Monday, August 20, 2012

Less Massive, More Black

My short break between classes at AAU and teaching at CCSF allowed me to attend this year's Massive Black Workshop SF in San Francisco, CA. As a veteran of two workshops, one on Seattle, WA, and one in San Francisco, I had mixed expectations and even wondered if it was even worth attending. The Academy hosted and co-sponsored the event and even offered a 50% student discount.

While this year's workshop lacked the live music, circus performers and dancing women in lingerie, I saw a refreshing level of no-nonsense professionalism. It was tough choosing which lectures and demonstrations to attend. Toi Okunyoku's lecture on model building and sculpting left me with two pages of typed notes and about 20 images to pore through after the workshop. While I've come to expect presenters to show their work with minimal preparation, Toi gave us a thorough step-by-step overview of how he turned Kemp Remillard's astronaut sketch into a complete resin kit. 

It was also a treat seeing the team from Steambot share their insights into their process and working collaboratively. They also shared a few of their experiences working on projects like Ridley Scott's Prometheus and led a sketching session where they showed how they work from a live model. 

Jana Schirmer's digital still life demo was also inspiring in its simplicity. Just take an interesting object, light it nicely, and paint it to the best of your abilities while using the digital tools to make the process easier and more efficient.

Jason Chan and Chris Hatala put together an informative Kickstarter talk and later in the workshop, we got to see some behind-the-scenes work on indie game projects Mothhead and Zombie Playground. Seeing those games so close to release answered my question about when and how do creatives in the field get to do work they're truly passionate about. It takes time, perseverance, and never compromising your vision.

We also spent an evening at the Safehouse Atelier for a book signing and art auction. The place was packed and full of friendly students and professionals. Shawn Barber's art book was available for purchase.

The portfolio reviews were also eye-opening. Design and the creation of work that resonates with existing industry expectations and styles continues to be a weakness in my portfolio, but my approach to process, and research for concept art has potential. 

While I am a lot less starry-eyed and much more realistic about my prospects as a professional illustrator, events like these still leave me inspired and enriched. To be around so many like-minded people, Hopefully, the Academy will continue to participate in these kinds of partnerships that lead to stronger industry ties for the school and its students. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Illustration Master Class 2012

I am just hours away from flying back to San Francisco from Bradley Airport after another challenging week at Amherst College for the Illustration Master Class (IMC). This year, I took on a book cover illustration for the novel "Old Man's War" by John Scalzi. Surprisingly, I got the biggest response from the initial ideation work done for the design of the Consu aliens, and the human soldier. This meant quite a bit to me considering how I was just beginning to have doubts about whether or not concept art might be a good fit for my MFA studies. I truly enjoy the process of designing, even under tough time constraints.

My fascination with organic forms including bones, muscles, plants and flowers, also came through in the project, and again, became the main attraction at my easel. Time was scarce during the final days leading up to IMC, so my sketches in terms of presentation and quantity were lacking. This week was a  lesson in recognizing my strengths and primary interests, as well as patterns of procrastination, and poor decision-making along the way.

Many thanks to Rebecca Guay, her staff and the IMC faculty for their encouragement and for being a constant inspiration. I hope to improve considerably before attending next year's workshop.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

America, America

After attending two IMCs and being exposed to so many influential names from the history of American illustration there, it was both informative and inspiring to sit down with this recent publication and pore through such an amazing heritage of technical prowess and stylistic virtuosity. I remember James Gurney and Greg Manchess making repeated mention of some of the names artists mentioned in the book as sources of influence and inspiration. The book also includes a handful of women artists. Naturally the absence of African-American artists and images makes the book less enjoyable as a record of the history of opportunity and access where the profession is concerned. Nonetheless, the author saw fit to include examples of a few artists' interpretations of the African-American experience, including a moving gospel scene by an artist whose name escapes me at the moment. Famous American Illustrators emphasizes the kinds of work artists did, which to be fair, may at times have more to do with the conditions and demands of the time than their own personal interests, politics and attitudes. Thankfully, nothing overtly racist or demeaning appears in the book. One page includes an illustration within the illustration of a ad featuring Rastus, the iconic black chef featured on Cream of Wheat ads and packaging. The image dates back November 1896, and is included on a poster in a scene with two boys playing hooky while evading a stout, switch wielding school teacher. The scene seems to reference Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

The lack of diversity in the people depicted in vast majority of illustrations is part of what would have caused me to avoid it several years ago. For me, it was really hard to disassociate the images from days of de facto discrimination, lynchings and Jim Crow laws. I saw an element of self-aggrandizement and white supremacist beliefs, and a history of misrepresenting the truth about American life. I had similar feelings about one of the latest editions of Spectrum. However, I keep coming back to the fact that illustrators paint what they know and what they are commissioned to paint in order to survive. We are beholden to whatever the market demands.

Prior to my first IMC, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that artists commissioned to illustrate for Magic: The Gathering are encouraged through the game's style guide to include a more diversity in terms of things like costuming, facial features and skin tones in their art. My understanding is that the goal is to add value and interest to the art by avoiding old cliches and stereotypes. However, such images are not used to promote the game itself. Blizzard's highly anticipated Diablo III features a witch doctor class of playable character that is clearly influenced by various African traditions. Their fictional race of humans known as the Umbaru are new to the Diablo universe. Some might remember the black sorcerer in Diablo 1 and the s dark-skinned paladin from Diablo II. Diablo was the first rpg I played that included a female character with a range of abilities as engaging as those of the male characters. In fact, all of the new character classes in Diablo III will have both male and female options. Yet another refreshing and groundbreaking feature in D3 is the design of the female barbarian. She is a strong, hefty woman, but still appealing. The female witch doctor on the other hand has a lot of face paint and is usually shown with a big-assed mask in the concept art and gameplay videos. Which brings to mind my top ten pet peeves about black or African-inspired female characters in mainstream fantasy art:

  1. face paint; This might work for an alternate battle mode, but it's always better to present the character at some point without the face paint.
  2. she only likes white guys; I guess the thinking here is to show openness or to appeal to the target demographic, but I see this so often that I wonder if there might be something else at work here.
  3. face covered with a mask; My own co-creation Guila notwithstanding, wouldn't you rather illustrate a beautiful black woman's face? Wouldn't your audience rather see that than a big-assed mask?
  4. cover her head with an animal skull; Again, it's the old "return to primitivism" thing. If you're consistent with these kinds of treatments with your white characters, cool. Otherwise, think about where these images come from before you include them in your designs. And no more dangling chicken bones, okay? Or at least have them carved or styled into something appealing.
  5. long straight hair; I'll admit that I've been fooled by many a weave in my day, but trust me, naturally straight hair, while it definitely has its appeal, is actually quite rare amongst black women. Chemically straightened hair takes a lot of work, and just doesn't make sense in certain situations. Unless you can find a way to work some new technology or add a hairdresser to the game or story, you might want to consider something natural.
  6. skin lightening; If you can get the color, lighting and textures to work for blue, green and purple skin, fur and everything else, you can do it for dark brown skin. No more excuses.
  7. the white woman with dreads trick; Self-explanatory.
  8. give her a stick; Grace Jones really got shafted in the second Conan movie. Wilt Chamberlain too. How many sword and sorcery flicks from the 80s gave black characters sticks and clubs to fight with?
  9. the spiritual guide; I may have to back off on this one. I liked the Legend of Bagger Vance and the shaman in BSG. I just would rather have her spiritually guide HER OWN PEOPLE for once in the script.
  10. no mechs and tech; Try a little research on black women in fields like engineering and biotech. You might find some inspiration out there.
I doubt that I will ever even be in a position of decision-making on any of this as an artist at any significant level, but hopefully this list will provide food for thought to someone. So much has improved in the entertainment world over the past 30 years, and I keep seeing an increasing number of thoughtful characterizations of black women in a variety of media. Couple that with independent black writers and artists who have taken it upon themselves to create the things we want to see, and things can only get better at all levels of the industry. Big kudos to the artists and writers out there who make an honest effort to change the game. Pat yourselves on the back. You know who you are. But, I digress.

AAU illustration folks and others should definitely take a look at this book, as it connects with so many of the teaching methods and traditions of our department.

Monday, January 16, 2012

"Hey, Nineteen"

One of the shining highlights of this year's CTNx (Burbank, CA) was seeing so many character sketches compiled into books by industry pros like Alberto Ramos and Nicolás Villarreal. Naturally, ones from the pretty girl genre always get my attention, especially when they push the designs to the absolute extreme while retaining a sense of cuteness and occasional eroticism.

I can't do that. At least not yet.

During his panel discussion, Regis Loisel once perked up and exclaimed with a smile, "Mickey Mouse!" when one of his nude females appeared on the screen during the loop of slides. I think it was a joke about the relationship between bare breasts and the pair of large, circular ears of Disney's famous mouse. Loisel's raven-haired version Tinkerbell (Clochette) is one of my favorites. She is curvy, expressive and full of life when he draws her.

Needless to say, this passion for drawing pretty girls is a common one amongst many artists, both male and female. Maybe we share a need to take that magic home with us in our sketchbooks these fleeting moments of communion with beautiful women through a glance, or a brief moment of blissful hypnosis as we stare and fantasize for as long as decency and politeness permit.

"Push the pose as far as you can until it breaks, and then bring it back" I heard these words at the start of almost every drawing session in Character Design for Animation with Nicolás Villarreál at the Academy of Art University. Good design is at the root of every memorable character, and achieving this is not easy. My own laziness when it comes to habitually studying successful designs is becoming a bit of a liability. I think it comes from a stubbornness that assumes that I will eventually invent my own unique voice by brute force. But why "reinvent the wheel"? Better solutions are out there and I could probably absorb and modify them much faster than create them on my own. The 19 sketches on this post all lack that "push" in terms of shapes and gesture that would really make them come to life and put a smile on my face. But, I'm getting closer. (Blue prismacolor marker, Pilot V7 Extra Fine ballpoint pen, Prismacolor Col-erase blue pencil.)

Getting ahead of myself

A little over a year ago I was reunited with a friend from junior and high school, artist Michael Sacramento, with whom I shared many a long bus ride home from Berkeley to Richmond. One things we shared was a love of comics and drawing, and Mike was always a few steps ahead of me. We now hold monthly sketching sessions, alternating between various locations in Berkeley and San Francisco. The Rising Tide Sketch Krew was the brainchild of member JJ Jose, whose line drawings address the plight of street kids in places like Manilla in the Philippines. JJ joins us from Stockton, and his commitment and enthusiasm is infectious. We met last Friday night at Au Coquelet on Milvia and University near Berkeley's downtown arts and entertainment center. This is a page of head sketches I managed to further develop during the session using the paltry selection of markers and pens I happened to have on hand that night.
I imagine that any one of these could be developed into a single expression sheet, and possibly even a quick sculpt using Sculpy. Structure and expression continue to be a challenge for me, although a few of these seemed to come to life a bit, especially after giving them a hit of color. I'm using Prismacolor markers from a set that's at least ten years old. Although, I must say that a drying marker is not necessarily a bad thing, and has some advantages over a fresh one.

I should also note that because I am left-handed, I work from right to left and keep the wire binding of my sketch pad to the right whenever possible. I've discovered through the years that the spine or binding of sketchbooks gets in the way of my hand as I draw unless I flip them to the non-traditional side. Sometimes I use a book with the binding at the top of the page in order to free both sides of the sketchbook from obstruction.

Every design comes out of a loose scribble that I then respond to and refine. I have no reference or goals in mind when I do these, other than filling the page, and pushing the variety of head types as much as possible. I'm not sure why, but my favorite, is the yellow-haired girl on the lower right. I think it's the overall shape and bounciness of her head.

Friday, January 6, 2012

I N K T E N S E Sketching

I've managed to squeeze in a couple more pages of head studies this week. The first was a page of 16 women's heads, which was then followed by a page of 16 boys' heads. Derwent's Inktense water-soluble colored pencils are great for these kinds of exercises. I can layout a relatively simple application of contour and value, and then, using a water brush, I can gently dissolve and manipulate the pigment as if it were watercolor. The slight advantage these pencils have over normal water-soluble pencils is that they have the permanence of a waterproof ink once they dry. This allows me to go back over them to reestablish values and details that might get lost in during the first pass with the water.

I am working in a Strathmore 9" x 12" spiral bound sketch journal, which comes with a thick, sturdy paper reminiscent of Aquabee's Super Deluxe sketch pads. The main difference is the smoothness of the surface in the Strathmore pad. Although both have an irregular, pulpy surface that I find myself fighting against, even with a well-sharpened Inktense pencil. Fortunately, the surface absorbs light applications of water well, and once dry retains enough tooth for applying more dry pencil work. Although, I am finding that applying the material to large areas may result in patchy areas that look like someone took an eraser to them.

I always welcome the ability to combine the control of colored pencils and the transparency and looseness of watercolors. With practice, I hope to be able to use this unique drawing tools with greater speed and confidence.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

One of my favorite places to sketch after hours is Au Coquelet on University and Milvia in Berkeley, California. During this session, I gave myself the challenge of inventing 24 women's heads using Prismacolor markers for the grays, and a couple of Fabler-Castell black drawing pens. The process was to start with a grid of very fast and faint gray scribbles to define the shape of the face and head. Sometimes these exercises drive themselves in random and unexpected ways. I may never know if it's possible to do something that is truly random and generated from my own imagination. Influences seem to linger from the day's events, or even an occasional quick glance at a passerby on her way to the rest room.

Head shapes fascinate me, along with how they relate to hairstyles and facial features. Over a year ago I took to one of Barbara Bradley's suggested methods for capturing a likeness from life with a quick sketch, whereby the overall shape or silhouette is captured first, followed by interior shapes and details. Without a living model, I found that just the suggestion of a skull was enough to start the series.

I then proceeded to add darker grays (20%-50%) to further define the structure of the heads and hair. Eye sockets, the shadow cast by the base of the nose, and other important changes in plane and surface landmarks were established at this phase. I also did my best to suggest a light source to further sculpt the sketch and ground it in space. A final pass with a 70% gray marker and my black pens was used to finish each sketch. These will be used as part of yet another series of studies using Painter 11's gouache brush category and a limited color palette.