Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Pulling Back the Curtain

Jar of Olives 7x5 watercolour & gouache on illustration board. 45 minute study*
Last Thursday night there was a gallery opening for some of my more current work. At the opening they asked if I'd give a talk and answer questions and so I said sure, why not. One of the questions was, how long did it take you to paint that one?  Referring to a painting that they described as "fresh" (as if the others were stale) I quickly replied, a couple of hours. In all honesty it did only take me a couple of hours HOWEVER, I noticed the reaction of some of the people and quickly had to clarify. The final painting didn't take long, it's not that big but it went quickly because I went in prepared.
I've been wanting to write about this particular topic for quite some time now and haven't figured out a good way to do it. Hopefully this is it.  See, some artists like to remain behind the curtain and keep their magic wizard tricks to themselves. I could have easily just said a couple of hours and left it at that, but I make no bones about anything. I made it clear that I spent way more time setting up the composition, lighting it correctly and most of all sketching it out several times before I even began. I probably spent a good six to eight hours working on it before I even picked up a paint brush. All of that preliminary work and sketching allowed me to whip out the painting in two hours or less. Hopefully with time and added experience it won't take me quite as long to do preliminary work, but since I can be fairly indecisive about some things I think that's just how it's going to go.
*45 minutes of preliminary sketches 
Now why I originally wanted to write about this was because last summer a young man reached out to me to help him with some of his illustration work. He wants to be a comic book artist and obviously I want to help anyone who's crazy enough to give that a try. So he spent two days in my studio telling me about his experience at school and what his frustrations were and what his goals are. I made him draw stuff too, but to get to the root of his problem he needed to explain some things. What he said, and it came as no surprise to me, was that he felt that his teachers expected him to pull things out of thin air. He should be able to sit down at a drafting table and just draw figures. Maybe, MAYBE after drawing the same figure/character several dozen times could you just sit down and draw them in any pose imaginable and insert them into any scenario needed. Until then, you need reference material, you need practice and you need patience. It doesn't happen over night. Not for anyone.  You need to put in the time and effort.  Sometimes that's eight hours of preliminary sketching to complete a 9x12 oil painting and sometimes it's 45 minutes of warm up sketches to get a particular pose correct. Other times it's years of going to school to master a technique.
It's not just limited to illustration and painting, musicians can hide behind that curtain too at times. It's the ones who aren't afraid to open the curtain every once in awhile that, I think, are truly great at what they do.  I have a friend who's a phenomenal guitar player and everyone wants to take guitar lessons from him. Some of them probably think just by sitting in a room with him while he plays will automatically make them a good guitar player. I remember one time he told a little kid how much he practiced and how long he's been doing it. Sadly the look on the kid's face was that of shock and horror. Clearly the kid didn't want to devote any such amount of time and effort into playing an instrument. Some people might think that kid was just lazy and that if he would've practiced as much as the teacher told him to he'd be a great guitar player now, but in a way that "pulling back the curtain" and being honest with him probably saved him from a lot of anxiety and stress. Going back to the comic book artists, some make it look so easy that some people get it in their minds that they can do it too but when their efforts go unnoticed it's heartbreaking at times.
In no way am I trying to say that every artist out there needs to share every intimate detail of how they do what they do.  No working artist has time to do that, they're too busy working. What I'm hoping for is that the next time someone asks how long did that take, you don't just say five minutes and leave it at that. It may have taken five minutes today but that's only after you've been doing what you do for 25 years.
With that I'll leave you with this link to Paolo Rivera's blog, The Self-Abosrbing Man. He has got to be one of my all time favourite comic book artists and everyone should give his work a look. What's even better about him, he shares his "Wacky Reference Wednesdays" posts. Click on that link and it will take you to one.  In another post he shows how he makes maquettes to help him with lighting situations. He shows some of his preliminary work and that's one of the reasons why his work is so great. That and he may just be a magical wizard.


  1. Great post and a fun link. I like his style a lot - very clean and interesting lighting.

    1. Yea, after seeing how much preliminary work he puts in beforehand it's no wonder his work is so clean. It's a confident line too. Wish more people would look to stuff like this rather than jumping to the fast and easy way to do things.

  2. PS it's neat how you got that slight magnification the glass exerts on the olives. And the lid is amazing.

    1. Thanks. I grabbed the jar out of the pantry and thought it would be easy, who can't draw an olive? Harder than it looks. Thanks for the compliment on the lid, again it was tough and I was surprised at how easy the watercolour lifted off of the illustration board.