Last week I had a phenomenal experience at the week-long Illustration Master Class at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts. This was my first time, and each day was wroght with the kinds of challenges and inspiration I've been looking for for quite some time. Our instructors included Boris Valljo, Julie Bell, and James Gurney, whose work has inspired and influenced me for many years. In the coming posts, I will do my best to share my experiences, and what I learned along the way.
Meeting James Gurney
By sheer coincidence, I had added Gurney's recent book "Imaginative Reaism"(Andrews Meel Publishing, LLC.) to my library about a month or so before the the workshop. The book thus far has been an excellent read, thorough, and full of good advice on how to improve one's process. (By the way, Imaro fans should note that Jim painted the cover for Imaro II for Daw Books!) Jim's brought along his work table and general setup from home. Later, I'll post shots of the maquette I used during the master class for my "Beauty and the Beast" illustration. Jim shared with us in his presentation how he uses small models to compose everything from creatures to complex architecture before he paints. I had borrowed the first Dinotopia book from library a number of times several years ago, not realizing at the time that the illustrations were done in oil. Jim and his wife Jeanette really made me feel at home in the studio. Really nice folks. I was surprised to learn that Jim also has Bay Area roots. Jim's skills as a thorough researcher, along with his sense of wonder about the world, deeply informs the creative content of his artwork.
Meeting Boris Vallejo
Back in May, one of my sudents gave me a 1978 Boris Vallejo Tarzan calendar as a thank you gift. He wasn't familiar with Boris' work, but had seen samples of my fantasy art and figured I'd appreciate the calendar. My acrylic painting process came directly from Boris' approach detailed in "The Guide to Fantasy Art Techniques" (Paper Tiger) and one his own "how-to" books. I didn't have the nerve to bring it along and ask for an autograph, but I kinda wish I had. During one of the lectures, he actually mentioned how convincing a publisher to let him do the Tarzan calendar was an important point in his career. I was such a fan of his work that I started collecting trading cards with his art.
Meeting Julie Bell
I should also mention Julie Bell. As a 17-year-old freshman at San Jose State University, I remember coming across Heavy Metal in the student bookstore. I bought my first issue, which featured a classic Luis Royo femme fatale on the cover. Heavy Metal had always been on of those on the fence publications that would either be behind the counter next to Playboy and Penthouse, or mixed in with the men's magazines, well out of reach of children. One of the most memorable covers was Julie Bell's "Feast" (1993) which featured two women in a cave feasting on a slain beast with chrome bones. The naturalistic figures and Vallejo-esque textures and details made her work an instant favorite of mine back then. I started to recall how Julie's approach had a slightly different flavor, at times more feminine, but still, consistently bold and appropriate for the industry.
You can probably imagine how surreal it was to be visited by Boris and Julie while working on my interpretation of "Beauty and the Beast". I had spent so many years admiring their work, and imagining what it might be like to actually meet them. They were very supportive and insightful. I regret getting so engrossed in my own work that I missed out on seeing their painting demos on the second floor. I think it was during Greg Manchess' lecture that there was a mention of "art heroes". I've had many throughout my life, but I never imagined having two standing behind me as I struggle with a painting. When I was 17, I routinely painted on my bedroom floor with examples of Boris and Julie's strewn about for inspiration. I even worked in layers, starting with carefully gessoed illustration board. Working with oils was out of the question, I learned to at least think in terms of gradually building up layers of color. One of the last things Julie mentioned to me was that my reference would critical to the success of the piece. I should add that will be true for any works in progress or future works that involve the human form, or anything based on the real world.
"Don't write that down! You already knew that!"
Notes on Day 1
Our first day crit included James Gurney, Greg Manchess, Scott Fischer, and Jeremy Jarvis. The feedback was honest and very helpful. Some of my classmates arrived with highly developed sketches. I was still flailing about trying to design my characters and decide on a composition. When I was reminded of my tendency to avoid hands and feet, Jeremy saw me taking notes and goes "Don't write that down! You already knew that!" Which was true. When I sketch, the long, flowing marks I use always take precedence over the smaller, tighter ones I should be using on my hands and feet. My turn came about halfway through the crit. Feeling a bit unprepared, I posted a column of sketches and one page of thumbnails. Jim commented on my interest in visualizing the world my characters would inhabit. When I explained that I wanted my beauty to be a dark-skinned African woman, he Jeremy jokingly asked "Could you give her Caucasian features to keep from making everyone here uncomfortable?" It was a great line. And to his credit, Jeremy had mentioned early on in the crit the need for all of us to not only get comfortable with painting ourselves and what's familiar, but to also learn to paint people different from ourselves.
I learned through the Master Class that Wizards of the Coast actually does encourage its artists to infuse some diversity into the design of the human characters that appear in Magic the Gathering. I saw evidence of this in the style guide we were provided with for the Magic card assignment. But, these images tend not to be showcased on the website, packaging or other promotional materials for the game, which is odd. I'm sure it has something to do with marketing.
By the time we reached the halfway point, I was back at my easel working on two concepts that showed promise based on the instructor feedback. I must have worked until 2 a.m., eventually abandoning one of the sketches that just wasn't coming together. I chose to stick to a tightly cropped medium close-up of Beauty embracing one of the beast's tentacles. Remembering Harrison Chua's advice to save my energy and not stay up too late, I ended up returning to my room barely able to sleep.