The Process (As Promised)
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by Ursula Vernon
Okay. I promised I'd talk about process. How the painting gets done. All that good stuff. And I will now endeavor to do so, although if anybody waves a shiny object in front of me, we may wind up somewhere else entirely.
Let us assume you have your idea. It is a brilliant idea. Actually, more likely it's just an idea - brilliant ideas are rare, and not actually essential. Masterpieces are made with completely non-brilliant ideas. When Da Vinci said "Hey, the bills are comin' due, better do a portrait of some guy's mistress," he was probably not visited by the angels of brilliant ideas singing madrigals as they fluttered about his head.
So anyway, you have an idea.
At this point, I start sketching. Depending on whether the computer is tied up running prints, or if I'm at the coffee shop, or what, the sketching can go a coupla ways. Either I haul out my trusty sketchbook, full of many incomprehensible doodles and random phrases like "theological bacon" or I pull up Painter and haul out my trusty tablet.
Which one you use is entirely up to what you feel comfortable with. I've been using digital media for so long that I can sketch more easily with Graphire than graphite, but pick whatever you're easy with.
With a pencil, what I create are thumbnail sketches, little scribbly things one step up from stick figures. These are not meant to look pretty. They're barely meant to look like anything. What they're for is layout - playing with different little scrawled compositions to see what looks good where. I don't even put faces on the figures, just a cross with the crossbar about where the eyeline would fall. You want to work fast. Don't obsess. If you've spent more than two minutes on a thumbnail, stop. Do another one.
On the computer, I pull up a fresh Painter page and hit the Scratchboard Tool, and do much the same thing. Because of the infinite erasability and manipulation of the computer, I work a bit bigger and more detailed, and then chop stuff out and move it around, or re-size it, rather than starting over from scratch every time. But even so, I may do a couple of different versions, or I may just do one, if I'm happy with it.
Don't worry about it looking like anything. Just wiggle stuff around until the composition looks right.
"But Ursula," people occasionally ask, "how do you do your compositions? How do you decide what goes where?" And this is an excellent question, and when people ask it, I smile wisely and say "Well, that's an excellent question - AUUGGHHHLLE! My spleen!" and then fake a seizure and hope the EMTs have no interest in art.
The fact is that I don't have any real idea how I do my compositions. It happens on a largely nonverbal, instinctive level. For some reason, the winged pear looked right there, rather than there. Why does this big empty space work, and this big empty space need trees? Hell if I know. It just does. (Or doesn't.)
There are some basic guidelines in composition, like "Don't have lines running off the exact corner of the page," (this draws the viewer's eye right off the page and onto the wall) and "Don't cut your page exactly in half," (the eye has a hard time jumping between the two halves) and the Rule of Thirds - draw two lines, dividing your page into thirds, draw another two the other direction, and any place they intersect is a pretty good spot to throw a point of interest, like somebody's face - but they're all pretty nebulous, and we stomp all over them all the time.
You can get books on composition, and if you're a raging insomniac, I suggest them highly. There's also the abstract method, which a number of artists use, where you break everything into really abstracted black and white scribbles - circles, squares, wedges - and you find one you like and then slot things into the composition, so that your white circle becomes a koala and your black wedge becomes a tree trunk. This looks like a brilliant method and I'm sure it works well for the people who use it. I cannot figure it out to save my life. It all looks like scribble to me. (It's worth noting that my attempts at abstract art fail spectacularly.) Reduce it that far, and I can't tell what's a good composition and what isn't, myself, but you might want to try it - maybe you can. Having said all that, there's a few things I can offer about composition, and maybe they'll help you out.
Faces are important. So are breasts and genitals. In any given composition, the eye almost always will go to the face first, then the naughty bits, then generally the hands, if they're prominent. Plan accordingly. It's also worth noting that people will involuntarily tend to draw these areas larger, and the boring areas smaller.
People follow the eyes. If you've got a figure looking at something, people will follow the figure's gaze to whatever they're looking at. It's like an invisible line. How many times have you seen a painting where the figure is not-quite-looking at the other person, and it's weirdly distracting?
Lead to the points of interest. Let's say you have a figure, with a face. The eye will jump automatically to the face, to a certain extent. But you can enhance this by having various lines in the image lead to the face. If there are distant mountains, perhaps the sweep of the mountain's outline leads down to the figure's face. If you have trees, have some main branches lead down and point to the face. If there's a rock wall, a prominent crack, or set of cracks, could lead to the face. This'll work for any point of interest - say that you don't care about the face, but the figure's carrying a sword that's Really Really Important, because this is the book cover for a book about swords. Have the lines lead to the sword. Have big wedges of sky point to the sword. Think of the composition in terms of arrows pointing to the important bit.
X marks the spot. People are drawn to places where lines cross. If there's a big X on the chest of your hero where his bullet bandoliers cross, then great! If there's a small X in the corner where two bright blades of grass cross, not so great. If you're gonna haul people somewhere, make sure there's something worth looking at when you get there. Even small towns in the middle of Nebraska arrange to have the World's Largest Piece of String.
Stop touching meeeeee! If you put something that isn't quite touching something else - for example, if you've got a chicken, and a bright, prominent blade of grass that is almost but not quite touching the chicken - the space between grass and chicken is suddenly much more important than either the grass or the chicken. People will stare at this space. This is probably not a very interesting space.
Don't block motion. This comes up in wildlife art a lot, and to paraphrase John Seery-Lester - if you have a wolf running across the painting, don't put a wall in front of him. A wall is any prominent line that directly crosses his path. Grass will stop him as absolutely as bricks. If the wolf is running across the background, shove the background back - make it desaturated, make it faded or misty, whatever - and keep the foreground out of his way.
Anyway. Don't bother trying to keep all these in mind simultaneously, or you'll make yourself nutty. Don't worry if you ignore every one, so long as it looks good. But if you're stumped for a composition, consider picking one and seeing if you can make it work for you.
Next time - refining your sketch! Or maybe something else entirely!
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