Friday, September 9, 2011

Guest Blogger: PAUL BONNER

Sitting comfortably?.......Good.

It really is an honour to be asked to contribute something to this little gathering of movers, shakers and artistic worthies. A talented bunch who do a lot to promote the stuff we all love. A lot more time consuming than it appears (as I've found out for myself). So thank you all very much.

Dan roped me into this a while ago now and though I've had to stop and start on it over some months now, this is the painting whose progress I decided to try and follow. "Hrimox", after Hrimturse, the Nordisk frost giant.  He comes from the wonderful world of Trudvang, based very closely on Scandinavian mythology, folk tales and sagas... a fantastic place that I am more than happy to visit whenever I can. The guys responsible for this commission work under the name Riotminds. Actually, used to work. They have recently joined the ever lengthening list of companies that, since having had the pleasure of dallying with my creative offerings, have had to turn of the electricity, board up the windows and go home. Indeed - the globe straddling behemoth that is Games Workshop is at present the only bunch that seem able to resist - or simply shrug off - this curse that seems to have attached itself to my name. Ha! Their time will come.

Anyway, Dan has asked me to present something in the hope that I would be able to produce some insightful essay into my own personal do's and dont's, how's and why's, and the even more likely if's and but's of my creative process. Again, I say "Ha!". Any techniques I learnt or picked up over the years are only part of a continuously evolving process that is best summed up as - what ever works - and making it up as I go along. I'm really not trying to sound flippant about this, but apart from some consistent starting points - the rest of it is pretty much always a huge leap of faith, and then having that faith tested right up until the wonderful moment when I can put my name in the corner. And that in itself is sometimes more a recognition of the need to get out before the whole thing goes pear shaped.

A technique will only get you so far and can very quickly become over relied on and thus consistently dominate any visual outpourings at the expense of life, emotion and all those hard to put your finger on things that give a painting life. Its not that I don't sometimes wish for a technique that would hold my hand all the way through until the afore-mentioned signature - its more that (and I'm hazarding a tentative guess that many of the worthies here at Muddy Colours would agree - even those with the more "obvious" beautiful techniques...) no matter how consistent I have tried to be over the years, things hardly ever go to plan. Even those bits that occasionally do, usually run the risk of being revisited much later, with grand and noble intentions of making them even better, or through the simple necessity of blending them in with more recently attended to areas. It's backwards and (hopefully) forwards all the time and this usually means that any vague technique that I thought was tried and trusted goes straight out the window and is substituted for increasingly frantic attempts at anything that will work (more of which later). Sounds awful and chaotic. A shambles, I know. But you see -now draw closer, my dears-  this is the very special place where I'm winging it and things might happen. Unexpected things. Wonderful things. Even weird things. The things that make me feel like a "real" artist. I love it. Of course, it's just as likely to be "Oh, no....not again!" as it is to be "Blimey! Didn't know I could do that!"

I might as well  begin with being upfront about the risks involved, as I'm sure the more astute ones amongst you have already smugly noticed. So please draw your attention to the first and second pics where the Hrimox's left leg is blocked in. At the time I felt I had blocked it in quite well and I seem to remember it falling into place quickly and relatively painlessly. Now fast forward to the finished painting. Found it? Bit of a mess, eh? A combination of constantly having to keep it in balance with the rest of the painting's progress, and always this idiotic need to try and just make it a little bit better - meant I couldn't leave it alone - and I blew it completely. I sense some surprise and a muttering of agreement out there. Well, its true. You wouldn't believe how long I wrestled with just that leg, trying to get the same "rightness" I had before. I just couldn't do it. So time for a time honored technique to try and save the day. The ancient, but easily mastered technique known as "hiding it". A bit more hill, a little adjustment to his hemline, a few more trinkets, and of course - a few snow flurries. Job done.

Not sure really why I'm showing myself up like this. Maybe it's just so you know that I suspect there are very few who can make things work out all the time. A technique can set you off on the path, but at some point, if you want to go somewhere where there's no one else, or that place that only you can get to, you have to stray off onto the little, dark, overgrown path and see where it goes. Much tougher. A bit intimidating. But the point is  - it's only you - so you'll end up in wonderful places no one else has ever been. Don't forget some sandwiches; it might be a long journey.

I'm dribbling on a bit, I know, but I guess I'm trying to stress the point of not solely relying on technique. Of course, you can still end up with a beautiful, even amazing and technically astounding picture, but I can't help but feel it is those little, dark and mysterious paths -together with leaps of faith- that provide the unexpected discoveries, delights and happy accidents that make the whole thing worth while. That's where the life and energy can be caught.

So, as I'm sure I've heard other souls here echo at some point - put the books back up on the shelf. Turn off the image search. Throw the phone out the window (very important, that one). Shut the door. Take a deep breath, and set off by yourself.

You can get help later. We all use reference and all sorts of stuff for inspiration, but don't forget to use yourself sometimes. There is a big, but often blurred, difference between inspiration and influence. It's up to you to decide which it is. I feel that influence always seems to leave a sometimes not so subtle or complimentary spore. Inspiration can provide that shimmering, intangible glow of mood, colour and energy that makes a painting come alive, yet in itself remains invisible.

I need my paintings to be believable, so I use reference. I want to be able to put myself in the paintings. When I'm painting I hear the creak of worn leather. The sharp sounds of cold iron. An icy wind rustling and hissing through the dry grass. Reminds me I was going to put a few ravens in the distance. Completely forgot. The lonely cries they make always seem to fit in lonely, mountainous places. Not sure now.......

I always try and draw things myself first, and then hopefully give them the veneer of believability by checking real reference. If I start by using reference without my own ideas for a framework, then its a bit tricky trying to shoehorn my ideas on top of something that is kind of engraved in stone, as it were. Without place for my own take on things, it's just repetition - alright - copying. It ends up looking like props from some really bad village hall, amateur dramatic production. This is what happened on the Hrimox's leg when I was trying to save it. The first painting was my own. I knew how I wanted it to look and was pleasantly surprised - ok, shocked - when I got it first time round. Then, as I said, I just couldn't leave it alone and ruined it. I frantically copied one reference after another, trying to get it back, but just tied myself in psychotic knots getting further away all the time. Each time I lost the plot, and I lost count of how many times, I moved onto another piece of reference, and just repeated the process. It was only when I got so frustrated, that I would try and do it instinctively, and without reference that I sometimes got close. But I just pushed it over the edge time after time. Hence the snow flurries etc. Sometimes time constraints and blood pressure force you to admit defeat and wait until next time.

Sometimes one can get so engrossed in the fascinating intricacies of "the truth" in the form of reference, that it seduces ones own vision to be subserviant to it, instead of the other way round. And I'd better add here that looking at other people's work is just as dangerous. Apart from the fact that there are ever increasing numbers of frighteningly talented people, which is seriously depressing (honestly), the inspiration that definitely comes from being amazed by their work, comes with the burden of recognizing that they are on their own path that they found. In terms of the reference or influence that we admit to using - the bottom line is that it's their truth. Not yours.Very dangerous ground. Especially these days when everything and everyone is at our fingertips. You've got to be very selective. It's very bad and habit forming. As lovely and informative as all these images are that we are bombarded with are; Beware! They'll try to steer you away from that possible, little path over there in the undergrowth that nobody else noticed apart from you.

Now I've really been waffling on (I sense a collective, rather sage nodding of heads. And one or two yawns.) so I'll try to briefly restrict myself to the few practical and reasonably established stopping off places on my path.

First, sketches. I've got to have a stage where whatever has to take place, can take place. Got to be somewhere I can imagine myself tramping off into, sandwiches in hand. Some are based on, inspired by photos. Some made up. Theo, at Riotminds, (who was the best Art Director in the world), never once in 11 years has asked to see a sketch. Not even a scribble. All I get is "We'd like some dwarves gone bad - lead astray - big bad Hrimox - base him on a musk ox  - none of that greek stuff, thank you very much - mountains - cold - bit of snow (if you like) -  look forward to seeing it when it's done." Believe me. I do know how lucky I am (was). So I freeze frame the film in my head, complete with the sounds and smells, and try and find the characters.

I should have taken more photos really, but bare with me. I use a light table to juggle the characters around , play with their sizes until I get little "Yes!" moments for each of them. Accompanied by vivid flashes of just how wonderful they'll sit in their jewel like perfection when finished.  Ha ! Fool!

Next, its drawn up on some watercolour paper, this then being shoved under the kitchen tap to wet the surface, and then taped down to dry. Now the whole thing gets a bit ambiguous again. I do know that I start from the background. Sky first for obvious practical reasons and as it tends to dictate the lighting for the rest of the painting. Then, with my brushes I travel slowly to the foreground - trying to imagine myself doing just that.

I use water colours in tubes, I guess in the same way someone else will use acrylics, gouache or oils. Squeezed out onto a plastic Ikea tray. A pot of water, and off I go. I've used them since I was a minor and have seen no reason to change. They are a lot more flexible than people think( apart from the purists, of course....), I can go back and reawaken them at anytime - they kind of give me what I want. I feel that they are my language.

I'm honestly not that aware of darks to lights, lights to darks, or what have you. All those apparent "rules" that people set great store by. It's not to disparage them. Maybe if I did use water colour in the traditional and expected way - I would very swiftly find out that I would have to abide by those rules - but I don't - so............ Sometimes I'm blending light tones into darks - sometimes darks into light. I guess its building up lots of layers until reaching the highlights, but I'm constantly darkening things down and starting all over again. I doubt there is any of the original blocked in painting that hasn't disappeared under subsequent layers and washes.


One definite technique (I'm getting really sick of typing that word) I find I use is to claw back areas I've lost, or to get highlight and colours as clean as possible. Then I use a gouache white, to sometimes disturb the layers and blend it in - or to sit as cleanly as possible on the surface. Then, using them in the way those purists would say they were originally intended for I put a delicate wash of the required colour over the whole area. Of course, this means I often have to go back in and redefine other colours again - but I do love that slow building up of things. It could be the whole of the Hrimox's torso, or just a dwarve's nose. Rather silly process really, now that I can see it in black and white - but when it goes well I just love it. It can lead to some very "muddy colours" (got it in!), and sometimes I even need to daub off as much as I can with a sponge and begin an area again.


I could have used tons more photos to show all this , but the differences are so tiny. Time lapse might have done it.....

Not much more I can think of to add really (was that a collective sigh of relief I picked up on?). It's a constant to and fro'ing of dark to light. Light to dark. Colours to sit on top. Others to disturb the layers. Washes to unite areas. White to find forms lost. Washes to blend the white back in. White to sit on top. Washes to colour the pure white. Those are the things I think I do, and now that I'm forced to write about it - it all seems very haphazard, sometimes counter productive, and even a bit silly. But in those striven for moments when things fall into place and everything seems to flow effortlessly... there is very little sequence or set patterns. It doesn't happen as often as I would like, or as often as I think it should - but that's when I feel I'm on that path and I'm pretty sure that it will take me somewhere unexpected and satisfying. Thats when it's best.

Make of this what you will! But if you at least find it interesting, and maybe even informative, I'm a happy bunny. If it answers some niggling questions - even better.

Still don't know what to do about those ravens though...

-Paul Bonner

A -very- special 'thank you' to Paul for taking an extraordinary amount of time to write this post for us!  Be sure to check out more of Paul's paintings at his website: And for those of you interested in seeing an even larger selection of his work, impeccably reproduced, I highly recommend his book Out of the Forests: The Art of Paul Bonner.


  1. Really wish I could watch you do a painting, I know this is a watercolor but I cant help but think that there is some voodoo magic going on behind the scenes.

  2. I find the overall level of value control in the scene, considering all the detail and how it lightens up from the block-in phase to the finish, quite impressive.

    Mind-blowing actually.


  3. Great post Paul... thanks for your insight and contribution to Muddycolors. I know many artists that will benefit from your thoughts.


  4. WOW! Paul, Thanks so much for sharing these!

  5. A step by step by Paul Bonner!!!!
    The dream come true!!
    Thank you so much!

  6. Wow a WIP!!!
    I could never hope to read one day!!
    However, I tried!

    Thank you so much Paul & muddycolors team!

  7. What a wonderful WIP and final piece, Paul! Thanks so much for sharing!!!

  8. I was fortunate enough to work in the same room at Rackham with Paul while he was painting some of his huge Confrontation paintings. This tutorial is as generous as his paintings !

  9. Without wishing to burden you with any responsibility for my inevitable failure, Paul, I want to be you when I grow up.

    Thanks for all the paintings. You've provided a continual stream of inspiration from my first glimpse of the Book of Three at an age that would only make you feel old, to the present day.


  10. A true legend among men.
    Great post.

    - Jason

  11. Man, i can't even describe the awesomeness of this post! I much appreciated thanks to Paul and Dan! :D

  12. Sir,
    ... awesome. This post especially, I hope you'll bug us with more notes on artistic anythings.

  13. Last night - before bed - I've been traveling for one of these scenes trapped in the Artbook. The magnifying glass makes me see clearly the details and the weak light in the room creates an perfect mood to its magic (better would be a candlelight, I think). Read these words was a great birthday gift. Thanks Paul Bonner and the Muddy Colors crew for this.

  14. Truly impressive to see someone use watercolor is such a free and untraditional way. Great post.

    Do you use some sort of "stay wet" palette to keep the tube paint from drying? Or does it not matter that the paint dries while you are working?

  15. Sniff! This post is a dream come true. What a way to go into the weekend. A heartful thanks to Paul Bonner and the MuddyColors team - you're awesome!

    More, I humbly request.

  16. The few bits about not being a slave to your technique and reference felt like you were talking directly to me. I needed that. Great post and fantastic painting!

  17. Thank you for an incredible post. I work in a very similar way with acrylic. The part you left out was that your drawing skills hold everything together. Skill of the Gods.

  18. Can I ask what paper you use?
    I work in watercolor and no always very conventionally so was truly thrilled to read how you work on a piece. Thank you! Your work is amazing!

  19. Amazing post, and a much needed jump-start for me this morning. Thanks Paul for taking the time to give us a glimpse behind the scenes, and the fact that you are indeed mortal (but in a demi-god, Herculean way)! :)

    Thanks to the Muddy Colors crew as well, this has quickly become one of my favorite sites for creative inspiration and information!

  20. I second riggimortis' question - what paper are you using for the painting?

    I want to say that I was blown away when I opened Muddy Colors to look at today's post - your painting hits my inner fantasy nerd in all the right places, and I couldn't believe it when you started sharing your process. Simply incredible.

    Any chance of more guest posts from you in the future?

  21. A wonderful and extremely generous post!

  22. whoa, a making of from Paul Bonner.. thank you!

    I wish there were more posts from Paul and maybe a video making of.

  23. Awesome art works with details, thank you Paul for sharing

  24. Unbelievable! Just jaw-droppingly gorgeous.

    I know at one time a gaming company was producing action figures based on your art, Mr. Bonner.
    I think you should bring this painting to the attention of Papo toys. Hrimox would fit right in with the animal gladiator toys they're producing. I know I'd love to have him sitting on my shelf. Err... not life-sized of course.

    Again, this is simply beautiful.

    Best Wishes,

  25. Hell YEA! Thats the stuff! ^^
    Damn I only have watercolors in non-tube shape. ^^

    Maybe I missed it,but how long did you work on this piece?

  26. Paul! Welcome to the Big Muddy! Absolutely great post!

    And...the first pint is on me when you're in KC for Spectrum Fantastic Art Live! in May.

  27. Please Dan, you must convince to Paul so that he join Muddy colors and he post here often. We could learn much and follow his artistic career. It's very hard to found new works of him given that he hasn't a blog where it can see his last pictures and although he has a website, it isn't updated too much. I know that I'm not impartial because I'm a fan since that I seen one of his illustrations. I come from Spain and even bought by internet his book "Out of the Forest: The Art of Paul Bonner" like imported good.

    Anyway, Thank you for share this great article with us.

  28. This comment has been removed by the author.

  29. The first "Wow!" came when I saw the painting, the second one, a little bit louder, came when I read Paul Bonner and then it just made my day really. Thank you so much both Paul Bonner and The Muddy Colors team for sharing this, absolutely fantastic post!
    By the way I was really sad to hear when Riotminds were shutting down production. You and Alvaro Tapia made that into such a unique and marvellous world, but I'm sure that the spirit of Trudvang will live on in your work in the future!

    Many thanks again for taking the time to do this!

  30. Indeed it's difficult turning off image search when there's stuff out there good as this. And pictures of this merit only come up a few times a year.

    Outstanding post Mr. Bonner, and beautifully written.

  31. This comment has been removed by the author.

  32. great piece, but the creature could be a bit more defined for the eye though.

  33. Sir, many thanks for this great blog post! It feels as if we look over your shoulder as you worked on this piece, with whatever was going on in your mind. Beautifully detailed painting as well :)

  34. Thanks so much for sharing Paul. You are a real inspiration!

  35. great to read and see about your work, obstacles,and process, thank you

  36. Thanks Paul! Really gave me power to continue on a thing i've been procrastinating on. You are without equal as the numero uno of fantasy artists.

  37. Omg!! unbelievably informative. Lovely lovely pictures, I've enjoyed eyeballing them for a while now. Cheers.

  38. Already erased this once! I,ll have to write it again....I knew it would,nt be that easy.
    Any way, many thanks for all the comments.Much appreciated. Its good to know it can reach people.
    Jared - no voodoo - just ignore the fact that they are watercolours. Pretend they are just paints and start daubing....
    Scott - no stay wet palette, but I do continually top up the palette with fresh dollops from the tubes
    Don,t worry Jon. I feel pretty old anyway...some mornings, or being forced to confront a mirror
    Rigimortis - Canson Montval 200gr(i think). Not special or pricey. The more expensive ones, I found tried to dictate how I could use them. Spreading the paint etc. Some have very extreme surfaces that simply won,t let a brush travel well
    Markus - I had to do another job in the middle - but I reckon easily at least a month and a half - probably two
    Arnie - Just in case you, for whatever reason decide to retract your generous offer: I,ll be printing it out and brining it with me to Spectrum Live next year just in case( a pint is a pint after all...)
    Staffan - Very sad about Riotminds. Theres a chance its not permenant though. Lets hope. Alvaros stuff has been both an inspiration and, I admit, an influence. No one captures that Nordic feeling like him. Wonderful stuff.
    Stryke - Your,e right about the Hrimox. I lost him a bit and after so long, didn,t dare risk my blood pressure with going at him even more.
    So thanks again everyone. Hope I can do it again sometime. I,ll try and remember to keep my camera handy.
    But what about those ravens? Anyone?
    All the best everyone,
    Paul B.

  39. This post was/is amazing. Paul, you're one of my favorite artists. This behind the scenes on your seemingly haphazard process was a joy to read. If you could be bothered to do one more post I'd love to hear you talk about your character design process. Your amazing painting skills are one thing but the characters and creatures you come up with have always been my favorite thing about your work.

  40. Sure, not wearing my glasses at the mo, but for the life of me I cannot find any ravens in that image ... anywhere! On the Wolfen image you put them far in the background, in front of hills / gulleys, none to be found here. Except for the low-hanging clouds, the sky seems clear of poo-bombers as well. Are they hiding under the snow on the left?!

    Bleeding blazes, you got me, sir. Release, please.

  41. Hi Nico. Don,t panic. there are no ravens. I,d planned to put a few flapping away, right to left, in the background - but completely forgot. Was just wondering whether to add them or not.......

  42. And I was looking for Baltimore Ravens in the background. Fall in America.
    Another reason to attend Spectrum Live, as if I needed one, you'll be there.

  43. Phew! ;-) In that case, leave as-is. Your backgrounds are their own characters.

  44. Paul, Do you think post here often?. In Mudddy Colors you have a place where you could show your art more recent.

    Another question, How do you choose colors in your pictures?

  45. This is the coolest muddy post yet… yes even cooler than when they chose my painting for crit submit #2 (and that was coolest thing that has ever happened to me).

    I use watercolors myself and (try) use them in a similar way. My question is, what do you do when the area you over work is a face instead of a knee and can't be hidden by making minor adjustments? I've done this often and usually after investing considerable amounts of time and energy into the piece. Do I have to use the helmet trick? Or is there a better solution?

  46. Hi Anthony - if I can,t use the helmet trick, and I love painting helmets - then I just have to gently daub it out.....and start from scratch. Sometimes backwards is the only way forwards!

  47. Paul, thank you so much for this post. Like a few others who've commented already, I too paint in watercolor and really love seeing how you put a piece together. Having already combed through "Out of the Woods" thoroughly, I can say that this post has given me a bit deeper understanding of how you can create such magical pieces. Thank you!

    If it hasn't already been said, please do consider doing a time lapse of your painting, or heck, even a video... I'd buy it!

  48. This really looks like a super painting.

  49. Great post, Paul.

    Thank you very much.

  50. How many times for such a paint?

  51. and why not a foreground laughing raven?=)... imho you could then also put some in the background without obviousness.

  52. Your work is beautiful. The sketches beforehand are absolutely stunning. What fantastic, stocky Dwarves. Thank you for sharing.

  53. paul is a legend best dwarves ever!!

  54. Thanks you Paul for this. You are always a great inspiration and a true hard worker. Really cool to follow your work like this. Me too have done some small Riotminds stuff for the forum-people. You and Alvaro have been given people so much over there.
    A video with a wip would be "must bye" ;)
    And as someone else said, you are a true Legend among men and women.

  55. Paul, I have loved and marveled at your work for some time now. I work in watercolor too (for the most part), but the control you seem to have is amazing. Especially considering those big vistas and skies behind all that detail. Always blows me away. Can I ask if you used some frisket on those main figures while you did the background?

  56. Paula website is no longer active. Anyone know where we can see more of his brushes and paints?

  57. Anyone know what tape he uses to stretch the watercolor paper? I would imagine tapes lose their stickiness once it contacts water, but it doesn't seem to be the case for him. I have never stretched watercolor paper before; I have painted mostly on free paper that warps all the time.

  58. Paul, I am new to Muddy Colors and just bumped into this wonderful post. Extremely generous and astonishing. I wouldn't have guessed you worked in watercolor in a million years. Really fascinating and inspirational stuff. Thanks so much. Oh, and one question if you happen to see this: if you've glazed an area in white (gouache presumably) why don't you end up with a milky, chalky mess? Or do you use fixative before applying the wash? Please forgive my geekage!

  59. Hello Peter. Thanks for dropping by! Dan told me you had left a comment - otherwise I would never have seen it, buried all the way down here! I,m not quite sure what you mean by glazing an area. There is no fixative involved. It,s just water colour from tubes, used just like gouache or acrylic. No fixed technique….whatever works. Sometime dark to light, sometimes light to dark. I use a gouache white to get highlights, sometimes pure white with water colour washes to get the little "sparkly" bits! Its a constant back and forth. Going over areas.losing them. Redefining them……..on and on. Don,t know if this helps, but please ask again if it prompts further questions! You could always mail me if it's easier. I'd definitely see it!


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