In front of The Wall, the day I finished.

The project I’ve spent the better part of seven years conceiving is finally finished. From the first thumbnail sketch to the weekend before this past Thanksgiving, Above the Timberline has consumed nearly every extra moment of my free time and invaded my actual work time to both overwhelm and inspire me to produce my vision of a future world.

From the beginning, I was warned by many that what I was attempting was not only too much to accomplish, but too grand for a publisher to produce. That things like this only come along once every couple of generations. No one can pay for it. No one understands the format. Why even bother? I was up against a considerably massive wall. Indeed, they may have been right, if it wasn’t for one overriding factor.

I had to see it done.

Sometimes, when the vision is clear and the means are not, we have to make difficult decisions. What do I sacrifice? How badly will I fail? Can I survive?

The pleasure I saw in people’s faces when they saw the original concept painting, and the excitement they had when asking questions about the idea, gave me energy and gently coaxed me into more visions and variations of what I’d started. Each time I talked about it the enthusiasm across their faces to see more, to find out more, was fascinating. And with that I gained more interest in my characters and their world.

1. Thumbnails

Even the very first painting started with two small thumbnails. I followed the one I chose almost religiously because it represented the feeling of the finished painting in its sparse lines and composition. Being able to read-into a suggested image is quite powerful. The brain fills in detail that it needs, and as you’ve experienced too, those tiny sketches have so much power that it’s tough to live up to that vision. But the thumbnail sketch captures your instincts intuitively and mirrors your deep impulses for creating an image.

That’s where I started for the entire story. I sat over many mochas and hot chocolates and tea in coffee shops across the US, drawing postage stamp size sketches, building the story from images, one after the other. Pages and pages of stacked thumbnails become my codex which I followed for as long as I could until something bigger or better started squeezing into the mix and I found myself expanding the story line.

When the visions slowed down, I went to writing. The writing gave me more images. So when the writing slowed down, I went back to sketching. Furiously at times, and contemplative at others. Characters came and went, situations were established and abandoned, and all the while I learned more and more about my main character, Wesley Singleton.

Creature Comforts…my models.

2. Preparation

The manuscript had to be finished first. I had to have a practical sense of how long the story would be, and find out from the editor, once the book idea was sold, how many pages I would have. This dictated how the story should flow. I had to start with the end in mind, as they say.

I basically wrote a three hundred page novel, learning my characters and their backstories, and finding what scenes to keep and what to let go. Then I severely cut the whole thing down to about 30K words. I clipped and trimmed, shortened and discarded, and was left with only what I most wanted to pursue, express, and paint.

Now it was in a more streamlined format and this made it much easier to link up with the images. Of course there were more changes as the words and pictures came together to form a visual through line of story. At this point, I drew larger double page sketches and dropped copy into each layout to see how it would fit.

Timberline at a glance.

3. Reference and Research

I’d been looking at polar images for many years and had some initial ideas about how my ice world would look. I flipped through books, magazines, scrap files, inspiring image folders and let all of it wash over me. I had read countless books about the arctic, high mountains, winter, snow, ice; books about writing, books about thrillers, mysteries, science fiction, science, cinematography, graphic novels; books about survival, weather, animals, landscape…even an entire book about the snowball planet theory, which I thought I had originated, but discovered scientists have been contemplating the idea for some time.

One of the best places I found for copyright free images was Dreamstime. They have quite an extensive library of all types of subjects, and no shortage of snowy mountains and scenes to help me visualize. Quite inexpensive as well. I was up to my eyeballs in polar bear reference, much I’d shot at zoos, and rather quickly learned to draw them to fit my situations.

4. Drawing

There is just no substitute for good drawing. I found so many times that I had to redraw from the reference for my images to make sense. After a few weeks, projecting reference became tedious and slowed me down. I learned to trust my drawing instincts and let any distortion occur naturally. I finally learned that getting it right means making it believable, not actual.

I had known this from many years of freelance illustration, but in this context, I had to learn it all over again. I had started with the idea that I wanted it all to flow. The best way I discovered to do that was to let all the reference flow through me first, filtered through my sensibilities, and let it become my own.

You’ll learn this, too, if you haven’t already, but I know for certain now that one hundred twenty-two finished paintings will be your best educator.

Basic sketches in blue pencil before getting a final draw-over in graphite.

5. Painting

In a similar way to drawing, I had to allow my concerns for perfection to drift and build images with my brushwork that didn’t always tell so much detail or story in each painting. Most times I had to fight the urge to record, rather than express the image in paint. About thirty paintings in, I was able to let go of most of that worry and just allow the paint to go down. Even though I was on a deadline, it was strange to have time to set aside certain paintings to work on them piecemeal, instead of finishing each in one go. This allowed me to study them over time and make corrections and touchups.

6. Vignettes

The book started out as a panel-by-panel image book much like a graphic novel, but kept each panel vertical, in different widths across each spread. This resulted in far too many images, and would be far more work. Eventually I realized that I wanted moments of my story and not just a film on paper. My novel needed air, composition, and design. Each spread should carry the story forward or capture a moment within the tale that allows the reader to learn, reflect on, or contemplate outcome. A series of setup and reveal.

But I fell into a format that people are already familiar with and I wanted the book to be more immersive. This meant less, not more, information. I went through my thumbnail dummy book and revised each spread by composing first, and letting the viewer be absorbed by the images and therefore build interest in the prose.

Vignettes, as classic as they are, afforded the ability to not only let the reader fill in the gaps the brain loves to fill, but it also shortened my painting time considerably, enhanced the dynamic compositions, and got the image to zero-in on what was most significant.

7. Losing Focus

At seventy-five paintings in, I started to doubt. Worried about missing the deadline by weeks if not months. Had I calculated what it took to paint each spread? What would go wrong? Each painting averaged about 8 to 12 hours. Things had been smooth so far, but I had started with some simpler pieces in order to get my land legs, and now some of the more complicated pieces were still ahead of me. Some artists suggested that I should leave easy pieces for last, and others said save the ones I wanted to do the most for the final days.

I had already worked and finished paintings from different sections of the book so that it wouldn’t look as if I was improving as I got to the end. Much like the way a film is made, in separate scenes at separate times, so that there is better continuity throughout.

I figured it was inevitable that at some point I would encounter fatigue, mental and physical. The physical fatigue came in strange waves of odd rashes, and acne. Muscle pain would come and go. Mysterious aches rose up for a few days and dissipated. I worked through it instead of pampering it. For one year, I didn’t get a cold. (and as soon as I turned in the last painting to the photographer, I got a cold that put me down.)

8. Maintaining Enthusiasm

I figured I could battle the mental fatigue by resting and re-inspiring myself with new visions. Not only did I remind myself that I was alone and not having to cater my images to any client’s concerns or opinions, but I tried to keep a child-like perspective about the project that allowed me to see it from my younger self’s perspective. Would I like this if I hadn’t known the artist’s work? Would I like the image I’m working on at the moment if I saw it as a young man in art school? Did I care if anyone liked it beyond what I’d hoped?

I learned to stay involved. I kept looking at the world of illustration online, maintained a once-a-week teaching schedule, and shared images in-progress with students and professional friends.

I ended with a few easy pieces, two that I knew I could conquer, and finally the cover painting which is a re-paint of the original painting but with storyline corrections and a younger looking character.

Sketching out the newspaper headlines…

9. Facing the Void

We all stand at the abyss in front of our canvases. The overriding factor was my brain questioning relentlessly, “what were you thinking?” “What makes you think you can do this?” “Nothing happens unless you finish this…this…thing.” And many times even harsher than that.

I think an artist has to quell these voices everyday, on nearly every occasion, to be able to accomplish anything of worth. This book was no different in that sense, but each attempt to create something like a painting is met with some form of doubt or insecurity, and one way to shield oneself from insecurity is to train and paint so much that we overwhelm the question. To understand our material so well the questions never arise.

Even the skills earned from decades of meeting deadlines and conquering assignments didn’t seem to overwhelm the things that might go wrong in creating Above the Timberline. I learned to compartmentalize those questions as often as possible, only letting them out on occasion to ask if I was on the right track to match my initial vision of the story.

But the real conflicts with any vision must be faced down with confidence in skills you’ve learned, enthusiasm that borders on the immature, and only sharing your strife with trusted individuals that know how to help you maintain your stamina. Friends.

Sharing many of those initial paintings with Muddy Colors readers provided great energy. And I thank you all for that. I hope the book brings a sense of excitement to storytelling artists, especially here, that your visions can be stirring and inspirational.

I was surprised at how I never lost interest or fascination for the story. Fatigue, fear, doubt is simply part of the process. It takes a lot.

But then, so what?

Photos by Irene Gallo