Introduction: Cupid Noir - Digital Illustration and Mayhem in the Studio

About: Commercial photographer with a need for some diy projects with the kiddies!

I wanted to put together a new card for Valentine's Day. But, I was tired of the schmaltz and sugar coated consumer stuff out there. Sure, I could photograph another candy coated heart, but what was the point?

So, I decided to do a portrait of Cupid.

What would happen if Cupid aged? What if it were a job, like any other?

You get up in the morning and put your wings on, one wing at a time, stare into the middle distance and ask yourself, How did I get here?

It all started so innocently, with a little match making on the side. Sometimes, someone asks for an introduction. Next thing you know, it is 20 years later and those wings don't always hold you up so surely now. And, maybe the introductions are not as honest as they once seemed to be, all covered in red glitter and thin layers of chocolate until you can't tell if it is solid or hollow inside.

But, it's about love, in the end. Despite everything else, or maybe because of it, you put your wings on every day. Because of love.

And, thus, Cupid Noir

Happy Valentine's Day,

Matt McKee

Set & Props- Wendy Joseph, Cupid Noir- Chris Palermo, Photo Illustration

Step 1: Start With a Concept!

Every shoot I do starts with an idea. This one was no different. I was thinking of Valentine's Day and trying to find something odd about it. The "what if" question (I learned that one from one of my heros, Stan "the Man" Lee).

The sketch just has to be a rough idea to help me to figure out what needs to be in the shot.

Step 2: Refine the Idea

Of course, if the first sketch is the outline of the story, I find I have to do another draft to make sure I am covering the idea totally.

Step 3: Casting for Your Story.

Casting can be done in a lot of ways and it really depends on you deciding to find the right person for the shoot.

You can ask your friends and relatives, co-workers and strangers off the street. You can also go to professional talent agencies for models and actors. You can also find sites like and and post a classified ad. On some jobs, I have put up an ad on

This particular shoot I put out the call on and Chris Palermo answered the call.

He had a great resume and an awesome attitude for the project.

Step 4: Sets and Props

I knew the basic stuff I wanted but just don't have the resources to search out, buy and store the props. I also know that there are plenty of extremely talented stylists whose job is to know where these resources are.

And, they can also make everything look better than appropriate for the shoot.

While we are at it, they can also fabricate most of the things we may not be able to get.

In a nut shell, a set stylist is another one of those pieces of the project that can take the final image from "oh, nice..." to "freakin' amazing!"

I called Wendy Joseph and got her on board for the project.

Step 5: The Background

My studio is very small, so I knew I couldn't build a wall far enough back to be effective and natural looking. That and the fact that we were on a super tight budget. We had money for digital but not for practical sets. In terms of time, it works out about the same. In terms of out of pocket... well, digital is cheaper.

I found a textured background in my collection and opened it up in photoshop.

Using a layer adjustment mask, I added some color.

Using a shape mask, I added the cupid graphic as a separate color layer. Then I selectively painted over the layer mask with grey to wear out parts of the wall paper, as if it were aged.

The calendar was another set of layers. The top section was warped in one direction with the transform tool. The bottom was tweaked the other way to give you the idea that it was creased in the middle.

The arrow gave me some trouble at first. I finally took a dart and stuck it in my wall and shined a light on it. Once I figured out how the different planes of the feathers looked, I could create it in photoshop using vector graphics, gradients and layer masks.

Finally, I added another adjustment layer. This time it was the curves setting. I darkened everything by dropping down the white point and the middle points. And then adjusted the density across the picture by going back into the layer mask with the eraser tool. Where ever I erased, I got back the original brightness.

Step 6: Test the Concept

With the background percolating, I decided to drop in the refined sketch to see if I was missing anything.

Looks good so far, right?

Step 7: Shoot Day

Using myself stand in until Wendy and Chris got there, I started working on my lighting. I knew I wanted the desk light to act as a practical light in the set.

I also knew there was going to be a light from off set to the right, based on my sketch.

And, I knew that I would need to give myself an easy way to cut Chris out and drop in my background later.

I ended up with:
one Lowell omni gelled with a watermelon filter for the "window" light.
one omni on a dimmer pack for a face fill light
one 250 watt fresnel with diffusion on the background.

Fairly simple lighting, but I couldn't do it without the dimmer!

Step 8: Test Proof of Concept 2

The really nice thing about digital shooting, of course, is the instant feedback. Once Wendy arrived and we started really tweaking the set, we could do a quick cut out and test to see if the background and foreground matched for position.

I opened up the file in camera raw and then photoshop, set the background to its own layer by double clicking on it, selected the grey with the magic wand and added a layer mask. Then, I copied that layer onto my background file.

Step 9: Shoot, Shoot Like the Wind!

Once we were close, Chris arrived and got into costume. And then we started shooting.

Directing for a stills shoot is just like any other shoot. The subject wants to know what is going on, wants to know if they look okay and wants to feel like a part of the project.

I spent most of the time telling stories of who Cupid Noir was. Chris really got into the part!

you can see more out takes on the video fro

Step 10: Composite Time

For the rest of the composite, suffice it to say that there were a lot of experiments with layer masks and feathering tools.

I ended up cutting out the original wings and using each one separately so that I could control the contrast and color.

The desk needed extensions and the calendar needed to be shifted. And, I needed to go back in and darken the tshirt. Next time, I will dye the white shirt grey to avoid the contrast issue.

Anyway, the video has the entire project on time lapse.

I hope this gives you some ideas for your photo illustrations!