Here’s an experiment in marbling that evolved into a depiction of the Spotted Lava Marmot (Marmota ignivomus). I often notice hidden pictures in the world (animals in clouds, faces in wood grain, visions of my own demise in tea leaves) but I rarely incorporate these sightings into my art — possibly because, as an illustrator, my hands are usually occupied with the sort of projects that don’t reward spontaneous whimsy.

Since the art briefs involved in illustration tend to call for very specific imagery, a randomly-generated lava marmot probably isn’t going to fit the bill in most cases (and even if I’d scored a rare cover commission from Marmot Monthly, it’s worth noting that the other 20 sheets of paper I marbled DIDN’T result in marmots… not a great hit rate if that  cover is due on Tuesday).

In these cases, when you know WHAT you want to draw (but might need an assist on the HOW) it’s helpful to use a more customizable chaos as the starting point. I like to start with abstract elements (photos of organic materials, interesting objects, or even bits and pieces cut from my own drawings and paintings), and see what interesting effects I can get from layering them together in photoshop.

Here’s an example from the distant past that used a variation of this technique: the sketch for my piece Sword of Purpose.

I had a clear concept in mind: a girl is bestowed a gift — and a purpose — by an older, wiser version of herself. What I didn’t have was a picture in my head of how I wanted the image to look. Poses, setting, composition… I had nothing. I decided to fall back on the powers of chaos to make some of those hard decisions for me.

I fed one of my existing drawings into the sausage grinder for this piece — one with a lot of busy silhouettes and intricate areas of detail to borrow from. I dropped a few copies of the image into transparent layers, and played around with scale, rotation, and cropping. I was trying to create a pleasing overall composition, while keeping an eye out for the specific elements I needed within the abstract mess: two figures, one in a pose that showed guidance or nurturing, the other entranced by an object they’d received.


Eventually, I found my way to the composite on the right (above). To the casual observer, it probably still looks like chaos – but, primed to seek out my subject matter, I had finally spotted the faintest hint of the figures I was looking for (or at least, the rough locations of their heads and arms). Inverting the colors helps show what I was seeing:

Sketching over the composite (above right) started to solidify the poses of those figures; as I did so, other parts of the image began to fall into place too. The sword box, the looming beast behind the characters, the fantastical garden surrounding them… all elements that hadn’t existed in my original ideas for the piece, but which jumped out from the chaos, and fit the intent of the image perfectly.

I tailored most of the lines and shapes to fit my new vision as I sketched — but, one or two spots definitely ended up transcribed directly from the collage. Since the source material was my own work, there were no lawyers lurking in the shadows… and if anyone else ever noticed that shamelessly recycled bear paw, they never mentioned it.

I’m almost a bit embarrassed to offer this peek behind the curtain of my process (as you may be starting to wonder if ALL of my work is just earlier paintings rotated 90 degrees). Still, it’s a good example of how much easier it is to seek out imagery within abstraction and visual noise, than it is to generate content from absolute nil — especially handy if you’re finding a deadline looming and your artistic fuel tank running on empty.