Details Lecture Got Me Thinking…


Details, free lecture 1


The last time I taught my class on depth and details, I carefully explained how a different artists arrange and organize their details. That is the topic we will be exploring at length in the upcoming on-line class in March. It’s a class I have taught for years now, and a student favorite, but every time I teach any class, I forget stuff, but that’s OK, because I usually think of things that had never occurred to me before. When I began talking about the image below, and I began considering how the elements were arranged in this composition, I thought back on the (literally) thousands of times I arranged elements with different levels of consciousness. My classes often veer away from strict descriptions of technique, and I find myself pondering consciousness and the more esoteric and subtle aspects of creation… and surviving life as an artist.

Below is the image I was discussing, a classic “Orientalist Painting”:


This image was a good choice because there were not many elements to arrange; the composition being fairly simple. Of course, throughout the class, we will discuss far more challenging images, but there is a brilliant simplicity to this one that is good for starters. What we talked about was how carefully the elements were arranged so that clarity was maintained. Before I even get any deeper into this, that is what really matters in any detailed drawing. Any jackass can stuff a drawing full of details and snazzy rendering lines (I coined the term “line pollution” to describe the excessive meaningless lines that were such a big part of mainstream comics in the 1990’s), but the real challenge is to maintain clarity, and not just maintain clarity, but to arrange the elements and details in such a way that they add and enhance clarity, and furthermore, add rather than distract from the narrative. When working on a detailed image, the details must not obscure clarity on two levels, both on the visual and the narrative level, and comics being largely about narrative, that becomes especially important. Now, simple as this painting is, it is as deceptively simple as a McCartney song. Underneath the monolithic simplicity, it’s full of shimmering details on those large monolithic surfaces.

Let’s take the simple topic of how elements are arranged in a composition to maintain clarity. Yes, this painting is detailed, but it is composed of a few simple shapes and elements. There are really only five major elements that hold the entire painting together, and they have been very carefully placed… or have they?

OK, so what we have is two men, the column, the dark screen, and the furniture to the left of the picture plane, harmoniously creating a brilliant symmetry. The elements are simply placed light on dark and dark on light. The white man is on the dark screen, the dark man is against the light column, and the dark furniture is placed against the shadowy side of the light column and in front of a neutralized background. Obviously the painting would not have worked had the position of the men been switched, the lighter man would have been lost as would have the darker man. This is a fairly simple and obvious observation, but what is less clear is that the dark furniture to the left of the picture plane had been placed where it was to create balance within the composition.

And what became of interest to me, and to the class at this point, was something I’ve never talked about in all the years I have given this lecture.

Previously we had talked about how artists consistantly arrange their images and organize their details, making case after case for how the same artists made the same pattern-like decisions, often over and over again from drawing and painting to drawing and painting, then I got to this image and it occurred to me that not all artists and not all images fall together with the same intention, pattern, consistancy, or were driven by the same intent or sense of purpose. At least, not all of my drawings have.

It occurred to me that, often in my experience, the organization of the elements, and even symbolic and metaphoric elements, can fall into place in one of four ways. In the case of the examples we talked about in class the three artists we compared (Frazetta, Wrightson, and yours truly) had methodically and intentionally aranged their elements within the framework of organizational systems that were particular to them. Though each artist had (or has) a way of organizing their details with consistent systems from one image to the next, their methods of organization were entirely different from one artist to another, and you’ll have to take the class to see this explained. In other words, they did what they did so consciously that the patterns in their organizational systems could be observed by comparing one image to another, though each artist choosing their own organizational systems.

But what happens when we don’t have the evidence of repetition to demonstrate that artists hasn’t consciously made the same decisions time and again?

When I showed the above image I suddenly remembered the four ways elements fall into place in an image, or at least in my images. I asked my students, do you think the artist knowingly set out to create such perfect symmetry and balance in this world of fine details from the beginning? In this painting I would say the elements almost had to be consciously arranged. Do you think this methodical arrangement and organization of elements is always this consciously considered?

In the instance of the above painting, if the lighter man had not been placed above the darker background element, if the darker man had not been placed over the lighter background element, and if the furniture had not been placed where it was to tie it all together, the image would have failed. That much is obvious, but the question becomes did the artist have all that worked out with conscious intent from the beginning?

So, what are the four ways elements in an image fall together?

1) Wholly consciously, in which the artist has methodically controlled, planned and envisioned every aspect of the image with great intent from the beginning.

2) Unconsciously, then noted, refined and rearranged consciously.

3) Wholly Unconsciously, in which things just happened to work out.

4) And lastly, observationally, meaning the essential elements were pre-existing in the world and they simply had to render what they observed.

So, let’s talk for a moment about why the four ways elements in an image are arranged is important, and what that process says about the artist.

Let’s start with the fourth possibility, “observationally,” and work our way up to the first. Often, in nature, or in life, we observe things that catch our trained eye and inspire us to capture the symmetry, beauty, or whatever it was that interested us about what we observed. Very often we are simply given almost everything we need to know about the creation of a work of art from observation. Now, my assertion about this is that rarely do we see things in life or a photo that do not need our creative editing. No matter how inspiring a photo or moment in reality may have been, it almost always needs a little help when being translated into a drawing or painting. Let’s take a moment to look at two images side by side to prove this point:


Look carefully at the details in the above image, and I think you will see what I mean. The background elements have been ever so slightly rearranged to maintain clarity. We will talk about the specifics of that in class, but the point being that even though this was obviously a real environment, in order for the image to work, a few edits to reality had to be made for the image to work, and if the nature of those edits are not obvious, they will be explained in the class.

Let’s return to the painting we were originally discussing (at top) and possibility number 3, “wholly unconsciously.” This third level of thinking, wholly unconsciously, is usually the level at which young artists begin. They see things they like, but they usually do not know how to interpret what it is they are seeing, and if they do not know what it is they are seeing, they do not know how to reproduce what it is that they like. In other words, they arrange elements unconsciously, with an untrained eye, and whether or not they hit or miss can be entirely accidental. On the other hand, many great artists develop great instincts and can begin to do things that work wholly unconsciously… but this raises a whole other question… are the things a great trained artist does instinctively ever truly wholly unconscious? No, why? Because great artists have internalized so much knowledge and wisdom about art that when they work even their unconscious instincts are formed upon what they have internalized through years of disciplined practice and study, and this is why I insist on having my students spend so much time on anatomy studies and such. The more they internalize, the better their instincts will be, and the better their instincts will be the less they will have to suffer for great results.

Now, the second possibility, that being when an artist does something unconsciously, then notices which elements work and rearranges them consciously, said artist can play those elements up, can move them around and make their images stronger. In this case, often our unconscious instincts can reveal truths and possibilities to us that we can play with. I can’t tell you how many times I laid something out or began drawing and noticed a bit of magic happening that I hadn’t intended. When this happens it is a real glory and gift, and I usually smile and shout out excitedly… “Eureka!” At that point I often take those happy accidents and excitedly work to enhance them. In a sense those unconscious happy accidents can then consciously inform my future decisions as I work on the piece.

The final option, number one, “wholly consciously,” can become a double edged sword. On the one hand, artists who are wholly conscious from stroke one to the finishing stroke can be wholly in control, as true masters often are, but on the other hand, sometimes that much conscious control can lead to a stiffness and lack of spontanaeity that can kill the life in their work. In other words, in the right hands total conscious control can create stunning results, and in the wrong hands, total conscious control can deliver flat lifeless results.

So it seems that all of the possibilities have their own potentials for disaster and success. The only way to begin to ride the waves of consciousness is to become more and more aware of art and artists, of fundamentals, to learn, to study, and to take time to learn to do the hard stuff… you know, the bits that aren’t much fun.

Lastly, I would like to say that this has all really been a speculative exercise, but it raised interesting questions about the creative process and about the different levels of consciousness from which images are created. When you look at art, talk with friends about their work, or approach your work, ask… at what level of consciousness is that work being created? Asking questions is the best way in the world to begin raising your consciousness.