Monday, June 30, 2014

Dinner Conversation

by Arnie Fenner

Cathy and I had dinner with Irene Gallo and Greg Manchess just prior to Spectrum Fantastic Art Live in May. The food was good (at the Savoy, how could it not be?), the companionship superb, and the conversation lively. One topic was particularly intriguing and I thought it'd be interesting to share it with the Muddy Colors readers and see what you think.

How many significant—or "classic" or "major" or "masterful"—works does an artist have in them?

There are innumerable creators with solid bodies of work, who are respected and successful…you know, all-around good artists. But regardless of their success or the length of their careers, a "stand out" piece doesn't immediately come to mind. There's not one which, if mentioned, others around the table would nod with familiarity and admiration. Everything just blurs together as an overall impression.

No one can snap their fingers and magically decide to produce a masterpiece—and as I've said elsewhere, that term has been misused and misapplied in recent years—just as no one can sit down and intentionally create a classic novel, film, song, sculpture, or poem. The artist can do everything "right" but the response of the audience (or of peers, academics, or critics) is always unpredictable. What makes an image, story, or message resonate? What makes it stand out from the crowd? What makes it timeless?

And, of course, regardless of what any of us might think today (or want to happen in the future) we'll never know who or what will be revered two hundred years from now, we'll never know what will be ensconced in museums or analyzed in art history classes. We'll never know what will be discarded and forgotten. Leonardo most certainly didn't know when he painted the portrait of Lisa Gherardini that people would visit it, write songs about it, copy it, or parody it for 500+ years.

So…how does it happen? Is every artist, once they've reached a certain level of proficiency or skill, capable of creating a "significant" work that will withstand the test of time—and if they're capable, will they? And if they don't, why? What is it that takes an artist to the tipping point of greatness and gives them the last shove? What makes a masterful work seem almost inevitable for some and little more than an elusive wish for others? And…how deep is the well of creativity for an artist? How often can that well be drawn from before it starts to go dry—and once dry, can it be replenished?

Pour a glass of wine, sit back, and…discuss.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

A Sculptor’s Secret World, Part 5: Alfred Paredes

-by Tim Bruckner

"Side-by-Cyclops", by Alfred Paredes. Life-size, Chavant NSP medium.

Alfred Paredes and I have been online friends for some time. Through our correspondence I’ve come to know him as an honest, caring and humble man with an open and generous nature. His classical training really brings depth and conviction to everything he does. He’s an artist of great versatility and skill. The guy has chops!

This piece started as a conversation with a friend. I was filling her in on a time when I had a blindingly brilliant moment of genius. I’ve always had a fascination with Cyclopes While I was doing some concept sketches, I came up with a creature with three eyes. A Tricolps! I was on to something now, I thought to myself. A Cyclops, a triclops and… Ooooo! What about a Biclops? That brilliant moment of genius faded when I realized that we’re all biclops. My friend and I had a good long laugh. But from all that, came an idea of two merging faces, forming a Cyclops. And so, Side-by-Cyclops was born.

The money shot of this piece puts you in the eye-line of the Cyclops. I wanted him looking creepily down toward the viewer. This slightly off center view also gives you a true sense of this guy’s character. You can see that he has quite a few wrinkles and sags, suggesting that he’s an older fellow. It also makes the viewer curious about seeing what the other “face” looks like.

As I started this sculpture, I wanted to make it clear that the two faces were distinctly unique. I wanted them to be able to be seen on their own, when viewed in profile. This meant moving around the piece constantly while I was blocking it in to make sure that my concept was working. An odd thing that happened as I worked on the front of the faces. Because they were merging, my brain had a hard time separating the two sides. I kept having to cover one side of the head with one hand, while I sculpted on the other side with the opposite hand.

The side of the head also gave me a place to provide the viewer with an area of rest. The face is really busy and there’s a lot to see. If the whole head was as detailed and texture heavy as the front, the viewer wouldn’t really know where to focus. As their eye moves past the faces, the sides of the heads allow for the viewer a visual respite.

Once around to the back, I wanted to hold the viewers attention for just a little while longer, before they went back around to the faces. The back of the head lets me tell a little bit more about this character’s story. The forms moving in and out of each other suggest both a coming together and a pulling apart.

“The devil is in the details”. I’m not really sure that I fully understand what it means. I think it means that the difficulties and challenges of a project lie in its details and how they inform the piece. Paying attention to these areas is important. Skin blemishes are natural to almost all of us with our tiny bumps and moles. Finding places for these types of details is important to make your piece look like a real character.

Mouths are a place that I feel tend to be overlooked in many sculptures. Back when I was in school and learning how to sculpt a face, my professor pointed out a technique that goes back centuries. He told me a story about stone carvers working on their pieces. They would finish their sculptures by carving a small gap in between the lips and then stand back and watch the marble take a breath. I don’t know if any of that’s true, but it’s certainly a nice romantic vision of sculptors. I don’t exactly stand back and watch my piece breathe. Nor do I wait until the very end to add that little gap. But I do add that gap in almost all my pieces. That sense that piece might take a breath is something that is hard to convey. I know that without that little touch, the illusion is often not as convincing.

“The eye’s have it!!” In this case, it’s just the one eye. Normally, when I sculpt a face I like to sculpt in the iris and pupil. I think it goes back to my days of doing fine art. Leaving the eye as a round ball is something that is more common in commercial sculpture. I intended for this piece to be cast in resin and painted up to look real, so I left the eyeball smooth. I still needed to have some sense of where this guy was looking while I was working on him, so I drew in a pupil and iris. I played around with where he would be looking. You’d be surprised by how much the mood of a piece can change by simply moving the eye around. He went from looking scared, to looking confused, sleepy to indifferent. Finally I landed on the perfect spot and the right mood for the piece jumped out at me.

The character’s story is something that each viewer fills in based on their own personal experiences. We each bring a lifetime of stories, images, faces and emotions to a piece that builds a unique interpretation of each work of art we see. I had my own story while working on this guy, I hoped that each viewer would bring their own interpretation and connect with him in a personal way.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Movie Review - Tim's Vermeer

Welcome to Les Couleurs Boueuses Cinéma.  In this installment, I am going to review Tim's Vermeer.

Tim's Vermeer stars inventor Tim Jenison who you may not have heard of, but I bet some of you have used Lightwave 3D or Video Toaster.  Tim founded Newtek earning him the money and time to invent lots of crazy things and invest time in whatever obsession he might have.  Penn Jillette, the famous magician and long time friend of Tim, is also featured in the film and was a producer, along with his ever taciturn partner Teller.

I think that rather than having you read all the way through this review to see what I thought about it, I will just tell you right now.  I loved it.  I highly recommend it.  Don't take that to mean that I agree with everything expressed in the film.  You have to read the review to find that out!

The gist of the movie is that Tim became interested in the idea that Vermeer used an optical device to assist him in painting and set out to try and recreate not just a Vermeer, but the room he painted in: the floor, the furniture, the costumes, the light... everything.  And to prove that Vermeer did indeed use an optical device to help him paint.

He was intrigued after reading David Hockney's book Secret Knowledge, given to him by his daughter.  In that book, which was surrounded by some controversy when it was released, Hockney argues that when art took off from the flat, stylized forms of the middle ages to the highly realistic and accurate renderings of the last few centuries, it was because of optical aids, like the camera obscura.  The problem with the camera obscura as Hockney described it, is that it could really only be used for drawing, tracing the projected image.  You can't paint under a projection because the light being projected affects the color and value of the paint being applied.  It is only accurate over a white surface.

Camera Obscura schematic

When Tim looked at a Vermeer, in his words, he felt that it looked like it "came out of a video camera." Tim's first idea was to set a small mirror at 45 degrees and set the subject in front of you (or a projection if his thoughts on Vermeer are correct).  You can see your painting and the subject at the same time by shifting your head back and forth over the top of the mirror and your painting.

Tim doing his first oil painting using the mirror device
Tim had never painted before, but finished a nice little oil copy of a black and white photograph in a few hours using this tool.  He would mix the paint until the edge of the mirror, reflecting the subject, disappeared against the paint, meaning it matched values.

You can see the reflected image of the photo over the painting in the mirror device

His initial theory was that Vermeer used a small camera obscura that projected the image onto a piece of ground glass that could be seen in daylight instead of inside a dark room.  He could then place the small mirror device to aid the painting process in front of the glass plate on the back of the camera obscura.  This would allow him to not just draw, as with Hockney's setup, but paint and match colors and values.

Polishing a lens

Once he decided he knew how Vermeer went about it, he set out to learn how to grind glass to make the lenses the quality appropriate to Vermeer's time (modern lenses are too good and would corrupt the experiment), grind pigments to make paint, recreate the vase, light, musical instruments, dresses and all the elements needed to reproduce Vermeer's studio.

Tim learning to grind pigments into linseed oil

He travelled to Delft, studied various Vermeers and then returned home and rented out a warehouse in San Antonio where he could create the north light studio of Vermeer.

He consulted a man named Philip Steadman, who wrote a book called Vermeer's Camera.  For me, it offers the most compelling evidence so far that he used an optical device, though I say that not having read the book, but just heard the synopsis offered in the movie.  Steadman takes 6 of Vermeer's paintings and uses them to create a map of his studio.  Using geometry, he identifies where in the room the camera obscura would have to have been for each painting in relation to the back wall of Vermeer's studio where the camera obscura may have been projecting to.  The geometry apparently lines up exactly in all six paintings.  Interesting.

Tim decided to try and reproduce Vermeer's The Music Lesson.  He doesn't copy the original, but uses it to recreate the room and all of the elements in it to paint.  He felt that it would be a good subject to start with because there were many elements in it that could be recreated objectively.  Using lathes and CNC routers and a whole incredible shop full of wonderful tools he starts making the elements of the room.

Tim has a strong obsessive streak that I have to admit I admire and as artists, we can all probably relate to a little.  I love his determination and inquisitiveness.  Whether or not you agree with the conclusions of the film, I found myself caught up in his efforts and his "whatever it takes" attitude to assuage his curiosities.

Tim visiting David Hockney's studio
Tim decides to travel to England to consult Hockney and show him his discovery of the small mirror device.  Hockney is very pleased, I am sure seeing it as additional validation of his theory that all the great artists used optical aids.  Hockney offers a quote that I thought was good.
"The idea that the Italians didn't use this (the device) because it would have been cheating... is childish."  
I agree with the idea that using a tool, or whatever, as some kind of a 'cheat' is stilly, but I do not agree with Hockney.  He has to contrive that no artist revealed or recorded his working methods, which is why we don't have a record of any of the artists he identifies having made widespread use of a camera obscura or optical aid.  Unlikely.  It also discounts fully documented efforts by artists in the 19th and 20th century drawing from life and producing the kind of work Hockney insists comes only with drawing aids.

When Tim returned back to San Antonio, he was ready to get started, but quickly ran into a problem.  The image being projected was too fuzzy and dim for him to be able to capture all the detail.  He tried many different setups, but eventual came upon the idea of projecting the image onto a concave mirror rather than a flat surface, which collects more light, creating a brighter, clearer image.  This allowed Tim to project an image in a brightly lit room.  Bright enough for him to use the mirror device to start copying.

You can see the day ticker in the bottom right corner
Time to start painting.  He went about the painting in a very mechanical, practical, almost robotic nature.  After a few weeks of painting, he stated, "Wow, I am not trying to make this look like a Vermeer, but it really looks like a Vermeer."  I can't agree though.  It does look like it in the sense that he recreated so many of the elements that you see in a Vermeer.  However, the paint doesn't have any kind of elegance, or interaction with the brushwork that Vermeer's work does.

Part of that comes from the very slow progress of the painting, but also in the way that Tim paints.  He paints with very small brushes, dabbing the color in, until it matches what he is seeing through the lens and mirror.  Rather than smooth passages of paint accented with the punctuated light and strokes you find in a Vermeer, this painting is more pointillistic. It is a series of discrete elements that gives a sense of the original,  but ultimately falls short of the beautiful surfaces of the original.

At this point, he has a little mishap, wherein the lens gets bumped and the chair he is working on is off perspective without him realizing it.

The chair that was off due to a bumped lens
He states that when he looks at the chair, he has a "sense of revulsion" upon seeing it.  I thought this was interesting because I have often expressed to my wife, that when something is off in my work, it makes me feel a little sick until I fix it.  Is this a common reaction for you?  Let me know in the comments.

The detailed painting of the wool rug
Tim's attention to detail is impressive, from the beautifully intricate inlay on the virginal, or the merciless and never ending weave of the rug in the foreground.  He works on the rug for weeks on end.  Tenacious and meticulous, seeing Tim progress is very compelling viewing to me.  I don't know what that says about me...

130 days after starting just the painting itself (the whole effort took 5 years!) he was finished and ready to varnish.

Penn Jillette closes the film stating that, "my friend Tim painted a Vermeer, in a warehouse... in San Antonio...  he painted a Vermeer."  It is a good line, but it isn't true.  It would be like saying you could break down a Mozart into all it's components and generate some objective means to churn out a "Mozart."  Tim acknowledges that he is standing on Vermeer's shoulders and the merits of his piece are owed to Vermeer.  To Tim's credit, he states that this doesn't prove that Vermeer used these tools, but he is 99% convinced.

As I said before, Tim's painting doesn't have the elegance of the original.  It feels mechanical and lacks the exquisite execution you would see in a Vermeer.

Tim standing in front of his "Vermeer"
I have read a few other reviews of this film, and they are fairly loud in their critique of the idea that one could "paint a Vermeer" as if it is a series of objective steps.  I share that, but am not dismissive of the whole and I also see a lot of wonderful aspects to this effort.  I think that there are some real possibilities to the conclusions that Tim makes.  I also think that if he is right, rather than diminish Vermeer, it shows how masterful he was, especially when comparing the two painting side by side.  Tim's Vermeer is on the left.  Click the images to enlarge.

Well done Tim.  You didn't paint a Vermeer, but you did open up some new possibilities and insights as to how the real Vermeer may have approached his work.  Along the way you made a fascinating film with great passion, persistence and hard work.  Who wants to do this with Alma-Tadema's Spring?

Howard Lyon

All images in this post copyright © 2013 - Sony Pictures Classics, except for the image of the actual Vermeer painting.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Art Business Bootcamp 3: Getting You Paid

-By Lauren Panepinto

Last month, at Spectrum Fantastic Art Live, Marc Scheff & I presented three Art Business Bootcamps, drawn from the material we're working on for the Make Art Work book. If you haven't heard about this yet, then check out my previous Muddy Colors post on the book project.  
Since the Bootcamps were so popular at Spectrum that we ran out of prints, we promised to make pdfs of the one-sheets available after the con—now revised after a bunch of input from artists and more art directors.
In my last two columns I released the one-sheets from the first two Bootcamps, Getting You Found: Self-Promotion, Social Media, & Approaching Art Directors and Getting You Hired: Portfolios and Websites. Go check them out.
Now we're releasing the one-sheet from the third Bootcamp: Getting You Paid: Contracts, Licensing, Invoicing, and Copyrights. This is the most difficult and least understood topic and yet also one of the most critical. How do you protect yourself, and how do you get paid?

Go to to download the one-sheets from Bootcamp 1 + 2 + 3
We've tried to boil down contracts and licensing to the most basic terminology, and included as many best practices as we could cram on one page about invoicing and paperwork. Getting proper paperwork out of my artists is one of my hardest jobs as an Art Director, and a lot of payments are delayed or go MIA because of paperwork filled out improperly. Read up, and get payments quicker and easier.

You can also read some of my first posts on Muddy Colors, all about contracts and rights and money: Getting You Paid, Part 1 and Getting You Paid, Part 2.

Copyrighting your work is a step that should be as automatic as backing up your work, and it's cheaper and easier than you think. And it pays off immediately if you ever find someone stealing your work. Definitely read that section in the onesheet above, and go to to protect your work. A whole year's worth of images can be protected on one application, for only $55! Another great resource about copyrights is The Copyright Zone, so check them out. It's aimed more at photographers, but applies across any visual media.

Meanwhile, we've gotten hands down, the most questions about contracts. We went half an hour over time in that bootcamp and we could have kept going for another hour easily. Contracts and rights and licensing is so confusing, and made a thousand times worse by dense legalese. There's a reason for all that legalese (besides insuring you need to pay a lawyer to unravel it) - the "hereto"s and "wherein"s are all necessary language to close any loopholes a good contract lawyer can sneak around. However, we've found a lot of artists don't use contracts at all because they don't understand them. So, we've made a template contract for you. We've boiled it down to the most simple language we possibly could, and tried to put in the most generic and useful language in about sticking points like kill fees and revisions:

Go to to download this contract

We believe it's better to use a simple contract rather than not use a contract at all. Please feel free to download the template contract above and adapt it to your purposes. It will suffice for many of the smaller jobs you do. (Bigger jobs from bigger companies will usually come with their own contracts.) Due to the adaptable bits, we can't guarantee 100% watertight legality on this contract, so no suing us. Use at your own risk. If you don't want to use this, USE SOMETHING. PACT has some great templates on their site as well, with some stricter language. Or you can ask a more established artist if you can peek at their contract and see if they'll let you copy it.

All of this material, in greater depth and with links to deeper resources will be available in the Make Art Work book. We've been working hard at it, and just shot a bunch of interviews for the kickstarter campaign at Illustration Master Class earlier this month. (Thank you for everyone who volunteered to be in the video, as well as all the brave souls who play tested our next little project.) We can't wait to finish the book and get the kickstarter launched a bit later this summer! So sign up for the Drawn + Drafted newsletter to keep on top of the book, and all the other projects we have in store.

And since we're still revising the book, add any questions you have below, and we'll try to answer them here, and we'll also definitely make sure we cover them in the book!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Vampire Earth 3: Path of the Cat

Greg Manchess

I teamed up again with art director Matthew Kalamidas for the third and final cover of the Vampire Earth series. And this time, we started early. But we didn’t get to talking it over until we had two weeks to final, once again. Must be something about this project.

Each cover took on a sense of increasing movement in the series. I’ll admit that since this cover needed to have even more action than the last one, I needed to think about it a lot more. Obviously, running figures were necessary, and I’m rather particular about capturing the right run.

The first step was to read the synopsis of the books and get a feel for the setting. The books take place in the Appalachians and Matthew asked that I think about a scene in Kentucky as it was an important location in the stories.

I grew up in Kentucky, so being quite familiar with the landscape, the first thing that entered my mind was a desperate fight in a creek. Reflections, trees, rocks. Should be perfect. I checked with Matthew to see if it would be ok to start there and he agreed.

As before, the cover needed to capture a broad feeling of the final series. I wish more covers were designed this way. I’m certain art directors would be fine with it, but marketing departments want a scene from the book to please the readers. Unfortunately, editors tend not to pick a very visual scene to paint. An art director that understands the visual language can direct a cover to excite a potential reader, and also please marketing. Matthew understands.

I researched Kentucky shots and as usual found nothing that fit the image in my head, so I decided to design my own creek bed and get the general feeling across in the thumbnails for a wraparound cover. A bright Summer evening, sun going down, lots of greens, browns, tans, and enough humidity to fade the background for atmosphere and depth. A team of rebels crossing a creek in a firefight racing for cover from pursuing aliens.

Matthew went right to H, and we discussed using different parts of the other thumbs to build the scene. I was surprised that he liked the alien ships I drew. I played with multiple flight vanes on the outside of the ship, looking for something sinister. But Matthew nailed it: fangs. Perfect for the series.

Then he reminded me that the scene should be winter. Gulp. There goes the color scheme I had in mind. Now it would be a cool scene overall, with snow blues and purples contrasting the bright explosion and mussel flash. What the heck, I’ve wanted to paint some winter trees for quite awhile, and this would give me the chance to work loose and capture the greys of multiple leafless branches, and work with snow shapes to define rocks and accent tree trunks.

I dressed up in all the gear I own and took shots of myself running full-tilt through the studio. I was looking for the right leg movement. You can’t fake a hard run, and really shouldn’t fake any run. Most artists assume that the upper body swings the arms counter to the leg stretch. But they don’t. Study a figure running and you’ll find that the arms are already moving away from the outstretched leg as it’s planted, preparing to balance for the next leg plant. It’s not about the apex of the motion. It’s about the medium points between the extremes that portrays a natural run. Only sprinting uses the top of the arm motion, but the body stays straight, not twisted through the spine.

Estimating the title placement from Matthew’s comments about the thumbs, the final pencil happened to fit perfectly this time. Other than Matt thinking that the gun flying up looked like a piece of ladies' apparel, just a small shift to one figure on the cover and an adjustment of another in the background to accommodate the spine thickness were the only changes. After a couple subtle changes of my own, like adding the rifle sling, we were ready for paint.

I projected the sketch to the canvas, and in about 12 hours, over a day and a half, I sent a quick shot of the finish to Matthew. Approved, with minor touches to values on the ship.

The end of a very fun series with him and SFBC. Thanks, Matt!

Here’s the full cover layout, and a shot of the three covers from the series.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

What Do Artists Do All Day?

One of my favorite comic book artists is a man named Vincent Deighan. But most people know him by his pen name, Frank Quitely.

I don't want to get into a whole Frank Quitely love fest here... because that honestly deserves to be done right, in it's own post. But I do want to note that today is the release of Frank's first art book, 'Graphic Art: The DC Comics Art of Frank Quitely'

My copy should be arriving later today, so I can't as of yet attest to it's quality. But at 368 pages, how could it NOT be awesome?

To celebrate, here is a really wonderful short film about Frank, and comic artists in general, titled "What Do Artists Do All Day?" It's not super long, and offers a really insightful look into Frank's life.

Monday, June 23, 2014

"Breaking In" Part 1 of 2

Wizard Magazine #77 (January 1998 issue) Magic Words Column.

I spent a few days in Savannah last month as part of a mentorship program for SCAD's Sequential Art Department. The number one question I got there (or anywhere, for that matter) is "How do I break in?" While a damn good question, it can only be answered in retrospect — it's completely different for each and every artist.

Since young artists can't possibly know where their "big break" will come from, they have to concentrate on the factors that are within their control, namely the quality of their work, coupled with the avenues through which it can be seen. Neither are easy to accomplish, but both are essential. Missing just one of those ingredients negates the other.

Thanks to the internet and social networking, it's never been easier to get your work out there. But as a result, the competition has never been higher. You're not only competing with your peers, not just the professionals already working, but everyone across the globe who wants the same career as you.

What I'd like to share today is a fairly detailed recounting of how I got my big break...
... over the course of 4 years.

Me and Alex Ross in Orlando in 1999

Throughout high school, I was entering contests in Wizard magazine, going to conventions, and practicing, practicing. Most importantly, I knew that while artists at cons could give me advice and help me improve my skills, they were essentially the competition — only writers and editors could give me work.

In 1999 (just before my 18th birthday) I attended Megacon in Orlando, FL, where I met Jim Krueger, the writer of a Marvel book called Earth X. He and artist Alex Ross kindly signed every book in my collection (I'm convinced that I'm the reason Ross no longer does shows). Afterward, I asked a friend of theirs to deliver a small portfolio of my work. When I later contacted Jim via email — I think I got it via the Wizard web site, but I can't recall for sure — he remembered both the portfolio and my entry to a Wizard contest (even though I hadn't won).

EARTH X FAN ART. 1999. Gouache on bristol board, ~11 × 14″.

Jim gave me a deal: if I did a piece of fan art for his creator-owned book, The Footsoldiers, he might publish it in a future issue. Furthermore, If he really liked it, he would commission me for more work in the future. By this time, I was already a freshman at the Rhode Island School of Design, but hadn't yet chosen a major — although Illustration was the natural choice for me, Industrial Design was a close second. Fortunately, RISD has a wintersession mini-mester that's tailor-made for trying things out. I signed up for Sci-Fi/Fantasy Illustration.

ALIEN. 2000. Gouache on bristol board
(with digital effects), 11 × 17″.

Acrylic on bristol board (with Photoshop), 11 × 17″.

The class was taught by Nick Jainschigg, with a guest appearance by John Foster (and fellow classmates Joe Quinones and Sonny Liew). Although just 6 weeks in the Providence winter, it made me realize exactly what I wanted to do. Each week required finished assignments — really no different from what I do today — a mix of traditional draftsmanship, storytelling, and concept design.

Horrible, horrible color choices

My week-long Joe Chiodo phase

Some of the work holds up... some does not. Looking back on it now, I think the ultimate goal was not to create masterpieces every time I picked up my tools, but to raise the lowest of my work to a decent level. That's really what being a professional is all about — even your "worst" is publishable, a baseline level of competency that clients can depend on.

The last assignment in class had a bit more leeway, and so I asked my professor if I could kill 2 birds with one stone and complete the fan art for The Footsoldiers. He agreed, and when my painting skills failed me, I used Photoshop to pick up the slack.

Luckily for me, Jim liked it, and hence commissioned 3 more pieces of art for the series. When not waiting tables that summer at Olive Garden, I painted at my parents' house in Daytona Beach, FL.

I was 19. Just 2 years later, I would be working for Marvel. In the next installment, I'll detail the events that got me into the office, and into a career.

THE FOOTSOLDIERS. 2000. Acrylic on illustration board, ~16 × 20″.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Honing Your Vision: Ruminations on Style, Development, and Moving Beyond Your Influences

David Palumbo

A quick note: this article previously appeared on the old Art Order site a couple of years back.  As it was subsequently scrubbed from the internet when the old Art Order ate itself and I was behind on getting a new article out after traveling home from IMC and because I’ve had a few recent requests from people to repost it, I figured I’d dust it off, amend a few points, and put it back out there.  I know, I know, excuses.  Still, even if you’ve read it before, I feel it holds up.

The early years of an artist’s development are often spent hammering out basic foundation skills.  These will serve as the core of all that they create.  During this time, the artist should not be terribly preoccupied with questions of style, vision, direction, brand, etc.  We have to stand before we walk and bypassing the basics rarely does anybody any good in the long term.  Of course, it’s the style and vision of other artists which inspired most of us to become artists in the first place, so the temptation to follow in those footsteps (with or without doing the necessary prep work) is always lingering.  I feel it’s because of this that artists, developing artists in particular, look for a voice by imitating the voices of others.  To what degree this is done varies, but I’m certain we‘ve all done it.  In the beginning, we admire the work of our idols and in some way wish to emulate that work, just as they did with their own idols.  We strive to accomplish what our heroes have accomplished and to follow their aesthetic footsteps.  Now, there is no doubt that much can be learned from our heroes and peers, but at some point every artist must put the imitation aside and find their own path.  Otherwise, you become a clone.  It is the failure to move past one’s key influences that results in clones, and the clone is always inferior to the original because they are content to imitate rather than risking to innovate.

Ultimately, I feel it is the goal of the artist to create what has not been created before.  As an illustrator, it is also in your best interest to cultivate a compelling and unique aesthetic which separates you from the herd.  These are both tremendously daunting tasks, which is exactly what makes them important.  Only the very best will achieve these goals (though if the first is truly achievable is up for debate) though simply attempting them makes us all better.

Among the most frequently asked questions of the aspiring visual artist, I would expect to find “how do I develop my style” near the top of the list.  The answer I typically give is to not worry about finding your style because once you’ve mastered the fundamentals of drawing, light and shadow, perspective, color, anatomy, and/or any number of other technical skills required, your style has more than likely found you.  Style is nothing more than the sum of your intentions and you limitations.  You have a vision and execute it to the best of your ability.  Once your skill is at a high enough level to yield consistently satisfying results, you will be producing work with a consistent and recognizable style to it.  This is because you are always pitting what you want to create against what you are able to create and style is where the two meet.  Over time you reinforce your habits and learn to control your weaknesses so that they all cooperate and result in something uniquely “you”.  You could also look at style as the specific points in which one’s images depart from “reality“, however I still feel those are the direct result of your intent and shortcomings uniting.  Regardless of one’s level of skill, some aspects will forever be outside our control.  When young artists wish to jump the line and adopt the style of more experienced artists, they are really only imitating that artist’s shortcomings mingled with creative choices which they may or may not fully understand. 

In developing our abilities as artists (and in turn our individual style), the side of this which we pay the most attention to is developing skill to limit our flaws.  This is fairly academic work and quite left-brained, made up primarily of repetitive practice and study of whatever subjects we are lacking in.  It’s tremendously important, but not tremendously exciting.  Oh sure, the idea of it might be attractive because of the potential reward, but the execution is long, slow, and trying.  The other side of the style coin, however, is our intent.  What we mean to do with our skill.  This is often made up from the influence of other artists and it is what drives us to improve just as it inspired us to begin.  This side is very right-brained.  It’s made up of creative thought, problem solving, and a desire to communicate.  Any artist of quality must train both of these areas.  You need to know how to speak and also have something interesting to say. 

The artist lacking in technical ability often overestimates the value of their creative ideas.  A painter not yet capable of successfully translating those ideas into images can’t advance them or improve them.  For this reason, the focus is placed first on developing those technical abilities and this is wise because it’s a long and difficult process.  Somewhere along the road, however, one has to begin consciously developing their creative intent as well.  When and in what balance I don’t know, but at some point it becomes necessary.  As I’ve said, most of us begin with imitation.  This is the starting point and I feel it stays with us longer than we realize.  It hangs out in the back of our minds so long that we don’t notice it anymore.  As our skill muscle grows, we will naturally begin to branch out and begin stirring our intent muscles.  We become exposed to new ideas which filter in to our intent.  It is totally possible to develop a fairly independent style through natural evolution and progression.  Left alone without conscious improvement, however, this can stagnate.  I feel this (even more than perceived market demand) is why there is so much sameness in genre illustration.  Not amongst those leading the field, but for those trying to break in or struggling to keep up.  Left alone, the intent muscle is still focused on creating what has already been created in ways which have already been done time and time again.  That said, I do feel that one can and should guide their own style by following the stars of others. 

One can hardly blame an artist for aping their predecessors.  Being the spark that set us in motion, the last thing which I’d suggest is to shut out, suppress, or ignore your influences.  They are beacons helping to point you towards your own path.  What I propose instead is to begin looking at your influences from a new direction.  For most of our lives, we’ve focused our attention on what it was that our idols did which excited and inspired us.  Now it’s time to look at where they fall short.  This is the opportunity for us to elevate ourselves.  This is the way which we will find our vision: that elusive unique aesthetic which we struggle towards.  We probably don’t yet know exactly what it is, not really, but deep down we have an inkling and ultimately wish to bring it into the light.  An artist may spend their entire life chasing it, trying to realize it and know it.  This chase is what I feel drives innovators and exceptional creators forward. 

I propose this exercise to help in finding your vision:  Choose a handful of artists which you feel the most excited and inspired by.  The ones who’s general body of work resonates strongest as the pieces you wish you had made.  Think about what makes these artists unique and strong.  Look at what is similar between them.  Remember why you love them.  So far this is essentially the same as gathering an influence map, but the next bit is where things can get interesting.  Now, one by one, find where your influences are lacking.  This is not to say find where they have failed, because you’re not necessarily looking for errors or technical weakness.  Rather, find where they have made creative and technical choices which do not quite satisfy you.  Think about what you would have rather they had done instead.  Where did they go too far?  Where did they not go far enough?  What is it that is missing?  Don’t be afraid to nitpick.  Now look at your own work and ask yourself: are you supplying the missing elements?  This is not arrogance, but rather a way of using their work as a mirror to compare our own.  It also means acknowledging that our goals may not be (and in fact almost certainly are not)  identical to those of our heroes.  The choices they made were their choices, so we quite likely do not agree with all of them.  Looking beyond your admiration and focusing on what could make your favorite art even better to you will help bring your own vision that much closer to the surface.  Then, when you are working on your next piece, ask yourself: how well is this satisfying my vision?  In what ways can I improve that?

Friday, June 20, 2014

Slow Dancing with Barbed WIre

By Greg Ruth

A dance with barbed wire. That's the best way to put into words, the bag of cats in my head when it comes to how I look at my own work. Others have a less combative relationship with their inner critic than I do, and I congratulate them for that. For me and most others, it is an ongoing struggle with the self. For me in particular, this was brought especially forward by last week's visit to the incredible Illustration Master Class in Amherst that the equally awesome Rebecca Guay created. I spent a good month fretting over drawing front of others. For me art is never performance, but something private. A thing done alone in my space just like it always was when I was a kid finding myself. But that's another matter. Today we are talking about when the crazy critic in one's head gets out of control, and how to wrangle it back inside the fence. When its working for you, self internalized criticism can be a worthy goad, pushing you to new areas, and chasing away complacency. When it's not it can be warping and atrophying.

It's a syndrome that afflicts many creatives, if not all, and it's what I think helps us be better humans, (except when it makes us worse). There's an inherent egoism to making any kind of art. Ultimately my goal here is to point to my internal predator, call it all sorts of rude things so that you artists out there won't feel alone in the dance you make with your own. For the sake of brevity, going forward I will name this self criticism as THE BEAST. This is not to elevate it it to some terrible height, but in fact to reduce it to a cartoonish villain, which in the end it really is. It's just about how you see it, and use it. The Beast only holds power that you give it. it is after all you, yelling at yourself.

Illo for "The Grinning Goat" from GUY'S READ: OTHER WORLDS

Most often though, this dark critical analysis of my own work is the Beast, pure and simple. It is a gnawing thrashing self loathing that tears at any sprig of joy for my own work that dares to risk poking up from the hidden earth. It is a creature bent on destruction and desires nothing but to remove and degrade. It is a way of looking at my work that is warped by all practical measure, but because this is an aspect of my own self analysis, it is entirely an emotional monster, and as such doesn't give a rat's ass about practical measures. It's not a uniform level of dislike, that would be too easy to tame if it were. It doesn't loathe all the marks, or all the work, only the bits I am uncertain about. This is what makes it so insidiously successful: it exploits doubt and grows from truth no matter how small. But, mercifully it is a dog who has no plans for after it's caught the car, and this is it's fatal flaw. And oddly, if one can leash this wild mad dog, the whole enterprise can be made to do some good.


So as an example, current and emblematic, I just received F&G's from my editor for my new children's picture book, COMING HOME now due out on the shelves this coming Veteran's Day from Macmillan/Feiwel & Friends. (F&G's are "folded and gathered" versions of the final book, often used as review copies. They are not final, but the last stage of review before the book is at press and locked in where corrections can be made). My first response when opening a package from a publisher tends to be one of disappointment and revulsion. This is not the Beast rearing it's head necessarily but something born of experience. In the past, much of my work printed poorly or was printed poorly despite it being perfectly printable. I've had entire pages inverted, or reversed, colors tweaked to neon hells... all manner of distortions in evidence. This time, though, the exact opposite. It is a stunning example of the harmony between the art, the designer and the press. Gorgeous rich colors, almost metallic gold clouds, excellent type and design. I can look at this and be complimentary in a more observational way. It is functionally successful and a result of our collaboration between editor, AD, and myself. A rare moment when the Beast is quiet. And as he should be because he has little purchase to claw and tear. These are the good moments, the rare moments when I like to take a breath, turn to the Beast and tell it to suck it. But this is not a relevant moment for this topic. This is not a fair fight to point to as any kind of victory because there is no struggle. Then I open the book, and the growling starts in earnest.

Cover for COMING HOME by Greg Ruth

Inside, I find all manner of places where I could have done it better, or at least that's what the first whimperings of the Beast tell me. True or not there are areas that could benefit from improvement. But the thing is, there always are. No painting is ever finished, as the saying goes... it merely stops in interesting places. So is it fair to believe the kind of self disgust that comes from not making the perfect image every time I make an image? No- of course not. But it's there anyway. Thing is, this is not the terrible dark side of the interaction. The Beast in these circumstances can be of help, but only if you let it run it's limited track when changes can be made to improve the work. It has no place at this stage. The F&G represents the final tweak if any, and any kind of major change to the art, especially on a book like this that's already crashing the presses, is impossible unless an unusual case can be made to see it done. Even then it's likely too late. So those are the voice that simply deserve to be muzzled. They bring no aid or benefit to anything, and are entirely negative. So drop kick those little doggies into a deep river and move on. It's for the best, even as they tell you it's not. Don't listen to them. The Beast lies.


Overall while I find so many aspects of the book a let down for me, not because of what anyone else has done, but because simply put, I filed to entirely achieve on paper what my imagination could expect. There is always a grounding to reality, a kind of practical acceptance that must be made. We wrangle angels from the sky and make them into short order cooks when we make any kind of art. Coming to a kind of peace with that fact helps entirely in continuing to perform it. Being able to identify when that is happening is the first and most important step. The best way to bring it to light is to take yourself through a series of steps analyzing the work for notable flaws. This is a service your editor or AD can also contribute to. They are the fisherman on the shore and can reel you in from going to far out to sea. Having the kind of intimate trust in these people is really important beyond words, learning to take heed to know when they are right and when they are wrong about something takes practice and keep the Beast on its leash. My methods for dealing with this kind of inside-on-the-outside criticism is based on a few rules that help: If the critique triggers an emotional response, usually anger or embarrassment, leave it alone and wake up the next day before responding or giving it further thought.

1). Don't obsess, let it go and see if it comes back, like love. It tends to always return but smarter and less biting when you do this. You need to do your best and get out of the way for the next thing that's coming. It is the curse and blessing of bookmaking: a curse in that it sometimes means you need to move on before you may feel ready, and a blessing because the same thing means you have to move on, and so can't get lost trying to perfect what the imperfect.

2). Reverse the defense- meaning to take the editor's note as fact and prove otherwise. make thr argument assuming the criticism, and play devil's advocate for the other side. This often shakes out a lot of misconceptions being so close to the work can induce. There's a great old story of a fight between Gene Wilder and Mel Books over the "Putting on the Ritz" scene from Young Frankenstein that exemplifies this perfectly. Brooks hated the vaudeville act, and wanted it out- Wilder disagreed. They fought and fought and fought over it and ultimately Brooks relented and it became one of the most iconic scenes in the film. He ultimately trusted Wilder's passion for the scene even when he wasn't sure about the scene or Wilder himself. "If he (Wilder)'s that crazy for it there must be something there I'm missing" he said. But Wilder wan't just being emotional or blindingly combative. He heard what Brooks was saying, grokked his critique and at its end disagreed with it. This happens. Sometimes you win, others you lose. I have lost as many of these as I have won.

3). If you can't come up with a cogent reason for keeping it, let it go. This is really an addendum to the previous Wilder/Brooks story, and its one I apply on a near daily basis. If your editor sees something that isn't working, you have to take that seriously. Sometimes it's just about clarifying, but often it means even if the concept is solid, the execution is lacking in delivering it.

4). Take the critique as a chance to rethink. SOmetimes it's not a tit-for-tat, and sometimes there's no fixing what's wrong... but sometimes it's an opportunity to invent a new way that makes everything a thousand times better. There were so many instances of this in making THE LOST BOY it's impossible for me to single one out. In the end it made me see my own story in a different way, and made it better by light years. Changes to character, plot and overall narrative structure were changed and made stronger. The benefits of that are now totally confirmed as I draft out the story for the conclusive sequels to the trilogy- they all fit together because they all make sense within the physical laws of their own story. I have my editors, Adam Rau and David Saylor to thank for that.

The Vale of Pim/Pellio from THE LOST BOY by Greg Ruth

Self hatred is exponentially tied to passion. The Beast bites harder because we care. We can't all be Henry Miller but we can all hate ourselves as easily as Miller does. The more we care about what we do, the more it matters and the more important it is the bigger the Beast gets. The hungrier and more agile it becomes. This is the darkest and most dangerous aspect of self criticism there is, and potentially the most lethal both creatively and literally. It can freeze us into abandoning our creative endeavors, like presumably a J.D.Salinger or so many ex-painters I know, or it can result in the most terrible of ends as we were made to witness in Kurt Cobain's conclusion. Just because it's in your head doesn't make it any less real, but it does mean there are tools to battle it. Both are letting the best get hold of the car it's chasing and neither is a good result. There's nothing heroic or nobly tragic about it. It's small and sad when it wins because ultimately the Beast is a limiting and reductive force. The self doubt it represents only makes final sense if all other aspects of the piece are ignored. There's an old discussion between Carlos Castaneda and Don Juan Matus where Matus describes the turgid arc of human perception as falling prey to this. The universe, Matus says, is wild vast and incomprensible, and our organizational aspects of our perception keep us from harm and madness. They allow us to function, to agree on terms of objects and promote a shared experience. But over time as we grow older, the Guardian becomes a Guard. The protector becomes a jailer- and our fluidity gets hardened. This is why old people are grumpy about the world changing, because they forgot that it was always changing in the first place.

The most recent moment of exacting an image in my head to the paper is. beyond ironically, my first self portrait in at least twenty years. I love self portraits, I just don't love making them. But I will gaze admiringly at everyone else's. Partly because in every self portrait I make I see only the Beast looking back at me, but also I find myself far less interesting to gaze upon. When I was approached to collaborate with Allan Amato on this project, my first reaction was one of horror and dread. And frankly this was true all the way up until the photo shoot at Scott and Teresa Fisher's house. But having Rebecca and Marc Scheff there to also distract and chat while the picture was being taken made it fun and okay. Much like the supportive and open atmosphere at the IMC made it possible for me to draw, however clumsily, in front of all those people. But I came to that photo shoot with a concept in mind. I knew what the angel looked like and I was practiced enough in my craft to image an approach that was possible. The Beast ragingly hungry, was tamed by this and the satisfaction that came from literally erasing my face from the photograph to redraw it from scratch. The end result is the first time in many years is exactly what I had in mind when I started out- it is in fact better than I imagined it would be. I missed every bullet the Beast fired, and it fired a million. I can look at it and feel nothing but satisfaction from it, and I use this to help guard against the Beast later in other work. A thing once defeated can be defeated again.

Self Portrait for THE TEMPLE OF ART by me and Allan Amato

The Beast if tamed can be a useful guardian. Or it can be fed and allowed to become a terrible and abusive guard in the Abu Gahrib tradition. Some of us lack the Beast's intensity, and others like myself, are in a constant dreadful battle with it. There's an image from a Sam Shepherd play that best described what my internal creative process is in this battle: A cat seized upon by a hawk, dragged into the air turns and begins clawing and tearing at the hawk's chest, killing it in mid flight and thusly killing them both as they crash to the ground. Letting the cat turn, giving the Beast too much leash and credit results in no good outcome, but carrying it properly means food and life for another day (sorry cat lovers!). The self criticism can be a check on catching mistakes made in earnest or by neglect. It sharpens my craft by not allowing me to fall into complacent satisfaction. It keeps my ego, the most blinding and stupid side of any creative process,  in check because its fondest weapon, and it's most legitimate is it's continual questioning. When I mentioned that this makes us better humans in the end I meant it. As an artist I am biased as to the importance of being an artist, but I sincerely believe this struggle we have with ourselves as creatives makes us more self aware, more open and perceptive in a way that does make us better people. Not better than other people, but better than we would have been without it. In the end the Beast is only a beast when we let it grow too large within us. When we feed it with ego and self hatred. But it's almost as negligent a sin to ignore it and starve it. To think every one of our marks is god's own finger on earth. Whatever lie talent brings to this idea vanishes soon over time because there is no growth that comes from it. There is no cause to move from where you are if you think you are awesome in your place. You can see this in artists whose work stalls and never changes or improves over time. Even failed attempts at new directions are a superior place than drowning in this stultifying amber. The Beast when properly corralled doesn't let us sit overlong in any one place. Making art is a nomadic exercise, or should be. And ultimately it's a lonely one. But you can find comfort and consolation in the persistent dance with the critic in your head and after a time come to love it. I am not entirely there yet myself, as I find little regard in looking too much at my own work, even today. There are rare times when this doesn't happen and I treasure those moments. It's the bit where Trinity and Neo pierce the dark cloud of the poisoned world and for a moment see that above it are blue skies and sunshine.

Nate and Tabitha receive the Gate Key from THE LOST BY by Greg Ruth

Overall like many and all things in life, excising our demons does not make us better humans. Learning to identify them, to even come to love them and put their enthusiasms to work can result in startling surprises. This difficult marriage can make us better artists and better people. The work is important, and should always be the point, but so is remembering that it only matters as a place to improve our craft for the next work. Otherwise it will be the last work we ever do. So don't be afraid of dancing with the sharp parts of yourself, but learn to identify them, to exploit them and rule them and you'll be happily surprised where they take you. The best part is, neither you nor the Beast knows where you're going, but you can only get there together.