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Although Illustrator Marta Szu began with a nostalgic and visually-memorable fairytale, she offered a fresh style and produced a unique spin on a classic. This is no easy feat, as it can be difficult to give a proper nod to inspiration without copying it too closely. However, Marta adapted to challenges, new ideas, and feedback to breathe life into an old story. Marta’s process included:

  1. Fairytale Inspiration
  2. Readable Thumbnails & Rooftop Singing
  3. Wish-Granting Assets
  4. Market Scene Magic
  5. Shapes in an Enchanted Forest
  6. Designing the Witch’s Lair

Hello, my name is Marta Szu and I’m an illustrator from Poland. My background is mostly as a character designer and children’s book illustrator. Environment Sketching for Production taught by Patrick Raines was my first course at CGMA, plus my first background-focused workshop.

1. Fairytale Inspiration

I chose the fairy tale of Vasilisa the Brave, as it was one of my favorites as a child. I always liked stories about both girl heroines and witches, but the main reason this was my favorite story was the illustrations. To this day, I adore the art of Ivan Biblin. The story had every element needed for the assignments of the course- a hero, a setting, and a villain, so my project was decided.

I never treated the stage of gathering references too seriously, and I’m really glad I could learn its importance during this course. My mind went straight for Russian orthodox folklore elements, like the roots of the story.

At this point, I had no idea where I was going with my project. However, I was determined to finish my assignments and not dwell on seeking elusive perfection.

Architecture from that time, as you can see in my references, has everything- from grandiose gold churches with onion domes to simple homes decorated with folklore art. I liked looking for bigger and smaller details to use. Even if I wasn’t directly using these details, they would be a part of my inspirational library later on.

2. Readable Thumbnails & Rooftop Singing

The thumbnailing was quick and loose, but you can see I’m a bit stiff with the compositions, a bit afraid, and unsure what I am doing- but still, I had tons of fun thinking about what purpose each place had for my hero.

At first, I didn’t exactly know what the environment and style of the city/story should look like. Instead, I focused on the moments. In the thumbnail where Vasilisa is on the roof, I imagined she would sing about her daily life, expressing her need to be in the city/having freedom.

After Patrick’s feedback, it was clear my compositions needed to be more readable, with better line quality and flow. We also discussed the difference between creating a storytelling image and one that can be used as a layout for production. Patrick also suggested I could push the storytelling itself and not focus on the traditional Russian roots. An idea to implement Hindu elements came to mind and off I went to search for another batch of references.

Watch Instructor Patrick Raines provide critiques on student work to understand how expert feedback can improve a scene!

3. Wish-Granting Assets

Patrick pointed out one of my main issues: proportions of assets and background. I was drawing my thumbnails too proper when they needed more “stylization.” Once I realized this habit, I found it was helpful to draw a bunch of small assets for the scene instead of jumping into the big picture. That way, I could focus on developing the atmosphere and story without being distracted by proportion and composition.

This was a great discovery for me because I recognize this issue in a lot of my work and now I have this technique. Whenever I feel stuck with the big picture, I can start with the assets.

4. Market Scene Magic

For my first scene, I decided to work on the market scene from my thumbnails. There was no market in the original story, but I liked the idea of expanding the universe. Putting more characters in the picture with their own agenda helped the storytelling part a lot. The market picture has a lot of flaws, but I like it the most. I don’t consider it finished, and I know I will be coming back to it after the course.

I made a lot of mistakes, but also it is the image I worked the most on and that I learned so much from the feedback. It went through a lot of changes. I added more characters and put tighter control on the number of details between foreground and background. These adjustments enhanced composition and story.

The biggest and most effective change was flipping the thumbnail. Patrick taught me that I need to be aware of the invisible flow of the composition I create. I wanted the viewer to be engaged and interested in the story presented in the scene. This meant arranging story elements in the right order (thus creating the flow), not in a chaotic way. After this feedback, I saw more tools I could use to achieve that- changing proportions, negative space, planning light and shadow paths.

To learn more about how the eye moves across a scene, explore CGMA course Composition for Concept Art and Illustration

5. Shapes in an Enchanted Forest

Organic environments have more dynamic lines than man-made objects, that is why drawing them freely is so essential. I knew my story would take me to the forest, so I explored some ideas based on gathered references.

The first scene showed when our heroine meets one of the riders. The second focused on the heroine exploring more hostile nature (implement maybe some crows as witch helpers). I made the third environment after a suggestion from Patrick about expanding the story more. I added a magical cave deep in the forest, hidden from the world. This idea turned out to be fun because the new terrain forced me to add new drawing elements: rocks in addition to trees.

Expanding on the first scene, I included my heroine so I would have a benchmark for all other objects in the scene. Patrick reminded me how important it is to understand the structure of the objects I was drawing. Most of my references were compositions on a big scale. I forgot to take inspiration from smaller details. So I implemented more variety of flora and other small details in the foreground like rocks and vegetation. This changed the rhythm in lines and created a far more interesting scene. I also needed to add more details around the focal point to strengthen it. I learned a lot by creating this piece.

If you want to create this type of art but don’t know where to start, be sure to check out CGMA course Digital Painting.

6. Designing the Witch’s Lair

The assignment here was to create an interior for the villain in two different lighting settings. I wanted the Baba Yaga’s Hut to be something different, to show her as intriguing as I saw her as a child, but also hint a bit of a danger in the scene. I decided I wanted two black dogs guarding her house in her absence. I felt the connection of different characters in scenes creates an interesting dynamic, which played well with the market scene.

After choosing the final composition, it was clear that the room needed an upgrade. With some feedback from Patrick, I emphasized the tent feeling, added the characters, and cut down on the number of dogs. The chair as the centerpiece of the illustration went on the podium which made it more visible, so we as a viewer felt that it’s the chair of someone important. Working on the day scene — it was obvious the light will be coming from above, so I corrected the areas of light and shade. Patrick explained how to simplify forms to read the light and shade better.

Last but not least, I tried to add some more cool items, grouping them and creating spaces for the eye to go, to indicate this is a witch’s place. In the composition, Vasilisa is checking the room for the presence of the witch, and at the same time the dog notices her. After that, the piece needed some more polishing by adding subtle textures to the carpet, removing tangents, etc…

Final Thoughts

  • I really didn’t dwell on my mistakes, I celebrated them- because my growth during the course was based on learning from them. For the first time, I had someone with a huge amount of experience giving me informed feedback and expanding my art view. I didn’t have many opportunities while I was in school, that is why I cherished this opportunity so much.
  • The course helped me make creative decisions on my own which is a very needed skill. It also showed me how to create a plan (just like the pipeline in a studio) for creating a storytelling project, from gathering references to the finished illustrations.
  • I’m still doing my Vasilisa project on the side, because I had so much fun with the project here. I really recommend the course, I bet you will be awesome.

RELATED ARTICLES

To learn more about how the eye moves across a scene, explore CGMA course Composition for Concept Art and Illustration

Watch Instructor Patrick Raines provide critiques on student work to see how expert feedback can improve a scene

If you want to create this type of art but don’t know where to start, be sure to check out CGMA course Digital Painting.

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