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Ron Crabb's art is almost undetectable, yet it has been seen by millions. He is a matte painter for major Hollywood films, such as X-Men, The Bucket List, and Speed Racer, and it is a compliment to say his work is undetectable. As a matte painter, Ron's role is to create imaginary scenes that look entirely real. Building on an early career in motion graphics, he has developed his incredible photorealistic style. He spent twenty years working with digital painting systems beginning well before the advent of Photoshop. Today, Ron uses a combination of Photoshop, CGI, photographs, and good old-fashioned painting skills to create stunningly realistic matte paintings, special visual effects, title sequences, and concept art for movies. He also creates fine art using the same set of skills. This installment of Creative Inspirations takes viewers a thousand miles from L.A. to Bainbridge Island, Washington to get a look at the career, work, and lifestyle of a man who escaped Hollywood only to master it at a distance.
(Music playing.) Ron Crabb: So this image I am working on is Keep A Sharp Eye, which is from the first of my illustrations from Untold Story Series. So I am going to demonstrate just a little bit of how this process works. I have already gone past the stage of doing concept art and doing the layout and that kind of thing. I have got my reference models, which were me and my two kids. So now I am kind of at the phase where I'd actually start the hands-on painting part.
You can see on the screen I have got the actual original photo reference. I did just a little kind of rough color correcting layer in Photoshop on top of that, to give it the kind of look I want for my particular environment. It would be tempting, I think, to start with the image underneath and just kind of paint on top of that. But the painter part in me likes to kind of scoot this off and really start from scratch underneath. The whole reason being is I am much more conscious of lighting issues; where are my lights coming from, where the ambient light is coming from.
So I work that a little differently than I would if I was starting right with photography. So I think that gives me just a little more input into the creativity and how this thing is going to actually pan out. So I would start with larger brush areas and just kind of start painting in my shape. The whole time I am doing this, I am trying to be very conscious of where my light is coming from. I will widen it out for a second so you can see. The torch isn't in there yet, but there is going -- okay, here we go.
There is the torch. There is the first initial version of the torch. That's really my main bright light source. So I am thinking of that when I start coming in much tighter here and painting. Don't necessarily need to see it, but that's what's in my head when I am doing this is where that light source is and where these are going to hit on the shape of this guy. The great advantage is you want to switch a color, you just hit Command and then click down and tap it and you have got a different color. At the same time, let me get my color adjustments, I am going to kind of work in ambient lighting as well.
So there is just a little bit of moonlight kind of coming down on this guy's face. The same thing, keeping in mind underlying bone structure, where that lighting is going to hit, it's okay to kind of overwork it now and then, but you are really kind of laying it in. You are thinking form and lighting at this point, at least I am. That's a little too strong. But you can kind of see I just do little circles. The painting technique is fairly loose. Constantly adjusting the brush size to make it work.
You start big and work small. You just work your way down. Then generally, some people will kind of work roughly over the whole image. I tend to like to work on sections, it's just the way I work best. I like seeing something kind of come together and get some progress before I move on. But I am going to start brightening up this surface of the face, so that it starts picking up that light a little brighter, and it's just incremental steps the whole way. It will all start coming together, you will see it start working pretty well, pretty quickly.
If you are doing a painting like this, it's actually a lot like sculpting. You are pushing and pulling surfaces, so that some recede, some go back, you are thinking in those terms, three- dimensional terms, so that when you are applying a color, you are doing it being very conscious of where the light is. So here I have jumped ahead a little bit. You can see where I started and this is the actual file where I ended up. I am getting to a certain point. But at this point I would start making this whole upper layer disappear, this original line work layer.
At one point I just eventually just turn it off completely, because now I am where I need to be for detail. So then I am just adding all the final little detail to this guy. So you can see how this progresses along the way. It's really straightforward stuff. You just come in here and paint very much like you would with the real stuff. Again, the tools of Photoshop, at least the way I use them, aren't a whole lot different than what I have been using for years with oil paints, but it's just a much quicker process.
Whereas if I was doing this in oil paint, I might have to spend a couple of days on a guy to try and get all this kind of detail in. But you can see here I did the same process with the shirt. Again, keeping the lighting with the same hand painted kind of look to it. There is his oar. At some point eventually I just turn the reference file off and start working this way. Start adding buttons, anything you need. Let me jump over to one of the other characters here.
So I keep the reference as close at hand, but again I avoid putting them right underneath and painting them. It's just more fun to kind of start from scratch. With the young lady, this daughter of mine was only eight years old when we did this, or nine years old, but I wanted to age her a little bit. So I actually scaled her up a little bit, made the head slightly smaller, the arms a little bit longer, just kind of elongated things a little bit to give her a little more mature look. Again, it's a cheat I might not have done if I was just strictly painting on top of photographs or something, but that's where the creative part comes in, is moving away from your reference and really thinking about what you are doing and making choices that are based on your ultimate goal.
So you can see the texture of her skin is much smoother, more elegant. I have kind of-- I made her eyes slightly larger, to get more expressions, so it's kind of old illustrator tricks I have learned from Norman Rockwell. He actually made men's heads slightly smaller to make them more noble. If you want someone a little more expressive, you can just enlarge the eyes. Just slightly. If you do too much, it's noticeable. But in this kind of thing you just do it just slightly enough to kind of give it an exaggeration. I often make hands slightly larger than they actually are and it just helps with the storytelling.
Actually, this was another just kind of as I was going thing, I decided to add some facial tattoo things to her, because the whole idea of this whole category of my art [00:06:489.10] was to create illustrations from a story that is implied, that I don't really talk about. I leave that up to the viewers. So I thought adding some kind of cool little face paint or face tattoo things would imply that there is things that this girl has gone through, that you should be very curious about.
But that gives you a good idea of at least the process. It's fairly straightforward. You just continue this all the way through the piece. Here we have the finished product. It might be a little dark on the screen, but you can see all the little tiny details and highlights and everything else are all in this stage. One of the fun parts, you can kind of see the way I started out, kind of with rough flames. Actually I kind of almost finished this image and put it up on the Internet and got some great feedback and critiques about it and one of them was that the flame wasn't quite right.
I ended up changing that to make the flames kind of flow more up the shaft, like they naturally would, after digging into some more kind of reference photos. I think that helped a lot. So it's great to have access to the artistic community to help you with these things. This is the final of Keep A Sharp Eye. (Music playing.)
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