Monday, September 16, 2013

Aaron Becker's "Journey"

Blog reader Aaron Becker created the bestselling picture book 
He told me that he builds digital maquettes before doing his finished illustrations in traditional watercolors.

I invited him to do a guest post explaining the process, so here it is:

"Journey began as this large scale drawing, completed over the course of two afternoons three summers ago."

"Once the story had been roughed out, I returned to the original drawing and built this 3D model in Maya as a proof of concept – to see if I could replicate the spirit of the drawing as a detailed digital model. I would use this to help with perspective and lighting, and went on to build similar models for other environments in the book."

"At this stage, I’ve added significant detail to the 3D model with a new scanned pencil drawing. This light overlay gets printed out onto 300 LB Arches watercolor paper using my Epson large format printer."

"This allows me to dive into the watercolors with the confidence that my composition and perspective is spot-on. I prefer the heavy stock for watercolor as it minimizes warping and allows for fantastic control over the amount of moisture while applying pigment."

"From there, it’s a matter of old-school pen and ink and watercolor. I do the pen and ink first, making sure to give myself the freedom to change anything from the pencil underlay should the spirit move me. That said, I find the more I’ve decided conceptually ahead of time, the more I can concentrate on pure technique at any stage of the image-making game."

"Watercolor is applied in several washes from light to dark and then finished up with shadow details. I try to minimize the use of any masking fluid as I find this changes the quality of the paper for subsequent washes. Gouache was used for all of the punchy red and purple bits throughout the story."
"When it came time to create the book’s video trailer (see below), I went back into the 3D model and camera-mapped the watercolor painting onto the geometry, like a virtual slide projector covering a foam-core model. After separating the painting into several layers (background, towers, castle walls, etc) I was able to move a virtual camera in Maya and bring the image to life."

"Some details, like the waving flags were hand animated and projected onto transparent “cards” in Maya. This entire technique is similar to how matte paintings are now done in feature films. Having come from a film background, I wanted to utilize as much of the tricks I had learned as possible, while retaining the hand-made feel of the watercolor paintings. In the end, there are no shortcuts when it comes to dipping a brush into pigment and placing it on the page. Hope you all enjoy the finished product!"

JOURNEY by Aaron Becker (official trailer) from Aaron Becker on Vimeo.

Here's the book trailer Aaron created.

Find out more about Aaron Becker's work at or on facebook.

Be sure to read the comments on this post, which explain a variety of inexpensive software options, such as Sketchup and Blender.
You can pick up the book online at:
or Barnes and Noble
Or you can order a signed copy from Aaron's local independent bookseller, Odyssey Books.
Thanks, Aaron!


Unknown said...

Hi James,
I can't see the 6 pictures with the Chrome browser.

Michael said...

The image links are broken on my end.

This is really interesting to me because I'm doing something similar to paint a landscape by first roughly modeling the scene in Cinema 4D. One very interesting thing besides the lighting and perspective is seeing how the psychological import of a scene changes depending on which object the camera is rotating around. In my project, rotating the camera around the train station or the tunnel changes the possibilities of what kind of message can be developed.

"Whitford Train Station is one of the most interesting juxtapositions of topography and man-made structure. But walking around it, it's hard to find any angle that really captures all the powerful dynamics coming together. I haven't found an overlook clear of trees at the right angle to really grab me. So I'm roughing out this 3D model along with finding the possibility of heightened drama using some sort of exaggerated perspective or some other type of curvilinear distortion."

I describe more here:

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Dus Nes. I have downloaded the jpegs and added them in, rather than pasting from Aaron's email. Hopefully it works now.

Michael, thanks for that explanation and link. It's amazing how artists are combining analog and digital tools.

Brett W. McCoy said...

You could something similar with ZBrush or 3D-Coat to make digital sculptures of monsters or dinosaurs or whatever.

Tom Hart said...

I can guess the answer to this, but is there anything remotely like Maya (obviously simpler)that is low priced and would work on the sort of home compouter (or even laptop?) that most of us are likely to have? I did a quick search for Maya, and even knowing that it couldn't be cheap, I had quite the sticker shock.

Just dreamin'...:^)

Keith Parker said...

Awesome! Awesome! Awesome!

Keith Parker said...

Tom if you have access to photoshop extended I believe that has some 3-d capabilities. Google sketch up is a free 3-d program. But I'm not sure how much you could use that to animate a 2-d drawing in a 3-d space. And yes programs like Maya and 3-Dmax are insanely expensive. Basically the price of a nice used vehicle. Most people gain access through school or work.

Anonymous said...

@Tom: Many people have really good success with Blender. Best part is that it's free. :)

I've dabbled with using 3D modeling to visualize my projects. I've been moderately successful. It'd be really nice to see a tutorial of someone like Aaron's workflow when doing something like that. There's numerous 3D tutorials out there that show you the ropes of modeling, but they don't show you a workflow for the purpose of being used as a maquette for drawing or painting.

Unknown said...

Really whimsical and lovely piece of art, love the line work and colours,

thank you for sharing,

Janet Oliver said...

My guess is that Aaron Becker read and understood "Harold and Purple Crayon" as a child.

Erika Baird said...

Definitely putting that one on my wishlist. At first blush, it reminds me somewhat of Saun Tan's 'The Arrival' which is another excellent wordless book.

Rasmus said...

I've always been fascinated by matte-painting and VFX in general. Seeing those techniques (camera-mapping etc.) applied to traditional media looks just beautiful!

It seems there is a lot of interest in inexpensive alternatives to full-blown 3D-packages like Maya. Being one of the few students at my school focusing on 3D-Illustration, I can offer some input, although the topic itself - using digital tools for sketching and maquettes - would deserve a blog entry on its own.

Just like Adobe Photoshop and Corel Painter dominate the digital 2D world, Autodesk Maya, 3ds max and Pixologic Z-Brush dominate the digital 3d world. But all of those have their less expensive or even free counterparts. Sometimes open source projects by enthusiasts, sometimes stripped-down versions of the big players. But they all are usually more than enough for quick maquettes or architectural studies that are used as preliminary sketches.

SketchUp - formerly known as Google SketchUp - in its basic version is completely free and great for creating everything from architectural sketches to complete cityscapes. Compared to most other packages, the interface is very clean and although it lacks any advanced rendering capabilities (reflections, multiple light sources etc.), you can easily set the time of day and see how the sun would interact with your scene. Great for everyone who is sick of drawing perspective grids and vanishing-point-searching. And even greater that it has a online-library of free-to-use models, mostly for engenieering or architecture, but also furniture, vehicles and even buildings.

Sculptris by Pixologic is another free software package, but with a very different approach. Sculptris is great for digital maquettes of animals, creatures, characters and everything soft or organic. Unlike SketchUp and most other 3d packages, it has a much more sculptural approach. This makes it relatively intuitive to use, but much of the fun is lost if you don't own a graphics tablet since it is highly dependent on pressure sensitive input. Also, you won't be able to place your creation in a scene or simulate fancy lighting scenarios.

Blender finally is the all-in-one package. Developed as an open-source alternative to Maya or 3dsmax, it offers almost all the capabilities of packages like Maya but is available for free. Modeling, Sculpting, creating textures, animation, lighting, camera mapping and simulations… In short: all the things SketchUp or Sculptris can't do - Blender can. The only downside is that - just as in every software - all those possibilities come at a cost and that is its rather steep learning curve and complex interface. On the bright side, Blender sports a large and helpful community and there are many free tutorials available.

@Tom Hart: All of those should run on your average desktop pc or laptop. Even Maya should run on most computers. Still, depending on your machine you might experience problems with bigger, more complex models/scenes, especially if you begin to texture (color) your work.

@Keith Parker: Photoshop Extended has indeed some 3d-capabilities, but they're restricted to importing and rendering existing models I think.
SketchUp is really great at building/modeling things like the castle/city, but you are right: animating it as Aaron did won't be able with SketchUp alone.

FlatClem said...

Hi James,
Great post. I like those kind of mixed media techniques and like the narrative possibilities that i brings.
I once tried something similar using photoshop for the painting part and The Foundry Nuke for the camera mapping. You can see it here : .
Nuke is a software that is gaining more attention from matte painters as it allows different kind of prejections on simple geometry.

Well done Aaron. Impressive result !

Mario said...

Tom, as someone else has already said, Blender is a really good tool. Here is a demo reel:

James Gurney said...

Thanks, everybody for sharing all this info, and especially Rasmus for explaining all the options so completely.

karlsimon said...

I tried printing some drawings on water colour paper but as soon as I paint the first wash the ink bleeds out and everything turns into a complete mess. Does anyone know if its possible to get your hands on waterproof ink for normal printers? Or do you need to get more fancy gear for that kind of stuff? I have a canon pixma.

Tom Hart said...

Thanks to each and every one of your who took the time to answer my question about 3D software. A special tip of the hat to Rasmus!

Aaron Becker said...

And thanks to all of you (and James!) for taking a look at my work. It was an absolute pleasure to share it here on the Gurney-Journey. Maya was a program I learned while working as a concept designer for Doug Chiang's studio and it certainly is an expensive and tedious program. I've really only learned the barebones of what I needed for constructing simple geometry and getting lighting and perspective information; the camera-mapping and animation is also something I know just enough to pull off something like the trailer. I've heard sketchup is a great tool with an intuitive interface, and I'm also interested in checking out some of these other programs mentioned above.

I should also emphasize, however, that nothing takes the place of solid drawing and painting fundamentals! I still attend life drawing classes regularly to keep my chops up. The computer is like a really good straightedge ruler - it'll help you make some crisp lines, but if you don't have a strong vision for why you're drawing in the first place, it's just an empty mark!


Keith Parker said...

@Rasmus. Actually, I think there is a way to animate it with PS and Sketchup alone. But it involves treating it like old school 2-d animation, or actually more like stop motion/ claymation. You basically could put the 2-d art on the 3-d models and then move the camera where you want it taking a screenshot with every subtle movement. Then later you could compile each shot into a short movie. Not impossible, but it would be a colossal chore.