Over the course of my education I repeatedly ran into two disparate points of view regarding the creation of an image.
While drawing thumbnails, one’s first instinct is usually the strongest, and while one may continue to explore other possibilities for solving the problem, one will invariably tend to circle back to that first instinct.
The notion of trusting your instincts is something that I think appeals to a lot of folks. It certainly appeals to me. Considering how much I doubt my own work and process, the idea that at least the foundations of the image I’m creating are on target is a comforting notion. At least potentially.
While drawing thumbnails, one should take that first instinct and immediately discard it.
Why toss away your first instinct? Simple. The first instinct has the greatest likelihood of being a cliche, and as nice as low-hanging fruit may be, they’re not always the sweetest. With some sweat equity and pencil mileage put in, an image can be something greater. Or so I’ve been told.
During my schooling, I did not know how to reconcile the two views at the time, honestly. I was busy flying by the seat of my pants, trying to hand in assignments on time and pass all my courses while holding down a job. In practice, what I did was create a bunch of thumbnail sketches for each project and go with what I liked best. If challenged by a professor who felt that the first instinct was the worst instinct, I could point to some alternate take as that which I’d abandoned.
But in reality, none of my professors brought it up. Sure, I had professors from both schools of thought look at all my thumbs and challenge my thinking and process, but I was never held strictly to either philosophy.
Why was that?
Simple. I’m pretty sure that regardless of what any of my professors…professed, they knew that neither philosophy works 100% of the time.
In reality, one’s first instinct isn’t always the most cliched, so why dismiss it straight away? While one may have arrived upon a preliminary image via the most easily traveled highways of one’s brain, that doesn’t necessarily make it a cliche. More likely than not, what it means is that it’s as straightforward a take on something as possible. It’s a version that likely communicates the idea fairly directly and succinctly. But that doesn’t mean that it’s the right solution for every challenge.
And maybe that first idea is a bit obvious, a bit tired, a bit of a trope. Does that automatically make it bad? It really depends on the assignment. Sometimes a cliche is exactly what an assignment calls for, but only you and your art director will know for sure.
That being said, putting in the hours doesn’t always mean that something better is going to come along. It very well might—even if the evolution is minute—but it’s not a guarantee. Still, if all that is accomplished with the extra effort is to prove the strength of that initial concept, then it was worthwhile. If nothing else, you go into the piece with that much more confidence.
So what do I, Steven Belledin, actually do? Well, frankly, my technique hasn’t changed much from my college days, as written above. I do a bunch of thumbs and build a sketch from my favorite one. Sometimes my favorite one was my first take. Sometimes it’s my tenth or twentieth.
Anyway, here are some pieces and a discussion of each in terms of which philosophy applied.
Mikaeus, the Lunarch
On other hand, there are these:
Surgical Extraction/ Surrender
(the Magic card’s name is “Surgical Extraction,” but I’ve never loved that title for the painting. Hence Surrender).
For me, neither philosophy is something I’ll ever be able to adhere to. Sometimes, that first take ends up being the strongest. But only sometimes. And so I’ve kind of settled on this philosophy:
An image requires the amount of exploration that an image requires, and no two images are created equal.
But you don’t have to listen to me. There’s anything wrong with buying into either of the above philosophies and adhering to them. Part of becoming an artist or an illustrator is learning about yourself and what works for you. If you know that you’re prone to cliched takes on things, then adapting to that may be something you need to do. Or not. What works best for each of us is something we just have to figure out along the way.
Even then, because we don’t live in a vacuum, our processes may be affected by external factors—time crunch, the needs of the client, and the complexity of the challenge at hand. Some jobs are incredibly intricate in the stories they need to tell and the ideas they need to convey. And sometimes the out-of-the-box idea one has diligently worked at over a hundred thumbnails is dropped in favor of the idea one has discarded as low hanging fruit. So, flexibility is prudent.
A few last things:
I’ve found over the years that what works with one art director may not work with other art directors, meaning that some art directors consistently have responded to my first take on things when presented with it, while others consistently have chosen an alternate sketch. I don’t always know why that is, but the why is fairly unimportant. It’s just something I need be aware of when working with each individual art director.
Additionally, things that work for a client today, may not work for them tomorrow. Tastes change. When I first started doing work for Magic: the Gathering, my first instinct often gained traction and was approved. However, as time has gone on, my first take has been increasingly rejected and the exploration sessions in search of a version we’re all happy with have gotten longer and more difficult. The sweet spot is harder for me to reach. Such is life. Neither we as artists, nor our clients stay in the same place forever. We’re all constantly evolving.
Issues like the dueling philosophies I’ve discussed can be a frustrating feature of education (not to mention life). Many of us just want to know what the “right” way of doing something is and the introduction of competing ideas can be difficult to navigate since they buck the notion of a “right” way altogether. We must, each of us, instead endeavor to find our own “right” way. And so the rules and philosophies each of us wind up working by will—in the end—be our own, and will change and evolve along with us.