Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Becoming one with the universe

Zen master goes up to a hot dog vendor and says, "make me one with everything..."

When you draw from life habitually you begin to identify and empathize with your subjects in a way you can only truly understand by experiencing it yourself. You become them. Please, don't just read this post and say to yourself, "yeah, I should draw from life more" - go do it! There's nothing more for you to learn here! The real learning happens when you go do it. All I can do is to try to convince you to do it.

I could show you some drawings - here are some I did on one of my many trips to a local farm.
 Down on the farm

Maybe they're not very impressive.  Neither is listening to a violinist practice scales, or watching a ballet dancer stretch at the bar. What's happening in your brain, though, is pretty significant - and it comes out later in all the work you create. Drawing what you see around you should become a compulsion, like someone who is blind feeling people's faces in order to "meet" them, or like when you hear music and can't help tapping your feet and singing along.
Hanging out at the pool


With practice you begin to melt into the subject and the process. Eventually it feels like is your body is doing it without "you." You're just along for the ride - someone else is doing the driving. You get to enjoy the scenery and take the credit for it.

In the audience

Whatever your level, style or working methods, regular drawing from real life is a source of never-ending advancement. If you're at the beginning of your journey, this is how you learn to remove the wall between mind and hand. Keep drawing from life and eventually you will just "sort of think about water or sheep or leaves" and they appear on the page. You won't learn this copying photos - photos are an irreplaceable resource for artists - just not a good way to learn to draw.

 Sitting somewhere
If you're more advanced, drawing from life helps you stay fresh, motivated and engaged, and also identify weaknesses. Of course you need to explore your own personal imagery very deeply, but it's also important to constantly expose yourself to new imagery, stuff you may never have considered, and more importantly, to take it out for a test drive. Drawing what we happen to encounter in our day to day lives encourages this, and seems to magically inform whatever "finished" work you have going on at the time as well.

 Waiting for a table

Careful, precise and finished work and detailed studies are important, but sometimes we need to just pick up the instruments and jam - get down with the ever-changing parade of people, animals, objects and scenery all around us. It's ok if we sing off key or our instrument is out of tune - we're still exercising our artistic muscles, big time.

Violin lessons

Drawing things that don't standing still for very long freaks out a lot of artists, particular in the beginning stages. But the point of this particular practice is not to painstakingly copy what you see. The purpose here is to develop fluency, so you draw as effortlessly as you talk on the phone or jot down a memo to yourself. You get there by taking in and re-creating a myriad of different forms and gestures, until that process becomes second nature. Your drawings may not look like much, but that is not the point. I keep repeating this because when my teachers told me that I didn't believe them.
As a representational, sometimes "realistic" artist I am always humbled by what I see when I draw from life. I know I can never grasp it all, nor convey what I'm taking in, in my art. It's overwhelming, but also inspiring. Even just daring to take a few more steps down this path of exploration can have profound effects on your art. 
At the park

Unfortunately... or fortunately... most artists don't take this practice to the point where it starts to bother people... if that happens, maybe think about backing off a bit - that's something to shoot for!

Just take your sketch pad, your note pad or your iPad and get going!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Circles in Perspective - Part Two

In Part One we learned the basics of how a circle in basic one point perspective becomes an ellipse.

 So how would another circle of the same size, say to the left of this one appear? Like this?:

That looks bigger than the center ellipse... maybe it should point to the vanishing point, like this:

Now that looks too small and really off...

In fact, in a perspective drawing like this, all ellipses on the ground plane will be oriented the same way - with their minor axes precisely vertical:

It might help if you think of each ellipse as the end of a cylinder. Since the sides of the cylinders are vertical, the ellipses are oriented vertically as well:

Interestingly, the same thing happens in two point perspective - as long as the sides of the (imaginary) cylinders are parallel, all the ellipses will be oriented the same way, in this case, vertically:

In Part Two we'll see how to apply this to a real drawing.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Mighty Manikin

The traditional wooden manikin has become an iconic symbol for the visual arts. They come in all styles and sizes, yet, it seems, most artists don't actually find them very useful. Their forms don't really resemble those of a real person, and their joints are greatly limited compared to what a real person can do.

So some artists use this guy:
He's very poseable, but misses the point. The purpose of a manikin is not to substitute for a real model or to learn anatomy - it's to study the human figure in simple forms, to learn about pose, balance, drawing and foreshortening.

There's also this unforgettable couple:

Again, TMI.

The simple wooden manikin helps us break down the figure into a few basic forms, and to see that the vast myriad of seemingly curvy and organic gestures are actually made from the relationship of  very small number of rigid components, attached by simple joints. But even very subtle gestures require more joint movement than today's standard artists' manikin allows. Some older manikins have hinged shoulder joints, and a manikin I inherited from my mother has rotating hip joints as well. Today's off the shelf manikins have become almost useless so, not surprisingly, no one uses them. 

Rather than take this lying down, I modified my manikin, as I did with my plastic skeleton. I made the shoulder sockets into vertical slots, so now the shoulders can raise and lower. Next I unglued the balls of the hip joints, and reattached them with springs. Since the manikin's forms are basically cylindrical (they don't represent real muscles) rotating and swiveling the hips looks the same as it would if they used true ball and socket joints. This means my guy can do great stuff like this:

His shoulders can't move forward and back, though. Stop motion puppet armatures can do this, but lack the rudimentary forms we need. Being able to adduct and abduct the hips (swing them straight out to the side, or in toward one another), means he can also ride a... horse?
And he's also almost the same size as his buddy, Mr. Bones:

An artist friend once told me, "when learning to draw people, draw things that are like people" (I think he in turn had heard this from someone else).  It can be great practice to draw manikins from memory as well. You can see how the subtlest changes in angle and position of a few elements create very different gestures:

We read other people's body language naturally and automatically, and unconsciously "pose" our own bodies to communicate things. It's very hard to be consciously aware of what exactly the different parts of the body are doing to elicit the effect. Using a manikin as a drawing subject teaches us how to manipulate the basic building blocks of body language and gesture by stripping out everything else that is irrelevant.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Color Unbound

Here's a painting I did a few years back called Porziella:

 the original painting

Here's the same image in grayscale - all color (hue and saturation) information has been stripped out:

  without color

And here's a color only version of it - all value differentiation has been removed:

 without value

Without value you can barely make out the various elements. It's hard to see any picture in there. Value is a far more powerful force than color in how we perceive images, and the world around us.

Value is so overwhelmingly important that one can almost say colors don't really matter, that is, in terms of whether the picture works or not. If the values in an images are working well, almost any color scheme will work.  Here's the same painting with a new color scheme:


And here's the color layer by itself
color only

I painted this in about 30 seconds, without thinking much about what I was doing. The color layout doesn't really adhere to the lines and forms in the underlying image at all. Nor is there any logic in terms of the color of the light source, the shadows, and so on. There are some vaguely warm splotches over the girl's face and hands, a cool color splashed across the sky area (and also covering much of the trees in the process), etc.

This haphazard approach unintentionally produces some beneficial results - different elements are naturally unified when given a single swath of color, similar to when light bounces back and forth between objects in proximity, or when they're bathed in an ambient light.

You can experiment like this using paintings or even photographs. Photographs are not a good way to learn about controlling value in painting, but for this exercise they're ok. MAKE SURE TO WORK IN LAB MODE when desaturating a source image, and when colorizing. RGB and CMYK modes do not accurately translate color to value, and do not accurately preserve values when colorizing.

Ultimately you want to be able to say something with color, whether you're creating a convincing depiction of a realistic scene, or using color more abstractly and expressively, or some combination of the two. In the beginning... and often for quite some time, though, getting colors simply to work, that is, to not look bad, can be a challenge for many artists. With opaque paint one must control value and color simultaneously. It is therefore critical to learn to see the two separately.

This little study should show you that color in painting is malleable, and even in representational painting is less bound to 3-dimensional reality than you may have thought. Value relationships are more critical - if you are having a color problem with a painting, chances are you are really having a value problem.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Words and Pictures

Illustration is about communicating an idea pictorially. Sometimes illustrations stand alone, other times they accompany text. When words and pictures work together in harmony, the whole can be much greater than the sum of the parts - pure magic!

In a picture book, for example, words and text do not simply reinforce one another, they complement each other. They each provide different information. Each is somewhat ambiguous, possibly meaningless, without the other, and the reader's enjoyment comes (whether s/he knows it or not) from connecting the two internally to create a third reality that is not explicitly stated.

For example, the words,"Charlie had put in a long day's work" might accompany a picture like this:

"Charlie had put in a long day's work..."

Ok, so first off, Charlie's a pig. And he seems happy and proud of his work, not particularly tired or experiencing anything negative for that matter. I guess he's built a wall, so that's probably going to be important to the story later on. The fact that the final story is assembled completely in the audience's head, something like: "Charlie is a pig who just built a wall (for some reason we're going to find out about later), and is really pleased with himself (so I suspect things might take a turn for the worse at some point...)... and lots more things I'm sort of sensing but don't need to put into words..." is what makes the experience so deeply satisfying, and engages the audience in a way that is similar to what we all naturally experience in real life. 

What if those same words accompany a very different picture? Something like this, maybe:

"Charlie had put in a long day's work..."

Now we see that Charlie is a person, in fact, a young girl. We don't know precisely what she spent the day doing - since we do see a picture of her but it's leaving that information out, it's probably not important. What's important is that she's completely exhausted. Something is probably going to happen because of that... maybe she'll fall asleep early and have a strange dream... or maybe she's coming down with the flu... We almost hear in our heads what the next phrase might be: "...and was completely worn out." For Charlie the pig the next phrase might be, "...building his wall." - his follow up looks backward in time, while Charlie the girl's looks forward, or to the present time.

This is truly a feat of conjuring - the story blossoms into existence, and in fact only ever lives in the mind of the viewer, from the seeds you have carefully planted there.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Too long or too short?

Artists use various methods to measure distances accurately when working from a model or reference image, or to create realistic imagery from imagination (e.g. applying different rules of thumb regarding the relative proportions of the human figure, placement of facial features, etc.).

Often, though, fundamental drawing issues masquerade as proportion or placement errors.  You draw a figure, maybe the right arm looks too long... so you shorten it, but now it looks too short. Back and forth, try as you might, you can't seem to zero in on the right length. If you are experiencing this from time to time, or frequently, chances are there are underlying drawing issues causing the element in question to appear to be the wrong size.

These two drawings use precisely the same outline. In the one on the left the boy's arm appears to be sitting tightly against his body, and his arm seems too short overall. In the one on the right, his arm appears to be extending toward the viewer, and is too long (click on the image for a larger version).

Note that even though the boy's hand in the image on the right is not larger than on the left, yet it still appears closer.

Here's a similar example. Even the ballerina's feet appear to be different lengths in the two images:

These pictures demonstrate a critical point about perception and basic drawing: shape is a more important and powerful factor in driving the perception of 3d than scale or perspective, and where an object appears to reside in 3d space has less to do with how it itself is drawn, and more to do with how it is connected to the "armature" (pun intended) that supports it. With proportion specifically, you can literally change the size of an element without actually enlarging it or reducing its 2d "footprint", by altering how it sits in space, via what's going on inside and around the given element.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Fractal Textures

One thing that can add a lot of depth and interest to your digital pictures (and also save a lot of time), is the application of textures created by repeating shapes, patterns and forms already in the image. Fractal patterns are said to be "self similar", meaning that they are comprised of smaller versions of themselves.
With natural forms, rather than laboriously paint a bunch of little bumps and gullies, or use some generic bump texture, it can be very effective to simply create an overlay texture on the fly by reducing and repeating the overall form of the element to be textured.

Here's a basic painting of a rocky outcropping (click on any image for a larger version).

Basic rough painting

First I selected and copied as much of the rock as possible, scaled this piece down quite a bit, then pasted it all over the place on a new layer. The resulting texture looks something like this:

Rocky cliff sampled, reduced and repeated to create a texture

Next I applied this as an overlay layer above the main painting layer, and reduced the opacity a bit. This is the original rough painting with the texture over it. Even though the texture clearly repeats when viewed in isolation, this is not apparent when it intersects the larger, similar forms of the main painting on which it's based. Quite the contrary, in fact, the illusion of entirely new forms is created:

The two combined

If the texture layer's opacity is too high it looks cool, but may tend to flatten out the underlying big forms, or its repeating pattern may become evident: 

Too much texture?

Fine tune areas of the texture that aren't working well by touching up with the rubber stamp tool, sampling other areas of the texture, and add a layer mask to control precisely where the texture is applied.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Developing a Character - Aging

It can be fun but also challenging to depict the same character showing different emotions, in different settings, while engaging in a variety of activities as well. The character of the giant in The Selfish Giant not only had to do all these things, but he also had to age over time, while undergoing a transformation from gruff and grumpy young man, to  playful middle-aged man, and finally kind-hearted and gentle old man.

To develop the character I started by doing tons and tons of thumbnails - some good, many not so good. You'll hear me repeat this a lot: to a large extent art is about quantity, not quality. Sometimes you need to focus to finish and polish a piece, other times you need to just crank out drawings until you get something that looks worth keeping. I drew this character from different angles, showing different expressions, concentrating on the face and head.

When the giant first appears, as a relatively young man, he's got thicker hair, the beginnings of a beard, and smooth, though heavy features. His hands are fairly meaty as well.

Middle Age
Later, after his great epiphany, the giant becomes the jovial playmate of the town's children. He's now middle aged - his hair is a bit thinner and just starting to gray, the flesh on his face is a bit looser, beginning to show some creases, his hands still strong but getting a little thinner, and his now shaved beard makes the lower part of his face appear slightly darker and less saturated.

Old Age
Finally, as an old man, the giant's stubbly beard has turned white, his hair is even more thinned out, and showing more gray; his face is a bit splotchy, his neck is wrinkled, and his hands are getting quite bony, with more pronounced knuckles and bluish veins showing through here and there:
This barely scratches the surface of this rich and important subject. The best advice I can give to help you develop in this area is to always keep your eyes open and constantly observe and study real people in the real world - and as always, draw, draw, draw.

You can see the full versions of these images, and other Selfish Giant pictures on my website

Monday, May 23, 2011

Circles in Perspective - Part One

A circle

viewed from an oblique angle, or squashed (scaled on one axis), becomes an ellipse:

An ellipse is symmetrical on both center lines - all four quadrants are the same shape (some are mirror versions of the others). The long center line of an ellipse is called the "major axis", the short center line is the "minor axis."

But shapes in perspective are not symmetrical - they get smaller as they recede into space, right? For example, a square in perspective looks like this:
So how does our perfectly symmetrical ellipse fit into all this? Answer: the center of the perspective circle lines up with the center of the perspective square, but the center of the ellipse representing it does not:
So the top "half" of the perspective circle is a very different size and shape from the bottom half:
But the ellipse is still... a perfectly symmetrical ellipse:
Kind of odd, but there it is. In the next installment we'll see how to orient and fit ellipses into a perspective drawing - perhaps there will be some more surprises there...

Go to Part Two