Through the Artist's Eye
There are dozens of training manuals, DVDs, and courses for 3D Studio, Maya, Flash, and just about every other popular software program, but what about brushes, pens, and paint? Training materials for storyboarding, matte painting, or concept design are more than hard to find; they're practically nonexistent — until now. Gnomon, the Los Angeles-based visual effects school recognized an opportunity and came up with The Gnomon Workshop library of training DVDs for visual effects artists. If you are interested in illustrating concepts for the movies, check out the DVDs in this excellent series.
This is a breakthrough publishing effort with 100 titles covering a broad range of digital and analog techniques. Many of the DVDs teach such software skills as Z-Brush or Maya — there's nothing new about that — but then we come to dozens of DVD titles aimed at painters, sketch artists, and sculptors. For whatever reason, all the other training companies have missed the opportunity to provide materials for aspiring painters and designers.
The approach to each DVD is essentially the same: A well-known industry professional presents a single painting, sketch, or modeling project from beginning to end in the course of two hours (a few are longer). An unusual feature is that work is performed in realtime so that the student sees every step, and even a few missteps, as the artists convey specific techniques and insights into his creative process.
There are 40 two-hour DVDs that, in total, represent a minimum of one year's worth of instruction if students dig in and practice the techniques shown. While several of the titles teach traditional art skills in software such as Photoshop or Painter, the emphasis is firmly on art and design, not software. The range of titles is impressive and includes drawing and painting fundamentals such as Basic Perspective Form Drawing and Value Sketching, as well as very specific categories like Creature Sketching and Architectural Interiors. Most of the artists appear on two to five titles, which is helpful because this gives you better insight into each artist's style and his way of approaching a design project. ILM concept painter Ryan Church, for instance, has three DVDs on the subject of architectural design and vehicle concept painting. I watched all three, and viewing an artist's approach to different design challenges exposes an artist's thinking process and problem-solving strategies. This is invaluable when creating illustration without reference.
What makes the series so good is that all the DVDs are based on projects that the teacher/artist might be doing any day of the week for a movie in production. Viewers are treated as serious, dedicated up-and-coming professionals — the workshops are valuable to beginners, but they are really aimed at intermediate students. A good working knowledge of Photoshop or Painter is necessary, as well as a high degree of drawing talent. If you are not in that group, the DVDs may be fun to watch, but they could be frustrating.
Each of the featured artists is responsible for the narration. Technique is covered, but matters of style, illusion, and taste are also discussed. A dose of art history balances the influence of a strict diet of movie illustration. For new art students, this is invaluable, particularly because the computer has given rise to a generation of art hobbyists — autodidacts, really — who are interested in digital science fiction and fantasy illustration (just visit renderosity.com).
At the end of 2004, Gnomon introduced four volumes of The Techniques of Syd Mead. A highly influential artist, Mead has been painting and drawing speculative and science-fiction art for more than 40 years. His early career was spent at various automotive companies and design studios where he built a reputation as a skilled painter and concept designer. By mid-career, Mead was discovered by Hollywood and lent his talents to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, Tron, Aliens, and others.
The Syd Mead series covers the process of making a detailed gouache painting from concept sketches to final painting. The first session shows Mead sketching a futuristic car and environment from several angles in order to better understand the dimensionality of the subject and to find the most exciting composition. Individual elements such as the car, foliage, and people are quickly sketched in several versions as Mead shows his design method to the viewer. After Mead has the basic composition worked out, another round of sketches is done to establish the value or tonal range of the picture. The final “approved” sketches are scanned into the computer and placed on separate layers in Photoshop. This allows Mead to reposition the individual parts of the picture to refine the image to the final composition.
The next step is a small color study. This is worth the price of the whole series because Mead is teaching the underlying method for almost all painting and illustration technique. Establishing the color scheme and the value range is a core skill in painting, and seeing Mead work it out while explaining the process is invaluable. If you ever wondered how artists achieve their effects, this DVD is what you would see if you visited their studio and watched them work.
In the final lesson (volume 4), the completed painting is undertaken, providing a highly revealing look at brush technique and detailing. Illustrators interested in developing an organized method for making a realistic painting will have plenty to study and learn in The Techniques of Syd Mead.
Church is a leading concept designer working at several studios, including Walt Disney Imagineering, Universal, and Industrial Light and Magic. He also served as a design supervisor for Star Wars, Episode 3. He is featured in several Gnomon DVDs, including Rendering Hi-Tech Architecture and two volumes on vehicle design and painting. Unlike the Syd Mead DVDs, Church completes a single painting in two hours for each subject.
Rendering Matte Vehicles shows painting techniques using Corel Painter, but the majority of the skills shown apply to Photoshop or any other paint program. Painting an image without reference is a real obstacle for many artists. Church demystifies the process by explaining how lighting works and how it determines the look of metal, glass, and other smooth surfaces. There are many books that cover lighting and other aspects of painting, but these are almost all instruction for painters using clear reference. How do you show an artist how to paint what is in only the imagination? DVD, it turns out, is the ideal medium to illustrate an artist's thinking process. Church is an experienced teacher and is very articulate about perceptual issues that make a painting work. There are also interesting discussions of the storytelling aspects of a concept illustration.
The Church and Mead DVDs will be useful for experienced painters and a revelation for artists attempting to create illustration from the imagination. Although the DVDs are not aimed at beginners, anyone starting out could hardly find a better introduction to concept and design. The DVDs present material that will take weeks or months of practice to fully understand. Just copying the paintings and making a few modifications will take time, and applying them to original concepts is an ongoing experience.
I have looked at several other Gnomon Workshop DVDs, and they are all of the same high quality. Even working professionals may pick up a few tricks because all the Gnomon Workshop instructors are leading artists in their field. The depth of the series, with so many aspects of painting and drawing covered, is particularly helpful. Church covers rendering shiny and matte vehicles, but then there is also a DVD by Harald Belker, Digital Rendering of a Vehicle in a Scene. It's great to see two different top professionals tackle the same subject. On top of that, there is a vehicle sketching DVD by Feng Zhu. Environments and creature design are also covered by multiple artists in the series.
These DVDs are reasonably priced, and there is group pricing for the entire series. This is expensive but a lot less than art school. Most importantly, they are inspirational. Turning a blank canvas into a professional illustration without reference is a huge challenge for any artist. The Gnomon Workshop DVDs are the first series to take on this elusive subject. By creating dozens of related titles, Gnomon gives students the equivalent of a year in art school. This is an excellent series and worth every penny. Highly recommended.