It was my friend Justin’s 60th birthday last week. You know – the chap with the chalet in La Clusaz where the self-styled ‘Sonneteers’ gather for their annual ski trip? That’s the fella.
Anyway, earlier in the year some of his other friends sounded me out on the possibility of commissioning a bespoke illustration as a birthday present. I was happy to take it on – there was plenty of time to fit it in and these private projects usually provide tons of artistic freedom and can be a lot of fun. I decided early on to go for a format I’ve used before when making birthday images for members of my family: a visual compilation of items of significance to the recipient, arranged in a grid of squares corresponding to the landmark age in question and headed ‘x reasons to be cheerful at x’ (where x = the relevant age). Make sense?
The x-factor this time round was, however, significantly higher than on those previous occasions…
Any project like this requires a very methodical approach and before any sketching could start, we needed to compile a list. I jotted down a few initial ideas but they fell well short of the requisite sixty. Try it yourself – it’s tricky, even for someone you know well. Fortunately, some of the others had known Justin since University days and were able to provide plenty of anecdotal inspiration and even a few extremely useful reference snaps. With the final list complete, I then found myself somewhat masochistically dividing it into separate topographical categories after I spotted that most of the sixty items would lend themselves to being placed into a particular section of an underlying background landscape. This in turn led to the eventual layout in which a scenic backdrop is anchored to a tightly-structured grid, with individual items alternately boxed-in or placed within the context of the background. Once the tortured logistics of all this had been worked out, the actual content thankfully fell into place with relative ease.
Here’s how it evolved. First off, the aforementioned grid; this provided the scaffolding for everything that followed. Boring but essential for a piece as complex as this:
This is the final rough sketch, after all the content had been fine-tuned and agreed on:
I then produced a basic, minimally-detailed background in Illustrator:
…followed by line artwork, drawn in six sections using SketchBookPro on the Cintiq. Dividing it up like this keeps the file size down and ensures a snappier performance from the software:
Here you can see the rough sketch with its opacity reduced, and the line artwork traced over on a separate layer:
The various elements were then assembled in Photoshop, with colour and typographic content (created in Illustrator) added on separate layers. Keep clicking image below to enlarge for a detailed look:
Finally, here’s the birthday boy with the finished item, giclée printed on textured art paper and simply framed in white. I’m pleased to say it was enthusiastically received and came as a complete surprise to him; everyone involved had kept impressively schtum.