Find Your Step

At long last, I’ll be the true social butterfly I was meant to be, and no one can say otherwise. I, a grown-up lady, will finally be allowed to dance the waltz, to step and turn amidst so many happy adults…and be one of them. Dare I even dream that Detective Chief Inspector Spindson might ask for a dance? He usually refrains from any dancing, but perhaps the stars will align in my favor on such a magical night.
from the diary of Chrysalisa Flutterbey

We’ve featured several Comic Con-themed posts this past month to celebrate Candice’s first convention adventure, and now we invite you to step back in time a few weeks for a reflection of our last triptych, Gentlebugs of Lacewing Manor. The gentlebugs will welcome you at any of their fashionable gatherings, although you may want to bring your own tea and food, unless milkweed brulée and pollen tarts are up your alley!

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Candice’s yet-to-be-named “dapper bugs”.

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Monocle Mantis, at your service.

Before Chrysalisa’s debut, before the waltz, before Chrysalisa herself, we had Candice’s first work-in-progress trio of portraits to springboard our ideas. Candice also noted that these anthropomorphic characters belong to the same universe as her Monocle Mantis, a dapper gent with a steampunk-esque flair to his attire, but aside from that introduction, Holly and I had completely free reign. We were two intrepid explorers on the brink of uncharted territory, eager to boldly go where no one had gone before yet mapless, unsure of the path to forge ahead. (Forgive me, I saw Star Trek over the weekend.)

The daydreamer in me has fantasy on the brain pretty much all the time, so perhaps it was natural for my brainstorming to gravitate toward the Regency/Victorian-era + magic books I’ve read and enjoyed: Patricia C. Wrede’s Mairelon the Magician and The Magician’s Ward duo, and most recently, Newt’s Emerald by Garth Nix. (If you know of any other good ones, shout ’em out in the comments!) Both alternate-history universes share the imaginative element of magic as well as the more historically-accurate social settings: sweeping manors, twilight parties thrown by the wealthy, young ladies’ debuts into society, dances…

With these various scenarios swirling around in my head, I latched on quickly to the dance theme. Every dance needs music! And thanks to yet another external inspiration–Joe Hisaishi’s delightful main theme for Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Howl’s Moving Castle–I knew I would have a lot of fun composing a waltz. Waltzes are also fitting for the era, and in that period have the added social context that only young women who have debuted in society are permitted to dance them. Because, you know, Propriety and All That.

Missing Persons: Characters You Didn’t Know You Needed

It’s funny how sometimes a character essential to a story doesn’t always appear at the story’s conception.  In “The Last Sun Sage,” this character was Bekthe, the Sun Sage’s daughter.  AKA. the main character.  She did not even exist in the original ideas for the narrative.  Then how did she come to be?  How was she ever “not a thing” in this story?  Well, sometimes the “hints” creators unknowingly or subconsciously leave for themselves help them discover their creation’s missing ingredient in due course.  And sometimes it takes a little while to pick up on those hints, which seem so obvious in hindsight.

“The Last Sun Sage” will be the first Triptych we’ve ever created with a “Part 2.” Natalie, our composer, introduced the idea of two fictional figures, one having to do with the sun and one having to do with the moon. The idea is to have one Triptych focus on the “sun figure” and a corresponding Triptych focus on the “moon figure.” For the Sun Sage, I believe Natalie had envisioned something apocalyptic, in which the Sun Sage needs to make some kind of holy sacrifice for the greater good. The three of us took this idea and ran with it, building a world around it in the process.

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Inspiration for the dying jungle.

I spent a lot of time focusing on the Sun Sage himself (or herself—I wasn’t sure for the longest time…), brainstorming about who and what he was, his world and his place in it, and his role in whatever would take place in the narrative. I played around with point-of-view, unsure if I should write from the first person or third person and how far the action would go. I’d dabbled with it in first person initially, but if this Sun Sage sacrificed himself, could I really write that convincingly from the first person? How in the world would he even be able to tell the story if he died at the end of it? That would imply that he’s either resurrected, reincarnated, a ghost, or a Jedi.  And if a character can simply be “brought back” in some form or another after they die, their death has no real drama or consequences.  Therefore, (my) logic dictated that the story should be told from third person in order to be more compelling in this instance.

A Beastly Medium

Two triptychs ago, I had the sudden urge and incentive to work with acrylic paints as opposed to working from start to finish digitally, which has been my main go-to for the past 3 years. With my illustration for “Servant of Anubis”, I wanted to work with it again, but this time with a more complex composition.

The very initial scribblings for my compositions are always on physical paper. I then make a refined sketch in photoshop, getting as far as I can with correcting any tangents and anatomy errors before committing to the final rendering. I also get a rough idea of the values since it affects the composition considerably. This is my “final” sketch before transferring it onto a physical surface:

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After tracing my digital line drawing onto illustration board, I refined the drawing and added some basic values. I made the mistake of neglecting to seal the drawing with a workable fixatif before painting, but oh well. It was just a little more smeary than usual, making for some “expressive” textures.

The first few layers of paint were a breeze, but it became more complicated towards the end with more opaque layers. It was challenging to get nice smooth gradients, even with some retardant and glazing medium applied to the paint. Acrylic paint also has this habit of drying slightly darker than when first applied.

I ran out of time with my acrylic painting, so I ended up scanning it and doing additional digital painting on top of it. One of these days I will revisit the physical painting and achieve some smooth transitions with airbrush magic!

Mermaid Memories

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Candice’s work-in-progress.

Let’s shuffle aside the various tunes from The Little Mermaid queuing up in your mind right now (or is that just me?) and dive in for a closer look at our most recent triptych, The Fisherman’s Bride. Spoilers ahead, so please check that out first if you missed it!

This triptych was instigated by our artist Candice, who provided an open-ended visual prompt in the form of her merwoman portrait, accompanied by the title. Therefore Holly and I had a lot of freedom in how we chose to interpret it–cue the brainstorming whirlwind! Before I moved forward with the music, I wanted a general idea of theme and tone for the forthcoming story, so Holly and I had several chats over the good ol’ interwebs to deviously mastermind a new drama  swap musings on “who is this character?”, and “what story does she want to tell?”

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Illustration by Edmund Dulac for Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.

The main thread we unraveled from our conversations was an interest in diverting expectations. From the fairy tale classics to their Disney adaptations, stories involving mermaids often revolve around their transformation into humans, and the resulting emotional and inter(mer?)personal conflict. We contemplated inverting the traditional mermaid-to-human scenario and projected several variations along those lines: perhaps the fisherman’s bride is actually a human, preparing for her transformation into a merwoman? Holly decided to explore the possibilities of her human protagonist visiting a fish market and suddenly being overwhelmed by visions of the sea and underwater life. Funnily enough, the narrative worked out to parallel a kind of aftermath of the classic fairy tale route, since the fisherman reveals in the ending that Francisca was regaining memories of her life under the sea, not merely hallucinating. It’s bittersweet and I love it (I didn’t see the ending until the night before we posted), and it just goes to show that you never know where the story will take its author!

© Copyright 2015 Corbis CorporationWhy all this talk of story in a music-focused post? Well, as I’ve mentioned already, narrative plays an integral role in my approach to composition, especially when considering shape/structure, dramatic progression, and emotional development. Not only does it inspire me creatively to discuss story ideas–especially with Holly!–but it was important to establish an emotional space for this triptych music before plunging in blindly. Even though we didn’t have all the fine details hashed out for this particular narrative, we did know that it was going to be a little more light-hearted than our past works. While the music I eventually wrote doesn’t encompass the entire progression of the story, I do feel it nicely complements the discovery of the golden kelp forest, with a sense of anticipation and even playfulness.

Gathering the Story for “A Dance with Death”

Imagine a sack full of notecards, each containing a single story fragment or idea that all link in some way to one original idea. Now imagine taking that sack full of notecards and shaking it loose in the wind.  Imagine yourself chasing after the cards as they flutter down the street. Your task—to gather as many of them as possible before they blow away.

I wouldn’t call this my process for my contribution to the Triptych this time around, but at times it did feel that way. My mind scribbled dozens of its own notecards when first taking in the rousing, partly-finished music for A Dance with Death. My first impressions were of some kind of swashbuckling situation, swordplay, a duel, but between who exactly was still a little muddy. Perhaps a man of the law and a thief? Perhaps Death is like a thief from a certain perspective if Death is seen to “steal” lives. I dabbled around a bit with this until I saw the preview of the art Candice would be contributing. It was stunning and took the narrative concept introduced by Natalie and reshaped it in a way I had not at all conceived. I wasn’t prepared for it. Down the street the notecards fluttered with my original impressions as I watched, bemused.

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Apparently this same thing happens to Japanese writers. (Hokusai’s “Traveler’s Caught in a Sudden Breeze at Ejiri”)

I had a new set of questions turning the cogs in my brain. In Natalie’s music, I heard a fight, while in Candice’s image, I saw a dance. In the music, two forces were at odds with each other, while in the image, there seemed to be a duality between the two figures. Yin and yang, “dark” and “bright.”

I couldn’t fight the urge to reconcile these ideas in my story, though in the future, each of our contributions to one triptych may not correlate directly to one another in subject matter. What resulted was a creation myth focusing on two personified powers who began the cycle of life and death. (It’s funny to me in hindsight how these two characters align with certain ideas and words associated with “yin” and “yang,” which was never really intentional on my part. A reliable[?] Wikipedia source for the curious: Yin and yang.) In my story’s beginning, these two beings exist in a precious partnership that maintains the balance and distribution of life force in the world. But ultimately, as time goes on, the beings realize a fundamental difference in their beliefs that ultimately disintegrates their partnership. At the passionate height of their confrontation (inspired immensely by Natalie’s composition), the Dark Being inadvertently destroys the Light being, and in so doing destroys the bond the Dark Being had sought to preserve between them. The result—a world in which life, uncontrolled, outpaces death, and reincarnation exists, along with spirits, ghosts, and other supernatural beings.

It was an entirely different type of story for me as a writer, and I thoroughly enjoyed telling the tale once I’d finally gathered precisely the notecards I was looking for. This is again an experience that brings home to me what a great exercise it is to collaborate. Who’s to say I ever would have written anything like a creation myth if it hadn’t been for Natalie’s original musical idea and then the illustration from Candice inspired by it?  One thing is certain: we’ll continue to generate fresh ideas in this ongoing collaborative exploration.

If you haven’t had a chance to check out our latest Triptych, look no further: A Dance with Death.

Also! On April 9th the Triptych Trio will be hanging out at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the largest book festival in the United States.  We hope to some day have our own booth there, but for now there’s more than a enough fun at the festival for an artist, composer, and writer.  See you there, fellow bibliophiles!

Retracing My Steps for “The Path Witch”

She smiled, her lips bending without opening.  Then she turned away with a careless air and began sweeping.  She moved into the woods as she swept, making her way without hurry.  And where he knew very well that there had been no path before, a path now appeared in her wake, bare and smooth.

The Path Witch, Holly Hoenshell-Nelson

You know those movie trailers that give you a nice summary of the the whole movie you’re about to see? The ones that convince you to wait until the movie is released on DVD? The same pitfall of condensing a complex story into a rapid blur of events can be true of illustration. You don’t want to spoil the story. You should only give a small taste of what could happen to tempt your audience down the wandering path of storytelling.

For me, the most interesting part of the story is the Path Witch’s magic. It also happens to be central to the story, which is a more important reason when it comes to choosing what to illustrate. Next came the question of how to illustrate the Path Witch without literally making a portrait of the Path Witch. Drawing her in detail would kill some of her mystique–by making her more visible, she would become less believable. No problem! I could still suggest the character by her effect on the environment, which includes both her path-making and more subtle effects, like cast shadows.

My thumbnail sketch played around with a variety of paths and shadows. Once I was happy with my final thumbnail, I built a maquette based on the scene. I found that frayed twine does a great job looking like miniature grass blades.

These first two images go along with my initial idea for the composition. On the right you can see my set-up for achieving the perfect cast shadow: a couple of stacked books, natural sunlight, and a very unfortunate Princess Leia action figure. Even with my efforts it turns out that the shadow is hard to make out, especially at an angle. I had my doubts, but still continued with my illustration until I got a second opinion from someone else that convinced me otherwise. Second opinions are always good.

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I did a new photo shoot, but this time with part of the witch in-frame. Even just showing the witch’s foot provides more information than the shadow did. Now, we can tell that this character is on the move and has excellent taste in footwear.

A word of caution to maquette-builders everywhere: make sure to fray twine outdoors or in a very well-ventilated area. Fraying the twine releases little particles that cause major headaches if inhaled. Trust me on this one.

If you didn’t get a chance to experience The Path Witch, make sure to do so! We’ve also added a Facebook page if you would like to follow us there and a newsletter you can subscribe to for email updates!

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Tumtum Trees and Other Uffish Thoughts

He took his vorpal sword in hand;
      Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree
      And stood awhile in thought.
And, as in uffish thought he stood,
      The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
      And burbled as it came!

Jabberwocky, Lewis Carroll

My first thought upon seeing Candice’s initial art draft of Beneath the Tumtum Tree was: Sir Knight, should you be staring at that Bread-and-Butterfly? My second was: NO REALLY, LOOK BEHIND YOU.

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Candice’s first draft of the knight. (Get your act together, sir, there’s a Jabberwock afoot!)

I wonder how things worked out for the aspiring hero in our Jabberwocky-inspired triptych? I guess we’ll never know… What I do know is that musical ideas immediately began flowing after I viewed the original artwork, and that is one of the main reasons I love collaboration. You’re not starting with a blank slate1; you’re building on the foundation laid by your fellow artists.

It’s no surprise that the impulse to incorporate contrabassoon immediately sprung to mind. Candice’s Jabberwock is towering and fearsome, but at the same time its gait feels somewhat lumbering and the weight of its armor cumbersome, just like a–erm, sorry–contrabassoon. But in fairness to this low, surly brother of the bassoon, I had just seen Quentin Tarantino’s new movie The Hateful Eight the previous day, and Ennio Morricone’s score blazed fresh in my mind. If you haven’t seen it or for some reason the music did not leave such an imprint in your memory, the opening track L’ultima diligenza di Red Rock features, among many other fantastic elements, an interplay of bassoon, contrabassoon, and tuba.

While Morricone had a contingent of professional and virtuosic musicians to record his score, I, alas, did not. Instead, I own a bundle of EastWest‘s sample libraries, or “virtual instruments.” It’s like working with MIDI, but it sounds a thousand times better–and yet still doesn’t rival collaborating with living, breathing people. Sample libraries are an invaluable tool though, especially if you’re working on projects that don’t have a budget for hiring those living, breathing people.2 That’s why one of my goals for Triptych is to hone my skills with them and Logic Pro, a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) that allows you to manipulate those samples through MIDI. Despite having owned the libraries for several years now, and having utilized them on multiple film/interdisciplinary projects, I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what they’re truly capable of. And I am by no means an expert at Logic. Sometimes I still feel like we’re in the getting-to-know-each-other phase, and our encounters are not always pretty. I have so much to learn, but each project brings me one tiny step closer to fluency in this digital language. I’d hazard it’s comparable to an artist who has trained for years in traditional media but is now moving into the digital realm.

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Once upon a time this looked like complete gibberish to me. The piano roll still does sometimes. Progress?

Reflecting on “Descendants of Twilight” – From the Writer of the Triptych Trio

When you work with the right people, it’s like magic.

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Holly Hoenshell-Nelson, Triptych Trio Writer

Before Triptych, I was fortunate enough to participate in some other collaborations with our composer, Natalie. We’d joined forces on two projects: a one-act chamber opera and also a composition for spoken-word and flute. Natalie was the one who initially approached me about taking part in what would become Triptych, a sort of collaborative, interdisciplinary blog that a friend of hers wanted to start. That friend is our artist, Candice Broersma. My immediate answer was a big, fat YES because there are some people you should work with at every opportunity available. And those people aren’t just talented—they’re down-to-earth, intelligent, imaginative, and incredibly fun to work with. So if any of you have the chance to collaborate with Natalie or Candice, for heaven’s sake, do it. When you work with them, magic happens.

But onto the collaboration itself and the creation of our first triptych! Since I was the last one to hop aboard the project, I was lucky enough to have two sources of inspiration before I began writing: the works in progress of both Natalie’s composition, “Descendants of Twilight,” and Candice’s illustration. I experienced them both separately, first the music (as that was what had started our “theme” for this triptych), then the visual. Upon listening to Natalie’s composition, what stood out most to me was the mood. There was some sort of narrative there, a past and a present. Something somber, a feeling of seeking, not belonging, and something bittersweet. It filled my mind with images of people living on the outskirts of society, in the wild and on the ruins of cities. But why did they live that way?

When I saw Candice’s illustration, the ritualistic and otherworldly look of its people with their hovering lanterns gave me a whole new surge of inspiration. One of the things that struck me was that each figure was distinct. In my mind, each of these people had their own experience and perspective. But they had come together for a single purpose. But why did they have these lanterns? What were they for?

I put the music back on and began to write, and the story formed itself, answering all those questions. To be frank, I was totally jazzed, and I still don’t think I’ve gotten over it.

It is indescribably rewarding to see all three elements together now—art, music, and writing—as a complete triptych. I’m in love with the concept of its “theme.” Twilight—a transition, an end and a beginning, waning daylight and approaching night, light and darkness. Descendants—carrying on the rituals and traditions of their forebearers, passing the waning torch through time’s encroaching darkness. I feel like elements of this are present in all three works, closely interlinking them. Whereas in the future when our works may contrast each other as they explore different angles of one concept, in this instance our pieces seem to expand upon the same viewpoint. The next triptych is underway, so we’ll see what happens this time! Candice is cooking up a little sneak peek for you on Tuesday, February 2nd

To our amazing audience, thank you so much for your support, and I hope you’ll continue to journey with us on this project. Please feel free to reach out to us on our Contact page or via Twitter!

One particularly exciting update: we now have a Tumblr! tumblr screen cap

There are millions of talented artists across the ol’ interwebs, and we want to share some of our favorites with you, along with other sources of inspiration. Of course, you’ll find our original works there and some teasers too! Thanks again for following us, and look forward to the next Triptych on February 9!