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the beautiful, scrappy process

February 23, 2017

I've had this book for more than 25 years. I've read every. single. page of it. It was a christmas gift from my parents when I was in middle school. I poured over it as a teenager. Some chapters I've read many times over the years. I've stared at and studied the images so many times and for so long that I can't even remember anymore which of the many I've actually copied and which ones I've just scrutinized to the point that the lines feel as familiar as if I'd drawn them myself. 

 

One of the great ironies of art to me is that the process often feels more rewarding than the end product. I have yet to love every element of any of my finished illustrations. There's always something I could have done differently or better. There's always a compromise somewhere--some element that I loved but had to leave out in favor of something else. When I look back through old files of my artwork, I don't spend half as much time looking at my finished work as I spend flipping through the sketches and idea generations. I love the rough stuff. I love seeing visual ideas formulate and grow and improve. I love the movement and emotion in the lines that seems to get lost or constricted as the ideas and images streamline. I envy artists who manage to preserve that in their final work.

 

I follow Scott Gustafson on Instagram. In December he reposted process photos from an illustration he did a few years ago. I LOVE his artwork, but getting to see the process is a special treat. It makes that piece stand out to me from his other works now, when it might not have otherwise. I've seen what's underneath. I've seen a glimpse of the labor that went into it. I've seen the humor involved in the process that you won't see in the finished image.

 

All of that is what I love about this book. It's the loose, romantic beginnings of spectacular works of art, but also of the art form. There are 550 pages of sketches--character sketches, color tests, environments--all in their loose, emotive germination, before they became the careful lines and prescribed colors that we are so familiar with. Equally compelling though, is the process of creating the art form itself. I remember being mystified by the concept of squash and stretch, reading about it for the first time. I'd seen it everywhere but I'd never seen it before. Did those early animators really sense the significance of the things they were detailing and inventing, or was it only in retrospect that they saw the scope of what they'd done as they cataloged foundational principles of animation and troubleshot endless technical and hardware issues?

 

 

 

By the time we see an animated movie for the first time, it is so visually polished and carefully crafted to elicit a particular response, that it seldom occurs to us to wonder where it all came from. But watching "The Making Of" bonus material is where the real magic is. Watching that stuff gives me butterflies, I kid you not: increased heart rate and body temperature, tunnel vision, that bubbly feeling in my tummy like I'm either gonna barf or start making out with my TV screen. I love it. I love watching an idea come together. I love that it always starts out sloppy and emotional. Kinda like humans. Ironically, for as hard as I try, I can't wrap my head around ever actually being perfect at anything. The magic is in the refining and improvement process. Wouldn't perfection be boring?  If my art was perfect, would I never get to feel the butterflies anymore that the improvement process allows, or the excitement at the prospect of (and determination to) do better next time?

 

I should ask Scott. He would know. :)

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