Friday, February 29, 2008

Tomorrow's Event Rescheduled

Because an incoming snowstorm is expected to dump over a foot of snow between here and Massachusetts tonight and tomorrow, the March 1 Dinotopia booksigning event at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, MA has been cancelled and now rescheduled for Saturday, April 26 at 11:00 a.m.

The Delicate Approach

Some things that you want to paint are beefy and chunky, and they call for a broad handling with hefty bristle brushes. (Below: detail of a rocky waterfall).

But other forms are feathery and delicate. Think of the leaves of a willow tree, the wispy texture of a cirrus cloud, or the waving tassels of a wheatfield. These call for pianissimo painting.

Here’s the view past my easel. I was standing at the river’s edge near Clonmel, Ireland. It was an unusual vista, with intricate foliage framing a light sky. There were no simple blocky masses of tone. Instead there were lots of slender twigs, and there were layers upon layers of leaves.

After a thinly stated preliminary lay-in, I painted the sky with just a thin veil of pale whites and blues. For the willow leaves (detail, above) I dragged a large bristle brush very lightly over the sky to suggest a lot of leaves without actually painting them one by one. I then added a few small strokes at the edge of the mass using a round sable.

The same is true of the upper fringe of foliage. I blocked the big masses of foliage with a large square brush and then added a fringe of individual leaves with a smaller brush. The goal is to give the impression that you’re seeing more detail than is actually stated.

The final painting is 8x10 inches, painted in one session of about three hours. Most of the detail is hinted at. The key to this kind of painting is to use the biggest brushes you can, but to use them very lightly, dragging and scumbling. Then in a few areas, you can use tiny brushes to suggest the most delicate forms.

P.S. Thanks to Kim Barker of LakeTrees for listing GurneyJourney as the #7 Artist's Blog and thanks to everybody who has linked.

Tomorrow: Matania—Without a Net

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Reply Card

Here’s an analog-era tip that still works for emerging illustrators who mail portfolio samples to prospective publishers. Include a self-addressed stamped postcard for the art buyer to give you feedback.

The reply card is pre-printed with three lines, each with a box for the art buyer to check.

The first is the most hopeful. It says, “I have a specific project that your work may be appropriate for. Please contact me.”

The second line says, “I am interested in your work but have no specific project in mind at this time. Please continue sending samples. The type of artwork I’m most interested in is: _________________.”

The third is the polite brush-off: “The enclosed samples do not suit our current needs.”

Nearly 100% of art buyers will send back this reply card, and they appreciate having an easy way to give you feedback. Whichever box they check provides useful information to help you target your next mailing.

Tomorrow: The Delicate Approach

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Sketchblog Invitation

Blog reader Jen Zeller commented about the recent post "Art by Committee":
It would be quite awesome if you could offer one of these as a weekly inspiration to us sketch-happy blog followers. I get the feeling many of us would love to give back a bit in this job, but on the other hand, you do spend a lot of valuable time with this blog already, and we don't want to go getting greedy. It's a great idea, makes me remember my school days in biology, where I was constantly poking fun with sketches at something the teacher or our text books said.

Thanks, Jen. Let's try it. Here's an excerpt for you, and anyone else who'd like to create a sketch illustrating the line about the Khalians above. No prizes--not a contest. If you'd like to email me your sketch at, I'll post the results, along with the sketch from the Art by Committee book, on Wednesday of next week.

Bronze Weathering

If you ever need to invent a bronze sculpture for a fantasy or science fiction painting, here are a couple of little tips to make the weathered surface more convincing.

I painted this oil study from observation to study how actual bronze surfaces weather. Note how the upfacing planes of the hat brim, the lapel, and the forehead are all oxidized to a light blue-green color.

The hollows and the downfacing planes weather in a different way as this photo shows. Instead of being entirely covered with a light blue-green oxidation, the downward planes tend to be darker and browner. This is because the downfacing planes are exposed to less rainwater. The top of the ball is also shielded from rain, and lacks oxidation. Wherever the planes face downward, the water is forced to flow in fixed rivulets. Each rivulet then becomes a line of oxidation.

You can play with this effect. This bronze head from the title page of Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara was entirely invented. Along the cheeks the rivulets almost look like the path of tears.

If the statue is in a public area, projecting forms are often buffed to a golden sheen from contact with the hands (or hides) of passersby.

As the rainwater drains off the statue, the dissolved oxides leave stains on the white marble below.

Tomorrow: Reply Card

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Plein Air Ancestors

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art recently remodeled its display of 19th century painting. The curators have brought a lot of gems out of storage and put them on permanent display in the Henry J. Heinz II Galleries.

Among the highlights are four rooms with dozens of oil studies painted outdoors by the pioneers of plein-air painting in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Most of these artists were northern Europeans who flocked to Italy for the warmth and the golden light.

Here’s a stormy landscape near Rome, circa 1800, painted by Simon Denis (1755-1813). He was working quickly to capture a fleeting rainbow effect. His work preceded the era of photography, the Impressionists, the Hudson River School, and even Constable and Corot.

Denis was painting four decades before the invention of collapsible paint tubes. He had to either grind his pigments on location or carry prepared paints in pigs’ bladders obtained from the butcher.

Here is a view from the Quirinal Hill in Rome, 1800, also by Denis. He carefully rendered the distant town and the central rooftops. I’m guessing that he was working from the view out of his hotel window, and that he ran out of time.

The alley at right is unfinished, which gives a glimpse into his method. He blocked in the big planes first and probably intended to add windows and other details later.

Antoine Xavier Gabriel de Gazeau (French, 1801–1881), painted this on-the-spot study of the Gate to the Temple of Luxor in 1836. Drifting sand covers the collossal figures to chest height.

At the top of the building at right you can see his transparent block-in, with the lower half of the wall mostly covered with a semi-opaque second layer. I would speculate that this was painted in two sittings of about two hours each.

These paintings look like they were painted yesterday. One of the remarkable qualities of plein air work is that it escapes the conventional formulas of the artist’s own time. It takes every fiber of concentration to capture what you see when you’re face-to-face with nature. All the compositional formulas go out the window.

The Metropolitan Museum has brought a lot of other realist paintings back into the light, giving a much more balanced view of 19th century painting. There are paintings by Gerome, Repin, Leighton, Sorolla, Mucha, Bouguereau, and Bastien-Lepage. All these rooms were crowded and buzzing with energy and interest. At last the tide is turning. Thank you, Drue Heinz, Phillipe de Montebello and the Met curators!

Metropolitan Museum’s press release about the new installations. Link.
New York Times coverage, Link.
Article by A. Malafronte on the history of plein air painting, Link

Tomorrow: Bronze Weathering

Monday, February 25, 2008

More Art By Committee

Art By Committee

I've painted a lot of paperback covers. For each job I get a big thick manuscript. I use the old manuscripts for scratch paper. Once it a while I’ll turn a sheet of paper over to see what’s written on it. Sentences like this jump out at me:

“…Flames from the creature licked at his back. Something crackled around his head, and he realized his hair was on fire…”

For an illustrator like me, a line like that is hard to pass up. So I’ve snipped out a few of the best excerpts and stuck them out of context into the pages of a big blank sketchbook.

I call the book ART BY COMMITTEE. I bring it to coffee shops when I’m hanging out with other artists. The other artist might be my wife or it might be a couple of notable comic artists, painters, or animators. I can’t reveal their identities—in fact I can’t remember exactly who drew what. And don’t ask me what novel the excerpt came from. I have no clue.

While waiting for the scrambled eggs, we take turns illustrating the scraps of stories. Here’s a sample page. Click to enlarge. If you like this sort of thing, there’s more where it came from.

Tomorrow: Plein Air Ancestors

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Multi-Colored Streetlights

Before electricity, there were basically two colors of light at night: blue-grey moonlight (or twilight), and orange lamplight. Below is a painting by the French boulevard painter Edouard Cortes (1882-1969), who specialized in Paris by lamplight.

As electric lighting replaced flame-based light, new colors entered the nightscape. Fluorescent light has a yellow-green cast. Sodium vapor gives off a harshly monochromatic orange. Mercury vapor’s blue-green color drains the blood out of flesh tones. Other kinds of lights: metal halide, LED, neon, and arc lamps, each have their own color qualities. You’ve probably noticed the variety when flying over a city at night.

I painted this little oil sketch from observation while balancing on a hotel balcony in the predawn light in Anaheim, California. The technique is fairly crude—and a bit smudged from when I accidentally dropped it. What interested me was the contrast between the orange sodium vapor (foreground) and the green mercury vapor (middle ground).

I originally did this 8x10 inch oil sketch in 1995 as a concept for a Dinotopia theme park. Recently I reworked the central boat and reused the image in Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara. It has three different regions of colored light: blue in the foreground, red-orange across the canal, and blue-green through the arch. The colors are arbitrary; I don't know what kind of lights Dinotopians are using.

Syd Mead, the “visual futurist” who helped design Blade Runner, is an inventive colorist who orchestrates colored light in many of his science fiction paintings. In this futuristic street scene, yellow, green, and blue light each occupy different spatial regions.

In this concept sketch by Mead, a mechanical creature stands above a circle of warm light, while a saturated, monochromatic cyan illumination infuses the rest of the scene. The effect is magical and otherworldly.

Japanese artist Teppei Sasakura also specializes in colored illumination, which he uses here to create a playful, exotic, kaleidoscopic effect.

Here are some tips if you want to experiment with colored light:

  1. Try painting a plaster cast, a figure, or a still life lit by two or three contrasting gel-covered lights. Try to shield the motif from all other light influences.
  2. Keep in mind that mixtures of colored light are different from paint mixtures. For example red plus green equals yellow.
  3. Try some urban night painting, using a portable LED light to illuminate your palette.
  4. Set your camera to daylight (rather than white balance) and photograph a color wheel under different street lights; then compare the digital photos side by side to see how the colors are skewed.
  5. Start a scrap file of magazine photos that show modern cityscapes at night.

Wikipedia/History of Streetlighting, Link.
Sky and Telescope article with a spectral output chart, Link.
Joe Maurath's gallery of vintage streetlighting, Link
More boulevard scenes by Edouard Cortes at ARC, link
More on Syd Mead, link.
For more on Teppei Sasakura, link.

Tomorrow: Art by Committee

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Animal Characters, 4: Animal-Morphism

So far this week, mostly we’ve been looking at animals that have been made to look more human. Some of the greatest animal characters have been in that category.

But another way to think of animal character design is to try to create real, organic, entertaining personalities that aren’t just human surrogates, but instead retain as much essential animal character as possible. In my experience this latter approach is much more difficult, because it goes against our natural tendency to humanize everything. (Above: Poortvliet)

The mice in Beatrix Potter’s Two Bad Mice don’t behave in merely human terms. They respond to every problem in a way that’s true to the personality of real mice. Their eyes are mice eyes, not humanized eyes. Yet we can tell what they’re feeling: they’re “relatable.” If they had been humanized, the comedy of the story would have fallen flat. Potter knew mice well and kept several as pets.

Tony the Tiger is a purely human type: a hearty enthusiastic salesman. But Shere Khan is more like a real tiger. He has a mind we can fully understand. Disney was adamant that the “heavy” in Jungle Book not be a slavering monster. As drawn by master animator Milt Kahl, he is cool, understated, arrogant, and poised— very much a tiger. Kahl spent a long time studying tigers from life. When it came to the animation, he didn’t need to refer to photos. He drew most of the sequences from memory.

To achieve the breakthroughs that led to Bambi, Walt Disney brought in animal experts like Rico LeBrun and Bernard Garbutt, who could teach the anatomy inside and out. But these guys didn’t necessarily have the animator’s gift.

It also took the skills of artists like Marc Davis, who combined a lot of animal knowledge with an innate sense of personality and inner life. Putting all these skills together brought the Disney Studios a long way forward from the “rubber hose” animation of Steamboat Willie.

I believe that the development of authentic animal characters based on close observation is a wide-open frontier for the pioneers of CG animation. Below: Paul Bransom.

Let me offer a thought, which is very much open to discussion. I wonder if the character creation process that is currently used in many studios is overly dependent on voice casting by famous actors. While many great characters have been created in this way, the process may limit the range of potential types of animal characterizations.

Animators may feel overly tied to the timing, delivery, and even facial expressions and gestures of a voice actor. That actor may or may not have any sense of the entertainment potential of the genuine animal he’s portraying.

The art form is capable of a wider range of conceptions that can be achieved by following a different set of assumptions and starting points—and of course a deep commitment to the study of animal behavior.

Consider, for example, this monkey and elephant by Heinrich Kley. The monkey’s tail is holding up the umbrella, and the elephant is the perfect blend of human and elephantine, bringing out immense personality.

Here’s part of an outrageous encounter between a man and a baboon by A.B. Frost. What makes it funny is that the baboon is perfectly true to its nature. When he wants to fight back, he uses his foot in a baboonlike way to rip off the guy’s jacket.

Here’s a confrontation between a puppy and a chicken by Norman Lindsay. We know exactly what each character is thinking and doing, but neither characterization is framed in anthropomorphic terms. For example, when a puppy wants to play, he throws his paws in the air, and Lindsay has exaggerated that gesture. The chicken uses her beak and feet to fight back, keeping the wings tucked.

Can animal characters be developed without humanizing them? It's easier if they don't talk. Any dog or bird owner knows exactly what their pet is thinking, and appreciates their unique quirks. A dog will let you know that he feels remorseful or playful or angry using a different repertoire of expressions than we humans use.

Animal-morphic characterization doesn’t have to be realistic in a photographic sense, but it has to be authentic and convincing. I’ll leave you with these clips of the dog Bruno in Triplets of Belleville (pencil tests above, finished clips below). Bruno is a memorable character because his thought process and his behavior is so deliciously doglike.

(Thanks to Disney, Warne, Kelloggs, ASIFA, DreamWorks, Pixar, Blue Sky. All rights reserved by their various holders.)

Friday, February 22, 2008

Animal Characters, 3: Near Relations

We feel a deep affinity for animals. This cartoon by the Australian artist Norman Lindsay, called "Near Relations," shows people who look like chickens—or are those chickens who look like people?

Yesterday we explored a few of the problems we run into with when we try to design animals so that they express human emotions and perform human actions. We’ve seen the challenges presented by birds, cows, donkeys, and even rodents with their beady eyes.

Here’s an experiment from my sketchbook. I did this drawing while listening to my son and his friends play traditional music. While the kids played fiddle, accordion, and tambourine, some dogs and cats circulated around the room.

Instead of drawing the musicians as they appeared, I tried to imagine the dogs and cats (and a squirrel I saw outside) as if they were scaled up and holding the instruments.

As you can see, I drew the dog’s feet “digitigrade” rather than “plantigrade,” meaning I lifted the heels off the ground. But I forgot to redesign the slippers. The hands are just paws. They’re OK for the sketch, but they wouldn’t work if you had to animate the characters. And I was a bit ambivalent about the costumes. I put the dog in socks and a T-shirt, but left the costumes off the rest.

In the last installment tomorrow, I’ll share some examples of an alternative to anthropomorphism, which you might call “animal-morphism.” (Above, Rien Poortvliet)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Animal Characters 2: Humanization

Some animals have body configurations that make us think of them in human terms.

Monkeys, rats, mice, squirrels, rabbits, bears, and kangaroos all seem to have hands. And they seem to be comfortable on two legs, so it’s no wonder they’ve been so popular as characters in animation. Scrat, above left, is exaggerated but not very humanized; the photo at right is humanized but not exaggerated.

We’ve all seen dogs and tigers and elephants on their hind legs in the circus, so it’s not too hard to imagine them in a humanoid mode.

Horses and donkeys are much harder to humanize. Even though they make funny faces, their mouths are far from their eyes, they don’t have hands; and they don’t often walk on their back legs.

So it’s a real credit to the character designers and animators at DreamWorks that they created such a memorable character out of the Donkey. Besides endowing him with expressive eyebrows and giving the lips a lot of mobility, they used a lot of ear movement to show expression.

Prey animals tend to have their eyes on the sides of their heads. This presents a problem on a 3-D character where both eyes need to be visible from a lot of angles to show human-type emotions. So one of the first jobs of the designer is to bring the eyes forward. They also like to show some whites to the eyes so you can see where they’re looking, especially in a long shot.

In Ratatouille, the main rat characters shifted back and forth between humanlike and ratlike characteristics. When they were raiding the food cabinet, for example, they ran on all fours in a very ratlike way.

These are the kinds of challenges all animal character designers face. Which animal characteristics should you maintain and accentuate, and which human traits do you need to give the character--particularly a speaking character--so that he can think and act to win the sympathy of the audience?

In the next post we’ll take a further look at the sympathy that we humans inevitably feel for animal emotions and expressions.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Animal Characters, 1: Anthropomorphic Absurdities

Have you ever watched a parrot scratch himself with a feather? Here’s a YouTube video:

Owner Cheryl Rampton didn't train Poncho to do this. He figured out how to hold the feather in his foot and reach back to scratch his neck. If the grip on the feather needs adjustment, he uses his beak to hold it for a second. The wings stay tucked.

A parrot really has three “hands”: his beak and his two feet. With those he’s got nearly as much dexterity as we humans do.

When we want to design a character based on a bird, we naturally want to make their wings into hands. This makes sense from the standpoint of comparative anatomy, but it goes completely against their bird nature. And it’s impractical. A bird can gesture with his primary wingtip feathers, but he can’t shake hands, make a fist, or pick up an object with them.

Putting animal heads onto humanoid bodies leads to other absurdities. Did you every wonder why you never see Elsie the Cow below the shoulders? Would she have (ahem) breasts or udders? Either way would be pretty weird.

For the rest of the week through Saturday we’ll look at how character designers have developed clever ways to infuse animals with human personalities.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Realms of Fantasy, April Issue

Realms of Fantasy magazine will have a six-page gallery feature on Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara, with an article by Karen Haber coming up in its April 2008 issue. It should hit the newsstands in a couple of weeks.

The issue also has an interview with Holly Black of Spiderwick, and fiction by Delia Sherman, Ken Scholes, Richard Parks, Graham Edwards, and Scott William Carter.

Deleted Scene: Styraco Races

In 1989 I painted this 6x12 inch concept sketch of a Roman-style race event with riders on styracosaurs.

The same year I was beginning to germinate Dinotopia as a book about a partnership of humans and intelligent dinosaurs. With that concept in mind, the sketch hit a snag. No matter how I looked at it, the sport seemed insanely reckless. So it ended up on the cutting room floor.

Tomorrow, don't miss the first of a four part series on animal characters.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Strange Tree

On a hike deep in the forest I found this strange tree and sketched it as I saw it.

I have a theory about how it came to be. Maybe you do too. So here’s a Comment Contest.

A prize pack (a World Beneath audio CD and signed "Visitor Permit" bookplate) goes to the best explanation in each of two categories. Deadline: 9pm Eastern Time Monday. Please, 100 words or fewer, one entry per person.

1. Best scientific explanation.
2. Best fantasy explanation.

Amendment at 9:50 pm to announce winners.

Scientific Winner: Earnest
“I think the tree was originally growing out of either a decomposing fallen tree trunk or a mound of earth. In either case, either the tree trunk eventually decomposed completely or the mound of dirt could have washed away.

This is supported further by the fact that the tree appears to have been growing sideways its whole life, suggesting that it had grown out of some mass that has since broken down.
Fantasy Winner: Eric Orchard
The tree is a doorway. It is made by rabbits, who have secret tree sculpting knowledge. It leads to a world called Lagomorphia. There are doorways to Lagomorphia all over the world, along rabbit trails. The main feature of Lagomorphia is The Great Borough Market. Rabbits from all over the world congregate here and trade different types of grasses. You will find the Eastern Cotton tail, Sumatran Striped Rabbits, Volcano Rabbits and every other type of rabbit. In order to be activated the doorway requires a key : a live rabbits paw pressed on a certain knot.

Tomorrow: Deleted Scene

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Serial Painting

Claude Monet is probably the best-known serial painter, though he was not the first: Corot and Turner had tried the experiment decades earlier.

In the 1890s Monet experimented with painting the same motif several times—each time from the same angle, but under different conditions of light and atmosphere. These images were conceived, executed, and exhibited as a group.

Here are just four out of the 30 studies that he did of the Rouen Cathedral. He didn’t get too caught up in the mind-bending complexity of detail in the cathedral fa├žade.

Instead he developed a way of painting to convey his sense of the transitory light effects, from the warm frontal lighting in the upper right image to the veils of mist in the lower right. The worthiness of his approach comes across best when you see the paintings next to each other.

Monet approached other subjects as a series. He painted matched sets of grainstacks, spring meadows, ice floes, poppies, the city of London, the Creuse Valley, and the Seine River.

During a painting vacation in central California, I thought I’d try Monet’s idea, maybe not for 30 paintings, but at least for a couple. I painted the first one in the morning. The first light touched the farthest range of mountains and began to sweep across the hills in the left foreground. The colors in the central mountain mass were cool and close in value.

I returned in the afternoon to find everything transformed. The far hills blazed with browns and oranges of the chaparral lit by the warm light. The jagged landforms became insistent. The sky appeared relatively darker and more saturated.

This little experiment was a reminder that the colors I actually mixed for my painting owed more to the particular conditions of light and atmosphere than to the local or innate color of the objects themselves.

Or to put it another way, color in landscape is less a property of material surfaces than it is of effects of light and air. You see this principle most forcefully when you try painting a series.

Nathan Fowkes, a conceptual designer for DreamWorks Animation and an instructor at the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art produced one of the most impressive examples of serial painting.

Looking out of his workplace window during breaks, he created this array of 36 paintings of the same Los Angeles valley scene. The non-descript white buildings and the far hills take on a limitless range of transformations as the haze and light shimmers and changes. No two are alike, and no camera could have registered these subtle nuances.

Note that blue shadows on the buildings tend to occur on days with blue skies. The colors of the distant mountains vary from earthy browns to pale pinks to soft blues.

If you want to try a series experiment, here are a few tips:

  1. Choose a motif that has a piece of sky, some distant reaches of space or mountains, and ideally a house or other white object with planes facing in different directions, because white is the best register of colored light.
  2. You can paint the images either on a set of separate panels, or tape off a larger board into equal size increments. But as you work on each study, don’t look at the previous ones.
  3. Keep the drawing consistent each time, so that the only variable is the light and color. Spend the first day working out the drawing for all the panels, or do one careful line drawing, photocopy it, and glue identical copies down on each separate panel.
  4. Paint the subject in different times of day, and if you can, different seasons of the year.

Nathan Fowkes's Blog, Link.
Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art, Link.
1990 New York Times review of a Monet serial exhibition, Link.

Tomorrow: Strange Tree