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Friday, June 24, 2011

Working in passes: a blog post

It might have occurred to some of you, that I must have used my "Art of Art" methods to write the book about my "Art of Art" methods - as indeed I have. It was a strange thing, using a tool to describe itself. It was like making a huge drawing of the pencil I'm drawing with. The funniest thing was when I found myself making process mistakes while writing advice about how to avoid those very same mistakes! It happened several times and actually now that I think of it, it wasn't so funny at all. Made me feel profoundly stupid.

Anyway, here's the execution process of one of my creative process blog posts. The original post is here. Do compare the three passes with the three rows in the Verdi sculpting post (picture also appears below), and you can begin to see what I mean when I say that the creative process is common to all forms or art. And this is not just because it's my special way of doing it: you will find that method preached in any good book on any subject.

I recommend that you read the four versions (or at least skim them though). You can do this by using the full screen feature of the slideshow, and then using the arrows at the bottom right corner to go through the pages at your own pace.
Note: If for some reason you can't see the embedded work, try this link.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

James N. Frey writes about talent and hard work

I just finished reading a book called How to Write a Damn Good Mystery , By James N. Frey. It's a damn good How-to book. It's very practical, and has just the right mixture of content tips and creative process tips.

It's always a little funny (and also a little frustrating) to read my own "Art of Art" advice in a book about a field I'm not very familiar with. I keep thinking, "when would people finally realize it's always the same advice?".

Here's a quote from the book:

A published friend of mine was recently invited to be on a panel at a writers conference. One of the other writers on the panel was a famous mainstream-mystery writer who was getting $600,000 advances and hit the New York Times best­seller list every time out. My friend, who gets $30,000 advances, was in awe. They hit it off and went to lunch, and soon the conversation drifted onto the subject of rewriting. My friend is always struggling through what she thinks are endless rewrites, sometimes four or five complete drafts with major plot revisions. The famous writer said he was impressed. He often has to go through fifteen or twenty, and then he goes through what he calls a polish, trying to punch up the prose, find better lines of dialogue, and so on, thirty or forty more times.

My friend just about fell off her chair. She had always thought of this guy as a major talent, and somebody so talented, why ought to be easy. His writing was so smooth, his stories so seamless...

You, too, can have that smooth, polished feel to your work. Keep rewriting and polishing. You rewrite until it's right. If it comes out right on the second draft, or the tenth draft, fine. But if it still is not right, then rewrite some more. Being willing to go back again and again and rework your material is the hallmark of a professional mystery writer.

Obviously he's talking about what we call working in passes; but more interestingly, he's trying to teach us that hard work, not talent, is responsible for successful artwork. Here's a parallel paragraph from "The Art of Art":

[From "The Art of Art": The art of the Process >Process Awareness]

For most people - including quite a few artists - great art is a kind of magic: the talented artist (gifted by genes, the gods, or luck) experiences a supernatural moment of inspiration, and his pen (or CGI software, or word processor) starts pouring out pure gold. Believing that this is what the work of a "real" artist should look like, no wonder a mere mortal artist would feel frustrated that he alone, talentless and uninspired as he is, must work hard to achieve results. Such an artist would do well to remember the following quote from Michelangelo (also known as "the divine"): "if people only knew how hard I work to gain my mastery, it wouldn't seem so wonderful at all."

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Creative Atom: introduction to quick-sketching

If someone asked you to write a description of the room you're sitting in right now so that a reader would be able to imagine it quite accurately, you would probably be able to do it without too much difficulty. It's a simple matter of writing a detailed report of the room and everything in it, using all five senses. It may take some time, but wouldn't require much brain effort.

But now, how about if you had to do it in 5 minutes, and use up to 50 words? (remember that the goal is still to convey the room as precisely as possible to the reader!)

Doubtlessly, this is a much more challenging task. The full report is simply an extensive account of the room, whereas the limited version requires creative interpretation, an ability to recognize quickly what's essential and what can be discarded, and good language skills to allow for an efficient choice of words.

Of course, minimalism can be exercised not only with words, but also with color, clay, musical notes or movie frames; and obviously not only rooms may be described concisely, but also people, feelings, situations, and even abstract ideas. The ability to compress extensive and complex information into a brief, simplified description, is at the very heart of what we call quick-sketching (or just "sketching", for simplicity).

In "The Art of Art" I present and explain the possibly surprising idea, that sketching is THE main skill of accomplished artists; that it is in fact impossible to create a fresh, well-crafted, finely detailed work without being good at it; and that the slightest improvement at the skill of sketching is going to be duplicated exponentially throughout the work, producing noticeable improvement. I think of the quick sketch as the atom of artistic skill.

A quick-sketch drawing exercise. within a few seconds and with very few lines, I summarized what I thought were the most important things that define the pose, exaggerated them for clarity and vitality, and omitted everything else. Notice, however, that the original drawing from Disney's "Jungle Book" is also a form of quick sketch - an exaggerated summary of the important traits of a puma, omitting a lot of less important information.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

More about Verdi and passes

Continuing with the Verdi work, a couple more notes about the process:

Divide and conquer. One of the strongest advantages of working in passes, is that it allows you to reduce complexity by focusing different passes on different aspects of the work (this idea is explained in more detail in "The Art of Passes" chapter of the book). In the Verdi example, pass 4 was a "profile pass": I constrained myself to only scrutinizing the profile of the sculpture. Similarly, Pass 5 was a "front pass".

Point of no return. Often the work presents a strategic challenge in the form of a "point of no return", which dictates that we deviate from the "pure" passes approach. In the Verdi example, the way the Sculptris software works created such a challenge: you can work on the sculpture in symmetry mode (everything you do on one side is mirrored simultaneously on the other side), but once you break the symmetry, you can't go back to that mode without losing details. Ideally I would have liked to refine the eyes a bit later in the process, while the general shape of the hair would have been defined much earlier; but because the shape of the hair is asymmetrical, that would have meant doing a lot of work on the eyes twice, probably with a lot of symmetry and proportions problems. This called for a methodological change. Here is the way to deal with a "point of not return":
  1. Recognize it as soon as possible.
  2. Define the specific aspects of the work that need to be perfected before you cross the "point of no return". In the Verdi case it was the facial features, and most importantly the eyes, that I wanted to get right.
  3. Work in passes towards that milestone, then work in passes towards the final vision (or the next milestone, if there's another "point of no return" along the way).
In the Verdi example, 5 passes (more than half the work) were symmetrical; pass 6 was an "asymmetry pass", in which I finally got to shape the hair, insert subtle asymmetry in all facial features (real faces are never actually symmetrical), and create a subtle expression.

Sculpting Verdi in passes

Here's a digital sculpture I did especially for the book. It's a copy of a small sculpture of the composer Verdi I bought last week in Florence. It replaces an excellent example from the great Andrew Loomis, because I couldn't figure out how to get the rights, and decided it was faster and easier to just make my own example. Artistically it's not as good, but for the purpose of explaining, I think it will do.

Another interesting thing you should know is that this is my first attempt at serious digital sculpting (my only other attempt was a silly cartoon hedgehog I did a few weeks ago), and that the only other sculpture I ever did was this one. Why am I telling you this? Because I think it demonstrates the power of understanding the creative process. You can drop yourself into any artistic medium, and start getting reasonable results almost instantly.

The work took about 5 hours and 9 major passes to complete - that roughly half an hour for each pass. Half an hour is a good time-frame: it gives you just enough time to complete 3-4 major improvements, but not quite enough time to start getting carried away with it.

I started with "something to change" - a simple and VERY rough approximation of the figure. Because I knew in advance this was going to serve as an example for working in passes, before every pass I took care to write down exactly what I was going to improve. Below is a numbered documentation of the process, that corresponds to the numbers in the image. It's a rare chance to get an authentic view on how artwork evolves through careful and controlled scrutiny.

*Please remember that this list is NOT a plan of action made before starting to work; no one can know in advance how a work is going to evolve, and what would need to be fixed or improved in each pass.

pass 1: head shape, shoulders shape, chest shape
pass 2: place facial features, place clothing
pass 3: define hairline, define facial proportions, define collar

Pass 4: [profile pass] eyebrow shape profile, hollow cheek, bottom nose connection, chin+upper lip profile
pass 5: [front pass] eyes & pupils, define hair, wider nose, narrower temples, fix around hollow cheek
pass 6:: break symmetry, create expression

pass 7:: basic hair/beard texture, define clothing
pass 8:: detail up hair/beard texture, fix nose
pass 9:: detail eyebrows area, thicken top hair, fix tie