Friday, 8 September 2017

Head Shot - Cover Design

I have a dozen or so short stories that are long out of print and decided to make them available for free via Smashwords. Each time I upload one I will write something about them. Head Shot is too short to talk about plot or idea without spoiling the whole tale and so I thought I would talk about cover design.

I am doing all my own cover design because I thought it would be fun and force me to do more graphical work, which I've been failing to do lately. I would advise against doing it yourself if you have never done anything like this before. It's not brain surgery admittedly, but it is easy to go thoroughly wrong and it would be terrible to burden a great tale with less than great art. My story is OK so OK art is fine, or at least I hope both are OK. And I have created covers for magazines and books before.

Head Shot is one of my horror stories and I decided all my horror tales would have stark simple covers. It is also set in the future so I was thinking something sterile and crisp. I ended up with two images very quickly.

The images were created in Inkscape, a free vector graphics tool. It has a brilliant 'clone' option where you can make one shape, or group of shapes, then create multiple copies. I created my head and shoulders from a few simple forms, merged them then set about them with the clone tool. The handy thing about this option is that if you change the original all change.

My other horror covers are black and white. Here I needed one figure to stand out from the crowd. A cliche cross-hair idea to pick out one 'target' came to mind and was quashed. Colour was my only option left hence the introduction of red to make one 'person' stand out. The red text worked linking the title to the single figure. Since the cloning method would change all the heads to red I had to copy a head then align it before changing the colour.

I also toyed with removing one of the figures, but the story was not about a missing man. Inkscape uses layers and this let me put different parts of the image on different layers allowing me to switch on and off items to see what the effect was like. I kept coming back to the two images above.

Which did I pick?

The single red head-and-shoulders. It seemed to me punchier especially since there are only two characters in the story and neither of them is ever in a crowd.

Which would you have picked?

If you want to now how I created the head and shoulders or more about the cloning option in Inkscape let me know. By the way in my links is a much more skilled Inkscape user.

Useful Links

Inkscape - a great free vector graphics tool. Works on linux, Macs and Windows
Smashwords - a self-publishing website, which gives access to many markets.
Logos by Nick - A very skilled logo designer who uses Inkscape. His YouTube tutorials are comprehensive though can be daunting since he covers everything in detail. Don't be put off.
Nick Saporito's You Tube Videos
If you're interested you can check out my other covers here.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Painting Aviatrix Two in Krita

I paint, draw, scribble and sigh when I finish because it's not quite what I'd hoped for. I explore while trying to learn and have fun along the way. This blog entry is my latest attempt at a digital painting with details of how I did it. The first stages use pencil and paper.

Working on Lay-Out Ideas

Sketches - Coming up with the idea

I wanted to do something a bit steampunk with a twenties vibe. I had never deliberately made a digital wallpaper and thought that would be a fun experiment. It would need a lot of clear space to avoid a distracting or busy look. My initial idea was one figure giving an upright focus with probably something smaller opposite it in the frame giving balance to the piece.

I messed around with shapes, toying with poses. Although these images are rough I was imagining the scene in detail. There are a couple of pages of my feeling out the layout, which I am not going to curse the Internet with.

The Chosen One still needs some work

Where the image really starts.
I thought airship, but maybe a view from an airship with an adventurous steampunkesque lady. I wasn't sure if she would be passive or active so the next rough had her doing 'something'. I thought she was too 'stretched out' so tried to make the pose more relaxed.

I scanned this in and played around with it until it was arranged to my satisfaction. Then I went back to pencil and paper to detail up the lady.

Clean Pencils Scanned in

The Aviatrix

Use references. Only a genius, and few of us are, can produce a perfect image without recourse to some kind of reference. I used a whole mass of them, clothing catalogues, bits out of magazines, the Internet. Nothing is actually copied, just giving a guide to shapes and form.

The scarf looks a bit stiff and I'm not sure about the face. It's probably my ambition being way above my talent. This will be the foundation for the work. I scanned in the pencils then adjusted it to my wallpaper size 1920x1200 pixels. Afterwards I realised I should have it would have been wiser to paint bigger with a higher resolution then reduce, but hey, this was an experiment. I learnt something and that's the point. 
Initial monochrome. Note: my colour palette

Painting in Krita

I love Krita. It's completely free, which is not why I love it, but it helps. I've used GIMP, Photoshop and Painter in the past and this was the first program where the tools and I were as one. I'm low on talent, but I definitely can't blame the tool.

There are many ways to paint physically and digitally. I haven't found a solid technique and am still exploring. This one I went for developing a monochrome form of shapes, lights and darks then using layers set to various blending modes to give me the image.

Layers. Note the group and crossed out alphas
Over the top of the monochrome layer I put one layer set to Multiply and another to Screen. By laying flat colours on these layers it will coloured the image. Colours and there intensities can be quickly changed by adjusting opacity, blending mode or a swipe with a new flat colour. It also leaves you free to adjust the monochrome structure beneath it all without having to push the colours around. For example as I was doing this, I could rework the scarf and spot the lady's neck was a little too long.

Top tip: If you want to paint the flats without worrying about going over the edges, group all the layers and set the monochrome one to Lock Transparency (that's the chequerboard square), and colouring layers to Inherit Alpha Yes (that's the alpha symbol crossed through).

The picture on the left shows how I've done that, but also the extra flesh and pattern layers where I could play with details and colour without fear of wrecking my work. If the pattern or skin tone didn't work the layer can be deleted. I love layers!

Now many artists complete their whole image like that. Unfortunately I get confused with what layer I am on and adjust the monochrome with colour or delete details in the wrong place. Once I'm happy with the colours I save a back up then flatten to one layer and carry on painting. I feel more comfortable pushing pixels around on a single layer.

What I haven't shown so far is the quick background I threw together. This was created with an airbrush for the clouds and using the symmetry tool to create a balustrade duplicate it, then line tools for the hand rail. The rope was a photo manipulated. I take a lot of photos for reference. Boy, do I get some strange looks when I take a picture of a stain on concrete or a rusty scaffolding pole.

Halfway there, probably.
There is no balancing object yet and I'm not done with the face. Patterns were created on their own layers adjusted and arranged then merged after picking a blending mode that works.

Surfaces look a bit 'plastic perfect' and so the detailing comes next. That took as long as it did to get me to here.

Blimp in the Background

I was searching for something in the background and found a doodle in a sketchbook. Top left is a blimp and I thought it would be perfect to go in.

I scanned it and painted straight to colour then had a merry old game sliding all round the picture until I was happy. At one point it almost became a fleet of airships mixing with the clouds.

This was all part of detailing. That takes hours for apparently little effect. I probably spent five hours making tiny changes, tweaking highlights, overlaying textures adding paint strokes to 'finish' the image. At the end I'm still not happy with it, but I've learnt there is a point to say 'STOP'. Two days later I managed it.

The Final Image

It's an improvement over my last work though I want to do better. I shall keep trying and, hopefully, learning.

If you want to see the full sized image you can find it here: Aviatrix Two on DeviantArt

Useful Links Where to download and learn about Krita
+David Revoy A brilliant artist who uses Krita and who I've learnt a lot from.
+Krita Google+ Krita group, worth visiting to learn the latest news.

Do I watch too much YouTube?

David Revoy's YouTube Channel He's twice on my list because he does the best Krita tutorials I've seen or read. You will also learn a little about Inkscape too.
GDquest's YouTube Channel This fellow is a game artist who uses Krita heavily and explains the tool in detail.
Trent Kaniuga's YouTube Channel Not a Krita user; however, techniques are transferable. I've been enjoying watching him work so here he is.
My Collection of talented people's Tutorials I think I watch too much YouTube. Tutorials from the people above and others that I regularly return to.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Blades vs Guns

Do you bring a knife to a space fight? This was my dilemma.

I was writing a story and bladed weapons turned up on a spaceship. I wasn't planning for them to be there and yet there they were. Sometimes this happens. I'm writing a story and its internal logic overrides what I think of as sensible reasoning. Worse than knives, which are useful tools in their own right, these were swords barging into my futuristic tale. So the question I agonised over was: should the swords stay?

Could I justify keeping blades in a SF story?

The long held romanticism of bladed weapons keeps them in fiction. Think Excalibur (King Arthur) or Sting (The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings). In sagas of old, whole sections would be given up to swords and their history, even their making. Swords were technological marvels and signs of power so of course they were going to be significant in the past. Amazingly Science Fiction, even when set in a high-tech universe, keeps coming back to swords. Most prominent is the Star Wars Universe and their obsession with the Light Sabre. It's interesting how they don't have Light Bayonets or Light box-cutters.

I am writing a (much) harder SF yarn with rapid targeting systems, powerful guns and no 'space magic'. Sword vs multi-barrel chain gun...hmmm I don't think so.

Star Wars also brings up the myth that a sword or knife will protect you. They go as far as stopping blaster bolts. I've seen Internet pages where people talk of Ninjas deflecting arrows or even bullets with their Katanas. The myth is strong, as they often are. Don't expect a blade to protect you that way. Yes, I too have seen demonstrations of skilled martial artists parrying incoming arrows, it's just not the norm. In my story universe of hyper-sonic projectiles my characters wouldn't survive a second attempting that.

All my arguments were saying get rid of the things, yet they were clinging in there.

Are there other excuses to keep antiquated weapons in a hi-tech story?

Frank Herbert writing Dune got away with it by introducing them as a way to combat personal defence force shields. No force shields in my story.

Ritual is a great way to keep the over-sized razors in. Think of officer's swords in our twenty-first century armed forces or Star Trek's Klingons' obsession with them for their ritual combat. I had no such luck. There were rituals because I had people in my story and boy do we breed rituals, but none about swords.

A final nail in the coffin was that ever since guns became a reliable tool they've dominated combat.

There is a little counter to that point. Close in the balance changes and many law enforcement services have a standing rule to shoot any blade wielding person if they get within a certain distance. That distance is a bit negotiable. I've heard 15 feet (4.6m) and 21 feet (6.4m). Seems a long way away doesn't it? Knives can still be effective because it's amazing how fast a distance can be closed with adrenaline running hot in your veins.

My view was that someone wouldn't pick a gun over a knife despite the shifting dynamic as the two parties get closer. There was no magic, no force fields (no technical excuse) and no ritual; therefore, they would not be used in the future. I had logic on my side and I could erase them from my fiction - job done. One of my characters disagreed.

When a character argues the case.

Occasionally a character will get away from you, he argued that in space they were perfect. Yes, I know I sound like I've gone barmy arguing with a character, but it happens. His reasoning was thus:
  • Stealthy
  • No recoil in zero-g
  • No stray projectiles or beams
  • Multifunctional
No pun intended: could I shoot down his list?

Stealth. No sound, no light, no smoke or heat makes them hard to spot. It is one of the reasons they are still used by the military today. If high-tech sensors are involved suddenly that's a big plus. Particularly give you're going up against machines (See Humans vs Robots).

No recoil. If you're in zero-g and not anchored, thanks to Newton's Laws of motion, if you fire a gun the bullet will go one way and you the other. Makes an accurate second shot difficult. Note: a firer's high mass and therefore inertia means they wouldn't be flying backward at the speed of the bullet, but they would will move. If you're in a suit designed for gun firing, thrusters on board could compensate - see I'm arguing back.

No stray projectiles. One of the big dangers of shooting is when the shooter forgets bullets often go through the target. If the shooter hasn't kept that in mind tragedy can follow. If you're in a spacecraft the last thing you want to do is damage something vital that is be keeping you alive. Stray shots could do that, accurate shots might do it too.

Since it's list week and these rules can never be repeated too many times I've written the four rules for gun safety below. Rule Number Three applies here. If you ever write about a character shooting a gun, keep these in mind, whether they follow these rules or don't will say a lot about the person you have created. Also if you ever shoot - follow these rules!

Multifunctional. Unlike guns, which tend to be for putting holes in things. Blades cut, and you can choose what you cut. Even a sword, which is a tool for butchering humans, can be used for more than carving flesh. If they are sturdy enough they can cut rope, clear plants, severe wiring, hammered into the ground they become an anchor, if shiny they can act as a mirror to see round corners or signalling. Imagination is the only limit.

Did the Swords Stay?

Did my character's arguments hold sway, or did the little voice going: 'don't be stupid, this is daft, swords - are you having a laugh?' win out? Yes they stayed, and as swords are want to do, they gained names and grew into significance. I did have one further excuse: my characters had to make their own weapons.

In my defence two of my other characters thought it was daft too, but their arguments failed like mine.

Four Rules of Shooting

They are sometimes in a different order.
  1. Assume and treat a gun is loaded at all times.
  2. Never point a gun at anything (or anyone) you don't want to destroy.
  3. Think about where the bullet will go after it has hit the targets.
  4. Never put your finger on the trigger until you intend to fire.

Useful Links

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Where are the Belaying Pins?

A while back I wrote about how most ships, right up to the 18th century, not matter how large, didn't have wheels to steer them (Where's the Ship's Wheel?). I also wrote about the movable target that is the ship's galley (Where's the Galley?). I'm at it again. This time it's belaying pins.
A fight breaks out, my hero has no weapon, he's near the ship's rail so grabs up a belaying pin and...are belaying pins there? Would you use one for a weapon? In the Golden Age of Hollywood hardy sailors were always grabbing belaying pins to use as weapons. They look like clubs and are in racks ready for snatching in that desperate hour to save the ship. When I found out what they were, I started to wonder. It might be like pulling the gear lever off your car to hit someone while still expecting the car to function.

What's a Belaying Pin?

It's wooden 'pin' usually as thick as the rope it holds and is used for coiling up spare line and rope, weather that rope is loose or actively part of the rigging. It provides an anchor point for the line thus keeps ropes and lines tidy. On a ship tidiness is next to...not dying in a terrible accident because some idiot left a line loose.

They were also used to keep lines taught; that is hold a boom and/or sail in the correct position and are designed as as quick release for lines. Pull the pin out of its rack and the line is free for re-trimming the rigging or in a heap on the deck.

Have a look online and you'll see wonderful pictures of them in use. The web site below describing hand-to-hand weapons suggest they'd make a handy club. I'm not sure you'd yank one out if it was going to release rigging thus change a set sail or dump a pile of neatly coiled spare rope on the deck. Tripping over is a quick way to get killed in a fight, your ship lurching unexpectedly because some fool pulled the quick release on a sail is another. However, I'll admit, if I was in a personal life/death situation and needed a club creating a tripping hazard or ruining the smooth motion of the ship would not be the first thing on my mind. I did some research and there are accounts of them being used as weapons. Interestingly the ones I found tended to recount events when the ship was docked meaning the sails would be furled and the criticality of pulling the quick-release would be less important. 

When did they start being used?

My story was foggily set some where between 1620 and 1650 and I thought belaying pins would have to be there. Then I started my research...belaying pins start appearing when ships gained more complexity; that is, as size increased and typical cargo vessels changed from a single main mast to multiple masts. One article I found suggests the 14th century with them becoming more common in the 15th. I found a model builders' discussion site proposing an even earlier use ( discussion) and I can see the logic in that. Often something is invented but is uncommonly used before becoming the default solution to a problem. Trouble is the Internet must always be treated as an unreliable witness and I wanted to find a definitive answer. The discussion did mention the Mary Rose. I've visited that fantastic time capsule and didn't see a belaying pin; that doesn't mean the person saying they saw them was wrong because I might have been looking in the wrong place. I checked out the models in the museum and couldn't see anything and searched the solid historical books I use (see below) with little success. Then I had an idea and checked out the websites of historical vessels rebuilt. My first thought was of the Golden Hind. This would be before my story's time and therefore a clincher - hopefully.
Model of Mary Rose at the Museum of the same name
There are two versions of Drake's ship in the UK: one in Brixham, Devon and the other, known as Golden Hind II, docked in London (its website is here). I had a good look at both websites and found the Brixham version had a page showing belaying pins ( Checking through the London one and on a page describing Tours of the ship there are belaying pins (look behind the two men fencing).

Both sites admit there are no plans for this famous ship; however, the shipbuilders of these replicas will have done far more research than someone simply wishing to spin a good yarn. I think that shows they were in use by the late sixteenth century and well ahead of my story.  Could they have been used earlier? I haven't found anything concrete yet, like most things, existence and commonality didn't happen together, think mobile phones. I shall keep searching and if I find something update this entry.

For my story it was too easy that where the fight broke out, there would be waiting belaying pins, even if they were standard furniture on a galleon they wouldn't be in long lines waiting for my brave lad's hour of need. What happened in my hero's desperate fight? He had to be inventive, a rope end is a good weapon, throwing a trencher - a square wooden plate - would work or knowing barrels used to be disassembled when empty to save space, gives useful clubs. He survived but the ship was a mess.

Useful Links

A Webpage describing hand-to-hand weapons and the belaying pin is in there.
A Modeller's View on the Belaying Pin
Good article on the history of belaying pins - it gives all the other names for them too.
The Mary Rose Museum

Useful Books

Tudor Sea Power by David Childs
The Galleon by Peter Kirsch