Saturday, April 16, 2016

Sketch Dailies and the Robot Toy

I've been enjoying a great series of Twitter sketch challenges called @Sketch_Dailies. A recent inspiration was this digitally painted sketch for the recent cat-alpaca mashup. My fascination with robot toys from Japan is definitely still with me. My first robot toy must have been one of the mini-Shogun Warriors from Mattel. I had a Gaiking, Combattra, and a Poseidon. Combattra and Poseidon vanished from my "cubby hole" at Oxford Elementary. It was one of many thefts of toys I was silly enough to take to school and share with friends. I would spend hours staring at the tiny details and imagining what a label, divot or protrusion might be. In my favorite animated mech shows, panels would open to reveal entryways for pilots, hidden tools and more. The Shogun Warriors later appeared in feature-length animated films known as "Force Five", which introduced me to an even broader world of anime beyond Speed Racer, Battle of the Planets (Science Ninja Team Gatchaman) and Starblazers (Space Cruiser Yamato) which aired on local television and cable. As an avid scale model builder starting in the mid-80s, I was treated to more than a few illustrated cutaways in the instructions sheets of robots and weapons, sometimes with the major components labeled.

Memory is an interesting thing. I sat beside Kim Jung Gi during last year's CTNx during his "Conversation With the Creators" talk. He challenged us to attempt draw the room we were in, people, objects and all, completely from memory, and from any point of view. Since then, I have been slowly nudging myself toward this new way of "seeing" my surroundings.

During my late teens, I was obsessed with learning how to achieve photo-realism with acrylic paint. The airbrush was at the top of my list of tools to master. My first airbrush was a dual-action bottom-feed Paasche VLS. I would hook it up to a low-wattage tankless compressor that "walked around" the garage floor as I worked. As I learned about masking and other techniques, a new habit formed that is still with me: I started imagining how to render everything I saw with an airbrush. Everything from hard and soft edges to textures and gradations of color became something executable with an airbrush, French curves, masking fluid and frisket. This "deconstructing eye" is always at work wherever I go. My student years at AAU doing plein air in oil further pushed my habit of looking to see, learn and retain for future reference.
The original sketchbook drawing in progress. 

But, there was always a problem. In the late 80s, there were plenty of how-to books, but I a slow reader and fiercely impatient. Reading a series of detailed steps, however clearly written, was tedious and discouraging. With no one to "show me how", I often dove right into a piece, skipping through the careful steps that inevitably lead to good illustration work. Looking back, a similar lack of patience affected my model kit building. I wanted to get kits done and painted as quickly as possible. Only now can I set aside a work-in-progress long enough to let layers of paint to dry.

Somehow those countless hours of trying, building and breaking things fed my imagination. A scale plastic model kit on the sprue revealed so much of the inner-workings of the very toys I enjoyed as a child. They taught me how to see through moving parts and continuously informed my own designs. Even the act of transforming an old robot toy that had long lost its play value helped me "re-see" and retain enough information for me to be able to create a satisfying approximation of those amazing plastic objects. My guess is that I need to touch the subject and experience it in the round at an accessible scale in order to really "learn" it. I learned and retained more about human anatomy from Carol Tarzier's ecorche workshop offered at City College of San Francisco than in all of my formal and independent study combined. She taught us the value in knowing what we drew, whereas most of my teachers emphasized drawing what we saw and felt.

Learning to draw from my imagination with confidence has been a slow, decades-long process and I am still learning. I can enjoy this piece as one of the occasional milestones that confirm that effort leads to improvement.


If you happen to be a Pinterester, check out my board of Japanese robot model boxtop art. It includes some of the very illustrations I saw on the shelf at Jeffery's Toys (later R.A Martin) at the El Cerrito Plaza and Iron Horse in Albany.

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