Why Reinvent the Flex-Shaft?

Click for larger image and you'll be able to see the instructor's
five o'clock shadow in more detail. And you know how awesome that is.

I swear that I really understood what a flex-shaft was when I was working on this illustration. The magazine article was really about a few different educational programs for jewelers, but the Art Director wanted the visual to play off the title, actually depicting a class learning about the flex-shaft, a jeweler's tool used for grinding down materials. I wish they would have given me one for free - it seems cool.

A quick google search showed me all I needed. And you can see just how knowledgeable I became by looking at the text on the chalkboard, where I just scribbled lines (instead of actually using real text descriptions) for each broken-down piece of the tool. Never let it be said that I don't take the easy way out (actually, I just don't like too much text in an illustration - it's distracting).

Original sketch for the illustration. Not sure why I didn't finish drawing
the teacher's legs. That was pretty lazy of me.

Using Photoshop and my Wacom tablet, I sketched out a classroom environment. The Art Director for the magazine had requested (as he usually did) a horizontal layout, so I kept the instructor near the center and spread a few students across the environment, making them all look either frustrated or disinterested, as students should be represented. I really cheated the girl on the left, facing her away from the teacher - I wanted at least one of the student's faces to be clearly visible to the viewer, so her angry expression could be easily seen. That's just how I am.

From what I recall, I only supplied one sketch (the timeframe may have been short for this project - possibly a couple weeks) and it was quickly approved with no changes. I rendered the linework with the Wacom/Photoshop combo, tracing over the sketch layer. I always make sure to lock the sketch layer, and then the line layer when it's complete, so that elements don't get mixed up. This Art Director liked to enrich the black line by adding 30% Cyan to it - keeping the line isolated on its own layer made that super easy.

Linework for the illustration, all created digitally. The blackboard
drawing wasn't part of the this - it had its own layer with
a diffusion
effect, to give it that chalk-on-board feel.

I hadn't done a digital illustration in a while at this point. My services tend to fluctuate - sometimes I'm working on a few illustrations at once; other times, I'm doing only logo design, or website design or other types of projects, and I've got no illustrations going on. And that's not a bad thing, either, because that little dry spell made me more open to experimentation when this project came along.

Detail of the instructor. He may have been modeled after
a teacher friend of mine, but I'm not copping to it.

Some of my previous digital illustrations were too smooth in the coloring and tonal work - I felt like I was trying to replicate the look of the Prismacolor markers I'd used before "going digital", but in really examining my old and new work side-by-side, it was easy to see that the marker-colored work wasn't totally smooth, even though they're a wet media. The little imperfections - areas where one marker's color bleeds into another and creates a visible stratification - might have been aspects of hand-coloring I wanted to minimize and avoid while I was working that way, but in reviewing the older work, I couldn't deny that those touches added some depth and personality to the piece - aspects that my earlier digital illustrations usually didn't have.

So I let myself be messier on this one. I didn't create discrete layers for every little color or element (though in checking the Photoshop file, it seems the five o'clock shadow did have own layer - I guess I really wanted to control that one). I created a brush with a harder edge than usual, and just let things bleed (get it? like the way markers bleed). I liked the results - it took a little longer to build up the layers of tone and shadow, and a couple areas look like too harsh a transition to my eye now (like the gradient on the blackboard), but all things considered, it was a nice leap forward for me. I've done a couple other pieces in this style since, and I used what I learned on this one. Because I allowed myself to grow, I rewarded myself with ice cream. I think I totally deserved it.

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