How I drew a vampire for Guillermo del Toro

For an upcoming issue of Dark Horse Comics' adaptation of Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan's vampire novel series The Strain, artist E.M. Gist was tasked with illustrating the cover.

This issue is a flashback to the early life of Professor Abraham Setrakian, a Jewish Romanian vampire hunter who escaped Treblinka after encountering the vampire's shadowy Master. Here's an exclusive sneak peek at Gist's final cover, and an inside look at the artistic genesis of this piece, from start to finish.

About a year ago, while exhibiting my work at Monsterpalooza, I had the pleasure of meeting Guillermo del Toro. He expressed an appreciation of my illustrations, and I tried not to act like too much of a fanboy. After a brief conversation I gave him my business card and we parted ways. I was certain that would be the end of it.

Some time later I received an email from Mr. del Toro asking if I would be interested in doing a cover for him, and I immediately began trying to figure out which of my friends was punking me. Long story short, it actually was Guillermo and that's how I arrived at this point, painting covers for the comic adaptation of my favorite horror series in quite some time.

The Beginning

I came on board as the cover artist starting with issue #5, which is as good a place as any I suppose, as it is a flashback/origin story. We get to learn more about Setrakian, The Master, the mysterious cabinet, and how they are all intertwined. It is these relationships that we wanted to hint at on the cover. After discussing several ideas with Guillermo and our editorial dynamic duo of Sierra Hahn and Jim Gibbons, we decided that either a big reveal of The Master standing over the location of the story, or The Master casting a shadow over Setrakian while he works diligently carving on "the cabinet."

The Idea

Most of my illustrations start as vague scribbles that focus on mood and lighting. Drawing and details can always be refined and corrected, but mood is either right or wrong with very little room for manipulation. With that in mind, these are the three thumbnails I was most happy with. I dropped the design elements on top in Photoshop to make sure nothing important would get covered up.

How I drew a vampire for Guillermo del Toro

I thought the first two made strong graphic statements that I usually like in a cover, something that will grab you from across the room. There was something about the storytelling and mood of the third sketch that I found interesting.

Guillermo must have seen something in that third sketch as well, because that was the one he liked most. There was only one comment, he wanted Setrakian "looking up in terror."

At this point I shot reference for anything I could, and put together a "morgue file." This is essentially just a collection of images that give me reference for anything from texture and lighting to mood. In this case, I photographed myself for young Setrakian, but then I referenced photos of concentration camp prisoners (not the most pleasant thing I have ever done) to give the Doctor the sickness of that setting.

How I drew a vampire for Guillermo del Toro

I also gathered reference of carved chests and cabinets to aid me in bringing the wonderful designs of the "cabinet" to fully rendered life.

I generally will just make a collage of all the related reference so I can tape it up on my easel while I work on a given area.

How I drew a vampire for Guillermo del Toro

The Final Sketch

Once I gathered as much reference material as I needed to bring the desired level of believability to the image I began a more refined sketch. At this point I will correct any proportional, perspective, or drawing problems present in the thumbnail.

How I drew a vampire for Guillermo del Toro

Sometimes this will require some major changes that will adversely affect the composition. Fortunately this was not the case here. My main challenge on this sketch was getting the body language and expression of Setrakian the way I wanted it, and making the foreground hands sufficiently monstrous.

I like to exaggerate expression/emotion in my illustrations. This can be difficult, too much can come off as cartoony, too little and it feels staged. So this can take some time to get right. For the hands I wanted to twist the fingers into an impossible position so that it doesn't look like just a human wearing gloves. One last element was "the cabinet." This was intimidating so I decided to keep it simple, and get the design working in the sketch. I would save the rendering for the final painting.

The Final Painting

For my illustrations I generally paint with oil paints on gessoed hardboard that I prepare myself. I will then loosely transfer my sketch to the board using either carbon paper or a projector. I prefer a loose projection because it gives me the freedom to make small changes. I find with too tight a drawing I have a tendency to stiffen up and paint inside the lines.

I will then seal this drawing with spray retouch varnish. I start with a warm translucent stain quickly establishing the general values of the image, typically just three values. Unfortunately I do not have a photo of this phase. Once this dries I apply the final colors opaquely trying to finish an area at a time, but I usually have to go back over the entire image for one last pass for refinement of details and glazes to unify the image.

How I drew a vampire for Guillermo del Toro

I am greatly influenced by classic horror films, those of James Whale in particular. You can see that influence in much of my work including this piece, with the raking shadows, forced perspective, and claustrophobic setting.

I wanted to incorporate the feel of black-and-white film as well, so I chose a more monochromatic color scheme.

I had hoped I could use value alone to separate the various elements of the image, my hopes were in vain. The monstrous hands just bleed into the background too much. (Step 1)

How I drew a vampire for Guillermo del Toro

It was then suggested that I make the hands more pale, and cooler in color to push them away from the background. This was helpful to a degree in accomplishing this, but very successful in giving the hands more of an undead feel. (Step 2)

How I drew a vampire for Guillermo del Toro

Finally, it was requested by Guillermo that I add more blood to the fingers and emphasize the redness of the blood to get that last "pop" into the image. (Step 3)

You can see more of Gist's artwork at his website and blog. Here's the issue synopsis for The Strain #5, which is in stores June 13:

The Strain #5
David Lapham (W), Mike Huddleston (A/Cover), Dan Jackson (C), and E. M. Gist (Cover)

Consistently a step ahead of the Centers for Disease Control, elderly pawnbroker Abraham Setrakian seems to have an intimate knowledge of the epidemic rapidly spreading across New York City and the hideous creatures it's spawning. How does he know what's happening? Where did he learn about the grotesque monsters roaming the streets at night? And, most importantly, does he know how to stop them?

The scope of the mystery widens as the man who seemingly has all the answers reveals his history in the extermination camps of Nazi-occupied Poland and his first encounter with the beast behind Manhattan's invasion.