. For the thumbnails you just keep working and you’re not attached to any one particular piece so mistakes are okay. You also don’t have to work out all the little stuff quite yet and get bogged down by local values, lighting, color, etc. The polishing stage on the other hand has all of that worked out and now you can just have fun making the piece as pretty as possible. The hardest assignment I would say was definitely the interior shot. For starters, it has the most line-work, perspective and precision involved, and when you get to the coloring and lighting stage you have to think of it differently and more in depth than you would an outdoor scene because any light source inside isn’t nearly as strong as the sun, so definitely quite a bit more calculation going on with that.

The experience I’ve gotten from the 7 courses I’ve taken previously at CGMA absolutely helped me with this course. Not only has it given me a workload and some hours under my belt, but I’ve made a ton of mistakes along the way and already knowing what doesn’t work can help speed up the homework quite a bit. But if I had to pick one class in particular I’d say it was Marco Bucci’s Color and Light course. He thoroughly breaks down different lighting and color scenarios and how that interacts with everything in your scene and I believe that knowledge translated to a lot better work in my Environment Painting and Design class. My biggest tip to anyone that would like to take this class is to be prepared to put in the work and then do extra. If an assignment calls for 10 thumbnails, do 50, if it calls for 4 studies, do 12. That doesn’t mean you haphazardly do more for the sake of doing more but do more than is asked, put in the hours, put in the effort and it will help you out tremendously.

Website: Nickharran.com