Over the years of speaking at colleges and universities, many students have assumed that I “must not like digital art” because of my hard focus on using oil paint for my main medium. They’re usually surprised, and most times, delighted when they hear that I love digital artwork.

Recently I chose to paint digitally for a short story illustration for tor.com. The Red Mother is written by Elizabeth Bear and is the story of a Viking-like adventurer who attempts to help a group of people rid themselves of a pernicious dragon in the mountains. He sets out with an extra horse to use as bait for the quest.

I had a choice: show the protagonist together with the dragon or create more of a set piece that establishes the mood of the story. Pairing the two together, dragon and character, would give away too much about the story from a simple glance.

Enticing the reader into the story is the mission. Describing the story in pictures is not. The solution is to build curiosity in the reader so that they want to give the story a chance. From there, the writer takes over to pull them further into the story world.

I chose to show an establishing shot that coaxed the audience, and tugged at their curiosity.

Thumbnails first. Tiny little rectangles, postage stamp size, contained the very simple lines that created all the shapes of mountains, valleys, sky and ground, along with the figure on horseback and the extra horse.

I gathered a bunch of reference of landscapes and as usual, most of them weren’t what I was thinking. I combined parts of images to build the landscape I had in mind.

The art director, Irene Gallo and I spoke at length about what appealed to her as both an art director and reader. She’s always looking for a way to express story without recording just a scene. Illustration went through a long spell of creating scenes from short stories and novels that while trying to be “true” to the material, ended up boring and sometimes confusing the potential reader.

Irene was drawn to the one with the dragon flying. I almost knew she’d be enticed by this particular sketch. It felt the same to me: it builds curiosity in the potential reader. And besides…dragon!

I managed to find a couple pieces of copy-right free landscape reference to work from. I used Procreate to sketch over the top and then drew the rider and horses and finally the dragon shapes. I worked from memory on both, while following the general lighting conditions from the reference.

My digital work at this stage is to approach it much like I do for oil painting: dark to light, layers of values, pay attention to edges. The brilliance of digital painting is its endless ability to undo. Perhaps too much undo, but if an artist pays attention, it can teach them how to paint efficiently, even in traditional mediums.