What is it for?

I end up writing this on so many crits every day on FB group crits, I thought I would just make a post out of it.

Always ask yourself - What is this work that I am doing for?

There is (almost) no such thing as a personal piece.  If you share it with the world and care what people think, it’s not a personal piece.

If it goes in your portfolio, it is an advertisement for the kind of work you can and want to do....so think of it that way when you are making it.  It doesn’t matter if you did it for a client or not, people are going to see it and ask, “Does this kind of image solve the problems I need to pay an artist for?”

Every image should be made to solve a problem.  Even the simplest study is made to solve problems of lighting, or anatomy, or architectural design.  If your work doesn’t solve a problem, why would someone pay you for it?

If you know the problems you are trying to show that you know how to solve with your image, it is MUCH easier to figure out how to proceed with the work itself.

If you don’t know, you’re just guessing, or trying to make something “cool”.  Art Directors don’t pay for “cool” unless it also solves their problems, be those story or design related.

Illustrations for games are used to show the mood of the game, and what the creatures and characters look like, and what the environments are for.  Illustrations for card art are made to be very clear and read even when super small.

Video game environment paintings are used to show how a player could traverse a space, and what some potentially exciting play options would be.

Film environments are made to show the world that the actors will be interacting with.

It goes on and on.  Book covers have different problems that need solving than interior art or online splash pages.

Know how your image could solve an ADs problem, and you are MUCH more likely to get hired.

Designing within context

So I've been thinking a lot about design this week - What makes a successful design, and how to go about achieving that.  In the past, I've talked a fair amount about how design must be wedded to story and serve the story as a whole.  After giving it a lot of thought though, I don't think story is necessarily the right word.  I think a better one is "context."

So, long before I was an artist, I was a game master for tabletop RPGs.  I have created countless worlds and NPCs for my players to interact with.  Unlike film or books, gaming doesn't always have a nailed down story.  Your players are going to do things you don't expect, and if you create locations and people that are too tied to what you think the plot is going to be, you are going to be caught flat-footed when the story doesn't work that way.

Instead, you create them based on *context* - I don't need to know how a PC is going to interact with a shop keeper to know that the merchant lives in a city based on 9th century Norway, that he cheats his journeymen and beats his apprentices too much, and is having a secret affair with the wife of the head of the city guard.  That is CONTEXT, not story, but it tells you who they are, and what they are likely to look like and do.

Up until this week, if I were designing that character, I'd read the above paragraph and then try to draw and paint someone.  Now, I've got an additional step:

Before I create the character, I think of three 'pillars' that represent what the character represents.

In the case of our shopkeeper, maybe those three pillars are:

  1. Strong
  2. Conniving
  3. Charming

Now, figure out which of those three needs to be the first thing you think of when you see the character.  Which is second?  The third, you keep in mind, but don't really focus on.  Now you have success criteria to measure your character design.  It's not just "cool" or "readable" or "interesting".  You can say, "Of this page of thumbnails, this one looks the most conniving, and this one reads as him being the strong guy."  You can try different combinations of the pillars and see which one fits best into your context.

The context is super important - I'm not going to make my Norwegian shopkeeper and give him Polynesian tattoos, not matter how cool I think those are....but after the context, the pillars you choose are going to represent who that character is inside the framework of your world.  The pillars formalize 'drawing' into 'design' - You are consciously picking and choosing to create something that both has the instant read you want from a character and has the authenticity of their context.

Clearly, this process also works for buildings, props, all all the other components of your world.  In each case, think of 3 one-word descriptors of what the audience should instantly get when they see the object, and then adjust which of those 3 comes to mind first.

Thanks for reading!  How do you think about design?

Did you do the one before it?

Sorry for the long pause between posts!  I’ve been busy, making paintings and living life, and nothing really crawled out of my head and screamed “WRITE ME!!!” Until today.

I’m taking a class on designing environments for video games online with Ken Fairclough.  So far, it’s been really good, although we haven’t gotten past thumbnailing yet.  I thought about trying to create something I was familiar with in order to wow the teacher and make myself feel good....but, being me, I did not do that.  Instead of “industrial science fiction”, I’m creating a dark elven city in a swamp of perpetual twilight with magically grown, organic architecture.  I’m pretty sure I am a masochist, but regardless, it is causing me to revisit design instead of just vomiting up the same thing I’ve been seeing since Alien came out.  No proof I won’t create something else derivative and boring, but at least I’m having to think about it.

No matter how vivid an idea in my head has been, I’ve been having a great deal of trouble getting cool thumbnails out on the page.  They have either been boring, or didn’t transform my sources (mostly mushrooms) enough to feel like architecture.  Today, as I was thinking of how to approach things, I remember what my father used to tell me when I came to him with problems in my geometry homework.  “Did you do the one before it?”  Of course, I’d mutter, “Yeah....” and then he’d ask me what it had to do with the current question.  My first answer, always was “NOTHING!” I was always wrong.

Take that step back. Simplify until you feel absolutely stupid.  Iain McCaig said in a workshop once, “Draw it like a 6 year old before you try to draw it like an adult.”  I think that when people say, “Go focus on the fundamentals”, that’s what they they are trying to say.  We think the fundamentals are lit spheres, and casting lines, and anatomy, and I suppose, sometimes they may well be...but mostly for me, they are remembering to get simple, get loose, and not try for cool details.  Before you can design the way a mushroom building extrudes windows, you have to figure out what the building itself is going to be shaped like, and how it’s going to express that it is a civic center, or a temple, or a house, or the local military barracks.  

You don’t always have to go back to square one to fix something.  Just like my dad would say, look at the problem before it, not the first problem.  If you can’t find your answers in the one before, it probably means that one was easy enough you solved it without being aware how.  Go back another step.  Go back until you understand HOW you solved the problem, not what the answer was.

If you’re like me, this will be threatening as hell.  I always get nervous that I don’t know anything, or that my “failure” somehow proves that I really suck.  In the words of Pulp Fiction, “That’s just pride, fuckin’ with you.”  There’s no shame whatsoever in not knowing how to solve a problem when you start looking at it.  If it was easy, you wouldn’t need to solve it.  I *could* be making an environment with cast-iron gantries, grates and steam filled hallways leaking fluids.  I’m reasonably good at those, they don’t really take a lot of problem solving anymore....and they look like every other concept artists’ designs on artstation.  That might be good for your ego, and it might get you “a job” - but I want to be the best, I don’t want “a job” until I retire making things that no one will remember for shows and games that were forgotten a year later.

Often, the way forward is to go backwards....and once you’ve done that, instead of faking your way with bravado and fancy brushstrokes, you’ll KNOW how to solve that problem, and you will have grown...on top of that, you’ll get better at solving problems in general, which just makes you that much more valuable to a team.

Thanks for reading!  Good luck out there designing :)

What the heck is a design anyway?

So, I'm not an expert here, but lately I've been shown a lot of character drawings and asked if they are "character designs."  I've been asked if sketches are character designs, or if the pieces need to be finished.  I've been asked to what level the finish needs to be.

I'm not a character designer, but I've talked to a whole bunch, and obviously, I do have thoughts.

Essentially - No character image, no matter how finished,  is a character design unless it fits into something bigger....and no character design is good if it fits into something bigger but you can't tell that from looking at it.

To me, those are your two thresholds.  

1:  Does it solve a problem or answer a question about a larger thing?

2:  If it does, is that obvious from looking at it?

This applies to environments, vehicles, props, and all the other "concept art" you will ever see, but it is especially crucial in characters.

How finished does it need to be?  There is no answer to that.  It needs to be finished enough to answer any questions that arise from the person who is going to integrate it into the larger whole.  If *you* are the one using your own concept art, it doesn't *need* to be much more than a thumbnail that tells you what it is.  If it's going to a modeler for 3D, it probably needs to show three dimensionality and form from multiple angles.  If it's going to a texture artist, it probably needs a sense of materials.  If it's going to a rigger/animator, it needs some examples of how it will be posed and what the limits of those poses are.  If it has to talk or emote, then expressions will be necessary to show.  Very, very few character designs can accomplish everything they need in one image.

For my Egil's Saga project, I'm going to be using my sketches to design my world.  I can get away with a very rough level of finish, although if the goal is to show my ability for an employer, it makes sense to take it further than that.

You'll note that I didn't talk about story.  Unlike illustrations, designs don't really need to tell stories by themselves.  You need to express how they can be used to do that, but most designs don't need a visual context  to work as a design.  Often however, they need that visual context to *prove* that they work as a design, so a final illustration is quite common.  Due to concept art books, that illustration frequently gets labeled as "concept art", but it is not really part of the design process - It's just proof that the design does what it needs to, and answers the questions that will come up.

Obviously, this is my point of view, and different studios and different projects may think of the process differently.  I'd love to hear if you think I've mis-represented things, or if you design in another way.  Thanks for reading!

Let's get Cinematic!

Maybe you are a character artist looking to understand backgrounds.  Maybe you're trying to break into comics.  Maybe you want to figure out how to tell dynamic and dramatic stories visually.  Maybe you want to learn how to storyboard.

Let me recommend an amazing resource for you:


This site automatically grabs HD screencaps from bluray movies every 2 seconds (I think).  Every movie has literally hundreds or thousands of screen captures.

Study them.  Use them as lighting references.  Examine where characters are standing in relationship to each other, or background elements.  Hell, if you are a student, replicate them using your own characters!

While I'm working on my "Beyond Human" challenge on artstation, I'm deep diving into the work of Roger Deakins, because I want to try and capture some of the essence of his cinematography in my keyframe paintings.  I am *blown* away.  Stuff like this:

Folks, this is great visual storytelling.  You know instantly this is NOT a friendly chat.  They are divided.  You know he's the one with the upper hand - his pose is relaxed, hers is not, and he has the phone on his side of the frame.  She blends into the shot because she matches the warms, he is a shock to the system with the blue.  So many people just look at shots of shit blowing up, but *this* is where real story telling happens.

Or this:

Bond may think he has it covered, but this frame is telling us his back is exposed.  He is vulnerable.  This kind of story telling is what great movies do incredibly well, and this site gives you hundreds of movies to look at.  You don't need to watch the films, and in fact, looking at them this way helps me to step outside of the story and really study them.  I tend to get sucked in by motion, music and dialog, which is great for enjoyment, but less good for learning.

Anyway, back to studying for me, I hope this is helpful for you!

A World of Infinite Choices?

I was hanging out with some designer friends this weekend, and they were talking about doing a shared-world thing similar to what Marko is doing with the "Orken!" project.  As I listened to them talk, it helped to crystallize some of my beliefs about design.

When you start a painting, you can literally make it any color.  Let's assume you have a tight line drawing, so the forms are described, but based on the lighting scenario, it could be an almost infinite different tonal situations....but the MOMENT you put the first stroke down, the entire painting is essentially determined.  Every stroke after that one should be laid down *in relation* to the strokes before it....is it warmer or cooler, brighter or darker, than the area next to it?  Even if you don't know it at the time, 95% of the decision making is done with that first brush mark.

For me, design is very similar.  When you're making up an imaginary civilization of people, the sky is literally the limit.  You could base it on fantastic shapes, you could base it on historical people from Earth, you could base it on an animal, you could base it on an activity, like sailing or acrobatics.  You could start from where they live.  You could design based around their religion or cultural norms.  BUT - From the moment you decide where you are starting, all the following "decisions" should flow in some way from that first one.  

For example - I'm going to make a fantasy civilization of halflings based on the ancient Athenians.  Ok...that means they live someplace relatively warm probably...or at least, they used to.  Greek fashion came about because of the weather conditions of the Southern Mediterranean Sea.  Similarly, their architecture.  The warm, dry conditions indicate the kinds of plants in the area, which will dictate the kind of farming, and livestock that are kept.  If you want to make an enemy civilization they are competing with, then that foreign power probably either shares some of these things, OR they are from VERY far away - which tells you things about their ability to travel.  Every decision comes about in relation to the one before.  It is either like something, or not like it.  If it is NOT like the thing before, there is a reason for that, and that reason will impact other design factors.

None of this should stop you from fantastical, "cool" designs...but if you don't pay attention to it, chances are there's not going to be any sense of depth or authenticity to what you are creating.  It's not about "story" in the sense of plot, but in the awareness that design decisions are made to solve problems, even in made-up scenarios.  The most important question you can ask yourself after you decide on something is "Which means what?"  If you keep asking yourself that, you've got a much better chance of creating something of real merit and with a sense of authenticity that will resonate with audiences and hopefully lead to long term success and staying power.

Thanks for reading!

From 3D to finish

Ok, we got the house modeled and textured.  I'm not really going to show any pictures from the texturing process, as they are pretty boring and I don't think would explain a lot.  I used a custom adobe/stucco texture on the walls, with the windows and roof made up of an aluminium texture with some added dark bits in the cracks.  I put the whole thing through a "dirt" smart texture in 3D Coat that scruffed it up and added a lot of grime into the corners and crevasses.

As I mentioned earlier, I made the choice to model the house in sections, which I then loaded and created Unreal Engine materials for.  This is also a pretty straightforward task, 3D coat creates UV jpgs for base color, roughness, normal maps and all the rest.  It's basically plug and play.

Now the fun part!  I used the same desert map that I used for my last 2 vehicle designs, but found a different POV and built the house.  I did have to increase the size of every component by 1.7, which I figured out by loading the first section next to a model of a human.  Doors are great for this, they frame the people and give you a very quick read if the sizes are working in comparison.  Once the model was constructed, I adjusted the lighting, moved the camera around, adjusted the lighting some more...in general, just stuff you do to find your composition.  The advantage to 3D is that when your design is complete, you don't have to do more thumbnails for scene composition, you just move your camera around and tweak things until you've tried all your ideas and picked the one you want.  Unreal lets you create camera viewpoints with "Control+<number>", so you can cycle through different camera angles and compare them.

Here's the Unreal Engine render.

The other great thing about UE is that because it is a real-time render engine, you get great results the whole time you are finding your shot.  I used to hate setting things up in Vue, running a 3 hour render, and then discovering that something was off in the high quality render that didn't show up in the preview.  This is *much* more efficient.

The rest reminds me more of matte painting than anything else.  I took the render into Photoshop, replaced the sky, added some mountains and some foreground interest and did a bit of color tweaking.  Since I was happy with my 3D model, I didn't do a lot of paint-over to change parts, but this would also be the time you could "fix" low-res models with more detail if you needed to.

Here's the final image:

Thanks for following along with me through my design process from thumbnails to concept art painting.  I hope you enjoyed it, and if you have any questions, feel free to drop me an email :)

Thumbnail development.

In 2005, a book called "The Skillful Huntsman" was published by Design Studio Press, and concept art was forever changed.  For maybe the first time, students were able to see process steps to making entertainment design, and of course, those students began to emulate the process laid out in that book.

One of the parts of that book that got perhaps the most attention was the concept of thumbnail silhouettes.  The idea is actually, really, really good - to think of the shapes and read of what you are trying to design instead of getting bogged down in the details that are so easy to fall prey to in line drawing.  Of course, when students started aping this technique, many of them didn't have the understanding of form that is REQUIRED to make this a useful methodology.

The result, frankly, created wave after wave of incredibly shitty designs in our industry.  Instead of focusing on readability and form, people got caught up in how "interesting" a shape they could generate - usually by adding a shit-ton of spikes.  When that didn't happen, the designs were unreadable and not taken further.  Portfolio after portfolio were filled with pages of little black blobs that could never inform anyone further down a pipeline with information needed to do the work.

In the last couple of years, there seems to be less of that going on.  The word got out that it wasn't a "cool" technique to get jobs.  Now, I'd say the pendulum is swinging the other way, towards tighter and tighter linework.  That will probably cause it's own set of problems, but is beyond the scope of today.

This morning, I started to rough out some designs for a building in my "Strange Futures" project.  It's going to be the home of an isolated old guy living out in the desert, where he has to ward off attacks by mutant dinosaurs.  I want to capture the feeling I got driving through the Badlands of South Dakota and seeing old shacks in the middle of nowhere, but also have a bit of "cool" to it, and show the mish-mash of technology that is the cornerstone of Strange Futures.

I'm not ashamed to admit, I did a page of silhouettes.  My tendency is to keep things too close to "reality", and I want something with more panache than just an old tin shack or mobile home.  Silhouettes almost force you to go beyond the basic cubes of those realistic homes.

Here's my first page:

Obviously, as I moved down the page, I started combining earlier ideas into new mash-ups, which is completely fine.  I decided I really liked #14, #17, #18 and #19, so I took those 4, made a new sheet, and started drawing into those shapes to give an indication of what the blobs might actually be.

From these tighter silhouette sketches, I'm leaning towards the top 2.  In the next part of this development process I'll take those 2 and completely redraw them, trying to add details and clarity without losing form.  I'll also probably start thinking of what they look like from other angles, in a very loose way.  After that, I'll jump into some simple 3D modeling to kick out something I can rotate around and get a feel for.  I'll share those steps with you guys later on in the week :)

The Cult of the "Oooh Shiny!"

Wow, it's been 2 months since the last blog update!  I apologize, I just didn't have anything I wanted to talk about, and I've been super busy making new work. Today though, I have something to say!


I started photography in 2001 with a Canon G2.  You couldn't change lenses, you couldn't shoot long exposures over 30 seconds, and the F/stop range was 5.6-16.  I used the HELL out of that camera.  I taught myself composition and the fundamentals of aperture, shutter speed  and depth of field. After a year, there were pictures I wanted to take that the G2 simply couldn't do - 5 minute exposures of night skies and fast shots in dark environments. I bought myself a Canon 10D and a cheap 70-200mm zoom lens.  I used that lens for about 6 months, took some great pictures, and then upgraded it when its softness and relative slowness became limiting to me.  I upgraded the 10D body to a 1D in 2005 when I needed more "oomph" to do fashion photography.

I'm guessing you are seeing the trend.  I started with the cheapest and simplest tools I could find, and then upgraded when I reached the limitations of what they could do.  I didn't race to the biggest and newest thing, and I didn't stay with my limited tools out of a sense of pride or masochism.

I see both of these tendencies in concept art as well. A student asked me how to make "professional" looking images a couple of weeks ago, and when I looked at his stuff, he was doing line drawings with pencil and what looked like Crayola markers.  I told him to get Photoshop when he wanted to make finished images. Sure, traditional is legitimate, and I could have told him to learn acrylics or oils, but concept art...so I went with the obvious.

I see other people who think having the coolest brush set, or latest render engine, or biggest Cintiq will make them automatically "professional."  Worse, they tend to jump from one "latest and greatest" to the next, sometimes almost weekly! Master your tool until you find it confining, and then, and only then, go look for a tool that eases those restrictions. If you do that, you'll know what kind of tool you should be looking for, instead of just taking other people's advice, or buying the "best" thing out there.

Sure, this process means you will be potentially spending more time and resources learning things you may not use forever - but you'll LEARN them. You will be moving forward in a thoughtful and organized way, instead of just trying to buy your way out of whatever limitations you have.

I'm going through this right now, incidentally. I've been using Unreal Engine for my 3D rendering needs, and I'm starting to wonder if some of the frustrations I've had with it might be fixed if I moved to Marmoset, or Keyshot.  Two months ago, I was frustrated with my ability to make smooth curves in Sketchup, so I went and picked up 3D-Coat. The point is, you should only move to a new tool when you can articulate what problems you are having will be solved by that new tool, AND HOW IT WILL SOLVE THEM.

Don't join the cult of the "Oooh!  Shiny!"  Grow in the tools you have until you need to shed them, and then you won't waste time with things you can't handle, or don't need.

Thanks for reading!

Ancient Civilization world building

So, Monday was the deadline for the Ancient Civ keyframe and environment design challenges, and I submitted stuff for both of them.  I thought I might talk about my ideas, how they led to world building, and then my final paintings.

So when I started thinking about this, I knew I wanted to keep it based in a "movie reality" version of the real world - no magic, no ancient aliens, but still allowing for things that would never happen in the real world.  Probably close to a "Laura Croft"  universe.  I knew I wanted to show it as a living society, not as some Indiana Jones discovery story.  Finally, I *really* didn't want to tell yet another Orientalism appropriation story.  

With those as my drivers, I started brain storming.  I threw down a bunch of thumbnail sketches (they're all up on my Instagram if you're curious), and I kept coming back to an iron age Pict/Celtish inspired village.  What I ended up with was an isolated, idyllic village inside an extinct volcano.  I figured that the volcanic activity heated up the area, and created an artificial green-house effect, so that the temperature and terrain was sub-tropical jungle inside a volcano in someplace Northern, like Iceland.  The story I worked up was that they were refugees from a war several hundred years ago that found this isolated place and made a peaceful, happy home there, secret from the rest of the world.  They subsist primarily on farming, birds and a bit of fishing, as the ground is mostly swamp and they don't have a lot of room for grazing.

Now, the story - It is not fully fleshed out, as I was looking for key moments and not a full script, but the core of it is this:  The protagonist and antagonists are the twin children of the village chief, a boy and a girl.  The daughter is technically first born, and will lead the tribe.  The son does something that endangers the village and his father exiles him.  Outside the volcano, he meets a warband of viking slavers, and saves himself by telling them about the easy pickings in the village.  He leads them back to his former home, where the reavers torch the village and kill the chief.  The daughter confronts her brother in the lava temple, and unleashes the flow to destroy the warband, at the cost of their home.  She leads the survivors out of the volcano to try and find a new life.

With that, here are my keyframes and designs:

The protagonist, who still loves her brother, goes with him to the start of his exile.

The protagonist, who still loves her brother, goes with him to the start of his exile.

The Reaver warband returns to the volcano.

The Reaver warband returns to the volcano.

Hero hides from the reavers and watches them advance.

Hero hides from the reavers and watches them advance.

The antagonist hangs over the release lava in the temple.

The antagonist hangs over the release lava in the temple.

Houses in the village

Houses in the village

I'm reasonably happy with the work I've done, although looking back at it, I think I might change up my keyframe choices a bit to sell the project better.  These ones are necessary, but they might not be the best 4 to showcase the project.

I really had a fun time with this project, and learned a ton.  There really is nothing like working on a contained idea to force you to grow.  I have signed up to do the matte painting challenge, where you have to take an environment from the first phase and make 2, photo-real matte paintings based on it.  Should be a good time!

If you worked on this challenge as well, I'd love to see what you did for it :)

Thanks for reading!

Update on the master copies

Hey guys, I don't have a lot to talk about today, but I thought I'd share some of the copies I've been doing recently.

So, as of 2 weeks ago, I had done two Sargent studies.  I did a few more of those, ending with this one:  

Sargent mastercopy

Sargent mastercopy

After that, I did two J. Allen St. John studies - If you don't know him, he's kinda the "proto-Frazetta" of the 20th century.

I wanted to try a photo-study instead of a painting, to work out my own ways of simplifying shapes and values.

To mix things up, this morning I went into DAZ studio, rendered out a figure, and then did a study of that.

I liked that one, but I didn't have time to "bake in" good lighting, so I spent a bit more time today pushing things past where I'd normally take them, and then putting away the reference and adding lighting to make it "pop".

To me, this is the point of doing these copies.  No one cares if you can replicate the  work of an ancient master - you're doing it to push yourself to try new things, and find new ways of problem solving.  After you've done that, you should try to apply those tools to your own work.  I can see some of the things I learned from the Sargents and the St. John studies in today's painting, which is as it should be.  I also feel like I'm learning a ton and getting better very quickly.  Even just doing 1-2 hours of studies a day has had a huge impact on my ability to straight up paint and render.  All of these were done on one layer in photoshop with no textures or photos.

Anyway, I'm sorry I don't have a more text-heavy update, I hope you've enjoyed seeing some of my progress :)  If you start doing daily studies like this, please, let me know your results :)


This will challenge you.

So, more often than I care to list, I hear from students and people wanting to make portfolios that they don't know *what* to work on, or that they have a hard time focusing and making finished work.

One great tool for this is to find online challenges.  Many of the art websites out there do either semi-regular, or even weekly/monthly challenges.  Brainstorm, Artstation, CGSociety...they all have these.  

Sometimes they are broken out by "character", "environment", "concept", "production art", "matte painting" or something similar, and sometimes they are just topics.

These things are great.  They give you a deadline, they give you a topic, and then give you a built in audience to give you crits and feedback...in some cases, they'll even give you a job.  ILM hired several people based on their Star Wars challenge last Summer.  They also show you the range of talent out there.  Some entries are obviously done by pros, and others by bare beginners....which brings me to my next point:

You should do these even if you suck.

First off, no one "sucks", they are just not as far along the path...and these things are like going to the gym instead of working out in your living room.  You may feel self-conscious that you can't bench your body weight, or that your gut kinda hangs out when you do squats...but no one really cares.  Everyone is there to push themselves and to get their own thing out of it, and if someone picks on you for your level, they are the ones that come across as assholes, not you.  Do the best you can, post your in-progress work, and try to learn from other people who are trying to solve the same challenge problems that you are.

That being said - If you are more of a noob, you may not get a thousand 'likes' or comments.  Often, people don't really know what to say if your work isn't up to a certain point...they don't want to hurt your feelings, but it's hard to offer crit if you are posting thumbnails and calling it finished work...remember that the people in the challenge aren't there to help you, they are doing their own thing as well.

Like I said, these things are everywhere, but currently, Artstation.com is doing a whole series of these based around "Ancient Civilizations: Lost and Found"  I've signed up for both the keyframe and environment design categories.  There's a month until the due date, please feel free to follow along with me as I post thumbnails, sketches and other in-progress stuff.

I hope you join me on this one!  It's not about winning, it's just a tool to focus your energies.

Thanks for reading :)

Stop copying me! - NO.

Hey guys, sorry I missed Thursday's update, but hey, better late than never, right?

This last week, I've been trying to paint outside of my comfort zone.  I've been doing "straight" painting, mostly one layer, no photos, no 3D, based on a drawn sketch.  It's been fun, and frustrating.  I feel like I got a lot of out of it, which is awesome - But one of the things I got out of it was confirmation of some fairly large weaknesses, which feels less awesome.

I've ALWAYS hated learning to do other people's stuff.  I hated learning other bands' songs when I was a musician, and I've never liked mastercopies as a visual artist.  After seeing my shortcomings stare me in the face on Thursday though, I am biting the bullet.  I could figure out how to solve all my problems on my own, but WHY?  There have been painters for thousands of years, and studying what they've done keeps me from having to re-invent the wheel.

I'm starting off with Sargent, 'cause I love his stuff, and because he's great at characters, which is definitely an area I need to improve.  I started yesterday with a one-hour study of Madame X:

One hour isn't enough to get the subtle brilliance of Sargent - but I can do it as a warm-up at work most days, and I'm hoping at the stage I'm at, we're talking 80/20 rule.

This morning, I did another hour study, this time of a Sargent self portrait.

If things go as I am planning, tomorrow I'm going to try for a longer session, and one that has multiple figures and a background.

I am also happy to report that I'm having more fun doing these than I thought I would.  Instead of being tedious, I'm seeing it as a puzzle, and a chance to really push my observation.

Because it's what I want to work on, all of these, while digital, are done on one layer.  I am sampling colours sometimes from the original, because I know I can match colour, it just takes longer.  What I'm focusing on is strokes, and *which* colours are laid down next to each other.  Remember, when you are doing a master-copy, there is no such thing as "cheating."  You can do it 100% by eye with no tracing or sampling if you want to, and that will be helpful - but you can also chose to focus on the things you feel you need the most work on, and recognize that you don't have enough hours in the day to do everything the hard way.

Anyway - once again, sorry I'm 2 days late, and thanks for reading!


The harsh realities of problem solving.

A'ight - let's talk about getting better...really, at anything, but I'll try to keep it mostly to visual art.

AA has it right - the first step is acceptance.  You have to accept you have a problem.  Your art isn't where you want it to be.  Dash it all!  It sounds funny, but I went to art school with someone who couldn't see this.  What he was seeing himself doing in his mind was not what was coming out on the paper, and he was believing his mind.  Particularly if you've grown up feeling special and loved for your artistic ability, it can be hard to admit to yourself that you aren't where you want to be.

Of course, that's the tip of the iceberg.  "Not where you want it to be." is completely useless for problem solving.  Gotta dig deeper.  I have no idea what your specific sub-problems are, but in general, we can break them down into two categories, problems in what you are trying to do, and problems with how you are trying to accomplish those goals.  Most people will have both.

For art, I think we can usually reframe those as "Skill Problems" and "Tool Problems."

Ok, so you have skill problems.  Probably, you're going to gravitate to an obvious one that doesn't really scare you that much, but you think does.  For a lot of people, that seems to be either perspective or anatomy...chances are, your real problem is only slightly related to those things....dig deeper.  Is it anatomy you have a problem with, or is it an understanding of how to represent 3D organic shapes in two dimensions?  Is it shape representation, or the fact that your line quality needs a lot of work?  Maybe it's understanding foreshortening?  Maybe it's visualizing dynamic poses?  Whatever level you can finally drill down to, I can almost assure you it won't be "anatomy."  

Same goes for perspective.  Many of the same sub-problems, as well as lighting, composition, understanding architecture, understanding plantlife, understanding rock formations...fixing your perspective is probably the least of your problems.

Tool problems are in many ways, the easier ones to solve...problem is, we often try to solve them instead of solving our skill problems.  Everyone keeps looking for the perfect software, the  perfect brushset, or the perfect paint brand.  In many cases, these things will make a slight difference, but not much...the trap is that this is where you spend all your energy.

All this can be pretty discouraging.  Every time you find something to work on, you're going to start chipping away at it and realize your issues are much deeper than you feared.  This is another one of those cases where you have to be able to hold two different perspective simultaneously in your head.  You need to know what you need to do to improve - but you also need to put that shit aside and get on with making stuff.  If you only focus on what you need to know, you get trapped in what my father called, "The Paralysis of Analysis."  If you ignore thinking about your weak points, you aren't going to get better very quickly.

I tend to recommend a 30/70 split.  Try to spend 30% of your time doing deep focused studies on your weak areas.  This is when you do master copies, or gesture-line drawings, or line quality exercises, or draw boxes in perspective, or whatever targets the specific thing you are working on.  The other 70%, try to apply those things to full on pieces you are working on.  Apply the techniques you are studying.

For tools - 30% of the time, try using a different tool.  Uses brushes you aren't familiar with, or pens if you are a pencil person, or watercolor if you are an oils artist.  Focus on how the different tools respond differently to different desired outcomes.  This will help you learn new tools, which is great, and it will probably give you a better understanding of your current ones, which is even better.

Again, all of this goes back to - Find what your real problems are.  Fearlessly analyze your weaknesses, to see if they really are the things you think they are, or if they point to deeper, more hidden issues.  Embrace the fact that you don't know, instead of trying to pretend you got this and everything's cool.

Thanks for reading!  Keep fighting the good fight :)

Trying to watch yourself grow.

Well, Thursday morning, and not a lot to report.  I've got 8 weeks left on my contract on "Max and Ruby", I'm working on a beach episode and thinking about the future.  Last night I submitted 13 images for Spectrum 24 (Two 5-painting series and 1 3-painting series).  Starting to apply for new gigs, and generally "doing the thing."  I've been trying to draw and paint at least 3 "colour comp" level designs to practice my straight on painting on one layer, and to work on my lighting skills.  I wanted to get a new painting done for Spectrum, but it didn't quite happen.

Sounds pretty trivial huh?  I know I'm working hard, I know I am improving, and I know I'm doing all the things I can think of to get where I want to be.

...but I can't see any of that when I examine the instant I am in.

Did you guys ever do the "height measurement line" when you were a kid?  You know, when you stand against a wall and your parent makes a little 'tic' mark with a pencil to show how tall you are?  If you're like me, for a while after the first time you got excited about this, you bugged your parent to do it *EVERY DAY*...sometimes multiple times a day.  

I've been obsessed with growing and improving my entire life.  One of the biggest things I struggle with is the emotional fear that it's not happening....that I've stopped, stasis has set in, and I've reached the end.  It's ridiculous, but it's true.

Any measurement that takes place in a single instant can only track where you *are*.  It takes time to measure change.  

Story time again - After my 2nd year in art school, I showed my work off at a Con to a concept artist from ArenaNet.  He was not impressed.  The work was far from professional.  That's not the point.  He was looking at it as a single point in time measurement.  If he had seen the work I had done even just 3 months earlier, he might have given me a very different review.  The work would still have sucked, but the *growth* would have been obvious.  Now, it's not his job to measure growth, so I don't blame him for his response.

It is my job to measure growth...and to have the faith in myself to know that growth is happening, even when I can't see it.  It's my job to take stock of my work every 6 months or so, and see what I need to change...but I know artists who do that every couple of weeks, and they end up like crazed squirrels in the middle of the road.  One day they say they will "Only use <xxx> software for the rest of their lives", and the next week they are exclaiming something completely different, because they haven't seen improvement or success from the path they were on.  

I know it feels like we are fighting a clock.  I'm almost 42 years old.  I see incredibly successful people I admire who are almost 20 YEARS younger than I am, and I wonder if I will ever get where I want to be before old age claims my ability to paint.  I also know that when I look back at where I was even a year ago, I have made incredible gains in skill, in networking and in my career.

If you don't feel like you are getting anywhere, take your current sketchbook, your current finished paintings, and your current work status/experience.  Put them in a closet, and don't look at them for a year.  If you can't tell a difference on January 26th, 2018....make a change in what you are doing.  Don't freak out if your stuff is the same on March 1st, 2017.

Thanks for reading!  As I said, I'm currently looking for my next gig, so if you know anything you think would be appropriate, let me know! 

Infected by Doubt

Hey guys - So I've been fighting the flu all week, and while I feel a bit better today, I'm still pretty zoned out...so this one may be brief.

This week, the entries to "Infected by Art" volume 5 were announced.  There are some TREMENDOUS paintings in this book, it is by far the best work they've published, and I am super excited to see it.

...I also didn't get into it.  I only submitted two paintings, but they were not selected.  Looking at the work that WAS chosen, I get a sense of the judges and what they were looking for, and honestly, I'm not too surprised I didn't make it.

I also had a couple of friends who seemed to take it pretty hard that they weren't selected.

It made me remember the importance of not assigning too much value to "milestones" you can't control.  It's so, so easy to look for validation in your work and your efforts from things like "getting into <xxx>" or "getting a job at <yyy>" that we almost do it as second nature.  I've heard lots of people make these kinds of New Years Resolutions!  The problem is, you can't control what other people do.  You can't control who else applies for those jobs, and you can't control what the judges are looking for.

I try to treat submissions to annuals or shows like the ancient samurai treated going into battle.  Assume you are going to die.  Make peace with that, and then you are free.  Doesn't mean don't do your best, but just assume you aren't going to get in.  If you do, GREAT!  It is super, super nice to get that outside validation....but if you don't, it doesn't have to be about you at all.  It's certainly not a sign that you suck and should give up art, or trying to get into books, or shows, or jobs!

Above all else, try not to take it personally.  In cases where there are multiple judges, you never know what the story was.  Cynthia Sheppard told me a story about someone who wrote her an incredibly nasty letter after they didn't get into Spectrum last year when Cynthia was one of the judges...here's the thing - Cynthia *liked* the piece, it was the other judges that didn't give it a high enough rating.  As a general rule, try not to pick a fight with an AD at WotC... and remember that sometimes, just entering will get you results, even if you don't win.

All of this ties in to the fact that entries for Spectrum 24 are due next week.  I'm going to submit, and I would encourage anyone else who thinks they *might* have what it takes to submit as well.  I'm going to do my best to not treat it as a life or death test of my artistic merit, or anything other than a good "arbitrary" date to keep me focused and working on improvement.  If you are paying attention to such things, I hope you're looking at it the same way.  Sometimes having a date gives us the push we need, but we can't let the date consume our lives, or think that it makes us more or less "real" as artistic creators.

A'ight, thanks for reading!  I'm going to try to rest and feel better :) 

Am I boring?

I think that's a question that most artists ask themselves from time to time.  We make work that doesn't sing to us, we seem to be lacking in new ideas, and people seem "ho-hum" about what we do.  It's easy to let that fear of being boring creep in.

Rather than tell you "You aren't boring!", let's break up what we are doing.

1.  Very little is actually boring.  I've seen paintings of simple pastoral life that made my heart race.  You don't need starships exploding off the arm of Orion for your work to be engaging.

2.  In the wrong hands, almost anything can be boring.  I find 2/3rds of the work out there I see "boring", mostly because I've seen things just like it dozens of times before.  Someone who isn't "in the business" won't have that same reaction.  This brings us to a common point - Who are you making work for?  If you want art directors to respond, you have to acknowledge that they've seen the obvious stuff many times, and might be tired of it.  If you want the public to respond - Go with the with obvious stuff.  There is a reason wedding magazines have a 3 year cycle for basically the exact same articles - your public will consume it, find value in it, and then move on.  By the time someone is bored, you will have hopefully found new people.

3.  Is your work not up to the level it needs to be to engage the audience you want?  We will drill into this one, 'cause I think it's actionable and worth addressing.  You might not be skilled enough yet for the markets you are trying to engage.  Either you try and fail in the execution of something interesting, or (and this is what I struggle with), you stay with what is *safe* when you conceive of projects, so you don't get that last 20%, which is the part that gives all the *oomph!* to a piece.

Ok, you're not good enough.  We can work with this.  You gotta take a long, hard, and probably painful look at your failings though.

At the highest level, do you have the painting/drawing technique you need to execute your vision?  If not...keep practicing.  You're going to fail 1,000 times before your make consistently boring work, and then you're going to make 1,000 boring paintings before you get consistently interesting.  

If you've gotten past the "abject failure" stage and to the "boring" stage, what is holding your work back?

If you can paint/draw components that really work, but the whole is failing, you probably need to work on your composition, and your "drama."  It's beyond the scope of this post to give suggestions on that, but people like Chris Oatley have classes and schools dedicated to learning "Painting Drama."  The good news is, this is a pretty quick fix for most people.  Once you learn where you're going wrong, you should be overcoming the boring problem pretty quickly.

Next question - Are your designs stale?  Do your soldiers look generic, and your aliens elicit shrugs from viewers?  I have a couple of suggestions, and these are things I'm working on myself.  

First - USE MORE REFERENCE.  The biggest cause of boring designs is a lack of the details that make things feel authentic.

Second - VARY YOUR SOURCES.  If you want to make cool designs, you need to look past the things you see every day.  Don't copy video games if you want to make cool video game characters.  That was fine when you were learning the techniques, but now you have to expand your pool of sources.  Try to pull from real life.  Use photos when you can't use your eyes.  Don't spend too much time looking at other artists' work.  

Third - GO OUTSIDE WHAT IS OBVIOUS.  The easiest, and most common way to do this is to include elements that, at first glance, don't make sense.  The easiest way to train yourself to do this is to create lists of elements, and then randomly combine them and force yourself to do something cool with them.  If you are a character artist, I highly recommend the Reckless Deck  for this.  You can come up with the same thing for props and environments, just make some lists and then roll dice to pull elements off of them.  The other thing I recommend is to make sure you are pulling from sources you don't know very well.  If you put the same ingredients into the same soup every day for dinner, you're going to get bored of it.  Think of something that terrifies you to draw, and incorporate that into your design.

Fourth - EMBRACE MISTAKES.  This is one reason I love drawing and designing with a fountain pen.  You can't erase anything, and you have to work with the lines you put down.  There have been times where I deliberately just gashed out the ugliest line I could think of on top of my half finished design, because it required me to work in new ways to fix things.  The eraser is the arch-enemy of interesting design.  Perfection is achieved at the end, not during the process.

Thanks for reading, I hope this helped think through some of these things - If you can think of another cause/cure for boring work, I'd love to hear about it :)

7 Paradoxes of highly successful artists.

So I started out today thinking I'd write a post about New Year's Resolutions for art...but a) that's been done to death, and b) it got me noticing things.

Have you ever noticed how you get conflicting advice ALL THE TIME from people in this field?  One person will tell you to "focus on the fundamentals" while the next one will tell you to "Dream big and paint what you feel!"  One teacher will write an excellent article about how you should make measurable goals, while the next one will tell you to focus on the end game and your long-term dreams.

What's going on?  At first glance, it seems like either everyone is screwing with you, or SOMEONE is wrong.

I don't think either one is true.  I think that to be successful in this field requires that you be able to hold two, mutually contradictory positions as true AT THE SAME TIME.  It's like you have to be two different people at once.  This is the hardest thing for me to express to students when they ask for advice.  I'll give one piece of advice to one of those "two people", and it gets taken as "THE WAY."...and then I watch the student ignore the other side, that I consider equally important.  I thought it would be fun to try and think of some of these dualities.

To learn and grow, you must focus on your own voice and also focus on standardized fundamentals.

You must be disciplined and have a regime and also be flexible and willing to change on a dime.

You must be able to focus on the moment you are in while always seeing the long term goal ahead of you.

You must create work for yourself without worrying about being marketable in order to be marketable.

You need to "find the joy" in the daily activities and also treat it like a job.

You need to be both highly focused and very laid back about your work.

You need to have faith in yourself how you do things while remaining open to change and negative feedback.

Yeah...it's no wonder people think we're crazy!  I'm sure there are more, but 7 just seems like such an appropriate number :)  Seriously though, this is not a field for dogmatic thinkers.  Many times I do feel like two people at the same time, the hard-working, focused technician who is living in the moment and the creative dreamer who has his head in the clouds.  I find that when I listen too much to either side, I get into trouble...either my work gets stale and boring, or I feel depressed that I'm not getting where I want to.

I think this is the reason you need to internalize and really process any advice you are given.  It's almost certainly going to be focused on one of those two people...probably the one that the person giving the advice feels the strongest about...that may NOT be the one you need to feed at that particular moment.

"Give yourself measurable, achievable goals for your New Years Resolutions" is a very "down to earth" advice, designed to shore up that side of who you are....but I have friends who would be much better served thinking more about "What excites you?  Go out there and do that!"  Conversely, I know some people that IMHO need to bloody well knuckle down and get some work done...right now.  I think many of us have a hard time holding both sides equal at the same time, so we jump back and forth between the two.  I think the easier you can do that jump, the more chances for success you are going to have....the brilliant people I know seem to be able to keep both sides fed and active all the time.

Hope you enjoyed reading, thanks for kicking off the year with me :)

Problematic Story-telling and Design

It's strange how these things seem to come in groups, but I have had a number of discussions this week about "Cultural appropriation" and appropriate representation.  From my experience, the moment you bring up this topic, your audience divides into two very polarized groups.  The first starts pointing out that all cultures share ideas and change constantly, and the second group brings up the way Western Europeans have strip-mined cultures and left the remains as wastelands.

Guys - IMHO, both are true.  Seth's 2nd Law, "If I can frame both sides of an argument as assholes, you are having the wrong argument."  I think this is one of those times we need to examine "Why" more than "what."

Before we start - I'm going to use the words "story" and "design" almost interchangeably in this post.  'Story' is a verbal construct and 'design' a verbal/visual one that supports the story.  

I think as you approach a story, there are 2 common starting points.  The first is, "I have a story to tell!"  The second is "I'd like to tell a story with <xxx> in it!"  The first has functionality embedded within it.  The second has style embedded.

Yes, "Style".  Saying, "I'd like to tell a story about a strong female lead!" isn't about function of the story.  You are in essence saying you want one element of the story to be more important than the other ones, BEFORE YOU START WRITING.  Same thing applies to visual/cultural forms.  "I'd like to tell a story set in feudal Japan." is another style point.  You are setting what your design should look like ahead of what your design should *do*.

Disney has been especially good/bad about this.  You can tell when they have approached a movie from one way or the other.  Both options *may* come out alright in the end - but I think if you looked at the development of say, "Tangled" compared to "Moana", the paths they took would be obvious.

A'ight, what does this have to do with cultural appropriation?  Obviously, this is a hugely complex issue, but when I boil it down, I see 90% of the evils of 'CA' coming from option #2.  Without a story to drive things before you start designing, what you tend to get is people trying to be different, or cool, or pay homage to things they don't really understand.

My friend Chris Oatley posted up a Hemingway quote this week talking about good writing being true writing.  You should write what you understand.  If you have a story you want to tell, then almost by definition, you understand it.  If your main character is an orphan boy from the streets of Meiji Era Tokyo, you know *why*, and you know that it is probably important.  If you start with, "I want to write about an Meiji Era street orphan", you don't have any of that truth built into the story...and I would have to ask, "Why Tokyo?"  What is it about your story that prevents the orphan from being from Rome, or London, or New York?  Unless you grew up in that city, why the urge to make your character from there WITHOUT A COMPELLING STORY REASON FIRST?

When you have a story/design you need to create and you borrow from where you need to in order to make it, you are filling an actual need.  Taking ideas and best practices from cultures is how we grow - information wants to be free.  Taking things "because they are cool" is to take for your personal gain instead of to meet a need.  There is a MUCH greater chance of mis-representation, because more than likely, you don't really need or even care that much about the back story, it is the romance and the difference that appeals to you.

In the story-based approach, you are asking and answering "Why" something needs to be included.  In the "Contains <xxx>" approach, you are asking "Why not?"  It's pretty much human nature that if we want something and the question we ask is "Why not take it?"....we're gonna take it.

Great, ethical design and storytelling places function ahead of form.  They don't just look cool, they do something.  They function based on the solid principles of what we know.

Even the most well-meaning person can get tripped up with form-based design and storytelling that borrows from things they don't understand.  If you want to see cultures and people represented in things, step away from the pencil and do your best to help THOSE PEOPLE tell their own stories, don't try to tell stories for them.

Have faith in the things that make you *you*.  Your own ideas and culture are plenty interesting, and there are thousands of stories you can tell that are personal to you.  As you have intersected with different people and different cultures, so too can your stories, but start them from your base of experience, don't think you can "put yourself in the shoes" of another simply because you really like the things you've learned about their way of life.  The truer you stay to your experience, the truer your story will resonate....yet another reason why it is important for concept artists to broaden their experiences.

I lived in Japan for two years, and studied its history for years before that.  I speak Japanese moderately well, and I thought I'd be able to understand things and fit right in.  Ah, Kruger-Dunning.  Two years after I got there, I was more convinced than ever that I would NEVER understand that culture as anything but an outsider.  I'd be happy to make a story about my experiences, but I would never try to write a first person POV about what it would be like to grow up and be from there.  I could do it well enough to fool other Europeans, but it would be totally lacking in the authenticity to convince an actual Japanese person.  The world doesn't need more white guys explaining how the rest of the world thinks.

Hey, thanks for reading this last post of 2016.  I'm super grateful to everyone who has read this blog and been a part of my artistic life in the last year, and I have high hopes and big plans for the new year!