Just a day in the life of a professional Star Wars sketch card artist, Charlie Cody. Learn his quick Copic Marker techniques.
Working on sketch card sets for major licensed properties requires the ability to work quickly and to be able to replicate that work consistently. The consistency and quality of your work depend largely on where you are in your own artistic development, but the speed at which that work is produced can be influenced and improved with simple tips and tricks that anyone can apply. And when major impending deadlines are involved, speed counts.
The single greatest timesaver I’ve found was learning to recognize how much was “too much” and how much was “just enough.” And that didn’t mean lowering my artistic standards. That meant learning the difference between excessive detail and essential detail. The goal is to provide an audience with enough detail so that they instantly recognize what they’re looking at without getting lost or confused by all the minutiae of unnecessary detail. Basically, most folks will probably still recognize Chewbacca even if you don’t painstakingly render every individual hair on his face.
A very effective approach in the spirit of this philosophy is the use of high contrast lighting. Aside from just looking dramatic, high contrast lighting reduces your workload by simplifying the tonal values of your picture into shadows, mid tones, and highlights. The more you can simplify your designs without losing the essential details necessary to make your subject recognizable, the better. Especially for a very overwhelmed illustrator racing against the clock to complete more than 100 individual cards set to coincide with the release of a major film. No pressure.
I was fortunate enough to be selected as one of the sketch card artists approved by Lucasfilm LTD to work on the Rogue One Series 1 trading card set from the Topps Trading Card Company. This gave me an incredible opportunity to draw some of the iconic imagery found in the original Star Wars trilogy as well as giving me a chance to draw some of the brand new elements exclusive to Rogue One. Such as the very imposing Imperial Death Troopers.
Aside from the 2.5 x 3.5 blank sketch cards provided by Topps, the materials I used for this sketch:
- A Staedtler 0.3 mm mechanical drafting pencil
- Sakura SE-2000 electric eraser
- 0.03 and 0.3 Copic Multiliner pens
- Winsor Newton Series 7 Kolinsky Sable brush (#4)
- Winsor Newton Designers series Jet Black gouache
- C0-C8 Copic Sketch markers
- B00 and B45 Copic Sketch markers
- Airbrush and air compressor
- Testors Aztek opaque white airbrush paint
Step 1: Penciling the Foundation
First, the pencils. This may be the most important stage of the process because it serves as the foundation that the entire sketch is built upon. This is the stage that I usually spend the most time on because most of the thinking and planning is done here. In terms of composition and line work, this is the stage where it all happens. And the more problem solving that I do in this penciling stage, the less aggravation I can expect in the later stages. I personally prefer really tight pencil work and very few surprises, but that’s just me. The Staedtler 0.3 mm mechanical pencil is great for fine lines and detail and the Sakura SE-2000 electric eraser makes sure all my less than great line work is thoroughly erased. If you’ve never used an electric eraser before, well... you’ve just never really lived, my friend. Trust me.
Step 2: Balacing Light and Shadows
For this particular sketch of an Imperial Death Trooper, I chose to lean very heavily on shadow (roughly 2/3 or 75% of this sketch is entirely in shadow). I’ve found that a 1/3 to 2/3 ratio works well as a formula across the board for illustration, whether you’re talking about negative and positive space, the values of light and shadow, or the warm to cool contrasts of color temperature. The heavy use of shadow in this sketch serves a dual purpose of setting a dark tone to the drawing itself and allowing me to save a lot of time at the drafting table (because so much of the sketch is obscured in shadow). Again, I’m trying to find the essential details necessary to make this image recognizable without rendering every single little detail of the subject. The clock is ticking here.
Step 3: Replacing Graphite with Ink
At this stage, I use the 0.03 Copic Multiliner pen to lightly ink some preliminary lines in place of the pencil work. Graphite tends to smudge when directly colored over with Copic markers, leaving unsightly permanent marks on your paper. That’s why I use the Multiliner to replace most of the original pencil work at this stage. Once those lines are inked, I carefully use the electric eraser to get rid of the penciled lines beneath.
Step 4: Paint-by-Numbers
Little X's denote areas to be completely obscured in shadow. This is where I’ll put my darkest value. This is another planning stage that can save you valuable time and energy later in the process. Particularly during late nights at the drafting table when brains aren’t operating at peak performance levels and lines and figures just begin to look like meaningless shapes. Reducing your drawing to a paint-by-numbers map (where X = black) at this stage can save you a lot of guess work later on. And the less thinking I have to do on a page when time is tight, the better. And time is tight.
Step 5: A Watercolorist's Approach
I normally work with Copic markers similar to a watercolorist’s approach; working from light to dark, gradually building up the tonal values and colors as I go. But, when working on a really high contrast picture like this, I prefer to lay down my darkest values and shadows first. This gives me a handy visual reference of what my darkest value will look like, and having that reference will help me balance the tonal contrasts of the remaining colors as I go. Balancing and blending those contrasts is vital to the overall look and effect of the finished piece.
Now, because the actual paper stock of these sketch cards is much thinner than what I personally prefer to use when working with markers, I’ve decided to fill in all those little X's with Winsor Newton Designers series Jet Black gouache. This could easily be substituted with Copic 110 Special Black, but that would require really having to over-saturate the card stock to cover as much of an area as I could with a single coat of black gouache. And I particularly didn't want the ink to bleed through to the other (printed) side of these sketch cards, so I chose the black gouache as my darkest value instead. At this stage, you really start to get a sense of the drawing’s mood and atmosphere. So far, so good.
Step 6: Tonal Underdrawings
Now it’s time to move on to the sketch’s values and colors. I like to do complete tonal underdrawings with either warm or cool gray sketch markers before adding color to my sketches. This is a common practice in painting and I’ve found that it works equally well with markers, so it’s become a regular part of my work process.
Working with a set of cool gray Copic sketch markers, I gradually began building up my values (working from lightest value to darkest value), with C0, C1, C2, C3, and C4. This subtle gradient of values help to give shape, form, weight, and texture to the Death Trooper.
Adding a wash of Smokey Blue to the cool gray underdrawing. Still working from light to dark, I continue to build up and really finalize those tonal values and contrasts with C5, C6, C7, and C8. The cool gray tonal underdrawing is complete at this stage, and the sketch card itself could probably pass as a final product as is (left). But I prefer to go a bit further than that, so now I set my sights on color.
Step 7: A Quick Wash of Blue
The coloring phase moves much more quickly for me than the painstaking tonal underdrawing phase of steps 5 and 6. That’s because nearly all the heavy lifting and hard work is already done by this stage. Most of the final tonal values are already in place, patiently built up and rendered by the cool gray underdrawing. I’m not repeating that entire process with different values of color; I’m simply applying a thin layer (or wash) of color directly on top of the cool gray tonal underdrawing (right above).
At this stage, I’m not trying to completely saturate the paper with colored ink. Instead, I want to apply just enough color so that it’s identifiable to the eye while still allowing the tonal underdrawing to be seen from beneath. Here I’ve applied B00 and B45 directly on top of the tonal underdrawing. Usually, just a few quick swipes of the marker’s nib is enough to do the trick. Over-saturating the underdrawing with too much colored ink will ruin the underdrawing. So...try not to do that. There’s no time for that, believe me.
Step 8: Gouache and Copic
I’ve found that Copic markers and gouache work fairly well together in mixed media pieces. And by that I mean that they don’t completely annihilate each other. A few stray strokes from your marker over an area of painted gouache isn’t going to ruin or even necessarily affect your sketch. Sure, if you totally over-saturate an area of gouache with your marker’s ink, it’ll probably make a nasty mess eventually. But, if you’re mindful of what you’re doing, your sketch will be fine.
Copics DO leave a bit of a shiny, reflective streak across areas of painted gouache though, which is why I always apply a second, final coat of gouache once I’m completely finished coloring with the markers. This is where I do my last-minute cleaning up of whatever little stray marker strokes may be left behind. And, after that final coat of gouache is applied and dried, I use the 0.03 and 0.3 Copic Multiliners to tighten up all the final line work that I couldn’t render with the Series 7 Sable brush and the gouache.
Step 9: A Touch of Airbrush
Now that all the grueling work of the drawing itself is finished, I’ve moved on to one of my favorite stages: airbrushing. To me, this stage is the icing on the cake. I’m still very much a novice to airbrushing, but I use it pretty sparingly; mostly just for lighting and glowing effects. But the impact and atmosphere that a little airbrushing can add to the overall effect of your final sketch is incredible.
Airbrushing is great for rendering spooky lighting effects, which is exactly what I was after here with adding a touch of airbrush. Even that random particulate-splatter of a clogged airbrush adds to the general atmosphere and spirit of these sketch cards. The Force is strong with these ones.
Waiting, Yet Ready to Replicate
Here’s the reverse printed-side of the artist’s proof sketch card that I mentioned earlier. This is where you take credit for all those sleepless hours at the drafting table. But get ready to do it all again, my friend, because if your design’s been approved by both Topps and Lucasfilm at this stage, you now need to replicate this card again from scratch (4 more times). And you’ll need to do that for all 25 of your different designs. And you’ve got a very real deadline to contend with. So you’d better be able to replicate these things, and you’d better be quick about it..
I met the deadline. This particular sketch card of mine, along with 99 others, are all part of the upcoming release of Rogue One Series 1 from the Topps Trading Card Company. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story hits theaters December 16th.
Discover more Copic airbrushing techniques in the Inspire Section!