Monday, 3 August 2009

Making ideas from fresh air...

Here's a thing for a Monday morning as I settle down to a heavy schedule. With a preamble. Whenever you say anything on line you can come across as assuming some kind of authority. This is true even of the simplest things like opinions on films or books or fruit or makes of car. If this were not the case there wouldn't be the millions of flame wars we see about such inconsequential matters. The net is not necessarily the best place to put across an observation or opinion in the neutral way one can in "meat speech".

I feel this particularly keenly on something like our podcast, Ninja Mountain. We record off the cuff with a minimum of planning. There certainly isn't a script. Of which if you have heard the show you will be painfully aware...

There's a real danger when you say "this is how I do it" or "this is what I perceive" that someone will hear or read an invisible "and all other opinions or observations are wrong or invalid". I mentioned the other week on the 'cast that I used to provide tutorials on rpgnet Freelancers forum. And I stopped doing those for precisely this reason. I always felt uncomfortable that someone much more able than me would look at them and think I was assuming some kind of authority which I did not actually possess. These days I much prefer the term "walkthrough" to "tutorial", and that's generally what I do. As an aside I was actually somewhat horrified to read someone mention a test walkthrough I did (it's here, for what it is worth!: as a tutorial.

Anyway, that's been buzzing round my head this morning as I thought about offering some stuff that helps me come up with ideas. I was in conversation with a bunch of aspiring artists last week (along with some pros who's abilities way outgun mine!) and the topic as it often does turned to coming up with ideas and how difficult that can be. Here are retyped and expanded some of my thoughts on the matter:

Big ideas are made up of little ideas.

Grouping together little ideas can make a painting. A painting can actually be about something quite small. The way the light falls, the colour of the leaves on a tree, a formation of rocks, a detail of landscape or atmosphere. A general colour scheme. Any of these small things can kick start a painting.

By trying to dream up a finished painting in its entirety before you begin is a recipe for "Artist's block".

Some ways I think up new ideas for paintings:

Take a mental walk round somewhere familiar. What small details could spark a painting?

Even better take an actual walk with a sketchbook and a camera. Remember that scale is only fixed in reality. Small things made big, big things made small are keystones of fantasy. Matter out of place is a keystone of horror.

What can other disciplines or crafts teach us, what ideas can they spark? I think about things like... olympic swimming. How could that relate to a fantasy painting? Swimming is something you don't often see. Underwater? The rigourous training swimmers do could be a jump off point for a painting. Adventurers training? How? A youth learning to use a sword? Tutored or self taught? What's the story there? What about a race? What are the psychological features of a race that we could use as an allegory in a painting? Or what visual allegory could we use in a painting to reflect those psychological features? What about some other random stuff? The guys collecting the rubbish in the street? Go on a mental wander based on the idea of urban refuse. Fantasy bin collectors? Hmm nope. Open sewers in the streets. Interesting. Sewers under the ground. Even more interesting. How would you get into one? What would be down there?

Working your perspective is always useful. Looking up, looking down - these things come with psychological effects.

A painting is all surface when considered a certain way. And sure, you do need to concern yourself with costume, character, and location design. But these things become a lot easier when you know why they exist. What the underlying narrative is. And don't confuse narrative with "story" in a vulgar sense. A narrative can be a very small thing. Just a small moment which infers other moments. Rather than some dragging procession of moments compressed onto just one canvas. Let the viewer carry some of that weight by just hinting at the story.

Big themes are also good inspiration. Small fights big. We humans love that story and its variants, from David and Goliath to an X Wing taking on the Death Star. Fear of the dark is another big human story. Friendship, loyalty in extremis, duty, love against the odds, impending tragedy, tragedy that has struck, victory... Urban myths are worth exploring since these stories contain elements of the classic human stories.

What is it Pete Waterman from Stock, Aikten and Waterman fame says? There are only 4 types of pop song? "I love you", "I hate you", "I'm leaving" and "I'm coming back"? Something like that. There's a bunch of paintings right there. Having written that down I now need to paint "I'm coming back".

Other tips I've used:

Remembering pictures I loved in childhood and thinking about why I liked them, or trying to reimagine them now. Something even as simple as stealing the idea and making it my own.

Illustrate your favourite song. What's the story, what's the best moment in that story? Draw it.

Shakespeare: Rob him!

The classics like Homer. All the big human stories are in there.

And remember you don't need to tackle a big story whole cloth. Just use it as a spring board. Sure you could pick some moment from the Iliad, and paint the whole scene. But equally you could just draw a character. How does a dude look when he's had that level of adventure in his life?

It is important to develop an understanding about originality. See Apocalypse Now? Its just Heart of Darkness (look this stuff up on Wikipedia if you don't know what it is) retold. But its certainly none the less for being that. In fact it is arguably more. The original story is a springboard. Standing on the shoulders of giants and all that. Don't worry too much about doing something new. You most likely never will. IN A GOOD WAY!!!

"Inpsiration" or "the muse" is a wonderfully romantic idea. When it comes to approaching something as work (such as earning a living from art) chucking out romantic ideas with the other trash is often a good plan. Taking a non-authoritative stance (your truth is as valid as mine) I personally think inspiration is where you unwittingly do some hard brain work by accident. You can create "inspiration". The mental muscles that create "inspiration" can be worked like any other muscle.

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