Friday, April 21, 2017

Developing the Body the Right Way part 2

This is a followup to a post I did called Reflections and Projections @ the dawn of the new year - Developing the Body the Right Way, from December of 2015. It was about both drawing the human figure and my own efforts to get in shape - clever, eh? I've come a long way on both fronts since then. Why not sit a spell and let me tell you about it?

On Health and Nutrition
When I made the original post 2 years ago I was doing Paleo - eating like a caveman! I still am, but now I do what's called Keto - I like to think of it as Paleo Plus or Upgraded Paleo. You eat a lot of healthy fats, almost no carbs, and a moderate amount of protein. It re-activates the dormant second fuel system that we all have inside but that we never use. Our ancestors used to go through frequent periods of fasting or of eating a lot of fats and little to no carbs, which kicks in the fat-burning second fuel system. Living on carbs and sugar is actually very detrimental to the body. 

It takes a while to get this fuel system to kick in - to do it you have to starve yourself for sugar and carbs (which become sugar when you eat them). After a while your body will fire up the fat-burners, but until that happens you go through some weird and sometimes scary stuff - like sleep deprivation, extremely low energy, and inability to concentrate. I've been going through this for around a month now, which is why I haven't been doing any art stuff. But I did my research first - I knew to expect these symptoms and I knew that once you get past them it's smooth sailing. Keto is sort of like Boot Camp - it breaks you down to the core and rebuilds you from stronger stuff. 

On Art
The big advance in my art this year has been a new smoothness, which happened over the last few months of 2016 through a series of paintings. Weird, but it seems like each year my big advances are always in the fall and winter - the end of the year for some reason. Possibly because when I got myself a tablet and started digital painting it was fall? I kinda doubt it’s that simple, but whatever!

Detail of an older painting- ragged and harsh! 

Detail of a newer one - what a difference! 

(pronounced VAN-der lay)
So - how and why did I make this transition? It really began around the end of 2015, when I was doing this painting of an MMA fighter named Wanderlei Silva - who has a total Neanderthal barbarian look about him. I wrapped up work on this one at 11:30 on New Year’s Eve 2015. 

Wait - let me go back even farther to set the stage - why was I painting so ragged and rough before? It was because I wanted my work to look like alla prima brushwork done in oil - in particular the kind of rough loose style you see in parts of paintings by Frazetta or Kent Williams. They both have a very vigorous, often chaotic style which is something I want to be able to emulate. Also, I dislike a certain kind of lackluster over-smoothness that I see a lot of in digital artwork, which just drains any life out of it. So I made a deliberate effort to let my brushstrokes show and to not blend much if at all. People on ConceptArt kept telling me I shouldn’t do that, but of course as a noob on the wrong side of the Dunning/Kruger effect, I knew better than them, so I persisted.

I don’t know exactly what made me break down and decide to smooth things out. It was in the early stages of the Wanderlei painting - in fact I believe it was the whole point of it. I decided to go ahead and start rougher than I usually would (thinking about Kent Williams) and then use blending selectively where needed - only to the extent needed - to create smoothness and decent transitions, while still letting the roughness show through. It’s like chunky peanut butter - a smooth matrix with chunks suspended in it.

It made a huge difference!! This painting hangs together much more coherently, in spite of the chaotic roughness of much of it, than anything I had done before. So I broke down and decided ok, time to go all out on blending and see how far I can take it. 

The result was this one:

A quantum leap into smoothness!! It takes on an illusionistic look because the new smoothness allowed me to see what every millimeter of the surface looked like - sort of like swapping up from very low resolution to ultra HD. 

But this new smoothness isn’t the whole story - there are other contributing factors to my recent advances as well…

The Mouser Portrait
This was a vitally important landmark for me, begun back in 2014 and finished the following year. Even though it’s really just a character study rather than an action-oriented illustration, it still stands as my best piece - but after finishing it I became frustrated with certain things about it, and the thoughts I had then have guided my development ever since.

The importance of self-critique
In fact, I’ve come to realize that this is a good way to advance your skills, and to get the specific kind of results you want, rather than just flailing around doing aimless practice with no particular goals. Critiquing your work - and not necessarily just a single piece,but it’s also a good idea to critique your entire body of work from time to time and develop an idea of where you want to go. So I’m going to spend the majority of this post explaining just what my critique of that Mouser piece was, and how it’s helped me advance my skills in very specific ways since then.

A re-dedication to Gesture
My biggest critique on it was the stiffness of the pose. I decided then and there to dedicate myself mainly to gesture for the time being. I was able to envision what I wanted it to look like - not precisely, but I had a vague image of smoothly flowing power and graceful curves. At about that time I saw somebody’s sketchbook on Conceptart who was working from Mike Mattesi’s Force books, and I could see this was what I needed. I ordered 2 of the books and launched into studying from them. My figure drawings started taking on the qualities I was looking for. 

Strangely - or maybe not - this more recent piece actually looks a lot like the image I envisioned in response to my Mouser critique. Specifically I wanted a strong arch through the ribcage itself and a certain kind of curvature on limbs - very much like the curvature I put into Miesha’s thighs and hips. And the fact that I finally broke down and decided to use outlines was a big factor in making it work - it really smooths out the contours of the body and allows a very linear gracefulness of form.

And this brings up the next important factor I want to discuss —

Visualize the results you want to achieve
One thing that happened during my self-critique of that Mouser portrait - I could see what I wanted my future work to look like. Simply as a result of looking long and hard at the one I had just finished and thinking about its flaws. This allowed me to develop a sort of vague hazy idea of what a better version of it would look like. It wasn’t crystal clear or anything, more of a dim notion but what I could see more clearly was, as I mentioned before, a strong bend running through the ribcage and powerful arching curves along the contours of the body. That’s because the things that disappointed me the most about the painting were the boringly straight spine and resulting stiffness of the torso, and the sort of straight, tubular look of the limbs themselves. There’s something about creating a strong image in your head - a fantasy, or something like a daydream - that shows you the positive results you want to achieve. It sets the wheels in motion inside your head and gives you something concrete to aim at and work toward. Even if you can only see it kind of vaguely or hazily, which is how it works for me.

Practice Practice PRAC-tice!
There was a point - I believe it was fairly early in 2016, when I noticed I had developed much better control, just from getting so much practice. When I noticed this advancement of control I went back and re-worked a few older pieces that suffered from ragged edges and shaky work, and was able to be much smoother and more controlled.

This is the manual dexterity aspect of improvement - it happens just from a lot of practice. Gradually your hand gets more sure and you can put marks just where you want them, even drawing with a plastic stylus on a plastic tablet, which feels like drawing with a thick sheet of glass laid on top of your paper!

Giving up the brush strokes
This was the single most important factor in why I improved so suddenly. I believe it’s because - when you paint smoothly you can clearly see how everything is working. It’s like switching up from a blocky low definition YouTube video to HD - suddenly everything springs into crisp clear focus and you can clearly see every part of the image and how they relate to each other. As I mentioned earlier - it’s recommended that you give up the brush strokes or weird styles when learning how to paint. Painting smooth allows you to feel the surface and the form, sort of like sculpting it or modeling it from clay. After you’ve learned what you need to know, then you can start to use brush strokes or stylized effects.

Carefully controlling the movement of light across the figure
I call it Prioritizing the Lighting. You decide where it’s going to be the brightest and from there outward it fades until some parts of the image drop off into deep shadow. This is one way of directing the viewer’s eye - making the most important part of the image jump out at them first. You also use lighting to prioritize which parts are of secondary importance, and lesser, and which parts can just drop out of visibility almost completely. This is like visual storytelling - you’re leading them through the image. The standout part is like the hook at the beginning of a story that captures your interest and draws you in. 

This is the second most important factor for my improvement, and I cannot emphasize enough how essential it is to learn!! It's a way of orchestrating the light, and it causes you to think globally about the whole image. Imagine a bunch of pianists, trombone players, and cellists sitting in a room all doing their own thing, not orchestrated properly by a conductor. Each of them may be doing something amazing, but they're not working together to create a unified whole. But get them all on the same page, thinking about the musical composition they're supposed to be contributing to, and the magic can happen (assuming they're good enough at what they do). 

Learning to arrange things for the good of the overall composition is what makes or breaks a piece. The more you can learn to think through your work comprehensively the better it will become. As well as playing all the instruments, you must also be the conductor - decide what to pull up and put the spotlight on - what to push back a bit and what might be better just removed or changed for the good of the composition.

I didn't understand how to do this until I ordered an Asaro head & the associated video material & pamphlet. The one you want is the Original head in grey plastic. In grabbing the link I just discovered they now have the Planes of the Body available - that's an immediate must-buy for me! But if you're considering it, just get the head first and download the pictures of the body planes. You can learn a lot that way. If you're at all serious about becoming an artist - do this!! Both the printed matter and the video are brief and very crudely produced - at first I thought it was a scam or something, but none of that matters - the information is priceless! Watch, read, and pay attention!! Get out a pencil and do it yourself, and keep doing it - keep reviewing the material until it clicks in your head. But first you have to be well versed in the basics - perspective and standard lighting and shading - otherwise it will be too advanced and will just frustrate you.

Ditto for color - both hue and saturation
The same principle applies to color as well - prioritize it to lead the viewer’s eye around the picture. Use the strongest color saturation in the same area where you have the brightest light. You’ll also use other elements the same way - edge control, contrast - but this post is long enough already! And I need to leave some other stuff to talk about in future blog posts!

So yeah - those are the important factors that went into my sudden leap of quality.

Sunday, January 29, 2017


Done with Clip Studio Paint because I prefer the way it lets me draw over Photoshop.

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Saturday, January 21, 2017

Taking Fafhrd Farther

I can't help myself - I need to just keep working on this one, trying out different painting methods and ideas.

This is probably my favorite version (above).

I don't know - it was looking pretty good, but it's getting kind of pale and delicate looking. In some ways it's an improvement though - it's looking more unified now. 

But really I must say I prefer some of the earlier versions. Ok, time to stop on this one! I feel like I've developed a lot of new tricks and can make bodies look more solid and three dimensional now. And all this practice is definitely helping. 

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Refurbishing Fafhrd --- Squaring Up

I got disgusted with the previous version of this painting due to the items I listed in the critique (last post), so I decided to try to fix it. When I did that version I was doing what I had always done in pencil, only in full color now and using a stylus and tablet. That's why to me it looks more like a fully rendered drawing rather than a painting, or like an airbrushed picture. But that's not what I want my work to look like. So this post details my attempt to correct it according to my critique.

First I just wanted to punch in some real darks - all the way to black in the darkest shadows. And I needed a lot more middle value colors - I noticed the previous version went rapidly from darks to lights with very thin zones of middle value - another factor that makes it look weak. Also, rather than work with soft round rushes and lots of transparency from the beginning, I wanted to start with some hard edged opaque brushes, make some good hard edges and definite shapes, and then blend them as much as needed later, only where necessary.

Pectorals still looking booblike due to roundness...

Much better! 

The big form shadow still had curves in it though. It was fighting the more squared-up form I was going for. 

So I squared that up too. Blocky, baby! Oh yeah!

I'm being careful to light the planes properly - darker or lighter according to where the light source is. Those planes facing directly toward the light will be the brightest, and as they turn away they get progressively darker until they fall into shadow. You can see this clearly in the three tiers of the abdominals. The middle row is more downward-facing, so darker. 

Then it was largely a struggle to bring back in some roundness, but built around the planes and corners I had established - so more like subtlely curved planes with gently rounded corners rather than curves all over. 

Dropping in a few surface details goes a long way toward making it look more finished.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017


Somehow the thin lines - outlines and for instance under the pectorals or between the abs - make the image look weak. So do the colors. And the anatomy and figure look very strange - I really do need to get to the figure drawing and learn what people actually look like. I'm drawing an assemblage of parts - like a mannequin pieced together - ribcage, pelvis, arms, legs, head - all joined weirdly and somewhat mismatched. Especially at the big joints - the waist and where the limbs join the torso. Shoulders especially are difficult - they're so free floating it's hard to understand how they're really supposed to work. Drawing a lot from photos or life will help with all that.

On color - I'm thinking about it a lot since doing this one. I need those colorful grays! I'm using mostly primaries and secondaries - cartoonish colors. What I need a lot more of is the tertieries - the mixtures of a secondary (orange, green or purple) with its complement (the primary opposite it on the color wheel - for instance red is the complementary of green etc). Tertieries are subtle complex colors that are hard to identify - you can't just instantly say That's a pink, or a yellow, or whatever. So they're the colorful grays - also known as dirtied up colors. They make a painting look more realistic because they're less saturated.

I think one of the reasons I tend not to use them is that you can't get them out of the Photoshop color picker. Unless there's some trick I'm not aware of (there are many!) - all I can get out of it is primaries and secondaries - so I need to grab a complementary to some color that's already on the painting or make a floating palette and mix colors on, and blend them together, then paint with it.

Also I need to use a lot more black and white. In fact, I want to do some exercises by starting with a bold line drawing done in black, with the darkest shadows filled in solid black, and put down a middle value color and then white for the highlights, and paint it up from there. That way I won't be afraid to drop in those full blacks and whites, which is a problem for me. If you don't have them already on the image, your eye fools you into believing you have a good full range of values. Until you compare it side by side with another picture that actually has a full value range, and suddenly you see how woefully inadequate yours is!

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When you see one of these ^ it means some time has gone by since I finished the post but I'm adding some info. And if it's been more than a day I'll add the date. 

I also realized the simple curves everywhere make it look feminine. Which is sort of appropriate actually because this is a very young Fafhrd, and according to the stories he looked like a girl when he was young. This would be slightly after that, in the late teens I suppose or very early 20's, when he was getting big and beginning to brawn up a bit. Later in life he would become more typically masculine, requiring very different shapes and paint handling techniques. 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Fafhrd Through the Ages

Here's a progression years in the making - beginning in 2014:

There are qualities about this version that I really like - in particular the gesture and the vigorous powerful brushwork, plus the strength of the color, though that orange is overpowering, isn't it? I think it's a very successful sketch, but always wanted to upgrade it.

Then, just a few days ago, I dusted it off and put in some more work, wanting to see what I could do to it with my upgraded 2016 skills.

This is how it currently stands. It isn't really finished - I wanted to get as much done as I could before the end of the year and get it posted - I may or may not work it some more. Not sure because no matter what, there are fatal flaws with this one that I can't fix, like the stupid J. C. Penny's catalog model pose. Weird thing about it - in many ways I like the previous version better. Because it's so smooth now he looks tender and delicate - and I've completely lost the gesture - the spine has become stiff and straight. But the important thing - I'm really advancing my ability to paint airbrush-smooth, bringing it all up to Ultra-HD resolution. Crisp and clean, with no caffeine! That's really allowing me to work the form and the surface, and I'm also getting increasing control over every aspect of color. Plus thanks to the aforementioned Cheerio Buckle saga, I'm now using my improved dexterity for some much more precise and detailed detail. 

Really I don't like this one much. I see it as a transitional piece. I'm halfway to being able to combine the airbrush smoothness with the chunkier, more powerful approach, and hopefully to do it all faster and better. But until then, I guess I'll be making a few weird paintings like this one to develop my control. 

Oops - I took too long making this post - it's 2017 already!! 

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A thought -- the smooth painting, at least as I'm doing it here, represents the materialist aspect of things - form, surface and light rendered as theoretically perfect - making the body into a mannequin or action figure (or a CGI model). The more painterly or what I'm calling chunky or loose painting is attempting to depict the metaphorical - the spiritual or ethereal, the atmospheric or the inner nature. You must develop skill with both and learn how to combine them in a way that works. It's similar to the differences between prose (prosaic or practical/utilitarian writing) and poetry; the metaphorical/essential/ethereal art of writing. They're two different modes of thought, two different filters for interpreting the world and its meanings, and today it's most common to use either one or the other and to see it as bitterly opposed to the other. That's one of the things I fondly recall about the 60's and 70's - the artists commonly understood how to combine both modes. The world we live in today unfortunately seems to be characterized by divisiveness. 

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