30 Years in the Making

30 years ago I tried to create a masterpiece. Discover whether I did or not. Or more precisely, learn how I took that “masterpiece” and made it better. And if not better then at least different.

Some thirty years ago while I was in high school I made a self-portrait using inks and water-colors (see below for this “masterpiece”). At the time, I was very much on a self-journey of a discovery of lines. I believed that all art was the intersection and continuation of lines, and as such my great conceit of that time was that all art was just lines morphing from one shape to another shape.

It’s obvious that this is a decidedly too narrow a view of art, but such are the thoughts of a teen living in a pre-internet day with too little access (or curiosity) of the greater art world, and too much hubris to go out and search for it. We’ll get back to this in a bit. First, a quick re-telling of the first self-portrait.

The Original, A Short History

As for this original self-portrait that I created circa 1992, I ended up giving this to my very best and dearest friend Nils Passion, then an exchange student from Germany. I never quite understood why he wanted it, at least on artistic terms it was not worth much mention. As if any of my art today warrants such mention is another such matter. But I digress and me being who I am, only on reflection I realize it must have been on a more human level of connection with me that gripped Nils to want such a piece; a realization that would never have come to me way back then. But again, I digress.

At some point, Nils or his parents saw fit to frame this work in one far too valuable for such a piece, but nevertheless they did and here we are today. My artwork in a gilded frame, a reminder to me that our friendship was valued far more than the art itself. That in itself is maybe worthy of its own post.

While recently looking at that rather baroque frame and my decidedly abaroque (sic) picture sitting in it, I thought it might make a good example of “progress as an artist” as it were. By doing a then and now comparison, I could capture my evolution as an artist over the last three decades. Albeit, to be fair that while it’s three decades on the clock, it’s really less than six years as an artist. To wit, I had largely been on hiatus to art, at least anything illustrative or painterly for more than two of those three decades. But that is a story for another time.

To Be An Artist or Not to Be An Artist

The short of it is that it was not till the time of my first visit to Norwescon back in 2016 did I entertain seriously getting back into visual arts. To be clear, in the years prior to this I had gotten quite serious into digital photography, and even dabbled with processing my own black and white medium-format photographs. This was while at Amazon when I met Tracy Boyd, part-time UX designer, full-time fine artist. I was loath to call myself an artist, but it was Tracy who insisted on the appellation, seeing in me something I could not see in myself at the time. For the curious, I saw photography as my way to come to terms with color. I hated using color in my teens. Color was magic, it was mystical. It was not meant to be used lightly, and as such I stuck to largely black and white artwork far into my early twenties as evidenced by my own self-portrait from this period. But again, I digress.

Prior to attending Norwescon for the first time in 2016, my partner Marit had recently went to a writers’ retreat where she meet, amongst other luminaries, Mark Ferrari. When she showed me Mark’s work, I arrogantly said (or minimally cowardly thought) I was as good as him. Hubris is something I have a few lifetime supplies of just laying around for times like this.

To be clear, I was not and I am still not anywhere close to Mark’s narrative abilities, visual or otherwise. But for whatever reason, seeing Mark’s work reminded me of my own work from my high school years. While too long to fit the full telling within this post, I had a conflicted relationship with the arts that culminated in me “leaving the arts” in my early twenties. Suffice it to say then that when I saw Mark’s own work it awoke in something I had forgotten I had ever possessed: a passion to be a visual story-teller. I yearned to be like Mark. I ached to be an artist. I needed to do art. Not photography; not that it is not art; but, I wanted to do art like I used to create for the first two decades of my life: with my hands, telling stories that only I could envision in my head.

Discovering I’m Not All That

So I got myself an iPad Pro, Procreate.app, and Apple pencil and immediately discovered I sucked. Not like sucked bad from my times from high school, but like sucked bad as if “I had never drawn a line before in my life but still delusional that I was amazing-balls bad”. That kinda bad. In short, bad bad. Insert a line about Dunning-Kruger here.

I was more than naïve about art and my abilities, I was whole cloth ignorant. Even wantonly ignorant. I had forgotten about composition. I had forgotten about values or shapes. I had never learned color theory. I had never seriously studied anatomy, if you can count Marvel Comics guide to drawing figures as anatomy study. In a word, I had forgotten everything and worse, had not really spent the years learning the fundamentals during the first two decades of life; pre-requisites to what it takes to create art or be an artist. I had no real foundation to draw upon, even though in my mind I was a Michelangelo just waiting to put brush to fresco to paint masterpieces. It was humbling in the mightiest of ways, and no amount of hubris (and I had and still have a lot) could anneal me against this truth.

To another person this might be common-sensical. I had spent more time “not riding the bicycle” as I ever had done riding it. It would be natural that I’d not be as good as I had been, but that was not a truth I was comfortable with at that time. In my head, I was a gifted and talented artist. Granted, maybe I was at the time of measurement; as a teenager I was moderately talented, but talent is but a mere accelerant. Talent in and of itself does not make you an artist, and especially not a master. Skill does, though.

Skill is something to be acquired, to be learned through the hard knocks of life unlike talent that is doled at in varying degrees at birth. Skill comes from thousands and thousands of hours of practical study. At the end of it all, talent provides but a thimbleful in comparison to the ocean that skill provides.

Thankfully for myself, I had matured a bit in three decades, and more than any amount hubris I’m maniacally accountable to myself. If I say I am an artist then I ought to get to the work of becoming an artist. And so, starting in 2016, I got started on trying to prove to myself that I was truly an artist – not just some memory of one – by setting out to acquire the skill necessary.

Some six years later and I’m still learning the fundamentals. I do not practice nearly as much as I would like. If I had as much discipline to art as I do to exercise, I’d be light-years further than where I am today. But still, I’m making progress. I have even done some professional work on the side that I’m moderately proud of.

As a consequence, as much for myself, I wanted to try my hand at something I had done in the past. I was curious how I might re-interpret something, both as an artist and as a person, with thirty more years of lived experience to draw upon (bad pun) along with the most recent six years dedicated to improving my craft.

Today’s Self Portrait, A Short Reflection

As I noted above, when I was in teens I saw all artwork as lines. So when I re-created this piece, I wanted to keep that philosophy intact. However, given I was not using linework, I instead tried to use values and color to tie elements together. In this regards, clouds morph into eagle and dragon, my face melts into muscle that flows down to a digital waterfall, and so forth. I’m quite pleased to be keep with the spirit of the self-portrait, even if this new approach is fundamentally different.

I think it’s pretty clear to even a casual observer that the original piece was not just naïve in technique; it was also thematically naïve, too. While I did not want to drastically to change the composition, I did want to reinterpret parts of it to be have a fuller vision of the original theme of the internal aspects of myself flowing out of me as expressed by the aforementioned connection that all things are lines.

On top of just making the piece more complete, I also wanted to incorporate elements that are more emblematic of who I am as I approach my fifth decade. In this aspect, the biggest addition is the dragon in the lower left. If you’ve spent any time on this site then I know I quite love dragons. I otherwise kept most of the other elements in the original, albeit with a few twists.

In regards to the muscle reveal on the right side of my face, it should be noted that this is not inspired by 進撃の巨人 (Attack of Titans), but instead my sister. It’s maybe a reasonable conclusion to make given my long connection to Japan, but it’s one of my older sisters who first introduced me to the concept. She had done pieces during her college years depicting people pulling their skin off like you would removing a shirt or parts, revealing the muscles underneath. I am not sure if she was inspired herself by another artist, but regardless, as an impressionable teen I was literally blown away by this, promptly trying to emulate this in my own pieces from that time.

Overall, I’m quite pleased with the results of this re-interpretation. I think it shows a clear evolution in visual story-telling. From the perspective of technique it’s clear that I’ve improved my rendering, along with overall improvement to anatomical correctness with own portrait. I definitely do not suffer from a fear of applying color like I did as a teenager where, as I wrote above, I saw color then as something mystical in nature, aberrant even. I think this self-portrait is a vast improvement, and one that I’m proud of (for now). I will be curious to come back to this in another decade to see what else I might bring to the narrative.


I’m back at playing D&D with a new group of folks, and as such it’s time to create a new portrait for my character. While I considered playing either Stone or Unnis – given this is a more role-play heavy group (versus the min-max tactical approach in my other groups) – I also thought it would be fun to flex into something entirely new(ish). I say new’ish as my sense of role-playing is to play out aspects of myself, so while Erel is new as a character, his traits borrow heavily from aspects of myself. Why? Maybe because I’m autistic, but I find it just easier when I’m not pretending to be someone I am not – both in real-life and in-game, as it were. If you’re interested in learning more about Erel, then I’ve included his backstory at the bottom of this post.

I actually did two pieces for Erel, both a close-up portrait and full-frame view. As you might have noticed, I copied the portrait into the full-figure. I originally started out wanting to draw Erel’s face a second time, but the re-use (aka copy & paste) boils down only partly to expediency, but more to the fact that I’m not convinced I’m good enough (yet) to reproduce an image of Erel a second time and that it would feel convincingly like it was a picture of the same person. So yeah, I cheated.

With Unnis, I play a character who is in many ways closer to who I am today as I near 50. With Stone, I pull from my tendencies toward toddler’ness with his childlike simplicity thus Stone is 3 years old. With Erel, I wanted to return to when I was in that idealistic stage of my life when things were very binary and clear cut, but were ideas lacked nuance that only time and hard-won life experiences can provide. In this way, I arrived at a younger person in what I envision is their early to mid-twenties.

I debated adding wings to Erel. As you can see in an early stage of values Erel has no wings. But as I progressed, I kept struggling to find ways to convey the fact that he is Aasimar. In the portrait, I just added swirling colors and tattoo to minimally convey something ethereal about him. In full figure you’d think that I’d just add wings and call it a day. And while most Aasimar do have wings, how and when they present themselves in context to D&D matters. In particular, Erel is still very much a green level 1 paladin. The use wings, in the strictest sense of the game, does not occur till level 3. And if he is level 3 (he is not) there is debate as to how Aasimarian wings manifest themselves. Actual wings. Skeletal wings. Wings of radiant light. Putting aside all that nuance, or pedantism, I felt wings of some sort were warranted. I happened to be watching Ross Draws while trying to figure out an anatomically correct version of Erel’s wings when Ross said something to the effect, when asked why he had done so and so to a particular picture, “because I liked it even if its not realistic.” So guess what? I listened to wise Ross and just drew what I liked regardless of anatomical correctness. Go ahead and arrest me! In the end, they are just a visual device to convey to the viewer his race. And frankly, I like them so go and bugger off if you wanted to see something from the Auduban.

Like every picture I create, I am both pleased and disappointed in the results. In some ways, I’m happy with the portrait of Erel. It was a relatively quick study, and I think generally has a consistency in execution that makes it feel complete both visually and narratively. On the other hand, I think Erel in full-figure still has places where my choices of where I put hard and soft-edges bother me. For example, I think his left hand holding the glaive needs to be softened some more. And I think some of my values on this left leg’s armor look too flat. That said, I’m happy with how his wings are desaturated and generally only have soft edges, helping frame him as a subject without distracting the viewer’s eye.

That all said, Erel in full-figure is, to a trained eye, a great example of where I struggle as an artist: namely; moving from a place of lines and capturing every detail as if I was a camera (aka photo-realistic artwork – which the technician in me admires, and the artist in me cringes at) to a more painterly style that focuses on interesting shape language to convey the subject, with a love of soft and hard edges to “sculpt the form.” As noted, I think the wings show I can execute on this, but the question next is: can I do it for an entire image? Trust you I, I’m going to continue to push myself as an artist to find my limits. That said, the urge to approach art as if I’m holding a pencil and not a brush is very, very strong in me.

Erel is a bit of firsts for me, as an artist. He is the first character where I’ve done two pictures of which is exciting for me, even if I did take some shortcuts to create continuity between both pieces. So go me for trying my hand at building a portfolio around a single character, which is an important skill if you want to work professionally in games or movies. A part of me secretly holds out at getting a job in “the industry” where such production skills are paramount. And for any of those of you who are already in “the industry”, I’ve been around long enough to know that I’m better off as a hobbyist where I’m my own “art director” than working for “the man” in “the industry.” Enough of “those quotes.”

Another first for me is Erel is also done entirely using Adobe Photoshop between my Wacom and iPad Pro. To put this into context, till very recently I relied heavily on Procreate on my iPad for quick studies, and then I’d move to my desktop with Wacom Cintiq for more control and greater detail as I entered the later stages of development. While this is a fine setup, I’ve struggled with Corel Painter’s flakey UX even when I know it’s brush engine is superior to Adobe. On top of this, there is friction sharing files via import and export via Apple iCloud for syncing between devices. It works, but at times I find myself struggling with the whole workflow. And worse, I like to have options on when and where I can work on my art. This workflow means I lose the freedom of the iPad once I lock myself into Corel Painter. A first world problem for sure, but I really like the ability to be a nomadic artist.

So why Photoshop? Especially when one of my favorite artists (Todd Lockwood) is a staunch defender of the superiority of Corel Painter to Photoshop, which he relegates to hacks. And I don’t want to be a hack! But outside of losing the love and respect of Todd (assuming he knew me, which he doesn’t even though he and I’ve chatted – swoon in my head we are totally BFFs. Hey! It’s only awkward if Todd thinks it’s awkward ) is the simple fact that Photoshop is “the 800-lb gorilla of digital art”, and as such I pin all my hopes that driver support is just better than with Corel Painter and Wacom. Sorry, Todd!

More than just trying out Photoshop, I opted to save my PSD files in Adobe Cloud. At first I resisted this even more than just trying out Photoshop since I did not want yet another cross-device file-sharing app. I already have all my artwork on iCloud and I’m very happy with Apple’s iCloud, please and thank you. However, I’m so glad I did because when I found myself with a twisted knee late last week, there was a few days where I couldn’t sit at my desk and work on Erel. So on a lark I decided to download Adobe’s Photoshop for iPad, having recalled reading it was a pretty good competitor to Procreate. Given I’m a died-in-the-whole Procreate fanboy/fanman/fanperson, I did not entirely believe the hype and was disinclined to then to even try it out. Like, how can you be better than GOAT Procreate?

Imagine my shock and surprise, pleasantly so, when I launched the app on my iPad to discover I could just open Erel and off I went into full artist mode, no compromises. Not only could I do complex changes, not just simple touch-ups, but it was an amazing drawing experience on a tablet that is on par, and in some ways, better than Procreate! Sacrilege! I know, right? But wait, like a great ginsu knife, it does so much more. Imagine my greater shock just a few days later when I went back to my desktop setup and just picked up where I left off. All with nary a hiccup. Color me impressed.

Recall my wanton and unmet needs as a nomadic artist with my old setup? Adobe Photoshop coupled to Adobe Cloud means I truly can work anywhere I want, whenever I want, using whatever device suits me best. I absolutely love the possibilities!


Born Erel, First Son of the First House of Temple at Earsa, it was written that he was destined for great things.  Written not just in the stars, but in the very essence and blood of his race of Aasimar, servants to the gods.  But what the gods wrote and what Erel read of it were two different things.

Since childhood he trained arduously as first acolyte then attendant to hem-netjar of the temple at Earsa, overseen by his family for the past seven generations.  While devoted to his studies, his tendency to question scripture led the hemet-netjar-tepi (high priestess), his mother, to believe he would best serve the temple by joining the ranks of the protectors to the temple.  It was hoped he would someday rise to the rank of hem-asim-tepi (high proctector).  In this capacity, he would stand side by side his younger sister, who it was believed would eventually replace their mother as hemet-netjar-tepi.  In this way the gods would be served, siblings securing their family position as the First House of Earsa for an eighth generation.

Following a decade of intense martial training as a protector and joining the temple garrison, Erel showed no signs of stopping his challenge to scripture.  While exemptions were made given his relation to the temple’s hemet-netjar-tepi, Erel struggled to stay silent as decades of dissatisfaction mounted around the scripture’s deepest truths: that all of existence is but to serve the gods, and more so that all of existence — all that was, is, and will be —had already been foretold by the first god, known only as the “the unseen god”.

As Erel’s questioning grew argumentative, less as questions and more as posits, many in the temple feared that his words would come to corrupt others, if not outright bring the wrath of gods upon the temple to destroy it.  He argued heretically that the Aasimar were not servants of the gods, but in fact their slaves.  He argued that the suffering on the lower planes was not preordained, but instead a direct consequence of the indifference of gods.  For Erel, the gods’ place in the greater cosmos and across all planes were not to be served, but instead to serve.

He only relatively recently left his onclave, albeit truth be told, it was either leave voluntarily or quickly find himself facing a tribunal for beliefs and acts unbecoming an Aasamir.  He would be stripped of all rank and privileges, and forced to live a life of an ascetic until he atoned for his sins. His accuser was none other than his very own aunt and hemet-asim-esun (protector, second order) of his protector regiment, where they had witnessed Erel burning sacred scripture while arguing to his trainees that what they had been taught since birth was wrong.

Erel, now marked as a pariah amongst Aasimar, is outcast amongst his people.  He goes only by his given name, having otherwise left behind everything that he has ever known.

He has been wandering darker roads in the Underdark under Waterdeep, believing that his true purpose must exist upon a path only he can divine.  While he has never broken his vows to protect, for it is one of his core values, he has no reticence to harm those who prey upon those weaker than themselves.  In the past week, he has found himself in Waterdeep proper, continuing to seek answers to questions for which he knows to ask but can find no answer. 


I recently started playing D&D 5e on Camp D&D Online after backing it on Kickstarter. I tend to play magic users pretty much any chance I get, so for a change of pace I thought I’d play a melee character. For point of reference, some 35 years ago was the last melee character I played was a dwarf fighter with big dreams of becoming a paladin. It should be noted that this was in the days of 2e where such things were not, per canon, allowed. And as you might guess it with a bunch of teenagers, the DM refused so I just roll-played as if my dwarf would some day catch the notice of a human paladin who would induct me into the eternal order of protectorates. It never happened. Dwarf prejudice was a real thing, kids.

Before you worry about me, I also created a dragon-born sorcerer by the name of Unnis Kilyax, for whom I will illustrate later this week. But for whatever reason, I started with my first fighter in decades creating a warforged warrior who woke from a scrap pile of their brethren without memory of its past. Stone exudes a child-like innocence that sits uncomfortably with the fact that they are an elite, two weapon wielding mercenary which its named Sword and Axe. Warforged, if you don’t know, are decidedly simple and direct in all things including the naming things.

When I started sketching Stone, I thought I might go with a more straight-forward rendering using line-art and cell-shading. However, I really did not like the line quality, and I started to tweak I ended reworking the entire piece to be a more painterly rendering. Once I got done and let it sit for a few hours, opting to change some subtle shading around the mouth along with details on the face that I think help keep the eyes on the face.

Given that Stone is a walking automaton with a body that is effectively a full-body suit of armor, it did not make sense to have them wear a helmet. Interestingly enough, I hate the hood as an element from the perspective of character design, but I never figured out a better approach. I struggled how to convey that Stone was a fighter in a portrait, thus why I added a sword-like symbol over the forehead as a compromise. Admittedly, there is an error of mystery with the rather organic elements of the hood with what is otherwise an entirely metallic and mechanical humanoid.

where next?

This originated as a few quick lines that more got down the impression I was seeking, albeit it missed some of the anatomical accuracy I had hoped for.  Nevertheless, I’m pleased with the final image as I feel it conveys convincingly a rider and its dragon looking to see where to go next.  Ironically enough, the rider took the greater part of my time to get right to my satisfaction, especially in terms of getting the saturation levels right.  If you watch the video below, note that I added the rider only after the dragon which was already near its final, colored state.

where next, color study
where next, color study
Where Next? (2016)
Where Next? (2016)

never more

A few weeks back I did a picture of what supposed to be a crow holding a ring.  Regardless to say, it ended up more like a sugar fueled nightmare of Toucan Sam gone over to Edgar Allen Poe.  It was bad.  Very, very bad.  Consequently, I thought it best to go back to reality and do a few quick studies of crows to reset my understanding of crows.  To wit, I said: never more. Never more.

crow study i
crow study i
crow study ii