I've been rifling through more of my old studies and personal thumbnails, analyzing what I've learned over the years with October right around the corner. These ones are all the way back from 2015, a little scratchier and more middle-of-the-road value-wise than I do now. Nonetheless, it's useful to analyze the areas where you've gotten stronger, as well as understanding where your skill starts to peter out and improve more slowly. Moving backwards is still movement!
I've spoken about Frank Brangwyn before and how he's been a major fine art inspiration of mine. His ability to somehow create chaotic and extremely simple compositions is endlessly fascinating, which is to say nothing of his lighting. Buttery and bold, he's able to craft out a figure's weight, age and personality with just a few deceptively simple strokes. I've done enough traditional and digital studies over the years that I feel comfortable getting a lot down with very little. Silhouettes, in particular, are a very reliable way of carving out what you see.
Moving forward I want to keep polishing up these areas. I want to paint faster, create more stunning compositions and improve my technical perspective. I also want to get comfortable all over again with being sloppy and loose.
I love how just a little white splotch can communicate so much. A spot of sunlight on a roof. A worker's cap. A rock in water. Less really is more.
While my art is a little too tightly polished to be called impressionistic, it's still a movement I take inspiration from in my preliminary work. The vibrant movement and sharp texture does a lot to keep my creative mind churning. Not all of my pieces are planned, after all. A single blob can be interpreted a dozen different ways. It's really fun figuring it all out on the fly. I'll have to upload more .gifs of my process so you can see just how many times I shrink, flip and rotate my work.
These studies were instrumental in giving me a feel for Frank Brangwyn's work. His blobby, squished subjects and lavish detail just can't be confused for anyone else. On the other hand, I was clearly figuring out what was more important: getting all the details in the right place or keeping the study readable for the viewer. More contrast and smoother linework would have helped here. Speaking of which, I'll be getting into my favorite brushes in later posts, most of which include some sort of 'natural' jagged border.
Clearly I learned something of value (ha!) from all these studies, because these personal thumbnails I did around the same time are much more readable. These compositions draw the eye toward a strong focal point, with the background either swooping or angling toward the subject for maximum effect. On top of that, atmospheric perspective is utilized in abundance to create a more believable sense of space. Perspective isn't just intimidating grid lines and boxes, but how objects fade, overlap and contrast each other.
...And, to be entirely honest? There are actually areas in my 2015 and 2016 work that are stronger than my current work. More dynamic. More lively. Looser textures, compositions that almost seem to breathe...it's no coincidence those happened to be easier artmaking years for me, as well. I was so much less wracked with pressure putting tablet to pen, letting anything and everything flow as it came. It's been hard for me to churn out the same amount of work I used to, and it's in studying my earlier pieces can I better get in touch with what's tripping me up.
October is coming up, meaning Inktober...or in my case, Paintober. That means lots of new paintings and lots of new posts. Stay tuned!
You want to be a character designer? Design characters. You want to be a concept artist? Create concepts for a hypothetical product or videogame. You want to be an animator? Animate. This advice may come across as intentionally obtuse, but so much of the narrative surrounding working artists is...convoluted.
There are far too many art schools out there with archaic curriculums that exhaust rather than inspire. The amount of horror stories I hear from working professionals with degrees? It'd make your head spin (if you aren't one of those postgraduates already). Capitalism also has many of us afraid to specialize in one or two paths due to the inherent instability of the job market. Hell, just living your life and juggling time between kids, a part-time job and/or school? Underfed possibility will have you overwhelmed by the time you sit down to work on your art. I'm no stranger to it.
Contrary to what you may hear, specializing is actually a good thing. A major reason I get work in fantasy illustration...is because I draw and paint a lot of fantasy. No attempts to be a jack-of-all-trades doing every last style under the sun, no self-flogging because I'm still weak in some areas (like urban cityscapes). I do what I like and I get hired to do what I like. Just like a gymnast has to do a set of repetitions thousands of times, so too do you need to draw something over and over before you get really good at it. All of this would've been harder if I spent a big chunk of time painting, say, cars (which I could really care less about).
This isn't to say life experiences outside of art are unimportant, nor that variety is a waste of time. Far from it. The best art comes from a wealth of first-hand, lived experiences -- it's a reflection of life, after all, and art that lacks a healthy foundation will show its cracks. Over the past ten years I've gone from being an educational ASL interpreter to several barista positions to B2B writing. I've learned so much about myself and have drawn on these life experiences to improve my craft. All the while? I've drawn and painted what I wanted to. What made my mind, heart and soul sing. I sometimes wavered on this over the years, wondering if I was 'limiting myself' because I leaned toward a certain style and handful of genres.
Whether you are leaning toward human subjects, a shoujo-esque style or wanting to commit to a sequential art major, you are limiting yourself...so you can specialize and become a master of one. Variety is important and specialization is not a curse. I've talked before about how language matters. The art industry is ever in need of nuance.
Here we're going to take a look at another old character of mine, a pheasant-griffon sphinx that embodies so much of what I love to paint:
I'll never lose touch with my eight year-old self filling in a coloring book.
A good, old-fashioned pencil sketch scanned into Photoshop CC. On the right I fill up with a base color, which does the dual work of filling up the space and helping me better see my lineart. Choose a hue that's predominant in the final piece: this'll save you a little time when you finally sit down to paint. It's all about working smarter, not harder in these commercial illustration streets!
I use hard-edged brushes when painting, but prefer soft-edged brushes during preliminary stages or touch-up stages. This gives me a sumptuous base that looks more natural. I also don't prefer to fill in areas manually, but quick mask and brush over my base color. It honestly looks nice when colors very gently 'bleed' into one another (thanks, traditional art!). On the right I then pull everything together with a gradient overlay. I keep it flowing in the direction of the lighting (from the top-right) so that it already looks complete, even before I've started rendering.
It's extremely subtle, but I upped the saturation on the left -- I needed the reds and oranges to pop a little more. On the right I start painting with my usual dark-to-light (very common for acrylic and oil painters). One of my favorite quotes (and I can't remember who said it) was treating light like water: if you were to take a bucket and splash a subject, where would the water hit first? Where would it travel and where would it land? This simplifies key lighting fundamentals like a main light source and reflected lighting.
'Buttery' and 'oily' were the main adjectives running through my head here. Even though I've only toyed with oil paints in the past (since I don't have the studio space for them), I've always adored their glowing results.
It's really satisfying seeing pencil strokes blur and vanish beneath the digital paint. Sometimes I'll let a little show through, depending on just how polished I want the final piece to be. As per my last post, art is a conversation. Embrace surprises.
Borders are something I've been steering away from in recent work, though I may try it again for very classical-type pieces. I'm also thinking of more interesting way to do simple pin-ups.
This piece is from 2017 and remains a shining example of what I love to see in my work: rich colors, fantastic creatures, beautiful black people, countless details and an irresistible sense of mystery or wonder.
If you want to get work doing a certain thing, do the thing. Give yourself the space and time to focus on a certain subject, genre and/or style -- experiment enough to learn what you like, specialize enough to let yourself improve. The Internet has made it easier than ever to put your work up and be seen, as well as learn from others. Promoting yourself, though, is a major hurdle for many working artists (particularly introverted ones), which is something I'll be talking about in future posts.
I have more goodness on the way, including posts about work-life balance and what day-to-day physical therapy looks like. Stay tuned!
Sometimes you don't know how a piece is going to turn out. It's the eternal conundrum: do you keep going with a sketch that's quite not working...or start over?
Then there are the times you don't know what the hell you're doing at all.
I've gotten better at resolving this over the years. At this point I can tell when something isn't going to go where I want it to, no matter how hard I try. One common sign of this is when I rework a certain area of a painting over and over and over. Other times I'll notice something is wrong when there is an abnormally huge gap between the preliminary stages and the final sketch. Art is a conversation. It'll go in places you don't always expect and, just like any dialogue, you should take warning signs at face value.
Sometimes, though...unpredictability is your friend.
Sometimes you're not sure where your art is going...and that's the best part. The pieces are laid before you, the ideas and the mood are there, but you haven't arranged them into anything resembling sense yet. This is, honestly, one of my favorite ways to paint. This illustration below originally started out as a bunch of ovals and circles. No thumbnail. No rough draft or references. Just a mess of blobs I shuffled around until they gradually formed an image in my head. This tends to be what I do when I'm having a hard time creating work and want to push myself. As is my wont, I go for a half-human creature.
What can I say? I know what I like.
This method of laying down shapes and shuffling them around isn't unlike whittling away at a block of clay. I elongated the oval, added a face and neck to the circles, then kept working from there. I tend to vacillate between sketching the old-fashioned way and laying down blocky shapes. The collision of the draftswoman and the fine artist. I wish I had the first few passes screencapped, but, again...I didn't know where I was going with this!
makes a mental note to screencap literally everything
Throughout this sketching and blocking stage I intentionally kept the other harpies in the backdrop and foreground more faded. It's actually a touch I wish I kept in the coloring stage. A little more atmospheric perspective would have gone a long way to tie the whole piece together. Live and learn!
Wings are one of my absolute favorite things to paint. I swear they're my therapy at this point.
It's fascinating thinking about how much of our life bleeds into our art without our knowing it. As I was detailing the wings and feathers I remember thinking about how much calmer I felt. How my normally frazzled mind finally slowed to a crawl. On a conscious level, I prefer complex work because of how easy it is to get lost in all the details. There's always something else to discover with every new viewing! On a subconscious level, however...I've realized I gravitate to details due to how they relaxe my mind and heart. When you're mentally ill? That's not a feature you can take lightly.
Flow is a psychological phenomenon where intense focus and relaxation has us losing sense of time. Painting is a popular way of achieving this, though you can just as easily enjoy flow by crocheting, knitting, playing piano, dancing or cooking. Any activity that gets your hands moving and your mind lost in the sway of your work. You know you've done a good job when you glance at the clock and wonder where the past three hours have run off to.
Once everything started coming together I pulled up a few references of crows over on Google. Even the most whimsical and freeform piece will be better off with a visual aid or two.
Color remains one of my strong points. I had no idea what sort of scheme I wanted to do here and, just like the sketching stage, I went with whatever felt good at the time. It's something I'm going to focus just a little less on going forward, just so I can give my technical drawing and perspective skills time to catch up. This isn't to say I still don't have areas to improve! I just know color theory isn't tripping me up as much compared to, say, urban landscapes.
I will master them one of these days
There's no shame in starting over. There are also times you have to give yourself a chance and push through with what you have, even when you're not sure what the hell you're doing. Especially so. You may just be surprised at what the deepest recesses of your mind spits up.
I've got more goodness on the way. Stay tuned!
Like the sun rises and sets, there is always hubbub in the art community around copying...and rightfully so. No self-respecting artist wants to be a glorified scanner, nor should they want to make a mockery of another artist's work for short-term gain. Then there's the whole 'getting sued' thing.
The word 'copying', however, should come with an asterisk: there's a big difference between mindless copying and studying. Any artist that wants to improve on a technical and personal level needs to know this. To study another's craft is to go in with the intent of bettering yourself. Of carving out your unique voice. This can be strengthening your composition by asking how, say, a commercial illustrator makes their work so readable. This can be improving your technique, such as figuring out a fine artist's strong grasp on light and shadow (though you should be studying from life, too). Perhaps your favorite artists have a certain style that just speaks to you.
All are valid reasons to pick up a pen and do some homework. That doesn't mean mindlessly copy and hope for the best. Studying is a conscientious act, with a goal to achieve after a set of repetitions. Studying from just one artist can increase the risk of copying, too, which is an easy enough problem to fix: have more than one inspiration. Just like a healthy diet can't solely rely on carbs, so too does a healthy artistic foundation need a variety of sources to pull from. Growing up I was surrounded by inspiration. I was heavily influenced by Pokemon, Final Fantasy and more books than I could shake a stick at. Jerry Pinkney, Janell Cannon, Mary GrandPré, Yoshitaka Amano and Pete Lyon are all incredible illustrators who did so much to capture my imagination (and still do).
To this day, I have more artistic inspirations than I can count. Commercial illustrators, fine artists, musicians, game designers, fashion designers. For now, I'm going to look at some studies I did in 2017 and 2018 of two of my favorite painting masters: Frank Brangwyn and Jeffrey Catherine Jones.
I don't remember where I first found Frank Brangwyn's work, but I do remember being completely floored by it. He's been a major painting inspiration for years for his beautiful technique and deceptively complex compositions. I say deceptively because, despite so many subjects and details, they remain relatively easy to break down into two or three parts. It's the base of any good composition: less is more. Also...his colors. Oh. They're so buttery I could cry.
I did these studies in grayscale, however, to focus more on tone and composition. They took me about an hour and a half to complete each, which will contrast the Brangwyn studies I did below. Doing these helped remind me how to gather up all my minor and major details in a way that's never confusing.
Jeffrey Catherine Jones is another illustrator whose work just pops. Bold compositions with simplistic backdrops, combining the best in contemporary commercial illustration and classical paintings. Compared to Brangwyn's mundane romanticism, her work leans toward moody. Surreal. Even harsh. I'm a huge fan of how she uses black. There's almost always a striking black spot somewhere in the work, to draw the eye but not necessarily overwhelm.
Both of these artists represent different facets of my work I want to continue nurturing: warm, dreamy romanticism with intense, somber surrealism. *chef's kiss* A match made in heaven.
Not every study needs to (if you'll pardon the pun) be a masterpiece.
The quick ones, in fact, kill two birds with one stone: they help you loosen up and they force you to understand complex subjects on a basic level. There's a reason why you draw certain subjects faster than others. If you can't break something down in a short amount of time? It's likely you have a weak spot that need tending to. While not all of these turned out very nice (indeed, only a few did), they put my shortcomings on full blast. Told me where I took too long. Showed me where I didn't feel quite so comfortable (like cityscapes).
These took me about twenty to thirty minutes to do. I also do studies that take a few minutes each, which I'll be uploading here in the future. One of my favorite resources is to put on a dance choreography video, pause at random intervals and draw the interesting poses I get.
These also took twenty to thirty minutes. With the exception of the top right-hand corner, I didn't push the values on these enough. That's something I need to be careful of in the future: muddy, middle-of-the-road values. Yuck.
I have plenty more master studies I plan on doing, as well as studying from some of my favorite films/shows. Inspiration is everywhere. Enjoy it!
Being concerned about copying is an important part of being an artist. I have to constantly beware the subconscious inspiration my mind takes every time I do a commission. The thing is...none of us are dictionaries. It would be more accurate to describe the human mind as a thesaurus: a dynamic, and flawed, compendium that takes in the world and approximates it with similar words. Would you rather attempt to flee the inevitable and risk subconscious copying...or be smart about your influences? Instead of turning 'copying' into a dirty word, let's be a thesaurus.
Study from the masters and always cite your sources. Don't be a morally bankrupt clown and rip artists off.
I have new studies coming up, as well as a process post on one of my favorite portfolio pieces. Stay tuned!
Here I post WIPs, sketches, speedpaints, thumbnails and anything else thrown into the veritable stew of artistic process.