David Hellman
Photo by Ryan O'Donnell.

David Hellman

Digital painter for games, comics, animation

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Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm an independent artist who has worked on comics, video games, and animation.

My most high-profile work has been the graphics for the videogame Braid. Before that I did a web comic with my writer friend Dale Beran called A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible.

Right now I'm running a Kickstarter with writer Tevis Thompson for a graphic novella called Second Quest. It's an original story that explores our connection to the mystery-filled landscapes of videogames – in particular The Legend of Zelda.

What hardware do you use?

My main computer is a MacBook Pro 17" from 2010. Apple doesn't make a laptop this big anymore. It's the Cadillac of portable computers, but I mean like a 1970s Cadillac. I used to lug it to cafés all the time, so the big screen was a huge deal for me. Now I do most of my work at home, so I'm not sure I'll miss this option when it's time to upgrade. When I'm at my desk I plug into a 27" inch Cinema Display built in the early 21st century.

Back in 2005-ish I bought the biggest Wacom tablet available. It was the Intuos 3 generation. It's around the same size as my Cinema Display, so it maps nicely. In this day and age, when people replace their smart phones every couple years, it's kind of amazing how reliably this piece of hardware has served me. I have no desire to upgrade.

Last year for my birthday my girlfriend gave me an iPad 2 and it's the best computer I've ever owned. I use it as much as I can for reading and email. What made me really love it is art apps (more on that later) and GarageBand.

For drawing, my iPad stylus of choice is the AluPen by Just Mobile. I got so excited when I got mine that I immediately ordered another one to save for my post-apocalypse bunker. It's got a nice weight and construction and the rubber nib feels good on the glass. The Bamboo Stylus by Wacom is pretty similar but I like the weight of the AluPen.

I leapt to purchase the Jot Touch by Adonit, one of the first iPad styluses to implement pressure-sensitivity using bluetooth. To my surprise, I didn't immediately take to the feel. The tip is very "tappy" on the glass, and the pressure sensitivity was difficult for me to control. I'm very interested in this direciton, so either I need to spend some more time learning to use the Jot Touch or maybe it will improve in future iterations.

My sketchbook is a 6x9" Canson with a black cover. It's a nice size for carrying around, and each page is big enough for 2-4 compact ideas. I used to use Moleskines, which are better constructed, but couldn't find one with the correct weight paper for me. The paper is always too thin, letting ink bleed through, or too heavy, stiff like card stock.

My favorite pen for line work is the Zebra G-301 Gel. It's nice and wet but if you angle it you can get a scratchy line. After I've blocked in a drawing with that I usually bring out my Pentel brush pen. It's got a very delicate brush tip with real bristles (not felt) that holds up well. Lee Petty, the amazing art director at Double Fine, recommended the Pilot brush pen. Apparently you can only get them imported, so I went to Japantown here in San Francisco and found them in the stationary store across from Kinokuniya books! That's an awesome pen.

And what software?

For many years I've painted mostly on computers, although my approach was influenced a lot by learning to use oil paints in art school. Computers can make art look very clean, but I prefer to be messy. The very environment of a computer interface encourages a left-brain, rational approach. I try to resist this. When I paint in Photoshop, I usually start with a sketch layer to rough out the composition. Then I block in basic colors on a layer below. From there, I just start painting over top, adding a new layer whenever I want to protect the work I've done below. My approach is fairly low-tech in the sense that I mostly just manually put color on top of color. I like the imperfections and sponanaity of things that are hand-made.

The great thing about working digitially is the flexbility and speed. You can copy a section of the canvas and move it or scale it. You can adjust the light and dark values, or color temperature, of the entire canvas. I find that freedom difficult to part with. I'm working on a new episosde of A Lesson Is Learned, and the layout has changed so much since I started. I've taken finished-looking sections and completely shuffled around the panels. That fluidity is so valuable, because it's often not until I'm half done with a painting that I understand what it needs to be.

On iPad I adore Procreate. I've tried all the painting apps and Procreate is the best. It's fast and responsive, all the most important functions are immediately accessible, and it's very aesthetically pleasing, which creative software should always be.

What would be your dream setup?

Wow, I feel like this question is going to haunt me later because my immediate response is not particularly visionary. The technology we have today is already so great. I want an iPad that can handle really high resolution art work, and a pressure-sensitive stylus that feels great. And I want an evolution of Procreate that offers the editing flexibility of Photoshop, while retaining its elegance and simplicity.