Painting With Passion: What It Takes to Transform a Blank Canvas
Gergely Fodor breaks down his design process and what it takes to create digital paintings in Gilles Beloeil’s Environment Painting and Design course.
I’m Gergely Fodor from Budapest, Hungary. I studied graphic design and am a long-time designer and art director in the advertising industry, currently running my own creative agency. We have an in-house film production company whereas an art director I’ve been involved in about 50 TV commercials over the past 10 years. My passion has always been to create something new out of every blank canvas and to keep learning new skills, be that a new software, a new form of design, or even a new musical instrument!
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO TAKE THIS SPECIFIC COURSE?
There were two reasons I started to take classes at CGMA. One is that in the very near future I’d like to focus more on movies as a concept artist and as an art director. I’m taking part of CGMA’s Environment Design Program, and since I love painting it was an obvious choice to start with Environment painting courses. The second reason is that I want to spend a lot of time in the long-term with what I really love: traditional painting. I haven’t done that for a long while, and at CGMA I’ve already learned a lot of useful techniques (even though they are digital ones) that have given me the confidence to get back to the canvas after such a long pause.
Before I started taking CGMA classes I did a couple of digital painting courses that are available online (e.g. at Gumroad, Schoolism, watched Feng Zhu’s FZD videos on YouTube several times, etc). But after a while, I realised it’d probably be more productive if I could have real, live contact during my studies with the teachers and other students, and also I needed to feel the pressure of deadlines. So I took the Foundation of Environment Design course first with Hueala Theodor, and then Environment Design and Painting with Gilles Beloeil. Hue and Gilles are amazing artists and teachers, and wonderful people, whom I’d like to make a point of thanking for all the effort they’ve put into these lectures, and the amazing knowledge they have passed on to us during the courses.
HOW MANY THUMBNAILS DID YOU DO IN TOTAL? HOW MANY WEREN’T SHOWN IN CLASS?
Thumbnailing is probably the most important part of the process because this is when you come up with the stories and ideas you’re going to tell through your images. I liked the way Gilles worked on his thumbnails. He took a soft and slightly textured brush and started to block out the big shapes. He would do 10 or 20 of these abstract images while looking for a composition or an idea he could capture.
He also had some tricks which were quite inspiring: changing the layers’ blending mode to Multiply, and starting to randomly flip and rotate them on top of each other. In this way, he accidentally created fantastic new images. Sketching each of these thumbnails took me about five to 10 minutes and I think I did about 100 altogether for this week’s assignment. We had to upload 15 and then select two from this shortlist and start detailing those.
HOW DID YOU TRY PUSHING YOUR DESIGNS IN THIS PRELIMINARY STAGE?
I tried Gilles’s brush technique to create thumbnails but although it was very exciting to watch how he worked, quite frankly I didn’t feel comfortable with painting the same way when I tried it myself. I couldn’t seem to find ideas that way so I stopped there, and started to think about what should I do differently to find my own flow. I think it’s more important to try to adapt the ideas that you learn during these courses than try to stick with them if you don’t really feel that they are exactly the way you ought to paint. So I started searching for thumbnails created by other great artists in different ways and tried to get inspiration from them as well. I wanted to find a way to create very clear visuals with simple strokes and big, contrasting shapes. So I finally got to the point where I created a list of rules for myself on how to draw these images with a consistent look. And when I felt I’d found a graphic style that was comfortable for me, the ideas suddenly started to come more often.
WHAT CONCEPTS OF COMPOSITION DID YOU TRY TO EMPHASIZE? (CLASSICAL RULES, LINES, FOCAL POINTS, OVERLAPPING, ETC.)
All of these! The contrasts between the big shapes are major things to me in the way of finding the right composition. First I have to figure out what’s going to be important in the image and what’s not and try to play with the size of the shapes so the different focal points become clear. I like to stick to Edgar Payne’s composition rules or the rule of thirds, but this week Gilles also introduced a new technique – for me, at least – which gave me more room to place the different objects in my images.
DID YOU FIND ANY “HAPPY ACCIDENTS” WHILE SKETCHING?
Some, but actually, not too many. In many cases I already have some kind of idea in my head right at the moment I draw the first lines. Sometimes I find new shapes when I try to sketch randomly but most of the time I feel as if I already have some blurry image in my mind in the beginning. And when I start painting, the image gets clearer― or many times not!
WHAT LIGHTING SETUPS DID YOU DO? WHAT CHALLENGES DID YOU FACE WHILE PAINTING THEM?
The task this week was to create three different lighting setups for each of our two previously selected paintings. The challenge in this practice was that I almost fully had to re-paint the images a couple of times. I made up a rule for myself before the course began that I must learn how to paint foliage somehow. During this week I figured out that I hadn’t tried to take the easy route: re-painting all the forests and leaves again and again was a very hard but great fun at the same time.
I didn’t want bright daylight in my images, instead, I tried to stick to the stories with the lighting as well. I felt that it’d be great if the light source came from behind the mountains or the trees, to give a slightly mysterious atmosphere to the image. Finally, I placed the situation in the night because I also wanted to see the lights coming through the windows and that way elevate the scene’s mystery a little more.
WHAT TECHNIQUES DID YOU USE FOR COLORING?
I like to use layers a lot and I always try to keep them well organized. I use a lot of masks too. As far as possible, I try to keep the mask of every detail. I separate the layers in folders named by the subject (e.g. BG, MG, and FG) and inside the layer folders, I add more folders to each object (trees, grass, clouds, etc.). This way it’s pretty easy to find what I want later and it’s easy to change whatever I’d like to change. So I either make a selection of the mask and paint the colors on a new layer, or I select a layer I’d like to color, add a new one above, and make it a clipping mask. When the amount of layers begins to get overwhelming, I start to collapse them, though I always try to keep as many as I can, not losing the opportunity to change anything even at the last moment. But in general, when I colorize a grayscale image I almost have to paint the whole picture again, but using masks makes this repaint process a little easier though.
WERE THERE TIPS YOU GOT FROM THE INSTRUCTOR THAT YOU INCORPORATED INTO YOUR PROCESS?
Even though I’ve spent my whole life working with Photoshop, Gilles taught me plenty of new tricks that I never had to use so often before. He showed us a couple of methods to colorize a grayscale image. I loved how he used the Curves for coloring things through masks for example. It’s such an easy way to make corrections too, cooling the shadowy parts or making the sunlit parts warmer. Actually, this technique was so handy it really made the whole coloring process much easier for me.
DID YOU MAKE ANY CHANGES WHILE YOU WERE ADDING COLOR? BREAKING UP SHAPES, IMPROVING READABILITY, CONTRAST, ETC.
I kept changing the painting until the deadline because I could never be totally satisfied. After a while, it’s easy to get lost in the painting and it’s a great idea to have an occasional break so you are more likely to spot what’s wrong when you come back to it later. Also sometimes when you see the picture in color, certain shapes get a bit more dominant than you wanted, so you have to adjust their position or shape, or size, etc. Coloring the image is a big step forward, but if the values and the composition were right in the first place, I found I didn’t usually have to touch the major parts, only the small details later.
WHAT WAS THE INSPIRATION FOR THIS SHOT?
The role here was to create an interior environment with three different light sources placed around the scene. First I thought about what kind of light sources might be interesting to use. I came up with different ideas, such as where the floor was one of the light sources, or there were interesting lights around the walls (an aquarium lit from behind for example), or someone was holding a torchlight maybe, and so forth. But I just couldn’t come up with a story for a while. And then I thought about how much I love jazz and jazz clubs and this prompted the idea of someone at closing time in a bar watching someone singing on the stage from beside a pool table. This scene gave me a couple of possible sources for lighting the interior that I liked.
WHAT ATMOSPHERE/MOOD WERE YOU CREATING? WHAT LED TO YOUR COLOR CHOICES?
Wherever in the world I travel it’s my passion to visit the most famous jazz clubs I can find. So I tried to remember places I’ve been before that could help me to create a nice mood. I love Ronnie Scott’s in London, and the Village Vanguard or the Blue Note club in New York, but this time I tried to capture a smaller club’s atmosphere while putting the situation into a fictional environment.
WHAT WAS THE MOST HELPFUL TIP/TOOL YOU USED WHILE COMPLETING THIS ASSIGNMENT?
There are two focal points of this image, one is the guy at the pool table, and the other is the girl on the stage. They both had to have characteristic lighting, and I added those little table lights that are supposed to connect the two characters together like a bridge. And then there’s the bartender in the mid-ground of course. I had to take huge care with various rules on a lot of bouncing and reflective lights, not mentioning rim lights which were pretty hard to solve (I couldn’t) and so on which was great fun. I found it extremely helpful to use 3D objects to create the scene since interiors can be tricky to paint from the imagination in such a short time. So first I took freely-available 3D images of furniture from the net and bought some others for a couple of bucks if necessary.
I spent some time creating the scene and finding the right camera angle. Then, once I was happy with it, I just made a screenshot of the composition. It was important not to texture or render anything at that stage. The purpose of creating the scene in 3D was just to save time, and give me a guide for sketching the outlines. A great tip from Gilles was that if you feel you can’t paint some parts successfully, then take a picture and paint that! I was struggling with painting that wrinkled leather jacket on the guy from my imagination, so I shot a picture of a friend in the ideal position and used that as a reference, which was fun (Thanks, Tibi!).
IN PRACTICING YOUR EDGES WITH MASTER PAINTINGS, HAVE YOU CHANGED HOW YOU LOOK AT YOUR OWN WORK? WHAT EDGE CHANGES DID YOU MAKE TO YOUR WEEK 8 DESIGN?
I had been waiting impatiently for this week since the beginning of the course. When I first started to do digital paintings I wasn’t worrying about edges at all. In fact, all my paintings looked very messy because of all the soft brushes I was always using. And It was a huge mystery to me how all my concept artist heroes created those crisp, sharp looks on their designs. Then I learned a couple of techniques such as using the lasso to select or draw shapes, create sharp masks, or simply using only sharp brushes – which I’ve found the hardest thing to do at the time (I became very confident with that in this course). But unfortunately, these techniques made my paintings too sharp at every level of detail, making the image look totally surreal, and more like some sort of illustration instead of a realistic image. I took loads of trouble trying to find a way to solve this problem but I just had no idea what could be the solution.
At the beginning of this course, Gilles had told us that we would be learning about this issue in Week 7 which made me very happy because I felt this would be a game-changer for me. So then we first started painting studies of classic movies but with only a round, sharp brush. Everyone had the chance to choose any screenshot of a movie they liked. I tried to keep the previous weeks’ lessons in mind, so I looked for images from movies where I loved the composition and the color harmony was nice. I was also looking for images with low or high key values just to apply everything we’d learned so far.
Finally, I picked a couple of cool images from movies and DOPs I liked and started to paint them with a sharpie. I think I’m a perfectionist in some ways and I can easily get lost in the details sometimes, so it took me about 6-8 hours to paint each of these images properly. The next task was to take these paintings and try to blur the edges where necessary, using different techniques. The Blur tool could be used here as well as picking soft brushes and starting to soften the edges so that they were not in focus, or should I say not of interest anymore. That’s because in real life whereas the saying goes – “perception is choice”, there are sharp edges only on the particular thing you are focusing your attention on at the moment, and elsewhere it’s more ‘out of focus’. After this practice, we had to re-work the edges on our own images as well. I really felt that I was elevating the quality of my paintings. I think working on the edges is one of the most important subtasks of them all.
Finalizing the Painting
WHAT IS YOUR APPROACH TO DESIGN?
The Idea must come first! For me, the most important thing is to have an idea behind what I create. If there’s no story or thought behind a painting (or for that matter any kind of creative product), then the viewer will have no clue what to look for, and will quickly lose interest in the work. So I always try to create some sort of story before I start painting. The story doesn’t have to be grandiose, for example in the Fallingwater house (I named it after Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture piece which inspired this scene) there’s this guy who could be a burglar who’s waiting for the lights go out in the house so he can break in. Or in the club scene, the guy might be in love with that lady on stage, or he may be the owner of the place and the girl is auditioning, or anything like that. You don’t have to be very specific because it’s good to let the viewer figure out the whole story, but I still like to have something in mind when starting to paint.
WHAT DETAILS DID YOU ADD TO PUSH PAINTING(S) FURTHER?
Gilles asked me to go into more detail with this painting. The house was quite sterile in that all the walls were crispy white and straight and if you give such a design to the CGI developer guy in the production pipeline he’ll try to make it look exactly like your painting, which will probably result in a rather boring and artificial look in the end. So even though I like to keep things minimal in general, I tried to make the edges and the surfaces of the house more uneven with textures and cracks on the walls. Also, the windows looked the same, they were evenly lit and textured, so I had to separate them in design by changing their values, adding shapes, and other tiny details.
I had a lot of trouble painting the foliage. I ended up painting the trees’ leaves with a textured brush and I’m still not happy with the result. Gilles also suggested I use
Photoshop Shapes to mask the edges around the hills in the background. This helped me out a lot because it was quite messy before and I didn’t really know how to fix it.
GILES PROVIDES A CHECKLIST TO REVIEW YOUR WORK. WHAT STEPS DO YOU TAKE BEFORE YOU CALL THE PAINTING DONE? WHEN ARE YOU SATISFIED?
The checklist Gilles gave us is very important for painting an image successfully. The way it works I think is that as long as you keep these rules in mind from the very start of a project when you go through the entire checklist at the end, you won’t have to make significant changes. Overall I think it is interesting that as you go forward with your studies you always need to keep in mind everything you’ve already learned, whenever you start work on a new painting. For example, you learned about composition in Week 2, then about lighting in Week 3, color in Week 4, and so on. Every time when you work on a new subject you still need to have all the previous rules in mind. I generally try not to get over-excited with what I’ve done because I know that in the evening I usually think it’s so cool, but the next morning I can miraculously spot all its faults. If I have the time I close the image for a while and see what I think about it the next day. This overnight test always works for me.
HOW DID YOU APPLY THE INSTRUCTOR’S FEEDBACK? CAN YOU GIVE A SPECIFIC EXAMPLE?
Gilles always gave me very detailed feedback and clearly highlighted the weak points in my paintings, telling me specifically what, how, and why should I do certain things differently. I always took notes while watching his feedback videos, and when I was correcting the assignments I was going through these bullet points one by one to make sure I didn’t miss a thing. During the course, there were only a few comments of his that I did not agree with 100% at the time but later I realised he was always right, of course.
I come from the graphic design field and there were a few buttons in my head I had to switch to a new setting in order to succeed in this course. One of the most important things was that as a designer I always have to simplify everything in order to deliver a single message to the audience which means that in a lot of cases I have to use very simple, repetitive forms and maybe as few colors as possible, etc. But in environment painting it’s different; in nature, repetitive forms are rare so I had to get this attitude out of my head and start to think very differently and try to apply a kind of abstract form-language to my work.
A good example came when Gilles pointed out that all the trees and benches on the left side of the image were very similar in terms of shape. I didn’t see it that way in the beginning, but I took his advice and re-painted that part. And the next week he made the same comment again. And so I cleared those layers and re-painted them once more. This went on for weeks. Strangely enough, I wasn’t upset about it at all, although this was a tricky part of the painting because of the number of layers I had used, and all the foliage I had to re-paint again and again, a process that could be quite exhausting after a while. But instead, I was very curious to see what would come out of it – and again Gilles was totally right of course: the forest started to look more realistic after a while. I kept getting this comment about repetitiveness from Gilles during the whole course and so I worked hard to eliminate this bad habit from my practice.
WHAT ARE THE MAIN SKILLS THAT YOU HAVE IMPROVED ON FROM TAKING THIS COURSE?
This was the second course I took in a row at CGMA on the environment design topic, and the biggest result has been that now I dare to paint anything I can think. I clearly understand the process of creating environment designs from scratch to the final painting, although I realize I still have to work on so many skills to achieve the level of performance I aspire to. I managed to come up with my own approach to thumbnailing and I learned how not to always use textured brushes but mostly to use only simple, round ones. Taking care of edges was also a great lesson that helped me improve a lot I feel. It was such an honour to work with Gilles, not to mention all the amazing classmates I had the opportunity to watch creating all those fantastic paintings. I found the whole course so exciting I was broken-hearted when it was over!
WHAT ASSIGNMENT WAS THE MOST FUN, AND WHICH ONE WAS THE HARDEST? HOW DID YOU OVERCOME THOSE CHALLENGES?
Seriously, every single minute of the course was great fun. If I had to make a choice (which I can’t, really), I think I most enjoyed working on the thumbnails in week 2. I find it pretty exciting to open a white page and just start sketching and after a short while you start to go with the flow. Ninety per-cent of the sketches will probably be useless, but the other 10% might be a great start for a new painting. Painting foliage is tricky for me so the hardest part was trying to learn how to deal with that issue. At first, I tried a lot of texture brushes, but later I learned a couple of techniques that I can apply in my paintings now.
WHAT PRIOR EXPERIENCE DO YOU THINK HELPED YOU MOST GOING INTO THIS COURSE?
My early traditional art studies definitely helped but they were quite a long time ago. I think I have fairly good drawing skills but I hardly remember a time when I had to draw or paint traditionally during my career except for those cases when I had to sketch layouts quickly or those very rough storyboards I had to do sometimes. I’m creating concept images in Photoshop every day, but that’s totally different from painting an environment from scratch. I really have to sharpen my pencil if I want to get to the top. I think I heard this quote of some great artist (J. S. Sargent maybe?) from Hue Theo for the first time and it’s so true: “Your painting is only as good as your drawing.” So in my spare time I sketch at every opportunity, I re-learn anatomy and draw figures on a daily basis and just recently started to paint gouache and watercolor too.
DO YOU HAVE ANY TIPS YOU COULD GIVE OTHER ARTISTS THAT WOULD LIKE TO THIS CLASS?
On the website, I recall it said that one should expect to spend about 8 to 10 hours watching lectures and working on the assignments. In my case, I worked on average 20 hours a week minimum on the projects, but when the assignment was trickier it wasn’t rare for me to spend 40 or even 50 hours per week on them. It meant no going out, no weekends, no sleeping, not much of a personal life, but it was still worth more than I can say. It was indeed quite hard to manage with my full-time job and my friends and family on the side and I’m so grateful to them for this. I was so obsessed with doing it that I couldn’t wait to sit down to my Wacom Pro each night. On some weekends I was itchy and distracted when I had to do something else instead of painting. I know it’s a huge cliché, but it’s totally true if you want to improve, it’s strongly suggested to have this kind of hunger and put as many hours into the work as you can.
I have to take at least five more classes to be able to participate in the Visual Development and Art Direction Mentorship and that way completing the 2D Environment Design Program – I’m looking forward to that challenge!
You can see more from Gregoely here: