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Making of the Fairy Cover

by Daniel Loxton, Mar 30 2010
Making of Junior Skeptic cover #36

Model Claire L. of Australia poses under difficult lighting conditions. Photo by Daniel Loxton

When I was in art school, I thought seriously of doing paintings for a show I called, “The Art I Wanted to Make.”

The concept would have been to build an ambitious gallery show around fantasy and sci-fi sketches from, y’know, my elementary school duotangs and high school sketchbooks. Alongside these sketches would be re-makes of those pieces, each executed as a full-blown, heroic scale fantasy painting.

I never got around to that show, but having heard about it you’ll be able to guess what fun I have doing art for Skeptic magazine — especially the covers. What comic art nerd would not give his New Mutants Special Edition for a chance to blow up the Earth, or crash a saucer at Roswell for a major magazine?

And if those were fabulous opportunities, what about the chance to have another run at the fairy art to which I devoted so much watercolor work in junior high school? Fun stuff indeed!

Making of Junior Skeptic cover #36

3D digital model created by Jim W. W. Smith

I started the cover for what would become Junior Skeptic #36 (bound inside the Volume 15, Number 3 issue of Skeptic magazine — sold out) quite a bit in advance: model photography took place in Australia, back in January of 2008.

(Here in the Junior Skeptic studio, we create hundreds of quite glossy book and magazine illustrations with only the resources of an educational nonprofit to work with. Pulling that off means planning ahead!)

As we neared production with the Cottingley Fairies issue (with guest writers Jason Loxton and Jillian Baker) I extracted the model from her makeshift background and corrected the lighting.

Then, Junior Skeptic regular art contributor Jim W. W. Smith created a custom 3D model for the wings and dress. This might seem like overkill, but we tend to get a lot of re-use out of CG work. And, I think the CG wings speak for themselves in the final composite.

Making of the Fairy Cover

Handcrafted leaf dress by Daniel Loxton

I thought at first that we would settle on this CG solution for the dress as well, but I was unsatisfied with early tests of the digital dress. So, I spent an afternoon outside on a casting call for leaves, picking through roadside autumn leaf litter to some rather odd looks from passerby. From these, I created a physical leaf dress around a small wooden artists’ dummy. This had less flexibility than the CG version (literally — even keeping the leaves hydrated as best I could, the physical dress was very stiff), but it made up for it in dimensionally we couldn’t afford to model in CG.

Then it was out to the countryside for location photography with the physical leaf dress. This was shot crouched beside a stream in Metchosin, British Columbia — in the rain. I lost the light faster than I’d planned on (on account of the stormy weather) so this was a bit of a hectic process (involving a lot of hiding the camera in my coat to keep the rain off the lens).

Making of the Fairy Cover

Location photography by Daniel Loxton

With all the pieces finally in place, it was back to the studio for compositing (which all happens in Photoshop, of course).

Compositing is painstaking work, but I find it tremendously satisfying. In the roughest strokes, the process works like this: first, I build up as photo-real a scene as I’m able, matching even the grain when I can. (That last was impossible in this case: the high ISO model shoot was a bit of stretch here, though I think it did what I needed it to do).

Then, having achieved something fairly real-looking, I next destroy it. The goal isn’t to create a hoax, after all, but an illustration. That’s where my own background in painting comes into play, as well as the lessons I’ve learned working under Skeptic Art Director Pat Linse. A long-time veteran of film and advertising, she always asks, “What’s the first read?” — that is to say, where does your eye go first? With attention to contrast and line and color, it’s possible to guide the viewer’s eye exactly where you want it. That usually involves blowing the crap out of realism (and inevitably out of your favorite little background details), but if it’s done well our eyes tend to accept even very blatant and theatrical tricks.

Making of the Fairy Cover

Bringing the pieces together…

In this scene, the tricks are very blatant indeed — both to control the way the image reads, and to control the scene’s mood. What started as a cold and rainy location shoot becomes a dreamy and warm scene (and one that refers right back to those junior high school fairy watercolors I mentioned).

Check out the final composite, below. Now that you’re looking for them, you’ll see a lot of irrational highlights and shadows behind the figure, which are painterly cheats to emphasize the fairy. Similarly, note the irrational gloom that pushes her foot back. (My favorite bits, though, are the rim light on her foot and shoulder.)

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little behind the scenes peek. If you’d like to see a few more shots from the fairy cover, I’ve posted some at the Junior Skeptic Page on Facebook. As well, the Skeptic magazine Page has in depth “making of” albums for Skeptic‘s “2012” cover, and for a favorite of mine: the robot cover we did as a tribute to Isaac Asimov.

More soon. In the meantime, clap your hands if you believe in fantasy art.

Junior Skeptic cover #36 as it appears in print (SOLD OUT)

Like Daniel Loxton’s work? Read more in the pages of Skeptic magazine. Subscribe today in print or digitally!

18 Responses to “Making of the Fairy Cover”

  1. As an artist, I’m always pleased to see creative people in the Skeptic community. We need to be more visible (no pun intended) not just because our skills are useful in exposing fraudulent fantastical claims, but in explaining simple visual concepts such as non-parallel shadows.

    That being said, AWESOME FAIRY. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would be proud.

  2. Robo Sapien says:

    Fantastic piece, Daniel. The color balancing is perfect, and the fake shadows aren’t obvious at all. Just a suggestion though, for the next fairy-ish piece you do, consider doing a hue shift on the skin to a more blueish tone and toss in a subtle diffuse glow for that ethereal foresty feeling.

  3. The editor says:

    Doutangs – Actually “Duo-Tang” – From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    Duo-Tang was a brand name for paper folders made of cardstock paper. They were used to bind multiple sheets of paper by bending metal teeth through the holes of the paper and folding them down to keep them in place.


    Sorry that was seriously obscure…

  4. Shakespeare says:

    Lovely photo. The “dress” makes it all work together.

  5. Donna Gore says:

    Hey don’t forget about Sweet Tea, the Skeptic Fairy Godmother!!!

    (See ya at DragonCon!)

  6. Ryan Johnson says:

    Very Nice Work Daniel.

  7. Max says:

    Elsie and Frances would be proud.

    • Thanks! I was certainly thinking of them when I was setting up the little dress puppet outside. In-camera effects have a special reality all their own.

  8. Seth Manapio says:

    This is a gorgeous piece, Daniel. Something is bothering me about it, but I can’t quite put my finger on it… were both shots done with the same aperture?

  9. Conan Doyle says:

    What an awful lot of trouble! You could have just photographed the fairies at the bottom of my garden!

  10. Stacy Bird says:

    This image is jaw droppingly beautiful. The original pose by the model is perfect, as is every detail that you added.

    Thank you for explaining the process.

  11. Steve M says:

    Pixie dust! Where’s the pixie dust? (or perhaps in this case, “pixel” dust).

    Thanks for the fascinating post. It’s always interesting to hear how others create their digital art. You put a lot of work into that cover. Well done, Sir.

  12. Paul N-M says:

    This was a great Junior Skeptic article and the fairy picture was a terrific asset to the story. The final product looks so seamless that it seems easy. Thanks for giving us the complete “picture”. I’ve been in the position of hiding my camera under my jacket before in the rain and know what that’s like. Never throw away your duotangs, you never know when you will need the inspiration!!

  13. StuntTrader says:

    Fairies are real, you guys just aren’t drinking enough absinthe.
    Go the wormwood..

  14. Robo Sapien says:

    Behold… The Skeptic Smiley