Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Frazetta Study

This was a painting I did back in January for a Crimson Daggers challenge.

Big step forward for when I made it, since there's a little bit of a sense of movement, but this was the extent of my planning it. I played with leading lines and all, and I liked the poses, but I'm still having trouble composing images with masses and shapes.

Frazetta's Conan the Destroyer. (Really, do I need to identify it :P?)

One of the things that's always gotten me about this piece is that it's so... chaotic. But, it's not confusing at all, the action, movement and shapes all read wonderfully. Most battle scenes, including the Pyles I've been trying to pick apart, resolve into big, simple shapes when I'm doing studies of them, but aside from the overall silhouette of Conan and the mass of bodies, I've had trouble figuring out how the masses are arranged.

Pushing it into value and raising the contrast helped a tiny bit. I can see how the big light shapes and dark masses spray out from the central figure of Conan, although I feel like a lot of the patterns I drew on it below are a little forced. I wouldn't count on them revealing anything useful. I also wasn't able to figure out anything about the pattern in the sky at first.

Opposing curved shapes?

This one was a little more revealing, I thought. There are 3 prominent axes in the painting, starting at the bottom right, moving up to Conan's raised weapon, and ending with the one buried in the guy's back. Highlighting those made me notice the similar shape echoed in the huge light break in the sky. Could be just seeing random patterns that aren't really there, although it suggests the idea that the lone figure's bringing the heavens crashing down on them. It also suggests a reason for that bright light shape on the left, which the axe and speared skull are silhouetted against.

This is all guesswork on my part, of course. This piece mainly works because Frazetta had an unrivaled imagination when it came to violent action, so everything about this piece- the arrangement, the poses, the thundering clouds- all ring with truth. I highly doubt that any of my cute lines and patterns were purposely installed.

Monday, March 12, 2012

More Pyle Studies

"The Battle of Bunker Hill."

Doing these comp studies at a small size forces you to ignore all the details - the minor separations of tone, the individual handing of each soldier, narrative details like the drummers, the bodies strewn about- and focus on the organization into large shapes. Most of the soldiers are organized into a big block. We can see the sheer number of people as it goes back in space, across the lit area in the midground. The large, simplified light and dark shapes are broken up by contrasting accents to add interest, something I'm starting to see more after reading a quote by Pyle's student, Harvey Dunn-

"Lick touches of light into the shadow field to give zip to the points of interest in the quiet tones and to tie the light field and the shadow filed together, similarly put a few flicks of dark in to the light field."

One of the most useful composition principles that we learn is to put the area of highest contrast your focal point. Note that it applies to much more than value- the highest value contrast we see here is in the background, with the dark smoke silhouetted against the white cloud. That's not where we first look, though. The focal point is on the soldiers in the foreground, where the tiny light, dark and red shapes form a pattern, contrasted against the economical shapes in the rest of the piece. Even more importantly, this is the area of the highest human interest. Unless you're doing something very wrong, a person will look at those areas first, not necessarily the point of highest value contrast.

As far as shape language, what I see most is the ordered, geometric shape of the soldiers marching forward, to meet the dark and looming, chaotic shape of the smoke from the battle. The contrast between order and chaos is the heart of the idea here. Note how perfectly in formation all of those soldiers are. I'd reckon that the vast majority of painters would try to ham-fist some "visual interest" into the scene by breaking up the poses in that formation. The rifles wouldn't all be straight; the light shapes formed by their legs and cuffs wouldn't all line up so perfectly. In Pyle's piece, he's at once staying true to the reality of how a military formation would have looked, and is emphasizing the idea of complete order and discipline, in contrast to the chaos of everything around them. We can almost hear the drum beat and the noise of battle, from the dark smoke cloud, and from the other bodies lying about- the ones nearby contorted, and the ones farther up the hill so strewn-about that their red uniforms make it look like a blood stain on the battlefield. That makes the main soldiers' bravery and discipline marching forward all the more incredible.

This one's another Pyle painting on Jekyll and Hyde. I couldn't pick out much from this one aside from, again, seeing how well and simply the light, dark and middltone shapes are organized. I did find one fun bit though.

The shape of the foreground guy's hand silhouetted against the light jumps out immediately, so it's obviously important. Look at how that shape is mirrored in the painting on the wall... and check out the sharp-angled shape of a beast's mouth about to bite it. Right there, that gives you an idea that Jekyll's about to turn into something quite dangerous. You don't need to know the story behind the painting to see it.

EDIT: I'll need to go back to studying that Jekyll/Hyde painting sometime. One of the risks of finding cool things like that painting on the wall is that it becomes easy to overemphasize the role they play. I thought about it a little and removed it in Photoshop to see what effect it would have. I don't think the piece suffered at all. Clearly, it's not as crucial to how we perceive Pyle's painting as I first thought. Lesson learned: always test your conclusions.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Comp Study of a Pyle

"When the World Seemed Young" by Howard Pyle

For this week's study I looked through a bunch of Pyle's paintings to find one where I could try to analyze how the shape language is supporting the central idea, without resorting to battle scenes, which tend to be more obvious (sharp angles, thrusting shapes, etc.). I can't begin to pick apart what makes most of Pyle's pictures work, but I tried to take a stab at this one. The main narrative of the man wooing the girl is already very clear, but like any good picture, that idea is being put across without needing to analyze what the characters are actually doing.

Before I started the study, I was already reading a few things. One is the common motif of linking the woman to nature, something you see in countless paintings. Her shape is linked to the flowering trees behind her, so the garden becomes a metaphor for her. The wall then becomes important- it's the barrier between us and the garden, and her by extension.

The block-in of the large shapes seems to support that idea. Rather than the silhouettes of the characters, the main thing we see is the wall, and the steps leading up to the arch-shaped entryway. The way is open, but we're not through it, just as the man is still outside the garden. His one foot on the step shows that he wants to go through and perhaps nearly is, which is the metaphor for his attempting to the woo the girl (since she is the garden).

After adding color and the smaller shapes, some more things start to jump out.

This I wasn't sure about, but I looked into it anyway, because the silhouetting of the man's dark hat of the light path behind it made me think it might be important. Possibly it's meant to show some affinity between the two characters, since the girl's own hat is also prominent with the dark shape within the lighter one. This affinity is expressed not only by the objects themselves, but by the similar shapes (circles in this case).

This was the very first thing that made me read into the idea of the wall and garden. The girl herself is the garden, but note that the pattern on her dress mimics the red, rectangular shape of the brick wall. It suggests that the man hasn't won her over yet- it is the wall keeping him out of the garden.

Another one I wasn't sure of, but I traced the path of the shapes formed by the pink, flowering trees to the read shape in the dress. Maybe it emphasizes her link to the background further?

That's all I have for this one. Of course, it's impossible for me to say whether any of it is accurate at this point. I can spend all day looking for metaphors and patterns, but unless I can use the knowledge to make strong pictures myself, I can't claim that it's the thing that makes the painting work in the first place. There's a lesson there- be very skeptical when someone shows you a diagram they drew over a painting and says "this is the secret to great painting!" If they can't use it to make a great painting, take it with a kilo of salt. Be scientific about the information you receive.

So, with that in mind, I'm learning here. If you have something to add, or think I messed up somewhere, please comment! We'll see if I can eventually use what I'm picking up from these studies to make my own paintings better.