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Day 16: Jealousy + Reset

It used to be that I was jealous of every artist I liked. I saw their work and it was beautiful or emotive or funny and I wished that I could do that. I wanted their colours, their compositions, their ideas, their details, their rendering, their vibrancy. All of it.

I hadn’t thought about it in a while, but I checked in with my brain the other day and realised I’m not all that jealous anymore. I can appreciate an illustration, ask myself ‘do you wish you had made that?’, and the answer is usually ‘nah, not really, it sure is cool though.’ Every now and then though, the answer is still ‘oooooooh, yeah, I guess I do a bit.’steampunk2

And so now jealousy can become interesting, where before it was overwhelming. Is there a specific aspect of the illustration that makes me jealous? Is it the idea behind it? Is it everything that illustrator makes, or just this one piece? What am I missing?

Most often, it’s a technical skill, or the ability to use a medium that I have no experience in. This is, in some ways, an ‘easy’ fix, if a time-consuming one. I just need to learn the skill, or medium, and then either adapt it into my work or choose to leave it by the wayside. It’s good to be specific though – about what the skill is – or it’s harder to address.

It’s trickier if I’m jealous of someone else’s ideas, but I think Blaugust is helping with that. By looking at the themes I try to express, and the habits I have formed, I can see where there are gaps. I can see themes and ideas I wish I could express, and how the habits I’ve formed are not conducive to that. I can imagine new habits, that might help me to create images with a wider range of meanings and interpretations. I can imagine no longer being jealous of ideas, because I am proud of my own ideas coming through in my own work. I’m not there yet, but I can imagine.

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Something else that I find myself jealous of is a little harder to parse. Perhaps it’s something along the lines of artistic intuition or freedom of interpretation. Freedom to stylise. I’m jealous of this in Victoria Semykina’s work, in Nuria Tamarit’s, in Charlotte Ager’s, in Rovina Cai’s, in Pascal Campion’s. It’s perhaps the main reason I’m doing Blaugust at all. There’s a sense of freedom about their illustrations. No longer tethered to imitating reality, they’re showing something that still feels tangibly real but also vibrant and unique.

These illustrators mentioned are all so different that it feels odd to group them together in this way. But it’s an important reminder that I don’t want to imitate any one of them. I do want to find my way to a practice of illustration that has some similar sense of freedom. I’m not certain of how to apply this. It’s something that people seem to say ‘comes naturally’, which is the sort of answer that has always infuriated me. I like to learn. I like to study. I don’t like the idea that you’ve either got it or you don’t. And generally when people say it ‘comes naturally’, they just mean they don’t remember how they learned or developed something. So I’m choosing to believe it’s something that I can develop, that it’s not a mystical magical thing, but just that I’m not quite able to understand it yet.

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And honestly, so far for Blaugust I’ve covered such a tiny section of the artistic decisions that people make. I’ve learned a lot, but there’s a lot to learn. It’s just about midway through the month, and I think I need a mini reset, a little stocktake to assess what’s going on, what I’ve learned and what more there is that I want to achieve. So, tune in for that tomorrow!

Day 15: How

Yesterday I wrote about my subjective focus within a scene, the things I like to capture, and mentioned a little of how that can influence the materials I choose and the styles I use. Today I’m gonna try to expand on that.

Texture

I really like dry media for the way it lets me easily capture the texture of objects. In this way I relate a lot to how Serio and Grill work. Over the years I’ve tried a number of ways to build that natural texture and scribble feel into my digital work. (Not really aware of why I wanted that, just that I did.)

I used to spend a fair amount of time creating digital collages, using traditionally drawn elements as texture.

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It’s been a while though. When I switched to using Clip Studio Paint (away from vector-based Inkscape) I figured I could achieve a lot of those effects within the program. And I could, but I didn’t. It became more controlled, more refined and there were fewer messy bits and pieces. I’ve retained a lot of the directional strokes and texture, but it doesn’t have the same freedom or range that I have in my sketchbook, or even that I used to have in Inkscape.

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A trade-off of texture for clarity is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is if it’s not really what I want, just what’s easier to do. A lesson for me: when making digital work I’d like to keep in mind that the textural quality is not something to be added on at the end, but a central element of the illustration. Perhaps I need to spend some time just learning the sorts of marks I can make. But this is all also a reason to improve my traditional illustration skills. As mentioned a while back, I struggle to render complicated scenes, especially from imagination, and I’d like to get better at that.

Light and Shadow

I really don’t like line art. I don’t like drawing an outline and colouring it in. I don’t like it when there’s a solid dark line on the lit side of a pale object. I’ve done many fully lined pictures that I love and am proud of. But it annoys me every time I do it, and I get tired and frustrated, I find line thickness to be a tedious thing to carefully control, and the result never feels quite true to me anyway.

And I’ve been thinking that maybe it’s because I really like light and shadow. I prefer to think of things in solid shapes, not in outlines. If I’m drawing an outline I want it to make sense – a light line on a lit edge, a dark line on a shadow edge. Often there’s no need for lines at all.

I think this is one reason why I really love (digital) collage and working with vectors. It gives me a method of creating pictures without lines. The AOI Posters from my first Blaugust post were a conscious attempt to recreate some of the fun of lineless collage-style digital art, and I really enjoyed that. It’s fun to start without lines and only add them where absolutely needed. (The summer courtyard in this post is a good example of that technique too.) Collage is also a good method for adding patterns because you can easily add a pattern to a single collage layer. One thing it’s not so good for is softening hard edges, but layers of pencil over the top can do that.

I’ve never been much for traditional collage because, honestly, I’m not great at using scissors or stanley knives, but maybe that’d be something else to learn.

Paint?

So I’ve been talking all about dry media and the ways I do (or don’t) like to use them. Another interesting question is: what about paint? What about painterly painting with colours that blend? And honestly, I don’t know. I’m just starting to use watercolour in my sketchbook at the moment, and gouache will also be making an appearance at some stage. At present I’m using them as translucent coloured layers in conjunction with crayons or pencils, which actually do a lot of the work. It’s helping me to use outlines less in my sketchbook, which makes me happy. It also adds a depth to my colours that I really appreciate.

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Attempting to paint in a painterly manner without any pencils at all seems like a thing I could also enjoy. It also seems hard.

I guess digitally I do sometimes use painterly techniques. Again in the AOI poster, the smoke and fire are all painterly and that was fun. Needs must? I feel pretty chill just experimenting with this as it comes up, but without any sense of bringing it wholesale into my standard repertoire at present. Perhaps it’s just worth keeping in the back of my mind.

Summarising Thoughts

Maybe I need to figure out when and where things fall apart? When do I start relying on outlines? And how can I stop myself from doing that?

Should I experiment with making little stamps? I know that’s a thing other people do to make patterns.

People are a whole ‘nother ball game, and I’m gonna make a separate post for illustrating them. Also, I think that’s where I often fall apart and start relying on outlines and get scared of light/shadow, so… it’s definitely something to tackle!

NB: The THEA picture was one I really enjoyed making digitally, and it felt like it had some of the pencil texture I wanted, and didn’t overly rely on outlines. Unfortunately when I tried to make more complex pieces in the same sequence, I found myself relying on outlines again. I still like the follow-up pieces, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t quite the direction I really wanted to go.

Day 14: What (Part 2)

Today I’m considering my own decisions regarding what I draw. This is more of a curiosity than a categorisation. And hopefully an ongoing curiosity. But let’s have a look at my work and figure out what I like.

First, what I yesterday referred to as the ‘micro elements’ I’m now thinking are perhaps better thought of as the ‘subjective what’ of a scene. Because it’s not the scene or setting itself, but what you choose to notice within that.

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What do I include? What do I leave out?

I love light and shadow. It’s one of the joys of making art for me. I don’t care for a style in which light becomes neutral. I like cast shadows and occlusion shadows and figuring out how to make something look translucent, or like a neon light. I’m not aiming for realistic lighting in every picture, but I am probably aiming for defined lighting in every picture (even if that’s overcast).rome

I’m also fascinated by patterns. My European sketchbook has little close-ups of patterns to accompany the larger scenes. Using repeated patterns and textures in my work makes me happy. (Although sometimes I get bored of drawing it all in. I often like to use digitally repeated patterns, rather than patterns that render realistically around corners etc.)

milanRelated to that, I like texture. It’s one reason I like working with a black pencil. Dry media in general, really. I like to change the mark-making in order to give an object some texture, rather than rendering it as a single block colour or shade. It’s why I used to spend ages scanning pencil textures into Inkscape and eventually stopped using vectors altogether.granada

I enjoy drawing people, their faces in particular, and I find them interesting. I feel like drawing people probably needs a whole blog post of its own… But for the time being I can note that I don’t care for caricature but I do want my characters to look different to one another. Of the illustrators I’ve so far discussed I really like Phoebe Wahl’s people, and they come closest to how I like to draw people. But, with lighting.

But what of the big picture?

I like research, and I think big picture variety is fairly important. So at this stage I’m willing to leave this fairly blank. But I do think it’s worth considering why certain objects appeal to me. I like ruins because of their sense of history, and often tradition/religion. Perhaps I would also like to spend some time drawing cathedrals. I like doorways and arches and roads disappearing off into the picture because they hint at a sense of journey. Perhaps I would also like to spend some time drawing trains, cars, horses, wagons and other things that give a sense of movement. granada 1

It’s also worth knowing that if I need to create illustrations within a particular setting, and it’s not a setting I’m immediately interested in, I can use my favoured subjective elements and themes to get myself interested. I can (assuming a historical setting) research the people of that time and place and their fashions in hair, make-up, clothing and get interested in that. I can research (or imagine) the kinds of patterns that might exist in that society, and where those patterns are used. I can imagine a certain type of weather and how that might influence day-to-day life.  I can consider the types of journeys a person might take in that world, and how they would prepare.

sevilleIt’s worth staying curious about my interests even if just to use that to trick myself into being interested in other things. Beyond that though, I already mentioned some of the interactions between these subjective elements and my preferred materials/techniques, so maybe I’ll write some more about that tomorrow!

Day 13: The what of illustration

Monday morning and we’re back! I did skip yesterday, and I think that was probably a good decision. I also bought a picture book and went to see Mamma Mia, so it was a pretty fantastic weekend and I’m gonna be listening to ABBA all week.

I wrote about themes and emotions in the first few days, which I’ve come to think of as the why of illustration. The techniques and materials used are the how of illustration. And today we’re going to talk about the what of illustration: the subjects and settings on the page.

You can explore the same ideas and concepts in many different settings. And although certain subjects lend themselves more easily to certain ideas, there’s also fun to be had in exploring themes by bending the tropes: fantasy-esque adventures in the everyday world. A romance in sci-fi worlds. The what, why and how all interact with one another, and influence one another, but they are also distinct points of consideration.

The what is relevant for both macro and micro decisions. It’s in the big setting elements of monsters, dinosaurs, spaceships, forests, cities, anthropomorphised creatures, or medieval castles. But it’s also in the smaller elements, of clothing folds, graffiti, wrinkles, foliage, wear and tear, or satellite dishes.

Unintentionally, and without really realising it, I discussed these micro elements a little in the comparisons I wrote up last week. And it’s worth noting that an illustrator’s micro elements can often stay quite constant over a variety of big picture settings. It seems to me that micro elements form quite naturally, based on what is interesting to an illustrator within a scene. When you’re sketching from life, you cannot possibly include everything. These decisions of what to draw and what to leave out seem to be the decisions that define the micro elements of subject for an illustrator. Any given element can, of course, be strengthened or weakened in order to emphasise a particular mood or emotion. Illustrators are not held captive by their natural interests. Or shouldn’t be, anyway.

Macro elements can, and do, change from project to project, but many illustrators tend towards a ‘natural’ setting or interest. James Gurney and his dinosaurs. Briony May Smith’s cottage-filled woodlands. I don’t think this is necessary for an illustrator, although perhaps eventually it happens to all.

Tomorrow we might go back to my own work and try to tease out some of my own habits and interests and techniques and see what’s what.

Day 11: On Impatience

Let’s start with some fun stuff. A Shaun Tan video:

A cool video about using and making maquettes by James Gurney (his blog is a treasure trove of practical information by the way):

And now, onto the more difficult things. I wrote the other day about how it’s hard not to draw ALL THE THINGS into every picture, because I want people to hire me and I want to prove I can do all the things, in every picture. A second thing that is hard, much along the same lines, is that I want to have finished work to post online ALL THE TIME. This is backed by the evidence of other illustrators getting jobs by the social media posts they make. It’s backed by the evidence of publishers saying ‘it’s good to remind us that you exist, so we think of you when a project that might suit you comes along’. But it’s not great for my artistic improvement, nor for my mental health.

I’m getting better at not being anxious just because I haven’t posted in a week, but I have two problems. One, I rarely draw unless it’s for deliberate study or for a thing that I hope will turn into something that I can post on the internet, and preferably put in my portfolio. Two, once I decide I’m going to develop a sketch into a finished piece, I get impatient. And if I don’t finish it I feel incredibly disappointed in myself. Even if I just decided the sketch wasn’t that interesting.

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The latter is the root of most of the problems. I often drop deliberate study out of my routine because I’m impatient to have more finished work. And, in doing so, I stop drawing anything that’s not directly related to getting illustrations finished. This is not great, and doesn’t help me create good work.

The desire to finish it and move on was useful in my earlier art days. You need to make a lot of drawings in order to get better. It’s still useful now, but perhaps with a little moderation. In my development now, the practice of making a lot of drawings may need to find a place within the life-cycle of individual pieces. Both Tan and Gurney (following a long tradition of many artists who create imaginative work) create mutiple sketches, roughs, colour roughs, studies of anatomy/light/… before embarking on the final painting. And that’s all after they’ve spent ongoing time drawing bones in museums, or environments from life, and tons of imaginative drawings in sketchbooks.

At the very least, most pieces of imaginative art benefit from having time for the ideas to percolate, and from not rushing the rendering just to get it done quickly.

It’s difficult, though, because honestly, I still just want someone to hire me. And it’s hard to stop the belief that maybe this piece will be the one! The one that means they think my art is just what they want! But putting that level of pressure on every sketch is counter-productive.

Caveat: there’s a time and a place for everything, this is not a hard and fast rule, yada yada. There’s a reason I love impressionist paintings. And I know there are as many ways to create art as there are artists. Not everyone makes tons of roughs before moving on to final work, especially as computers allow you to layer it all up and continually fix mistakes. But I think it’d be worth at least trying this out.

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The overall lesson from this: sometimes art time needs to be about exploration, or about development. About leaving space for good ideas to progress. And sometimes, it doesn’t need to go up on the internet at all. This may be a little off-topic for the overall theme of the month, but it feels important to me. It can also be kind of encouraging to remember that Tan and Gurney’s brilliant paintings don’t just spring forth in an afternoon, or even a week. How am I going to implement this? I’m not sure yet. But I think it can tie in with creating more emotional sketches and story expansions, as exercises to expand my creativity. So wish me luck!

Day 10: Homework Results

Time for you all to learn how messy my illustrations start!

First up, some emotional roughs. The news that the AFL might, next year, decide to hold a six round women’s competition despite having ten teams(!) gave me some fresh and handy emotions to play with. I really enjoyed this activity. Ignoring the purpose and audience of the pictures let me feel free to play around in a way that I feel maybe I haven’t for a while.

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This is something I’m going to want to do more often.  And hopefully it can help me out with the next activity. Because while the emotional roughs were fun, the story expansions were thoroughly exhausting and frustrating. I like to keep a fair amount of ambiguity in my stories and creating more images for the same story just felt like I had to invent way too much plot.

The Traveller was the easiest one because I actually already had a long abandoned picture in my drafts, and the old lady is from another picture I never really started and can now no longer remember. Themes: community, new traditions, social upheaval.

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I did enjoy the process of sitting down and thinking about which picture elements might be important to the story. In my mind the sunny courtyard is one of those books about people who quit their city jobs and go learn how to run a farm in some beautiful place. The important points are going to be the environment, the food, and the local people. So this would probably be a story for more evocative pictures, rather than plot-based ones.

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For this one I tried to think of different ways of showing the same scene, trying to evoke different emotions. In the top row they’re exploring the big city for the first time, and seeing cool tech that other people have made. One illustration is focussing on the trip as a whole, the other a particularly important moment. In the bottom row it’s a fight/escape scene through some underground tunnels, varying the levels of drama. Context: middle grade adventure book. Themes: invention, technology, and the social implications thereof.

These pictures are all, as with all roughs, fairly simple. If I were to take any to finish I’d add and change things. I’m already looking at the zoomed-out fight scene and thinking that I’d add some cool tangly robot arms attacking them, to give more movement to the scene.

In any case, I think both these activities led to more interesting and varied roughs than I would have got to if I was just starting from scratch, and attempting to show off my technical skills. So… I should probably do some more of this.

Day 9: Two Approaches to “Place”

Today we have Andrea Serio (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) from Italy, and William Grill (1, 2, 3), a Brit who has illustrated books set in Antarctica and New Mexico. Both keep observational sketchbooks as a significant component of their practice and create many illustrations that, whether of landscapes or animals or buildings or people, are less about a formal narrative and more about a sense of place. (They do also create narrative work, but I’m not going to focus on that today. Sometimes the line is fine anyway.)

Similarities and Differences

Grill and Serio both use dry media (pencils and pastels). This limits their colour range, but gives their work texture: foliage has direction and form, and rocks feel structured and defined. I think a big difference between the two is that Grill uses light/shadow to define form whereas Serio works the other way around. To Serio, the light is an end in and of itself, which is shown by describing forms. When each illustrator is stripped down to their sketchbooks, with just a few colours to work from, it becomes more obvious. Serio chooses to emphasis and exaggerate value, and the effect of light and shadow, but Grill’s shadows mostly disappear, his sketchbooks describe form using directional lines, and while his shadows are drawn in, they are clearly secondary to the objects themselves.

Comparisons with Pascal Campion and Phoebe Wahl

The above instantly reminds me of Campion and Wahl, and I think a lot of the observations that I made of them hold true here too. Grill does have some beautiful sky-focussed scenes, and the sky is kind of inherently changeable, but in these pictures he’s still largely focussed on the shapes in the sky: the clouds, the birds, the stars. He doesn’t focus on the impact that, say, sunset light might have on the world, which seems a topic more of interest to Campion and Serio. I do think that Grill is more interested in composition than Wahl is. Rather than focussing in on the smaller props he’s looking at the big picture. Actually, I think it’s true that both Serio and Grill are more interested in the overall big shapes of a picture than either Campion or Wahl. Perhaps this makes sense when drawing landscapes rather than everyday moments. Small details and patterns are simplified down, so they don’t distract from the overall big statements. The shapes of trees form patterns and give texture to the work, rather than the patterns on teatowels, and the arrangement of mugs.

Just because I can… Here are some pictures from Campion (1, 2) and Serio showing virtually the same topics. I don’t have anything to add. Just wanted to show some cool comparisons.

Comparisons with Rovina Cai, Nico Delort and Shaun Tan

So how do their pencil marks compare with yesterday’s illustrators? I think Serio and Grill have a lot in common here. Both emphasise texture when it’s useful, and use the side of their tools to get smoother gradients when directional texture is not needed. Cai and Delort use thin defined lines, while Tan uses shading. But Grill and Serio both vary their lines about the page: sometimes thin lines, sometimes thicker, often shading. Sometimes short and sharp sometimes soft and flowy. The style of the line itself is relevant to the object being drawn, rather than remaining consistent over the whole page. I get the feeling like this is giving prominence to the objects themselves, rather than to the overall story. A test: do Grill and Serio maintain more uniform strokes in pieces they do as ‘narrative’ work rather than place-based work? Yes, I think that’s reasonable to say. Both tend a little more toward Tan and sometimes a little toward Cai. Neither goes to Tan’s level of realism, but their pencil strokes become less individually important. (It’s worth noting that I consider a lot of their narrative illustration to still be place-based work, and those pieces retain the varied pencil strokes.)

A final thought: a lot of the artists seem to exaggerate the aspects of illustration that are most important to them, to the point that they become unrealistic (Campion’s light, Wahl’s patterns, Grill’s compositional arrangements). The aspects of illustration that are less important to the creator are rendered in a very simple way, often more realistically than the ‘favourite’ aspects. Like Tan’s pencil style, they fade to the background. Examples: Wahl and Grill’s lighting, Cai’s anatomy, Campion and Delort’s perspective. It’s just… there. It’s sort of an interesting thing to consider: if you don’t care about something, you’ve still got to get good enough at it that what you draw for it doesn’t attract any attention. The thing you love most is what you change up and have fun with. And so it ends up heightened beyond reality.

This’ll be the last post in this mini-series. I think I’m a little tired of staring at pieces of art and thinking that they’re different in every single way, and wondering how every decision impacts on the resulting emotions. It feels useful though, so I might come back to it later in the month. Next to consider my own artistic decisions…