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Deconstructing the Image: How to Create Strong Composition
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Introduction

Could you introduce yourself to us and what your artistic background is?

I currently work in Chicago as a Lead Artist at a gaming studio. My daily responsibilities span layout concepts, digital paintings, and various animation work for slot gaming experiences. I’ve worked on a range of games including both internal IPs and licensed games including Lord of the Rings, James Bond, Monopoly, and Elvis Presley. After hours, I freelance for small and large clients alike, table at pop-culture/comic conventions, and contribute to both local and national gallery shows. Taking inspiration from traveling as well as local flora and fauna, I enjoy watercolor immensely but have also taken to drawing on the iPad more and more frequently. I attended a local art school, and even still am always trying to explore new mediums and learn new approaches to creating.

Why did you choose to take this specific course?

I really wanted to explore new ways of coming up with pieces that evoke a sense of story or connection with the viewer. It’s so easy to get caught up in your sketchbook, drawing stand-alone characters and floating heads. I wanted to take my pieces to the next level, finding ways to create compositions that feel cohesive and unified. This class looked to be perfect, covering a wide array of topics from master study break downs to storyboarding to illustration to picture book covers. It was all-encompassing and really helped me grow and explore concepts I vaguely knew of in a more in-depth way.

Composition as 2D Design

What did you learn about an “illustrator’s intent” when studying the works of master painters?

Studying master painters in such a simplistic way really helped showcase how they used art foundations to their advantage. It’s easy to get lost in how well done a painting is based on colors, textures, and specific brush strokes, but the compositions themselves are the core that everything else builds upon. To see how masters approached various subjects and layouts was super interesting. For example, using things like negative space or asymmetry to invoke a specific feeling of loneliness or uneasiness, or using patterns and balance to create a sense of comfort and familiarity.

How did you find creating abstractly and not representationally?

Working abstractly helps so that you don’t get bogged down in the details too soon. Using just basic shapes or black and white values, you can clearly see the focal point or rhythm of a piece before working about things like rendering fabrics, atmosphere, or likenesses. It’s more about placement on the canvas than any one subject matter or detail. After those foundations are in place, you can then move into loose sketching and worry about things like tangents or the readability of silhouettes. Working abstract really forces your hand to figure out the bigger picture, which I have taken to doing whenever starting a piece

Line vs. Shape (Mass vs. Form)

How did the value matrix study change how you viewed composition?

The value matrix studies were super helpful. Although I struggled at first with how to create one based on looking at other artist’s work, once it clicked it really helped me figure out the relationships between elements of a piece. You can take super complicated or ornate compositions and dilute them down to a main focal point and either lines or shapes that funneled the viewer towards that main focus.

Once I broke down a few paintings, it became clear that the elements of a piece should all serve to better communicate the message of the piece. Even with only two or three tones, many pieces still read clearly as the original artist intended.

Single Image Composition

When sketching your figure dominant composition, what influenced your portrait?

For figure dominant, I depicted a mermaid on a rock looking longingly out to see at a ship. As a huge fan of a certain red-headed mermaid, I loved the opportunity to play with this as a subject. I referenced the famous sculpture in Copenhagen and knew I wanted to zoom in on the figure, utilizing a similar demeanor as the main focus of my composition. The posture and general mood of the mermaid were meant to be the dominant element of the scene, with the ship being literally small and distant to further that sense of loss or loneliness.

For the Figure/Environment composition, how were you able to find a balance between the two? What role did the story play?

For the figure/environment composition, I chose to illustrate a small town farm scene, having the characters and the farm play an equal role of importance in the layout. It’s a very welcoming scene where a girl is feeding chickens, and I knew I wanted there to be a fun, whimsical element to it. I focused a lot on the rhythm of the piece, wanting to carefully keep the viewer’s eye moving around the piece using elements such as character gestures or the fence posts. The farmhouse in the distance surrounded by a field of fun patterns helped still build up the scenery while still being secondary background elements.

In the Environment dominant composition, what purpose did the figure serve?

For the environment dominant composition, I chose a very tall, skinny canvas size. Most of the space is dominated by trees and foliage, and the figures in the center are small but still the focal point as it’s the main light source of the piece. The environment takes up three-fourths of the scene and is a very dark and ominous forest. By contrast, the figures are very far away/small, gathered around a campfire telling stories. I wanted them to feel truly surrounded by their environment, and as the viewer, you see how intimate and vulnerable a moment this is with the looming forest everywhere.

Putting It All Together

Tell me about the format you chose and why?

I chose to do a book cover as I eventually would like to to branch into the kid lit genre of illustration. I can recall so many childhood books I still cherish to this day, and how much their story or art style impacted me. I would be humbled to one day contribute to the inspiration of future generations in a similar way. Using a classic story such as Red Riding Hood was an easy, accessible way to create a cover with recognizable elements.

What made the design enhance with the story?

I predominantly used red in my cover, with the advice from the instructor after the to use red more as an accent. This makes that element feel special and iconic. I also used foliage as a border element, and wanted the leaves to feel as though they are coming down on the character, almostlike sharp teeth encompassing the scene. In hindsight I would like to make the plants feel more dangerous the farther from the character they get on the canvas, and really liked the idea of maybe only her cape and cheeks being red, to bring significance to them – her cape and youthful naivety being the core foundation of the story.

What was the lesson you wanted to highlight most in this final assignment?

I wanted to finish with one last piece that was simple but narrative driven – I was more focused on design and simplicity than completing a super rendered illustration. So I stuck with a limited color scheme and focused on creating a framing device for the central character. This was also the first assignment that dealt with text elements, so making that feel cohesive was super important to me.

Final Thoughts

What advice would you give to future students who take this course?

I definitely recommend this course! It really helped solidify the foundations of planning a piece early on, working out problems before you go to town on detailing. I would say as you receive each assignment, try and make it your own – create illustrations based on interests of yours, and utilize your passions outside of art where you can to create pieces that are unique to you. I personally like drawing animals, and so in many of the assignments I would use them as a focal point, telling a bigger story that the audience can be intrigued by: a girl feeding chickens, a cat bird watching outside a window, an owl observing some campers, etc. By incorporating an interest of mine, the piece feels authentic and hopefully can resonate with the audience all the more.

How has the course impacted your work since completing it?

I definitely do a lot more loose thumbnails prior to a piece, using rough abstract shapes to block out where the main focal point is and how I’m directing the viewers eye to it. I also try and think in values more often, so that the most contrast (be it lightness or hue) is the point of focus. My pieces going in and even during the class felt a bit muddy, but by working in black and white/rough at first I find it helps the piece feel better thought out. Basically, plan plan plan!! It helps so much vs doing it on the fly once you’ve started in on the details.

What prior experience do you think helped you most going into this course?

I had gone to school for animation, and had already had prior knowledge on how to animate to the camera/stage things to be readable and clear. I feel like those kind of lessons were helpful to this class, and I was able to push layouts and compositions even further than I had previously. This course also focused on utilizing shapes and lighting to push the composition and feeling of your piece more than I was previously trained, and it helped a lot to solidify those foundations.

How was instructor feedback? Can you give an example?

I really enjoyed Maurio teaching the class! It was a nice balance of using existing works (master paintings, current day vis dev work, or even his own personal illustrations), as well as working on the fly to demonstrate the examples in the lectures/assignments. The lessons were very clear and he was very enthused to teach and offer advice on assignments. He would walk us through is own personal work, discussing his thought process and why he made the decisions he did. I would definitely take a course of his again.

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