Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Weight of Mid-World

Folks who've visited my website in the last week or saw me at IlluxCon last year will recognize this piece. It won't be new to those who saw me at Spectrum Live, either. The rest of you, however, will be seeing this for the first time. While it's intended as a Dark Tower piece, it's not a quick read as one. You know what? It'll be easier if I just walk you through it.

So, the piece was born as a quick sketch I knocked out last October. I wanted to do something that was different from my usual work and I was leaning toward Stephen King's Dark Tower series as inspiration. I kept thinking of the young Roland, burdened with more knowledge about the workings of his world than a boy his age should have to bear. I also thought about what he was doomed to become: a bringer of death. I chose to tie these two ideas together using a halo.  But not the variety of halos that we're used to today — that ring of gold floating atop a person's head like a crown. No, I was thinking more along the lines of how halos were often depicted in medieval altarpieces and paintings — the more graphic, less dimensional circle of gold lief behind a person's head.

But gold lief seemed all wrong to me.  If Roland had such a halo, I think it would certainly be black. And so, with his head tilted back, his preacher's hat became that halo. The sketches of that image looked like this:

The smaller version was the initial one. I saw the composition as I wanted to present it pretty immediately.  The larger version was an attempt to flesh out a few things, but it became pretty clear that the smaller one was really all I needed. Anyway, I projected the smaller sketch onto a stretched canvas that I had laying around, shot my reference, and started to paint.

Just a quick note before moving on. While I did project the sketch, I didn't duplicate it lovingly or accurately. Anytime I transfer a sketch or drawing, I do so primarily for placement only. It's an attempt to keep consistent the composition of the piece from sketch to finish. Details are going to change — they always do — but the placement of the larger shapes is always important to me. Other folks have different feelings on the matter, with some finding the projection or transferring of a sketch to be either extremely necessary or wholly evil. Given that I generally am using paint to rewrite the wrongs of a given sketch to begin with, I tend not to worry about such things.

Anyway, I painted furiously and finished the piece in time to show it at IlluxCon. But, after the show, I saw a photograph of my booth and immediately I began to see a ton of problems. The curious thing about this is that I'd used a lot of tricks when putting the piece together. I did the mirror trick and looked at it backwards. I'd turned it upside-down. I'd even taken photos of it in process (which I can't find now and suspect were erased accidentally). These various things somehow didn't clue me into the issues, which were mostly proportion related. It's possible, however, that I saw them all along, but a portion of my brain kept them compartmentalized in order to get the piece done in time for IlluxCon. I honestly don't know.

Long story short, I didn't ever get a good image of the piece in that state. After IlluxCon, I packed the piece up and we moved. In preparation for Spectrum Live, however, I dragged it back out and made an attempt to knock it back into shape. Last week, I finally got a decent scan, put the piece on my website, and put it up at the show.  And here it is now:

Monday, May 14, 2012

Narstad Scrapper

So here it is, the last image I did for the world of Innistrad, and it's a weird one. How so? It involves a strange subject, an odd design, and a different palette for me. But before I get into that, let's take a look at the art order first:
Color: None (Artifact creature)
Location: Outside an alchemist's shack
Action: Show a walking, attacking creature made from wood, leather, brass -- and weapons. It's an alchemist's guardian, built from scraps around the laboratory, designed to keep intruders out. Maybe its arms are melee weapons (like those on pg. 46 of the "Shake" styleguide). Instead of a traditional head it has a glass jar set into its chest, inside which is somebody's formaldehyde-preserved head (to give it a slightly creepy, Gothic horror vibe). See pg. 71 for examples of alchemist's inventions -- now turn that style into something that can walk and attack.
Focus: The alchemist's minion
Mood: An awkward-looking contraption, but it'll crack you a good one if you get too close.
Examples of the melee weapons mentioned can be seen throughout the Innistrad block (link). For the most part, they're very true to the original designs — many of which were drawn by Steve Prescott. Steve was also responsible for most of the alchemist invention designs mentioned in the description, however, the various artists who'd extrapolated upon those designs in their illustrations had done so in ways that I personally had no clue about, not having seen the fruits of their efforts until recently. So, while I based my designs on those in the styleguide just as they had, I was generally in the dark as to whether or not my designs felt consistent with what they had done. I just had to trust that the art director would nudge me in the right direction if I was too far off.

To be sure, looking at the description, it's a strange one. I was basically being asked to create a magic robot made of mostly organic materials that was being powered by a decrepit head in a jar. Mechanical devises and robots designs are territory I'm very uncomfortable with because my own sensibilities are rarely in keeping with what folks are typically looking for. Still, I had to figure out where to start and where to take the piece, and after rereading the description many times, my mind began to drift toward tractor shows I'd been dragged to as a kid.

What's a tractor show? Think car show, but with tractors. All makes and models, some as small as modern riding mowers, some as large as trains.  At these shows, the ones that created the biggest impression on me were the ancient, steam-powered tractors that had all sorts of belt-driven attachments for doing things like splitting logs and such. They were noisy, dirty, ghastly affairs that, while often times enormous, had engines that contained lots of negative space and were clunky to say the least. Many were ugly machines that clearly had been built solely with function in mind or were from a time before form was even taken into consideration.

With Steve's designs and the weird parade of tractors crawling through my mind, I began to knock out a design for this thing, all the while trying to figure out how it might function. To what does this chain connect? How was this arm driven? Where should this belt attach? After much fumbling, I came up with this sketch:

©Wizards of the Coast
To call the machine strange is fair. To call it ugly is, too. While it wouldn't work mechanically, it looks like it might to some extent, and given that it's Magic, you have to assume there's some ethereal force at work, as well. Either way, it's an odd looking thing, and while it has clear connections to the designs that Steve put together, I was really uncertain just how well it meshed with the set as a whole. Happily, I was reassured by the the art director. "Heh," was all he added to the automated approval email. From there it was off to paint.

Before I get to the finish, let me take a moment to comment on the odd (for me) palette. As I've said before, I don't typically do color studies. This piece was no exception. What's weird, though, is that I drifted toward a palette that was dominated by colors I typically think of as supporting players rather than stars. While I can't exactly account for why this came together as it did, I'm happy that I went along for the ride as I did, as I gained a new appreciation for a oft forgotten portion of my palette in the process.

©Wizards of the Coast
The original is oil on paper on hardboard and measures 12" x 9".  And here it is as a card:

Narstad Scrapper just feels off to me. Not bad, just off.  It felt odd while I designed it, odd while I worked on it, and even now feels like a weird blip in my work to me. Even odder is that of all the pieces I submitted to Spectrum 19, this is what was accepted. This isn't a complaint, mind you, I actually find it fascinating that the judges saw merit in this piece — merit enough to put it into the book. Would I have chosen this piece over others I've done over the last year and submitted for consideration? Probably not, but I'm tickled that this piece made the cut, all the same. If nothing else, this piece is pure gut. It's a shot from the hip. And its a nice little oddity that will likely hold a place in my flat files for years to come.

As an aside, this piece, along with many others will be on display this coming Friday, Saturday and Sunday (May 18, 19, and 20, 2012) at the Spectrum Fantastic Art Live exhibition in Kansas City, Missouri. You'll find me and my work in booth 604. If you're in the area or are planning to attend, by all means come by and chat me up if you're inclined to do so. If nothing else, it'll be an awesome show to behold. Until I return, I will likely maintain radio silence on this blog, but if I have the time to put up a blurb or two, I'll try to do so.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Searchlight Geist

Searchlight Geist was the third piece commissioned along with Fervent Cathar and Defang. Like Defang, this was another piece that just came together for me. Unlike Defang, however, there were no special memories that fueled this piece. Instead, I was packing a bit of inside information. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. We'll take a look at the description first.
Color: Black creature
Location: Foggy sky, perhaps over a swampy graveyard
Action: Show a spirit that is floating through the night sky (see "Shake" styleguide pg. 78-84 for geist reference). It has no face, and "carries" a grim-looking iron lantern (maybe it just hangs from a chain, or is attached by wisps of ghost-stuff). Inside the glass of the lantern is a ghostly, glowing skull-face.
Focus: The geist
Mood: Creepy, haunting
As I've mentioned before, I worked on the team that designed the visuals for the world of Innistrad (something about which I promise I will elaborate upon real soon in my Innistrad wrap up). I worked on a variety of things for the world, primarily the architecture, some landscape stuff, wardrobe, a few creatures, etc. Up to this point, I'd only gotten to actually illustrate one creature that I'd helped create, the Frankenstein inspired undead creature in Geralf's Mindcrusher. Finally, with this piece, one of the last I would work on for the Innistrad block, I got to do a finished illustration of something else I'd worked on: a ghost or spirit, which in the world of Innistrad are called "geists."

Armed with the bit of confidence in the fact that I knew what I was doing (or at least thought I did), I strove forward with pencil and stylus in hand to create the following sketch:

©Wizards of the Coast
It's a pretty straightforward description of a pretty straightforward image that resulted in a pretty straightforward sketch. This one was all about nailing the tone, mood, and a certain sense of light. Considering that the light source was right there in the description, the only thing I had to do was get what was in my head down on paper. The fine folks at Wizards dug what eventually ended up on that paper and approved the image for painting.

©Wizards of the Coast
The piece is oil on paper on hardboard and measures 12"x9".

As you can see, it's a lot darker than the sketch indicated. This happened pretty organically and I'm happy it did because it really pushes home the ominous nature of the thing, and also makes that skull lamp sing. Color-wise, I knew I wanted to stick with blues, greens and purples. It was a piece that just kind of called out for a cool palette to me, and indeed the only hints of warmth are in the decaying fabric of the geist's form.

Anyway, here's what it looked like in card form:

And here's a link to a page where you can download the image as a desktop for your computer, iPhone, iPad, or even your Facebook cover: link. If you're not interested in any of those things but are a painting goober like myself who likes to see brushstrokes and such up close and personal, then I urge you to go ahead and check those images out anyway because my lack of skill is laid bare for all to see.

To be honest, this is the kind of piece I like. Not necessarily the subject matter or the color palette or any such thing. I'm talking about the total lack of drama. It was a piece tossed in my direction that I knew what to do with immediately and then went through to finish without calling much attention to itself. Any time a piece comes together this smoothly I feel pretty lucky. Of course, looking at the three pieces I was assigned, that only one of the three gave me any real difficulty is kind of a miracle. This might not be the best piece I've ever done, it might not even be great, but I do have a quite a fondness for it. I like trying to inject beauty into horrible things, and sometimes I get lucky when it actually works. I think this might be one of those times.

Thursday, May 10, 2012


Defang was quite the opposite scenario from Fervent Cathar, which I wrote about yesterday. It was assigned and painted concurrently with that piece, but it was one I had very few doubts about and one that I attacked with some degree of confidence. Here's the art order I received:
Color: White spell
Location: Village setting
Action: Show a vampire that's been taken prisoner by two human soldiers (see "Shake" styleguide pg. 58-64 for devil reference). The vampire's arms are bound so that it can't claw anyone. Also, its lips are pulled back in a sneer-- and we see that its big canine fangs have been removed. The vampire shuffles along in bondage, resigned to its fate. (We don't have to see much of the human guards in-frame; just show enough to tell the story of the vampire's imprisonment... just body language should be enough to sell it)
Focus: The neutered vampire
Mood: A dangerous evil that's been rendered harmless. 
Looking back it's interesting that they didn't actually want to show the teeth being pulled. Also interesting is the fact that I didn't work up that alternative, nor did it occur to me at the time to do so. Considering how the piece came out, I don't think I could have made the piece quite as iconic had I depicted that scenario, anyway. What I imagined instead, was this:

©Wizards of the Coast
Here's our vampire in irons, being muscled through a dark space, lamps hanging directly above, motes of dust whirling in the shafts of light.

I'm not sure why, but I immediately associated the space the vampire finds himself in with the bowels of my grandmother's barn, a space I was never officially allowed in. I remember seeing it once or twice, each time accompanied by my father. I remember it was cool and dark, the light unable to reach the entirety of the room and describe it fully, leaving pockets of mystery throughout. I'm not sure, but I think the space was intended for cows or some other livestock, and it was subdivided into stalls. At least I think it was. Truth is, I kind of like the fact that it's still a mystery to me. That part of the barn evokes much more than memory and I'm happy to keep the blank spaces in place. The one thing I do clearly remember about it was the smell. Decaying wood, rotting hay, rust, mildew, with just a hint of leather and oil. That coupled with the blood is what I imagine the vampire is smelling as he's guided to his final destination.

It was also due to this weird association that I designed the hand restraints the way I did. They're inspired by a straightjacket, a dog muzzle, and horse tack. A leather harness which fastens at the waste and has shoulder straps that cross at the back is put on the victim. Though I didn't depict them, I'd imagine this is all reinforced with groin straps, as well. Attached to this harness are leather straps that buckle repeatedly around the arms all the way down to the wrists where wrought iron cages riveted into the leather work keep the hands from opening fully. These cages are then locked to iron loops bolted or riveted to the harness at the chest, thus restricting the victim's arms to a position most associated with someone laid to rest in a coffin (at least that's what I was trying to suggest).

You know, I put a disturbing amount of thought into that...

Anyway, back to the sketch. I turned the above sketch in and got some notes back. There was a concern that the lack of teeth wouldn't read well when reduced to card size. This was a very valid concern.  So, I cropped in and reworked it a bit. Here's the second version:

©Wizards of the Coast
Cropping in eliminated the escorts, so I put their hands on the vampire's shoulders instead of around his arms. Also, because of the concerns with readability, I got rid of the vampire's tongue. I was worried that it would visually clutter the mouth and make it that much more difficult to discern what was going on. I resubmitted with this sketch and it was approved with one final note from the art director in which he urged me not to be afraid to mess the vampire's mouth up even further — maybe a few broken teeth or something. I told him I'd consider it and went to paint.

©Wizards of the Coast
So here we have the final, it's oil on paper on hardboard, and measures 12"x9".

I set out with two things in mind when I began painting this piece: I wanted there to be sympathy for the vampire, and I wanted the shock of red to be the only bright color in the piece. I'm not sure whether I accomplished the first, but I managed to restrict myself color-wise to pull off the second. I imagine how much sympathy the viewer feels likely is connected to how they feel about vampires in the first place.

Astute viewers will note that I ignored the notes that the art director, Jeremy Jarvis, gave me. The four front teeth are still intact. The truth is that I mulled his suggestion over in my mind the entire time I worked on the piece and decided that I'd paint it as I'd sketched it the first place, then mangle the mouth from there. But when I reached that point, I found that I couldn't actually bring myself to do it. The piece was disturbing enough, I didn't want to make it even more so. Still, I knew that the image as it was wouldn't be enough for someone who's seen just about every horror film ever made and can give you the plot summary of every one of them. So, I decided to create two other mouths digitally, so that Wizards had three to choose from. In Photoshop, I painted one with broken teeth, then another with no teeth. Here's what they looked like:

©Wizards of the Coast
©Wizards of the Coast
Now, I've looked at a lot of disturbing stuff on the internet in order to find reference for Magic paintings. Some of the stuff I had to look at to achieve this piece proved to be truly cringe-worthy, and likely cemented my place on some sort of watch list being kept by some agency somewhere or another. I'd say it's worth it, but that's just me. I suspect that Jarvis would agree. He went with the broken teeth.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Fervent Cathar

Here's the first in the new batch of pieces from Magic: the Gathering's most recent expansion set, Avacyn Restored, and the last set of the Innistrad block, which I helped concept for. I'll go ahead and start with the art order:

Color: Red creature
Location: Mountainside under gloomy skies
Action: Show a knight like the one on pg. 145 of the "Roll" styleguide. He rears back on his chestnut warhorse, waving his sword, looking serious, fierce, and heroic. Perhaps a bit of sunlight graces him, breaking through the overcast sky. Other soldiers (male and female) on horseback ride down the mountainside after him.
Focus: The horseback knight
Mood: All would follow him into battle.

There were two things straight away that were potential issues. First, the horse and rider can't both be rearing and riding down the mountainside as the description insinuates. It's got to be one or the other.  I explored both and decided on running. It was more proactive and thus more interesting to me.

Second, a more importantly, there was a horse. I mean at all. Forget what's it's doing, I had to paint a horse, which is something I very rarely get called upon to paint. I have a difficult time drawing horses and this was further complicated, it turns out, by the fact that the horse and rider in question were to be running downhill. Why is this a problem? Simple: racing a horse downhill is generally considered cruel as horses are often injured and can even die as a result. Indeed the only downhill horse race that I'm aware of, the Omak Suicide Race, is constantly protested for this very reason. As such, what little video footage and photography of such activities is usually pretty bad and semi-useless for the purposes of reference. One gets the feeling that there's a conscious effort to keep it off the internet.

So that's really informative and all, but why's it important? Simple: horses running across flat ground don't move the same way as they do when running downhill. The weight distribution is completely different as are the various muscle bulges. Given that I'm not completely comfortable with drawing horses (and I'm not exactly comfortable riding them either since my last experience involved an old nag trying to throw me while on a cliff-side trail which would have resulted in a hundred foot drop), and given that I'm not quite as knowledgeable of horse anatomy as I probably should be, I really could have used solid reference in order to truly sell the downhill charge.

Still, I cobbled together what reference I could, supplemented it with photos of horses running across flat ground, and took a shot at it. Okay, several shots at it. After many discarded attempts, here's what I came up with:

©Wizards of the Coast
Straight away, you'll notice it's a digital sketch. Fully digital. This is due to the fact that I was erasing so much and had had so many false starts, that I got fed up and turned to a medium which allowed for erasing without the threat of tearing paper, and the ability to cut and paste at will. The horse is dodgy at best, but It's still clear what I'm going for and where it's headed. Believe it or not, it was approved as is and I went to the finish.

©Wizards of the Coast
It's oil on paper on hard board and measures 14" x 11", and is called Fervent Cathar.

Much of painting was done on the fly with this one. I was constantly editing and reediting the background, whose landscape you'll note changed quite a bit from the original sketch. Something else that clearly changed was the horse, much of which was repainted no fewer than three times.

This piece was a problem piece. It was commissioned with two others and was the first piece I started and the last one I finished. Unfortunately, the problems were all my own doing. I had failed to nail the drawing up front and spent the entirety of the piece trying to recover from that. I spent the vast majority of the working duration solving problems when I should have been polishing, and were I to do it all over again I'd spend a lot more time up front in order to save myself the later frustration.

Whether or not it's a good piece I can't say. What feelings I have for it are tainted by the difficulties involved in its creation. I'm pretty sure I've done worse, and there are some qualities I actually dig the heck out of. For one, I got to paint something with fairly limited color (which I'm usually discouraged from doing, but enjoy whenever I get the chance). Two, I'm quite pleased with the sense of light and how it reflects off the armor. Lastly, I'm pretty happy with the background players, who manage to insinuate far more than they describe. Beyond that, I see only its faults, a plague which I think all artists are doomed to suffer from.

Still, I wrestled with the piece and managed to finish it. It wasn't a total train wreck, and there were no complaints from the client (at least not publicly). But, the end result of the piece was that it solidified my decision to start showing my circle of artistic confidants sketches rather than finishes. Plus it got me thinking more about the beginning of a piece again, which is never a bad thing. Many pieces are doomed by the lack of effort on the front end, and this one could have been among them.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What Might Have Been: Mikaeus, the Lunarch

While I will get into the newest work from the last set of the Innistrad block of Magic over the next few days, I wanted to go back and touch on the first piece I did for the block, Mikaeus, the Lunarch, about which I wrote extensively here.

In preparation for the upcoming Spectrum Live show in Kansas City (which takes place at the end of next week), I was going through a stack of old sketches when I stumbled upon this:

©Wizards of the Coast
This is the original sketch for Mikaeus, though at the time I believe he was called something else. It's a sketch that I completely forgot about and it's an interesting nugget of Magic history. Well, at least I think it is. Anyway, this is my first go at interpreting the description as seen below:

Color: White Legendary creature
Location: Inside a cathedral
Action: Show a handsome priest in his 50s. This is Geldus, the Lunarch, the highest-ranking person in the church—the Avacynian Church’s equivalent of the pope. He’s standing on a raised platform in front of dozens of silver candles—the only light in the cathedral. He’s speaking to his off-camera congregation and gesturing dramatically. The light of the silver candles casts the shadow of the holy symbol on the wall behind him.
Focus: The Lunarch
Mood: The embodiment of holy power.
Notes: This should seem like an important character, not just a creature. Give him distinction and personality in a way of your choosing.

To me, the key phrase there was that last one. Distinction and personality. I thought about it a while, and my first instinct was to make him a fire and brimstone kind of guy. I thought he should be a charismatic leader, rather than one of pomp and circumstance. I tried to infuse the scene with motion and drama and present him in a way where you could almost hear his words echoing off the cathedral walls around you. I went through a lot of thumbnails while exploring a solution, and I landed on this one.

Uncharacteristically, I was pretty confident about this image. I knew there might be issues with the costuming. Perhaps I didn't make it elaborate enough and would need to push it further. I thought there might be problems with the face. Perhaps I'd need to handsome him up some more. I thought, however, that at the very least I'd nailed the personality.

What's more was that this image was an attempt to push my work beyond my normal instincts. Left to my own devices I'd have solved this image in a very iconic, but potentially drab way. But I was looking to get a bit further away from that. I wanted drama where there typically isn't any. I wanted action where I would usually reject it. This was a piece I was excited about.

Judging from the finished piece, it's almost pointless to say that this sketch was struck down.  My vision of the Lunarch, my interpretation of what he was about, was rejected. It turns out that what they wanted was the very thing I was trying to avoid: a more ceremonial, stoic approach. What resulted from their notes and my subsequent rehashes was more the vision of the folks behind the scenes than it was my own.

But believe it or not, that's okay. Yeah, it stank on a personal fulfillment level, but as an illustrator I had to remind myself that I was dealing with but one piece among hundreds. The art director? He had a whole lot more to deal with. He was busy building an entire world with hundreds of pieces, wrangling eighty or so illustrators, pawing through virtual stacks of sketches and checking them for quality control and tonal harmony. (Not to mention taking the time to translate the various notes from the fine folks in Research and Development into artist speak along the way). He had a better idea of where and how the Lunarch fit in with the grand scheme, and while he likely knew that I would have knocked my version of the Lunarch out of the park, it was clear to him that it would not have synced as well with what the set actually needed.

There is a level of trust that needs to be extended when working with art directors. There's an old adage that if you provide multiple sketches, invariably they'll pick the one you like least. As irritating as that can sometimes be, the reason for this is not necessarily because the art director has no taste or is out to get you — let's face it, if they were out to get you they would not have hired you in the first place. Rather, their choices are often due to the fact that they've got a lot more of the puzzle sitting in front of them than you do. It's not the whim of an all-powerful art director at play. It's the conjunction of the various needs of all the various departments that deal with the images in some way (be they marketing, research and development, etc).

Illustration is a collaborative process. Sometimes your ideas win out, sometimes you've got to go with the ideas of someone else. It's a partnership of give and take, of push and pull. While that can be a real drag at times, personally it's just motivation to work harder to get my ideas pushed through more often.

So all that being said, do I dislike the final Lunarch piece? Is there part of me that hates the piece for not being solely my vision of the man? No. I'm pretty happy with it, in fact. I tried to address my concerns with the piece along the way, and managed to bring enough of my own choices into the mix to be satisfied. It ended up being a pretty decent piece, spawned this comic as well as some fun discussions about candle safety, and it looks pretty good on a wall. Also, like many pieces, it looks even better framed.

Still, when I unearthed the sketch this past weekend, there was a part of my brain that began to wonder what might have been. With this piece, considering its timing with the move to Massachusetts, and the chaos that move produced, it's just as likely to have been a flop and one I actually do hate for very legitimate reasons.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Information, Advice and Old Man Pants

Back in my day, we didn't have no internet. And by my day we're talking mid to late nineties. You'd be correct to point out that that statement is an outright lie as the world wide web was certainly a thing back then, but I'll counter with the fact that it just wasn't the same. In the years of my schooling, and for many subsequent, you could feel yourself aging as images downloaded a pixel at a time and appeared magically from left to right, top to bottom. If there was video content to speak of, it was certainly not the kind of thing that mere mortals could view with their substandard connections, and primeval, hamster-driven machines. There was email, of course, and there were chat rooms and webpages, but what hadn't really happened yet was the explosion of content out there for artists and art enthusiasts alike. There were no blogs, no demo videos, no podcasts or streaming content, and there certainly weren't extensive message board threads about the type of paint someone used, what Daarken's digital brush settings are, or how I don't know anything about the anatomy of creatures that don't actually exist.

What did we have to work with? Why, let me put on my old man pants and tell you!

While all those things listed above were certainly to come, my search for information about how other artists did things was limited to books (many of which were long out of print and thus difficult and expensive to find), obscure films that you were lucky to stumble upon a thrice budded VHS cassette of, and actually cold calling people and asking them directly. There was occasionally a lecture or live demonstration here or there, but there just wasn't the wealth of information so readily available like there is today.

At this point I pull up my old man pants and point at you meaningfully (even though it isn't polite) as I say that I hope you all appreciate the opportunities this goldmine presents. I'm happy to be living among you, late to the party in some ways, early in others, enjoying the sheer wealth of information about many of my heroes and how they won so many of their canvas duels.

But there's one thing that has begun to nag at me. The information didn't come alone. No. Uninvited, it brought along its idiot cousin as a plus one. That idiot cousin is free advice.

Now, I'm willing to take much of the information out there at face value — after all, why would someone lie to you about using a number two round dipped in a mixture of Cadmium Red Light and Yellow Ochre?Seriously. What's in it for JoJo down at the shopping mall to lie about using an airbrush to make all those t-shirts he sells? I just don't see the angle. But all those opinions out there? All that free advice? Excuse me while I get my bucket of salt, some waders, and a shovel.

Without further ado, here's some advice about that advice.

Do Some Research
I know this may seem obvious, but it's kind of important to know a little about who the advice is coming from. Figure out whether they're worth your time, what their motives are, and whether there's actually some aspect of their work that's applicable to you. For example, were I looking for oil painting tips I'd be unlikely to go to someone who works digitally. This isn't a prejudice against digital work, mind you, as I'd be just as unlikely to consult a water colorist. And if it's a bigger issue of artistic fundamentals you're looking to solve (like composition, drawing problems, or visual communication issues), it helps to turn to someone whose sensibilities and qualities have something in common with your own — which is not to say that you should only be looking to people who do work that looks exactly like yours. Indeed, the illustrators I turn to have work that looks nothing like mine, but there are underlying threads that keep our work in the same ballpark. Similar approaches to solving problems, similar interest in story telling, etc. That synchronicity automatically makes any opinions they share more effective, as I understand better where they're coming from.

Don't Settle
While potentially overwhelming, the untold quantity of advice mines also give you the luxury of choice. As you sift through your options, it's important to remember not to settle for advice given by artists who are at your level or only marginally better than you. Sure, you might like that one piece that JoJo down at the mall did, but like an art director once told me, "everyone has one good piece in them." So what's the rest of JoJo's work look like? Why not look to someone who has a whole portfolio of good pieces? Pieces that you think are beyond what you could ever hope to achieve. And while we're at it, how about someone with a whole portfolio of good pieces and a decent amount of experience and has made a career of it? The point is, don't skimp. You don't have to. Sure it can be intimidating to contact someone you don't know, and sometimes it takes a while for these total strangers to get back to you, but it's better to wait for advice from a professional who knows what they're talking about than it is to get your instant two cents from JoJo.

More = Better
So you've ignored me and insist on going to JoJo for all his artistic ravings — I understand, he has a wise face. That's one opinion and one opinion is good. You know what's better? Two opinions. Or even three! Hearing more than one thought can help patterns emerge and can also help solutions become clearer. Plus, not everyone is going to pick up on the same things, and you might end up with multiple issues to address. While this seems like a headache, it can also help your work improve multiple times over, and in a far more compressed period of time.

Look, it's never a bad idea to get opinions from multiple sources. You can't determine the direction of a line from a single point, so it always helps to find another point...of view. See what I did there? (I hate myself for writing that). But seriously, it's a lot harder to get to the truth of things from one person's opinion, and gathering insight from more than one source is going to give you a lot more options, and may even counter-intuitively help you hone in on the best answer for you.

Have the Salt Ready
There are a lot of folks out there spouting off on their blogs like it's the gospel as told by the illustration god, Illustrut, himself. They shout with their conviction and dazzle with neat pictures and large, bold typography. Heck, JoJo is sporting a whole cart that's got a big sign on top of it. Clearly these kind of things and the fact that they've been paid to illustrate at some point make all those guys experts and they obviously know more than you. Right?


Perhaps not. The most important thing to remember about advice is that it's just an opinion. Sure, it might be based on facts and experiences, and sure they might be working illustrators, but such things do not turn their wisdom into a law chiseled in stone by Hammurabi*, himself. Advice can apply to you and your work, and it can also be pretty far off base, so it's vital to learn to take in what applies and ignore the rest. Part of making art is having intentions and making real choices. You know what you're trying to do better than the person giving you advice, so be sure that adhering to some of that advice doesn't betray those intentions and choices in some way.

Which brings me to my final point. While I've dispatched some advice as well as a fair amount of information about my work and process on this blog of mine, everything I've passed along has been based on my own experience. What knowledge I've provided is what worked for me, nothing more. I've also tried to include what hasn't worked whenever pertinent. Much of the advice I've given is pretty general. Indeed if you go from blog to blog looking for the secrets of life and illustration you'll note that the advice often is. There are themes of hard work and perseverance woven throughout, and many universal truths are present that you just can't get around. But remember, it's the internet, and the internet is still the Wild West. Any idiot can express their opinion half-intelligently and sound like they know what they're talking about — which includes me, by the way.  

Still, I'm a big proponent of getting help on the fundamentals and then figuring the nuances out for yourself. The building blocks of what we do, while largely comprised of repetition, are often molded by other hands. A slight nudge here, a slap on the wrist there, not to mention the meticulous study and outright thievery of the work of our heroes. The big ticket items are what I go seeking information about and look to others for advice to improve. But deciding what brush to use or what colors to mix? That's all trial and error. Sure I've taken advice on that stuff, but it was me driving the bus and deciding which passengers to let on. I'm just as likely to drive right by. Remember that it's the oddities of process, the quirks, the mistakes and hiccups along the way that make our artistic endeavors our own.

So go out there and seek that advice whenever you need it, but arm yourself with a shovel of your own, and don't forget to leave some time to actually paint along the way.

*  Survey of Art History 101 for the win!