Friday, December 18, 2009

Cathedral at the University at Alcalá de Henares

35 km northeast of Madrid, Spain, is the city of Alcalá de Henares.

In the early-1500s, the city became Spain's most important intellectual center with the opening of its University, which hosted many political and cultural dignitaries of the day.

One of the most important and historic landmarks at the Spanish school is the Cathedral at the University at Alcalá. It was built over the graves of Justus and Pastor, two Christian schoolboys martyred at the beginning of the fourth century during the Diocletianic Persecution. It is also one of two cathedrals in the world to bear the title, "Magistral." This means its clergymen must hold a Doctor of Theology in order to serve.

Fast-forward to 2009 and the connection between the Cathedral at the University at Alcalá and the University of San Diego, my client for this illustration. You see, the former's late Gothic style is the inspiration for architecture on the University of San Diego's campus, also known as Alcalá Park.

To pay homage to this connection, and to reflect the school's other Catholic connections, the designers at the USD sought to create their 2009 Presdent's Report as a beautiful historical interactive book replete with calendar and 14 removable and collectable prayer cards depicting people and landmarks with connections to the school's Catholic heritage.

The to-be-illustrated cards would include subjects like Pope John Paul II, St. Francis of Assisi, Fra Angelico, Oscar Romero, and the aforementioned Cathedral.

The University of San Diego is an A-list client with whom I have a long standing relationship. I was thrilled when they contacted me to be part of this assignment.

As I settled-in for illustration #1, I thought, "I should document these illustrations from start to finish." I always enjoy seeing illustrations go from start to finish. I'm hoping you might enjoy seeing this particular one do the same.

In the beginning...

I was provided with some photo reference of the Cathedral. I gathered a few shots from my own research, too. Thinking about the background, I also looked around for a nice complementary sky.

My "sketch" is the basic composite of my photos. My goal here is value composition. Creating interest in the background sky as well as distinction between background and foreground is tops in my mind. The gray border is to simulate the intricate gold bordering which will be part of the final prayer card design. I don't want important items being obscured or uncomfortably cropped by the border treatment.

After approval, it's time to create the final illustration. With this project, I functioned in assembly-line fashion -- doing sketches first and plowing through the finals, in order, as they would appear in the book, second. This illustration was fourth in-line.

My illustration board is gessoed and the art is penciled on top.

The first step is to mess it all up, embrace failure, and leave myself nowhere to go but up.

Maybe not.

Actually, this is my initial wash of color. I do this to kill the white and to initiate the organic, painterly look with drips and blobs of paint from which I can start to create. I take a big brush and slap down some sienna and oxide acrylic color. Then, with my Lowe's special water bottle, I spritz the surface, letting the paint move around and interact with the texture of the gesso as I twist and turn the board. I don't want to lose my linework, so the paint application isn't totally opaque.

Launching into the "unpainting" process, I lay down some red oxide and burnt sienna acrylics, mixed with my special additive, to the building. In this photo, I've roughly silhouetted the building and cleaned up the edges, as part of the "back and forth" process. I think there is a nice complexity that comes from a back and forth with paint, as opposed to just adding and applying within the lines, so to speak -- at least for what I'm trying to do.

With a nice stiff brush, I "unpaint," or lift out areas of light. Below, I've not only done so with the building, but, I've also hit the sky and clouds with paint and brought out their light areas.

This is essentially the finished "underpainting." It's now time for the computer work.

The art is scanned and warmed up a bit. Here is where I'll start phase 2, which consists of shoring up values and final color. I'll start with value, as that's the big definer of one's composition.

Through a very proprietary process of methods, I'll eventually arrive at a value combination that is pleasing to me.

Notice the color is way hot. It's now time to tackle it and bring things under control.

Through another extremely proprietary process of layers and channels and things I don't fully understand, I'll eventually arrive at a color combination that is pleasing to me.

A balanced palette is always foremost in my mind. Here, it's warm with enough cool in the sky to balance things. The blue shifts toward the green, because a) too much red would shift it purple (especially with the reds in the building), and a little purple goes a long way; b) the yellow in the sky balances the red cast that would arise from a reddish-blue sky. We don't want any unbalanced casts, here.

I've knocked back the intensity of the blue to keep it in the background, allowing the Cathedral to take center stage. I also added just enough intensity in the clouds to not create a pasted-together look between background and foreground.

One thing on which I focused largely, with this project, was the use of cool and warm colors to create a sense of depth and light. Here, the cools in the shadows enhance the sun hitting the walls, creating a truer sense of light, depth and balance to the color palette, and overall interest to the piece, I think. Also, the higher color intensity within the foreground compared to the background was important to me, as touched upon, above. Controlling that intensity further defines a believable space for the viewer. Since the art on the cards is reproduced at 3.5 in. x 5 in., defining a space that reduces confusion helps the scene read with greater clarity. Clarity is always good.

It's sometimes a challenge for me to cool down a color (reduce its intensity), since I like to heat up and push color to its limits, whenever I can. But, scaling back, every now and then, brings a new level of complexity to an illustration. It takes a little more discipline, in my view, to figure out how to utilize the less-obvious, less-striking colors as part of a greater whole. Each color has its place. It's our challenge, as illustrators, to crack that code.

The last step is final production. Here is the illustration, as printed.

And, the back of the page, showing a quote on the prayer card and a statement about how the Cathedral's late Gothic style is reflected on-campus.

This was an intense project, with lots of work done in a relatively short time. But, jobs like this are always made easier with wonderful clients like the always-gracious and award-winning editorial and design department at the University of San Diego. My sincere thanks to them for the opportunity to help with this amazing project.

Allan Burch is an award-winning illustrator and portrait artist, providing solutions for editorial, book, advertising, and institutional projects.
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