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.