Magellan's World, last battle, island of Mactan, 1521
For me, it’s the adventure. My work covers a wide range of adventure images, from fictional to historical. I’ve worked for clients like National Geographic and Smithsonian magazines that fairly demand attention to detail, whether loose or tight, to coax people in, to change them from viewer to reader.
The longer I paint, the more I realize that setting any scene incorporates a sense of adventure. You don’t have to be an expert in so many things, just a healthy appreciation for all things human. If you’ve been interested in learning to build great narrative scenes, here’s what I recommend.
Unless you were interested in just getting famous. If so, you can stop reading right here. What follows would be too complicated for you. Grin.
1. A fan of history.
If you aren’t already, become a fan of history. The past is rife with real stories of real people in real adventures. Study them. It’ll give your paintings a sense of realism, not melodrama.
2. Compose multiple figures.
Any ol’ artist can compose with one figure. C’mon. Push yourself to add at least two more figures to whatever you are working on now. For young artists, this likely sounds daunting, but the sooner you are able to design multiple figures in a scene, the faster you’ll learn how to add depth, create visual thrust, and develop strong lighting conditions.
Magellan's World, dock scene, Spain 1519
3. Study fabric, costumes, armor.
The line of clothing styles throughout history have led little by little to the clothes we wear today. There are reasons why we have cuffs, collars, sleeves, and the like. Costumes can instantly date a scene and bring the viewer into the story. Learning to create convincing drapery is a necessary skill that affects every narrative painting.
4. Get good at horses.
Specifically: horses. Draw them all the time. Learn their anatomy, their movements, their spirit. History is full of horses. People never tire of these gorgeous animals so don’t expect the future to be without them. They add drama and majesty to any painting. Good horses always impress. Even a cow now and then.
...and ships. Learning ships isn’t bad either.
5. Learn architecture.
The dreaded Perspective. Arg. Listen, I’m still working on this so... just get started. Like oil painting, it’s not rocket science either. When you get it right, it’s a good time. Makes ya wanna try more, do more. For historical painting it is essential. Adventure painting, too. Did you think adventures only take place outside?
Cheyenne Medicine Hat, stampede
6. Appreciate furniture and armament.
Another problem like perspective. Think of furniture as small, perspective problems and you’ll be fine. Develop a sense for furniture like you would for fashion. Styles and designs shift through the ages and you should know your Windsor from your Wingback.
Likewise, know your samurai sword from your saber.
7. Study cinema.
How fun is that? Besides the fact that there are loads of historical films, I study cinema for its use of camera position and compositions. Filmmakers have all been influenced by the great painters that came before them, just like you. Only these guys use a lens. All cinematic scene techniques have come from a solid understanding of painting composition. Study how they’ve expanded on these basics. They have to pack a lot into very little time and space, just like you.
Hey...I just gave you an excuse to go to the movies. “Sorry, hon...I’m working.”
8. Love landscape.
You can’t just stick a mountain in every background. Or a tree in the foreground. Deserts and seascapes are landscapes, too. Develop an eye for the beauty in every landscape and nothing will be ugly. There are no bland landscapes. Only your ability to judge them so. Paint killer landscapes and no one will look away. What...you thought all adventures took place in castles?
9. Know atmospheric affects.
A sense of atmosphere is always preferable. I study Ridley Scott films. He came from a background of advertising where he built scenes imbued with as much rich information as possible. His scenes are filled with a sense of movement from the atmosphere...wind, rain, dust, snow, flags, paper, smoke, etc. Also, understanding these effects over distance is great for building atmosphere in landscapes. Use it. The pictures in your head can always be enhanced.
10. Study the Golden Age illustrators.
To get good at adventure painting, study adventure painters. Learn the differences. Filmmakers from a hundred years ago were constantly exposed to paintings in magazines, long before television. Filmmakers took compositions from many of my favorites. Schaeffer, Tepper, Cornwell, Wyeth, Pyle, Content, Dunn, Von Schmidt, on and on. As compositions got better, so did film shots, back and forth, influencing each other.
Magellan's World, discovering the straight