Last summer I had the privilege of illustrating a book of quotes for Reader's Digest entitled The Smartest, Funniest, Dumbest Things Ever Said.
Each category got it's own chapter and each chapter was introduced by a humorous 2-page illustration. For the "smartest" chapter, I turned to the old cliche of the wise sage sitting upon a mountaintop, and explored the possibilities of rival seats of wisdom in the same range of mountains.
Mountainscapes are a joy to compose with. You can push and pull them around at will. No wonder Eastern painters used them so much.
The sketch above came together pretty quickly and was approved without much ado. I was sure I happened upon that rare instance where the idea simply "draws itself".
But as I progressed to the final rendering, I hit a block.
The main character was coming out less appealing than what I was hoping for.
I tried re-drawing several times, adjusting the facial expression slightly, while sticking roughly to the sketch. He kept coming out stiff and lifeless.
My intent was always to make the Confucian sage a bit more stoic and reserved than the rest, and I wanted the contrast to be pronounced. I had done some visual research, which told me that a stylized, symmetrical sage with broad shoulders would be a-propos.
Whether my rationale was correct or not, I was losing steam and tightening up. In frustration I ditched the research, put aside the sketch and just sketched a jolly man in traditional costume from memory, concentrating on creating a lively, likable personality.
A bit stereotypical perhaps, but once I loosened him up, it was fairly easy to transpose those energetic curves into just the sleeves of his robe, thus preserving the dignified demeanor the illustration required. The subtle expression change and the slight twist of his head, turned him from a meditating machine to a confident thinker —undeniably aware of who his competiton is.
Here's the final page: