Migrating toward concept art
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    Migrating toward concept art

    I've loved this community since the day I discovered it. However, I'm not a concept artist, an illustrator or even a painter but a graphic designer. I've been fortunate to be successful, in demand, and gainfully employed in my field full time. While I am confident in my abilities with typography, layout, symbolism, conceptual thinking, and other things that relate to visual communication, I have not been able to progress beyond design into illustration.

    Peter Saville, a terrific British graphic designer, once said something along the lines that graphic design is the basics of visual art. Having said that, I wonder then why this hasn't necessarily made translating my skills as a designer into an illustrator easier.

    I really marvel at the work of a lot of people on here, but also a lot of the great fantasy masters, too: Frazetta, Vallejo, Bell, Easley, Struzan, Barlowe, etc. I've collected a disgusting library of painting and drawing books, many from recommendations on here. I really love this sphere of art and artists, but I've always only been a consumer of it.

    Disappointingly, fantastic visions don't come from my imagination. While I can imagine countless identities, poster and packaging designs, how to typeset a book, etc. I cannot imagine with any sort of useful fidelity a fantastic scene well enough to bring it to life. Is this a bad sign?

    This is, I think, what has been stopping me. Additionally, I think I tuned my skills with design by doing it daily as it's my livelihood, and drawing has only been leisurely, maybe once or twice a month out of the year (I know). But, having gotten to where I want to be with my life financially and so on, I want to pursue this more seriously as it's the next, exciting challenge that I think will bring me a great deal of joy.

    I guess my question then is just about imagination in general in regards to illustration. How much of it is translating mental pictures to painted ones, or is this a fiction to begin with? Is a lot of concept art simply trial and error, of seeing things born on the canvas and paper, never preconceived to begin with? What is your creative process like? What is imagination to you in the first place?

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    If you can paint like any of the artists you named you shouldn't have a problem. Most designers don't work as illustrators or concept artists because they lack the facility to realize their ideas. That's why they are designers. Nothing wrong with that but a good illustrator or concept artist must be a good designer first and then be able to draw and paint their ideas to a professional standard.

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    Well....lots of discussion points there. Illustration is too broad a term as it covers a multitude of different purposes, styles, approaches, etc. It sounds like you're talking mainly about "narrative" illustration? The way I define the differences is narrative is mainly about telling a story (obviously) as opposed to "conceptual" or "design" oriented illustration that might be more about concepts (Android Jones comes to mind).

    With that in mind, narrative illustration has more in common with traditional painting, as exemplified by the Golden Age illustrators. Of course they were primarily visualizing and painting images from stories so their imagination was tuned more toward creative composition, impact and the technical side of interpreting and conveying important moments from the story.

    As to your question, concept art is a specific subset of illustration which is more about exploring wider solutions and variations of design rather than capturing a narrative moment.

    One classic description on how to excercise your narrative imagination is to simply visualize a scene as if you were a camera or cinematographer...pan around, dolly, zoom...visually imagine the scene from many povs and select a few of the more intersting shots to thumbnail. Then simply go through the process of exploring the various povs, concentrtating on the ones that tell the story best.

    For a great guide to the process I highly recommend Gurney's "Imaginitive Realism"...it's pretty much all there.

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    Ah, I appreciate this clarification between narrative and concept art as I never thought of separating the two like that.

    I definitely gravitate toward narrative illustration and painting, more so than concept art now that I consider it, although solving design problems is always interesting.

    Thanks for the book recommendation--hadn't heard of that one but it's right what I'm looking for. Imaginative realism is definitely it. I just worry about books like that being heavy on introduction and light on practical how-to or sharing a useful process. I like your POV technique.

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    1. It sounds to me like your current skills are significantly more marketable than being able to paint realistic fantasy scenes would be, and it will take you a long time to be able to paint realistic fantasy scenes.

    2. You are aware that some of the artists you're talking about use very extensive photo reference?

    3. Painting from life is pretty much a prerequisite to painting realistic fantasy scenes. Try doing a bunch of painting from life. You may find you actually enjoy it more than painting made-up scenes.

    4. Some artists do see complete scenes and "transcribe" them, but many do not. If you have to fumble around on the paper for a while that is fine. Draw lots of rough sketches to work out composition before going for detail and color.

    5. Have fun. Otherwise what's the point, you might as well keep doing design.

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    Quote Originally Posted by ohGr View Post
    I guess my question then is just about imagination in general in regards to illustration. How much of it is translating mental pictures to painted ones, or is this a fiction to begin with? Is a lot of concept art simply trial and error, of seeing things born on the canvas and paper, never preconceived to begin with? What is your creative process like? What is imagination to you in the first place?
    The answer is not so clear cut, at least for me:
    I think it also changes depending on the purpose.

    Case Study #1:
    I recently decided to undertake the task of designing a brochure/poster for a music teacher friend of mine (she is my sister's best friend since high-school).

    To approach the task I decided to use both illustration and design principles, as well as immersing myself with the sound, looks and feel of her instrument of choice, the flute. That is a process that is also done in design.

    I went to sit in a nice coffee place with my sketchbook so I can absorb the need happiness and indie vibe and began to draw...
    I already had a few vague mental images I conjured from just thinking about the idea and what I can do to describe it visually but they were yet to be committed so I started from there drawing a composition with horizon line, center, vanishing points etc.. it was nice but since my imagination is often something fluid and moving , capturing it in a still is not always so simple so I had to play with it and re-imagine some stuff on the fly as I was considering how what I started with serves the purpose for example :

    -How will what I draw capture the eye?
    -Where will the text go?
    -Does it look cool and why will my target audience like this?
    -Did I draw the perspective correctly?

    I ended up doing four sketches that are variations on the mental images I started with and only one of them had figure drawing (it ended up being the one she liked the most)

    Case Study #2:
    I started drawing, having fun , casting lines of power on the paper and something cool came out...

    Case Study #3: I wrote an interesting stab at a speculative future cyberpunk settings : I started fleshing out a rough design of one of the faction's main stronghold...
    So I decided I want my design to also be speculative and relatively realistic:

    -Where would they get their energy, what kind of tech they use and what it would look like.
    -I decided its located in the midst of an urban sprawl : how will they fend off commoners, riots and rivals and what kind of technology is available to them.
    -How many families are they housing in there and where would they go about their day to day business...
    And so on...
    I draw it all and design it in a way that seems realistic, believable and functional to me.

    But that is part of my personal design choice :
    look at Mass Effect for example , more than half of the designs there are not very practical/believable but they look cool.
    Or Mechwarrior where someone thought it was a good idea to drive a mech that looks like an animal or has extra appendages to make it seem more humanoid, why? because it looks cool.

    Other times these choices would already be dictated by writers so its pretty much imagining what you get off their writing : for example the various covers for Dan Simmon's Hyperion Trilogy.
    So maybe that is a good exercise for you to explore this: try to draw a scene from a book (preferably one that is yet to be interpreted visually)

    Last edited by LightandDark; August 14th, 2012 at 04:37 PM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by ohGr View Post
    I guess my question then is just about imagination in general in regards to illustration. How much of it is translating mental pictures to painted ones, or is this a fiction to begin with? Is a lot of concept art simply trial and error, of seeing things born on the canvas and paper, never preconceived to begin with? What is your creative process like? What is imagination to you in the first place?
    I'll answer this question flat out.
    You have to see a picture in your mind. It is not a a literal image of the picture you are about to make, but a notional one that you are straining to make as precise in your mind as possible (even though this is impossible), before you place your brush (or stylus pen) on a surface to make it real.

    The final painting is the body in which your notional picture finally lives.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Chris Bennett View Post
    I'll answer this question flat out.
    You have to see a picture in your mind. It is not a a literal image of the picture you are about to make, but a notional one that you are straining to make as precise in your mind as possible (even though this is impossible), before you place your brush (or stylus pen) on a surface to make it real.

    The final painting is the body in which your notional picture finally lives.
    This is not always true, sometimes the picture forms in parallel to the process of actually creating it as you start to imagine a form or composition out of the chaos laid out.
    This method is sometimes used to search for ideas since the capacity to draw and imagine is not entirely a conscious effort.

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    LightandDark:
    But that is only a case of starting before you're ready to start. Like the fellow who wants to go for a walk but hasn't decided where to go, yet sets off out the door anyway. After aimlessly wandering about, something grabs him and that turns out to be his destination.
    I agree that there is discovery along the way. But you can only know what is worth picking up on that journey once you know where you want to go.
    And that is the moment you 'see' it.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Chris Bennett View Post
    LightandDark:
    But that is only a case of starting before you're ready to start. Like the fellow who wants to go for a walk but hasn't decided where to go, yet sets off out the door anyway. After aimlessly wandering about, something grabs him and that turns out to be his destination.
    I agree that there is discovery along the way. But you can only know what is worth picking up on that journey once you know where you want to go.
    And that is the moment you 'see' it.
    Yes but the point is that it is something that can be revealed during instead of planned before or after.
    I think both ways have their place.

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    During what?
    Doodling is daydreaming while you have a marker in your hand. It's the daydreaming that is the parent to the child, not the marker.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Chris Bennett View Post
    During what?
    Doodling is daydreaming while you have a marker in your hand. It's the daydreaming that is the parent to the child, not the marker.
    I disagree and I doodled with a pencil throughout all of my youth.
    The tools are what the hand is holding and without it they do not function, so your attempt to claim that such tools have some kind of parent-child relationship with your mind is silly.

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    "I disagree "

    yeah but Chris is a successful painter and you arnt, so your vote counts 1000x less.
    you asked the question and hes answering it, dont argue with him just listen to what hes telling you.
    if this was kung fu he'd have snatched your fucking eye out by now.

    for what its worth i do most of my work when im skating or washing the dishes, the stuff in photoshop it is just copying what ive drawn in my head. then its experiment time.

    Last edited by Velocity Kendall; August 15th, 2012 at 09:34 AM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by LightandDark View Post
    I disagree and I doodled with a pencil throughout all of my youth.
    The tools are what the hand is holding and without it they do not function, so your attempt to claim that such tools have some kind of parent-child relationship with your mind is silly.
    You pride yourself on having some strong opinions and there
    is nothing wrong with that, but your posts would lead me to
    believe you also have extensive professional experience in the
    art industry. Do you?

    We are fortunate that gallery artists, many of whom also teach,
    take the time out of their day to share their insights with us and
    while nobody is infallible, to write off one of their analogies as
    being "silly"...well, that's what I'd call silly.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Chris Bennett View Post
    LightandDark:
    But that is only a case of starting before you're ready to start. Like the fellow who wants to go for a walk but hasn't decided where to go, yet sets off out the door anyway. After aimlessly wandering about, something grabs him and that turns out to be his destination.

    I agree that there is discovery along the way. But you can only know what is worth picking up on that journey once you know where you want to go.
    And that is the moment you 'see' it.
    I like this analogy, and enjoy your insights.

    All a lot to take in. I'm not alien to drawing from life but it's actually hard to get excited about illustrating mundane objects. Again, probably a failure of imagination on my part but that's what occurs to me. Jack Hamm's book on drawing scenery has been able to help me on trees, landscapes and seascapes.

    I think all in all it's going to come down to imagination and creativity and just having fun with this all. Oddly, that's probably the biggest thing I fear is being so demanding that I can't have fun.

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    Thanks ohGr.
    Maybe this will help a little more.

    In a sense, everything is a mundane object. The horns on a Viking's helmet are just bent cones, a sword is a flat strip of metal, the barrel of a ray gun is a neon tube, the edifice of the temple is just a wall, the reddest lips just painted meat.

    It's the symbolic meaning that is exciting you.
    Which is perfectly natural.

    But making a picture means to translate that into a mass of shapes that combine to visually kick you between the eyes.
    And that's not done by symbols of things, but by a visual grammar of shapes all hooked up together to form a purely visual and instantaneous story.
    This takes years to learn.
    For example: It is to understand that what is really working on you, deep down and unconsciously, when you are knocked out by, say, a J.M.Waterhouse painting, is not the pretty faces and the knights, but the design as a whole.

    And even when you focus on a face of one of his maidens, the same principle is at work - that's why we are moved by them more than even a newsagent's stands worth of cutesy, smiling magazine covers.

    So to 'see' your picture is to become aware of a design that embodies your feeling.

    Maybe you are more of a literary temperament when it comes to drama?


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    Last edited by Chris Bennett; August 15th, 2012 at 01:58 PM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by ohGr View Post
    ... but it's actually hard to get excited about illustrating mundane objects.
    Not if you are excited about drawing. I think most of us can relate to this, I certainly can, but eventually you switch from being interested in the subject to simply being excited abouyt the activity or process.

    A great painter will make the most mundane scene come alive, while the amateur makes an absolute mess out of the Grand Canyon.

    Quote Originally Posted by ohGr View Post
    Jack Hamm's book on drawing scenery has been able to help me on trees, landscapes and seascapes.
    Good to hear - great book for getting started with composition.

    Quote Originally Posted by ohGr View Post
    I think all in all it's going to come down to imagination and creativity and just having fun with this all. Oddly, that's probably the biggest thing I fear is being so demanding that I can't have fun.
    True...but what I always found not fun was not being able to draw, at least well enough to express what ideas were in my head. So for me the "fun" was secondary to the goal of being able to draw.

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    I figured the ability to compose, design a page, and direct the eye would help in composing drawings or paintings.

    As observant as I am though, there's only so much one can soak up or commit to memory visually. I find whenever I want to go ahead and draw something, say a boot or a shoe, I'm a little bit shorter on visual information in my memory bank than I'd thought, and then I got to go look at a shoe. This can be frustrating when I think I have a scene I'd like to record and I get stuck on the general shape of a shoe in space. Don't even get me started on the human figure.

    Words and graphics definitely come to me way faster than pictures, probably because they're far simpler. I think pictures are something I've always been building toward though. I study a lot of the artists' work I like so to try and understand why I like it, not just in subject but also in technique, color, composition, etc.

    Arnie Swekel is an artist whose pencil drawing blows me the hell away. He seems to have incredible restraint on how light his hand is. Wayne Barlowe's pencil drawing is the same. I like both of their work's clarity, conciseness, and detail where there is very little ambiguity as to what they're showing us--they are very intentional with every mark.

    Space and time are probably the biggest things and finding enough of them both to be able to allow the imagination to unravel. Need to have the patience to give each element its time.

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    Quote Originally Posted by ohGr View Post
    As observant as I am though, there's only so much one can soak up or commit to memory visually. I find whenever I want to go ahead and draw something, say a boot or a shoe, I'm a little bit shorter on visual information in my memory bank than I'd thought, and then I got to go look at a shoe. This can be frustrating when I think I have a scene I'd like to record and I get stuck on the general shape of a shoe in space. Don't even get me started on the human figure.
    You're getting hung up on the wrong thing here. No one can commit to memory a boot, shoe or anything in every spatial orientation and lighting situation. Multiply that times a Doc Martin vs. a Brand X, or a converse...so you go look at one when the need arises. If you're doing a still life of boots you should be looking at a pair of them.

    So instead learn some basic geometric shape and form construction and be able to handle the illusion of those forms in space. Add detail and information as required. That's why people that do most of their work from imagination sacrifice "realism" in exchange for more simplified, iconic representation (as in comic books).

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    Quote Originally Posted by Star Eater View Post
    You pride yourself on having some strong opinions and there
    is nothing wrong with that, but your posts would lead me to
    believe you also have extensive professional experience in the
    art industry. Do you?

    We are fortunate that gallery artists, many of whom also teach,
    take the time out of their day to share their insights with us and
    while nobody is infallible, to write off one of their analogies as
    being "silly"...well, that's what I'd call silly.
    Quote Originally Posted by Velocity
    yeah but Chris is a successful painter and you arnt, so your vote counts 1000x less.
    @StarEater: No I do not and there is no point in pretending otherwise , I am a beginner career-wise and only undertaken a few small jobs, I am willing to learn, however there are fundamental truths that I know to be true because I am and no amount of career opportunities or lack there of would change that.

    To clarify: I hate when people take what I said and reinterpret it as irrational nonesense to make their point, hence I said 'silly' as a counter reaction to that. Sorry If I offended anyone.

    @Velocity: I said that I disagree because I do and that has nothing to do with respecting the person's artistic skills or success.
    If you disrespect my opinion because you think I am not a successful painter that is your choice and I hope that one day I will be able to make you metaphorically eat these words.

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