Thursday, April 24, 2014

Astronaut - Whispers from the Past

by Donato

Whispers   rough sketch    7" x 5"
Last year at Spectrum Fantastic Art Live, I was in discussion with a couple regarding a private commission.  Not having specific content which to create a work from, I invited them to browse through my sketch book for direction and called attention to a few rough concepts I had been investigating.  A few of these concepts had made their way onto my cork board collection of ideas to develop into finished oil paintings when a bit of free time opens up in my schedule.  My wish list.  Likely hell will freeze over before free times opens up to finish most of these as I have had little free time in nearly twenty years as a working illustrator.

But that day, a little cool wind blew in to brighten my afternoon.

My clients selected a sketch I loved, that of a young child stooped over an astronaut buried in the stratifying layers of forest undergrowth.  Much like the artists Jeremy Geddes, Greg Manchess, and thousands like us,  I have a fondness for astronauts, NASA, and space programs, having grown up and matured with these sciences through the decades.  Now mid-career, my mind turns to those childhood sources of inspiration to reassess that content and find new meaning through the lenses of my developing artistic aesthetics.  Gone are those overly ambitious dreams of walking on the Moon like Neal Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, or Alan Bean.   I am too old, the door was long closed on that path.

Rather I am now reflecting upon what the Space Programs will mean for my children and their future progeny.  How will they see these great achievements of humanity?  Will we humans reach the stars, or even another heavenly body again in my lifetime...or ever?  I question whether we will again see a human lifted out of near Earth orbit, for our robots have become so much more efficient at  interplanetary tasking, travel and exploration.  Sending a human will always mean a round trip ticket, while a robot never misses home.  I do not have answers these days, only questions...

My thanks to Murray and Mary Ellen for giving me the chance to bring a voice to my dreams, and hope that the past may supply the fruit to bring forth a brighter future.

And thank you to my daughters Cecilia and Naomi for providing the inspiration for this work...may your roads take you beyond the confines of our world.

preliminary drawing after references  24" x 18"
initial acrylic lay in      32" x 24"

Whispers   near completion final art       32" x 24"     Oil on panel

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Mingjue & Me

By Jesper Ejsing & Mingjue Helen Chen

I was skipping through Facebook updates one day, when an image by MingJue Helen Chen immediately caught my eye. It was a simple little illustration of a girl in sneakers with a backpack and a sad expression. There was nothing “special” about this drawing, no bright colors or digital color dodge effects, no sparkle and crazy angles or anything; but the specialty of it was that it was an incredible solid drawing filled to the brim of the outline with craftsmanship. I joyed over the small tilt to the foot, that allowed me to see the bottom of the shoe, the believable way the hair fell over the forehead and around the ears, and then I clapped my hands at the dryness of the colored strokes, that made it look like an almost flat gouache illustration. So I immediately clicked the link to the artists blog, and got blown away by the rest of her artwork. Damn; it turned out she had a thing for drawing girls with swords! ( And she worked for Disney; turned out I had already seen her work before in "Paperman" a small animation film) I asked her to be my best (Facebook) friend and the second she accepted I asked her if she wanted to write a piece on Muddycolors. Egotistically, I asked mostly because I was really interested in knowing all about how she worked for myself. Now you can see as well.  Here is what she wrote me...

Process of a Visual Development Artist for animation:

For the last 5 years I’ve been working in the field of feature animation, working on projects like Frankenweenie, Wreck-it Ralph, and Paperman. Most recently I’ve finished working on Disney’s Big Hero 6 and moved on to Paramount Animation as an Art director for an as yet unannounced feature animation film.

This post will focus on my process, in my personal work as well as work my professional work. I’ve always felt that art intended for film is a little different than art intended to be presented as a standalone illustration. For example, at work I will rarely present paintings that are formatted outside a widescreen format, because that will most likely be the format the audience will receive it.  Another key difference in art for film is time. When an audience is watching the film, every composition happens within a very short time, so the visual storytelling aspect of the film has to be clear and precise.

This is the process of a quick 4 hour demo I did for an online class I taught. There are some issues I still have with the overall piece in terms of value and color, but it does show how I normally start a piece.

1. Even though the initial sketch does not address value, I’ve already tried to plan out in my head how I want the values to work in my head, and the direction of the light.

2. This is the stage where I lay in as much of the canvas as possible, any color is better than no color. I usually work back to front.

3. This is where I normally redraw my perspective grids so I can focus on the structure and design of the space. There is quite a bit of lighting backed into the painting itself, but I also know there will be more on top of it. As a one off piece, this painting could have benefitted from more reference and forward planning.

4. The last half hour or so I add some lighting effects to bring everything together. I use it as a way to get rid of unwanted detail and bring the focal point forward.

Character Painting

In my free time, I do a lot of character paintings as a way to wind down from my normal workday, which includes very little characters and a lot of sets and painting. It really helps as a way to keep me motivated to practice drawing characters as well, because even though I focus on environments at work, I try to place figures in every painting.

I start very much like how I would a normal environment painting, with scribbles. It helps me feel out the forms and plan the drawing even before I add any color. I fill in the line with a base layer, because I am not a great designer. If I fill in just one color it highlights the shapes for me, and I can focus more on the graphic design of the figure just for this one step. It unifies the design for me, and prevents me from adding tiny details that break the silhouette for no reason.

After that I lay in the local color, and add simple line detail and basic shading to sell the simplified form. Not that I would compare myself to him in any way, but Robert Mcginnis is an illustrator that I look up to for his strong use of value and shape. Values are contained within strict hierarchies, and composed in a really graphic way. All of that without sacrificing form and function, its really genius.

MingJue was even nice enough to put together a process video for us!

You can see more of MingJue Helen Chen's work on her Tumblr:

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Digital Art Is Not "Real Art"

-By Dan Luvisi

I had a little bit of a revelation the other day when I read someone's comment on Facebook saying: (Totally paraphrased, but this was the gist of it):

"Digital Art is not real art, and you're a fool for thinking so."

I was really peeved at first, after been training and studying digital art since I was 15 (28 now). Calling back to all the people I had to prove to, that I was actually painting and not just touching up photos like everyone thought Photoshop was used for. I wanted to write this big whole paragraph up, then I realized I was 28-years old and on Facebook, about to argue with a kid who had never drawn in his life.

So I stopped and moved on. But as the week passed, the idea of this kept on hitting me. It reminded me of the teachers and older artists that would roll their eyes at me whenever I brought up Photoshop in school, like I was this huge fake. It reminded me of comments on websites and blogs, bashing realistic paintings and so forth.

But then I realized that I had become that way against people that Photo-Bashed, and everything kinda clicked. But first, let's jump back.

My father was a traditional painter. You know how you remember specific moments in your life, and can practically see it? I recall my father showing me a massive oil painting he did, of this woman, clad in fur-hide, holding a spear. It looked real to me. I was so impressed, and wanted to be just like my father.

Inspired to paint or draw like him one day, I picked up drawing at around 3-4. I began with pencils, believe it or not. I know, all you guys have seen is much of my digital art, but don't worry, I actually do draw with pencils and pens. I grew up on them, drawing on anything that I could. My grandfather owned a print-shop, and would deliver boxes of sketchbooks that I fill to the brim in days.

As I grew up, I continued with pencils until one day I stumbled across this very exact image, by Justin Sweet.

I remember losing my mind over it, knowing right there, this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So Justin, if you're out there, I know we've never met, but thank you for inspiring me to take a risk. From there, I dropped traditional tools and for the next four years of High-School, taught myself how to use Photoshop in a day where there was not many people to use Photoshop.

Now, this is a risk that would cause lots of debates in school. I had several art teachers in High-School and junior college and each one of them disliked me. I never received above a C in any of my art classes and you want to know why? Not because we didn't get a long (mostly due to different generations, and looking back, I can see why), but because I chose to bring a crappy back-in-the-day Wacom tablet to class, when every other student was using pencils or charcoal--painting plants and fruits, no less.

I wasn't being an asshole by any stretch, digital painting was perfectly welcomed by the class. They had the computers set up for it, and they had the programs (this was back in the early 2000s, so Photoshop was not as snazzy as it is now) that would allow digital art.

But my teachers despised it. Saying Photoshop is for hacks and people that don't know how to draw. Digital art will never catch on and I'm silly for thinking otherwise. There was so much hostility against an art form, that it made me begin to realize that it wasn't due to wanting to learn it, but that it was because it was a new medium taking over and making it easier than what my teachers once had to use. They saw how fast art could be produced, and to me, I believe that intimidated them. They never wanted to understand the process or the art farm, they simply would disregard it.

I caught another glimpse of this when John Lassetter, CEO of Pixar, began to introduce 3D-generated animation to Disney, and they practically laughed him out of the room. A lot of the traditional animators began to question it, asking if it was an end of the era for Disney Animation. He got flack and slapped around, but thankfully stuck to his gut, and as you can very much see, has inspired and changed the way Hollywood treats animated films now.

Being something new, I stuck to it. I kept on practicing, trying to get better at digital painting, inspired by the others around me doing the same thing. But it kept on getting a bad rep. People saying digital art wasn't real, and that people just cheated when they used it, bashing together photos and what not.

See, I'm one of those artists that spends days, hours and weeks on a painting, trying to push everything that I can. My business partners see it in the office I work at. I usually am glued to my computer when I'm really into a painting, and will spend hours rendering tiny things. Over the years, I've developed my own style, which I guess could be hyper-real (using others' words, not my own).

Every now and then I'd read a comment going "Looks like a photo, this isn't art." "Is this just photography? Don't call it a painting then."

I fought this question forever, always using a rebuttal of "It's my style." "I love details." "It's the only thing that calms me when I paint. It's how I meditate."

Thankfully I grew out of that, and it became my style and you either like it or not. As the years passed, new art styles changed as well, and eventually photo-bashing came about. For work or freelancing? I totally get it. We're all on the same timer, and time is money.

Now I know we live in a day now where photo-bashing is the new hip thing to do. I've seen hundreds of copy-cats throw it about on art websites or Facebook, and quite frankly, I'm getting a little tired of it. Why? Well, the same reason I'm writing this article.

But then artists began clinging on and doing it. It became a fad. The cool thing to do. People that don't even work in the business, just bashing to photo-bash because some of the greats did it. I started seeing less painted art, and more Franken-photos. And honestly, I got upset over it.

Why is this now okay, but I had to struggle to prove myself that I was really doing it when someone else was just slapping photos together and getting the same feedback?

But then it clicked, it's not about that: Times change, art and styles evolve, and the world will not wait up for you, so you better adapt one way or the other.

That's not to say painting will ever die, but I've come to realize that we are in one of the most prolific times ever, where technology is literally evolving every hour of the day, techniques are improving and doubling, and there is not only just one way to produce art.

Art is art, it will always be a universal expression of creativity, imagination and story telling, whether through music, painting, sculpting, or writing.

The lesson I learned is, don't be so quick to judge just because you don't prefer the medium being used. It matters not the tool used, but the product that was born from it. A lot of artists have put thousands of hours into honing their craft, and growing the gut to put it out there for the world to see.

And I think that's a lot more powerful than the debate of whether digital art is real or not.

Goofy says hello.

Monday, April 21, 2014


-By Arnie Fenner

Above: Me shooting the breeze at the Illustration Academy

A few weeks ago Jon Foster and I gave an on-line lecture about the history of Spectrum at The Illustration Academy followed by a series of reviews of portfolios that had been submitted for consideration in advance by members of the audience. I generally don't like to do portfolio reviews for the simple reason that I don't view them the same way an educator does. A teacher or mentor offers critiques to help an artist improve and hopefully move on to the next level. As an art director looking at someone's book my position is less nurturing and more black and white: would I hire this person or wouldn't I?

Maybe that's a little cold—I know many art directors who happily offer critiques and suggestions to developing artists in the hopes it will help them achieve their potential—but I try to be a realist. I've said elsewhere that artists wanting tips and criticism should show their folios to educators they respect or artists they admire, but they should show their best work to art directors because they're confident in their abilities and want work. You can only make a good first impression once and the first impression you want an art director to have of you and your art is "too good to pass up."

So I was a little uncomfortable to do portfolio reviews and promised to let Jon and John English do most of the "heavy lifting." It went fine. There was a nice mix and the art ranged from good to outstanding: I didn't have to do much more than say, "I like it," which suited me fine.

But there was one student folio that was particularly impressive which included mixed media works, beautiful pieces that featured photographs that were digitally manipulated and then painted into and over with traditional methods. Great stuff that was ready for Prime Time as far as I was concerned. One of his instructors at The Illustration Academy, Vanessa Lemen, was also on-line and mentioned that the young artist had been getting criticized when his work had appeared in several exhibits recently because of his methodology. "Even though he's doing all the work, hiring models, shooting the photos, doing the digital manipulation, and the final painting, some call what he does 'cheating.'" Vanessa was noticeably frustrated that a young artist was being hammered, not for the quality of his work, but because of the way he chose to create it.

I had an immediate response: "There is no such thing as 'cheating' in art."

No, don't chime in with exceptions: I'm not talking about plagiarism or anything like that. I was talking about methodology. There is no "right way" to create art; there is no methodology that is blessed, no single path. There is no style or medium or approach that makes one type of art "better" than another. Regardless of those who feel otherwise, art is art.

I don't care how it's created: I only care about the results. You'd think that's all anyone should care about, but unfortunately that's not the case.

I know of an excellent artist whose works have been disparaged because he shoots photos, transfers them to canvas, then paints over them in oil. I know digital artists who will create an image in Photoshop or Painter, print it out on watercolor paper, then, like the previous artist, paint over it to produce an original. And, of course, when it comes to reference, artists like Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell set up elaborate photo shoots with props and models to help them create their art: none of it simply sprang straight out of their imaginations and onto their easels.

Above: The camera obscura

I've watched people marvel over the art until someone mentions the technique or methodology, then the attitude changes, the admiration shifts to dismissal, the smile turns into a sneer. It's no longer "special" because it suddenly seems like a dirty trick. If the art wasn't magically conjured out of thin air…well! In 2001 the Hockney-Falco thesis was posited in Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters and it ignited a firestorm of controversy from those who thought David Hockney was suggesting that van Eyck, Vermeer, and other Renaissance painters had somehow "cheated" by using a camera obscura. A similar, though less heated (probably because arguing with producers Penn & Teller would not turn out well), controversy surrounded the release of the film Tim's Vermeer which explored the same territory.

But…cheated? Why? How? And…really, what does it matter?

What is the difference between transferring a pencil drawing to a canvas to use as a guide to paint over and doing the same thing with a drawing created on a screen? What's the difference between painting from a photo and painting from life?

There isn't any.

Above: One of Frank Frazetta's better-known selfies

Frank Frazetta would routinely insist that he "made everything up" and never used references or even did roughs: he would chide his friends like Wally Wood and Al Williamson, who kept extensive resource files, used models, and shot photos as part of their creative process. Dr. David Winiewicz (who is easily the Frazetta authority) recently posted an excerpt of an interview he did with Frank in which Fritz insisted he never used himself as a model despite the ample evidence to the contrary. "Of course he did," Dave told me. That Frank used himself as a model and then denied it were both reflections of his vanity (and were also an aspect of the myth that aided in his marketing). As an athlete with movie-star good looks he was an excellent model for his heroes, he just didn't want to admit that he thought so. Frazetta's claims over the years added to the cult of personality that surrounded him and allowed the gullible to disparage other illustrators who didn't "make all it up" or used models or photo reference. But the simple fact was that, regardless of his prodigious drawing skills and an enviable memory which allowed him to approximate things he'd seen almost at will…

Frank used reference.

He shot photos (he kept thick albums of he and his wife Ellie in all sorts of poses), owned and used an oversized Artograph that allowed him to project and trace his reference or comps onto his board, occasionally referenced the art of others, and created multiple roughs and thumbnails for virtually everything he drew and painted. (Cathy and I even produced a book of his comps called Rough Work.)

While that might cause cries of anguish among the true believers, it does not diminish Frank Frazetta's art in the slightest. Just as Jan van Eyck or Johannes Vermeer using a camera obscura (if they did) does not make "The Amolfini Portrait" or "Girl with a Pearl Earring" any less the masterpieces they are.

Whatever tool is employed, whatever medium or technique, doesn't matter: what does, as I have repeatedly said (to the consternation of some), is the intellect behind the tool.

Above: Al Williamson posing as Ming the Merciless for a reference shot

I love Wally Wood's quote: "Never draw what you can copy; never copy what you can trace; never trace what you can cut out and paste up." Now, of course, Wood could draw wonderfully and he almost certainly said this in a semi-joking manner. And these days, "copying" (or "swiping" as the comics artists and illustrators of a certain era called it) is a big no-no, but I appreciate that Wally, as a commercial artist from the 1950s till his death in 1981, was more concerned with delivering the job than he was about his technique.

Just as I love Greg Manchess' much more recent comment during his talk at the reception for his show at the Society of Illustrators last year: he explained that for one of his jobs he had traced the reference he'd been provided for an assignment. The students in the audience audibly gasped, which made Greg laugh, "Time to get real. If you're going to paint a bottle of Jameson you don't have to distill the whiskey and blow the glass yourself in order to be authentic."

I've addressed this in the past (most notably in my "Labels" post), but I think it's worth repeating: for an artist the "how" and "what" are much less important than the results and for people to get hung up on anything else is silly.

So cheating? When it comes to technique or tool or methodology...there ain't no such thing.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Photoshop Brushes

My personal brush library, of which I really only use 3.

If you ask any digital artist, what is the single most annoying question they hear all the time? Most of them will probably tell you the same... "What brushes do you use?"

It's inevitable. Students are always looking for that 'secret ingredient' that is going to suddenly make their art great. And although the right tools DO make a massive difference, the truth is, the real secret ingredient is simply hard work.

Still, no matter your medium, the same old questions always come up... What brushes do you use? What surface do you paint on? What kind of pencil do you use?

Now, this is not to say that a student shouldn't ask these questions. They should! You should always be inquisitive! But that inquisitiveness should encompass an interest in ALL your potential mediums. Rather than ask an artist what type of paint they use, and then simply use that paint for no good reason other than imitation, why not try every brand of paint you can get your hands on and then decide for yourself which one YOU like best?

These issues seems to be particularly prevalent amongst digital artists. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that everyone is working with the same tools, so finding a brush that makes your work look unique is all the more important. Whatever it is, the question (no matter how annoying) is an incredibly valid one.

Fortunately, there is a website that answers that question for you!

Digital Brushes is a Tumblr that has collected all the digital brush packs they can find in one place. It's a incredibly wonderful resource for digital artists, and I've downloaded a LOT of them myself.

For those of you that work digitally, I encourage you to really scour these brush packs. Try them all out, find which ones work best for you, and then modify them to suit your own personal needs. Or better yet, figure out how they work, and then make your own!

Perhaps the next time you hear the question 'What brushes do you use?', it will be some student asking YOU.

For loads of brush packs, visit: