Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Thoughts on Construction and Expression, Part 1

Looking at the concept art world shows multiple "schools" of concept art with completely different goals and opinions about appeal.  These differences can be boiled down to a struggle of two artistic forces: construction and expression. 

Construction is like rhetoric, and appeals to audiences through accuracy of description.  Expression appeals to audiences through purity of design, emotion, or ideas.  Construction can be devoid of expression, and expression can override the need for accuracy.
Every school of art uses some combination of construction and expression, but great artists recognize that expressive elements connect with audiences in ways that crude construction can't.  But my point isn't to prove that expression is better than construction.  In fact, without construction there can be no expression.  The reason why Acadamia has difficulty producing good artists lately is because most schools have rejected construction-focused education and focus almost exclusively on expression, leaving artists without the tools necessary for powerful expression.

Rendering this monster's arm with a few expressive lines took some thought, and relied on years of studying anatomy and how to use line to describe form.

Remember though that construction covers a lot of areas of learning, so anatomy and technique won't guarantee expressive ability.  The first image shows that a basic knowledge of anatomy applied randomly can result in a hodgepodge of shapes and form changes that aren't terribly appealing.  The second image is a lot more clean, fits the wound-up personality of the monster, and has an appealing interplay of shapes and forms that compliment the overall design.  These design decisions relied on constructive elements of design being applied to other constructive elements of anatomy and form in a harmonious way.

One last story to make my point.  The other day I was trying to draw people and I couldn't get the hands to feel natural.  I could imagine what I wanted, but even when I looked to my own hands for reference what came out was awkward.  I suddenly realized that I've been coasting for years on a rudimentary knowledge of hands; I'd learned to fake things so well that I'd overlooked some important education.  So I pulled out Bridgeman's Constructive Anatomy, spent an hour studying the forms comprising the hand, then attempted my drawing again.  That time it came out the way I wanted.  Now I've resolved to keep studying hands until I can express what's in my imagination effortlessly.

The moral of the story is: if you're struggling to find expression in your art, your problem might stem from gaps in your knowledge of construction.  There is also another roadblock to expression that I'll talk about in a later post.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Forgotten Princesses

Done for the Avalanche blog "Disney Princesses"  Topic.  No, this isn't an insider leak of future projects, and yes, I do realize that Hester Prynne isn't technically a princess.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


I run into a lot of people that don't understand the difference between abstraction and caricature.  Maybe that's because the meaning of the words has become muddy in common usage.  Artists in general would be better off if everyone was clear on the terms, though, because while abstraction and caricature are related concepts, they are problems that have to be addressed individually.

My definition of each is:
Caricature=Distortion and exaggeration of a subject's distinctive features
Abstraction=Simplification down to a subject's essential features, eliminating unnecessary information

Abstraction is one expression of a design principle called Signal-to-Noise Ratio, which states that the Signal is any information that is important for the viewer, while Noise is unimportant information which necessarily interferes with the signal

The key in any good design is to identify how much of the detail is actually signal, and downplay/subdue/eliminate everything else.  In other words, not all detail is noise---sometimes it's part of the signal.  The best way to judge whether a detail is signal or noise is:
- Does it say something important about the character?
- Does it enhance the overall style of the piece/property? (ie. Does it say something about the world?)
- Does it significantly increase the character's appeal to my intended audience?
- Will the audience be able to see/appreciate the detail or is it just adding clutter to the scene?
If the answer is no to all four, tone it down or cut it out!

So the level of abstraction in a subject is just an expression of the signal-to-noise ratio.  I usually have to consciously abstract things after my first designs, and I often don't go far enough.  I've seen other artists who have the opposite problem and simplify things so far that they lose their connection to their audience.  I think that's why it's a ratio and not a hard and fast rule; too little is too little, and too much is too much.
With this Goldcrest, at first glimpse it may seem I didn't abstract things at all, just used caricature to push the personality and distinctive features.  But while I wanted people to react to it as a real bird, the details themselves could become distracting really fast.  So I used tricks like alignment, color, shape juxtaposition, and contrast control to keep the eye focused only on what was important.  Of course, after doing the little abstraction example above I wanted to go back and simplify about 10 more things in this image, so I'm obviously still learning this principle.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Mourning Dove

I always thought they were Morning Doves, but apparently they're more sad.  Maybe they ARE Morning Doves but they're just not morning people.

I keep trying to write a Tip-of-the-Day style post, but it's taking more time than I expected.  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

iPhone Art Book! And another bird.

Thanks to Bobby Chiu and others at Imaginism Studios, some of my work is now an iphone app.
You can find it here!

I will be giving out five promotional copies---if you want one, comment on this post and in three days (Saturday) I will pick five comments at random for a free app for your iPod Touch or iPhone.

The app/book includes hi-res versions of work I've put on the blog, as well as some updated and finished pieces never seen before.

Bird number two: