Jeff Szuc Illustration Art Contemporary illustration Art Fri, 19 Dec 2014 01:15:01 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Merry Christmas Canada Fri, 19 Dec 2014 01:15:01 +0000 Read The Rest →]]> I have’t done any holiday themed pieces this year but this piece I did recently for Canadian Lawyer Magazine almost fits the bill. Judges in the Canadian House of Commons wear a ceremonial gown that looks a lot like a Santa outfit. So Happy Holidays Canada, where it’s Christmas all year round.


]]> 0
Looking Good Mon, 10 Dec 2012 06:12:18 +0000 Read The Rest →]]> I feel like it’s time again to give a quick little update as to what I’ve been making here over this last month… Aside from the web coding, which doesn’t make for very exciting blog images, I’ve been working in a range of illustration styles for several different clients – illustration character designs for animated eLearning publications, some editorial work for business publications, and some good old family friendly illustration for Milwaukee Magazine. I’ve also finally gotten to work on my own sequential art project, getting some of the initial character designs and illustrations locked down (pictures of which I probably won’t post for quite some time).

Everybody’s been looking pretty stylish as of late, here are some of the fine-looking characters who have appeared in my illustrations this month.

]]> 0
The Behind the Scenes, Illustration Process Mon, 01 Oct 2012 20:43:03 +0000 Read The Rest →]]>

The final illustration

Switching over to a completely digital illustration workflow from my prior traditional medium background has not only sped up my work process, it has facilitated final round revisions and enabled a much more detailed and comprehensive documentation of the process than I was able to capture before. I thought I might use this last aspect of digital painting to create a detailed work through of a typical project, from brief to final.

Though I’m sharing a step by step process of what goes into a finished piece, I don’t think this will function as a traditional technique ‘tutorial’ per say, but rather as an illustration process tutorial, or walkthrough, as largely what I’m going to focus on is the thought process behind the decision making which goes into a final illustration. There’s no magic ‘make it awesome’ Photoshop button, nor are there imitable tricks involved outside of good-old-fashioned drawing and painting techniques. In regards to the skill level of this guide, it is applicable anyone though it assumes a strong working knowledge of the digital tools involved.

The tools I used for this were an iMac, a Wacom Intuos3 tablet, Corel Painter, and Adobe Photoshop, though the same process might just as easily be translated over to other software such as Art Rage or Gimp, or even to paper, pencil, paint brushes, and paint.

Step 1. The Call

I was thrilled when I got the call from Ithaca College to do the cover of their alumni publication, ICview, not only because they do a great job, but because in this global internet work arena it’s always a joy to get a local work call. After a brief conference over timelines, usage rights, and rates, it was on to step two.

Step 2. The Brief

The feature story for this issue was to be ‘Behind the scenes in politics’, a look at Alumni who were working in various levels of government. In particular, it was important that the illustration NOT become a satirical, or a partisan piece. The magazine editors already had a conceptual direction when they turned to me; they wanted an illustration showing the divide between the hustle and bustle of the political arena and the solitary dimension of the voting experience.

Step 3. Concept Thumbnailing

Since I already had the principle concept given to me for this project, my task was to come up with the best compositional and stylistic solution to the problem. The thumbnailing phase of the project involves coming up with as many different solutions as possible with what are essentially 2″ scribbles, likely indecipherable to anyone but myself. Any given project might involve 25 to 50 thumbnails, many of which will be variants of each other. At this point, the most promising solutions take shape, and I subsequently ‘clean up’ the best two or three of these, which will be advanced to the next stage.

To give you an example of how loose thumbnails are, here are the two which would generate the final piece (including their ‘cleaned up’ versions).

thumbnail rough for concept 1

thumbnail rough for concept 2

slightly cleaned up rough of concept 1

slightly cleaned up rough of concept 2

Submitting anything at this stage of development would probably be enough to send any Art Director running to their Rolodex in desperate search for a back up illustrator. So, before being sent off, the thumbnails get another cleanup – up to a level at which they are clear enough for the AD to make an informed decision and give feedback towards the final. For this project I sent along two relatively tight color roughs which I felt strongly conveyed the concept, but with two different compositional and atmospheric solutions.

Concept variant 1

concept variant 2

Step 4. Cleanup

There is an unwritten rule in illustration which is that if you send along multiple concepts the client is will always go with the one you like the least. I had gone through a streak of this with several of my last assignments, so that, although I produced some perfectly good illustrations, there was also an unfortunate pile of (what I thought were) great ideas on the cutting room floor (perhaps fodder for some great stock work down the road). I am really happy to report that the rule was broken this time! They went with the piece that I was most looking forward to painting, the one with lots of open room for stylization, the one I thought would make a better final, the one I was sure they weren’t going to pick… one small revision; bring in the curtains from the other piece.

I start with a quick mashup of the two drawings in Photoshop – now, this kind of change requires a full redraw to make everything work together properly. Before I move on to color, I always do a very tight linear. I like to work out all compositional issues and include all the details at this point because it’s been my experience that, if it’s not fully resolved at this stage, it will never be so satisfactorily. Another unwritten rule in illustration is that if you leave an area unplanned, thinking you’ll figure it out while you’re painting it, it will forever be the weakest part of the illustration.
Now, because this was a cover and not an inside piece, this job was subject to a second round of rough revisions. This didn’t change the degree of ‘tightness’ to this final linear however. In the past, Art Directors have worked on their layouts using my linears, knowing that the final artwork would line up with almost no variation.

clean, revised linear

Step 5. Underpainting

The second round linear having been approved, it was on to the painting.
I come from a traditional painting background. I treat digital painting as though it were a canvas. I begin with a wash across the entire surface, in a color which sets the tone for the piece. With this piece I chose a yellow to keep things looking positive, fresh, and exciting. From here, I do some more washes to block in value areas and define forms.

Next, I switch to a more opaque paint and begin blocking in color. There’s no real detail at this stage, it’s just figuring out which colors are going to go where and then adjusting them to get a proper push/pull to the to establish perspective to the elements (darker darks, lighter lights, and more contrast up front and less saturated, more even value tones in the distance).
On a technical note this is all being done in Corel Painter (including the initial thumbnails and linear roughs). On this piece I used a Broad cover watercolor brush for the wash stage and then switched back and forth between an acrylic dry brush and a broad cover gouache brush to block in colors.
Eventually, once there’s paint covering everything, I can really begin to think about the piece.

water-color wash underpainting

underpainting – establishing colors.

Step 6. Refining

Up to this point, I have been working on layers underneath the drawing – with the drawing layer set to multiply and its opacity turned down really low. Now, I begin to work on layers on top of the drawing, eventually completely covering all the line work.

From here until I finish, I will work on little bits and details all around the painting. I might work on someone’s jacket for a bit, then jump over to someone else’s head on the other side of the image. There’s no real rationale as to what part gets worked on next, other than my turning to the area which I feel needs more refinement to keep things balanced and maintain my understanding of where the piece is going.

In case this is not perfectly clear, I will explain it in another way. Even though I start with a very tight drawing, and at this point I am essentially just coloring it in, it never becomes a ‘paint-by-numbers’ routine. I am always trying to maintain a balance and a visual rhythm within the piece. Many areas get repainted several times, colors being adjusted so that they work with the piece as it evolves. It is for this reason that the two most important things I do here are: (1) I don’t get too detailed too soon. I build the detail up all around the piece, that way I don’t become too attached to anything to be unwilling to paint it out. (2) Lots of layers. There just aren’t enough undo’s in my history to go back to where I’d like to revert sometimes. I try stuff out, I experiment, I make mistakes. But, I always do it on a new layer. I do periodically flatten things down once I’m sure of a decision – otherwise the file size can get out of hand.

refining – slowly building up detail

refining – working around the piece

refining – adding additional layers of detail


Step 7. More Refining

I’ve broken the refinement process here into two steps, just to emphasize how much work goes into the details. There’s an old saying that “ninety percent of the work goes into the final ten percent” and this is true of every piece I’ve worked on. I continue to work around the piece, making minor adjustments and refining details until I feel the piece works as a whole. Starting-out illustrators, I feel, often walk away from a piece while it’s only ninety percent done, not understanding that to a large degree, the only thing keeping it from being a stand-out piece is some additional time. Perhaps the old master illustrators can get things right on their first attempt, but for me, every piece that makes it into my portfolio is one I’ve struggled with. That’s not to say I struggle with every painting, nor that things take a really long time, but if things go too easily, it means you’re just phoning it in, and the piece doesn’t get that little something extra.

refining – final adjustments to maintain compositional balance

The final ‘painting’ as it leaves Corel Painter


Step 8. Final Color Adjustments

This last stage is where Adobe Photoshop finally makes a significant appearance in the process, and this is the closest thing to pressing the magic ‘make it awesome’ button there is. I’m sure this could also be done using Painter’s adjustment tools, but Photoshop’s color correction abilities are where its strengths shine.

To bring the illustration into Photoshop, I simply export it from Painter as a flattened TIF file and open that up in Photoshop. In the layers pallet, I create a new adjustment layer and use the masking property to localize its effect. In this piece, the principle color adjustments were achieved by creating a mask applied to the curtains, and then selecting and inverting it to create one which applied to the crowd. This way, to create the proper level of depth to the piece, I could adjust the colors of the two independently.

Color adjustments in Photoshop

As you can see, at this point I principally work with ‘Levels’ and ‘Curves’ to achieve a higher contrast (tip: switch the adjustment layer’s blend mode to ‘luminosity’ so that it doesn’t affect saturation), ‘Hue/Saturation’ to slightly mute some colors, and selective color to adjust the overall tone of the piece. If you look at the layers pallet here, you’ll also see that there were a couple very localized adjustments – such as adjusting the ‘president’ so that he stood out just enough to ‘read’, yet still fell into the background, as well as a bit of scanned texture added to the curtains to make them pull forward. The masthead is a placed Adobe illustrator file.

Step 9. Sign, Seal, Deliver

And that’s it. I squeezed in a small signature in Photoshop, flattened everything, zipped it up, and ftp’ed it away.

The final cover illustration


It was a pleasure working with the entire Ithaca College marketing department on this project. Bringing the final art together really was a team effort. The art director, Kristine Miller, was great in pushing this illustration to be all that it could be, and the designers did a fantastic job laying in the type. And I have to say, they did an extra AMAZING job transforming the piece into an animatic for the e-book version. If you have an iPad (or some other form of non-apple tablet), I highly recommend downloading the e-publication here.


Just for kicks, here is a complete summary of the article as a montage video:

]]> 3
Postcard Promo Sat, 22 Sep 2012 02:13:18 +0000 Read The Rest →]]>

Hot off the presses, It’s postcard season again! Postcard season is that special time of year which, ideally, rolls around four times per calendar. What I like best about postcards is the sense anticipation with which the whole affair is charged – the suspense of waiting for the postcards to arrive in the mail, the excited unpacking of shipping material, the ritual placing of stamps and mailing addresses labels which heightens the anticipation, and best of all, once they’re in the mail, the expectation of the work to come.

It has been my experience that postcards are the singular most effective tool in an illustrator’s self-promotion arsenal in regards to an outlay of effort-to-work-to-ratio-of-return-on-investment. Quite the mouthful when I put it that way, but what I mean is that given how cheap and easy online printing has become, justifying postcards as a promotional vehicle has become a no brainer – it only takes one job to more than cover the expense (when I started out, not that long ago, you had to lay out hundreds of dollars for minimum print runs of a thousand cards, where as now, I managed to pool together a couple promo codes and split my thousand into three different designs – all for under a hundred bucks). One might argue that social media provides a myriad of ‘free’ promotional tools, but if you’ll notice, I also included effort in the equation – it may just be me, but social media takes a constant tedium of updating and following effort to have even a marginal result, where as putting together a postcard design is a one time effort. And I enjoy designing it!

If you’re new to making illustration promotion postcards, I’ve put together some tips from what I’ve learned both through my own process and mistakes I’ve made in the past (learning opportunities), as well as from what I’ve seen other illustrators do:

1. Professional Design.

Great artwork can be ruined by bad design. Great design can make even bad artwork look good. If you’re a great painter but graphic design isn’t really your thing, then find someone who’s thing it is. A postcard is likely your first chance to make a good impression and if it looks professional, you look professional, likewise, the opposite holds true as well. If you’re not computer design savvy, find someone who is, perhaps you could work out a trade in favor.

2. Choosing the Right Printer.

All the online mass printing places are really pretty much the same, the quality is okay but not great, they will mis-cut a small percentage, and through various promos, offers, specials, and possibly the inclusion hidden file handling fees or shipping fees, all their prices are pretty much the same. I haven’t used one yet that would get my glowing endorsement, nor would I warn you of steering clear of any one in particular.

3. Start with the Size First.

Before you do any designing find out the exact size specifications of the company you’re dealing with’s postcards. A ‘standard’ postcard is 4″x6″, but very few are standard. Lots of companies print slightly irregular sizes such as 3.75″x5″, 4″x5.5″, or some other such close approximation. It’s amazing how such small variant in proportions can have such a huge effect on design, but I can guarantee that if you do your design ahead of time, without working to final print size, you’ll be very disappointed in the results after you’ve had to shuffle things around to accommodate new dimensions.

4. Follow the Specifications.

Know your printing company’s printing specifications – each printer has their own specifics in terms of dpi and layout. If they provide a template it should include bleed sizes as well as safe print margins. If they don’t provide a template, or if it doesn’t have all the specifications, a general rule of thumb is an extra 1/16th of an inch bleed on all sides and to not place type up to 1/8th of an inch from the trim edges. Postcards don’t always get cut straight, having the extra bleed prevents there from being white lines along an edge, and having the type inset makes sure that even if it’s mis-cut, your important information isn’t cut off.

You should also find out your country’s post office’s printing specifications. Here in the US the post office doesn’t allow printing darker than 7% grayscale on the right side or along the bottom (excluding the mailing address of course). As well, if your postcard turns out to be slightly larger than standard size it could result in a much larger postage rate (learned through experience).

5. The important stuff.

The whole point of promotion is to get people to contact you, it should go without saying that you want your contact information included on the card. Having your name and webpage on the front of the card is, at the bare, minimum required. On the back, I would recommend having as much contact info as possible (within reason). Including an email address and a phone number on either the front or the back of the card should also be a given (although email is more common, rush jobs still give me a phone call sometimes).

If you want people to contact you, they have to be able to read your information. That means no 6pt fonts in grey on grey – make it big, make it bold. That being said, as noted previously, the post office will impose restrictions as to what and where you can print on the back of the card so make sure you look into that before you design the backside – otherwise you just might have all your postcards shipped back to you (again, from experience).

6. Know Your Brand, and Know Your Market.

You are your brand, your branding is the artwork you put out there, and it should appeal to your target market, the people you want to work with. If it doesn’t, either change your branding, or change your market. As inexpensive as postcards are, there’s no point wasting money on promoting to markets to which you are not a good fit.

7. Be Patient.

Usually, a good mail-out will result in at least some very immediate response. That means your card made its way across the desk of an Art Director just as they were considering whom to place for a job which your style was appropriate for. If you don’t hear anything though do not be disheartened. Time and time again I’ve heard it expressed by art directors that this only means you weren’t the right person for that job at that moment. The great thing about postcards is that if they like your work they will hold on to it. I have literally gotten a call from an art director that was the result of a card I had sent out three years prior. She had liked my work, and wanted to work with me, but I just had to wait for that right project to come along for which I was a perfect fit.

8. Be Persistent.

There’s a fine line between being persistent and being annoying, but there’s no line between being timid and not getting any work. Following a three to four-month mailing schedule won’t annoy anyone but it will make you recognized and viewed as a professional.

When it comes to self-promotion, by no means should a postcard be your only vehicle (obviously, nowadays, internet presence is a must), but I could not imagine my self-promotion strategy being effective without including them. Postcards offer the most bang for your time and for your buck.

Below: Some action shots from my latest round of making postcards, plus some high-drama-angled-close-up-shots of the final product

]]> 27
the Call to the Wild (the process) Mon, 10 Sep 2012 05:37:36 +0000 Read The Rest →]]>

Self Portrait? Only through the distorted lens of artistic licence. Although this illustration features my favourite Michael Kors shirt, and I do wear hipster glasses, and I do always have a two-day beard, and I do run with the deer… the resemblance pretty much stops about there.

From the preliminary sketches to finished piece, Read on for the walkthrough I’ve put together of the process behind this piece.


1. The preliminary sketch does kind of look like me, though most of my drawings do.

I do all my preliminary sketching in Corel Painter now, it has the most realistic ‘tactile’ response of any of the programs I’ve tried. This is the cleaned up linear and finalized concept for the piece. Normally I do tighter linears before going to ‘paint’, but since this piece is going to have its line work done in Adobe Illustrator, I figured I would leave the detail work until that step.


2. Here I’ve brought the image into Adobe Illustrator and retraced it using the pencil tool. Illustrator allows me to create much cleaner line work than I have patience to do freehand.

Also, while in Illustrator, I worked out the plaid pattern for the shirt which would also function doubly as the color palette for the piece.


3. From Illustrator, I group separate areas such as nose, mouth, shirt, etc., and bring them over into Painter individually so that I can recolor and treat each differently. With the final line work in place, I do a loose color wash over the whole piece to block in colors and figure out values, as well as set an overall tonal mood to the painting.


4. I work around the piece, refining colors and details, jumping from one area to another, trying to work on the painting as a whole and not just a collection of elements. Above: A detailed close-up of the plaid shirt pattern. Below: The piece’s direction is beginning to take shape.


5. Usually by this point in a piece’s development there aren’t any major changes left to come. With this painting, however, I did a sudden wardrobe change halfway though. I felt that the piece needed a bit more of a fashion edge to it so I added a double collar, which is something I saw on the mannequins of my favorite store, the UNI QLO on Fifth Avenue.


6. Next, it’s back into Illustrator to work out the building details. The vector artwork is again exported, and brought into Painter for recoloring.


7. And last but not least, the focal point of the piece, the deer in the headlights are sketched in Painter, using the ‘tapered Conté’ tool.


8. With all the Painter work done, I export the image as a layered psd file and bring it over to Photoshop for some final color and level adjustments.

The finished illustration, as you can see in the layers palette, has selectively masked areas which apply separate image adjustment layers to different elements. This is my final fine tuning of the balance of the piece.

]]> 3
Halted Judgement (details) Tue, 04 Sep 2012 14:01:31 +0000 Read The Rest →]]>
I’ve recently completed a couple of business publication illustrations (the other one’s here) which will be making their way into the portfolio portion of my website soon. Until then however (I have a lot of backlogged work to add to the portfolio), I wanted to share some close-ups from the pieces.


When I started working on this illustration I had accidentally set the resolution up way to high (which in retrospect explains all the stroke lag I was experiencing). I didn’t figure this out though until I went to do the final output and realized it was a poster sized image. One happy accident from this however is that I am able to really zoom in for these images and still preserve a sharp edge. I really enjoy the contrast between the crisp vector lines and the rough painter textures in these.

]]> 0
Business Intervention (details) Mon, 03 Sep 2012 23:49:44 +0000 Read The Rest →]]> I’ve recently completed a couple of business publication illustrations (the other one’s here) which will be making their way into the portfolio portion of my website soon. Until then however (I have a lot of backlogged work to add to the portfolio), I wanted to share some close-ups from the pieces.

When I started working on this illustration I had accidentally set the resolution up way to high (which in retrospect explains all the stroke lag I was experiencing). I didn’t figure this out though until I went to do the final output and realized it was a poster sized image. One happy accident from this however is that I am able to really zoom in for these images and still preserve a sharp edge. I really enjoy the contrast between the crisp vector lines and the rough painter textures in these.

]]> 0
The Gatekeeper (detail) Mon, 20 Aug 2012 12:00:18 +0000 Read The Rest →]]>

If you’re a lawyer in Canada, chances are you have the most recent issue of Canadian lawyer in front of you right now and are enjoying the illustration accompanying ‘Investing in the Future’. If you are not a lawyer, here is an extreme close up detail from the recently published editorial illustration which will be making its way into the ‘portfolio’ section of my website presently.

]]> 0
The Coffee Shop Tue, 14 Aug 2012 15:42:01 +0000 Read The Rest →]]>

If there is anything I like more than drawing all day, it’s sitting in a coffee shop drawing all day. I would like to thank art director Tally Wade over at Coffee Shop Media for giving me the opportunity to do just that. Above are graphics created for their website (banner and icon images). The coffee shop bar is a composite with details taken from many photos and with that extra touch of authentic realism supplied from an on site sitting at the Trumansburg Gimme Coffee. I should thank Gimme Coffee and the barista there as well for allowing me sit for so many hours.
If anyone needs coffee shop drawings, gimme a call, that’s what I do.

]]> 0
Back in the Day Tue, 07 Aug 2012 13:08:58 +0000 Read The Rest →]]>

Few who know me now but didn’t know me then would guess that I have street cred. But it’s true. Back in the day, when I was a teenager with really baggy pants and a pager, I was all city.

If you don’t know what that is, it means that I’d written my name across the city – from suburb to suburb, from top to bottom, and everywhere in between. I had a map, I would plot out routes beforehand, and I would set out for the night.

This is all years ago, mostly before I attended art school. As far as I know there is actually only one piece still up, which isn’t surprising considering the nature of graf wherein some pieces might not even last the week before being painted over. I did it for the love of it, I did it to have a voice, I did it because I was an alienated youth in a city of millions. I don’t think I’ll ever feel as famous as I did back in the Toronto graffiti scene days of the early/mid nineties. I don’t need that outlet anymore though; largely thanks to graffiti I found my way into art school and into other ways of having a voice. Still, if I ever get a tattoo it will be of my graf name, Szuks2, across my back.

The other day while I was cleaning up my studio and organizing the painting storage rack I’d just built I happened across a shoebox of old photos and I guess it got me to reminiscing of the late nights and alleyways where I came from.

Here are some shots of work done with the more-legal name I used to write towards the end. I’ll keep the bombing name out of this, not for legal worries, but because the tag was ugly.

Graf has changed very little over the years. Sure, some people have brought new and innovative approaches to it but they are the rarities, for the most part it’s remained locked in traditions established thirty years ago. If you can date me through these photos it’s only in that they place me in the range of being someone involved in third-wave graffiti, while also being someone who used a non-digital camera – creating dusty photographs taped together to make panoramics stored in a shoebox to stumble across while cleaning up his studio after building new painting racks.

Concrete Canvas – Hamilton Show ’97

Concrete Canvas – Hamilton expo ’98

Part of a commissioned mural done with ‘Fame’ for Sony Music Canada

Back of the Bamboo for the 416 expo

As far as I know this is the last remaining piece I have up..

Concrete Canvas – Hamilton ’99

Sometimes I still think about hanging up all the other forms of artwork and just going back to the alleys.

]]> 0
the Tuesday Spot Fri, 13 Jul 2012 00:40:33 +0000 Read The Rest →]]>

I’m giving back to the arts from which I’ve taken so much. Now, on Tuesdays at 7pm Tuesdays at 6pm, I’m hosting open life drawing sessions in my studio the studio across the hall from my studio. Everyone is welcome. If you’re interested in coming out, and are somewhat in the vicinity of the downtown Ithaca area, just shoot me an email and I’ll give you all the details. If you’re interested in modelling, also just shoot me an email and I’ll get you added to the rotation list. We’re a small, laid back group, if you do come out, feel free to bring some music and a chair with you – we’re always running out of both.

Above: This week we did all short poses, nothing more than five minutes, next week will be a long pose – so bring your paints.

]]> 25