Fall Travels Part 2: England & The World Fantasy Convention 2013

Calendar Proof!

On Friday the calendar proof arrived!

Blog_Proof2Venetia and I looked through it and all the images are vibrant and look gorgeous which means that today (Monday the 18th) it is going to press and printing.

Blog_Proof1You can order the calendar through the Clarion Indiegogo Here.
For a limited time only!

UPDATE: The calendar is now on sale HERE.

But now, back to our previously scheduled travel journal.  We begin with:

LONDON

After a short morning flight from Reyjkavic and the necessary adjustments to my phone, we began our trip from Heathrow into London proper. The long tube ride punctuated by the posh recorded voice of an eloquent woman saying, in the loveliest way possible, “Cockfosters. This is the line to Cockfosters” at every one of the many stops.

When our nebulous plans for adventures in the north fell through, we sought housing advice from our friends on Facebook, and the Sapphire Hotel (recommended by Brook) proved a lovely choice, at a good price for London, good location close to the underground. Sadly however, they had room at the inn for only the first night of our impromptu London bivouac. It wasn’t long after our arrival that we fell into a…
Nap. Surprise! We awoke in time to meet up with our International Discworld friends Richard and Amy. From Charing Cross and Nelson’s fabled Column, we through the Strand, stomped by the Savoy, and dodged as artfully as we could through ancient tunnels filled with Friday Night revellers and spilt ale.
After a Bistro dinner and delightful tale-telling, we wandered east to St Paul’s Cathedral (sight of shenanigans in Robert Rankin’s recently-read The Japanese Devilfish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions) by way of the Twinings Tea offices and Fleet Street, admiring architecture high and low.

EnglandWFC'13_045After Cornflakes in the Sapphire Hotel (not much else we can eat these days it seems, with eggs and gluten counterindicated by doctors), we packed our bags and headed up the street in Shepherd’s Bush (is it just me, or does everything in London sound like a euphemism?) to the vastly more-expensive Ibis Hotel. Given how limited our choices were, I suppose we should thank our stars we found a room at the inn at all. Then, duly ensconced, we headed out to lunch near the National Theater at Waterloo with Jessica Rabbit, who we had met en route to Cairns Australia earlier in the year. We had an absolutely splendid time with her – walking about with the tourists in the food markets and hearing tales of East Indian parades, talking US politics and UK Remembrance Day.

EnglandWFC'13_082When we tried to travel to the Docklands for a long-anticipated meeting with Aly Fell, we were foiled. The Docklands Light Railroad was closed, and our attempts to circumvent the closure were met with an almost farcical lack of knowledge and savvy by the staff of the train lines. So, we made the sensible decision and called it a day. We got amazing (and gluten-free) Ethiopian food upon our return to the Bush (do they call it “the Bush”? We would in the US I think). Ethiopian seems like one of the best cuisines for current diet, though gluten is often mixed with teff for injera, so even it is not foolproof.
After our daily allotment of napping, we lounged in bed, wrote blogs and drew Small Gods and wondered if aliens would soon be arriving in our bathroom pod.

EnglandWFC'13_108Oxford

When planning our trip to Oxford, Shepherd’s Bush proved a very lucky headquarters indeed. Rather than schlepping our baggage to Victoria to hop the Oxford Tube (a 2-level red omnibus, natch. because really, why call something by its name when fostering (cockfostering?) confusion is so much more fun?), we discovered that the coach stopped a mere 2 blocks from our latest hotel. And while seats were at a premium, we found room across an aisle and made excellent time to Oxford. (We were able to remember our stop by the rhyme “Oranges and lemons, the bells of St. Clemens”.)

I had met Maha many years ago in Laurel Maryland, but I hadn’t seen her since her days in the south of France, and I’d certainly never met her wife Sinead. While they had not loved their time in Oxford (where Class is less something one attends than something one is born into), they knew it well and were exceptional tour guides. And while I had not expected to even be in Oxford (we’d met them there only because they had attended a weekend wedding), the timing proved incredible.

EnglandWFC'13_229As we wandered the city and campus (technically one of the campuses), we came across the Bodleian Library, and the most surprising and exceptional exhibit – Magical Books. It was not a large exhibit, but oh what a trove!
JRR Tolkien’s original illustrations for ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’, manuscripts from Susan Cooper, drawings by CS Lewis, JK Rowling’s drawing in a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ labelled “Snape contemplates the unfairness of it all”, John Dee’s marble Magickal Table, illuminated Bestiaries, and books books books. We’d have taken pictures inside if allowed, but this photo of the outside board will have to suffice:

EnglandWFC'13_206After a look to the Oxonian halls that served as Harry Potter sets, we took a all by the park where we saw cattle seemingly unchanged since they’d been the subjects of paintings hundreds of years earlier. We saw deer and cranes, and what Maha assured us were loads of entitled young bounders in boats, rowing.

EnglandWFC'13_285 copyWe took our food (and beer for our hosts) in an alleyway Oxford bar that’s existed forever and set off at sunset in Sinead’s car for the Solihull home of Liz and Matt. The drive passed swiftly, and a discussion of the UK’s regrettable User Interface led to her revelation of the worst sign she’s seen in her time there. See if you can parse it:
“AMBER GAMBLING SNARLS TRAFFIC”.

We arrived in time for takeaway Indian dinner, and a Sunday evening tradition: a group of musical aficionados gather by their laptops and listen to music from around the globe. This week, in honor of horror and encroaching Halloween, each member had contributed a song that truly scared them. And the variety was great – The Bonzo Dog Band fought Eurotrash metal. Children screams and wailed. The uninflected voices of sober scientists gave terrifying news and people shivered in rooms from America to Norway.

And saddest of all, we learned that Lou Reed had died. Strangely, Liz had chosen a song of his for the folio, and we raised a toast to him. Later we watched ‘University Challenge’ (which I would not do again. It felt like the loathsome rich kids in the ‘Seven Up’ series wailing on the much nicer and much poorer ones. Besides, my time of caring exactly which year something happened is long past), and ‘Only Connect’ which I loved and enjoyed playing along with. Though having Matt and Liz and Venetia on our team was surely the key to the Home Team’s victory. We ended the evening with ‘Nevermind the Buzzcocks’, the first time I’ve ever seen it new.
I enjoyed the music magazine ‘The Word’ while I was there too – especially the lead articles on Ray Davies and Richard Thompson. Such a delight to be in the home of such music lovers!

Liz greeted us at noon the next day with a tray of food we could (and indeed would) eat! The variety was astonishing and delicious. Venetia made the acquaintance of Nutella, and the two hit it off admirably.

LizBirmingham_12(Photo by Liz)

After breakfast and talk we ventured forth with big plans to see the sights of Birmingham, England’s “Second City”. But we did not take in the grandeur of the classic artworks and ancient churches, not even a little. Instead we stopped in Sparkhill intending to run an errand or two, and found ourselves entranced by the wonderful shops food and people. While Liz helped Venetia try on suits and saris in the Islamic Charity Shop, she had a dreadful pause to think “oh no. I’ve left Lee out there with all those devout Muslim ladies!” She needn’t have worried of course. After some respectful conversation about mirrors and their mountings, Liz found me “holding court”.

EnglandWFC'13_014Most happily, the ladies in question were so enchanted with Venetia’s pixie self in the first outfit, that they sought out others they felt would be better choices for her complexion- returning swiftly with dresses in “more Mughal” colors. Happy as we were for the excellent expert advice, the Eritrean woman behind the counter was even happier – she hadn’t any more idea how to fold the sash than we had. I suspect everyone there will be talking about that day for some time to come. I hope so anyway!

LizBirmingham_8The next day we slept in while the rest of the house got cleaned, venturing downstairs late, eating and relaxing (and making some Small Gods in advance of the busy convention weekend). But most of all we were watching movies – a rare treat for us indeed. Despicable Me, Big Trouble in Little China, and the most recent Muppet movie. All in the comfort of Liz and Matt’s home.

LizBirmingham_13(Photo by Liz – Daily Small Gods)

World Fantasy Con 2013 in Brighton

We took the almost unbelievably cheap first class train from Birmingham into London, eating and drinking in right high style, even as I mourned Thatcher’s privatization of the common weal. Strange to think that it has been so long since my 1988 trip, when her menace was ever present. Now her bitter greedy legacy, like Reagan’s in the US, is a fact not just an omen.

When we changed trains (and stations) in London, we spotted a comrade in arms (well, in books) also looking for the first-class car to Brighton. Ewa (pronounced “Evah, like forevah and evah”) was heading south to volunteer and made a most delightful traveling companion. Wherever we needed to be over the weekend, she was always there, one step ahead of the game. The volunteers were splendid, and overall the convention was a delight. Some details, hints and tips:

Should you come to Brighton, do not stay at the “Hilton” Hotel Metropole. While lovely in some particulars (the architecture in the old lobby and breakfast spaces, stairs and bar) the convention space was a pretty ghastly affair – non-Euclidean and a nightmare for anyone with impaired mobility. and our room was a bad joke- an overheated sauna that could not be cooled, a bathroom backlit for one’s shaving convenience, toilets that didn’t flush until the 8th try, faucets that could have used a proper Vice-Grip to use, windows that opened a mere 4 inches, surly service, a convenient built-in drinks refrigerator just to “hold” your drinks, not to actually cool them. But perhaps the egregious scalping of internet service (15 pounds per day here, but free at the less pretentious TravelLodge, natch) was worst of all. No communication with the outside meant no updates, reportage, tweets or any of it. So the account that follows is one from my dim exhausted brain, rather than accurate or up-to-the-minute as I had hoped in advance.
I did hear great things about the nearby Granville though.

So many lovely people that I cannot begin to list them all. But starting at the beginning, we bid Ewa goodbye and got registered. The hard-cover program book lovely, but both outdated (neither China Mieville nor Alan Lee made it to the show) and deeply impractical for foreign travels given the tiny book bags provided. After a much needed nap we arose for the Early party and took in the lay of the land.

Halloween dawned with breakfast in the big hotel dining room where we were placed next to birthday girl (and fashion plate) Shannon Page and artist (or is he still author?) Mark Ferrari. Both had come from Portland, but had come a week early to the country and spent far more time in the mighty Metropolis of London than we.

We’d gotten much of the art show hung by the time we met Simon and Julia Indelicate for lunch. Brighton is their old stomping grounds and we spent not just lunch but the better part of the afternoon with them – traveling through town, picking up last minute printing, and admiring the shops. Every bit as interesting as their records suggest, we hope to see and hear much more of them in the near future.

EnglandWFC'13_023That said, before Andri’s house party in Iceland, we’d not heard of the onerous tariffs that the US has placed on foreign musicians. Quite horrible for The Indelicates as well, locked out of the US by trade restrictions. The US – Where trade is apparently everything unless it’s creative….

By the time we returned to the Hotel, the joint was jumping. No longer a few lost souls wandering aimlessly, the volume level was very high and people were getting into the spirit of the convention.

Dinner on the first full day was taken with Todd and Rita Lockwood, because seeing people from the Pacific Northwest is clearly easier in Brighton. Delicious lamb and rice and fool….

There was no trick-or-treating, but a few brave souls dressed up and made the evening a little more jolly than it otherwise would have been. The censorious and scolding tone of the Convention’s messaging happily forgotten for a little while.

Ben Rosenbaum turned up here and there, I wish I’d taken a good picture of him with Ted Chiang, talking like undergrads on the giant staircase. We got to speak at greater length on Sunday, and I hope a curious game may result in the coming months. :)

I got to show the ineffable Mary Robinette Kowal the pin-up I’d painted from The Year Without a Summer for the Clarion Pin-Up calendar. And the night of the Mass Signing, We got signatures in the 2013 version from Robin Hobb, Pat Rothfuss and toastmaster Neil Gaiman (whose kind words about my portrait if his wife were most appreciated). Sir Terry Pratchett was briefly glimpsed, but his time is without price, and we are delighted he made it at all. Were that Ray Bradbury had been able to join in around this literary Halloween Tree….

Mary introduced me to author and blue-haired book maven Nene from Malmö in Sweden (the second of the long weekend’s birthday celebrants), and I hope to see much more of her in future. Knowing she will be present in Wisconsin come May tempts me to Wiscon and House on the Rock, but plans for my impending 50th birthday party might make that untenable…. Bird lover that she is, I was delighted to introduce her to her Hawaiian namesake in a rare moment of internet function.

The dinners (and occasionally lunches) seemed to fall in thematic patterns – Portlanders (David, Kate, Shannon, Mark), Art Show Staples (even though we went with John Picacio and Tara, we found ourselves across the empty Indian Restaurant with Les and Val Edwards and the Zipsers), DC 2014 World Fantasy Con planners (Peggy Rae, Colleen and …), DC Friends of mine unknown to one another (Nancy Greene and the Zipsers) and finally the infamous Frenemeses category- one from Tel Aviv, one Jerusalem (each would rather die than live in the others city), one Brooklyn, one Riverdale (“you’re such a Jersey Girl” says Barry the agent to Laura Anne Gilman, his client), one birthday Swede, our duly-appointed member of the press in PreRaphaelite glory, and me. Mad fun in a BBQ restaurant that, in striving for verisimilitude with is US counterpart, served obscenely large portions to the shock and awe of all present.

In the midst of the madness, I took the time to participate in a fun and quirky project by Shanna Germain and Monte Cook: We Are All Strange.

The Art Show space was as well arranged and run as possible, given the peculiarities of the space. Brava to Val Edwards – there was no drama, no fretting and the clear understanding of a dab hand at work. The couches and tables a terrific idea, and the artwork quite impressive – though we all missed Alan Lee, and admit to some disappointment that Greg Manchess left his things at home, it was a real treat to see the works of Pennington, Edwards, Picacio up close. While the Artists reception felt under-attended, those who did attend we’re attentive and interesting. I enjoyed showing Neil Gaiman the portraits of “Good Omens” stars and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and meeting the wonderful Frenchmen who purchased my work. And it was the French who did, the British didn’t (beyond Neil) seem to care much (a fellow from the Isle of Man suggested it might be too spicy for the UK, but really? Pictures of Doctor Who and Small Gods? I suspect the real answer is a dearth of wallspace, love of books, and an economy that’s still a bit dodgy). Happily, the French Publishers Bragelonne bought 2 of my pieces for their offices, and I greatly enjoyed my conversations with them. Perhaps we can work together in the future. I do hope so. Especially if my intermittent discussions with Centipede Press about doing a book about the sculpture of expatriot Henry Clews Jr. one day come to fruition….

Seeing people from so many countries with a common bond led many to discussions of Family, and reunions we in evidence everywhere one looked. Overall, I’m glad we went and I hope that next year’s version will bring so many from overseas.

Postscript: Plane Home

Overheard as the London plane disembarked in Iceland: An adorable woman in sweater, coat, and fuzzy technicolor hat to the African Man who’d been seated next to her watching “Wolverine”:

“It doesn’t GET cold in Australia. This coat is too tight at the arms. Must be my massive guns…. Do you know Harry Potter?” He does.
“Well, it’s kind of a… thing in my life. I bought a BIG mug while I was there. The woman at customs didn’t like it. ‘What IS this?’ It’s a mug I replied. You drink out of it…. She was SO unhappy with her life”.

We arrived safely in Seattle, where we were rescued at our very low ebb by Rob. How lucky to have such fine friends!

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R E S P E C T

Like many of my predecessors of the past century, I use models for all of my paintings with human figures and, in all but a few cases, I direct the photo shoots to get the exact reference I need to paint from. And most of you reading this will be aware of my Pin-Up Calendar and some of the good it’s done for charity. I suspect that’s why I was contacted last week by Jim Hines about my thoughts on the topic of sexism in SF/F. I have been following Jim Hines’s projects with interest, amusement, and a bit of an editorial chagrin. (Really Jim, you want some other kind of cover for the book Esther Friesner intended to call “Fangs for the Mammaries”?)

ShirtPART 1: THE INTERVIEW

Jim Hines: “Do you believe sexism is an issue in SF/F art, and why or why not?”

Yes. Just as I believe racism, classism, and perhaps most dangerous of all, capitalism are.

Why is it an issue? Because people in the SF/F field are leaders, not followers. All of these isms are pieces of the human condition – the very area that our field claims to excel in exploring. All of them need to be dealt with. There are enough clever and sensitive people in our field and we need to be paying attention to and caring about these issues. Who else would think of having an award named after James Tiptree Jr.?

Jim Hines: “If so, where do you believe that problem comes from?”

It clearly comes from society. To paraphrase Madge in the old Palmolive commercials: “We’re soaking in it.”

It comes from fearful publishers and advertisers who know that “sex sells” in a country where “Prurient” and “Puritan” are all-too-often synonymous.

It comes from a culture that has become increasingly… disembodied, where the life of the mind is out of sync with the life of the body.

Sex is powerful, and sexism is a clear and present danger.

Jim Hines: “What’s the difference between painting a beautiful, sexy woman (or man) and objectifying them?”

This is perhaps a more difficult question than you intend. In my experience, the intent of the artist matters very little. Objectifying is, like beauty itself, in the eye of the beholder.
Robin Hobb, a participating author in my 2013 pin-up calendar, said it wonderfully:

“Lovely, scantily clad humans are sex objects only to people who objectify other human beings. And those people do that no matter how draped that person might be. In 1967, a Jesuit priest observed to our class that he really did not see the sense of a dress code, as an immodest girl cannot be made modest no matter how you drape her, and that a modest woman can be stripped of her garments but not her modesty. So there it is, for me. If you are looking at our calendar and seeing sex objects instead of fascinating characters, well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And so are sex objects.”

I cannot speak for other illustrators. But for myself, the goal is always to paint the person first. To paint women as persons in their own rights is key, as opposed to painting women for the male gaze. In the case of my calendar, I consider most all of the characters portrayed therein hero shots of a sort. And if they’re not raising swords or aiming guns, that may give you a notion of what I personally find heroic.

There are a few pin-ups in this year’s rank who have not been well-received. When I have read the comments thereon, I am struck to the extent to which I perceive slut shaming.

“Thanks for the assumption that a girl in a miniskirt must be slutty […] Why is my cover getting slut-shamed by someone who doesn’t know the girl in that picture, doesn’t know who she is or why that image is an accurate one? It’s like the art is awesome as long as it’s on a closet door, but if you’re asked to like it in public, it’s time to throw out a few micro-aggressions to keep people from thinking you’re ‘that kind’ of person.” – Seanan McGuire writing about Aly Fell‘s cover for her book Discount Armageddon.

Untitled-10

As a cover artist, Aly Fell’s job, like mine, is to create an interesting or exciting visual narrative to promote the book, the product. I want to catch the eye, to engage the potential reader, and the more I can honestly reflect the author’s characters and intent, the better.

As a viewer, what narrative have you constructed in your head that tells you that a girl in a miniskirt is a slut or a surprised girl in lingerie is a bimbo?

Jim Hines: “What do you think we should do (if anything) to try to move past the modern-day trend of awkwardly posed, semi-clad heroines on book covers?”

Before I get into what I think is the real heart of your question, I want to speak on the importance of negative space and silhouette on the efficacy of a painting. While we see far fewer examples of pure silhouette than we did in the glory days of Leyendecker and Rockwell, the shapes of the figure and the shapes cut from the background by the figure are one of the most useful tools to an illustrator looking to create dynamism. (It should come as no surprise that the great Charles Dana Gibson was a child prodigy at cutting paper silhouettes years before he would probably look twice at a “Gibson Girl.”) Why are most models so tall and thin? It’s all about how dynamic a taller figure can be made to read. There’s a reason Jim Hines and I (playing the “average” person below) are not models:

HeadsTall

There are many figures on book covers that are awkward at best and hideously malformed at worst (the tumblr site EscherGirls speaks to this at length). Sometimes that is the fault of an artist lacking skill or reaching too far for an interesting silhouette. Often however, the artists pull it off with nary a thought from the viewer as to the character being “wrong”. As I did my research about pin-ups I discovered something that surprised me: Pin-ups I’d seen for years were hiding something in plain site. Here’s a fun position you can assume in the comfort of your own home… if you happen to have between 3-5 extra vertebra that is:

Elvgren1As to the scantily clad heroines, I dare say there is a time and place. This is a truth well recognized by today’s brilliant crop of art directors. Whether Irene Gallo at TOR or Lou Anders at Pyr, our field is being led by the best, and in this I believe that our field is now largely the exception to the rule. Sci-fi and fantasy create beautiful, often inspiring covers. We have a readership and creators that are aware and active in the discussion of sexism (and the additional isms.)

What can be done to make our covers better?

1. Understand that there is a problem; be conscious of the pitfalls of the combination commerce, text and images
2. Call atrocious work out when and wherever we see it, granting weight to all the parties involved (see Part 2, below)
3. Reward good work that shows our ideals in action
4. Continue this conversation, ideally in the context of all those other isms.
5. And painters? Don’t paint slavishly to the white male gaze, ok?

PART 2: EXAMPLES FROM COMICS AND GAMES

So, having spoken about SF/F covers, let’s look….ahem…briefly at a couple related fields that are nowhere near as circumspect.

I feel lucky that I don’t have to defend DC Comics’ (Warner Brothers’) decision to bring Power Girl’s costume back even as their arch nemesis Marvel (Disney) does the right thing by making Ms. Marvel into Captain Marvel at last:

cptmarvel>Shudder< I have it on good authority that the brilliant editor at Lucasfilm would never allow this on her watch:

526313_10151327932977495_33828980_nThis is the entire range of playable characters. Oy:

oddqueensbladeAnd this game “sizzle” art was brought to my attention by the splendid NK Jemisin:

Dante_Angels

“It’s more than just the ridiculous butt-shots of the women in this image, complete with translucent boy shorts. It’s the contempt and humiliation in the way this is arranged — contempt on the part of Dante, a character who until lately has treated the women around him like people and not props; and humiliation on the part of the women. They’re groveling at his feet, clinging to him slavishly, even as he pantomimes shooting one of them in the face with his oh-so-phallic finger. Because women getting shot by their sexual partners is soooo hot and edgy, don’tcha know.” – NK Jemisin discussing the horror seen above.

The first time I saw this poster the only thing I could say was “Oh f&©# no.” This is a cover so deeply horrific that it can’t be fixed. Why even bother to comment that there are no women of color among the angels for example? Or ask why angels are wearing clingy Flash Gordon panties? Making any small changes to this horror show would be rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The fact that the painter seems quite adept at painting somehow makes the piece all the worse.

PART 3: OTHER, MORE FULSOME RESPONSES

The day after I sent my response to Jim, Arnie Fenner posted a typically thoughtful response to Jim’s projects on the Muddy Colors blog. He raised many excellent questions. Among them: are artists are being made the scapegoat for sexism, omitting any mention of the the industry, the art directors, and indeed the authors themselves? He received excellent responses, but my favorite is from a former ad man whose well-intentioned mistake led deep into the heart of how our isms are intertwined:

Gilead – March 13, 2013 at 8:02 PM

In my advertising days I once did an ad for a weight loss product. It had two cartoons showing the same guy as a before and after. On the left is a fat, stupid-looking guy busting the bathroom scale. In the middle is the product and on the right is the same guy looking robust, slender and somehow smarter. Are you picturing it? It’s kind of cute right? Kind of funny and gets the point across.
Now picture it again only this time, instead of a man, it’s a fat, stupid-looking woman. Or a black guy. Or an Asian. Whoa! All of a sudden that’s not funny. Now it’s like “What are trying to say here mister?”
I’d had this naïve idea that I could do some good by being all egalitarian. If the product was non gender-specific or race-specific I could mix it up and give everyone equal representation. It turned out that was a really bad idea and I got into all kinds of trouble. I learned that, in most people’s perception, a picture of a white male is a picture of a person – just a person. It could represent anyone: male or female, old or young, black or white. But a picture of a black person somehow represents blacks exclusively, and a picture of a woman somehow represents women exclusively.
If you draw a man you make a picture, but if you draw a woman you make a statement.
This is a cultural thing and it is probably fading away as we speak, but for now it still seems to be true. Which is why a picture of Conan can be accepted at face value as what the character looks like and what he wears, but a picture of a scantily dressed woman is seen not as a depiction of a character, but as a statement about women.
So I have no solutions I’m just trying to show a less obvious reason for the problem. When we look at a painting of a man and a woman we don’t see an every-man and an every-woman; we see a man and Women.

I am glad that so many people in our field care about these issues and I hope that this continues to be a deep and thoughtful discussion among artists, authors, publishers, and readers. Not just in the F/SF field, but in comics, games and everywhere else in the media landscape.

The Elements of Illustration*

I critique hundreds of pieces every year. Not because I’m a Creative Director (although I have been), but because I (like you) am a consumer of art – of illustration, painting, comics, games, et alia. And the act of critique is one of the most helpful for enlarging one’s own understanding and formalizing concepts that might otherwise float away….

While the following list is by no means scientific (many of the elements listed below overlay others, and many great paintings use only a few) I made it for my own reference and I hope that you may find it useful food for thought. Please print it out and put it by your drafting table or computer if it’ll help.

Focus
Where do you want your viewer’s eye to go? What’s the heart of the piece, the crux of the biscuit?

Narrative
Is there a story here? A big idea? A paradigm, a parody, a pastiche? Has the sword been nicked in battle, has the dog been fed, has the sweater been patched? Norman Rockwell began his pictures thinking of a soldier under a light post and ran scenarios in his mind (often switching “lead” characters) until he found a painting.

A stunning piece from Swedish artist Anders Zorn

Composition and Design
Create a visual hierarchy – A path for the viewer to follow? Something fractal? Separate elements intended for book cover, spine and back cover? Consider the surface you’re working on, its aspect ratio and how that effects the harmonies and tensions of your piece. When working in a tall oval, or a wide ceiling, or a strange milled form, that’s pretty obvious. But it is just as important within a normal rectangle.

Palette
There are many good ones that great painters have applied over the years. Use one of theirs or make your own!

Value
Can your piece be reduced to black and white and still read correctly?
Sometimes good pieces work their value in terms of warm and cool colors, but most need strong tonal variety to read well.

A little-known satyric illustration by Kewpie Doll creator Rose O’Neill


Mass
Think Rodin, JC Leyendecker or Rose O’Neill.

Texture
It makes things and people seem real.

Symbolism
Personal, classical, mystical or cultural – words, numbers, objects, beings. There’s no shortage of sources or end to interpretation. While there was an entire movement of Symbolists (only some of whom were painters),  Michael Kaluta and Brian Despain are excellent modern examplars.

Synecdoche  (Micro defining Macro)
A small area of tight or implied detail will help define vast shapes – like the windows in a colossal building or the wrinkles on an elephant. One needs only a few wee bits to represent a larger whole.

Ornament
Whether it’s Mary Engelbreit‘s checkerboards, or Stephen Hickman‘s ornate orientalism, Ornament matters. Sometimes it’s a sort of texture, other times the whole raison d’etre.

Juxtaposition
Comparisons and contrasts of size, scope, meaning, characters… in our world of Zoroastrian black and white contrasts, this is often too-easy. Use discretion and variety

3 of Glen Orbik’s spectacular pulp covers

Stylization
Sometimes it’s fetishism for a type of brush-stroke or color scheme, sometimes caricature or anatomy. For example, the best pin-ups (by Gil Elvgren, Aly Fell, Glen Orbik, et alia) have similarly stylized elements, some of which might surprise you.
If you’re working on a pin-up, just crack their code and you’re off to the races.

Character
Have the characters lived real lives? Are they real beings with hopes and fears? Body language, gesture and costume are crucial here.

Tension
Gesture is important, but so is the feeling of tension. Sometimes it’s the most important part of a piece. Drama, high stakes, suspense. If you can enlist the viewer’s sympathy support or curiosity, you win.

Line
It’s quite obvious in the works of Franklin Booth, Aubrey Beardsley, and Mike Mignola – but don’t underestimate its importance for Drew Struzan, Arthur Rackham or John Jude Palencar.

Research/Reference
I know precious few people who draw brilliantly out of their heads, but those heads have absorbed the lessons their eyes have shown them for many years. Most of us have been nowhere near as observant, and while we may remember and be able to imagine many things, there are usually areas where we fall down. Bolster yourself and your work with reference. Don’t stick slavishly to it, but make it do your bidding.

Vignette
The play of shape (whether silhouette or fully rendered form) against a white, colour, or fully realized background is so important for keeping a viewer interested. It can be akin what designers call negative space.

Perspective
Each point in perspective applies to a single dimension (in 2 point perspective the points are nearly always width and depth). Get perspective right and you’ll be halfway home. Also, the more you keep you POV away from a normal grid as seen from a height of 6 feet, the more dynamic your piece is likely to be.

FUN!
A certain joie de vivre is key. It doesn’t matter if you paint supplely or with technical perfection – If you don’t bring some fun and adventure to your work, viewers can tell. They won’t always know what’s wrong, but they’ll get that something is…

To which list the delightful Kurt Huggins suggested:

Process: This is your way of managing and editing all of these different elements. Each step of your process should be about solidifying one more element of the image, building up to a final piece. There are many processes, and many ways to finish, but I think most processes start with idea or composition.

*And while I find that this list applies to my own artwork, I also find that much of it applies to my writing, sculpture, et al. Your mileage may vary.

© 2008 Lee Moyer.