In the documentary Pumping Iron, there is a scene in which then-reigning Mr. Olympia Arnold Schwarzenegger is advising a young bodybuilder on his posing technique. The young man, going through different poses, tries out one in which his torso twists into profile and his left arm is extended with his hand pointing forward. Arnold immediately jumps on him for looking too timid:
Schwarzenegger: “Remember one thing when you pose. A lot of little guys, they have one habit, and they hide away when they pose. When they do an arm pose, they do like, like this [he hunches his shoulders forward and tucks his chin and elbows in]. Okay? And a big guy will come right out with his arm [flexes his bicep high with a tall, confident posture]. So never do that. Never hide away … Show them the whole thing. Make the move.”
I think this is powerful advice and easily related to being a visual artist. In a sense, this is about confidence, which certainly makes a tremendous difference, but it goes beyond that. The deeper issue this gets at is giving total commitment to your choices.
I was told something similar by one of my mentors when I was a student creating my very first portfolio pieces. I was doing a painting of a dragon and this dragon had little dragon horns coming off of his head. My mentor took out a piece a tracing paper and laid it over top and started drawing big impressive fearsome horns, telling me “if you want to put horns on your dragon, really go for it. Don’t make these little horns, make them big. Always see if you can push it further” and he then went on to do the same with the wings. Big, bold, decisive shapes. My shy little dragon suddenly looks believable.
I think about this on nearly every painting that I do. It does not only relate to designing creatures by far (something which I do fairly little of) but every aspect of designing a picture. You want to make a particular portrait in the composition your focal point? Push it. Do it with full commitment! Don’t just use contrast, bring in some leading lines. Bring in some color cues. You want to set a piece in the Victorian period? Push it. Don’t just put the figures in generic Victorian clothing, research some interesting and striking costume ideas. Design the hell out of the background. Furniture, architecture, wall paper patterns, hairstyles. Total commitment. Emotional mood in a painting, interesting lighting, design of characters, creatures, costumes, objects, compositional choices… every step of the way you need to eventually get out of the middle of the road and make decisions.
Don’t be timid, lazy, or uncertain. When you have considered various options and are ready to make a choice, put all of your faith and enthusiasm into it and always test if you are pushing your decisive moments far enough.
Just as in bodybuilding, the “little guys” in illustration hold back. The champions step forward and hit us with bold, authoritative work.
Show them the whole thing. Make the move.