Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Hitting The Books

I remember well when I was just a wee laddy in school.  To say I was a poor student would be like saying the Pyramids are a pile of rocks in the desert; Accurate, but woefully understated.  I thought that diagramming a sentence was just like deciphering hieroglyphics.  Math was like Greek to me, and science like Latin.  (Which most of it actually is, but you get my point).  I'll never forget my favorite teacher, Mr. Jones-- or maybe it was Mrs. Palmer, whatever-- sat me down and said words that have stuck with me all my life:

"Maybe this whole book learning thing isn't for you.  Have you thought about taking up art?"

Since then, I have been on my journey to teach myself a thing or two about painting pictures.

Now, I've mentioned more than once about my being self-taught and all, but I don't recall saying how I go about it.  It's kind of like the way I taught myself to play the piano:  Keep hitting notes until you figure out where the right ones are.  Same way with painting.  I set out to teach myself painting by mixing paint and slapping it on until it started to look like something.  It's the sledgehammer at a concrete wall approach, because God forbid I actually looked for instruction on how to do it. 

Nowadays there is lots of instruction out there; Art School and Ateliers.  DVD's.  How-To books and magazines by the score.  Personal instruction and workshop's from proven Pro's.  Or, the way I do it: Study Art and Artists I admire and try to learn from their work. 

Over time I have noticed three commonalities in the really good artists.  One is great drawing ability.  The other is beautiful color sense, and the third is impeccable design in their paintings.  (The unspoken fourth is Talent, of course.  But you gotta be born with that.  Thankfully you can learn the first three).  Anyway, I figured there must be some kind of principle to follow to make a great painting.  I learned enough by studying those artists to recognize and try to incorporate effective design and good color in my paintings.  But alas, knowing a principle exists is not the same as knowing precisely how to do it.  If I am being honest, I have to admit that when a painting of mine exhibited the attributes I just stated, it was because I was lucky enough to combine those elements, as opposed to purposely imparting them into the picture. 

I knew I needed to learn a lot more, and looking at pictures or slapping paint wasn't going to be enough.  I mean there's only so much dubbing around you can do.  I have always disliked How-To books because I've always been interested in the Why as well as the How.  Somewhere, there must be something I could read that would explain those principles.   Luck was on my side.

A few months ago, while browsing in a used book store, I came upon this book:

It's not a How-To book by any means, but an in-depth examination on Design principles and Color Theory.  In other words, it was exactly what I needed!  It was published in 1951 for art school students, and while it may be a school book, it reads fairly well.  Most importantly, it showed me that effective design can actually be done without guesswork.  Yeah, who knew?

The other half of the book covers Color Theory.  Now, I'm color-blind and I'm not ashamed to admit it.  However, it goes without saying that I can struggle mightily with my "See the color, Paint the color" approach to painting.  This book shows how to approach color in a more selective and harmonious manner. What that means is that I can use a color scheme that I choose instead of being a slave to what lies in front of me.  It's a good work-around for my lack of true color vision.

If you are interested in this book, (and really, you should be) here's a link.  It is out-of-print, and some copies can be somewhat pricey.  Oh, I got mine for $2.50.  No lie.

While I was on my education binge, I decided to pick up another great book on the same subject of Design and Color Theory.  Andrew Loomis' Creative Illustration.

I've mentioned countless times of my great respect and admiration for the great Illustrators of the 20th Century.  Why I love them is because they were great Artists.  And what makes a great Artist in my book?  Great drawing, great color sense and superb designs.  Loomis was a Master in all three phases.

"But wait a minute, Kev," I can hear you say.  "You paint little landscapes and such, not illustrations."  To that, I say:  "It doesn't matter WHAT the picture is, an illustration, or a quiet landscape, it's how the painting was planned that is important!"  In this book, Loomis goes into great and very readable detail on how to make an effective, dynamic painting.  Maybe, like me, you're not all that interested when he elaborates about the difficulties in magazine illustration as opposed to bill-board adds, but his explanation of design and color makes it all worthwhile.  Luckily for us, this book has been reissued.  Go get it.

One last thought on all this new-fangled knowledge I've unearthed.  After immersing myself in these books, I was able to look at my own work with new eyes.  Instead of wondering where I went wrong, I could see and understand where my problems were.  I could even understand where I went right.  Hopefully, I can get it right a lot more in the future.

Who knew hitting the books could be so informative?


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