It’s over 10 days since my last update on this piece in progress, and it might not look like it’s that different, but I logged in over 20 hours of work on small changes. The deal is that I’m improving my skills at realism while executing this, so there are areas I keep working over as I become better able to see what needs to be done and figure out how to do it.
Let me tall ya’, it’s one thing to reproduce something realistically, and it’s quite a hell of a lot of another to make something realistic without a model or reference. Below is a bag I recreated from a photo — with some liberties. I quite like this piece, but I didn’t know necessarily why the highlights were where they were, nor how to make the fabric straps bend and intertwine. I didn’t need to.
To copy something roughly you mostly need to observe what you see and know how to mix the colors and apply them in the right areas. You don’t actually need to understand the underlying rules. When Chuck Close made his infamous, enormous portraits by placing a grid over photographs, and then working incrementally by reproducing what was in the squares at a larger scale, he didn’t need to know how to draw or paint a portrait at all. The same method would work with a photograph of anything. I know, I’ve used the same technique.
Below is a drawing, roughly 4X6 feet, I made as an undergrad at UCLA over 25 years ago using the grid technique. You don’t REALLY need to know how to draw to do this sort of thing, though it helps.
You could even train a team of non-artists to reproduce a square each, assemble them, and come off with a portrait that many would assume was created by one individual who’d mastered anatomy, perspective, modeling, shading, lighting, and so on. The vast majority of supremely popular ultra-realist portraits you see in social media are just these sort of copies of photographs, made by people who, without a photo, couldn’t draw a passable figure.
Above, the drawing wasn’t that tough. I already have the requisite drawing skills. I can do shading and all in black and white pretty well as well, though I tend to just wing it.
But making it 3D, and in color, is much trickier, and I never really got training at modeling in color in my art education. By the time I got to my more advanced painting classes, well, you weren’t even allowed to paint figuratively if you didn’t want to be a laughing stock. In grad school one didn’t paint at all if one was to be taken seriously. One made conceptual art about politics! What you are seeing is what happens when someone trained in contemporary art, and who is a fine artist, takes it upon himself to learn traditional illustration skills.
Compare the two stages below.
They are not all that different, at least when zoomed out. Someone who’s already mastered all the details of shading and modeling could have gone from A to B in perhaps less than an hour, but to get just that extra level of realism took a lot of concentration on my part. The one on the left is comparatively flat. But with the eyes especially, the one on the right is coming to life!
So, what’s really cool about all this to me is that what’s allowing me to finally learn how to do more traditional rendering in color is the computer. With paint, I am quite attracted to impasto and very painterly techniques, and would not likely have the patience to render little details and model bumps so they fit convincingly on a head. But if I don’t have to mix my pigments, wash my brushes, and wait for the paint to dry, I can just focus on the real technical aspects of rendering and not be overwhelmed by the purely physical necessities of analogue painting. Wait, what I really meant to say is really cool wasn’t that working digitally has allowed me to hone these sorts of skills, but just that it’s really cool that I’m finally filling in those gaps in my technical learning. That’s a bit self-effacing, but keep in mind that most artists don’t feel the least compelled to cover all their bases, and just rely on a handful of techniques indefinitely. Illustrators learn this stuff, but fine artists do not, and with a vengeance.
Above is the art critic from the Guardian merely regurgitating a tenet of the dominant narrative of contemporary art. It is thoroughly believed that real artists don’t paint realistically! If you do, you are mocked. And thus you find me spending countless hours doing digital painting courses, when I already have fully developed styles within digital painting, in order to learn the finickity techniques of professional illustrators. It’s how I choose to level up my game, using my own internal compass of what is art and what matters in art, and in defiance of the contemporary art narrative.
I’d say this piece is now about two thirds done. I still have a few more stages on the figure, not to mention adding a background, and some other fun stuff. I hope to finish it this month. Oh, there’s only 28 days. Hmmm. Might bleed into next month. But I should work more efficiently after this slog.
There are many other ways one can work than hyper realism, and I’ve certainly bridged a range of styles and techniques myself, but this is the first time I’ve ever attempted a fully realistic creature, from my imagination, in color. That’s why it’s taking a while.
Oh yeah, I’m calling him Bubble Head.