STEP ONE ILLUSTRATION BRIEF & CONCEPT
I begin almost all of my illustrations with an illustration brief. This is a brief explanation on the expectations and technical specs for an illustration, usually given to me by an art director or private client. Even for personal work like this piece, I like to write myself one to begin with to keep things consistent. What exactly is on the brief changes depending on the client, but most look something like the above.
In this case “Native”, “Red”, “Firebird”, and “Regalia” are import. This tells me that the illustration should be a Native woman who wears some kind of regalia (ceremonial clothing) or maybe just some kind of attire tying her to her culture.The color palette should be warm and include reds. My spirit is a firebird - a play on the thunderbird mythology prevalent in many Plains and Eastern Woodlands tribes. I can also note from that that my character should look like she’s from these areas.
STEP TWO  INSPIRATION & REFERENCE
From here, visual research and image resources are collected and stored in my studio and digital workspaces. These are the core images that serve as inspiration and reference of cultural and visual symbols.

STEP THREE  SKETCHING & THUMBNAIL DEVELOPMENT
Quick and simplistic, small initial sketches allow me to rapidly visualize numerous compositions. After the thumbnails are completed, I review each to identify key characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses. When working with a client, I will send my best three to begin with. Revisions and refinements will then be requested to further test potential concepts. 
STEP FOUR  ROUGH COMPOSITION: SCALE & REFINEMENTS
After settling on a composition, a scaled rough is developed. Additional elements and details are developed while loosely referring to my mood board. 
For this particular piece, a reference image for the face was not used, but a mirror at my drawing table could be consulted for facial features and angles. 
At this early stage, the concept of the "firebird" is developed into a metaphor, illustrated by the embers burning in the woman's eyes and emanating from her body. This was done as to not rely heavily on what could be seen as stereotypical or sacred images.

STEP FIVE  COLOR SKETCH: MOVING INTO THE DIGITAL STUDIO

Upon completion of the rough, the drawing is scanned. Digital paint is applied in Adobe Photoshop and corrections to exposure, value, and lighting are made. The idea of the firebird represented as an earring is initially explored here.

Both a grayscale and color image is printed at around 4"x6" to serve as a reference.

STEP SIX FINAL SKETCH

Working off both my color key and rough sketch, I size up my composition to its final size of 12.5”x18.5” on cold press watercolor paper. I outline details in brown Prismacolor Colerase pencil. While I do a small amount of shading as a placeholder for later, I focus primarily on the big, graphic shapes.

STEP SEVEN PAINTING & RETURN TO TRADITIONAL MEDIA

Paints are mixed based on the color key. A mixture of materials are used in the painting, each for their unique qualities: Daniel Smith Primatek watercolors for their granulation/texture, Holbein watercolors for their smoothness/vibrancy, and Holbein gouache for more opaque areas.

I begin with messy washes of Daniel Smith watercolors that bleed into each other. Early on, it is apparent that the cyan color that had been planned for the earrings won't work. I decide to leave this area blank until the end in order to make an intuitive decision.

At the point, there is no variance in process other than the many hours that will be spend rendering to bring it to completion. 

STEP EIGHT COMPLETED TRADITIONAL PIECE & SCANNING

15 odd hours later, earrings redesigned and finished off with gold foil, the initial painting is complete. I scan at a high quality resolution and prepare to move into the final digital stage.

STEP NINE EDITING + FINISH

While  as much of the illustration as possible is completed traditionally, there are certain limitations to my selected mediums. One of them is creating gradients over a completed piece. Painting is done in Adobe Photoshop to add radial, pale yellow highlights around the embers and a deep garnet gradient from the bottom of the image. 

After that, the piece is complete and ready to be used in either a final product like a book cover or to be made into fine art prints. 

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