Thursday, March 29, 2012

Review: Avatar: The Last Airbender (The Art of the Animated Series)

It's no secret that I think the animated series Avatar: the Last Airbender is one of the most epic and amazing animated series of all time, so it's safe to say that I'm a bit biased in this review.  I picked this book up as a concept art study tool, but it's so much more than that.

This book is a record of the passion of the team behind it, an homage to all of the hard-working artists, animators, and creators.  It's not just a compilation of pretty pictures, but also features a fair amount of commentary from the creators about what inspired the series, a glimpse into the production schedule, as well as a sobering view of what hard work it is to be in animation and the challenges they met (and surmounted) along the way.

For starters, this book is oversized allowing for as many character models, expressions, and commentary as possible to be crammed in.  It was fascinating to see how characters looked in their early phases of development for the pilot of the show and just how many iterations went into getting character and setting looking just right.  Artists had to tone down detailed designs so that they would fit into a production budget.  This a great example of what I might have to work with on a project, since budget and art are such a hazy thing without solid examples of what you might have to cut from your designs to work in game/movie/animation/etc. production.

The book covers all major locales of the show, what inspired the costume designs of each region, and the particular challenges and decisions that went into settling on the designs.  Each area the characters visited had to have it's own unique national identity to it, which is golden information for any student to study, not just animation students.

One aspect of the book I particularly enjoyed about the presentation of the characters was the cross-section breakdown of their various scabbards, straps, and weapons so that we can see how they interact with the clothing of the character and how they might function.  This gave me some great ideas of how I can clearly present similar ideas in my own designs.  There are even several storyboards from several pivotal moments included in the book, which was fascinating to me to see for the structure of the boards and what notes were included on camera angle, dialogue, etc. in the margins (yet another skill I'd like to expand upon).

In addition, we get to see some fun doodles from the staffing artists that kept them sane during the production, which emphasizes the fact that no matter how masterful something is, there are real human beings who worked hard to get to their level of skill level behind each successful project that you see.  I enjoyed this section the most because it gives me hope that, yes, even beginners can get there with a strong team behind them and the right amount of study!

Along those same lines, there are tons of photos of the various locales (China, Korea, Japan, etc) the team traveled to get inspiration for the show, emphasizing that more often than not, good design does not just emerge from thin air, but from taking real world references and morphing them into something grounded, but unique.

There's so much more in this book that I can't cover here, so I'll just end with this.  If you like the show, or just want a great reference book on design layout, environments, and colorful characters, this book is for you!

Video from Parka's review of the book.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

REVIEW: Noah Bradley's The Art of Freelancing

During random  internet exploration of the fabulous critique site, WiPNation, I stumbled across a blog post featuring an article about Noah Bradley's Art of Freelancing.  I was instantly intrigued by the prospect of learning 'what the art schools didn't teach' and decided to give Noah's video a try after seeing a positive review at ArtOrder and listening to the free preview of the first 30 minutes posted on the site.

I was sold in that first 30 minutes with Noah's very up front approach to the hard truths of what freelancing really is.  It is oftentimes hard work, sleepless nights, and low pay, but most importantly one CAN make a living as a freelancer, if one is persistent!  Noah addresses commonly asked questions from novice freelancers, including but not limited to:

- How much do I charge?
- Where do I look for clients?
- What's in a contract?
- Where do I look for work?
- How does a portfolio review work?

There are a lot of questions answered that are useful for both beginners and advanced freelancers as well. Some of the discussions in this video that really impressed me were the more hazy aspects of the industry Noah addressed such as:

- What is the mindset of the Art Director?
- Is there such a thing as starting commissions too early?
- Why aren't you getting work?
- What is a freelancer's financial situation really like?

Many of these advanced discussions really forced me to turn my gaze inwards to my own work and be honest with myself as to where I need to improve and what strategies I need to employ for exactly how I can do so. I've also realized from this video some of the mistakes I have made as a developing freelancer.

For instance, I believe now after viewing this video that I started commissions far too early in my career.  I spent a lot of time making a quick buck over at DeviantART in my junior years when I should have been working hard on pieces I could put in my portfolio.  The internet never forgets your prices and the quality of that 'younger' work and it's taken me some years to get away from my amateur commission pieces, which only served to spread my reputation as someone willing to work for less and produce amateur work.

If I could start over, I would not have started taking personal commissions until my work was more refined so that I could have started at a more respectable level of perceived worth (which would have, in turn, helped me in asking more for my work currently, since I had become so used to asking for so little when I was younger).

But if there's anything to be learned from Noah's video, it's the message of hope that, while it may be challenging, freelancing is not impossible!  Especially not when we have the internet and easily accessible resources to share with one another.  As a plus, Noah's video comes with a link to a resource page where he shares recommended art communities, useful books, and more!  This site is to be constantly updated with new resources suggested by Noah and others, making it a useful collaborative learning tool that I will certainly be contributing to and referring to in the future.

Overall, I highly recommend this video for anyone serious about doing freelance art for a living.  Noah Bradley is a Scifi/Fantasy illustrator and concept artist, so there is a stronger focus on these aspects in the video, but there is something for every freelancer to take away from this video.  It may seem pricey at $57, but consider it an investment in your future career! I did and I am fully satisfied that this video is going to help me get to the places I want to be because it helped to fill so many gaps in my own experience that I didn't even know I had.

Brilliant video, brilliant artist, and brilliant learning tool!  I hope to see others doing more like this in the future to help de-mystify the mysteries of being a Creative Professional.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Book Review: The Art of Shadowscapes Tarot: Minor Arcana

Some of you might remember my review of The Art Shadowscapes Tarot: Major Arcana.  I've had the companion Minors book for some time and finally have a moment to put the spotlight on this colorful tome!  Minor Arcana follows a similar formula to the last Tarot collection, with the final paintings presented after a page or so dedicated to the developmental process of each piece.  The final paintings, all beautiful watercolors, are taken from the Tarot deck developed by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law.

The creative process of the artist presented in this book has always been the strongest selling point for me.  Pui-Mun combines a healthy love of mythology intermingled with the thought processes which went behind the revisions of each piece before it reached its final stage.  She discusses what was working with each piece (and what wasn't), which is perhaps the single most useful thing you can learn as an artist!

Minors takes this process a step further by also going into the creation of the Tarot deck as a whole.  This is especially helpful for those of us who might be planning our own Tarot decks, or any large series of images, on our own. For instance, Pui-Mun discusses establishing a particular color palette and defining symbols to characterize each particular suit so that each suit has a unity of theme and appearance threading through it that allows it to differ from the other suits.

Another advantage of this discussion is that once you understand Pui-Mun's thought processes on numerology, color, and symbols, it makes for an interesting second look at each final painting.  After the book, I was able to look at each painting in a whole new light to pick out the threads that bound each suit, which is quite a treat if you own the Tarot cards as well!

All in all, I would say have this book in your library because it's beautiful, artist or no.  For The Artist, this book is a great learning tool for the important skills of brainstorming, developing sketches, and learning to tie narrative themes into your work.

You can purchase this book directly from Stephanie Pui-Mun Law at her website.  Be sure to get the sketch option to make this even more of a lovely addition to your collection and to show your support of the artist.  I did and it's worth every penny!

A preview of a few pages of the book:

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Search for the Cintiq

Made from unicorn dust &
the dreams of every artist.
It was during the middle of last year that I decided the next direction I wanted to push my work in would be digital.  Mind, that I don't want to abandon traditional entirely, but rather I wanted to be able to present myself as a multi-skilled artist capable of doing both.

There was just one problem - I absolutely loathed working on my Intuos3!

Reasons I Wanted to Upgrade

It's true that the Intuos3 6x8 tablet I was using was a vast improvement upon the tiny graphire2 I used to own, but there was still a disconnect between what I felt was a natural sweep of my hand with a pencil and what I was seeing on screen.  It wasn't comfortable and I thought that comfort would come with practice. It does for some, but it didn't for me.  It came to the point I just found digital uncomfortable and continued to avoid using it for anything more than coloring my traditionally drawn line art.

For years, I had thought the Cintiq, a form of tablet that's basically a pressure sensitive monitor where you actually draw directly on the screen, were far out of my price range, but a random whim to check them on eBay last year revealed plenty of Cintiqs under $800 out there for the grabbing! (Most retail new at $1000+!)

Caution When Buying!

You have to be careful, however, because the first model I found was the Cintiq 15PL 550. It seemed like a good deal with a slightly larger work area than the 12WX and a pretty tempting price!  For artists, I say avoid these like the plague!  After some research, I found that they have half the sensitivity level of my Intuos3, no shortcut buttons on the sides, and really weren't meant for application as graphics tablets, but more for basic presentations.

After finding I have no room for my keyboard on my desk and Cintiq at the same time, let me tell you, you will WANT those macro buttons!  There is no survival without them, and while it's easy enough to reach and hit the keyboard shortcuts in Photoshop, it's even easier to simply program them into one of the many buttons on the newer models of the Cintiq.

What to Buy?

Eventually I settled on the Cintiq 12WX, the new smaller size model, which is somewhat more portable than the larger ones, is at a relatively affordable price point, provides a decent drawing space on screen, and has plenty of programmable macro buttons (including a slide bar to zoom in and out).  What really sold me on this tablet was this video review by Frank's Tech Help which helped me to get an idea of the scale of tablet to artist and computer.

Ironically enough, most people selling Cintiqs on eBay were people upgrading to a larger/newer model and auctioning off their old one, a testament to the quality of the product!  This is something to remember if you ever upgrade from your old Wacom equipment. They keep their value extremely well!

Where to Buy?

I bought mine from eBay, which seems the best place to find used electronics.  Be prepared to put a high bid of up to $800 on a 12WX!  However, you can get lucky and get one for about $680 like I did, which was only possible because I tried six different times using a snipe tool (Justsnipe) to land a bid at the last minute! If you're not fond of used equipment, the best price on a new Cintiq 12WX I found at the time was at (Who knew?).

The Proof is in the Pudding

And what glorious pudding it is!  The used 12WX I bought had all of its cds, components, and its original box. The last owner took pristine care!  It even has the alternate nibs if I want to add a little friction to the stylus' tip.  My first impressions after using the Cintiq to finish my zany digital commission is that it answers my need to be able to draw curved lines without having to make a stroke and then clicking Undo until the line is right.

I can turn the Cintiq in my lap till I get the right drawing angle in a far more comfortable and natural way, as if I were holding a sketch pad (another advantage to drawing on this smaller size).  I don't find the screen cramped at all, though you will have to make some adjustments to your monitor setup so all of your program's dialog windows show up on the main display  (which I usually set as my Cintiq).  (For further reading on priming your Cintiq for use, see this handy blog post!)

The Drawbacks?

The only drawbacks I'm finding right now is that I'm getting neck aches from working on the Cintiq because I don't have an ideal desk (it's about 5 inches too low), so I'm having to prop on a box.  A lap desk has also proven useful for propping the Cintiq directly in my lap.  Eventually, I will get one of those fancy mounting arms for small TVs so I can swivel the Cintiq to whatever position I like. I've seen this done to great effect!  If you don't trust velcro, there are also mounting arms with clips.

Sadly, the Cintiq is also not as portable as I'd like it to be.  While yes I can put it in a carrying case with my laptop, you'll have to have two free outlets (one for laptop and the other for your Cintiq).  I'll probably end up getting a small outlet splitter for this purpose.

EDIT: I've also been informed by others that the 12WX does not display certain subtle colors correctly no matter how much you calibrate it while the larger models seem to show much more accurate color.  A way to get around this, since I could not afford the larger models, is to mirror my image onto my main monitor while I work so I can check the colors on there instead.  The way to do this is in Photoshop is to go to Window>Arrange>New Window from 'filename' and it will show a new window which mirrors any change you make to your current file.

I also had to buy a new graphics card, since my current one could not support 3 monitors, which the Cintiq counts as a single monitor. I have the AMD Radeon HD 7600 series card. Another solution is to buy a less expensive cheap card just for the Cintiq, itself, if you don't want to upgrade your current card.

I Got One! How do I Transport it?

When I tried to find a carrying case for the Cintiq online, I couldn't find a single generic knock off of the shiny official $200 professional carrying case from Cintiq. It's beautiful, but with moths flying out of my pocket after buying the Cintiq, I definitely couldn't afford this pricey bag!

Instead, I settled on a Wenger Legacy 17" Laptop Sleeve (WA-7444-14F00), which bought online is about $30 less than in the store!  It fits the control box, cables, and power cords for both my laptop and Cintiq comfortably, though there is barely any wiggle room after you put all of that in!  I also put my Cintiq in a neoprene sleeve for extra protection just to make sure.

In Closing...

Anyone want my old tablet? It's up for auction now!  It's had a good run, but it's time to pass it on to another artist who can use it more.  Give it a happy home, if you can!  We weren't good friends, but I treated it right and was at least cordial during social occasions with it.  Starting bid is $80, a steal for this kind of equipment!

Click this link to be taken to my auction!