Thursday, January 13, 2011

A Retraction of Sorts

I said that premise should be the first thing you address, but someone's great comment made me think I should revise the part about it being first.  Purpose and premise, while extremely useful in the search for good design, don't need to define your process.  Especially if you have a method that already works for you.  For some people the exploration and discovery process is something that comes naturally.  Great ideas can come from many sources and sometimes in surprising ways.

That said, at some point along the road, you should be able to answer these questions or you'll have a hard time pushing your paintings or designs to the next level.  Go ahead and look at premise first if you don't know where else to start, but if you have a feel for where you want to start, do that first and then try to address premise and purpose retroactively.


  1. Yep. I agree that at some point in the process, you have to realize WHY you are doing what you are doing and WHAT the story really is about. I use the word "realize" because it's sometimes right in the middle of messing with a sketch or a story, or a hunk of clay, that you discover the meaning in it. But again, you only have that luxury if you are the original client. When you have a client who is paying you to do a job, he decides the premise, and that explains part of the difference between "fine" art and "commercial" art - the "fine" art often comes out of some self-generated or driven itch in the heart and mind and hands of the artist. So it's going to be expressed with a different kind of techniquality than will be a piece that has its origins in a mind other than the one wielding the brush.

    And that, in itself, is an awfully fun conversation in the hatching.

    But to bring it on home: you do, in the end, have to have a purpose and premise before you can really finish anything - or you're simply tossing chaos out there to the audience. And generally, chaos will be weak. But there will always be an audience for it - I mean, how many millions of people watch TV? Even the really, really stupid stuff?

    And what makes me laugh is, the less an audience can figure out what something "means," the deeper they assume it is, and the harder the critics work to ascribe premise and purpose to it. (Emperor's new clothes again.)

  2. K: I'm not sure it's true that you only have the luxury as the "original client," because even when you're working on someone else's property, you're bringing something to the table. Yes, your range of exploration will be limited by the imagination of the original creator, but in my experience most original creators do NOT have a complete picture of what they want before you create it for them. They have ideas, impressions, shadows of detail that flicker in and out just enough to give the impression of completeness. Just like a dream, where you think everything makes sense but then it doesn't when you try to piece it together later. Even creators like George Lucas, who micromanage every particle of their properties, are unknowingly reacting to "pitches" from their creative team; even when they think it's just a manifestation of an image they had in their own head, there's small decisions being made and vagueries(!) being defined, and often this includes some adjustment to the premise as well. Sometimes a director appears more resistant to things that are outside of his/her "vision," and this gives the impression that they are being controlling, but complete control is always an illusion.

    I believe this is one of the reasons why Pixar function as well as they do: they recognize that their movie isn't about THE IDEA, but about the thousands of little ideas and decisions that can only be managed by a larger creative team. This might be a good discussion for another day as well, how do you manage a team so that you can harness the creative power of a team without things descending into utter chaos?

  3. Good point. Great picture.

  4. I can see your point. I was thinking more of starting from the point of initiating the core concept, but yes, I know what you mean. This process is true in the music studio as well. I'm going to say this stupid thing - I wouldn't say "limited" by the client so much as "reined in" - not that the words make a lick of diff. The problem often is, though, when there is a client that the artists themselves often exhibit a sort of territorial defensiveness that bogs down the process.

    When you present your idea to the client, you have to be prepared, as I know you know, to be shot down. Sometimes shut down. And if you want to keep working, you have to be willing to throw out your concept of the premise and adopt the one the person who is paying you insists on (which you may always feel is WAY less interesting and viable than what you'd brought to the table.

    This is a painful problem for artists of all kinds who work for a client like - well, like our particular church guys, and some people just have to walk away from the job because they can't take the client's insistence that the premise remain as explained.

    The secret at Pixar, I think, is that they start with people instead of ideas. They choose people who ARE team players rather than trying to impose the team-think frame on people who don't instinctively have it. So choosing the team is the science.

    Probably the best expressions are ones that have harmonic input. THen again, too many cooks spoil the broth and sometimes what you get is a weak or chaotic pastiche.

    But addressing the concept of the premise and purpose, when you are working for someone else, you HAVE to be able to re-shape your own concepts over and over and actually see the client's vision. He may not have a complete picture, but especially a professional client may have a very strong direction and a pretty palpable partial concept, and your input may only be minor course corrections. The real sticker here is artistic pride and self confidence - pride will get in the way of your service, but self confidence will allow you to take input and adapt, while still moving ahead and contributing in a productive and creative manner.


  5. K: I think what you said is right but it's not the whole picture. Whether the correct word is "limited" or "reined in" depends on the relative competencies of the artist and client. You're coming mostly from an experienced client's viewpoint, and you've no doubt worked with artists who have a number of insecurities or other unprofessional attitudes.
    What you said about artists needing to be team players is correct, but they're not going to perform better even if you successfully convince them to just do as they're told. The most important thing to understand as a client is that artists deliver their best work when they're passionate and invested. So if you're having a conflict of vision with the artist, there is an alternative to firing the artist and looking for someone new: inspiring the artist might give you exactly what you're looking for.

    I'm a big believer in the power of inspiration and collaboration, so obviously my posts are oriented toward giving artists reasons to be inspired when other factors might be getting in the way. I think premise is one way to become more invested in a project. Not by changing the overall premise of a character, but adding layers into something that is already strong to make it stronger. Or adding layers to strengthen an idea that you might percieve as weak. After talking about this with you, I think I might need another post describing this process in a little more detail. Thanks for the great comments!

  6. Hi Sam,

    I just wanted to thank you for all this discussion on Premis, and your instruction on design, structure, and technique. I'm always seeking to better myself artistically, and this has really given me a lot of food for thought. :-)

    -Lee Anne

  7. Finally got back to read your reply. I am laughing. I guess I am an experienced client. I've also been an artist wrangler at times. And on artistic teams of different sorts. I have seen some whoppers of egos crashing around a room - upheaval, tempest, storm - but in my short experience, it does seem to me that the least talented are the most touchy.

    I also know that clients often come to the table without the ability to externalize their own visions - (thus, hiring artists) - and even visual artists sometimes are terrible when it comes to using words to communicate what they need to communicate.

    The irony is that words are often the bridge you have to build between yourself as client or artist, and the other side. Lots o f words. Really great words. They need to paint emotion in the other person's brain - a visceral response that is the common denominator and desired end result of all the collaboration. So if I were writing to your audience, that's another thing I'd recommend - that the artist and client both be writing as much as they can - journals, poetry - so that when the words are needed to explain an expectation or a desired effect, they will be there ready to hand.

  8. This photo of Captain Picard and William Riker is very amusing! Are they tired or embarrassed?


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