Monday, April 4, 2011

Making Art That Lasts, Step By Step


After one year of college art, I can safely say I didn’t learn much.  I attribute that to professors saying things like: “Paint a still life.  Now paint a portrait.  Now paint a landscape.”  They never modeled these tasks, they just said to do them.  I often wished someone would sit down and show me how to use the color wheel, arrange models, and make shapes on canvas look three-dimensional.

That’s why I like writers like Dan Bartges.  In Color is Everything, Bartges explicates color theory for painters.  Instead of throwing ourselves at the canvas and wondering why our oils or acrylics look ham-handed, Bartges shows that conscious color schemes make the look of the unified work.  His step-by-step approach explicates color theory in a way I wish I’d received in class.

Bartges doesn’t assume any prior training.  He starts by helping you select art supplies, and walks you through lucid exercises using the color wheel to pick the most appropriate color structure.  He carefully exposes the color choices great artists made, including Picasso, Degas, and deKooning.  And he shows how he makes important color choices in his own work.

But Bartges also doesn’t keep things simple for the kiddies.  He also expands into master lessons on repairing off-kilter paintings and how to adjust light, saturation, and hue to make your art better than reality.  He even presents a reading list for further development.  I wish I’d had such an introduction to the basics when I had grades on the line.

Having savvied color balance, James Gurney, creator of Dinotopia, wants to help me find my subject matter.  In Imaginative Realism, Gurney details how to go beyond fruit baskets and self-portraits and describes how to create images of fantasy, history, and imagination.  But more than that, he describes how to take what you see and turn it into something even greater.

Gurney goes into so much I wish I’d learned in class.  How to build maquettes, set tableaus, and arrange lighting.  How to work with models.  How to turn plein-air sketches into finished studio works.  How to combine diverse components to create a complete, integrated look.  Even how to generate complex multilayered dreamscapes that can exist only in the mind’s eye.

But while he comes from a science fiction and fantasy background, Gurney knows you have more complex needs.  You need to paint historical events that have passed away, or exotic animals you’ve never seen in their natural habitat, or even people performing unusual behaviors.  He covers all of that.  If you can imagine it, Gurney can show you how to make it.

Unlike Bartges, Gurney does assume prior skill with art.  Inexperienced artists should work their way up to this book, which demands structural complexity and a good eye for the steps.  But if you already understand color and shape and perspective, and are ready to move up to something more challenging and creative, Gurney has what you need.

But if you’re unsatisfied with traditional paints, and want to try something more lucrative, consider Steve Caplin’s 100% Photoshop.  Caplin demonstrates how to use Photoshop’s drawing tools to create detailed, dimensional images without a master photo.  These digital tools create work you can display, transmit, and sell worldwide without getting paint all over your clothes.

After a brief introduction to Photoshop’s tools, Caplin displays eight very different images, and walks you progressively through each.  Instead of needing to be creative in a vacuum, Caplin instead gives us models to imitate.  We can savvy the steps first, and graduate to creating something new later.  I particularly like that aspect, which I missed in my art classes.

Caplin’s instructions include essentials for both Mac and Windows, letting most users utilize hotkeys and shortcuts, so we can create finished art without tears.  Whether it’s starscapes, trees, or rubber bands, Caplin’s straightforward instructions show how to create them all on your computer.  And his lavishly illustrated steps let you know whether you’ve created what you see.

Too often, classroom teachers know their field so well that they forget how to explain the steps to us beginners.  As much as I loved the process, I remember regularly throwing my hands up in frustration, wishing my professors could just say how to do something.  Without models to mimic, my products too often looked flat, dull, and uninspired.

These three teachers exemplify what art students need: gradual, step-by-step demonstrations which expose the mindset that makes art possible.  You can’t make something beautiful until you make something correctly.

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