Batman #5 Process, pt. 2

Image selection is the part of my process I’m most reluctant to talk about.

Partly because nothing is final until the painting is complete and the image could change at any time. In a vaguely superstitious sense I think it’s unfair to whatever the final piece turns out to be. A finished piece of art needs to exist on its own and not be compared to “would have beens”.

Mostly, though, it’s because I don’t have thoughts more personal than what I want to paint and why. It’s one thing to talk about it in vague terms of subject or design, but when you get into the nitty-gritty specifics, things start getting weirdly intimate.

Below is a comparison of the image I chose (left) and how I adjusted it (right).


I chose this image for a few reasons. First, this image is high enough resolution for me to work from. One of the drawbacks to using found photos as a medium is that sometimes the perfect image just isn’t high-res enough. A photo may look fine on a screen, but when you need information like the shapes of facial muscles that compose an expression, most won’t cut it. The version posted here is lower-res than the version I’m working from, but even the original is right on the edge. If he wasn’t wearing a mask, I don’t think I could use it for a portrait, honestly.

But since this is Batman we’re talking about here, it gives me a little more room to breathe in terms of getting an accurate likeness.

The lighting in this image works really well. Since the photo was taken outside, it’s sunlight, so it’s coming from one direction and it illuminates the widest range of color. I really like the way his head is slightly down-turned, putting his face in shadow. The daylight also helps with the shapes of the hands and fingers. All-black clothing can cause a lot of technical problems in terms of painting because so much information about shape and form can be lost.

The pose itself is great and has a really dynamic movement to it.

When you first see a life-sized portrait, there is part of your brain that, for a fraction of a second, believes that it’s a real person. And even though you correct this mistake almost instantly, it still informs your interpretation of the piece.

This is part of the reason why most artwork looks better in person.

Now, when you first see a person (or in this case, an image of a person), your eyes and brain go through a series of predictable steps to evaluate this person and to frame your reaction.

The first thing you look at is their hands. We’re a tool-making species after all and sometimes all you need to know about a person can be summed up by what their hands are doing. In this case the hands are balled into fists. There’s no weapons, of course, because this is Batman, but there is an unmistakable threat of violence. The stance itself is pulled back. This isn’t an attack, but a warning.

Also, the fact that his left hand is so fore-shortened is something I can play with in the piece. I’m not exactly sure if or how I’ll execute it yet, but by making that hand a bit larger, I can increase the overall drama of the piece by pushing that hand more into the viewer’s visual space.

After the hands, you make eye-contact and evaluate the face. Here the threat is re-enforced by the expression. However, one of the most important symbols of Batman, the pointed cowl, jumps out, creating his identity.

All of this happens in about a second and, as a viewer, you’re probably not even conscious of it. You simply look at it, see it, and have a feeling about it.

In some ways art is all about knowing how to manipulate the viewer without them realizing it.

From here, I think I can best explain my choice of this piece, in explaining the changes I made.

The canvas I’m working on is 30” x 40”, meaning Batman will be life-sized or slightly larger. I zoomed in as much as I could within those constraints in order for him to fill the space. This will help create the “presence” I want. It makes him more imposing.

You can also see that I darkened the image somewhat. Though daylight is great in the ways I mentioned above, I don’t want this piece to look like it’s happening in the day time. The hot-highlights were just too big and too bright for it to be believed as artificial or night time light. Further, darkening it gives me more shapes and tones that I can use to convincingly build the form. I love all the little shapes in the cowl in the darker version. In my head they’re already fitting together into patterns of brushstrokes and colors.

I’ve adjusted the contrast of the mid-tones as well. For example, in the bat logo I enhanced the difference in value between the shadow and highlight areas. I’ll probably exaggerate that effect even more when I commit it to paint. Contrasts and shifts of value have a tremendous effect on the visual drama of a piece. The way our visual systems work, they’re drawn to these types of shifts. When the eye becomes more engaged so does the mind.

Though it’s a bit hard to tell, I’ve also tweaked the colors a bit. Gray tones are an interesting challenge in terms of color because they aren’t actually gray in the sense most people think. Unless one is color blind, every shade of gray has some color in it. Some are bluer, redder, greener, etc. They’re also warmer or cooler depending on their relation to the light.

I typically paint warm shadow areas and cool highlight areas. One of the things I’m excited about is those subtle differences in temperature and color in those grays that will really make the final image pop.

Photoshop, of course, isn’t capable if genuinely producing the color I want and even if it was, my monitor isn’t capable of displaying it. But it can function as a rough guide. In the composition process I usually play with a bunch of different adjustments, tweaking this way and that until I’m satisfied with it as “map” for the final piece.

There will be more tweaks and adjustments as I work towards the final completed piece, but I’ll cover those as I get to them.