30 Day Challenge: Animated Movie Stills

The purpose of this challenge was to copy Animated movie stills for 30 consecutive days.  This challenge was completed during the same time period as the 30 day plein-air challenge.  Needless to say, this was a month of tremendous growth.

The intent behind this exercise was to study the color, design and composition from two of my favorite Animated movies, Kung Fu Panda and Puss in Boots.  Of course I’m a little biased to Puss in Boots because of Nathan Fowkes, who was the lead color stylist for the film, and was also my painting teacher.  In fact, I have to credit Nathan for inspiring me to do this challenge. He always credits his color skills to hours of consistent master studies.

I’ve also described my thought processes, color choices, material choices and general tips below for those who may want to take this challenge themselves. Scroll down to read more about the insights and lessons learned during this month of intensive color studies.


How I completed the ‘Animated Movie Still Challenge’


The idea for this challenge came from the last Nathan Fowkes workshop I attended. Nathan had brought in a large illustration board (roughly 14″ x 18″ in size) that was sectioned off into about 30 small rectangles. Each rectangular section was about 2″x3″ in size and had a wonderful master copy that was painted in Nathan’s trademark watercolor technique.  I had only seen these studies as jpegs on a computer screen. When I got to hold the actual illustration board in my hands with the original paintings in all their glory, and I saw how proud Nathan was of this milestone in his painting journey, I immediately knew that I had to try it too. Like I always say, if it’s good enough for an expert like Nathan, it’s good enough for me.

This is the second canvas I had sectioned off. Each section is about 2″ x 3″ in size. This size allowed me to not only work quickly, but to be more bold with the paint. At this size, an average size brush (ie. #4 flat), is quite large relative to the size of the ‘canvas’. This means I could paint with big bold strokes and could easily load up on paint.  One of my sticking points now is the tendency to paint thin. Working in this size helped me to paint more opaquely and be bolder with applying paint.

The particular canvasses I used during this challenge were 14″ x 18″. Now that I look back, I probably would choose a smaller size to work with, like 12″ x 16″, or 11″ x 14″.  Although it’s great to work this large and have 30 nice sections ready to go, it was a real pain to scan so I may try a smaller canvas for the next challenge.


My Set-up

The set-up I use for indoor painting is pretty straightforward.  My Jullian French Easel
is a full box. It was my first easel and works great for indoor studio painting. The palette is homemade from plexi-glass, foam board and duct-tape.


My Art Supplies

1. Color choices

The palette I used for this exercise is similar to my outdoor palette.  It has the standard warm/cool variety for each primary and the earth tones with the addition of a green. Here’s a list of the colors from left to right:

  1. Titanium White
  2. Hansa Yellow
  3. Yellow Ochre
  4. Napthol Red
  5. Alizarin Crimson
  6. Burnt Sienna
  7. Burnt Umber
  8. Phtalo Blue
  9. Ultramarine Blue
  10. Cadmium Green Pale

If some of the color choices confuse you, just think of it as 2 versions of the same color.  Colors like Hansa Yellow and Napthol Red are  not very common, but they’re both simply “warm” versions of yellow and red. Cadmium Yellow and Cadmium Red are the most popular and commonly used, but I wanted to try a warm variety that was less toxic since cadmiums are heavy metals and can be quite toxic.

Two of the color choices, Phthalo Blue and Cadmium Green Pale are both quite unique and not very commonly used. I’ve found both of them to very useful for this particular exercise.

Phthalo Blue is a “cool” blue (“cool” meaning that is closer to green on  the color wheel) that is transparent and really ‘punchy’. A small dab of Phtalo is all it takes to quickly to create brilliant blue-greens and a rich turquoise.  Normally Phthalo Blue is really hard to control because it is so potent and quickly shifts to blue-green, but for studies of animated movie stills it was a perfect choice.  Animation artists tend to push their colors into more fantastic, unrealistic hues which works perfectly for big the screen.  I also noticed that many of the blues, like in daytime sky panels were much closer to blue-green then a violet blue. Because of this Phthalo Blue was a life saver during this exercise because it allowed me to quickly match the often exaggerated hues from the movie stills.

My tube of Phthalo Blue, by Gamblin Sketch, 150 ml size. Scroll down for links to online retailers.

Cadmium Green Pale  (CGP) was a color that was first introduced to me by Sean Cheetham who uses CGP in his realist, figure paintings. Because it was already on my palette from taking Sean’s painting class, I decided to apply it to this challenge.  I found that CGP was exceptionally versatile. It shifted colors to a rich green and was very easy to control.

My tube of Cadmium Green Pale by Winsor & Newton, 37 ml size. Scroll down for links to online retailers.

As for brands, I used a combination of Gamblin / Gamblin Sketch, M. Graham and Winsor & Newton. Since this was more of an exercise, I didn’t worry too much about the quality of the pigments or using the more expensive brands. Winsor & Newton is the most expensive of the brands I used, but the quality is very good. As far as I know, Windsor & Newton is the only widely available supplier that makes Cadmium Green Pale.


2. Brushes

The brushes I used are pretty standard. I used a variety of bristle flats to do the bulk of the work. Sizes 3, 4 and 6 work great for these small studies.  The point of the exercise was to study color and shape and design so the bigger the stroke the better.

When it did come time to do smaller details, I found round sables (pictured above) to be extremely useful.  The frizzled brush (brush #2)  is my old reliable sable detail brush made by Robert Simmons.  The natural, red sable (brush #1) is  a new detail brush I picked up from Blick Art Materials. So far it has worked surprisingly well for a store brand.


General Tips on Painting From Animated Movie Stills

This exercise was such a tremendous growth experience. It was also very fun and engaging.  Master copies are a great exercise, but studying from the old masters can get a little ‘stiff’. Studying from a more fantastic, fun and playful medium like animated films is a good change of pace.  Since I painted this series during the same time period as my plein-air challenge, a lot of the same tips and practices apply here as well.  For those who want to try this challenge, here are some of thoughts and conclusions from this experience.

Choose movies that you enjoy. This may sound obvious, but if you realize that you will be staring at stills from the same movie everyday for a month, it might be a good idea to choose a film that you enjoy and can watch over and over again. There are dozens wonderful animated films, so narrow your selection and start with the 1 or 2 films that are at the top of your list.

Choose movies that have great color styling. This may sound obvious too, but some movies have “better” color design than others. Of course, all of the major studios have excellent artists designing the color, so virtually any animated film will work for color studies. I’m a little biased to movies by Dreamworks, but the fact is they consistently invest a lot of resources into color scripts, color styling and color design and it shows in the end product.

Have your set-up with the paint loaded ready to go at all times. Just like the plein-air challenge, I made sure to have my easel and paints loaded every night before I went to bed.  My easel is directly in front of my bed so its the last thing I see at night and the first thing I see in the morning. This not only eliminates the ‘setting-up is a hassle’ excuse, but subconsciously, emotionally and mentally prepares me to paint everyday.

Try the sectioned off canvas approach. There’s something about seeing empty sections every day. It creates a strong psychological pull that motivated to keep painting to finish off the canvas.  The smaller size also means you can paint faster and more often, which means more starts. More starts leads rapid growth.


Where to Buy Art Supplies

If you’re interested in taking this challenge and want to purchase art supplies, I’ve included links below to various online retailers:

1. Oil Paints

Phthalo Blue by Gamblin, 150 ml tube @ Amazon

Cadmium Green Pale by Winsor & Newton, 37 ml tube @ Amazon

Gamblin Artist’s Oil Colors @ Blick.com

Gamblin oil paints @ Amazon

Winsor & Newton Artists’ Oil Colors @ Blick.com


2. Brushes

Robert Simmons Long Handle Titanium Brushes (sable hair) @ Blick.com

Blick Masterstroke Pure Red Sable Brushes (Long Handle) @ Blick.com

Robert Simmons Signet Brushes (bristle hair) @ Amazon

Robert Simmons Signet Brushes (bristle hair) @ Blick.com


3. Other Supplies

Jullian French Easel @ Amazon

Jullian Original French Easel @ Blick.com


Canvas panels, 14″ x 18″ (pack of 12) @ Amazon

Blick Economy Canvas Panel Packs (various sizes) @ Blick.com

Gamsol Odorless Mineral Spirits @ Blick.com

Walnut Oil, by M. Graham@ Blick.com

Stainless Steel Brush Washer (10 oz) @ Amazon

Stainless Steel Brush Washer @ Blick.com


Kung Fu Panda (Widescreen DVD) @ Amazon

Puss in Boots (Two-disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo) @ Amazon

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