A FEW WORDS, A FEW PICTURES
Or Determining How Many Words a Picture is Really Worth at Current Market Value
I’ve often considered that artists should be subject to restraining orders, forbidding them to approach any closer than 100 yards to writing about their ownwork. Alas, I am a convicted and incurable recidivist, and like most of my earnest colleagues, am already serving a life sentence, so a few words won’t hurt.
Those of you who’ve had the pleasure (or the misfortune) of meeting me will likely know I feel very strongly about this whole business of making pictures. (Deep inside me is a thoroughly repressed professor, chained up and living on bread and water.)
So, when offered the opportunity to do a book where I could actually say what I think, I was not going to keep my mouth shut or my typing fingers idle. I spent this spring chained up and living on bread and water, fingers madly dancing their two-step over my keyboard typing words in a frenzy of ardent application (I am an out-of-touch-typist at best), handed it all over to the editor and… well, nothing. That’s publishing. The six months separating the frenzy of creation and revision from actual publication are often disconcerting. Now that interview time is coming around, I’ve forgotten most of what I wrote.
It’s slowly coming back, though. Signing one and a half thousand bookplates is an exercise that has the merit of focusing one’s mind on things at hand.
How I dislike “How to draw…” manuals. (Let me count the ways.)
I remember spending hours gazing at the things on the carousel rack at the local excuse for a book-cum-art shop where I grew up in the Fraser valley and later on when I was a teenager in the Okanagan. There was a rack near the back, with How to Paint Clouds, How to Draw Horses or the Human Figure or Realistic Landscapes, How to Paint/Draw Just About Everything.
They all seemed splendid: full colour, step by step approach, results within your reach. Guaranteed. I never bought one as they seemed far too expensive, but was loaned one on horses by the horse-crazy girls in my class, picture after picture of which I slavishly copied (anything to get a little attention*).
What horrid books of visual shorthand they were.
All about how to draw the outsides of things.
A compendium of corners to cut.
A lexicon of convenient expedients.
A precise primer of what NOT to do.
The greatest danger that exists is certitude in the choice of means. It can only lead to a systematisation of technique, a transformation of the world into a copy of a copy of itself. Learning how to copy is not learning how to draw†. It is an important step on the way, in the same sense that piano practice makes for fingers that know where to find the right keys, but not more.
There are two kinds of books I find intolerable - the ones that show you how to draw animals or humans by starting with a series of ovals and parallelograms and the art books that are filled with overlays scarring famous paintings, mapping out the purportedly arcane secrets of composition and golden sections.
Drawing or painting something is the one opportunity for true communion with the subject. To reduce that to a series of pre-programmed responses is wrong.
The ideal “How to Draw” book should be one that teaches just that - how to draw. Examples are the means, not the end. Of course learning a language means memorizing words, but ONLY memorizing words will not teach you to speak, any more than perfect punctuation will make you a writer.
So many of these books teach you how NOT to look at things, but to accumulate a palette of reflexes to replace the act of observation, to take the short cut and miss the view.
So, never one to pale, much less retreat, in the face of self-contradiction, David & Charles Limited will be publishing Fantasy Art Workshop on September 26th. A book on how to draw.
* It didn’t work by the way.
† By this I mean copying as a goal, not copying as a means, which is a temporary and often necessary phase younger creators must go through. The 14-year-old who copies the work of an artist he or she admires isn’t really copying the work itself, but finding the best way to assimilate whatever it is in that work that struck a chord. Copying in that sense is enriching and will swiftly put the brief infatuation healthily behind, to move on down the path to where more personal expression awaits.
There is an interesting and informative example here of a young illustrator putting that on paper. Read the commentary, there’s a lot between the lines about this business of finding yourself first in someone else’s work, then in your own.
We never really consider carefully enough the act of the person who is busy creating not only some form of expression, be it pictorial, literary or musical but creating themselves in the process. More often than not, these tentative forays into the world of expression are treated with affectionate ignorance and vicarious smugness in equal measure. They deserve far more attention.
SPEAKING OF WHICH…
Following is a bit of a preview as to what’s actually in the book (besides recycled artwork wth running commentary). There are six illustrations dissected step-by-step, all done especially for the book or as commissions for other books (and recycled as step-by-steps with running commentary). It ended up being quite laborious to come screeching to a halt at each seminal but not always opportune moment, haul the board off to the photographer’s, wait a few days, and grind back up through the gears to painting speed again. (But don’t tell the editor, I lied through my teeth and said it was no problem.) The enforced waits were filled by working other illustrations, and the switching back and forth proved to necessitate serious mental gymnastics (not to mention serious shifting of piles of books and references). Not to mention the fact that actually choosing those crucial and hopefuly significant moments is not always a sinecure. Often in the book I intentionally chose the most loathsome intermediary moments when the image was at its least attractive, the action of a truly dedicated step-by-step Stakhanovist - nobody enjoys revealing a picture at those junctures.
Anyway, here is one of them. I’ve enhanced the commentaries a little, and added an extra step, since this isn’t limited to one double spread. Those who’ve seen the exhibition is Saint-Ursanne will be familiar with the painting already.
Like any self-respecting admirer of Celtic myth and legend, I was of course eager to have a go at depicting Cernunnos, the antlered god. (I often sit with one of my (many) books on the subject and look longingly at the reproductions of the Gundestrup Cauldron and other Celtic paraphernalia. La Tène, by the way, is just a few miles down the lake. The site is now occupied by a rather commonplace campground, alas.) I also admit to considerable influence from fantasy author Robert Holdstock and his revisitings of traditional Celtic mythos.
Cernunnos is the great Celtic God of the Forest, often represented with a stag’s antlers.
The sketch is really a scribble – I spent far more time on the lettering. I also penciled in a frame, where I planned to add said lettering, along with vignettes and an additional scene.
Naturally, I went back to look at reconstructions of the prehistoric Irish Elk to get an idea of the absolutley massive antlers they sported, and information on elk skulls. (Actually, I pleasantly wasted my time looking at web sites on prehistoric critters, since I ended up not using any of my careful research.) I want Cernunnos to be a hulking figure, dangerous, and swift with his huge lance. Nor am I, at least in this case, worried about the logisitics of such huge spreading antlers in dense woodland. Cernunnos is the god of the forest, it will accommodate his passing through.
FIRST STAGE : COLOUR WASH
This exercise is to break the ice, so to speak. I often find it hard to know where to start a picture, so starting all over seems best. Most of this will disappear later, but it serves as a base for the rest. It’s done with the board on a slope, so the colour bleeds downwards, very much in keeping with the rainy atmosphere to come. The few pencil lines are more as reminders, there’s no point in drawing in Cernunnos at this early stage.
SECOND STAGE: COLOUR WASH BIS
This step didn’t go into the book, as there is so little difference on paper from the one following. “On paper” is the key qualifier, because it did involve a good deal of wondering just where what was really going even if there’s not a lot to show for it. Generally it’s possible to go over a whole picture about three times with a wash, at which point things tend to get a little muddy. To dampen everything one too many times would be to court sure disaster by turbidity.
SECOND STAGE : TREES AND ROOTS
Have decided to put a massive oak in the background, The whole page gets dampened again to keep the tree from being too present. It can be worked up and detailed later (if enough of it remains visible behind that I’ve not yet decided to put in front…) This is the last full-bleed dampening of the paper, from here on, areas are dampened selectively. While a little of every colour in every other is a good thing, too much running-together of opposing tints will eventually deaden everything irreparability. I often find it difficult to decide where everything should go at such an early stage, and far prefer to use as anchors in a storm the few elememts that seem to be in their places, and let the others decide where they wish to drift.
THIRD STAGE : SNAKES AND SPEARS
Starting on Cernunnos himself, and blocking in the roots and trunks in the foreground. Have suddenly decided to add a snake, as serpents are apparently Cernunnos’ familiars. The body is done with a wide brush, building up the muscle masses (yes, that’s my arm as the model, no it’s MUCH thinner than that, of course. No, I don’t have that tattoo. Yet.). It’s often difficult to find decent photographs of muscular bodies that are not body-built out of all semblance to reality.
At this stage, nothing looks any good, his skin is dull, the area behind his head is confused, the branches aren’t working. His skull-mask has been entirely reworked and is still not quite right. This often happens in the middle of a picture, but there’s no choice but to carry on and hope for the best.
It can be quite difficult not to rush things at this juncture, working ahead too fast in the hope of a little reassurance.
FOURTH STAGE : BRANCHES AND STANDING STONES
Working up roots and branches and adding branches. Suddenly decided to add a standing stone too, for no particular reason. Things like that are often added in a moment of sudden decision with a wide brush and a quick (and indelible – no going back) stroke of colour. The right antler is blocked out, but it can wait until I decide what goes in front.
Well, almost final artwork. I renounced doing the elaborate knotwork border I had originally planned ; I may do it later when I have a moment to spend on it. (I’m just saying that, I’ll never get it done.)
The moss on the undersides of the branches is done by dampening an area that overlaps the edge of the branch and dropping in a good deal of colour, which bleeds downwards. You need to keep your eye on it so it doesn’t bleed too far, and occasionally feather the edges with a dry brush. It may also help to change the tilt of the board, depending on how hoary you wish the moss to be.
Adding the vertical rain and the relentless drip-drip-dripping of the rain-soaked forest was really well worth waiting for until the very end of the painting. Intense colours in the foreground heighten the dampness. White pencil crayon came to the rescue to add the cold light in the far background, and those two tiny spots of white behind the creature suddenly define his silhouette and bring him out of the roots he was entangled in.
AND WHAT’S MORE…
Thanks to my very alert and energetic East European agent, the Hungarian edition will be published at the same time, by Delta Vision in Budapest, just in case you wish to brush up on your Magyar or refresh your Finno-Ugric. Even the most mundane of texts looks like the adventures of Väinämöinen, Boszorkány or Suur Tõll. Other editions will follow in the spring of 2008.
Posted by John on 15/09/07 | 07:00 PM | Chronicles
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