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Gurney Journey

This daily weblog by Dinotopia creator James Gurney is for illustrators, plein-air painters, sketchers, comic artists, animators, art students, and writers. You'll find practical studio tips, insights into the making of the Dinotopia books, and first-hand reports from art schools and museums.

gurneyjourney.blogspot.com

Studying Art in Paris, 1902

Around 1900, it was common for young American artists to study in Paris. But not everyone was in favor of it.
Studying Art in Paris, 1902
Typical Life Class in Sculpture
In an effort to promote American schools, Edmund Talbott painted an unflattering portrait of what it was like for young women studying art in Paris.
"American girls going to Paris have no conception of the life they will be forced to lead: the obnoxious companionship, the antiquated, disease-breeding sanitary arrangements in the dwellings, the scanty food and liability of illness resulting therefrom, the dirt, the dishonesty, etc. These things they cannot, except in rare cases, escape....Idleness, the dissipation of energies resulting from the temptations incident to residence abroad have robbed proud prestige which they acquired in their American schools, and left them worse off than though they had remained at home."
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Some Facts About Art Study in Paris, Brush and Pencil, Vol. 10, No. 2 (May, 1902), pp. 122-126
Exhibition in Massachusetts: Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900 through September 3, 2018

How did you prepare for your career?

How did you prepare for your career?
A writer asked me a few questions about becoming an artist. 

1) What kinds of education, training, and practice did you do to prepare for your career? Anything special you’d recommend?
I had a general liberal arts education before I went to art school. I graduated first from UC Berkeley with an anthropology major. This turned out to be ideal preparation for doing archaeological illustration for National Geographic, though I didn't anticipate that when I was choosing a major. I was just taking classes that interested me.

I went to art school after my liberal arts education, but I left after two semesters, for three reasons. 1) It was expensive and I didn't want to be in debt. 2) The school I was attending wasn't teaching the information I was hungry to learn. 3) I started finding paying work in the movies and publishing that was much more challenging and interesting than what my friends were doing in art school.

As a result, I'm almost entirely self-taught in art. I signed up for a membership to the zoo and sketched live animals twice a week. I drew skeletons at the natural history museum. I developed my own curriculum of self-teaching based on the Famous Artists Course from the 1950s, How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way, Andrew Loomis’s book Creative Illustration, and the teaching methods from the 19th century French academy, which involved fairly detailed anatomy and cast drawing. All this self-teaching from books was combined with daily outdoor painting which became such a passion that I ended up coauthoring a book on the subject for Watson-Guptill called The Artist's Guide to Sketchingin 1982.

2) What are the most important skills to practice and/or master in your artistic genre?
I think traditional drawing and painting skills will always be valuable—things like anatomy, perspective, caricature, and multi-figure composition. Those skills transcend styles and fads and they're surprisingly rare these days.

My main influences were from before my time. Norman Rockwell was my childhood hero. As a high school student, I learned how to do hand-lettered calligraphy, and made my first income from designing wedding invitations. I got a job doing engraved line illustrations for ring ads in the newspaper. It wasn’t paying the bills. My big break was getting a job painting backgrounds for an animated film called Fire and Ice, co-produced by Ralph Bakshi and Frank Frazetta, and released in 1983. It was a marathon of painting, because I had to paint about 600 paintings in a year and a half. Whenever I have needed new skills for my career, I just teach them to myself.

How did you prepare for your career?
3) Do you have any recommendations for a person just starting out in the field?
1. If you put together a portfolio, show only your best work——eight pieces at the least and sixteen pieces at the most. Start and finish with your best pieces.

2. Don’t rely solely on electronic media to make contact with people in the business. Try to meet the art buyer. Go to conventions. Take workshops. And don’t overlook mailing traditional paper letters and printed leave-behinds. Since so few people do it these days, you might get your work up on someone’s bulletin board.

3. Always express a can-do attitude. On your first job, do twice as good a job as anyone would expect, and deliver it early. Make every published work your very best, regardless of the deadline or the budget. Then be sure to deliver more than you promise.

4. Some parts of the arts industry are more competitive than others. Fewer people think of scientific illustration or toy design, for example, compared to movie concept art. And within the field of concept art, many more people try to break into character design than environment design. I don’t think young artists should worry about standing out or developing a unique style. I think it’s more important to be able to draw nature faithfully and express visual ideas clearly without calling attention to style. Too often art schools push young artists to develop a distinctive style before they’ve even begun to master the basics.

5. Finally, to make a living by your art nowadays, you don't necessarily have to worry about winning the approval of the traditional gatekeepers (such as art directors, galleries, and movie studios) anymore. Thanks to Kickstarter, Gumroad, Patreon, YouTube and other crowd-based publicity and monetization strategies, you can assemble your own crowd and they can support you directly as you make your art. Start your own studio! Publish your own stuff! You can make art in the intersection of what you love to create and what people want to buy. That's why this is potentially the best time to be a young artist to enter the art world. But it takes persistence, grit, determination, flexibility, patience, and an understanding "significant-other".
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For tips on developing your social media strategies, check out the post: 72 Tips for Sharing Art on Social Media
For the best books to use for self teaching, check out: Best How-To Art Books and Art Students Survival Guide

Pleissner's Story about George Bridgman

Pleissner's Story about George Bridgman
American artist Ogden Pleissner (1905-1983) remembered:

      "I studied with [Art Students League teacher] George Bridgman for one or two full days a week for several years. Somebody told me when I went to art school that I had to start by drawing plaster casts. So I entered the antiques class and used to do Venus de Milo and everything like that. I remember we had a two-week pose on the Winged Victory on a full sheet of Ingres paper. I had that Winged Victory down to a "T." God, I had it all. It was very pale and I didn't lean on the charcoal too much. I had every crack in it, every little chip. It was really beautiful, I thought."
      "Then Bridgman came along and he said: 'Very good, but you haven't got the action on the figure that you should have, the action between the ribcage and the pelvis.'"
      "He took a chamois and dusted the whole thing off, and then took a big black piece of charcoal and drew all over it. Nearly broke my heart. But he was a damn good teacher."


Pleissner's Story about George Bridgman
Riviera by Ogden Pleissner
See examples of Bridgman students' life studies at Illustration Art
Excerpt from the book: Art of Ogden M. Pleissner. The book is the only major one on Pleissner and is loaded with color reproductions of his watercolors and oils. It's out of print, but quite reasonable.
Previous post: How do you feel about a teacher drawing over your work? (59 comments)

Maquettes and Imagination at Millburn High

Maquettes and Imagination at Millburn High

Yesterday I visited the advanced-placement art students in Millburn, New Jersey. Under the guidance of teacher and artist Kathleen Harte-Gilsenan, they built maquettes of a variety of creatures. 

When I got there, they lit and shot them and used them to inspire sketches in black and white gouache.

Maquettes and Imagination at Millburn High

I did a demo in gouache, painting from a dinosaur maquette. I showed them lots of originals, and took them through some case histories of paleoart jobs, all the way from first thumbnail sketches to maquettes and comps to finished oil paintings.

Maquettes and Imagination at Millburn High

We were lucky to have a surprise guest: Michael Mrak, gouache painter and Design Director for Scientific American. He brought in some originals from his collection, and he talked about visual communication from the perspective of magazine publishing. 

You can watch a brief video clip of these scenes on my Instagram page, Twitter feed, or Facebook page. While you're there, please subscribe to follow my feed.

Painting Mermaids at MICA

Patrick O'Brien, a professor of Illustration at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), has redesigned his “Oil Painting for Illustrators” class to appeal to the new generation of illustration students, calling it “Creature Creation Workshop.”
 
Painting Mermaids at MICA

They started by painting from dinosaur maquettes to get used to visualizing a creature in a setting with believable light. 

Painting Mermaids at MICA

Then they moved on to mermaids. The students looked at how mermaids have been portrayed in art history, and then did lots of sketches from their imagination.

Painting Mermaids at MICA

They brought in a female model to hold a mermaid-like pose (for the upper half at least).

Painting Mermaids at MICA

Patrick O'Brien bought some fish at the market so the students could do empirical research on the mermaid's lower half.

Painting Mermaids at MICA

They put it all together, with lots of drawings and studies to fit the mermaid into the environment they imagined.

Painting Mermaids at MICA

They did their final paintings in oil. Not many students get a such a rare chance to paint fantasy creatures based on real-life inspiration. 
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Animal Drawing at Otis

Great schools are made up of great teachers, and one of them is Gary Geraths, who teaches animal drawing at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. He has brought in camels (and belly dancers) to his class so that students can draw them directly from life.


Understanding what's going on beneath the surface is not always obvious, so Gary does demonstration drawings of the skeleton and the surface features.

He brings the students to the Page Museum, where they can sketch from articulated skeletons of animals that fell into the nearby La Brea Tar Pits.

Gary works with students of all ages, and he has taught other things, like rock climbing.

His knowledge of animals is extensive, and his demos cover sea creatures and invertebrates.

For students wishing to get jobs in animation or illustration, having a deep knowledge of animal drawing is extremely valuable, and a good way to set your portfolio apart from the competition.

Here's a video of Gary's animal drawing in action.

Because of the logistics of bringing in live animals, or bringing students on field trips, there aren't many schools who can offer such a thorough study of animals as Otis does, and there aren't many teachers like Gary. 
James Gurney visits Gary Geraths (center) and Bill Eckert at Otis in 2010
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Gary has written a book on Drawing Animals, which you can get from Amazon
or you can contact him directly for a copy

How to Train an Animator

In 1935, Walt Disney wrote an eight page memo to art teacher Don Graham outlining his ideas for how to train an animator.

Rico Lebrun works with Eric Larson as he draws a live deer in preparation for Bambi from Eye-Likey
It's a snapshot of what Disney was thinking about the art of animation during those formative years just before Snow White and Pinocchio, and it offers some ideas that might inspire current art teachers. Here are some exerpts:

"I have often wondered why, in your life drawing class, you don't have your men look at the model and draw a caricature of the model, rather than an actual sketch. But instruct them to draw the caricature in good form, basing it on the actual model."

"In [drawing the model] lifting, for example - or other actions - we should drive at the fundamentals of the animation, and at the same time, incorporate the caricature. When someone is lifting a heavy weight, what do you feel? Do you feel that something is liable to crack at any minute and drop down? Do you feel that because of the pressure he's got, he's going to blow up, that his face is going to turn purple, that his eyes are going to bulge out of their sockets?"

Disney observed that young animators often dwelled on the individual parts of the body that they were animating instead of the expression of the overall pose. To better understand expressive poses, he suggested setting up a translucent screen with the model behind the screen, seen only by the shadow silhouette cast by a spotlight behind, which was in fact an old parlor game.

He goes on to suggest ideas for teaching about the components of facial expression, staging, music, dialog, and the understanding of what drives the movement of the figure. "The driving force behind the action is the mood, the personality, the attitude of the character - or all three. Therefore the mind is the pilot."


In this video, Disney talks about how his in-studio training program went beyond the static poses that were taught in typical art schools by focusing on the flow of movement, action, and reaction. (link to video).

Walt's interest in an in-house studio was initially inspired by animator Art Babbit, who brought his fellow artists to his home to do figure drawing. Here's more about Art Babbit's role in animation education at Disney in the 1930s.

Artist Rico Lebrun was brought into the program later in the 1930s, primarily to help with Bambi. Read about his Disney art classes here.

Further reading
Online:
Full text of Disney's letter to Don Graham
Books:
The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston
Drawn to Life: 20 Golden Years of Disney Master Classes: Volume 1: The Walt Stanchfield Lectures
The Animator's Survival Kit by Richard Williams (great book by Roger Rabbit's animation supervisor, who learned a lot from Art Babbitt and other classic animators).

Plane Heads


Art teachers have proposed various schemes for simplifying the head into an arrangement of flat planes. Here are two plane breakdowns by Andrew Loomis, author of Figure Drawing for All It's Worth and Drawing the Head and Hands
Plane Heads
The one on the left is a simple breakdown, with front, side, and bottom planes. The one on the right subdivides the planes further. To be precise, some of these "planes" aren't perfect planes in the geometric sense, such as the curving planes on the top of the cranium.

Fred Fixler, a student of famed Art Students League instructor Frank Reilly, came up with a slightly different plane breakdown for an idealized male head. There are some rounded forms too. The cranium is a ball with the sides sliced off. 

Plane Heads
Sculpting the plane head brings the plane analysis into the realm of reality. This one is by painter and teacher John Asaro, who has a website called "Planes of the Head." He has taught head painting using his plane head. 

Many academic instructors have used plane heads as models before going to the live human, because it's much easier to accurately judge the values and color notes of each plane, compared to the infinitely variegated tones and curving forms of a real face. 

Plane Heads
Drawing and painting from plane heads is a central part of Chinese and Russian academic practice, and various companies have resurrected some of these art school models, such as this 21-Inch plaster head.

Plane Heads
This mini plaster head is very different from a European or American standard head, and the planes are broken down into a mosaic of small forms. But the ear is treated as a single plane.


Plane Heads
People will debate the merits of these commercially available heads, but I've never been completely satisfied with any of them. I think it's a great exercise for any student to come up with their own analysis, and that's what I did when I was in art school. Before I knew about Sculpey, I made this the hard way, sculpting a plastilina original, and then making a two-piece mold and casting it in plaster. Mine was inspired mainly by Loomis and George Bridgman.

I have set up my little plane head and painted him in colored light.

Once a student has had practice drawing and painting from idealized plane heads, and even sculpting their own breakdowns, then I think the next best step is to look at real human models and break the planes down in a unique way for that individual model. 



This was the method taught in a seminar I took from Art Center instructor Paul Souza, and here's an exercise I did in that class, scumbling white oil paint over chip board sealed with shellac.


In truth, there is no single ideal plane head, and even an individual model's face can be analyzed in various ways.

Dennis Nolan and the Hartford Art School


Yesterday I visited the Hartford Art School in Connecticut, part of the University of Hartford, to give a lecture about picture making and world building.

Dennis Nolan and the Hartford Art School
After the talk, a group of about 50 students invited me to do a watercolor demo. I had a great model, someone I've painted many times before: my good friend Dennis Nolan, professor of illustration and noted children's book illustrator

Dennis Nolan and the Hartford Art School
Since I only had a half hour, I used the most direct method I know for portraits, starting with big shapes of watercolor laid on wet with a big brush, and then finishing with a few details and textures with water-soluble colored pencils, drybrush watercolor, and a few touches of gouache.

Dennis Nolan and the Hartford Art School
Here's Dennis afterward with his daughter Evie, a student at Hartford. The painting is in a Moleskine water media notebook, using a Schmincke watercolor set.

If you're a high school student interested in studying illustration, I recommend the program at Hartford. It's led by not only Dennis Nolan, but also Bill Thomson, and Doug Anderson. The school also has a very interesting class on the science of art taught by Jeremiah Patterson. The illustration program is strong in observational drawing and painting as well as composition and imaginative realism, and the seniors create their own children's picture book from start to finish. They also recently added an animation component to the curriculum. The illustration program is very popular; this year they have the largest sophomore enrollment ever.
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Dennis Nolan's faculty page at Hartford Art School
Previous post on the Hartford Art School

Dinosaur illustration assignment at MICA

Dinosaur illustration assignment at MICA
Daniel Iturralde painting a dinosaur in Patrick O'Brien's class at MICA
Patrick O'Brien, who teaches illustration at the Maryland Institute of Art (MICA), came up with an assignment for his digital and oil-painting students. The goal was to paint a dinosaur in a convincing environment using the process outlined in my books and videos.

The classes began by watching my DVD "How I Paint Dinosaurs" and reading my books Color and Light and Imaginative Realism.

Dinosaur illustration assignment at MICA
Patrick brought in some of his own dinosaur maquettes, and the students sketched them from various angles as they developed compositional ideas in thumbnail form.

Dinosaur illustration assignment at MICA
Once they decided on their compositions, they photographed the maquettes and gathered images of background environments.

Dinosaur illustration assignment at MICA
Then they drew comprehensive layouts of their compositions based on their references, before going to finish. Both Patrick's oil-painting students and his digital students followed the same basic process.

Dinosaur illustration assignment at MICA
Julianne Ostrander portrayed her Stegosaurus on a high ridge with a dramatic view down to a lake. She captured the reflected light of the sun bouncing off the near dorsal plates to the far plates.

Dinosaur illustration assignment at MICA
Niki Sauter created this digital image of a dinosaur prowling through a moody atmospheric landscape. Kudos to all the students, and thanks to Patrick for working with my books and vids!

If you're an art teacher, and you want to use my books or videos in your class, please send me some photos and I'll try to feature them on the blog. Also if you order a classroom set of my books, I can do dino drawings in them and personalize them with the student's names.
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More about Patrick O'Brien
Previously: Painting demo at MICA
Studying Art in Paris, 1902How did you prepare for your career?Pleissner's Story about George BridgmanMaquettes and Imagination at Millburn HighPainting Mermaids at MICAAnimal Drawing at OtisHow to Train an AnimatorPlane HeadsDennis Nolan and the Hartford Art SchoolDinosaur illustration assignment at MICA

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