Ben Thompson


Work in Progress: "Lorenzo's Guardian"

Tomorrow marks the year anniversary of this websites creation and to celebrate, I am making my first “Work in Progress” post. This has been requested more than anything else since the website launched, and while I have been looking forward to doing such a post, the opportunity has not presented itself until recently.

As a working staff and freelance illustrator, there are few (if any) projects that allow for an in-depth progress report at each stage in their creation due to contractual terms that forbid the sharing of such work before their publication. Private commissions however are not bound by such a restriction! So lets take a look now at just such a piece

I was contacted by Victor Pimentel of Pimentel & Sons Guitarmakers around May 2012, at which time he expressed an interest in commissioning me to do a custom painting. I was honored to be asked to undertake such a commission as the Pimentel and Thompson families have known one another for a generation. While living in New Mexico my father spent many afternoons and weekends watching Lorenzo and his sons at work in their shop marveling at both their craftsmanship and musical talents alike. They in turn were equally taken by my fathers artwork, in particular his paintings which ultimately resulted in Lorenzo commissioning a painting from him that is used on their guitar label to this day.

As a direct result of this mutual admiration, I grew up having a great respect for this family and their collective talents. To now have the opportunity to collaborate with Victor in the same way our fathers had before us has been a dream come true.

After our initial conversation I began to get a clearer picture of Victors thoughts through a handful of e-mails and phone calls. As a longtime lover of dragons, Victor pictured one of these winged creatures holding the guitar made for him by his father Lorenzo. Here was an opportunity to combine our mutual love of both guitars and fantastic imagery in a single painting.

I began with a handful of rough thumbnail sketches, which would allow us to get just the right mood from the interaction of the two main elements.

My first attempt had plenty of energy, but ultimately made the dragon out as a thief of sorts, with less focus on the guitar and more on the scurrying movement of the dragon itself. The dragon became further confusing as the viewer is left trying to figure out whether he is flying or running. Not the mood I wanted...


The second sketch came closer to the intended spirit of the pose, the dragon now clinging to the guitar protectively. Ultimately however, it was discarded as he looked to be completely disregarding the safety of the guitar and seemed rather to be climbing over it instead! In addition to this the scale had started to get out of hand and the wings felt like more of an afterthought than actual compositional elements, or even structural possibilities...


The third sketch was less energetic than the first as I tried to convey more of a careful quality to his pose, but missed the mark when it came to the proportions and scale. Where the previous sketch featured wings that were physically improbable not to mention poorly composed to the piece as a whole, these seemed somehow too small and evenly represented. The bulk of the dragon felt trapped between what became an uninteresting set of “parenthesis”...


Finally I hit on what I felt to be a compromise, merging my favorite bits and pieces from the previous attempts into a single composition. The pose is a protective one, but with an aggressive defiance that gives a hint as to this dragon's nature.

The shape of his body surrounds the guitar on all sides, drawing the viewer's focus. The left arm of the dragon runs at a downward angle complementing the upward sweep of the tail both of which offset the parallel downward opposite angle of the wings (which are no longer evenly proportioned or of a similar shape.) The result is a protective “box” to the composition, shielding the guitar from some off-camera aggressor.

The Background also makes its first real appearance as thrusting spires of rock that mimic the backward lean of the dragon’s pose, a bank of clouds flowing across the bottom third of the piece belying the ultimate height of our subject.


I submitted all of the above sketches to Victor and we discussed the results. He agreed that the final drawing was the best of the bunch, and I began the tighter finished drawing with much excitement.

I have a habit of bringing my drawings to a high degree of finish. Such is the level of polish that they could be considered finished works themselves. I enjoy drawing as much as I do painting, and as such I will continue to work out all of the details in a piece so thoroughly that once the painting begins there are few surprises to be had. One could argue that this leaves little room for those “happy accidents” that we as artists sometimes benefit from, but it is a process that I enjoy too much to give up!

As you look at the progression below you will notice that I have scanned in the pencil drawing and taken it to completion in Photoshop. This is partly due to the speed at which this allows me to work, but also (and more importantly) allows me to make massive changes to the initial drawing at any stage with relative ease. This is important as there will be many opportunities throughout this stage to make such adjustments and the resulting piece is almost always better for it.

For instance the dragon’s right arm is immediately dropped as it looked to be about to grip the fretboard of the guitar, the dragon about to break out in song.(also NOT the mood I was going for) Instead it is poised in more of a clawed shape, building on the guarded aggression of the pose.


We begin to get resolution on the shape of the head and the texture of the body...


A left leg is added providing more stability to the pose. The “hands” and overall structure of the wings begin to take shape. Some early resolution to the background and foreground elements start to help us work out the value range of the piece not to mention the lighting and textural relationships between the various elements.


The guitar is given some final details including strings, keys and rosette. Some late arrivals to the composition make their debut in the form of three beasts that are part tropical bird, part pterodactyl. These were added as a way to contrast the large,dark and evil presence of the dragon with something small, light and innocent. It also provides an equal yet opposing angle to the upward thrust of the rock spires in the background.


At this point I have accomplished my goal of a polished final drawing that, while having received a number of adjustments at various stages of the process, is largely faithful to the initial sketch. It is at this point that one is tempted to pat themselves on the back for a job well done, and get the printed result mounted to the board and bracketed to the easel for some long awaited oil painting.


An artist can never underestimate the importance of a fresh perspective, or an unbiased critique from an outside source. It is a key ingredient that is often overlooked because of its uncomfortable tendency to bring to light all the weakest parts of a piece in 30 seconds or less. When thoughtfully given, such feedback has the ability to vastly improve a piece with a handful of tweaks, nudges or scale changes.

The source for such feedback should be carefully chosen. If the chosen critic is too eager to please then the feedback will be largely made up of platitudes, one stacked upon the other until there is little reliable feedback to work with. If the critic is too focused on giving feedback for the sake of having an opinion, much of the offerings will be too subjective in nature and offer little in the way of real tangible direction that benefit the piece in question.

In this instance I shot a copy of the above drawing to friend and fellow artist Todd Lockwood. After all if you are gonna paint a dragon, by all means go to the guy who breathes life into them for a living! The feedback Todd so graciously offered was clear and succinct. Each and every word made complete sense and minor though the changes were, the difference they made was immediately noticeable.

Thanking the Art Gods once again that I do my preliminary drawings digitally, I added the requisite Photoshop layers and dove into the feedback head first. The most obvious change involved opening the wings and scaling them up. Additionally the broadening of the rock’s base to bleed off the right side of the composition, playing down the rock in the lower, unifying the rim light to one source and adding a vignette to the edges all played their part in making this a piece I am proud to be a part of.


The above image represents the current state of what amounts to the “underpainting/drawing”, the final size hovering around 24” x 30”. It needs only printing and mounting to wood panel before the real adventure begins! I will be completing a handful of color comps before too long (something I rarely do, but have intended to make more of a habit of beginning with this piece) and reviewing them with Victor. Until then I am content to be creating a piece for a fellow creator who, being adept at his own craft, enjoys the process as much as the end result.

I look forward to posting the progress on this painting as it becomes available, and during this time I think there will be a bit more guitar music than normal being played in the studio for a while…

Pimentel & Sons Guitarmakers

all images: Ben Thompson

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