Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Thinking Like An Artist

I always loved to draw, and I guess I still do, but my problem is that I can never get that image in my head to appear properly on the paper. It seems like it should be such an easy thing to do, but it's one of those genes that I just don't have, like caring about cars or understanding the appeal of reality television. Luckily, there are qualified artists out there willing to tolerate me long enough to illustrate my thoughts as best I can describe them.

That leads me to this point: I often find it hard to think like an artist. What's worse is that I'm sure that I think I can think like an artist, but I can't. Follow me on that one? While I have this image in my head that I can't draw, I have myself convinced that surely I can describe it using words, right? After all, that's what I do! I'm a writer! If only it were that easy.

Let's talk about the challenges of communicating with your artists. Read on for more.

Have you ever played the game where you look at a picture and have to describe it to someone else, who then draws it from your instructions? It's not as easy as it sounds. Here you are, looking at this simple stick-figure boat with a triangular sail, wavy lines for water, and a smiling sun in the upper corner, but trying to direct your vision of this simple picture to someone else requires more than just fancy literary footwork. There are all these details that the other person needs that you're not necessarily inclined to give. How big is the little half-moon that makes up the boat? What is the orientation of the triangle? How closely-spaced are the waves that make up the water, and what, exactly, is the position of the sun? Sure, you could tell them to draw a sailboat, but would it look like your picture? Not likely.

In writing my Complete Characters, I'm facing similar challenges. In my head, the character already exists, but my artist can't see the person that I've created in my mind. I describe a knight; everyone knows what a knight looks like, right? What type of armor is he wearing? How tall is he? What does the helmet look like? Is he even wearing a helmet, or is it off to better see the character's features? Hair color? Eye color? Skin color?

Even if those things are fairly obvious, a good artist needs to know more, so he or she can really put some life into the character. Is he a kind man, or cruel? Does he have a family? Is he a Lord or some hired soldier? Does he love the tournament, or live for real battle?

Could you draw a character if I were to answer all of the above? Even after answering all of these things, I find that the artist comes back to me with something that I clearly overlooked, but to the artist who is trying to form this imaginary person in his or her own mind for the first time, is an obvious omission. Does he have a beard? How old is he? What heraldic elements are emblazoned on his armor? It never fails that I miss something important, but a good artist never fails to call me on it. That's what they do! They're artists!

As I walk down that publishing road, I continue to be amazed at the sorts of new challenges that spring up. But, I guess that's half the fun.


A.L. said...

A picture is worth a thousand words, but most of those words a writer would drop when painting the same scene.

Not anyones words particularly, just something I've always felt was true. In writing "The Knight struck with his sword", in art you get all the words of detail. The description of exactly how the sun glints off of the armor, the angle the weapon is held at, the shape and color of the eyes at the moment, etc, etc ,etc. It is a very interesting change when you think about it.

Even if given a thousand words to describe a picture, most writers will go off on a different path than the picture itself. Which is why, the few times I have worked with an author, I've asked them to come up with some things. I give them the key details, the ones I really need that make the character, and ask the artist to fill in the gaps a bit. There are still questions, there is back and forth, but it usually comes out better as well.

The more detailed you want to hold control over, the more you have to give, but sometimes you can trust the other creative person to just 'make it awesome!'.

Oh, there is a book (Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art) where the author goes through this, and actually shows the transition and how far apart the Writer and Artist actually are when it comes to a work. It might be worth it for you to read if you haven't already :)

rologutwein said...

Speaking as a creative person (I make my living as an Art Director at an Ad agency), I am coming at the issue from the other side. Conveying a visual idea verbally is difficult as hell. And unless the moons are in proper alignment, odds are the artist and the 'client' won't ever see things the same way. As A.L. said, a lot of it is "Here is the general idea, make it awesome". Of course this then leads to bouts of ".. that isn't at all what I was expecting". Lord knows I see a lot of that in my work. And this in turn leads to the dreaded "I don't know what I want, but I'll tell you when I see it"... where the Artist goes through variation after variation until the client finds something they like, or just finally 'settles' on something.

As an artist who works with writers regularly, though, I like to think that collaboration is a great way to go. I often do something visual that the writer wasn't expecting, and it turns out good. Or other times, the writer gives me some kind of 'hook' with his words that gives me a visual clue I wouldn't have otherwise had.

So in short (too late), art and writing can be a bitch to mesh together sometimes, but the end result is usually better than anything either could have done alone. That sounds pollyanna, but its true.

Hisham said...

That's one way of thinking like an artist.

The other way, if you're like me, is, "God, I hope I have enough money to pay the bills this month." :-)

Lord Zaboem said...

Thank you for the fascinating topic, Jason. Also, thanks for the equally thoughtful response comments, guys.

I wonder, Jason, have you ever tried working backwards? I mean starting with a piece of artwork and developing text around the visual concept. The way I usually end up collaborating with an artist is this art-first method which I just described. If you have tried it backwards, I wonder which method you find more difficult.

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