Monday, January 30, 2012

Painting White Part One - Value

A lot has been written on this subject before... many paintings ask the question, "what is white?"  Viewers are often amazed at how many colors are visible in something that's purportedly "white"

All objects reflect back whatever light is thrown on them (including light bouncing off of adjacent colored objects). The more strongly colored the object in question, the more it filters this light. Neutral objects (black, gray, white) provide almost no color filtering, that is to say, they absorb or reflect the entire spectrum equally. That means that with a pure white object, what you are seeing is really just the sum of all the light striking it. As a result, the one color that white almost never really appears as is pure white.

But I'm not here to talk about color just yet - as usual, I'm here to talk about VALUE. First and foremost, the reason an element in a painting appears white is because it's the whitest thing in the painting - or the whitest (lightest) thing in a particular part of the painting, where a particular lighting condition has been set up. (This is in fact true of all colors - what appears as blue is simply the bluest thing in the painting, what appears as yellow is simply the yellowest thing, etc., but again, we're not here to talk about color).

Take a look at this painting, The White Bear (featured in Spectrum 18, a full page no less, thank you very much):

There are several "white" elements in it - the woman's head scarf, her apron strings, the bear, the girl's head scarf. Here are those colors sampled, shown on a pure white background:

And here's where those samples are located in the painting:

Apart from the intense orange edge light, most of the painting appears somewhat uniformly lit. At least, all the figures look like they exist in the same space.

But check out how dark the mom and dad figures appear in isolation. The value range for elements from the white apron strings to dad's dark trousers has been extraordinarily compressed - but the apron strings still read as white because they are the whitest thing in that area.

Now with the girl overlaid - it seems like she comes from a different painting:

She'd fit better if mom and dad were painted like this:

Something like the figures in this painting:

Or if the girl were like this, then she'd fit with the darker mom and dad:

So when you're setting up a painting, or struggling to fix one... or struggling with color, or struggling in general, take a breath and first identify the white in each area of your painting. Everything else in that area must fit between it and that areas's black - even if this means you have to deal with incredibly subtle shifts of value.  I've said it before and I'll say it again - the illusion of light is about relationships and primarily value relationships, not contrast or saturation.

Be sure to check out Part Two of this series.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Where have all the book illustrators gone?

This article got my gander up (and the ganders of a few of my colleagues as well). Personally I think there are more - many, many more - illustrators and artists of all specialties who can draw very well these days. The artistic community is open and supportive - even the most seasoned professionals are willing to reveal their hard  won secrets and techniques, often for free. And the internet has provided the means by which this knowledge can be shared. There are a tremendous amount of resources available for artists to learn to draw, and my observation is that artists are achieving proficiency at a younger and younger age.

In my day we had the local bookstore to go look at covers done by established artists - and that was it! We would drool over the tiniest tidbit of "how to" information that might be gleaned from an interview with an artist, or passed on from a friend. It's a miracle anyone learned to draw at all given that, as the article does rightly point out, most art schools abandoned the grueling traditional drawing teaching methods (which are the only ones that work, btw, whether in school or on your own - practice, practice, practice).

Of course, all this sharing may be resulting in a certain homogeneity of style creeping in, since artists of certain genres tend to work digitally more than others, and therefore find it easier to share their methods, but that is a debate for another day...

Needless to say, this article is dead wrong - there are plenty of illustrators who are exceptional drafts-persons these days!!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Illusion of Creativity

Artists tend to imagine that there's this creative voice inside us that is trying to get out, to make itself heard. This is our creative mind, the source of our work. Conventional wisdom is that creative ideas come from some rich inner well... the subconscious, the right side of the brain... 

But maybe ideas don't really come from anywhere - maybe they don't really exist until you do something to bring them into existence. Perhaps the feeling that they exist, and need only to be expressed, is an illusion. It just seems like they already exist, but they don't. The really great ideas seem to come from nowhere.

Our creative mind may in fact not be a SOURCE of anything other than opinions, desires, needs. Our creative mind may not create things, but rather hunger for something that doesn't yet exist - something it can get only by forcing you to create it.

There are lots of rules to follow when making good pictures. It's relatively easy to analyze a picture and see if its underlying design (or composition) is solid, and so on.  But what gets that picture started? What are the rules for that? How do we go about that? 

The truth is, the so-called "creative" process isn't really so much about creating as it is about getting started on something, anything, and then reacting - the starting point can be almost entirely random. The process is entirely reactive

What's not random is the perception you have of that first scribble, that first line of text - how it affects you, what you pick up on, and choose to enhance and develop, like a Rorschach test that takes into account your entire life up to that point, your current mood, feelings and thoughts and even your intentions (even though your intentions may have had very little to do with the nature of that first mark). 

So if you're sitting around dreaming of the day that great idea for a book, picture, song, whatever is going to pop into your head fully formed, in some kind of creative lightning strike, I suggest you instead pick up a pencil (iPad?) and get working.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Snow White and Rose Red - process

Here's a walk through of my process for creating my picture, Snow White and Rose Red. The piece was also featured in Spectrum a few years back.

Here's a detail of Red:

You know the drill... just get your ideas down. Don't question them at this stage, just get them down and assess later. If one starts grabbing you, though, make sure to follow that lead.

It can be tough trying to turn that dreamlike image you get in your head into a tangible, viable real world space, while also retaining all its magic and abstract "oomph" - that is the challenge of realistic painting!

...starting to see an idea here... maybe if I have Snow White offset from the fire, against a dark background, with Rose Red darker, against the fire...

The basic value structure is starting to work, but I don't love the centered, one point perspective view.

This is more like it...
 Here's the value study...

And some quick color ideas, and the rough is done!

Before I get to work painting the final image, though, I need to really absorb my subject. I don't do a tight pencil drawing to guide (I say LIMIT) my painting. Instead, I do a lot of different drawings to get to know my subject, using real life, photos, imagination - anything - as a source. Here is me getting to know bears:

And kids...

And bears and kids...

and mom...

and sheep...

and stuff...

I've included all these so you can see that this stage of the process is more about training, which in turn is about quantity (time spent), not quality.

Here we go painting... where to begin? Doesn't really matter... I know some artists start on the focal point, others mix it up a bit. I tend to loosen up by working on non-focal areas, then sort of sneak up on the focal area and take it by surprise!  But I do generally work the WHOLE picture at once. Stapleton Kearns reckoned this something like herding all the sheep into the pen - you don't bring ONE to the pen, then go back for the next, then bring it into the pen, then go back for the third etc. - no, you corral them all at once, moving more slowly but bringing the whole herd along together. That's my approach.
 Starting to see some form and light here...

Continuing to add detail... like a photo coming into focus...

More detail... (I really need to do some videos of this process, I know)

Now adding a lot of stuff on the walls - this is where all those studies come in handy. No shortage of ideas, and all I need to think about now is where they fit...

So here's where artists that are just learning get upset with step by step demos("just keep adding details and refining and voila!") - they're like, "you make it seem so easy!! I never know what to do next!!" 

The truth is, I often don't either. I think Jason Manley once said, "think more, paint less" (could've been someone else, if so, apologies to you both). Anyway, believe me, I usually do not have a completely clear "vision" for the painting in terms of specific details - more like a specific feeling that I am roughly aiming for. Then I just follow the bread crumbs.

Making sure to maintain my simple value structure as I refine and add detail... all art is abstract - THAT'S WHAT MAKES IT ART!

This painting has a lot going on, but it's actually a very, very simple composition - basically just two values - a big dark area with a light spot in the middle. It's usually pretty straightforward to have large areas of the image kind of melt into darkness - but this is not always the obvious thing to do with light areas.

Check out the fireplace. Next time you're looking at a real fire in a real fireplace, you'll note that there are actually lots of darks in there, even if the fire is burning brightly. But if I did that here, say, brought some darks into the kettle and such, the fireplace would pop out like a yellow and black striped caution sign (they paint those things that way for a reason). The compression of the value range and overall monochromatic treatment of the fireplace interior is not just to give it a feeling of glowing warmth, it's also to create a flatter foil for the figures silhouetted against it.

Harvey Dunn would say, "it's ok if Rose decides to raise her hand, so long as YOU do not decide to raise it for her..."

At some point the picture has kind of arrived, and it's tempting to stop. You've done enough, it's all there, nothing left to do... then I ask myself, "well, if I WERE to do a little more, what might I do? maybe a little work here... the bear's fur could use a little more love..." and before I know it I've brought the painting to another level that I did not really foresee. That is one of the "secrets." All this little stuff adds up. For some painters, given their particular process, there are points at which the painting looks ABSOLUTELY HORRIBLE, and they may not even have a clear picture of what it needs to end up looking like. What they do have is confidence that if they just keep going it'll get where it needs to be.

Everything in the picture has to contribute to what you're trying to do, or it will undoubtedly work against it. You need to think about it all - color, value, lighting, mood, viewpoint, content, facial expression, body language, costumes, things, stuff - everything! For "stuff", I like to think about what these folks do when I'm not looking at them. How do they scurry up that ladder when they go to bed at night? What is just slightly "off camera" that we may not be seeing? What's in that jug on the shelf? What kinds of visitors come and hang their coats on that coat rack by the door? Who winds that clock? What do the girls do during the day - I know, they pick cherries - there's a basket of them under the ladder...

Some final adjustments, and we're done.

The thing that's great about 2d still art is it takes just a fraction of a second for us to get inside the viewer's head. 

Here's the same progression, focusing on Red. 

She starts life as a blob... ok two blobs (don't we all?)

Working those values, starting to define her edges

Painters go on and on about values - and no one listens to us!!!!!
Look at Red here - you can easily differentiate her arm from her body, and see that the shoulder on her dress is probably a white material... but squint down and look at it again - everything within her form melts into a single almost black shape. Values in painting are sooooo much more limited compared to real life you've got to "stay within the lines."  For Red, in this picture, that means using an extremely narrow range of values to depict the entire range of "local" colors in her, from white to dark red.

 Value control is not just about depicting reality - it's about focal point and contrast. Notice how much darker the fireplace interior is to the right of Red's head vs. the left side, where it's in front of her face. I don't want that triangle of light behind her head to draw your attention... but I also of course staged the picture so the brightest part of the fire is where I want it - behind her face (I'm so clever).

Changing pose and costume at the last minute...

Here's a detail shot of the mantle. Red is more active and wild - she likes to catch butterflies, so there's a jar of butterflies above her. Snow likes to read, so there's a stack of books above her.

At one point in the story the girls are rescuing a dwarf whose beard has gotten stick in the split of a log. Snow whips out a little pair of scissors and cuts the beard, freeing him. There they are...

I hope this little walk through the making of Snow White and Rose Red has been helpful (and apologies for the delays in posting).