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