A Virtual Poetry Experience - The Raven

raven_blog_plate Last fall I met a new friend, a very nice man with an oculus rift and a recording of a British person reading The Raven. "I have a really good idea," he said, and he told me his idea, and it was good, and he had an accent too except his was German. Everything was going according to plan. "Okay," I said, "I'm in."

My friend Tom and I are working on a virtual reality experience of Edgar Allan Poe's famous poem The Raven. We've been working on it on and off since the fall. Things are still far from done, but I want to start sharing some of the work we're doing here on the blog because, well, it's really exciting, and I don't post enough. I've been working on drawing designs for the VR environment and Tom is working up the models and game engine. I'll have lots of examples to show you in the coming months, so stay tuned.

I'll have more details on the project as things progress. If you'd like to help support the process, Tom has set up a Patreon page where you can contribute to the cause.

Photoshop Mirror Symmetry Action

MirrorSymmetryActionHeader Unfortunately Photoshop does not have a live symmetry drawing tool, however you can get something almost as good using a simple action. Below are the steps you will need to create it. I'm using Photoshop CS 6 for this but I'm pretty sure this should work in most older versions and I know it works is the new CC version. If you haven't used Photoshop actions before, take a look at Matt Kohr's excellent introduction to actions over on Ctrl+Alt+Paint.

This action takes whatever artwork is on the right side of the current layer and copies it to the left side, replacing whatever was there. Symmetry is over the Y axis at the center of the canvas. I'm going right to left here because I'm right handed but you can use this same method to mirror in the other direction or top to bottom. Here is the basic idea of what we're going to do.

  • Select the left half of the canvas.
  • Delete it.
  • Duplicate the current layer.
  • Mirror the new layer across the symmetry axis.
  • Merge the two layers back into one.

And here are the action steps:

  1. ⌘ + A : Select > All
  2. Select > Transform Selection While the transform is active, change the reference point location to the left center point. Then set the width value to 50%. Make sure that the Maintain Aspect Ratio button is NOT checked. You want the height to stay at 100%. Hit Enter TransformSettings
  3. Del : delete the content of the selection
  4. ⌘ + D : Select > Deselect
  5. ⌘ + A : Select > All
  6. ⌘ + J : Layer > New > Layer Via Copy
  7. ⌘ + A : Select > All
  8. Select > Transform Selection While the transform is active, this time change the reference point location to the right center point. Then set the width value to 50% as before. Hit Enter
  9. ⌘ + T : Edit > Free Transform Now, while the transform is active, this time change the reference point location to the left center point like you did in step 2. Then set the width value to –100% (that's negative 100%). Hit Enter
  10. ⌘ + E : Layer > Merge Layers
  11. ⌘ + D : Select > Deselect

I have this action set to trigger with F6 so that I can make a few strokes with my brush, then hit a key and update the image. It's not quite a live effect but it's pretty close.

Author Illustrator Blog Tour

Greetings! If we haven't met before, my name is Matthew. I make art. My good friend Lindsey Yankey asked me to be a part of this children's book author and illustrator blog tour by answering these four questions:

What am I currently working on?

I've just begun working on a new skill building project for myself. I'm very interested in the animation industry and in the early visual development part of the process in particular. If you're not familiar with the term, visual development artists create the look and feel of the characters, environments, and objects that will appear in a cartoon or movie. They work at the very initial stages of a new film, often before the script is even finished. These artists work on a variety of topics but the area that really gets me excited is prop design.

I like this part of the industry in particular because it's all about creative problem solving. I've had the opportunity to do a little of this work in the past and I'd like to do more, so I've been researching other artists who work in the field and some of the techniques they use.

I spent last weekend paring down all the material I'm collecting into a few research pages.

MatthewCook_PropDesignThemes_1 MatthewCook_PropDesignThemes_2 MatthewCook_PropDesignThemes_3 MatthewCook_PropDesignThemes_4

I would love to do this kind of skill building all day, but I also have a fantastic day job. I work for a company that makes stickers and paper crafting products called EK. I've been working there for about a year and a half now, and I couldn't ask for a more friendly and creative place to work. It's also a great feeling to be designing something that other people can use to be creative themselves.

A lot of the stickers I've made are still hush hush, but a few things are starting to find their way into stores. Here is an example, one of my favorite projects from last year. These are boxes of goggly eyes I helped to designed. If you're in the US, you can find them in the craft section at your local Target store.


Once in a while I also get the chance to do freelance work. I recently worked with Beat By Beat Press to design some title graphics for one of their new children's musicals. Beat by Beat has a library of original musicals that they sell as kits for schools,  church groups, or any sort of youth organization that wants to put on a show. They provide all the scripts and music, but also promotional materials. This is title artwork I made for The Most Epic Birthday Party Ever:

MatthewCook_Epic Birthday_title artwork

Beat by Beat  provides everything you need to put the show on, but they also encourage people to make each performance their own. I love that! As part of that philosophy Beat by Beat asked me to design the graphics so that they can be broken down into pieces. This way the kids can mix and match the elements to make each poster or sign fit the needs of their show.

MatthewCook_Epic Birthday_breakdown artwork

Aside from my artistic pursuits, I'm spend a lot of time thinking about how to make myself a better, more productive, and more creative person. I've been reading a lot lately about positive psychology, which studies people who are happy and successful and tries to learn what attitudes and behaviors those people have that make them that way. I've found a lot of help in dealing with stress and learning new skills more quickly from what I've read about.

If you would like a good introduction to the topic, let me recommend a good video to you. This is a recording of the first lecture of Harvard's positive psychology class which someone has kindly posted on youtube.


How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Hmmm. That's quite a question. I'm not sure how to answer it directly, but let me tell you how I think. Maybe that will help.

I've talked with a lot of my fellow artists about how they think and I've noticed that some artists like to think in lines, lets call them drawers, and some artists like to think in shapes, and I'll call them painters. Drawers can paint, and painters can draw, the only difference I think is where they feel most comfortable starting from.

I'm a drawer. I think it's because that's what I did when I was younger: doodle on my homework, scribble in my sketchbooks, draw in the end papers of my books, etc etc etc. I think drawers have the advantage that they can work almost anywhere with very simple tools, and lines can also be very expressive. However, lines tend to flatten an image, they usually don't address color, and they tend to look less finished and refined. I feel very comfortable drawing and sketching out my work, but choosing colors and making rendered paintings is much more of a challenge for me.

If you're an artist, ask yourself which one you think you are.

This is something that I've only realized recently and it's given me impetus to try and approach some of my newer work from the opposite point of view, starting with shapes and colors from the beginning. That approach lends itself to the way I design stickers for work because most of our designs start their life as vector shapes in illustrator. This approach doesn't feel as comfortable to me at the moment, but I can tell I'm gaining new skills by trying it.

I think in general I like to analyze what I'm doing. It's a problem solving habit that comes from my background as an engineer, and it's the way I like to approach almost everything I do.

Why do I illustrate what I illustrate?

I like to feel amazed and surprised, I like to learn something new, I like to find a new way to look at life, and I draw the things that make me think that way. I hope my art does that for other people sometimes too.

How does my individual writing/illustrating process work?

These are the steps I take whenever I'm starting a new project:

Brain Dump:

I'm primarily an artist but I start every project by writing. I write out what I need to make, and then I start making lists of every word or phrase I can think of that has anything to do with my topic. I've tried doing mind maps which are helpful sometimes but most of the time just lists will do. I start with whatever I can think of on my own, and then occasionally I'll use a thesaurus or an internet search. I particularly like the thesaurus at dict.org because for whatever reason it's very loose about what it includes as a synonym so I get things other reference books leave out.

Often just making these lists begins to bring up concepts, but if I still need ideas, I'll start picking out words in 2's and 3's to see if those connection brings up any ideas.


Next I start to do some visual research. Lately I've become a Pinterest junky. I keep a bunch of boards on useful topics so that I can save things I happen to come across, and can always have a storehouse of inspiration and reference when I start something new.

When I'm working on a specific project I make a folder on my computer and collect all the useful reference and inspiration pictures in there so they are all in one place. I also take written notes or little doodle sketches as I work, usually in a little notebook or in my sketchbook.


If I'm working realistically I can usually just draw and paint from my reference, but if I'm making something stylized or designing something that doesn't exist then I need to think about what it should look like. This is one area where thinking like a painter rather than a drawer has been helpful because the shapes that make up an object give the object its personality.

If I just try and draw things out of my head, I notice that after a while I keep coming back to the same shapes over and over again and the designs look boring or ordinary. To get out of that rut, I've collected a number of fun little exercises that force you out of your comfort zone and give you more radical shapes to work with. Here are a few of my favorites:

- Silhouette Design For this exercise, get yourself a few black markers. I like to use one with a calligraphy tip and a very fine point one but whatever you find most comfortable is fine. Think of whatever you are trying to design and begin drawing out thumbnails of what its silhouette looks like. That is: no lines, no internal details, no shading, no nothing. Just make the outside shape, and then fill everything else in with pure black. This forces you to think about the overall shape of the object without getting caught up in all the details. I usually try to fill a sketchbook page with these.

- Page Fill In this exercise, open to a blank page of your sketchbook and make some random shapes scattered on the page. Then take each of those shapes and turn it into whatever you are trying to design. Then in whatever space is left over, make some new shapes, and again turn them into designs. Continue doing this until you have filled all of the empty areas on the page. The more stretched and twisted and oblong and sheared and distorted the shapes, the better. The idea here is to get you out of using ordinary forms and into using more unusual and extreme shapes.

- Alchemy: Visual Noise There is a great drawing program called Alchemy which you can download for free on Mac or PC. Unlike a normal paint program, Alchemy takes your drawing input and then passes it through any number of distortion filters which you can choose and adjust. So as you draw, the program makes a sort of visual noise that you can sort of control, but not really. Instead of a clean drawing you end up with a lot of happy accidents. I use the program to make a bunch of semi-random thumbnails and then cut and paste them into Photoshop where I use them as inspiration for more refined drawings.

- Layer Collage In this exercise I use some traditional medium to make a lot of abstract "stuff" on paper. Then I scan the "stuff" and bring it into photoshop where I layer it, one on top of the other, playing with all the different blending modes and opacity setting as I go until I have one big abstract blob of "stuff". Then I zoom way in and look for interesting shapes where the layers of stuff have come together. This technique is particularly good for coming up with compositions.

As I do these exercises, I think about what I want the object to "feel" like, and based on that, I think of the sort of abstract shapes and colors that convey those feelings (is it pointy?, slick?, soft?, sticky?, etc.).


By this point I'm starting to get my designs together and begin to put them into a composition. I make lots of compositional thumbnails, again thinking about the shapes and what they convey.

If I'm working with a client this is also where I begin showing them what I've come up with, and begin to integrate their feedback into the design.


Once I have a composition I like and all the pieces in place I make the final piece. This is the part that I find most frustrating, and the part that usually takes the longest.

I hope that some of the information about me was helpful and interesting to everyone. I want to thank Lindsey for asking me to participate in the blog tour.

Before I go, I want to hand you off to to a very talented writer and a good friend of mine, Jacqueline Resnick.

Jacqueline is the author of The Daring Escape of the Misfit Menagerie, which I had the pleasure of illustrating. She's also written a fantastic sequel, and a series of YA novels. Please pay her a visit.

Our Friend the Alfred

matthewcook_windows2_web matthewcook_window sketches web  

One of my favorite things about physics class in college was learning about the SI units. My friends and I took to calling them Old Dead White Guy Units (ODWGU) because it seemed to us that most of them were  named after ... well ... distinguished European gentleman of the englishmen era.

Perhaps its a little solipsistic to claim some aspect of the natural world and name it after yourself. But I supposed we have to call these things something, and it's kind of fun to learn the history behind each discovery. Plus, if those gentleman can do it then I don't see why I can't. There are so many things in life that are just yearning for quantification.

A case in point: Todays unit is the Alfred (Alf)

The Alfred is the SI Unit of intrigue, as observed through a window. It's named for Alfred Hitchcock, English director of the film Rear Window.

Here are some common observances as measured in Alfreds:

0 Alf  =  An empty, non descript window (theoretical, all actual windows are > 0 Alf.) 0.001 Alf  =  1 mAlf  =  A window with a spooky shredded curtain blowing gently in the breeze. 0.01 Alf  =  1 cAlf  =  A scowling child looking back menacingly. 0.012 Alf  =  1.2 cAlf  =  A scowling child looking back menacingly and eating an ice cream cone. 0.04 Alf  =  4 cAlf  =  Scowling twins in matching outfits (any age). 0.1 Alf  =  A mysterious shadowy figure. 0.2 Alf  =  A mysterious shadowy figure in a fedora. 1 Alf  =  A gruesome murder in progress, as seen in silhouette.

Note that the presence of a cat in the window automatically multiplies any recorded value of Alfreds by a factor of 0.045. This unitless constant is known as Pluto's coefficient.


Thieves Guild Show at the Phoenix Gallery


Come and see some of my art in person!

I have two pieces that will be part of an art show at the Phoenix Gallery in downtown Lawrence, Kansas. The exhibit is a showcase of work from the Thieves Guild, who run themed figure drawing nights each month here in Lawrence. There will be drawings and finished pieces by over a dozen of the regulars including a lot of my very talented friends.  The work is all based on art created or inspired by our drawing sessions over the last year and a half.

There will be an opening as part of the Final Fridays Art Walk this Friday, the 27th of June, starting at 6pm at the Phoenix Gallery on Massachusetts Street. If you can't make it to opening night, no worries, the show will be on display through the month of July.

While you are there, keep an eye out for my pirate lady sculpture and this portrait of our model from 80's night. I will post a bit more about the process of making these, but don't miss out on seeing them in person.


Painterly Hand

test hand_web  

This is a hand study I painted in Photoshop. I was experimenting with brushing, looking for a way to make things painterly but not have that overworked digital look. I've been following Carol Marine's painting a day blog for some time now and I love the way she can render things in oil with such big chunky brush strokes. This study didn't really achieve that but I like the way it looks anyway. If you're curious to try it yourself, this is just one of the default photoshop chalk brushes after playing with the brush settings a bit.

Painterly Object Studies

painterly color and material studes_web  

A few more attempts at painterly digital studies, still looking at Carol Marine's blog. I thought trying some things with different textures would be interesting. These are embellished from photos of an old brass stein and a plant in a porcelain goblet vase that I found on the web. I wish I could link you to the original pictures but they have sadly passed into the Internet's back catalogue.

Bristle Brush Portrait

Dad in Mono_web  

I look through a lot of portrait photography on the web (usually Pinterest now) for things to draw and over the past few years I've come across a lot of black and white portraits in this sort of "show every wrinkle" sort of super-sharp, high contrast closeup. I'm embarrassed to say that I don't know where the trend comes from. If you do leave me a comment.

In any case, I wanted to try rendering one and I thought it might be a good match to use a very scratchy looking bristle brush. I turned the opacity all the way up and laid out a set of color steps to sample from as a way to force myself not to keep overworking things. I think the study still looks a bit overworked. Next time I'll force myself to use a larger brush as well. But I do like the scratchy texture. It gives things a bit of energy.

So I got this e-mail from Sweden ...

... which is not something that happens to me every day. It was from a very friendly Swedish person named Catrin, who also happens to be a very talented jewelry designer. You can see some of her fine work on online store here web site. (The site is in Swedish, but Google Translate does a pretty passable job with it, enough to have a look around at the pictures.) One of Catrin's specialties are small pendants made from two pieces of glass soldered back to back with an image between. She was writing me to ask about an image I had posted here on the blog, and wanted to know of she could use the image for a particular client commission. How cool is that!

She was nice enough to send me a picture of the finished design. Take a look:


My penguins look so sparkly and stylish!

I'm so happy I got to be a part of it, and I hope her client liked the way it turned out. If Catrin's work looks like something you or someone you know would like, get in touch with her. She is a pleasure to work with.

Guess what! Something I imagined up out of my own little head is showing in a gallery RIGHT NOW! And if you happen to find yourself in the Burbank area in the next week or so, YOU CAN SEE IT IN PERSON! banner_ftta_orig


My Quetzalcoatl painting is part of a show at the Center Stage Gallery in Burbank, along with a collection of other CGMA student work, and concept art from the movie Turbo. The show will be running from July 18th - 31st, with a special signing event on Saturday the 27th with some of the Dreamworks artists.

Here's the picture that will be hanging.

feathered serpent-revised_web

This was a piece I did for Erik Martin's Digital Painting class last fall. I can't speak more highly of the experience, and of Erik. You can read a bit more about this piece in my previous post.

If you get the chance I hope you'll come see all of the great work. And thanks to CGMA for including me in the show!

Color Studies Out My Window

These are a few color and shape studies I painted looking out the window of my apartment building. I'm on the 9th floor of a renovated hotel that was built around 1929 and have a steller view looking south and west. I did these pieces for my Oatley Academy work, so I'm still experimenting with lasso and gradient tool painting technique. window_web

This first view is looking south out of my studio window at the street below. This was in the evening so the sun is slowly setting off to the right.

West Window_web

These views are looking out of my west window. The other structures you see are other historic buildings turned into apartments that line the street I'm on. In the distance you can see the big broadcast tower of the local PBS station. I did these over the course of a few hours as the sun when down so I could study how the colors changed. The first is purely observational but for the latter two I made a conscious effort to set a color palette and work from that.

Painting with the Lasso Tool


I've started working through a digital paining course over at Oatley Academy. In the first lesson we're focusing on shape and form so we're working on painting using only the lasso tool and the gradient tool in Photoshop. This was my first attempt, painted from a photo of Salvador Dalí. Making things so angular was not the goal but I was enjoying the look of it so much I tried to strengthen the facets rather than smooth them over. More to come!

Tattoo Hand Studies

I want a tattoo so badly but I think I'm too fickle to decide on just one thing I want for the rest of my life. I've been reading about mehndi henna painting lately and I even bought a henna kit but I haven't worked up the courage to give it a try just yet. It has a sort of strong smell to it. Anyway, it gave me the idea for these watercolor hand studies. The hands are all from reference photos but I added the tattoo designs out of my noggin. They're all about 9x12 or so.







etsy object adventure: Faux Bamboo Nightstand

Looking for something to practice painting I came across this hansom faux-bamboo nightstand on etsy. It looks like something out of one of those 60's James Bond movies that  haven't actually seen. Here's my straight up study in digital:

I decided to try panting the same subject in the style of a few of my favorite artists. First up is Anneka Tran. I started by looking through her blog and making notes on the way she builds her images. Anneka doesn't use many lines, most of her forms are built from large patches of color. To give them depth and interest she uses subtle gradients, especially in the shadows and background so you get this sort of dynamic counterchange of hues. I also noticed she uses a particular brush with a sort of rough garbled edge to it that makes all of her images look a little fuzzy like plush toys.


Next up I tried for one of my favorite shows: Gravity Falls. If you are into Gravity fall artwork you're in luck because a lot of the artists who work on the show also have active sketchblogs. I spent a lot of time looking through background art from the show. You can find a bunch of great examples from Sean Jimenez. Gravity Falls relies heavily on line work with a sort of oval shaped brush. Character lines are mostly black but the backgrounds and props sometimes use colored lines so that things will set back. For the fills they use subtle textures and a lot of light spills and glows around lit areas. I think my line work got a little too heavy but otherwise I'm pretty happy with this one.

Television and the End of the World

I don't know what you were doing on December 24th, 2012, but I was sitting in my favorite coffee shop with my favorite friend doodling. As far as I can tell the world didn't really end, but I think if it had that was be a pretty good place to be. One of the things I drew was the little black and white TV they have attached to the cereal bar that shows a continuous loop of old cartoons. It's not a particularly interesting TV so I didn't think much of it at the time, but a few days later I was flipping through my sketches and it struck me how TV's used to be really beautifully designed pieces of furniture  and how, over about 70 years, they've steadily reduced and streamlined and simplified until today they are hyperminimalist flat panels with no outward features other than the screen.

I won't rant, I have no problem with this turn of events in industrial design. But it struck me as an interesting exercise to think about how the look of an everyday item says so much about when it was sold and the kind of people it was sold to. Here are a few things I came up with:

  • Original sketch from Java Break
  • The earliest TV's were designed to look like the radio's they replaced, which in the 40's and 50's meant large wooden cabinets to hold the vacuum tubes inside. I threw in some Victorian elements for kicks. Everything is better with claw feet.
  • I was not alive in the 70's, but for some reason when I think 70's I think TV's with big twisty knobs.
  • I went on a lot of picknicks in the 80's. I miss that.
  • Official Soviet painting wasn't quite as inspiring as party officials probably hoped it was, but one thing totalitarian regiems do well is grand architecture. If you ever need to design somewhere for a super villain to live, Soviet Constructivist Architecture is a good place to start.
  • I'm not completely sure what a humidor is, but I imagine if you look like the monopoly man you would have one, and this TV would be near it.
  • Avocado is the best color of plastic ever. EVER!

Plein Air Painting: Malott Hall, University of Kansas

Can you tell there are lasers in this building? I mean big lasers. BIG LASERS. This is Malott Hall at the University of Kansas, home to the physics and chemistry departments. I had a number of classes and labs here when I was a student. It's full of the sort of glassware labs and big hand-built science contraptions that are the reason you become a scientist. Even the roof is cool, it's covered with all sorts of vents and steam hoods and weather equipment and important looking sticky-outy doodads. I used to wander around the building between classes sometimes to look at the equipment in the hallways but really I was mostly looking for an unlocked door to get up on the roof. I never managed to find one though.

I painted this from the sidewalk next to Budig hall. Watercolor and pencil, about 4 in. by 9 in.

Rigby and the MASKC

I got a mention on twitter today from @MASKC_Komondor whom I had never heard of before. I'm always excited to have someone new tweet me. Turns out they are the Middle Atlantic States Komondor Club, and they posted a very nice note about The Misfits on their blog. How cool is that!

Rigby, one of the misfit animals, is a Komondor dog. Here's a nice action shot of Rigby from the book:

The Komondor breed comes from Hungary where they've been used as sheepdogs for centuries. They have thick matted coats that gather into chords. This makes them look a bit like mops. I had a lot of fun designing Rigby for the book. He's one of my favorite characters because he's a blast to draw, and because he wants to be an artist. Here are a few sketches of Rigby from early on in the character design process:

More Fun Music Finds - Tell Your Girlfriend

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNE9bUa2D0c Here's another fun music find from the Scriptnotes podcast. This time it's Robyn's Tell Your Girlfriend covered a-capella and clappy cups style by a trio of Swedish singers called Erato. Here's their fun blog full of cat pictures. Apparently the original is a very popular Pop hit but I hadn't heard it before. You can hear it at the link above. It's also good is a very anti-a-capella way.

북한의 Take On Me

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rBgMeunuviE I've been listening to this over and over for days. This is a group of North Korean musicians playing Take On Me by A-Ha on accordions.

If you're wondering, by the way, how a bunch of North Korean teenagers ended up playing this, its part of a project by Norwegian Morten Traavik called THE PROMISED LAND (I think it's supposed to be capitalized, also not to be confused with the Matt Damon movie), that is connecting with North Korean artists, which I am all for.

I really like strange cover versions of songs. And strange songs. And Strange Bands. This is what I live for, and I have to thank a new podcast I've been listening to for this and about a half dozen other great musical finds in the past week or so. The podcast is called Scriptnotes, and is a podcast about screenwriting by John August and Craig Mazin. The podcast has almost nothing to do with music, but every week they choose a different, usually youtube, piece of audio for their into and outro. Love it! The podcast is really good too.

The Misfits are Here!

The big day has finally arrived! The Daring Escape of the Misfit Menagerie is finally out. Visit your local book monger or purveyor of fine volumated manuscripts and procure yourself a genuine specimen.

It's kitty cat approved!

Misfits is a grade school chapter book about a band of misfit animals who must escape the clutches of an evil circus master. The story was written by my super talented writer friend Jacqueline Resnick. I had the pleasure of making 30 illustrations for the story plus the cover image and titles.

I also can't forget to thank my art director at Razorbill, Emily Osborne, for all of her hard work.

Super Extra Special Late-Breaking Update:

Amazon has selected Misfits as one of its December Editor's Picks for Kids and Teens. Huzza!