Monday 30 June 2008

Back from Chicago

Chicago went reasonably well.
Pretty much hung out doing not much of anything but watch my pal, Ethan, draw his ass off all weekend.
The news early Saturday morning of Mike Turner's passing was harsh; I had met and hung out with the gentleman a few times in the 90s and he impressed me as a big-hearted and friendly person. Another taken too soon.

Thursday 26 June 2008

Off to Chicago

Off to Wizardworld Chicago tomorrow. . . I hope!
United Airlines called earlier this evening and cancelled my morning flight -- no reason given, but the weather looks horrendous, so that might be it.
. . .Aaaand, I like drawing the Joker!

Sunday 15 June 2008

Starting At the End: Building a Better Comics Art Program

The Third Year

In this installment, I want to look at how the final semester of a third year comics art program could best be constructed for the graduate to best meet the program goals covered previously.

I’m going to structure all three years like this: two semesters, each 14 weeks long, each week consisting of 5 days with two 3-hour classes. This would likely be more flexible at the program neared reality, but it should serve as the armature to build the program around.

I had decided that most of the final semester would be taken up with Portfolio Development, but this will be the most atypical course in the entire program as various students will be aiming for various targets. With that in mind, let’s leave the time allocated to that until after we determine what’s important enough to take time away from it.

Professional Development would be such a course. A course dedicated to informing the student on the hows and whys of the functioning of the comics industry. Everything from making initial contacts, self-promotion, developing relationships, and publishing agreements of all the many sorts running about would be covered. Yeah, making sure the graduate knows exactly how to function in the industry is certainly important enough to take time from building the portfolio. Once a week for three hours.

Life Drawing. I expect that all of second year and first semester of third year would have more intense exposure to drawing from the model, having it scheduled once a week for 3 hours should be enough to allow continued growth.

Painting the Costumed Model. Another course that would allow the student to further develop skills and abilities introduced earlier. Thanks to digital media, painted comics are making something of a comeback, so continuing work with coloured media would be a positive development for more than just the computer colourists. I think one three hour session a week spent on a small painting would be adequate, though I’d prefer spending six hours on this.

Already I’ve taken 9 (or 12 if I expand painting) hours out of the students’ week to maintain skills support and provide career information. As far as an expected 40+-hour work week, I’m already cutting the students down to 28-31 hours to spend on their portfolio work per week. If they were mandated to come into the school three times a week with “off-days” either working from home or at the school facilities, they would get their first taste of independent work.

Our second semester could look like this, then:

Life Drawing IV
Portfolio Development
Unsupervised Portfolio Development
Painting the Costumed Model
Portfolio Development
Unsupervised Portfolio Development
Professional Development
Portfolio Development

The end result allows for three supervised (or mentored) work sessions for Portfolio Development as well as two full days of time allowed to do the actual work either at a home studio or at school facilities. The two fewer days allocating teaching hours should result in a slightly lower tuition if only for that last semester.

The cheesy drawing at the top really sums of up many aspects of this; there's a tremendous amount of. . . stuff to cram into a very small period of time.

By taking a good hard look at all the material and what the student really needs we might be able to find a way to more effectively concentrate the information to suit the delivery package.

Next time, when I go on about this I'll assemble what I think would make a good first semester for the third year.


Monday 9 June 2008

Building a Better Comics Program

I really don't think the contemporary methods of teaching art is either healthy or developing. Institutions are either stangnant and entrenched in the methods that have been in place for decades or looking too far back in art history for a different answer to developing realist skills. perhaps, when faced with the zombie state of the modern visual arts curriculum, digging up the even older corpses of art programs is preferable -- if only to avoid the stench of decomposition.

I had never done any course development or actual teaching prior to being invited to help build the comics program at the Max the Mutt Animation School at the beginning of 2006. They were really looking for a two-year add-on to their established first year Visual Arts Literacy program. Already established programs from the animation curriculum would be plugged in as appropriate, as well. Plug and play. I didn’t know enough to know how bad those initial decisions were!

Anyway, the government forms describing the curriculum needed to be written without really knowing how long things would need to be effectively taught or who would be teaching them. Lots of guessing was made in order to make the approval deadline to announce the program for the 2006 fall semester. In retrospect, some of that guesswork was right and some was wrong. Hell, some was downright stupid.

However, now I have a certain amount of experience and I’m in a position to think aloud about what would make an effective and versatile comics curriculum. I don’t want to be a Utopian here; I want to think along the ideas of what would function in the real world so I have to start with some limitations:
A three year program.
A year consists of 2 semesters of 12-14 weeks each.
Students should have 6+ hours of classes a day.
Students shouldn’t typically expect to do more than an hour of homework per hour of instruction.

I’ll also have to start with some goals, but that raises the specter of what I consider a weakness in what I already developed. One of the big mistakes with the previous program is that the goals aren’t there. The program gives students a very broad range of knowledge and skills, but advancing requires competence in all of them, even skills beyond the actual career needs the student requires. The idea was that graduates would be able to do it all and well or not graduate. Specialization isn’t taken into account; would-be inkers or colorists would have to pencil at a graduate level to, well, graduate. Understanding how to draw and do storytelling would certainly make these students better inkers and colorists, but potentially denying them a diploma for an uneven skill set is a problem when it won’t diminish their professional status.

Another issue I have is in weakening the program focus for parachute classes. A two-semester Children’s Book Illustration class was shoehorned into the third year. I was dubious about it at the beginning. I made attempts to have the focus shifted to Book Illustration and Production so the skills would be more transferable toward comics work (designing graphic novels, trade dress, understanding type, and etcetera.), but they came to naught. If a secondary set of skills needed to be enhanced to allow some sort of back-up employment, then the options should feed the main focus in some way. Most of the comics people I know have done both storyboards and concept art in addition to comics work, or have left comics to follow those careers. I’ve done children’s book illustration, it’s a very different field from comics with very few points of intersection with the comics skill set.

With some major weaknesses identified, I can address goals again:
Program should be versatile enough to allow skill focus and career specialization
Program should offer some education in related fields with a high degree of shared skills
Students should be employable upon graduation.

That last one is the biggie. Artists are usually like quarterbacks; they get better with experience and after they’ve been whacked to the ground a few times. Ensuring a student is ready to professionally pencil (or ink, or colour) a book after three years of college is a tall order.

With such a specific and modern set of goals, I really don't think that many of the old ways of doing things can be brought to the table. Spending 20+ hours doing an exact and measured study of a plaster cast may develop a valuable set of skills for the imaginative artist, but no broad-based 3-year program can really afford to take that much time on a single exercise without being certain the whole of it develops the student in the best and most efficient manner. The skills developed by doing precision work are valuable, but the resurgent Atelier system is too cumbersome for a modern program.

I believe it can be achieved, and I start to explore how I think it might be done next update.

Sunday 8 June 2008

Stealth Dwarf

Quick doodle from a D&D gaming session (new and improved fourth edition rules!) this past weekend.
It's my pal Stephen's character.
More serious stuff again later. . .

Friday 6 June 2008

The Evils of Kimon Nicolaïdes

I'm going to start with what will likely be a slightly controversial premise; there’s too much life drawing in first year art school.

Having said that so simply, I now can take the time to put that in context; if the goal is to produce a graduate who can enter a field where they need to draw the human figure from their imagination is paramount (comics, concept art, animation, storyboarding, etc.) the ability to draw from a nude figure placed upon a lighted stage is actually of little use.

Drawing from a live figure doesn't teach you how to draw from your imagination, it enhances the ability to draw from your imagination. If you cannot draw a reasonably competent figure from your imagination, then life drawing classes a nearly a waste of your time. This leads me to talk about the much-lauded life drawing course written by Kimon Nicolaïdes and what, exactly, is wrong with any school using it as the first-step for developing would-be art professionals.

I think I can speak with some authority on Kimon Nicolaïdes's The Natural Way to Draw and how it seems to be most often used in contemporary Art School classrooms. Years ago, when I went to Sheridan Illustration, it was the primary text for all three years of the life drawing program and I just spent two years teaching a Beginning Life Drawing course built off of the book (with small portions cribbed from Bridgman and Hale), so I'm pretty intimate with the work.

For those new to the book, it describes in great detail a program of drawing from the model, 3 hours a day, five days a week for 25 weeks. The course is varied and quite expansive, often using "ah-hah" kinds of exercises to get the student to develop a better understanding of energy, weight, mass and movement and how to represent it on paper. His language is often oblique or dense and feels like a book written for a different age, which it is; Nicolaïdes finished writing it in in 1936. That really shouldn't matter since rules of usage haven't changed that much in 70 years, but the contemporary student really shouldn't have to puzzle out meaning from baroque paragraphs vaguely describing the intent of an exercise.

An aside, Harold Speed's most excellent The Practice and Science of Drawing was first published in 1917 and reads far more clearly that Kimon's how-to book.

Back to The Natural Way to Draw; it posits an environment where the student draws for three hours every day for 25 weeks. Will a student get better for having gone through it? Yes, of course, most art students haven’t done that much drawing in their entire lives previous, so just the act of doing that much drawing will pay off with general improvement. However, I can't think of a single school that spends that much time with the model. One of the best things about Nicolaïdes's program is its intensity, and no one can follow through on it.

The school I just taught at was considerably more intensive than any other I'm currently aware of at two weekly 3.5 hour classes and a 3 hour lab (unsupervised drawing time with model) per week. In one year of two twelve week semesters you could theoretically cover most of the course. We didn't, actually only covering 8-9 weeks of it, with other elements (such as drapery) dropped into another course; Principles of Drawing.

With this less-then-perfect application of the program, what do we really have? An incomplete process to draw from a live model better than you did at the start. The Natural Way to Draw doesn't do what the potential visual arts communicator needs more than anything; teach him or her how to draw.

There's more valuable information in Buscema's How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way for the practical needs of the professional artist than in Nicolïades's book.

For an artist to apply gesture, line sensitivity, an understanding of weight and mass to an imaginative drawing there has to be something to hang those embellishments off of, some sort of process to create the figure without reference. Bridgman saw this, as did Andrew Loomis, Frank J. Reilly and (gah -- please don't think this is a recommendation) Hogarth.

Before an artist can really apply the benefits of life drawing to imaginative drawing he or she needs to be able to draw a reasonably accurate manikin and that requires an understanding of proportion and structure and the ability to judge the relationship between somewhat abstract shapes on a 2-dimensional surface. Starting new students with blind contour studies and running-line gesture day one is doing them a disservice. The only students who seem to thrive are those who already have a firm grasp of the basic figure entering the school.

If I were developing a new program that was intended to meet the needs of visual communications artists, use of the live model would be limited in the first year. Instead I would have the students study proportion, structure, their ability to assess what they've drawn for consistency and accuracy, and provide them with a variety of situational manikins to be able to draw the basic figure from their imagination. A model would be used during this process, but it would be limited, and in support of reinforcing the theory.

Once that was accomplished, then a full life drawing program could commence and the students could really start to glean useful information for their future careers. I'd probably still crib things from Nicolaïdes for that, but it would be with the understanding that the life drawing course would have to be in service to the careers of the students, not in service to an ideal of fine art drawing in and of itself.

Again and again, as both student as teacher, I've run into the situation where "not enough time" was the reason things weren't done more fully or effectively. Perhaps the solution shouldn't be to cram the traditional process into a smaller window, but to come up with a new process that understands how small the window is.

I feel I faced that challenge effectively for the Design and Composition course I developed, taking what should have been a year long program and produced a 12-week course that essentially forced the student to be constantly engaged in observing design around them while they learned the simplified principles and terms. I worked backwards from the goal and developed a process that made it inevitable.

Could that type of thinking be applied to an entire program for comics and concept art? I think so and I look forward to taking up that challenge in the future.