Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Things I Didn't Know About Color, Part One (It's Going to be a Long Series)

As I said, I'm a big dummy and there were several things about color, painting and watercolor specifically that I didn't know. Apparently these are all things that everyone else in the whole world already knew and took for granted, because when I would tell people that I had just figured these things out, they would look at me like I just said, "hey, I just realized that these hard white things in my mouth are for chewing food!"

So even though you all know all this stuff already, I will repeat it so you can get a chuckle out of what a dummy I am!

Get this - I never realized before that not all watercolors are transparent.

That totally blew my mind. I always thought that all watercolors were transparent and that all oil and acrylic paints were opaque, and that was one of the big differences between the different types of paint.

I will pause here and wait for the laughter to subside.

It turns out that not all watercolors are transparent at all. They all have different levels of transparency. I use Winsor & Newton Artists' watercolors, and they have an awesome chart on their website here that you can also download as a pdf. The great part is that if you click on a color, it will take you to another page that will tell you if the color is transparent, semi-transparent, semi-opaque or opaque (the four levels of transparency).

So why is this important? Well, lots of reasons, but mostly it's important when you're mixing color. This is because (I know, you already know this) if you mix two transparent pigments, you will get a brilliant result that is vibrant and still transparent (and long as you don't break one of the other rules, more on that in a later post) but if you mix two opaque pigments, your mixture is going to be pretty muddy and obviously not very brilliant or transparent. And if you mix three (or four) transparent pigments you will still have a transparent and colorful result (if you've chosen your colors right) but if you mix three or more opaque pigments you're going to have a muddy mess that isn't pretty at all. And there's all the ranges inbetween, like mixing one transparent and one opaque, etc. So there's a full range of results you can get, based on the opacity alone, not even considering the other properties of the colors.

Also watercolor pigments all have their own level of Staining ability, which means that if a pigment is one that tends to "stain" that you can't lift it off paper or canvas after you've laid it down. And also it seems to me in my limited experience that the pigments marked "Staining" are very intense and stronger than other colors and tend to overpower them in mixes. So it's helpful to know all of that stuff about each color when you're trying to mix a certain color. Which is why it's always a good thing to keep as small a palette as possible...so you can know everything there is to know about the colors you're using, at least when you're first starting.

It turns out that the reasons behind these properties have to do with the pigments themselves, so the transparency qualities are true of not only the watercolor version of each color, but the oil and acrylic version of each color as well. For example, Alizarin Crimson is transparent as a watercolor and also as an oil paint and as an acrylic paint. And Cadmium Red is opaque as all three types of paint as well (and all Cadmiums are opaque, by the way, which has been helpful for me to remember).

Anyway, more of this drivel to come. For God's Sake, if some of you normal people read this and it turns out I'm wrong about everything, write a comment and let me know so I don't send the world's three-year-olds off on the wrong path!

I feel kind of sorry for all of you, because it's actually kind of nice to be such a colossal moron. Because I know so little about everything, I get to learn something every day that I didn't know before, and that's actually pretty cool. So in some ways it must suck to be a genius. I'll never know.

Now, I gotta go, the three-year-old down the street is going to show me how to tie my shoes! I'm so excited.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Discouraging and Exhilarating

Sorry I haven't been posting much. Over the past month or so I've been wrestling with a subject that has always held an incredible fascination and intimidation for me: I've been trying to learn about color and how to paint.

When I first started out artistically, I was determined to be an animator. So I put all my energy and focus into learning the art of drawing and all the challenges that come with animating. And I was hesitant to jump into learning about color and all that comes with it...it seemed overwhelming, and I figured that I should concentrate on learning how to draw first and foremost.

As artists (and people), we want to avoid those things that are especially daunting or intimidating. Once we gain a bit of ability at something, it is easy to talk yourself out of working on your weaknesses. We know it's bound to be frustrating and that we will fail a lot before we ever begin to succeed. So why put our fragile confidence at risk by challenging ourselves?

But we must. Otherwise we become like an artist who cannot draw hands, so he finds himself constantly struggling to compose all of his pictures so that the hands aren't showing. In the end, it would take much less work to just learn how to draw hands.

And there's nothing more exhilarating than a victory over something that you were afraid of and thought you would never conquer! I find lately that I am both frequently discouraged and also exhilarated. I paint at night after work, and frequently find myself heading upstairs to bed feeling frustrated because I have run into some problem that I don't know how to figure out, and wondering if this time I am truly stuck, never to get any further. But in every single instance, by the time I am brushing my teeth two minutes later I have an inkling of a new approach to try, some new wrinkle that may get me through this problem, and let me keep going until I hit the next roadblock. So often within just a few seconds I have gone from discouragement to elation and an excitement about trying out my new idea the next night.

That's a great feeling!

Any success I have ever had in learning about art I have made only by making every single solitary mistake you can ever make. I don't have any natural talent to speak of; I suppose that what I have is a combination of stupidity and stubborness that makes me keep going when a wiser person would stop and spare themselves the aggravation.

Anyway, I've been wanting to write about it but I was hoping for more tangible results to show first. Those haven't come yet so I will just write this post for now. I will talk more about it when there is more to say. As I often tell my kids, you can't really fail as long as you never give up, because as long as you are still trying, you haven't really failed, right?

(If you just rolled your eyes at my corny sentiment you can relate to my long-suffering kids).

Or as Mary Pickford put it: "If you have made mistakes, there is always another chance for you. You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call 'failure' is not the falling down, but the staying down."

Thomas Edison is an expert in the subject of stick-to-it-iveness. Many people before him tried to invent a commercially viable light bulb. But they all gave up, because nobody could figure out a filament material that was suitable. Edison experimented and tried over 6,000 materials before he finally discovered one that would work.

6,000. Think about that! In the middle of all of those experiments, when it seemed he would never figure it out, people told him to give up. They were probably trying to do him a favor and save him from wasting his time. They told him he had failed enough already. But his response was:

"I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

Edison is the poster child for success through perseverance and so his quotes should carry a lot of weight; he knew what he was talking about. So for all of you out there, struggling to expand your knowledge and gain some insight into a part of the world that is not yet illuminated for you, I salute you, and take comfort in knowing that I am toiling away in my own dark corner somewhere! Hopefully you can take some solace and encouragement from these other Edison quotes:

Discontent is the first necessity of progress.

Hell, there are no rules here - we're trying to accomplish something.

I find my greatest pleasure, and so my reward, in the work that precedes what the world calls success.

I never did anything by accident, nor did any of my inventions come by accident; they came by work.

Just because something doesn't do what you planned it to do doesn't mean it's useless.

Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.

Nearly every man who develops an idea works it up to the point where it looks impossible, and then he gets discouraged. That's not the place to become discouraged.

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.

Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.

Restlessness and discontent are the first necessities of progress.

There is no substitute for hard work.

We don't know a millionth of one percent about anything.

What you are will show in what you do.

When I have fully decided that a result is worth getting I go ahead of it and make trial after trial until it comes.

The three great essentials to achieve anything worth while are: Hard work, Stick-to-itiveness, and Common sense.

His quotes may seem cliched and tired but at least he has the right to say them...he lived as he advised others to live, that's for sure.

In many ways in life it seems that we're not really supposed to talk about our failures and we're not supposed to admit to the things we don't know. I can only imagine that that must be the reason that more artists don't talk too much about the learning curve and the struggles that it takes to become an artist. But rest assured that everyone goes through it, and there's no shame in trying to learn what you don't know. The only shame is when people stop developing because it's uncomfortable, or hard, or intimidating. The times in life when we're uncomfortable, struggling, or intimidated are the times when, looking back, we have learned the most.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

"Composing Pictures" by Don Graham, and a Request for Information

I wasn't really going to write about this, because everybody else already has, but Don Graham's seminal book about design, "Composing Pictures" was recently reprinted. This is a big deal because it's been long out of print and the only way to get a copy was to pay a lot of money.

The reason I post about it now is that the price and availability of it keep fluctuating on amazon.com. Last week it was priced around $75 and only available from resellers. I'm sure it will be available steadily from now on, but just in case it's not, right now it's selling for a totally-worth-it $26.37 on amazon. Here's the link.

Who was Donald Graham? Here's what I think I know (and someone correct me if I'm wrong): he was an instructor at the Chouinard Art Institute who was selected by Walt Disney in the 1930s to teach art instruction at the Disney Studios in preparation for making "Snow White". As I understand it, he was instrumental in teaching the animators how to move away from the cartoon conventions that had been the basis of the shorts and start studying and understanding how real humans and animals are constructed in order to handle the complexities of the characters in films like "Snow White" and "Bambi". In the studio documentary, there's scenes of an art teacher instructing the animators, and I'm not sure but it might be Don himself teaching the class.

At donaldwgraham.com there's more information about him.

Quick question for anyone out there that might know: apparently at some point, all the teachers of the Famous Artists Course wrote each wrote books called "How I Make a Picture", describing their process and talking through their philosophies. Norman Rockwell's is the most well-known and available, but it's near impossible to find any information about the other editions. If anyone has any information about any of those other versions (particularly Robert Fawcett and Al Parker) let me know. And if you know someone at the Famous Artists Course, ask them why they won't republish these great books!!!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Here's an example of what I was trying to talk about a couple of posts ago, about finding entertainment in the everyday simple things that we all know...shedding a new light on something that is commonplace and mundane and making it funny and new again.

It's a TV commercial for Chef Boyardee's ravioli, and I always say that students learning to make short films should look at TV ads, because in TV they are forced to tell a story and get their point over clearly within thirty seconds.

I like the tone that the ad hits. It's not cloying or juvenile, and they're walking a thin line where the blanket could easily become creepy, but doesn't. They're smart to sell their product as comforting, safe, and a warm reminder of your childhood to try and get preteens and teens to keep eating the stuff and not feel like they've "outgrown it".

Also because calling their product "meat-that's-not-good-enough-to-be-used-in-hot-dogs-pressed-into-squares-and-loaded-with-sugar" didn't rate as well with the focus groups.

"Speed of Life"

The Discovery Channel has begun airing a new series called "Speed of Life". There were three episodes on last Sunday night and the show looks like it will run every Sunday.

The series is made up completely of footage of wild animals shot with cameras capable of taking several thousand frames per second (I think).

It's great reference for animators and any other artist to watch. Just twenty years ago at CalArts I struggled to find any kind of footage of moving animals to help understand how different animals moved. There was no internet yet, of course, and I used to collect nature shows on VHS tapes and laserdiscs voraciously to try and wrap my head around how all types of birds, mammals, reptiles and fish behave and move. It was a frustrating, time consuming and expensive method of study.

These days it's a lot easier. There are a ton of great nature shows out there (I don't watch any of them but I hear many of them are spectacular) and I'm sure they are all worth watching. I really enjoyed watching this one in particular because the frame-by-frame movement can be really helpful for understanding how certain animals are put together and how they move - some of them move so quickly in real life that you can't really see what's happening until it's slowed down. I really believe that the subjects of how an animal is put together and how an animal moves cannot be studied independently of each other ...the two subjects are so closely related that they should always be considered together. You could look at pictures of leopards forever - and pictures are great for studying - but seeing one in motion really tells you how they are put together and why.

Anyway, set your Tivo for it and check it out if you're interested.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Picking the Right Moment to Illustrate

Lately I've been trying to do some illustrations and I've been thinking a lot about the question: how do you pick which moments to illustrate?

I'm no expert on illustration or any of the artists mentioned below. Just some of my thoughts these days so forgive me if I come off like I'm trying to be an authority here.....I'm decidedly not.

Animators and story artists work hard to find their "Golden Poses" - the drawings that will tell the story in the most entertaining way and describe the characters and their personalities best. I'm used to thinking that way...but those disciplines are all about a series of images that you view in sequence and they add up to a very specific story. With illustration you have to pick one moment and one moment only.

Part of what motivated me to think about this was something that happened at Comic Con. I was visiting Bud Plant's book stall and they actually gave me a free book for spending a certain amount there. The book was the collected works of illustrator Norman Saunders...a giant hulking book chock full of his paintings and illustrations.

Norman Saunders painted a lot of different subject matters and seemed proficient in many styles. More than anything, though, he seems to have painted a lot of pulp covers. When you look at so many of them collected in one place, certain things become obvious. When you think about the purpose of the illustrations - which I assume was to sell the lurid, violent and titillating subject matter to people who were looking for that - you can see why they all share certain traits.

They're usually paintings that capture moments of extreme action - someone is about to get stabbed, or decapitated, or dropped into a vat of hot oil, and more often than not there's a gun going off.

It made me think about the work of other illustrators, artists like Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth. Their illustrations served a different purpose - they usually accompanied stories in magazines and were printed in illustrated novels, and they were trying to capture a different kind of feeling than the pulps, to encapsulate the different kind of literature they accompanied.

They sometimes painted scenes of action but more than anything they seemed to paint moments of stillness that were fraught with tension and drama - the potential for action instead of the capturing the actual moment of action.

To me there's much more to this second kind of illustration because it tells a story better. A painting of a person shooting a gun is really just about shooting a gun. It's such a dramatic and extreme moment that you can't add any other shading or subtext or secondary story. If you tried to, it would be overwhelmed by the powerful statement of the gun going off.

I'm not attacking pulp covers for being inferior or anything. This isn't an argument over who's a better painter or anything or what type of story or subject matter is superior. That comes down to a personal choice. And each type of art was for a specific and different purpose. However, speaking just for me, I really gravitate towards the way Pyle and Wyeth chose their moments. It invites me to look longer and harder at their work, looking at all the characters as I delve into the moment and experience the story through all of the different characters in the piece. With pulp you can get the whole story at a glance (that's the point) and they're all about being as pushed as they can be dramatically in order to catch your eye on a crowded bookshelf. There's no subtext and in all fairness there's not meant to be. With Wyeth and Pyle you can read their work at a glance but then I also find them intriguing and atmospheric enough that I get caught up in them, looking them over and finding more to them as I study them. I haven't read most of the stories that their paintings are supposed to accompany, of course, but their paintings are so great that they stand alone and are clear and dramatic without needing the accompanying text (which I've read they did purposely).

Here's an example from "Treasure Island" - a small action shown (attaching the British Flag to the improvised flagpole) that has very big dramatic meaning: they are raising the British Flag over their fort to defy the pirates who are laying siege to their fort.

Interesting that he chose this moment of small action that is a preparation for the big dramatic action to come. He could have painted the dramatic moment of raising the Union Jack in all of it's defiant glory...but he didn't. He chose this more weighty, pensive moment instead. One choice is more obvious, in-your-face drama, and the other creates more of a picture of the drama to come in your imagination. This choice seems to place more emphasis on their choice to raise the flag...rather than the actual raising of the flag. If that makes any sense.....

Pyle's famous illustration of a marooned pirate. Of course the stillness and emptiness are completely appropriate for the subject matter; being marooned is all about being completely alone. So a scene of action would make no sense. But a good example of how a "static" image can have lots of dramatic weight, and how composition palette and body language can all work in concert to tell a powerful story.

Below is another classic Pyle that tells a clear story with drama and tension. My impression is that the pirates have sacked the town and are questioning some official of the city to find out if there is more treasure hidden somewhere. Is he defiant? Has he already told them all that he can? Do they believe him? What will be his fate when they are done?

The composition of the pirates who are towering above the lone figure and surround him, as well as the heaps of treasure in the corners all add up well and - again - really make great use of body language, posture and composition to tell the story. We know at a glance who is in power and who is not.

Another good example. This one is by Wyeth and is called "Frontier Trapper".

More Wyeth...

Wyeth and Pyle sometimes did paint moments of violent conflict but I've never seen one that was portrayed in a lurid, gory, in-your-face way. In these examples they seem to consciously set the violence back away from the viewer and they pointedly don't exploit the kind of extreme and inherently dramatic camera angles that you might in a comic book or a pulp book cover. They don't use the typical "dramatic lighting" (by which I mean theatrical light - very contrasty light and dark) that a pulp cover usually does to achieve drama. There's a distinct lack of blood and gore and a careful treatment of the characters that seems much more restrained than on the pulp covers.

Here's a Wyeth...

...and a Pyle.

Also, of course, in general the palettes that Wyeth and Pyle use are much more muted and earth-bound that what you would find in most Pulp covers. So that gives their paintings a more muted and serious feel. Again, all of which is intentional...the Pulps are supposed to feel caricatured and stylized, just like the literature they accompany.

One of the Wyeth paintings for Cooper's writings...I'm not sure if this is from "Last of the Mohicans" or another book in the series. The action is painted in his usual style but this is the most cartoony painting of his I've seen. So, again, sometimes he did paint scenes of extreme action...but the treatment is far different from the pulp style of illustration. It still seems grounded in reality and, somehow, entirely possible physically.

On the Pulp covers, by contrast, there's always a real emphasis on the faces of the characters and their big expressions. The figures are usually posed to make sure that all the faces are turned towards the viewer so we can see their expressions. And their emotions are almost always very extreme ones: usually horror or terror (on the women) and usually grim determination on the men....

In the end it's interesting and informative to compare the two styles. A lot of times, the choice of moment in time we chose to capture, along with where we place the "camera" (or the viewer) to witness that moment can have an incredible effect on the viewer's emotional response to the final image. When people talk about illustration they talk a lot about the technical side because that's a huge part of working as an illustrator...but there hasn't been a lot of talk that I've ever seen about how to pick the moments to illustrate, and as I've been trying to tackle my own paintings, I've gotten a lot out of looking at different artists and what choices they made.