Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Rat's Life: how to draw a cover for the SF Weekly.

Art Director Andrew Nilsen, of the SF Weekly, called with a dark and gritty assignment to illustrate a story about the ultra-violent, MS-13 gang, by Lauren Smiley. These true, noir stories are just the kind of thing I love to draw. As a kicker, the Art Director asked to film the entire process in my art studio/man cave.

Here is how the whole thing when down, in 10 (hard to follow) steps.

Step 1. Read the article while drinking coffee.
Step 2: Think about it.
Step 3: Draw a bunch of little squares in your sketchbook and fill them in with your ideas.

sketch 1 front view
Step 4: Draw a better version of the thumbnails. In this case, I drew the sketch huge, 18" x 24", because the concept called for lots of detail in the tattoo's, plus the cover is pretty big. Planning ahead, yo.

sketch 2 back view
Step 5: Sketch more. Always give your Art Director some choices. In the back view sketch, the FBI logo is more visible than the shoulder placement on the front view. Both say gang rat. I submitted the two sketches above, plus the sketch book spread.

Step 6: The Art Director notices some good detail in the thumbnails that helps advance the story of the illustration, he asks to see this thumbnail worked up.

sketch 3 gang sign and cuffs
Step 6 : Work up the selected sketch. Less than an hour later, sha-bam, third sketch presented. The AD and I spoke several times to work out little details. I spent the next several hours drawing the MS-13 rat and all his tattoo's.

Step 7: Add something awesome.

Sometime during the development of this drawing, I began to think I needed a tighter tie-in between the gang rat and the FBI. Something that denoted manipulation or control. The FBI logos on his shoulders were nice, but the piece needed more. That's when I added the FBI ear tag - like the kind researchers staple to their test subjects in the wild. That little detail added the extra layer of information that turned this from a drawing into a cover illustration.

If you look closely in the video, you'll see how an old school illustrator uses "cut and paste".

cut and paste the old school way



Each of these tattoos mean something, they are not simply body decoration. MS-13 means "Mara Salvatrucha". "Mara" for gang and "Salvatrucha" for a man from el Salvador. 13 signifies loyalty to the Mexican mafia. 805 is a Mexican area code. A dagger pointing up on the forearm promises revenge. A dagger pointing down means that revenge has been taken. Spider webs means jail time. The higher the placement of the MS-13 tattoo on the body, means the higher ones rank in the gang. If you see gang tattoos placed higher than the shoulder, that means you are dealing with a very serious gangster.

The finished drawing by Graham Smith
Step 8: ink it. (in this case I skipped this part)
Above is the finished drawing. Normally, I would take this drawing, slap it on the light box and begin re-drawing the whole thing in ink to create the final product. This illustration however, called out for a gritty, grimy, raw treatment - so the pencil drawing itself was used directly on the cover.

Step 9: Get the drawing into the computer. Too big to scan, I photographed the drawing using a 50mm lens, f 11, at 1/4 second, with 600 watts of light in RAW format. I even used a tripod and remote shutter release.

Step 10: Experiment, add texture layers, resize and add color in Photoshop.

Work in Progess: MS-13 Rat's Life. Graham Smith
For a while there, I was thinking of making the rat red and the background white. I thought this could work because the rat is making the "devil's horn" gang sign, and the rat would be red, like the devil, and the color of the Salvadoran flag is red and white, but, no.

Always print the illustration at full size to check the color and readability. Here's the print proof next to the original drawing and the finished, uncropped illustration below.

MS -13 "Rat's Life" illustration for SF Weekly: Graham Smith
Art Direction/Cover design: Andrew Nilsen. Illustration: Graham Smith

Here's the old school tools I use to make the illustrations:

Generals 6B graphite stick - fill big areas quickly. Primsacolor Ebony pencil jet black, extra smooth - draw smaller detail with rich black. Dixon Ticonderoga, soft pencil - for drawing detail and building gradients. Mars Steadtler plastic eraser - for wholesale erasing. Tuff Stick eraser - for precision erasing. Kneaded eraser - for lifting graphite in a more delicate manner. Pencil sharpener - get a new one more often than you think. India ink, waterproof - draw and make textured backgounds. Big paint brush - for splattering paint like a wild man. Small round brush - must have rolled away while I was taking a photo!

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