Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Sarah's Questions about Costumes and Writing

Sarah, an art student at East Tennessee State University, asks: "How did you get inspiration for the costuming that the people in Dinotopia wear? And as someone that has difficulty in creating objects that don't exist in real life, how did you create the accessories used by the dinosaurs?

To answer your second question first, I made maquettes of dinosaurs and built little saddles for them out of thin leather.

Good costumes for humans can be expensive to buy or rent. And they can be difficult to make. But looking at a real costume makes a huge difference in your finished work. You can tell right away if an artist just made up a costume or went to the trouble to get a real one.

1. You can find costumes at thrift stores or junk shops. Almost every garage sale has a Halloween costume or an unusual hat that you may want to use later.

2. Many smaller communities have a local theater company with costume collections. They are sometimes willing to loan their costumes to illustrators.

3. Renaissance festivals have vendors with an assortment of hats, cloaks, corsets, gowns, breeches, and doublets. Example: Moresca Clothing and Costume. That’s where the blue and red jacket came from, and I’ve used it in many Dinotopia pictures.

4. People who work in living history museums wear very authentic costumes. I've found they're glad to model for a sketchbook study. They may also be willing to pose for photo reference, but be sure to get their written permission first. Examples: Plimouth Plantation, Old Sturbridge Village, and Colonial Williamsburg.

5. Big cities like New York, London, or Los Angeles have rental agencies serving theatrical or movie productions. Sometimes they will sell off their older, worn-out costumes. That’s where the doublet with the slashed sleeves above came from. Examples: Palace Costumes, Adele's Costumes.

6. Large museums, like the Metropolitan Museum or the Victoria and Albert in London have costume collections which can usually be sketched or photographed. Examples: Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute (NYC), and Victoria and Albert Museum, (London).

7. You can improvise a lot of costume details with samples of fabric combined with old clothes from your closet. It doesn’t matter if the color matches or if it looks good enough to go on stage. You’re just looking for information about folds and drapery. 

8. If you can’t find the right costume, don’t worry! Remnants of leather, satin, brocade, or velvet from a fabric store can provide you with helpful information about the behavior of the fabric. Steel bowls from the kitchen can give ideas for how armor would look. 

9. For simple togas and capes, you can drape and pin fabric samples over your artist mannikin or dressmaker’s dummy. For the fabric to scale down to a miniature size, it should be a very light weight. Cellophane scales down really well over a miniature figure, and can be spray painted to give it opacity. 

10. Don’t be shy to ask for help. If you know someone who is clever with a sewing machine and can think laterally, they might be able to help you improvise a few basic things.

11. Once you get your model (or yourself) in costume, you can take reference photos in a variety of poses. If it’s an easy pose to hold, you can work directly from the model. That's how I did the painting of Oriana, which appears in Dinotopia: The World Beneath. I put pieces of tape on the floor to mark where the model's feet should return between breaks. The whole session only took about an hour and a half, which saved time over shooting reference or doing drawn studies. 

12. If you attend a sketch group, ask if your fellow artists might enjoy sketching from a costumed model. If so, everyone can pitch in a costume or two, or the models may come with something. You can usually pay the model to stay after the sketch session to work with you for reference.

2.) How was the process of building the world of Dinotopia different in text vs. the paintings that accompanied it (or vice versa)?

The text is just as important to me as the paintings, but as you suggest, the process is different. As your question also suggests, the pictures sometimes drive the accompanying text, rather than always being subservient or secondary to it.

Each picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words. The pictures convey mood, atmosphere, a sense of place, and character. But the writing communicates everything else. Only the writing can deliver narrative sequence, continuity, backstory, dialog, interior thoughts, names, sounds, smells, and feelings. That’s a lot of work for a few words to do.

It’s a challenge to subordinate the written text to the pictures. It would be very tempting to give over more space to the writing, because writing is much faster to compose than artwork. A Dinotopia book could be finished up in half the time if the writing were allowed to take up the majority of the page space. 

But I think picture books work best when they sustain us primarily in a visual, dreamlike mode. Like graphic novels or movies, picture books suffer if they are too text-heavy. I end up writing about five times as much material as I have space for, and have to cut most of it out.

With words and pictures balanced in this way, there isn’t the novelist’s luxury to indulge in rich layers of motivation, backstory, and extended conversation. It’s a sacrifice I gladly make in exchange for the glories that only pictures can provide.

Although I have the plot worked out fairly carefully in the early storyboard and outline stages, there’s plenty of room for improvisation during the final art stage. The idea for the old musical conductor character named Cornelius Mazurka, for example, emerged while I was creating the paintings.

The running text comes last, so ideas that come up during the art stage can freely enter the story. I write the final text in a page layout program, with all the page elements in place. In this way I can be sure that the text comes to a full stop at the end of every layout. I want the reader to be able to pause and enjoy the artwork without being tripped up on the page turn. And I want the book to be as inviting to the casual browser as to the reader who takes the full train ride.


Susan Krzywicki said...

Amazing sharing of ideas, resources, inspiration and encouragement. Thank you for, as always, putting info into a format so others can learn and grow. Generous.

Steve Gilzow said...

"Generous" is what immediately came to my mind as well -- in every sense of the word.