The Citadel by Dan Russell

Illustrating a Graphic Novel
with Digital Paintings

Fall 2009 -An unexpected e-mail

During the fall of 2009, my life was in turmoil. My wedding was less than a month away and Nancy and I were busy with last minute preparations and travel arrangements. The wedding was going to take place 1,838 miles away in Puerto Rico and, while Nancy was in cloud nine, I was feeling the pressure. In the mist of this setting I got an email from Daniel Russell. This was totally unexpected. Of course I knew "Danny", but last time I had seen him in person was at his high school some years back.


An unexpected e-mail.

Danny's dad, Donald "Don" Russell, is a very smart engineer and his mom is Mary, as in Mary Doria Russell, a best-selling author (just Google it). Well, to my surprise I learned that time had not stood still while I amused myself in romance and, making good use of it, Danny had graduated from high school, graduated from college, and -surprise, surprise- had married his sweetheart Bess two years back! What's more, he was moving to Los Angeles, aka LA, to begin a career in communications as a video and film editor.

I could tell you more about Danny, but I rather have him tell you himself. The following description is from his website, Daniel Russell Productions at


---Daniel Russell is an undercover FBI agent working in Los Angeles with the cover story that he's a "video editor" and "filmmaker". He began his work at the top secret facility [CENSORED] in [CENSORED] , and then took on his current identity where he has since worked on a variety of projects, including broadcast shows, TV promos, trailers, feature documentaries, narrative films, web shows and music videos. Although he primarily works as a video editor, he has professionally worked as a writer, journalist, producer, DP and director. But he's not fooling anyone.---



These are two storyboard panels from my screenplay 'Bad Blood'. I painted the panels with a small brush, using black and white ink on construction (craft) paper. Each panel is 4 x 2.25 inches (10.16 x 5.72 cm).

It seems clear to me now that Danny had Hollywood in mind for some time. In fact, we have the same aspirations, that is, to be filmmakers. Another thing we have in common is our joy of crafting stories and turning them into screenplays. This I didn't know then, but his email revealed this shared passion. Danny had written a story dealing with the gods of ancient Egypt and he was asking me to storyboard a few panels.

That last time I had seen Danny at his high school, I was giving a class presentation. The topic was story-boarding and I showed my boards and animatics for 'Bad Blood' as examples. In fact, Danny's mom had kindly gone over the Bad Blood screenplay and did some wonderful editing. So when the time came to visualize his script, he thought of me.

I brought Danny up to date on my wedding agenda but that I would love to read his script. In due time I got a copy and, once I had utter the magical words "I do" in English and in Spanish (Nancy was not leaving anything to chance), I read the script upon my return. We exchanged more emails with questions, answers, suggestions and clarifications, and since winter is a slow work period for me, I relished the prospect of doing a few panels of Danny Russell's 'The Citadel'.


This was my first Wacom tablet: the 9 x 12 inches Intuos-2, an indispensable tool for digital painting. I had never used a tablet before, but I figured Danny's project would be a great opportunity to learn how to use it.

I had recently acquired a Wacom digital tablet but had no time to try it. I was beginning to do more conceptual designs on the computer and painting with the mouse on Photoshop felt like painting with a brick. I had seen promotional videos about the advantages of working with a stylus on a tablet and now was a good opportunity to test its capabilities (or my limitations). I still enjoyed doing panels by hand in the traditional manner, but since Danny had envisioned 'The Citadel' as a graphic novel, I decided to take advantage of the medium and do really cinematic full-color paintings. It would be an excellent way to learn how to use the tablet.


This is a rare example of one of my high school "collaborative" comic books. I was 17, already an established muralist and really involved in my first passion -the theater. At the time sword and sandal films were big on TV and all my friends and I were into anything with swords. To kill time in school we came up with some interesting stories were invariably our less liked people ended up as villains dying horrible deaths. I would draw these stories on paper and number areas to match a selection of tempera paints. Then my friends had a great time painting each panel "by the numbers".

When I was in high school -Escuela Superior Ramón Power y Giralt, from 1972 to 1976, I had a fabulous time writing stories with my friends. We wrote and acted in plays, build sets and props, published the school's student newspaper, painted murals in a dozen schools and for half a dozen churches, and, best of all, we laugh ourselves silly painting our alter egos in comic books. We spend many lazy afternoons (ah, the life of a care-free student) doing our wicked little stories. The benefit of those early forays into visualizing stories is that it was an excellent way to explore this fascinating and rewarding medium without the fear of failure. This is what art does to you. I learned a lot and it stayed with me even after several decades of moving away to do other things. With Danny's story, I wanted to go back to it.

Digital painting

As is my practice with every project, I began by collecting visual references and immersing myself into the visual minutia of that world. Since the setting of the story was ancient Egypt, I began collecting photographs of Egyptian faces to cast the characters. An individual who caught my attention months before getting Danny's email, was a young Egyptian actor who was already being hailed as the "Omar Sharif" of his generation. Naturally, being a fan of Omar Sharif since his international film debut in my all-time favorite film, Lawrence of Arabia, Amr Waked peak my interest.


Amr Waked is an Egyptian film, television, and stage actor, known for his roles portraying Middle Eastern and Mediterranean characters. He is best known to international audiences and in Hollywood as the terrorist leader in the 2005 film Syriana. (source Wikipedia).

I saw him in an Egyptian film and also doing a soda commercial (I think it was for Coca-Cola). In spite of the fact that I can't understand a word of Arabic, I could tell right away that Amr was not only a very good actor, but also one that oozed loads of charisma. He was definitely one of those individuals who transcended the word actor to be called a star.

I wrote to Amr (he has a facebook page) expressing my admiration for his work and my desire to see him perform in future projects in a language I could understand. He wrote back. What's more, he checked my website and reciprocated in kind by expressing his admiration for my work. He also told me about other English and Italian language projects he was working on. Since then he has become an actor of international standing. But back then what I knew was that he would be the perfect likeness for the main character of Asim in The Citadel.


I painted the front page last, but it was the first thing I designed. The 'iT' symbol at the top is actually the Egyptian hieroglyph for citadel. It pays to do your research well.

I love the works of 'Orientalist painters', which were mostly Western 19th-century artists specializing in depictions of the Middle East and the Orient. Jean-Léon Gérôme, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, John Frederick Lewis, and Eugène Delacroix, are but a few of the many great artists who brought the exotic and far away worlds into the family parlor. Thanks to the new method of photographic reproduction, their many depictions of exotic, colorful and sensual places were seen stereoscopically. This was the look I emulated in the panels for The Citadel, especially in the format and depictions of far away vistas.


The section of the script highlighted in yellow was the source for my panels for the prologue. Same as with film, you need to establish the setting and the mood of the story for the viewer right at the beginning.

The first thing to keep in mind as an illustrator, is that the artist enhances the story; he or she does not rewrite it. But we try to flesh out the blanks. In a film a writer can say in one line "There is a battle", and then move on with the story. But the director has to flesh out that battle in what may take several minutes of cinematic narrative. For the sample panels of The Citadel, I decided to paint a prologue to the story which Danny described in half a page of script. He tells of a journey across the desert to a distant city. I view this journey as a great opportunity to introduce the viewer into that fantastic and magical world and lay out the visual elements that would make the rest of the narrative even more enticing. It would be cinematic and in glorious desert colors. These are the pages:










Danny wanted a few more panels with a visualization of the Egyptian gods. So I painted a couple more pages from the script. In the first spread I showed a view of the capital city. In this next sequence, Asim rides to the temple to speaks with the gods. Guards are camping by because the gods are imprisoned in the temple. They confront the intruder before they recognize him as the pharoah's powerful enforcer.


The following image is a "planning-spread" that follows the guards sequence. Notice how I first divide the two side-by-side pages into individual panels and write down a short description of what will be painted on each one. Sometimes I draw simple pencil sketches that clearly expresses what I have in mind. I also arrange each panel in a way that fluidly moves the eye from one panel to the next and at the same time builds up the narrative. All the time I'm composing scenes, I try to see it from the viewers point of view, just as if they were seeing a movie. In this sequence, Asim has passed the guard outpost and dismounts to continue on foot toward the temple. He enters the temple and there encounters the god Horus.


After I decide what goes in each panel (as shown above), I look in my project files for any reference image that can help me construct the scene. Notice how they help flesh out the written descriptions. Then I paint each panel making sure the visual style of the spread is consistent. I couldn't stress more the importance of researching anything and everything that will aid to make each painting seem more real and natural. In addition to images, I also have a collection of figurines that include a veritable zoo of animals. These I pose, light and photograph from the desired view point.


Also important to have in file are images of every type of texture imaginable, from glass to fabric to metals and stone. And lastly, make sure you have facial sketches of your main characters from every angle and elevation. Having a real person that closely personifies a character as you envisioned it is an amazing stroke of luck. You cannot create something from nothing. Even fictional characters have eyes, ears and noses that will require photographic references. Sometimes I even make figurines or facial models with modelling clay. The following sequence of Asim speaking with the gods is the result of all that research, preparation and attention to detail.


All these renderings were done in Photoshop 7 using the stylus and digital tablet. I had to learn how to use the tablet and get used to painting with the stylus, which took weeks to get used to. And, I have to learn how to use Photoshop since I knew next to nothing at the time. I aimed high so that I would be forced to learn. I knew it was going to take hours and hours of hard work. But in the end, it paid off handsomely. Everything you learn will carry on to your next project. No one can take that away from you.

I learned how to paint and manipulate the images as separate elements and then composed them in layers to complete each panel. One of the great advantages of the computer is the ability to manipulate light and color to achieve a variety of realistic textures and effects. The fact that I'm a trained traditional painter cannot be overlooked while studying these panels. It takes time, knowledge and a lot of work to be able to achieve high artistic standards. But like everything, it has to start somewhere. For me, the starting point was all those hours of fun and practice while still in high school, painting those simple comic book pages. After that, reading lots of books followed -and still continues to this day.


Panoramic view of the city from the temple mount.

I spend about a month's time completing the panels you have just seen. In the process I got better at digital painting. But still, I didn't have the time I desired to polish certain elements or experiment with other ideas that kept coming to mind. But nonetheless, I was very satisfied with the end result. I even toyed with the idea of doing this for a living, but in the end, this is nothing more than toying around with what I really yearn to do: create films.

Well, Danny is thriving in LA and maybe he will get to make this wish come through for him. He is not afraid to work hard at it and he has a passion for it. Just visit his website and see all the things he has already accomplished. That's the sign of a true artist. As for me, I might also get there though it will be by taking some other road. But for now, I can still have a lot of fun writing, learning, and playing with paint.

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