How Illustration Works

The Actual Painting

A finished painting depicting the Dark Tower
A finished painting depicting the Dark Tower
Illustration courtesy Spiderwebart

Having gone through an immense amount of preparation, Greg and Tim are now ready to begin painting.

The brothers use a unique substrate. Rather than the traditional canvas, they use large sheets of Masonite or Duron, also known as hard board. Masonite and Duron are made from heavily pressed wood fiber material often used to make cabinets and furniture. One side of it is extremely smooth and dark brown. To prepare a Masonite board for painting, the brothers would first paint it with multiple coats of heavily watered-down, thin, white gesso (a mixture of plaster of Paris and glue) and then sand it smooth, so that it has the feeling of an eggshell in terms of texture.

The next step is to transfer the details from the final composition drawing onto this board. The brothers normally do the transfer using homemade graphite paper. A large sheet of paper is coated with soft pencil lead, then soaked in rubbing alcohol and dried. By putting this graphite paper over the gesso and then putting the final layout over it, the brothers can trace out the important features of the final comp. These guidelines make painting much easier.

They generally use an acrylic paint that you would find in tubes in an art store, made by either Grumbacher or Liquitex. It goes on like oil paint but dries much more quickly (acrylic taking minutes to dry, while oil takes days).

Illustration courtesy Spiderwebart
Acrylic paint on canvas Acrylic paint on canvas
Acrylic paint on canvas
Illustration courtesy Spiderwebart

The brothers mix their paints on a sheet of aluminum foil. Typically, they start by mixing the various values and shades of color, from the lightest value to the darkest value, for the parts of the scene that is farthest away. In an outdoor scene, these would normally be the colors for the sky. For an interior scene, they would be the colors for the back wall of the room. Since the sky is lighter at the horizon, the palette of colors mixed on the aluminum foil would offer all of the shades needed to paint the different parts of the sky. Then the brothers work forward, painting closer and closer parts of the scene.

One of the surprising things about the painting process is the amount of time it can take. For example, take this painting:

Illustration courtesy Spiderwebart

Greg points out, "What I remember most about this is how long it took to paint the leaf-mail armor." Imagine painting every leaf in the mail, every blade of grass, every twig and leaf.

Or this one:

Illustration courtesy Spiderwebart

Tim: "I can remember spending nearly a month painting all of the coins and jewels." The fact that these paintings are so large and detailed means that everything takes longer. On the other hand, the size yields incredibly detailed illustrations.

An early sketch of the dragon Smaug An early sketch of the dragon Smaug
An early sketch of the dragon Smaug
Illustration courtesy Spiderwebart

Ian Summers, who commissioned the Brothers for the Tolkien calendars, points out, "The entire art department rejoiced whenever Tim and Greg brought in their fantastic illustrations... The delivery of each painting was an event... They would create a finished piece of art every two or three weeks."

When you think about the amount of work that went into each painting, that timeframe is absolutely amazing. But it comes with the job. As a general rule, illustrators live and die by deadlines. A gallery artist might have really productive times, with great output, followed by dry spells. Because illustrators are contributing to larger projects, they have to meet deadlines, which means they have to be highly productive whenever they're working. If an illustrator gets a reputation for missing deadlines, it could cost him his career.

In the case of the Hildebrandts, the results speak for themselves. And the calendars were tremendously popular as a result.

Since doing the Tolkien calendars in the late 1970s, the Hildebrandt brothers have worked on a wide variety of projects. They do everything from commissioned works for well-off people who want themselves painted in Tolkien and personal fantasy scenes, to a wide variety of original paintings sold as original artwork or prints.

Greg Hildebrandt's company, Spiderwebart, offers a variety of Hildebrandt prints and original artwork, to fit all budgets. Go to the next section to see some of the available artwork.