Monday, December 31, 2007

Water Reflections, Part 3

This is the last of a three-part series on water reflections. Reflections appear spontaneous and gestural, but they also follow definite laws.

Here’s a detail from a recent painting (page 31 of the new Dinotopia book), showing how an image is broken up by the wavelets. Edges with strong contrasts, like the brightly lit wall against the sky, or the dark boat hull, break up in a loose—but controlled—painterly way.

But subordinate edges, like the metal railings or the edge of the column, are blended and lost in the reflection. They might show up in a high-speed photo of the reflections (assuming the scene were real), but I don’t think the human eye would perceive them in real life.

In this plein-air painting in Mamaronek Harbor, I started with a warm underpainting and then laid down a light tone for the color of the reflected sky. Over this thinly painted but wet oil layer I added the calligraphic strokes of the reflections of the boat hulls.

This is a detail of the painting of Chandara from the new Dinotopia book. For a reflection like this, which follows the architecture very exactly, the perspective must be carefully constructed, even though the final reflections are painted quickly and gesturally.

The architectural forms in the reflection are drawn to the same vanishing points as the real forms in the scene. It’s not the same 2-D image inverted. That’s why the slope of the eves on the real projecting bay window (1) are different from the slope of the same forms in the reflection (2).

Perhaps there’s a broader lesson here about the artistic state of mind. I believe that the act of painting often consists of this strange combination of precision and freedom, accuracy and looseness. We need to think about physics and geometry, but at the same time, we have to surrender to an irrational impulse.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Color: Warm and Cool

This is the second in a Sunday series on color. It introduces the most basic color relationship: warm and cool.

As I suggested last time, most books or classes discuss color in an abstract, theoretical sense. But I’d like to concentrate on the pictorial application of color. Why, for example, did John Singer Sargent choose to emphasize those browns and blues in his plein-air painting of a wrecked sugar refinery, above? I'm sure if you had taken a color photo of the same subject, it would have looked nothing like this painting.

And why did Alphonse Mucha choose this particular blue and gold palette to express his deepest feelings about his homeland?

I’d rather give you useful tips about color that you can apply to your own pictures. So please forgive me if I don’t approach the subject comprehensively. Instead I’ll just fast-forward over the concepts that most of you are already familiar with.

Let’s assume that you already understand the foundation terms:
--the color wheel
--primaries and secondaries
--the concepts of hue, value, and saturation (aka chroma)
If you’re not sure about these ideas, you’ll find answers on Wikipedia or on the website Handprint (thorough and techical) or in most any book on color.

Here’s the color wheel I like to use. It has the various full-chroma hues arranged around the outside margin. Neutral gray is at the center. As each color approaches the center, the chroma decreases until it arrives at neutral gray.

To get started, let’s take the color wheel and chop it in half. On the bottom half are all the warm colors: from yellow-greens, to oranges, reds. On the top half are the cool colors, the blue-greens, blues, and cool violets.

Someone might argue about where to divide the wheel. The greens and violets seem to have divided loyalties. But if you consider the “heads of the families,” blue and orange, there seems to be some basic psychological difference between them.

The cool colors seem to evoke feelings of winter, of night, of death and sleep. They remind us of quietness, restfulness, and calm.

The basic feelings suggested by the warm colors are completely different. We associate the warm colors with fire, sunlight and blood. (Above, The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, by J.M.W. Turner.) They make us think of energy and passion. Orange and yellow are ephemeral colors. We see them only fleetingly in nature: at sunsets, in flowers, or in autumn leaves.

This basic perception of the two families of color seems to be woven into the fabric of our human existence. The anthropologists Paul Kay and Brent Berlin have studied the evolution of color terms in languages around the world. In European languages we have about 11 or 12 basic terms to describe colors.

But some so-called “primitive” languages, like the New Guinean language Dani, have only two basic terms. Kay and Berlin write: “One of the two encompasses black, green, blue and other ‘cool’ colors; the other encompasses white, red, yellow and other ‘warm’ colors.” (Link for full story in Scientific American).

Primitive peoples didn’t have poor vision; far from it. But rather, anthropologists suggest that as language evolved, it developed its first word-concepts around the most psychologically important divisions or groupings.

I think a lot about “warm and cool” when I’m painting. The moonlight painting of Khasra from Dinotopia shown earlier is painted with colors primarily from the cool side. I wanted to suggest mystery, calm, and night.

In a painting of one predominant family, an accent from the other side of the spectrum adds a lively contrast. Here’s a painting by Richard Parkes Bonington where he has enlivened his warm colors with a few accents of blue. Notice that there’s no green or red in this one. It’s painted almost entirely with blue and orange in various value ranges and degrees of saturation (mostly its duller cousins in the ochre and sienna ranges).

Warm and cool colors bring each other to life by these adjacent contrasts. This quick sketch of Venice by Sargent has a lot of areas where warm and cool are played against each other.

Many of Sargent’s best watercolors were painted primarily with two colors, probably ultramarine blue and raw sienna, exploring the dance between the cool and the warm. He must have been looking at other colors, like red and green, in the scene before him, but he was ignoring them.

Please let me know if this kind of stuff is useful, and if I'm pitching it to the right level.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Water Reflections, Part 2

Yesterday we took a look at how light tones are reflected in still water. The dark tones in the scene—trees and such—are a different story.

The way they reflect in water depends on two factors. One is the amount of silt or sediment in the water, and the other is the amount of light shining into the water.

If the water is dirty, and if that dirty water is directly illuminated, the darks will get progressively lighter (and usually browner), as they did in this on-the-spot oil sketch of the River Suir in Limerick, Ireland, after a heavy rain. Reflections are at their purest only at dusk, when no direct light is touching the water. Muddy water in those conditions will reflect just as well as clear water.

The reflections differ from the source in another way. In the reflection, the image is distorted by the wavelets on the water. Even if the wind is very light, tiny waves break up the reflection, and dissolve horizontal lines. Vertical lines, though, are still preserved in the reflection.

For example, this detail is from a scene in Journey to Chandara. It shows a lake in the desert at dusk reflecting a seated statue. The horizontal lines of the base of the statue are not reflected, but the verticals appear quite clearly.

Let's do a reality check on that last point. In this photo of fishing boats in a harbor, you can see how reflections favor verticals over horizontals. In the reflection the lines of the gunwales quickly become indistinct, while even the finest masts and poles are still crisp and sharp.

In the words of John Ruskin, who wrote eloquently on this subject in the early 19th Century, "All motion in water elongates reflections, and throws them into confused vertical lines."

On Monday, in the final installment on water reflections, we’ll take a look at how reflections break up images in water that's a little more disturbed.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Water Reflections, Part 1

When a scene is reflected in water, it appears almost like an inverted mirror image.

Almost. But the reflection is different in a few important ways. First off, the light tones that you see in the scene above the water will appear a little darker in the reflection. These light tones might be clouds in the sky, a white house, or light-colored leaves on riverside plants.

The reason these light tones appear a little darker in the reflection is that some of the light penetrates into the water, rather than bouncing off the surface. This light is the very same light that you would see if you were snorkeling under the surface. If water were a perfect mirror, fish would live in pitch darkness! Because each parcel of light is reduced by the amount of light that is diverted into the water, the amount of light reflected is also reduced.

Note how the colors of both the blue sky and the orange bush darken when they're reflected in this wintry stream.

Water approaches the reflectivity of a perfect mirror only when you’re looking straight across it at a very shallow angle. As the steepness of the angle of reflection increases, the percentage of light entering the water also increases. If you are looking steeply down onto the surface of the water, not much light from the sky will be reflected. Think how dark the water in a lake or ocean appears when you look straight down into it from the side of a boat.

This light-eating phenomenon (called refraction, as opposed to reflection) came into play in this painting of a white resort perched above a lake. I was looking downward on the water, and was surprised how poorly the water reflected the white rocks along the lake's edge and the light stones on the building. I painted it the way I saw it, but it still looks strange to me.

As a reality check, here's a photo of the same place, shot with a steep downward angle. It shows the same effect, with most of the light tones disappearing into the water, rather than reflecting off its surface.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Seven Flags Deconstructed

Thanks for the comments to yesterday’s quiz. You all explained flag behavior better than I could. The seven flags are all variations on the “wavy ribbon” idea, which is how we think flags should look.

In fairness, there’s nothing wrong with this way of drawing flags—if your goal is to represent the mental image of a flag. A cartoonist is usually after the mental image, not reality. It’s also a good way to represent a flag if you want to show the flag's graphic design clearly.

But if your goal is realism, it’s worth observing that flags never actually appear with undulating folds parallel to the flagpole. Instead, as many of you pointed out, a set of folds radiates diagonally downward from the upper point of support.

I was unaware of this principle until a day in 1995 when I was stuck in rest stop during a long bus trip through the midlands of England. There was nothing to do but sketch and nothing to sketch but a flag. I drew a page of variations as the wind changed from a zephyr to a stiff breeze.

Here are some YouTube videos, which show waving flags better than my sketches.
Medium size flag in diminishing wind: Link
Small flag in stronger wind: Link
Small flag in heavy wind Link
Big flag in heavy wind: Link ; (In this last one, the diagonal rule breaks down a bit, and the wrinkles are more complex billows. They actually start to look a bit like the flag pictures from China and France, above. I have a feeling the math behind all this is pretty complex.)

Perhaps one of our CG animation friends might be willing to say a few words about the challenges involved in modeling this kind of action in 3D on a computer.

Well, it's hard to pick. The grand prize has to go to the first Anonymous ( who got the basic answer right away. The next four runners up who really described the action are: Kevin H, Dan G., Orlando M., and Meredith D. But I'm going to give the last runner up prize to Big E, who expressed the larger truth that there's no single correct way to represent reality; it depends what you want to communicate. If you’d like to collect your prizes, please email your mailing address to me at

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Seven Flags

What is wrong with these flags? If you know, please leave a comment today before midnight, eastern time in USA.

I’ll post the results tomorrow. The person with the best answer can have their choice of a free signed Dinotopia art print. Five runners-up will be eligible to receive a free doorknob hanger, signed bookplate, and bookmark.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Santa Claus

Here’s my rendition of the Man in Red. The original is in oil, 36x24 inches.

Doing a portrait of Santa Claus is a bit like painting Abe Lincoln or George Washington. You can’t monkey around with the archetype too much. At least that’s what I figured. I stuck pretty close to the Sundblom-standard, with maybe just a bit of “biker-dude” mixed in.

To all the readers of this blog, I wish you good tidings for this festive season. May it bring to you and to all of us a rebirth of hope and a triumph of innocence.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Invite / Delight

Enduring masterpieces have two qualities. They INVITE and they DELIGHT.

A picture invites us by presenting a clear effect at a glance. It grabs us from across a room. The composition makes a definite statement. The lighting conveys an unmistakable mood.

The basic idea or situation of the picture must be evident right away. It must be understandable without too much explanation. Avoid concepts that are too intellectual. Avoid illustrations that depend entirely on an extrinsic narrative, unless it is universally recognized. People are easily embarrassed if they cannot begin to respond to a picture right away.

At the same time most masterpieces raise a question, suggest a mystery, leave a doubt, or present an unresolved conflict.

While a strong singular impact invites us into a picture, what really captivates us are the delights that we discover after the first impression.

“Delight” doesn’t mean the picture is necessarily cheery and optimistic; even if the story is horrifying or foreboding, we find a strange pleasure in exploring the sources and consequences of the tragedy. For this reason, we're usually more interested in the moment just before or just after the peak of the action.

We like pictures that let us discover things on our own. We connect with a picture when we find subtle, hidden elements.

We want to study a picture to become familiar with the supporting characters or details. We want to discover hints of a story beyond the obvious. If this is done well, we will say, “I see something new every time I look at that picture.”

When a picture contains human figures, we automatically identify with them. The human factor helps us live inside the scene. We respond to real people in real situations. Poses must be based on life, even if they are idealized.

Emotions, such as humor or pathos, must be sincerely felt by the artist, and transmitted by every pictorial means possible.

In landscape, the human factor can be the mere suggestion of a human presence, such as a road or a tree stump.

Next time you’re planning a picture, let those words dance in your head: “invite, delight.”

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Color Sundays

Every Sunday over the next few months, I’ll be presenting ideas about color. Color is a vital subject, but it’s usually not taught very well in most books or in most schools.

Over the last half century, the teaching of color has been dominated by abstract theory. The attempt to objectify color is part of the legacy of modernism. Most color classes have you endlessly painting color swatches or analyzing paint pigments.

While there’s some usefulness to these dry exercises, they don’t help you much in the real world of painting a landscape, designing a graphic novel, or planning an animated film. It would be like teaching music by only teaching the scales, and never getting to the melody.

Color doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s vitally connected to the physics of light and atmosphere. And it has to be considered in relation to our quirky subjective human color perception. Color affects our mood and emotions in ways that recent science is just beginning to explain.

Let’s begin with a couple of basic questions: What does color add to a picture? What would happen if you took color away? If you drained all the color out of Cotopaxi by Frederic Church, you could still tell that you’re looking at the sun setting behind the ash cloud of a volcano.

Or if you removed the color from this picture of two fighting pirates by NC Wyeth, you could still make out the action and the setting clearly enough.

But when you bring on the color, the Church painting hits you with a tidal wave of feeling, a resounding sense of doom.

And Wyeth’s painting suddenly surges with music, romance, and adventure.

Tone may be the root and branch of an image, but color is its fruit and flower.

Color touches something deep in us. I believe that the teaching of color theory has to take all this feeling into account. As artists, we need to know how we can make the most of color, how we can make it express what we want—drama, melancholy, passion, lyricism. Good color has more impact than just about any other aspect of our work.

Whether you paint landscapes, comics, illustration, landscapes, or animation, check out the upcoming Sunday posts.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

DreamWorks Animation

DreamWorks Animation is best known for the Shrek franchise, which they followed up with Over the Hedge, Madagascar, Flushed Away, and the Bee Movie.

They were the first CGI animation company to release two features in a single year. At any given time they have as many as five films in development. Jeffrey Katzenberg, the “K” in DreamWorks SKG has said, “Walt Disney made movies for the child in every adult. We make movies for the adult in every child.”

DreamWorks Animation occupies two campuses, one in southern California, and one in the Bay Area of northern California, linked with a high tech video conferencing system. Both campuses have designers, animators and technical wizards, but the architecture and atmosphere of the campuses is quite different.

The southern campus in Glendale is Spanish style, with fountains, goldfish ponds, tile floors, and arched hallways. The northern facility, called PDI DreamWorks, occupies a modern but attractive building overlooking the baylands of Redwood City. We arrived early, and I did a quick watercolor study of the industrial architecture nearby, which I have a fondness for.

The studio works hard to create a “culture of mentorship” at both campuses, with free classes offered after hours in life drawing and character design. There’s a hallway space called the “Blue Sky Gallery” where artists can show other facets of their creative life beyond what they do from 9 to 5. Breakfast and lunch are free, and we were told that most new hires gain ten pounds in the first month or two. Free food! I gained five pounds just at lunch!

A huge visual research library (above) is available on campus. Each film takes about four years in the pipeline. “Each project has its own aesthetic,” explained John Tarnoff, head of Outreach, “and it grows out of its story and characters.”

After my presentation I was honored to meet many of the DreamWorks artists, including Shane Prigmore. He did the sketch above just for fun in a character design class where the assignment was to imagine how Ronald Searle would draw Conan.

I also met artist Nathan Fowkes (below), whose "color keys" help establish the mood and lighting of the show—in this case Shrek the Halls. Other artists bring a different range of talents to the production process: modeling, rigging, texturing, lighting, and effects. “One of the strengths of our production process,” John Tarnoff said, “is our facial animation system.”

Students who are interested in working at DreamWorks animation might want to keep a couple of things in mind. I asked John Tarnoff what skill sets are not always covered in art schools. “Any visual designer who wants to be in this business,” he said, “needs to know what writing is about: motivation, characterization, and plot. The zeitgeist of this company is that we’re all storytellers.”

Jim Conrads, my host in the northern California studio answered the same question differently. He felt that artists need to develop the social skills: teamwork, compromise, and respect for others’ points of view. “Artists are usually taught to come up with their own personal expression,” he said, “but rarely encouraged to carry out another’s vision or blend with another’s style.” Below: The Redwood City campus of PDI DreamWorks.

And the portfolio you present should go beyond the common cliches of fantasy art. Kathy Altieri, head of Show Development, told me that she gives a presentation at art schools called “Chicks and Guns,” to make the point that you need to show a lot more than sexy girls and weapons. Your portfolio will stand out if you can draw all kinds of architecture, costumes, animals, and characters.

Thanks to everyone at both campuses, and best wishes on your ongoing projects.

Some photos of facilities courtesy DreamWorks.