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.


  1. Interesting read. I've always been of the mindset that expression is only the emotional resonance but your first point was "purity of design". Could you also formulate it as "easy to read" or "purity of intent"?

    Nice writeup

  2. I love these, please keep posting them!

  3. Disney never learned to draw hands. Look at all the over-sized gloves in his old cartoons.

  4. Chuckling. Your two monsters put me in mind of those kids' puzzles: find three things that differ in the second picture. But I finally saw what you meant. You start with the truth and then pull it out of shape to your desired end: the proper mix of brain chem in the response of your audience. For example, the rounder shoulder, showing more muscle structure - those three nice bars of muscle speak more to me than the more anatomical truth in the first.

    Sometimes schools depend too much on the constructive. Our own university's animation department made that mistake for a while, and ended up with a deficit of the other sensibility in their student pool.

    What really resonates with me here is that in my own poor little matters of self-expression, I yearn for the ability to conceive ideas in a free, expressionist way, but end up always bound by my constructionist lack of lyrical imagination. (talent and skill also deficit, of course).

    I tend to think in terms of art vs. craft, or art/folk art. But folk art is so much more expressionist than I am. I find my hands trying too hard to connect to "truth" in terms of line and construction, rather than truth in terms of movement and character.

    My designs end up stiff instead of joyful. But I have to laugh at myself - my little Christmas ornament and animals are a far cry from what you guys do -

  5. Good reminder of the importance of fundamentals. Makes me want to go back and study some hands.

  6. Agreed, you need the foundation and fundamentals reinforced before you can produce convincing stylization. Simply put you need to know where the underlying structures are going to show up in the design, like joints and muscles, and it doesn't matter how pretty you try to make a scene you can't cover up a bad base drawing.

    Thanks for the post, its a good reminder, when in doubt go back to the beginner basics.

  7. Anonymous12:45 PM

    Wow! I think these kinds of posts are very cool! I’m know going to read it over and over again until you post the next one. Thanks for the interesting post. It’s very helpful to everybody that wants to learn more about design, drawing, and cool monsters.

  8. I can't wait to read the next part. And the monster is awesome!

  9. Thank you for posting this. It's something I find myself dealing with lately...trying to marry my constructive approach with an expressive one, without losing the beneficial qualities of both.

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  11. Good Stuff Sam... I want your book ... On my desk... in the morning... Pronto:)

  12. Björn: I should really do a post on that. These aren't technical terms of course, just words I'm using to describe concepts in my brain. So in this case, expression as it relates to design isn't just an easy read or clarity of intent---that fits into the category of structure. Structure is all about "what am I looking at?" whereas expression is "How should I feel about it?"
    So clarity in design, while beautiful in its own right, isn't necessarily expressive in this sense. Maybe I'll do a post to expand this idea further.

    Mr. Popular: I never knew that, interesting.

    K: I do think some schools depend too much on the constructive---but the problem there isn't dwelling on constructive learning but rather not teaching construction with the end objective of expression. If the students are constantly exposed to ideas of how the things they're learning can be applied in expressive ways, maybe they'll realize the big picture. I could be wrong though since this is just a hypothesis. But there's more to the expression vs. construction argument that you're touching on here, and I'll address it in my next post on the subject.

    Randall: Yessir! That is, if by tomorrow morning you mean sometime down the road. It's a euphemism, right?

    Thank you everyone for the comments and thoughts!

  13. MOOOORRRRREEEEEE, you feed my brain

  14. Very good explication , I´ve learn a lot Sam.
    .That monster is very seet , i like shadows and lights in black&white.
    .When your book will be done?
    i can not wait more!!

  15. Thanks so much for the link to Oli, Sam. Ive been trying to find his site again for years!

    Also cheers once more for posting your insights, you describe it in such a way that even i can understand!

  16. Your'e like one of the very few people who can change my perception back and forth and upgrade it to a better qualitiy, thank you for that, i also want to thank you about caring for spreading your love to art, it very contagious and inspirational :):)

  17. These articles you are writing are great. I have to admit that I am fairly new to your blog and work, but it's already become a regular stop for me when I have the chance.

    I agree totally with what you're saying about expression being informed by a foundation of anatomy, and like to think that I try to follow those rules to the best of me ability.

    Also, a book! Great news! Soon, please!

  18. that was an excellent point :D Especially the part about schools neglecting the construction part of art education, someone needed to say that!

  19. :) Always good to be reminded of what it was like to work with Mr. Nielsonnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn !

  20. Anonymous12:27 PM

    Extremely interesting, thought provoking stuff. And the illustration just proved it so sharply. I'll keep your words in mind the next time I pick up a pencil.

  21. this entry was very interesting; glad you posted it :)

  22. very intresting work!lovely character.

  23. Hi,
    nice job..Really very interesting work....
    Thanks for post...

  24. Anonymous10:31 AM

    I grew up between european scificomics and asian sides of art, so this article hits the nail for me :)

    I love the expressive stories from the east and the well constructed landscapes and environments from the west. Its a shame so many western artists get really aggressive when one comes from both influences of art.

    in the end, the best I see is always an alchemic fusion of expression and construction, like you said. I guess its no surprise that most stuff I REALLY deeply love was also inspired by both sides of the earth.

    cheers :)


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