"I spent a lot of time playing in the creek in Cupertino where I grew up… "
— Craig Elliott
Again, a mix of luck and good timing brought me within a whisper's distance of yet another art hero. I generally reserve the term for any living artist whose work I admire and whose career path has some quality that I hope to integrate into my own. This was not my first time seeing Craig Elliott in person. Years ago, I was at WonderCon and came across his table. It was close to closing time, and they were already packing up his work. Something compelled me to pick up a postcard. (Okay, it was the nude, voluptuous woman. I won't lie.) I saw in his work a kind of contemporary Art Nouveau with strong influences from traditional Asian design principles. I learned that he has done considerably more than gorgeous nudes. He was the publisher behind Aphrodisia: The Art of the Female Form I and II. He also designs jewelry and had done a considerable amount of visual development for films and games, including environments, character designs and props.
He shared with us a few pages from the style guide he developed for the swamp sequences in "The Princess and the Frog" and talked about the importance of designing shapes that express the mood you are trying to get across to the audience. He mentioned comic book artist Burne Hogarth as a teacher who taught him how to "feel" the mood in his own body by acting it out. Elliott showed how body language influenced the design of tree limbs in the swamp by hunching forward to show "frustration" or raising his arms to show "celebration". It was a simple idea that I had heard elsewhere, but seeing how it was applied to the background elements showed how effective the designs were.
Craig Elliott also talked about how the backgrounds in Bambi employed a foreground-background reversal known as "counter-change" that gave them a misty, ethereal feel. He pointed out that as vis dev artists, it's hard to balance our wild imaginations with the needs of a client or art director. Sometimes, we benefit from constraints, and other times, a lack of constraints can be a bit overwhelming. We need to be able to "switch" between both modalities in order to be successful.