Artist Feature: Michael Blackbourn

An Interview With An ArtRage Artist


Michael Blackbourn is a Canadian Visual Effects artist, who has just published an illustrated novel called Cindercast: A Tale of Tides.

Cindercast: A Tale of Tides book cover painting by Michael Blackbourn

ArtRage Editions: ArtRage 2, ArtRage 4, ArtRage for iPad

Platforms: Windows XP, iPad

Background: Digital & Traditional Art


Book: Cindercast: A Tale of Tides

Who are you? What do you want the internet to know about you?

I’m a storyteller. I always marked up my notebooks in school with sketches of robots in epic battles across the lined pages. After highschool, and six year stint in the Army as a paratrooper I decided I wanted to make a career using my artistic talents. I got into 3D visual effects to tell stories on the big screen and am now the CG supervisor at The Embassy VFX.

If you pay close attention you can catch my name in among thousands of others in the credits of such classics as Iron Man, District 9, and Mockingjay. I’ve recently decided to try my hand as an author and have self-published an illustrated middle-grade adventure book called Cindercast: A Tale of Tides.

Kindle screenshot of Cindercast by Michael Blackbourn

Where are you from?

Canada. I’m from the west coast and my spent years growing up on the gulf islands off the coast of Vancouver. I live on one now. It’s an amazing place that definitely isn’t lacking when you want to be inspired to create.

What kind of artist are you? (how would you describe your style and niche?)

My art tends to lean towards some of my more important inspirations. As a kid I loved the anime TV show Robotech (better known worldwide as Macross). I mimed the art from that cartoon so much that I think it got into my blood. Japanese manga and anime in general has influenced me. As far as subjects go I find myself drawing characters more often than intricate backgrounds or environments, they tend to come more naturally.

Do you come from a digital or traditional art background?

A little of both. I equipped myself with pencils and markers in highschool and did a decent amount of life drawing and sketching in film school. Since then I’ve been doing a lot of 3d work and some digital painting on the side. I find I’m faster at roughing in ideas with pencil and paper but that I find undos invaluable once I get to color and trying to finish work. ArtRage has been a lifesaver when working in digital paint and I never would have finished my book without it.

Do you use other programs or traditional media?

Side Effects Houdini is my main art tool. It’s a workhorse of a 3D program and the backbone of all the film visual effects work I deal with. When I sit down to do 2D work it’s pure ArtRage.

How long have you been using ArtRage?

About four years. I dabbled using a copy of version 2.5 that we had at work for a long time. I always tried to find ways to work it into my job as it’s so easy to use. It wasn’t until I got serious about my book that I picked up a copy for myself and moved up to version 4. I’m waiting for Microsoft to announce the next Surface Pro and then I’m going to jump to it, and use 4.5. I’m excited to start using the latest version and I’m sure I’ll be using ArtRage for years to come. Especially if there is going to be a sequel to my book.

How did you come across the program?

One of the owners of the visual effects company I work for has a copy. I immediately took to it as it really does a great job of letting you explore visual ideas with digital medium.

Can you tell us a bit about your new book?

Absolutely. I have daughters and wanted to write an adventure book that they would enjoy. Something a little like a Miyazaki story with a strong female protagonist. I was inspired by watching my girls on the sandstone beaches of an island here in the Pacific Northwest. The stone is this beautiful organic landscape of swirls and craters worn down by millions of years of ocean waves. I tried to imagine how amazing, and terrifying, it would be to be tiny, as tall as a grain of rice, and live your life on that beach. Crabs would be enormous, a constant threat. And the tide. It would come in and out twice a day and cover the beach, a constant countdown until you had to find shelter to hide from it.

Michael Blackbourn Cindercast Michael Blackbourn Cindercast tiny crab

Michael Blackbourn Cindercast illustration

That’s what was going through my head as I started to sketch and write. I shot a lot of reference photos using a macro lens, many hours were spent crawling across the sandstone trying to focus on tiny things. It’s an adventure about a ten year old Seelie girl (Seelies are the name of the tiny, tiny people) and her friend, a crab. She’s lost and has to find her way home using her wits and fragments of nano technology she finds washed ashore.

You used ArtRage quite a lot while developing the illustrations. Could you tell us about that?

I did a lot of sketching and brainstorming before starting the illustrations that made it into the final book. I explored lots of ideas of how to color and texture the work. I figured out how to get both a nice oil look and a nice watercolor look from ArtRage. It really helped me nail down the exact style I was going to use. My blog for the book has a lot of these tests and explorations on it.

Editors Note: Check out the history of the book’s illustrations, and a lot more ArtRage paintings, at

In the end I painted a full color oil image using just ArtRage for the cover. It turned out amazing. I was really happy with how I was able to blend the light filtering into the cave. For the interior illustrations I drew them out on paper using blue pencil then did a pass with different width markers. I followed that up with grey shaded watercolor in ArtRage to define areas of different value to focus the reader’s eye where I wanted.

Why do you use ArtRage?

It’s a fantastic tool for expressing yourself with digital art. The UI has just enough features to let you do the flexible tasks you would expect of using a computer but it doesn’t get in the way, you can grab your tablet and get around using only a button or two and the pen. Truly a digital canvas.

Do you have any favourite illustrations that you’d like to talk about?

The cover to my book. I was really happy with the result and the mystery I managed to convey in the silhouettes of my little heroes.

Cindercast: A Tale of Tides cover image by Michael Blackbourn

Cindercast: A Tale of Tides by Michael Blackbourn

Where does ArtRage fit into your workflow?

I use ArtRage for full pieces to just applying a little shade or color to work I’ve done using traditional media.

Michael Blackbourn Cindercast illustration

What are your favourite ArtRage features?

Using the combination of layers and the watercolor tools. You can really get that layered dried edge look, all gritty with the texture of the paper, easily by combining just a few tools.

Least used?

I have no idea. Since I never use them. I find I don’t tend to do a lot of masking and large area color filling though.

Do you have any tips for other artists who might want to do the same thing as you?

I’m not sure I’m the best artist to ask this of. I’m still learning so much myself. But here goes.

If you want to get better at art (or anything really) the secret trick is to force yourself to do it all the time, every day. Create tons of work and you’ll find that through repetition you’ll develop skills and a style without even knowing it.

Even if you’re not inspired at least grab a blank piece of paper and put a pencil in your hand, or open ArtRage and put a blank canvas in front of you. Once you’re there you’ll find yourself creating something because the toughest part is just showing up.

Any ArtRage specific tips?

I have trouble picking just the right color palette for my work and I’ve found pinning up a reference and color sampling from it is a lifesaver. If you find something you like just get it in there as reference and borrow ideas from it.

Is ArtRage suited to professional artwork?

Yes! I’ve created a entire illustrated book using it and would do it again. The value of this tool is phenomenal.

Any question(s) you wished we’d asked and would like to answer?

I think you were pretty thorough. But if anyone reading this is just dying to know more I’m happy to answer questions or go into more detail about anything. Hit me up on my blog or twitter and I’m registered on the ArtRage forums under my name as well.

IMG_20150211_221750 Michael Blackbourn Cindercast

Check out the reviews, read the beginning, and purchase Cindercast: A Tale of Tides from Amazon.

Learn more about the book and see lots of pretty pictures at
You can also follow the artist on Michael Blackbourn’s Twitter.

See more features from our amazing ArtRage artists!