Sunday, October 31, 2010

My Second Painting and How I Made It

I finished another painting...again, the scanned version doesn't really look nearly as good as the actual painting because when you see a watercolor in person, the light passes through the paint, hits the white paper and passes back through the paint to your eye, giving it a vibrant and lustrous look. I tried to tweak it in Photoshop but it's not easy to replicate that radiant quality that a watercolor has when you see the original in person.

Also, like the previous painting, it's 3 and a half inches by 5 and a half inches...so if you click on it you'll get a much bigger version than the actual painting. And it's destined for the "Super Big Micro Show" at Gallery Nucleus this December, just like my previous painting.



Here's a photo I took of it outside that shows the brightness of the colors a little bit better:



I don't know much about painting, so I try to keep it simple. My last painting was based on the complements yellow and violet, while my new painting is based on the complements red and green.

The original inspiration for the painting is sort of a strange one. During the development of Disney's "Tarzan", Disney artist Vance Gerry did a ton of watercolors exploring the characters and environments. He always seemed to put a yellow underpainting under his green jungles and it gave them a very luminous quality and the underpainting tied each painting together well. So my whole impetus for the painting started with just wanting to try a jungle scene with a yellow underpainting.

Of course, like most projects, the whole idea behind it changed along the way and it morphed into something else. The painting has a yellow undertone but the way I added a black wash over the top at the end dulled down the lush green foliage, although the yellow underpainting still gives the whole painting a bright luminous quality. It makes all the colors shine brighter.

Vance is the only real watercolorist that I've known in person and that I have seen a wide range of work in person from. His work is amazing and I can't help but be affected by what he did successfully, but at the same time I don't really work like he did at all.

For example, Vance would draw his original sketch on paper with china marker and then xerox it onto card stock (although china marker is waterproof and you can watercolor right over it). Then he watercolored over the xerox. If he made a mistake, he would make another xerox and start over.

I like drawing in pen and especially for these tiny-sized pieces I found a pen worked well for the original art, then I xerox my sketches onto 140 lb. watercolor paper, which is much heavier and more porous than the cardstock Vance used, but still on the lightweight side for watercolor paper (I use that weight because I'm nervous to try sending anything heavier than that through a xerox machine). I find that the cardstock that Vance used simply doesn't take enough layers of paint for my liking because it's not that absorbent. But because it's on the lighter side for watercolor paper I try to do no more than three layers of paint - more than that and the paint gets so thick that the luminous quality of the paper underneath becomes diminished.

So on this one I knew where I wanted my tones before I painted it, and I debated laying them in with a china marker before I xeroxed it. But I didn't for a couple of reasons...number one, Vance does his whole sketch in china marker so the tones (the grey and black parts) match the line art organically. When you're starting with a pen sketch the china marker isn't going to match the line art well. Also I really like dark blacks and, once you xerox it, the black isn't as intense as when you add it to the final product after it's xeroxed. The xerox process dulls it down a bit. Also I tried adding china marker after I xeroxed it, but the watercolor paper surface is so bumpy that it wouldn't go on evenly and didn't look good at all. Again, I pictured it with dark, dark blacks but my plan changed as I went along. As much as I like black blacks, in the end I also like the radiant quality of the watercolor and really black blacks cover up the luminous feeling of the colors. So I opted for a black wash instead. Believe it or not, the wash is actually black - I made it from an equal mix of Alizarin Crimson and Windsor Green (Blue Shade) - but it laid down more of a purple when I actually added it to the final painting, because of how it interacted with the layers beneath it.

From the beginning, my color plan was all about contrasts: I knew I was going to base it on the complements red and green. I knew that there would be a lot of green space so I purposely kept the green spaces duller, and since I knew I would have very small red spaces I made them very intense. This is all pretty standard color technique: the smaller the space, the more intense and saturated the color can be, while the bigger the area, the more dull or desaturated the color should be. If your painting is all big saturated swatches of bright color it looks too intense and there's no harmony, interest or contrast. The smaller the area, the more intense and bright you can make the color within it.

Watercolorist Jeanne Dobie talks about this kind of approach in her book "Making Color Sing". She suggests using a lot of what she calls "mouse colors" - greys and browns - to fill the big areas of your paintings, and then setting your small areas of color like jewels within a setting. From the book:




The idea is that the big "mousey" washed out areas provide contrast for the brightly colored small pieces. To make the "jewels" stand out to their best possible potential, the greys and browns around them should be contrasting colors to them. For example, if your "jewel" is purple (like in my previous painting) then the greys or browns surrounding the purple should lean towards the color yellow, which is the complement of purple. That way the purple will be shown to its best advantage.

Likewise on my more recent one, I made the accents (or "jewels") red to complement the green foliage. Even though the leopard's skin color is a golden tone, I mixed a lot of red into the golden color. Also the hunter's book and the stock of his rifle have a lot of red in them. Even though these objects aren't sitting right next to the color green they still contrast well and give the picture vibrancy.

If you look at Vance's work, he did this a lot. His paintings tend to have large areas of brown and grey (or greyed out green, or red, etc.) contrasted with small areas of bright color.

Also I like to contrast warm and cool areas, so I did a warm yellow underpainting and then painted cool green and cool brown for the trees, and cool greys for the jungle floor which seems to react well against the yellow underneath. Then I painted the leopard, hunter and gun in warm colors to contrast the cool trees. Then I made the shadows on top cool black to contrast the warm colors of the leopard and hunter. I think the alternating warm and cool layers have a nice contrasting feeling that gives the picture a vibrant feeling (again, much of this is more apparent in person).

Vance also leaves white areas of the paper to great effect, which I don't. Most of the great watercolorists that have inspired me use the white paper very effectively as another color area, but for whatever reason I conceived both of my paintings as mostly color with just little spots of white. I'm enjoying my results so far, but maybe someday I'll have a concept that works better with bigger areas of white....we'll see.

In retrospect, both of my paintings tell similar stories...they both tell the tale of an unwitting "victim" being stalked by a threat that is concealed in the shadows (and on the upper right, no less). I didn't do that intentionally; I actually did a lot of different subjects that didn't turn out well, it just happened that this one was my second "success". Also (unintentionally) both are based on a triangular composition.

Anyway, that's a bit about how I approached the painting and how my technique changed along the way. If there's any overall purpose to this post, I guess it would be that one of the things that's integral to becoming an artist is to learn how to find an initial inspiration for your work, keep it in mind as you work but allow your approach and technique to evolve as your work develops. Vance's work provided a lot of initial guidance and inspiration for me but, in the end, my technique is very different because I adapted it to my own needs and discovered what worked for me and what didn't. And as I continue to paint my technique is sure to evolve and adapt (and get better).

Thursday, October 14, 2010

My First Painting, The Micro Gallery Show and Blog, the Artist's Dilemma and Apologies for a Big Barf of a Post

I apologize for this big mish-mash of a post. Normally I try to keep my posts to just one topic but this one is a jumbled mess of different thoughts....hopefully some of them are interesting. Or just look at the picture.

So I "finished" my first watercolor a few weeks ago. A big part of what makes watercolor color vibrant is your eye seeing the light hit the paper behind the paint and bounce back towards you...that's why watercolors can look so luminous. Scanning a watercolor isn't exactly the best way to reproduce what it looks like in person. That said, here's a scan.



If you click on it, you actually get a version that's much bigger than the original. In person it's pretty small (3 and a half by 5 and a half inches) because it's for the upcoming show at Gallery Nucleus titled "The Super Big Micro Show". All the pieces done for the show need to be less than 6 by 6 inches. Here's a link to the page about the show and there is a blog here about the Micro Gallery and its origins as a fundraising art show amongst the story and VisDev artists at Disney.

I haven't been a very big participant in any of the past Disney shows, because I have been pretty busy working on "Tangled" with minimal free time during most of the Micro show's existence, and also because I didn't know how to use any kind of traditional colored media very well, so that limited my ability to produce any kind of colorful art piece. Most of my contributions have been pen and ink drawings with crayons for color (yep.....crayons). So I've been using this upcoming Gallery show to force myself to learn how to use watercolor.

I have to say I'm not exactly happy with my results but also not totally sure what I would change about it, so I'm going to call it finished (or "finished") and move onto another painting. I painted several different versions of it and learned a lot with each one, but I don't think continuing to repaint new versions will teach me anything else so I guess it's time to call it "done". I am sure that when I look back at it in a few months I will see all sorts of things that should have been done differently and I will be embarrassed that I ever even posted it here...which is the eternal dilemma that I always face, and I assume every artist does: even when I am happy with the end results of my work, I know that I will look at it again in the future and see mistakes that I didn't see before, because I have improved as an artist since I did the piece. It's a double-edged sword because it's always great to know that you are constantly improving. After all, if I always looked at past work and thought it was still as good as I could do, then I wouldn't really be getting better over time. But that also means that when I actually like something I've just finished, I know someday I will look back at it with a more critical eye and find it wanting.

Then again I can't say I've ever really been "satisfied" with anything I've done, period.

The good thing about working at a studio with deadlines and pressure is that it forces you to finish things. They're never as great as you want them to be but if I didn't have deadlines I would never finish anything...I would polish everything and keep re-doing it until it was completely overworked and had no energy or sincerity to it at all.

Deadlines and pressure get a bad rap. Many artists seem to resent them and think that, without them, we would all be sitting around totally relaxed and oozing out beautiful works all the time and be completely happy, fulfilled and stress-free beings...I think some people believe that in a perfect world, we would all just relax and focus on our "art" rather than being bothered and distracted by pressure and schedules.

I have to be honest and say that I know myself well enough to say that I would probably never produce much of anything without deadlines. I need goals and deadlines to get motivated most of the time. For example, I've wanted to learn how to watercolor for years, but it wasn't until this upcoming show that I actually got myself to make it a priority. Another good thing about deadlines forcing you to work at high speed is that it can give your work an energy and spontaneity that it wouldn't have otherwise.

One of the best and worst things about being a story artist is that you have to churn out a high volume of drawings constantly and they are forever being thrown out and replaced as fast as you can do them - all in the service of finding the best story, the best characters and the best ideas that you can find. It teaches you to not be married to ideas or drawings and to constantly search and reach for a better idea or drawing, and no matter how much you might like a drawing or idea today, you know there will always be a better solution to be found tomorrow, or next week, or next month.

I find also, in picking subjects to paint, that I don't really gravitate towards landscapes or environments which seem to be the traditional subject you might think of when someone says "watercolor". For some reason I like characters and I like paintings that "tell a story" - that have some sense of tension, of something that just happened or is about to happen or will happen someday. I like unresolved tension and characters that have plans that haven't come to fruition yet and the conflict you can get from those type of situations. I really like and admire the way some watercolor artists can capture a certain landscape or a certain sense of light and shadow but I just don't have any interest in painting those kinds of subjects. And with all the difficulties and frustrations we face as artists trying to learn our craft, it's always smart to at least pick a subject to draw or illustrate or write about that we actually have interest in and that we find entertaining. If it's something that we'll stay interested in then we'll have a better chance of sticking with it when that first burst of enthusiasm and excitement wears off and it gets frustrating (which it always does).

Anyway, I know it's not a very spectacular example of a painting, but the real point of even doing it was to learn something, and in that sense it was a success. I learned a lot painting my first watercolor, and sometime I will talk about that more in depth.

There are a lot of amazing artists contributing to the upcoming Gallery Nucleus Show and I can't wait to see what they all do. If you live in the LA area maybe I'll see you at the Dec. 11th opening!

Monday, October 04, 2010

CalArts Talk pdf

UPDATE: Fixed the link (I think) this morning...let me know if it's still not working.

So I gave a talk tonight to Jim Hull's CalArts story class. Normally when I give talks I print out a giant handout for each student of all my talking points but I didn't this time in an effort to go green and save paper. But I promised the students I would upload a pdf file containing my handout so they could look at it digitally or print it out for themselves. So if you were there last night you can download the pdf here.

Also if you weren't there feel free to download the file...but it may not be as clear or as entertaining as watching me stumble through each topic and expand on each point with long, loopy and pointless stories, asides and anecdotes. Mostly this material is stuff I've posted and blogged about before, so it's nothing that new - it covers some basic staging stuff and "The First Things You Forget" (formerly known as "A Kick In the Head"). Also it contains Glen Keane's handout on drawing three dimensionally.

I talked a bit to the class about how the Feature Story Process actually works so I'll share that stuff soon too.

Let me know if the pdf link doesn't work!