Sunday, April 26, 2020

What if my imagination lags behind my observation skills?

Photo courtesy Syn Studio and Concept Art Academy
Joe P. asks: 
"Hey James!
"I was reading through Imaginative Realism again a few days ago, and a question came up that I wanted to run by you. Its in reference to a comment you made about how when you were a student, you had a sketchbook that contained drawings from imagination and how it lagged so far behind your work from life and photos. This is something that I constantly struggle with, and it has me beating myself up and feeling like I will never make the slow jump from pure student to student/creative. 

"With my personal goals being illustration in the vein of the golden age illustrators as well as modern day imaginative realists as yourself, do you have any advice on making the jump from studies, to actually creating original work? Is it just a matter of doing it and accepting that your work is going to lag behind your studies greatly? Lately I feel like I have focused almost too much on my studies over the years, and although my eyes and hands are getting better.. my ability to create imaginative realism is almost non existent. 

"Do you have any tips on how to really start applying your academic studies to your end goals? I feel as though I am training to be a full on fine artist, and never really pivoting toward my true goal. Something tells me its just a matter of doing it, being terrible, fixing, and repeating. But I just have so much trouble making the jump from drawing a seated figure from life, to drawing some fantastic scene from my head."

Hi Joe,
Good question or questions. We all have seen videos of artists on the internet who are able to generate amazingly complete visions out of their heads. Behind that kind of virtuosity is considerable study and committing forms to memory.

For example, in this video, Kim Jung Gi explains what he's thinking about as he invents characters without reference. (Link you YouTube) Having a thorough understanding of perspective and anatomy is essential to this kind of drawing.

In contemporary ateliers, the emphasis is mainly on observational drawing and painting, but some of them are starting to offer imagination and memory training, such as Darren Rousar's book Memory Drawing: Perceptual Training and Recall. Most ateliers underestimate how important this skill set was for 19th century artists. Golden Age illustrators and painters spent a lot of time doing imaginative sketching games, cartoons, and doodles, such as Howard Pyle's weekly imaginative drawing sessions. Winning the Prix de Rome competition required that they could generate a convincing fantastic scene out of their heads.

The best place to find people who can teach this knowledge is in the field of comics and storyboarding, such as the classic books How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way or Framed Ink: Drawing and Composition for Visual Storytellers, and the books by Loomis, Bridgman, and the Famous Artists Course.

In my case, when I am faced with a blank piece of paper, I sometimes feel limited in what I can generate with no references if I compare myself to some of the virtuosos of impromptu drawing. My initial thumbnails are usually very rough and tentative. I'm also typically thinking about lighting and color, which requires visualization, too.

What happens for me is that the extremely rough thumbnail stage gets refined by degrees as I begin to bring on more reference. 

In the early stages of developing an idea, I might glance at art books by a few artists I admire, but I try to limit looking at other artists because I want the solution to be my own. I don't want it to look derivative of someone else's style. If I'm researching a dinosaur painting, I probably won't look at any paleo artists, but instead I might look at bird artists or landscape painters.

Or better yet, I might flip through books of wildlife photos if I'm doing a dinosaur painting. Then I might turn to my photo reference clip file, looking for ideas for backgrounds or lighting or color schemes. If I'm painting an exotic city scene, I have folders of photos of crowded marketplaces and street scenes, and lots of photos of architectural styles.

With that lateral inspiration, I do another round of thumbnails, perhaps this time in gouache at a slightly larger size, with multiple variations in color, lighting, and arrangement. Or I might build a rough maquette that opens up new possibilities, making the pose clearer or offering ideas for overlapping or lighting that I never would have dreamed up. After that journey of iteration after iteration, the final stage is ready. It might involve a photo shoot of a model in costume, or just a quick charcoal mirror study. But even as I bombard myself with all this reference, I find it's important to trust the sketches that I did purely out of my head, naïve as they might be, and to let them guide the process. 

All this iteration and reference gathering doesn't need to take as long as it sounds. It might take only three or four days, but what a difference it makes!


Tyler J said...

What a great explanation of your process, I especially appreciate you sharing your chain of thought and reasoning along the way =)

Joe P said...

Thanks again James! I hope this helps others that are stuck in a similar situation. I assume Im not alone in this predicament :)

adriano mazzanti said...

not to mention Fortunino Matania detailed drawings. Thanks both for the question and the answer

Chris Beaven said...

Wow wonderful information. I love the historical references you pulled from. I'm in the midst of changing my art to be more authentic, from my own thoughts and experiences, and I find that Kimon Nicolaides and his book The Natural Way to Draw has been very helpful in getting me to focus more on the expression and feeling that I have or want to portray rather than copying the surface.

Kimon Nicolaides was almost taught directly by Robert Henri. Henri taught, or was friends with, John Sloan who taught Nicolaides. So the impactful thoughts from Robert Henri's book The Art Spirit is reflected in The Natural Way to Draw.

I highly recommend the book.

My Journey said...

Hello! There's also a book called The Training of The Memory in Art and The Education of The Artist By L. D. Luard. Would be nice if you gave it a look too, very insightful.

James Gurney said...

Journey, thanks for that link. That book is new to me.

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jeckert55 said...

I've never done a drug in my life, and I don't endorse substance use, but I understand that Moebius did loads of psychedelic drugs.

Interesting corollary: LSD unlocks a way of thinking in an adult that very much resembles the imagination of a young child. So a 40 year old on LSD makes unlikely, surreal connections and thinks very much like a 5-year-old does.