Thursday, February 9, 2012

Neolithic Scene

Sometimes a picture idea gets aborted after a lot of work. That happened with a picture I developed 25 years ago for National Geographic. 

The idea was to show Neolithic humans in their first domestication of sheep. This was to be for an article on wool. The archaeological evidence seemed to point toward a scenario where mouflon sheep were captured, penned in, and controlled.

After doing many thumbnail sketches, the art director and I agreed on a scene where two men are restraining a ram while the ewes are released from a cave. I made a little clay maquette of the scene (photo, inset) to work out the lighting, and then did a charcoal drawing of the light and dark masses.

Then I hired models come into the studio and had them pose for charcoal studies. I wanted to use the really old-school method of working from studies rather than photography. I also went to the Bronx zoo to do sketches of mouflon sheep.

The next step was to work up the scene in color. I was getting excited by the opportunities with lighting. The view expanded outward to show more of their camp, a kid with a lamb, some hunting trophies, and the far landscape vista.

But wait! The archaeologist and the magazine art staff had additional ideas. How about a dog, and an old man? Maybe we could show more of the fence and how it was made. I kept redrawing it.

Eventually the picture lost momentum. I think we all became conscious that this one picture was trying to accomplish too much. There were too many ideas in it. As Howard Pyle said, it is essential that a picture express just one idea. "If in making a picture you introduce two ideas,  you weaken it by half—if three, it weakens by compound ratio—if four, the picture will be really too weak to consider at all and the human interest would be entirely lost."

If I just showed two guys wrestling a ram, that might have made a great picture. That simplicity is what makes Leon Bonnat's painting of Samson wrestling the lion really memorable.

Also, the editorial focus of the article changed, the layout space shrunk, and we decided to go with a completely different picture, showing the range of wool-bearing animals. National Geographic was a good client, and they paid me for the time I put into it.

Even though every picture is a labor of love, and you put everything into it, one has to be philosophical when this happens. This kind of abandoned work is fairly common when you work for clients that must balance a lot of different considerations, or that have a lot of decision-makers, or that are working with large financial stakes. Anyone who works in movie concept art and theme park design has similar stories.
Check out the new book on Howard Pyle, with my article on his thinking and process.
The wool-bearing animal picture appears on page 36-37 of Imaginative Realism


jeffkunze said...

That's rough! And I know the feeling well. This used to bother me a lot that something I put a lot of effort on was being scrapped or not being used It doesn't bother me as much anymore now that I chalk up every little bit of work to making me a better artist. I consider it all education.

In Dan Ariely's book The Upside of Irrationality he has an interesting chapter on this sort experience. I'm pretty sure it's Chapter 2 of the book.

Tom Hart said...

There are some great lessons in this post. Thanks, James. I especially like that Pyle quote. I don't think I'd heard that before.

Your philosophical approach to these situations is helpful to bear in mind, too. Of course it helps a lot that NG was a good client who paid for your time. Sadly, that's not always the case of the more demanding clients.

jeff jordan said...

I did 3 album covers for a famous band who won't be named. Did 2 with no problems. Started a big, epic painting for the third cover, pretty much on my own initiative, although I took a little direction from the band. Then I didn't hear from them for a year, and when time came to do the next cover, they called and said it was time to come up with some ideas for the next cover. When I mentioned the epic-in-progress, which they had really liked, it wasn't now applicable, because the "music had changed." So I did something else.

Then I did an even larger painting, totally on my own initiative, based on my knowledge of the band, it still didn't fly, and from what I've heard of the music in the latest album, I'm glad they used somebody else for the latest cover.

Bottom line, it's OK, because it made me do 2 of my best paintings, EVER (the epic's still unfinished, but someday.......) and working for them put me on the map of the World.

Jamal said...

I'm currently working on a personal piece. And this article came at the right moment, really. I was going through the same thought of "Maybe I should be carefull of adding to much. Might get to messy and confusing. No clear focus". Thank you James. Your article reinforced that thought. *Thumbs up*

My Pen Name said...

like "stop loss" when you buy stocks. I guess the best thing to do is have some sort of rational criteria to know when to quit, though sometimes time, deadlines and other obligations do that for us.

Curious, why did you keep these? Have abandoned projects ever spurred others.

gharatani said...

As the architect I work for once cleared up (after designing a fantastic remodel to which we were not invited to during the reveal) "To the client, we're just another sub-contractor." Still stings though.

runninghead said...

Happens a lot to me, funny how much it helps to hear it from you too. Thanks for sharing.

P.T. Waugh said...

This would have been great for a long 3 page fold out. That way each idea could be it's own painting, but all of the paintings would link together. Did NG not do that type of thing back then?

Nathan Fowkes said...

Yep, you're hitting a nerve with this one, all your industry readers are nodding their heads in commiseration.

Scorchfield said...

Hard times!

Joel Fletcher said...

Howard Pyle's concept reminds me of the "KISS principle", which stands for Keep It Simple Stupid! Ha ha. In the past I have been known to put way too much stuff into my art as well. Now I focus on simplicity.

That being said, I think your final drawing for this assignment is great! Yes, it is kinda busy, but you managed to incorporate all the ideas from "the committee" beautifully. You have certainly made a lot of paintings as elaborate, and more, than this one. I think this drawing could be realized as a really nice painting.

Janet Oliver said...

Fantastic. I love the Pyle's inverse relationship.

Michael said...

I've just had to scrap a good bit of work I worked on for weeks. This post was VERY encouraging. Thanks for sharing all of the aspects if your work James, even the ones that we rarely see!

Adam Stolterman said...

Hi James! I first would like to say that I love your art and the first Dinotopia book was a great inspiration to me and my friends when we were kids. I still have it in my bookshelf and i still love it. And what you write here has really helped me a lot, and I am right now reading Color and Light.

After reading this post I would like to ask you something. I have recently started working as a concept artist and a storyboard artist (a lot thanks to your books), and I have done some work for commercials and music videos in the last few months. But all my work has been really rushed and I don't feel that I have any idea of how much time I should have to do the job. It sounds wonderful to have time to do studies and make models and all that before doing a job, but I don't know anything about how much time people normally have on illustrations or paintings, so I have done all my jobs under super stress because I have agreed to do them quickly. I really feel insecure about this because I don't know what to say when we are discussing a job. Is there such a thing as a "normal" amount of time for jobs in illustration, or is it up to each artist to know how much time to demand to be able to do a good job? Because even though I have learned to draw it really is clear that I never learned the rules when it comes to working as an illustrator. If you don't have time to answer I totally understand, and I just want to add that of all the hundreds of artists blogs I read, this one is the best by far! Thanks again!

Adam Stolterman

James Gurney said...

Good to hear that you industry vets have had similar experiences.

PT: Nat Geo rarely has the luxury to run multiple pieces of art, or any art at all, since it has to compete with such great photography. Most jobs I worked on had at least four or five separate ideas for each one that made it to press.

Jeff, amazing story, and it's good you were so self-motivated, even though it was such a risk.

My Pen, sketches don't take up much space, and I always thought I'd keep them because they showed the thinking that led up to the finish.

Adam, there's no ideal amount of time to take a job. I knew one illustrator who took several months on each job. His clients knew that and factored it into their schedule if they could. And there were some paperback cover artists such as Barye Phillips who averaged around four covers a week. My advice is to do the best job you can in the time you have, don't skip any planning steps even in a tight deadline (thumbnails, research, etc), and always deliver on or before the agreed-on date.