Illustration Master Class

Bindi – 16″ by 20″

Amherst College, MA

“You have to finish. There is no other option.”

These words were spoken to me by the renowned painter and illustrator Donato Giancola at the beginning of the Illustration Master Class. This year’s IMC was my very first as an attendee and I was curious as to how many students actually finished their painting in one week’s time. I already knew that the IMC was basically a crazy illustration blitz in which students of all skill levels learn an incredible amount of technical and conceptual skills with world class faculty in one week. What I was unsure of was how many students actually manage to finish a painting from start to finish in that time. I’d seen other people post their unfinished paintings from IMC to Facebook, talking about how much they’d learned and how they hoped to finish their work with the help of their newfound knowledge from the class.

So, on Day One, I approached Donato Giancola and asked him if it was realistic to expect to finish my painting by the end of the week.

“You have to finish. There is no other option.”

Well, there you have it. My question was answered, and as I settled in for the week of intensely devoted study that is the Illustration Master Class I knew that I had to finish my painting.

Initial searching.

I had come prepared with some ideas for my piece, inspired by the novella “Binti,”written by Nnedi Okorafor, published by Tor Books. I really liked the story’s protagonist, but was struggling with how to portray the dizzying array of visual information provided by the story. I churned out thumbnail after thumbnail, none of which seemed to fit.

Presented thumbails.

I landed on the above four ideas and shared them with Donato Giancola and John Jude Palencar, the instructors who would review our work on the first day of class. Both Donato and John agreed the first idea on the top left was the strongest, but they encouraged me to make it more visually interesting – while the pose was strong, there wasn’t enough happening with the left side of the canvas.

Reaching clarity.

The character of Binti goes through a fairly ridiculous set of transformations over the course of the story, and I really wanted to portray that with my illustration. She encounters an alien race called the Meduse that appear as airborne jellyfish, and is herself incorporated into their species, her hair changing into tentacles. I wanted to show this aspect of metamorphosis, as well as the story’s dynamic of space travel and the journey to discover one’s true self.

Final drawing

After continued consultation with Donato and John, I shot some reference of a fellow student and drew up my final sketch, which I felt to be strong. A spray of nebula space fabric would be emitting from Bindi’s hand as she faces the desert, the tentacle hair writhing atop her head which would mimic the abstract rhythm of the star fields in the nebula spray.

Underpainting and initial color lay in.

I eagerly started painting and felt optimistic about my progress. During the class, I was surrounded by a host of other students painting away on their pieces as well as instructors giving demonstrations and critiques late into the night. I noticed that while others were farther along on their paintings than I, some hadn’t started painting yet and were still in sketch phase. I had confidence… but that was soon going to change!

Something is amiss…

I began diving into color and painting the space fabric as the week progressed. Slowly but surely, inklings of doubt began to set in. Something about the space fabric emanating from the point of light near Binti’s hand was off. What was this space stuff anyway? I wasn’t sure, and that was a major issue.

Further sinking into the mire…

I kept noodling along until I noticed instructor Scott Fischer walk into the classroom. I knew instinctively that he would have something valuable to tell me. I approached him and asked for his thoughts on the piece. He strode up to my canvas, put his hands on his hips authoritatively and asked, “What is it?,” pointing to the ungodly tangle of color and shape taking up the left portion of the canvas.

“It’s, uh, you know, space stuff.”

“No, but really, what is it? I can’t tell what it is. Doesn’t the story have a jellyfish, or something? Is it a jellyfish?”

“Uh… Yeah. Yeah, it’s a jellyfish. Sure.”

His answer received, Scott looked to my palette and saw a brush laying there. I knew what was going to happen: he was about to paint over my picture. My pretty picture. I forced myself to hold back the urge to use my body as a shield for the canvas I had slaved over all week and let Scott do his work.

Bindi, post operation by Scott.

“You should just make it clear and show what it is. Show that they have a relationship, like this,” said Scott. Suddenly, those quick slashing black lines that he laid over the top of my painting clarified in seconds what hours of my self consumed muddling could not. I thanked him profusely and he went on his way to lay waste to the agonized work of another student.

Taking the tough steps: painting out my mistakes.

Many painters agree that the hardest thing to do is paint over a section of a piece that isn’t working. There is an inherent compulsion to over assign value to anything we’ve spent significant amounts of time on, a common logical fallacy known as the Sunk Cost problem. Once Scott had put those harsh black strokes over my problem area, I was suddenly free to destroy it and start over. Mind you, this was around 1pm on Saturday, the second to last day of the class. I had less than 24 hours to fix the painting and finish.

You can just smell the paint in this room.

My studio: Room 101 – Illustration in Traditional Media. The frenzied activity shown above was constant and sustained every day from 8am when the studios opened to 2am when they “closed” (not really, many students worked later than this quite regularly). The atmosphere was so intense that when I took occasional breaks to use the bathroom it felt like stepping out of a gym where everyone is working out so hard you can smell the sweat and hear the painful strain of muscles growing stronger. Art muscles, that is.

By 7am on the final day, I put down my brushes and felt a wave of weakness overcome me. I had painted for approximately 18 hours in the final stretch. For several nights in a row, I had averaged less than 4 hours of sleep… and I am a big fan of sleeping.

“You have to finish. There is no other option.”

These words and the encouragement from the other instructors were my fuel. Without that fuel, I never would have been able to accomplish Bindi in the time frame allotted. I was a wreck on the last night in which the faculty and the students hit the bar together and traded sketchbooks into the predawn hours. My eyes would hardly stay open and conversing intelligibly became a challenge. But, I can say that I finished, and that makes all the difference.

A huge thank you to Rebecca Guay, the IMC staff, and the faculty for building an awesome week of learning that is like no other. I’m still trying to process everything I learned and experienced and will be thinking of this week for a long time to come. If you’re curious about the IMC, the best way to learn about it is to just go. For years, I was on the fence about whether it was worth the investment and whenever I asked alumni from the IMC about their experience, they told me I just needed to go. Now I’m saying it, too!

2 replies
  1. John Nelson
    John Nelson says:

    Nice story and summary of what the IMC has in store for those who dare enter these hallowed halls. Pleasure meeting you too!

    Reply
    • colinnitta
      colinnitta says:

      Hi John,
      Great to meet you as well 🙂 By it’s very nature, the IMC is a tough experience to describe in a brief manner. Writing down my thoughts has given me a way to tell family and friends what it was all about. I hope I did it justice!

      Reply

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