As an artist, one of the things I struggle with is “making things up.” I’m talking about everything from modifying someone’s appearance to coming up with a complete fantasy landscape. The closer I can stick to an existing photo, the more comfortable I feel. But inventing stuff out of thin air is where I start to panic. How do illustrators come up with such convincing scenes, filled with alien architecture, odd creatures, and so forth? Do these artists have a special talent that a realist like me lacks?
Recently, two new books have come out, and they’re all about how to make stuff up. One of the authors, Tom Kidd, has some encouraging words in his introduction:
During the day we spend much of our time in directed thought. This is to our advantage at work, planning out our activities and in school. However, to become a successful and respected fantasy artist you’ll have to unleash the power of your free-ranging brain. That’s the part of your brain that’s active when you dream. The ability you have to imagine in your sleep can be harnessed when you’re awake. As strange as it seems, the best way to do that is by careful observation of nature and understanding the visual world by actively studying it through art. The more you do this, the better you become. The better you can see, the better you can imagine, the better you can makes things up and paint them.
I think this is good advice even if you aren’t painting fantasy. After all, whether you are working from life or from a photograph, as an artist you are interested in doing more than simply recording what’s in front of you. As a portrait artist, I’ve been learning how to change lighting and skintones in order to improve the portrait. This comes from studying how light falls, how colors interact. As you learn how to make things look real, you begin to see how you can alter things and still have them look real.
I remember in art school, working from a photograph, and the instructor asked me why I had left a telephone pole in my picture. “Well, that’s how it looks in the photograph,” was my response. The instructor then pointed out that my painting would be greatly improved if my subject did not have a telephone pole sticking out his head. I got the point, and removed it. This is all a round-about way of saying that these two new books by Rob Alexander and Tom Kidd are liable to be helpful to any kind of artist, since we all have to “make stuff up” to one degree or another. Both authors generally work in oil, acrylics, watercolor, and other traditional media. These are not digital art books, per se. But each is a good, solid book about making art, written by a professional illustrator with many years in the field. Today I’ll give you a brief rundown of what’s in each book. You can order them right from this article (links below), and in doing so, you’ll support this site–and it won’t cost you a dime! Hopefully by now my readers know that I don’t recommend products that I don’t absolutely love. But I do want to be upfront about the sales through my site. I do make a few pennies from each sale. So, thanks in advance for your support.
Rob Alexander’s previous book, Drawing and Painting Fantasy Landscapes and Cityscapes was about creating imaginary landscapes. It dealt mostly with the entire landscape or cityscape, and buildings played just a minor role. In How to Draw and Paint Fantasy Architecture, Alexander concentrates completely on how to create imaginary structures. The book has four chapters.
Chapter 1 – Introduction to Architecture
This is a high-level intro to the real-life architectural styles which illustrators borrow from and adapt when creating their own styles. It covers Middle Eastern, Romanesque, Gothic, Mesoamerican, Viking, Asian, and Modern/Futuristic architecture. Each style is accompanied by professional work inspired by that particular genre, as well as photographs and drawings of real-world architectural examples.
Chapter 2 – Picture-Making Techniques
As in the first book, Alexander talks about methods and materials, but this time with an emphasis on painting architecture. Perspective, lighting, color theory, composition, mood, and concept are all examined and explained. You see how, step by step, a painting takes shape from initial sketch to finished piece.
Chapter 3 – Details and Textures
Here you’ll see examples of how to render specific details, textures, and materials, such as marble, wood, thatch, brickwork and mortar, and so on. Learn about how to use references to help your surfaces look realistically worn and weathered. This chapter draws on the material in Chapter 2.
Chapter 4 – Creating Your Own Worlds
Look over the shoulders of some of today’s best artists. Their working methods are clearly explained with step-by-step examples that show you their thought process, their creative process, and how they approached their paintings. This chapter pulls it all together, as you watch professionals using the methods learned in the first three chapters.
This is a beautiful book, with lots of helpful illustrations. I like the fact that the book includes the work of multiple artists, not just the author. This helps you to see a variety of approaches to painting imaginary architecture. The book does touch on digital work briefly, but it does not include texture files for download. I would have liked to see downloadable content, such as sketches from the step-by-step examples. I believe in hands-on learning. But overall, I think it will prove very helpful to me as I venture forth into the world of Making Stuff Up. Most books on this subject are about Matte Painting for the movie industry or video gaming industry. Both of the books reviewed here today help fill a large gap.
Tom Kidd’s book is nearly 200 pages long, hardcover, and just gorgeous to behold. Kidd fans will no doubt buy it just for the images inside, as there are many works by this creative genius. From what I gather reading his semi-autobiography Kiddography: The Art and Life of Tom Kidd, Kidd has a near-photographic memory. He can apparently draw even complex architectural buildings from memory. It’s an enviable ability. But, as he says in the quote up top, the key to being able to Make Stuff Up is knowing, in your bones, how stuff in the real world looks, acts, and is put together. Not surprisingly, the first section (The Basics of Getting Started) begins with information about sketching. For most, if not all, of these visionary artists, the painting begins as a scribble: an idea captured on paper. Kidd explains how the sketching process proceeds, drawing and then re-drawing, allowing the image to develop organically. For a photo-manipulator like me, this is scary stuff! Next come Kidd’s three main media: oils, watercolor, and pen and ink. Kidd explains the need to get outside and study nature, with sketchbook and/or paintbox in hand.
Light and color are next, and there’s even a page on digital coloring. These pages will get you thinking about the main elements of an imaginary painting: a consistent light source, a color scheme, and an overall mood. This section ends with a page about shooting and using reference photos, when working with models.
The middle section is called Techniques, Theory, & Subject Matter. Kidd begins with a good explanation of color theory, especially the importance of warm and cool colors. One of the hallmarks of Kidd’s work is the huge sense of scale, of vast distances, in his paintings. He explains how he achieves this through layers (not the Photoshop kind) and aerial perspective. This is followed by the first step-by-step, Dragon Pass. This is a watercolor that you could follow along with, as it’s a fairly simple composition to copy. You’ll learn about foreground, middle ground, and distance, and how to render each effectively, using the light and color techniques explained earlier in the book. A similar exercise, called Distant Tanks, is next, and it’s a more complex oil painting.
Kidd next shares his ideas about composition and tonal masses. As in all painting and photography, the artist must lead the viewer’s eye. Action Massing deals with composing effective action scenes. Mood comes next, and Kidd explains that it should be planned from the beginning, along with composition. How do you establish a scary mood? A playful mood? A romantic mood? It’s not subject matter alone that does the trick. For instance, backlighting and soft edges can help evoke a romantic mood.
Well, I’m only up to page 70, which means I’m going to have to pick up the pace here. I did want to include some detail, though, so you can see the value of the book. The rest of the book covers subjects such as designing your own creatures (there’s a lot about this), painting outer space subjects, clouds and skies, snow and ice, the wonder of trees (lots of material here, as Kidd loves trees), water, night scenes, rocks, architecture, and (of course) fantastic flying machines.
The last section, called Putting it All Together, is the shortest (the middle section is huge). The step-by-step here shows Kidd developing one of his marvelous Byzantine structures, complete with airship. The last two walk-throughs show how to paint a future soldier, and how to create metropolis.
Okay, this blog entry should have been two entries, but as both these books just came out together, and arrived in my mailbox the same day, I tend to think of them as one gigundus book, showing me how to begin to create worlds of my own, independent of photographs (or at least, using them just for reference). These books, by the way, do not talk much about painting methods, so most of the material here is applicable to digital artists. It’s strange how there were few books out there on this subject, and suddenly two excellent ones arrive on the scene. I’m ecstatic (can’t you tell?). Enjoy!
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- Book Review: 100% Photoshop by Steve Caplin
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