Tuesday, June 18, 2013

On Writer's Block

What's more cliche' than a writer writing about writer's block?

I'll just say this up front: I don't believe in writer's block. At least not in the way that most people describe it. I'd rather call it apprehension or better yet writer's doubt.

When an artist first starts out creating things they have a simple goal in mind: they want to express something intangible. They have a need to see an idea in their head materialized in reality. This need is often driven by feelings that the artist has about their view of the world. Something that seems off to them, something that needs to be said, something that people aren't paying attention to. Any of those inclinations can plant a seed of a project and, once those seeds are planted, only time and energy are required to bring them to fruition.

Those types of projects are usually the best.

Unfortunately, to live as an artist, you have to consistently produce new work. (The great censorship of capitalism is that we must sell what we create.) However, once you have tapped out the initial expressive ideas you are left with an empty well of interesting concepts and novel ideas. There is nothing demanding your attention, at least if you had sufficiently expressed your distress in the first place.

So you languish.

Nothing seems right. Nothing has the same flavor as what you made before and you search for ways to reinvigorate your work. You question what it was that made your work popular in the first place. You wonder if what you created was a fluke. You wonder if you are actually contributing anything to the world at all, and when that happens you lose the drive to finish what you were working on. You have created your writers block because you have robbed yourself of the very reasons you created your art in the first place.

By forcing expression we are in fact gagging our voice.

So what do you do? Well, for starters, you re-explore the ideas and feelings that led you to create in the first place. No amount of art in the world can sufficiently answer the issues of society, so there's a good chance that the issues you have with it are still out there. And if, by chance of societal evolution, those problems have gone away, then there are certainly new issues to arouse your creativity. Art doesn't answer societies ills, not in the same way that government and religion can, but it does serve to illuminate and illustrate the realities of our existence while providing a beautiful emotional ideal for us to weigh ourselves against. Once you have re-connected with those observations that planted the seeds in the first place, you will find your resources rejuvenated.

You cannot allow doubt to get in the way of what you create. You may make something awful, you may make something wonderful, but by simply creating you are contributing to a vast and evolving puzzle of creation that contributes to the human experience. To art, the value of a blockbuster and that of a single seller are the same: something has been shared, something has been exchanged, and something has been expressed.

Do not worry how the world will receive your work, the remarkable thing is that you gave it in the first place.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Painting the Invisible

My previous article focused on the idea that accurate lighting entices viewers into pieces of art, but how do you paint light when your subject only exists in the imagination?

Here's that cover again:

Poor Slips has really been under the microscope lately, hasn't he? Anywho, I wanted to revise this cover and add a better sense of lighting and depth to the piece. Anytime you feel stuck or in need of improvement you should seek out the advice of the old masters. So who better than Caravaggio to teach us a bit about light?

The Calling of Saint Matthew, 1600 A.D.

Notice the intense single light source coming from the right hand side? That was the style of the day. Painting at the time favored a single light source because the light in the painting was a symbol for God and there could only be one god. Caravaggio also knew that a single light source lends a sense of drama to the piece as well as a clear way to move the viewers eye's through the work. It also firmly plants the painting in reality. 

So how do we apply this to a giant imaginary chameleon? Well, we start by deciding where the light source should come from.

 That little purple thing is supposed to represent a spotlight. In reality it would be a little bit off of the surface of the canvas to the upper left of the picture, but I put it there for the purpose of illustrating the point. The shape of the cone indicates the spread of the light while the arrow indicates the direction. Everything outside of those two extended cone lines will fall in shadow while things closer to the center line arrow will show the brightest highlights.

Light is a funny thing. We tend to think of highlights as bright and vibrant but the closer to "bright" a color becomes the more it loses its saturation. Conversely, the more shadowed a color, the more it tends to saturate. Shadows tend to be "cool" colors, they have more blue in them. While mid-tones and highlights are "warm" tending to have more red or yellow in them. The combination of all of these different values is what creates depth in an illustration and gives it a sense of realism.

Once you have decided on your lighting, molding the form of something that doesn't exist comes from your knowledge of painting things that do exist. I know that Slips' eyes are big and round, so shading them like you would shade an orange works. His nose is bulbous and his cheeks rise up over his mouth, so those points get highlights. Notice how deep this image is compared to the earlier version. I'm a little sad to lose some of the bright bubbliness of the first image, but I think that the movement  drama, and clarity that the new version has outweighs that loss. 

Art is never finished and an artist is never done learning. Thank you for joining me along the way!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

People Are Like Moths

How important is light to painting?

Yesterday I had dinner with a friend of mine from college whom I hadn't seen in nine years. We used to talk a lot about painting, going so far as to geek out about how warm cerulean blue is and why it makes your skin itch when you use it (tiny crystals get under your skin, seriously.) I showed him my body of work and suddenly found myself in the middle of an art critique.

He commented that "The Monster That Ate My Socks" had better lighting, color, composition, movement, and rendering than "The Imagibles: Slips' Slip Up" did. Interestingly these two titles are separated by about a year of work and around fifteen books. That's something like a hundred and fifty illustrations between the two pieces. I was baffled. "Am I actually getting WORSE at art?"

"People are like moths, they're drawn to light."

The major differences between these two pieces are the application of lighting. The sock monster has a high level of lush light and shadow and a background that provides nice contrast to the form. This gives  the piece depth, even when it's a tiny thumbnail on your kindle. The Imagibles, by contrast, has the flatness of a playing card and doesn't feel "alive" in the same sense. The color is also flat. There are no cold values weighted against the hot values so the eye isn't as enticed to explore the image. Pretty heavy stuff for a book cover, no?

What's interesting is that as we looked at my body of work, the titles that had this luscious sense of lighting were invariably more popular than the covers that did not. It didn't matter what the illustrations on the inside of the book looked like either, it was the cover, and only the cover, that communicated the quality of the work inside.

My friend quoted his favorite teacher who said that "people are like moths, they're attracted to light." I have to agree. Good art has a sense of light built into it and I think that this is one of the phenomenons you can point to when people say things such as "I don't know why I like it, I just do." Everyone intrinsically has a sense for good art regardless of their training or ability to illustrate because our sense of art comes from observing the world around us. We are conditioned by living life to know instinctually when something seems out of place and thus we are naturally attracted to those images and forms that fit more closely into what we expect out of the world.

I would also take the quote one step deeper. People are not only literally drawn to light but also figuratively. The stories, places, and personalities that put out a "luminous" quality also attract the most attention. 

What exactly is luminosity? I'll leave that up to you to decide.