Some pieces are a struggle.
I often think of these pieces as “learning curves.” There’s an interesting thing I’ve noticed over the years I’ve been working as an artist. I go for long periods where I feel in a comfortable groove and everything seems to be flowing smoothly. Then, I’ll take on a particularly ambitious piece and WHAM! I am in no man’s land, a place where all my previous artistic guideposts become shrouded in a fog of uncertainty. But I’m about to learn a ton more because that uncertainty is the edge of my knowledge and the only way to get better is to push past that edge.
I had been working on a new book cover sample and I was excited. I’ve had this idea of a gritty urban wizard catching lightning in a bottle for a while and I was finally getting around to painting it. But everything was looking wrong. I opened up my computer one morning to the painting in this state and I was suddenly aware that there were an awful lot of things going wrong here.
I had completely misjudged the way the figure was meant to recede. The issue here was a classic foreshortening problem. I want to have a viewpoint that is below the character as we see him bottle the lightning coming from the sky above. But I painted him in such a way that shows the character facing mostly in the front – in this case, his legs are in a frontal pose while the body is awkwardly twisting back. The overdrawing in red shows how the legs should match with the upper body – creating a bizarre frankenstein problem of upper and lower anatomies that do not match at all. I had a lot of reference imagery for this painting but much of it was photographed too closely to the model, capturing a fisheye effect. It was really detracting from my ability to paint this character properly, screwing with my perceptions and throwing me for a complete loop.
Finally, I just couldn’t take it anymore and I shot a new photo to figure out what was happening in my foreshortening nightmare. Yep, this is what I do when I cannot solve a problem any other way – I climb up on a chair in my dining room, put my camera on a timer and take an awkward shirtless selfie. That’s what it takes sometimes!
Using my new reference image, I sat down to figure out what the hell I was doing wrong. It turns out that several important anatomical landmark areas were out of alignment in my original drawing. A very important area is the anatomical center – the groin area where the bottom of the pelvis rests. The center point is really important for establishing correct proportions – if the center is too high, the legs look too long, or if it is too low, the torso appears elongated. It turned out my center point was much too low, as you can see by the upper green center line.
Similarly, the line where the knee caps are is another landmark and this is where you can see things really went off the rails. The legs… just keep going in my original. They are way too long here.
The angle that the figure is at is also important. My original drawing is too far weighted to the right, creating another odd point of elongation.
All in all, it was a triple threat of mistakes and issues combining into a ghastly result. Nothing to do but scrub it out, start over and move forward.
It actually only took about one day to complete rework my anatomical mistakes once I was able to identify them. I redrew the figure entirely, thinking much more about the landmarks of the figure and the structural importance of nailing what it is doing in space. Foreshortening is a problem of visual perception and the way shapes stack on top of each other when they recede. It’s not easy for anyone, so I took some comfort in the fact that this is a problem that’s bedeviled artists for generations.
But wait… there’s more! Now I am trying to solve the problems of value and contrast. In getting obsessive over the anatomical mistakes I forgot to keep the fundamentals of value control, resulting in a washed out, undersaturated image.
My next task is to punch up the value and contrast, making the lighting really glow and just enhancing the scene with greater drama. In a few minutes this morning, I quickly threw darker values on to it just to see what might happen. And hey, while it’s no where near perfect it’s already looking stronger!
This is what struggling with a piece is sometimes. I took on two major challenges – foreshortening and an unusual lighting scheme – and it’s been tough. But this is how I learn. There are plateaus in learning and there are big curves. It would appear I’m in the middle of a curve. Nothing to do about it but keep going!