The musings of a fantasy illustrator. Artwork, art-talk, and randomness.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Spectrum Live, Kansas City 5/18-20

Another event to announce, although those with their pulse on these things have seen me on the exhibitors list there for months now.

The Spectrum series of books began when I was towards my end of art school. This means I saw it begin, and have never known a career in which it didn't exist. For a few years I didn't submit at all. I got in pretty early on with a piece I did collaboratively with Quinton Hoover, but we failed to get a transparency of it to them in time for print. A transparency. That's how long ago it was.

I got in a few times along the way since I started submitting more regularly. It's done a lot to raise the awareness of fantasy art in general, for which I'm thankful. It's a great overview of the genre, and the place I'd take someone to first who doesn't understand what fantastic art is. Well, I suppose I'd take them to my own website first, and then Spectrum.

In any case, after spending a few years at places like San Diego Comic-Con and seeing how a convention that once celebrated the creators transformed into a giant behemoth that pushes the product instead, the Fenners who are behind Spectrum decided to put together a show that goes back to the roots. Spectrum Fantastic Art Live is something like IlluXCon, only bigger and broader. It's the Spectrum book, in person. Painters, digital guys, comics, related gallery artists, concept art guys. IlluXCon, by contrast, is very much about fantastic art done traditionally, appreciation of the physical art.

The list of exhibitors is large at Spectrum, and I'm among them. I'll be traveling to Kansas City, MO then in May to put on a display. Frightening is that each artist will be given a 10'x10' booth to do with as we please. That's a lot of space. I've never been asked to fill that much space. It will mean framing more stuff, shipping a ton of stuff, and so on. It's a little worrisome, I admit. It'll also be probably the largest exhibit of my original paintings I've put up yet, with roughly 30x5 feet of wall space covered, if all goes well.

That's where you come in. The main reason I or any artist would travel across the country and go through the hassle and expenses is so that folks like you can get face-to-face with us and our art. Getting our art out there on the interwebz is fine, but nothing beats seeing people's reactions to paintings, watching them get their noses right up close, being able to talk and answer questions. And yes, the wonderful warm fuzzies I get when someone enjoys a physical painting so much, having seen it in person, that they part with their own hard-earned income to take a piece home. The income I live on, but the sense of validation that transaction gives is beyond words. To me, it's the ultimate sign that I've communicated something significant with another person by my art, to know it will hang on their walls and be appreciated there. That someone treasured it enough to actually part with their treasure.

Because there is nothing like an original painting. No book, no hi-res scan can compare to the sheen, the depth, the richness of the pigment, the archaeological record (in a sense) of a creative mind at work. Heck, I'll have to maintain discipline to not disappear from my booth constantly to go soak up others' art!

So, if you can make it, I hope to see you there. Stop by and say hello.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Attila the Hun

Art, right? Been awhile since I posted some. Stuff is in the pipe to be published, is all. One company however, Imagine Ltd., a small publisher out of France, has been very kind in allowing me to publish some art done for them before their product gets released. Such is the case with today's image. In those other two instances, the pieces were straight-up fantasy. This time, it's kinda historical fantasy. I can't tell you why, as I don't know a ton about the product. I'll be interested to see the context, too!

I had begun work on this a bit before going to IlluXCon in November. I had done most of the charcoal study that underlies the study at left, and gotten approval. The study at left is a composite of that charcoal drawing, a second pencil drawing, and some digital. While at Illux, I had a little time away and realized I didn't like the original torso pose of the figure, so when I came home I redrew it and Frankensteined it in. So you can see the upper body is not like the lower half in texture. The Art Director had approved an earlier version, so I emailed these changes to them and got them approved, too.

I then passed it around to a couple of trusted artist buddies, among whom we sometimes swap critiques. I was pretty happy and it had been approved, so I was looking for some polish ideas. I tweaked the drawing a bit more here and there, based on comments, prepared a few other elements, and went to work.

Hitting the Books

From there it was a straightforward paint job. Really a lot of the fun of doing historical fantasy is doing some of the research part. With the Huns, it's problematic because many military history works barely touch on them. As they were nomadic, it's not like we have a lot of remnants of their culture in archaeological town digs or anything. As well, they trafficked in and among other tribes of the Russian steppes like the Scythians, Alani and other Sarmatians. Not only traveled among, but intermarried as well, Attila himself having many wives, including among the Scythians.

When doing historical works, an illustrator runs into a problem. Within gaming and the like, it's not like historical stuff necessarily pays any more than usual. But the prep-work for a historical piece is considerable, before one even begins thumbnailing. And it all depends of course on how detailed one wants to get. If this were National Geographic, it'd have a whole other caliber of research on top of this, but their budgets are bigger, too. The go-to for illustrators are Osprey Books' Men at Arms series, many illustrated by the late Angus McBride. And yeah, they covered these groups, too. It's decent, but I was finding info and small details slightly at odds with it through other research. When I did, I favored the research I had done. I took for granted the intermingling of cultures, the ransacking of enemies and so on, so there's a hodgepodge of sources, some of which might be stretching it here and there. But then, this is also a fantasy illustration. The pose itself was requested to hearken back to David's famous portrait of Napoleon, which dictated the overall mood.


Research notes chickenscratched on the back of another job's brief

Though a few ancient historians wrote about the Huns, I favored Priscus of Panium, who actually met Attila and wrote the only known first-hand account of him. It was a fascinating read, from which I learned about his inter-tribal polygamy, his hairstyle (which I would have loved to have portrayed--sounded like a bowl cut), also that he had a dignified quality about him (as opposed to savage), and dressed very simply, preferring a lack of ornamentation both on himself and his horse. Those last two points were critical for me, since the temptation is to lay it on. I supplemented this with other folks' second-hand accounts.

(L): "Attila the Hun" 18x24" Oils on Masonite

For his horse, I sought out some native breeds and settled on Przewalskis, which have lovely coloring and a slightly unusual shape. As Attila was known as "The Scourge of God" in his time for his army's fierce combating and destruction, I placed him within the ruins of a church or cathedral of some kind. Crows added a bit more narrative and doom to the image.

The image, when finally printed, will probably have a few tweaks to it, which I added digitally. I gave it to the publisher layered to give them some options, and we'll see what they go with, but this is the painted version here. You can see it more up-close if you'd like here.

The thing with historical fantasy is you want to do some diligence in researching, but you've often got considerable budget and deadline constraints to worry about as well. And no matter what you do, real history buffs will come around and point out your errors. That's a shame, too, since if I had my way I'd have done even more research than I did. As it stood, I ate through the budget so fast on this one, given the detail and all, that it became something of a labor of love by the end, out of pride for one's work.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Howard Pyle: American Master Rediscovered

Last week, I was a bit audacious in critiquing an acknowledged master. Part of why it was audacious is because Pyle was truly a wonderful illustrator, and a powerhouse of a paint slinger.


Howard Pyle's "So the Treasure Was Divided" 19x29" oils on canvas

The Delaware Art Museum has the largest collection of original Pyle artwork anywhere, Pyle having lived, taught and worked in Wilmington, where the museum resides. It was already on my list of museums to visit, for its Pyle collection, before this show. Learning that such a retrospective was going up, however, popped this up the list of things-to-do immediately. The show runs through March 4, 2012, so you have a couple of months left to get out there. And if it's in any way reasonable to do so, and you love this stuff, do so.

Pyle was known as a remarkable historical-fantasy painter, illustrating stories and writing and illustrating others. The above shows a bit of that: multi-figured, costumed narrative. Pyle is one illustrator that definitely benefits from seeing the originals: his work is incredibly subtly colored, tending towards mid-to-low color saturation, with an astounding sensitivity to grayscale value. I often go on about the importance of value, even over color. Pyle was one of those who mastered both.

His work is mainly tied to two main genres: pirates and colonial history painting. The more you look, the more you realize that movies like Pirates of the Caribbean drew heavy inspiration from Pyle's work. His pirate work has therefore remained popular, even as pirates themselves are a perennial subject of fascination in the culture. But his Revolutionary War era work is wonderful in equal measures.


Pyle's "The Fight on Lexington Common" (detail)
Is that John Kerry at left?

Pyle had a wonderful ability to be both loose and tight at the same time, thick and yet detailed. The scumbling of smoke at right reveals a heavy impasto from either the priming or from under layers.

Interestingly, these two pieces shown so far aren't even from the retrospective show! They are part of the museum's collection and currently hung in a separate show which runs all of 2012. Visiting now gives you a double helping of Pyle!

The show itself features a number of Pyle's masterpieces, ones you will have seen posted everywhere else. And if you don't know Pyle's work well, then these should simply be considered appetizers for that stuff. What struck me most was the size variation of his work, from these roughly 24x36 -range pieces, which are typical sizes for illustrations even today, to ~40x60" for some of his more popular pieces, which benefited more from space than detail, since those largest pieces are often much simpler than the above. There are also a number of smaller paintings, even down to maybe 10x10" or so.

Back in the day, it was common to find black-and-white reproductions in publications. Often, these were simply painted in black-and-white, and the show highlights a few of these. I haven't worked much in that format, but every time I see it it looks like fun.


These black and white (or limited palette pieces) are lessons in value structure. At left, the values are stuctured so as to make you work a little, the opposite of much illustration these days, which needs to be instant-impact. And yet, the piece does have instant impact due to strong contrasts, filigree, and a halo/sun framing the head. Added to the billowy drapery, it immediately resonates as an "angel" painting, which makes you wonder where the wings are, and then you see it. It then dawns on you that it is neither a sun nor a halo behind the head, as such, but simply the shape of a bright light or sky that is peeking through the gap between two spread wings. Lovely, a trick I'm likely to steal at some point.

The great thing about good monochrome art is that you can imagine the color palette as almost anything, and it still works. The painting below, for instance, could just as easily be a moody deep night scene, lit by moonlight, or an early morning light, bright yellows and purple in the shadows. Or evening, with oranges and blues. Or whatever, it doesn't matter.

Perhaps equal to his reputation as an illustrator, possibly even greater--certainly of even greater lasting influence--was the private school he ran, bringing in students, teaching them, sending them out. The lineage here is astounding. Artists such as Frank Schoonover and Maxfield Parrish studied with Pyle. Other entire branches of lineage were launched through training N.C. Wyeth, father of Andrew, who became one of America's most celebrated fine artists. Student Harvey Dunn went on to train other celbrated illustrators as well, including Dean Cornwell, both of whom ended up training Mead Schaeffer. The cascading effects of Pyle's influence on contemporary illustration are astounding, and this is without naming the many talented illustrators who worked in their day after training with Pyle or his students, but whose names have not become so well-known.

That influence has not ended, to this day. Whether directly influenced by Pyle, or by one of his artistic progeny, today's illustrators working within this genre are direct inheritors of this genius. No one denies it, and all celebrate it. The amount to which I or another directly embody the influence varies, but it's inescapable. You cannot see a painting like the one at top, and then see Mark Zug's work and not see Pyle and Wyeth all over. The Hildebrandts, too, in their earlier fantasy years.

Sometimes the influence is subtle, sometimes overt, other times it's direct homage, as with the late Darrell Sweet below:

 
Howard Pyle (L), Darrell Sweet (R) Not a coincidence.

"But I live far away, Randy, and can't get to Wilmington DE!" Well, the show catalog will have to suffice. It's good, overall, although Pyle's work in particular always suffers a bit from skewing to dark, or being overexposed. Many of the color plates however are good enough, a few excelllent. If possible, I'd like to take another 3-hour drive down myself to see it again before it ends.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Calling Out a Master

I recently had the wonderful opportunity of heading down to the Delaware Art Museum to see the "Howard Pyle: American Master Rediscovered" exhibition, in honor of the 100 year anniversary of the famed illustrator's death. I of course chuckle at the "Rediscovered" part of the title--who lost track of Pyle? Not I! But, I know what they mean--despite being the grandfather of American Illustration and the fountainhead from which poured forth some of this country's greatest painters directly or indirectly, he's not someone you run across in Art History courses. No, you'll spend much more time on any number of -isms of the period but you'll never hear Pyle or his school discussed. But illustrators know. Particularly, fantasy and children's illustrators know. We're inheritors of his school, after all.

I'll be doing another post that gushes about Pyle's work, with more photos--because no book yet does the paintings justice. But this week, I'm going to do something unusual--I'm going to call out the Master on a blunder. That's pretty brazen, right? I mean, I could only hope to be as good, can only dream of having a fraction of the impact of Pyle. But, while there are some painters who seemingly can do no wrong (at least, technically), perhaps because Pyle was an illustrator, there are a few pieces that evidence some surprising oversights. I can only blame them on his being an illustrator with deadlines. Still, though, they did leave me scratching my head a bit, amid all the awesome.

Here's today's exhibit:

This was not part of the show mentioned, but part of another exhibit featuring his work in another context (the museum is the chief repository of Pyle's work). Already, this piece exhibits a lot of Pyle's excellent qualities. The composition is gorgeous, with the massed darks being relieved from claustrophobia through wonderful use of filigree in the upper left, which the composition launches upwards toward. The foliage rises from lower left to upper right. Just at the woman's bosom, and again above her left shoulder, the branches jut left. This new angle is picked up by the branches behind her, leading out of the image in the direction she's rising. The intense red and green contrast works because while he's chosen colors that are exactly complimentary to where they at times exhibit visual vibration--usually a bad thing--he's limited the amount of red. Had the piece been equally both, it would have been visual chaos. The peppering of red down the image, through the leaves, is wonderfully done--it's enough so the figure continues to read, it keeps the foliage from becoming an impenetrable wall, but doesn't distract from the top half.

So after admiring it from a distance, something started calling out to me as odd. I began to walk closer.


 

Despite all the lovely painting, composition, and color, this piece, right in the heart of it, in the woman's face, exhibited some really funky drawing. Have you caught it yet? It's not a hard mistake to make, if one is rushed. But Pyle? What you're looking at is the woman's eye--it's completely off. It's too low and too far to the right, towards the outside of her head. At an angle, the features should all be on the same horizontal axis (in this case, now a diagonal due to the tilt of the head). Now, unless this particular story describes such a woman (doubtful), this is one of those pieces that could've easily been repaired. But it was not. Probably after delivering it and receiving it back, he simply tossed it in his closet and moved on, busy with things. Let's fix it up to show what I mean:

 
L: Photoshopped adjustment R: Original painting

By repositioning the eye, it now basically matches the same diagonal axis that runs across the lips and the nostrils, and headband about the forehead.

I will say that despite being overwhelmed by the exhibit, there were a couple other places in other paintings where some figure--usually a small background figure--was just poorly drawn. No two ways about it. Sometimes not even poorly as in wrong, but just lazily drawn in for someone of so mighty an ability, who in other multi-figure pieces could work with complete authority.

The important thing to remember is that the Masters are not gods. Most had off days here and there. Because something is hanging in a museum does not mean you should look at it uncritically. And to point out an error is not hubris on your part, rather to not notice errors in your own work but to see them in others' is the dangerous trap. I hope I catch many of my errors after the fact, even if I miss them immediately. I know I have a long list of them that I hope no one else notices, some of which I've gone back and fixed either before handing them in, or sometimes even after getting a painting back.