Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Lessons from the 2012 Illustration Master Class

It doesn't matter where you are in your career, practice level, or mindset, there is truly something for every artist to take away from the IMC. This was only my second year in attendance at the Master Class, and even though it went very differently for me than last time, it was just as magical and brilliant. The faculty outdid themselves with more incredibly informative lectures, demos, and priceless one-on-one assistance with students' paintings. And being surrounded by so many creative and beautiful people for a week left me feeling super-inspired, yet again.

Now that I'm almost back into the real-life routines of doing my own laundry and cooking my own meals, I've jotted down my top 5 lessons from this year's Class:

1. No matter how good you get, you will always face challenges. After my last post talking about the creation process of my Tarzan painting, I got a fair number of responses from people who were glad to hear that I had to overcome doubt and other obstacles to make it happen, because my struggles validated theirs. It's tough to imagine people you look up to struggling, but would you believe that Greg Manchess doesn't just make a great painting every single time, either? The IMC faculty members were each generous in sharing their personal stories of triumphing over stuck points in their work. I think it's good to have heroes, but also to remember that no one is immune to the same challenges you're facing.

2. Story comes first. This is a point I've ignored too often in the past, and I know many others are guilty as well. The temptation to just paint pretty shiny things has sometimes taken priority over storytelling, and I haven't spent adequate time thinking about what my characters are doing, what they want, what they need, who they are, etc. If you want to do more than simple character portraits forever, you're going to need to tackle this one, and tackle it hard. If you're illustrating for a book, read the whole story if it's available. Act out what your characters are doing. Get involved in the story. I really pushed this with the Tarzan assignment, and as a bonus, I finally understand that if your concept is great, people will forgive an errant brush stroke or technical misstep here and there.

3. You don't need to tell the whole story on the cover. One of my favorite quotes from this year came from art director Irene Gallo (Tor Books). She posed the question to students, "If the whole story is on the cover, why would anyone want to read the book?" What this means is that when we're illustrating covers, we need to choose one good moment to paint, not try to cram too many characters or actions into one picture. I think a good editorial test might be to explain to an imaginary person what's going on in your scene; if you're compelled to say and-then-this-happened too often, you might want to take something out.

4. Don't rush. I made little easel cards bearing this slogan, as a reminder to myself and others to take care and have patience with the paint. "But Cynthia, what about deadlines?!" Yes, if you're a freelance artist, there will be times when you have to pull all-nighters or work more expeditiously than others. But the rest of the time, step back and assess your work for a few minutes. Savor it. Take care with it. Speed is a nice skill to have, but craftsmanship is almost always more important than production time.

5. Make art for you. Wait, wasn't this lesson #5 from last year? Yes! But it's a great lesson and bears repeating. It's taken a whole year to start sinking in for me. While it would be nice to be able to paint whatever we want all the time, most of us working illustrators will need to split our time between commercial jobs and personal pieces. "Commissions will pay the bills. Personal projects will give you a career." While that may be true, the more you can make ALL of your work personal, even the commercial stuff, the better off you'll be in terms of feeding your soul and having a great portfolio. If you don't love your work, it shows. It's so important to connect to everything you paint, whether that means inserting a specific theme you enjoy into every piece, or using someone you like as a model, or using your favorite medium. Figure out what works for you, and do that.

A heartfelt thank you goes out to everyone involved in making the event happen! Happy painting, everyone.

Read last year's list: Lessons from the 2011 Illustration Master Class

Monday, June 18, 2012

"Tarzan: The Light of Knowledge"

Here it is! My finished oil painting from the 2012 Illustration Master Class:
Tarzan-The Light of Knowledge by Cynthia Sheppard
Click to enlarge

...And if you think this painting came easily, it didn't. Here's the full story:

Out of about 7 assignment choices, I chose to illustrate Tarzan. It's the centennial anniversary of Edgar Rice Burroughs' original novel Tarzan of the Apes, and having grown up with the Johnny Weismuller Tarzan and Greystoke, I thought I was set to start working on thumbnails, so I did. Then, about two weeks before the Master Class, Noah Bradley mentioned how different the original story was from the movies, and I decided I needed to read the book. It helped me understand the character so much better, and I did some more thumbnails:

I fleshed out 3 of the thumbnails, and the overwhelming response from my critique group each time was... "these are terrible." Sometimes honesty is easier to swallow than others- this was one of those times when it wasn't. I hadn't slept well in two weeks, as I was under a lot of pressure to meet a giant pile of deadlines before the Master Class. At one point I actually broke down and cried. Finally, my good friend Marc Scheff got on Skype with me and gave me a pep talk. For some reason when he said "be yourself," it just made sense...

I couldn't shake the feeling that Jane was a weak character, and that Tarzan was more than just a vine-swinging brute. So I threw all those ideas out and strayed from the assignment a little bit. The language acquisition parts of the story were some of my favorites, and some of the most telling about the capabilities of the Tarzan character- they were the most unbelievable passages, but it's a fantasy story, so there always has to be some suspension of disbelief.

So I made this pencil drawing of an adolescent Tarzan learning to write 12 hours before I left:

Anyone who has attended or heard about the IMC knows that on Day 1 everyone breaks into groups and puts their drawings up on a wall for the faculty to critique. I personally love this format, and coming with a more finished drawing this year gave Julie Bell, Donato Giancola, and Brom a better opportunity to give me solid advice. Donato in particular suggested that instead of making Tarzan's gaze on the book the main focus, I redirect the focus to the hands. He mentioned that they were the strongest storytelling element, and I felt he was exactly right.

After the crit, I took some visual and written notes in my sketchbook:

So by Day 2 of the Master Class, I had a solid to-do list. I put tracing paper over my original drawing and transferred the information I wanted to keep, shifted the composition a bit, and penciled in some changes. Next I transferred my revised drawing to my illustration board with a sheet of graphite paper, and sealed it with acrylic matte medium:

I stayed in the studio till closing time on Day 2 to finish an acrylic underpainting. At this point I hadn't 100% figured out my color palette, so I stuck with a monochromatic raw umber underpainting to block in the basic values.

Photo by Irene Gallo

I started painting in oils on Day 3, when I was confident in the strength of my underpainting. Dan Dos Santos and Aaron Miller broke me of a bad habit I've had for a long time- instead of being impatient and starting by painting the figure, I began with the background. "Save the dessert for last," Dan said, and yes, he was right:

Photo by Rebecca Yanovskaya

The experience as a whole wasn't just educational and fun, it was also very validating. Not only did the faculty give me some killer advice along the way, but hearing directly from people like James Gurney and Boris Vallejo that my work was going well- you can't ask for a better feeling than that.

Day 4:

Technique-wise, there are a few things I would do differently next time- I would spend more time gathering reference photos (instead of calling people over to my easel and making them hold still, heh), and I'll try to get my values in oil correct earlier on instead of relying so heavily on glazing after the fact. Still, one of the biggest takeaways from this IMC was the emphasis on storytelling over technique. It was a takeaway from last year's IMC too, but it took a year for it to really sink in for me. I became confident, finally, that as long as my concept was solid, I could get away with a missed brush stroke here and there. Also it became ever clearer that loving a piece makes a huge difference. I'm inspired to do more passionate personal work, more than ever. I'll talk at length about that in my next post...

Enjoy the painting, and thanks again x1000 to Rebecca Guay, the faculty, and the volunteers for putting on another amazing IMC!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Decompressing from the IMC

After arriving back in DC around 4:00 AM this morning on a delayed train, I feel like I could nap for a solid year, but I'm still totally glowing with excitement from the past week at the Illustration Master Class in Amherst, Mass.

It'll take me a little while to compose my thoughts and photos from the IMC, so in the meantime, here's a quick watercolor pencil sketch I did of Dan Dos Santos during one of his painting demos:

Tomorrow I'll be posting my finished Tarzan painting, along with a boatload of process shots, so stay tuned! :)

Saturday, June 2, 2012

DCArtNews review of my Artomatic exhibit

I almost never do art shows that aren't tied to the fantasy art world, so it's extremely rare that someone unfamiliar writes about my work. I was both surprised and pleased to be included in F. Lennox Campello's tongue-in-cheek review of Artomatic over at DC Art News. He's written up a quick synopsis on a bunch of new artists and categorized them by what awards they ought to win, if there were awards for things like "Best Image of Dicks," and "Best Gay Use of Star Trek Imagery."

I evidently won the "Ignore the Subject Matter and Look at the Painting Skills Award"
"Cynthia Sheppard on the 8th floor displays superb painting skills. I actually like the subject matter, but I know that most of you pansies won't. In any event, this is a master painter working as an illustrator (I think), but still a really good painter."
(link to the full review)

I take this review as a sizable compliment on my technical abilities (thanks DCArtNews!). Of course, some of my pals were incredulous that people still don't associate illustration with painting mastery. Others wondered what I'm showing that could possibly be bad enough to ignore. There are a couple of bloody vampires, so I guess the squeamish might not like it. And one butt crack, but I hardly even count that as nudity. Still, I'll accept "really good painter" in any context.

And speaking of the show, I need to go get dressed because tonight is "Meet The Artist Night!" Check out the How to Talk to the Artists page that the Artomatic folks sent around; I realize that as a commercial artist I'm more accustomed to talking to the public than many of my visually-inclined cohorts, but I still got a chuckle at the advice "This is not the time to play the shrinking violet." I only wish they'd added a bullet point for "no sudden moves."