Archive for the ‘theory’ Category

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

Theory: Bill Evans on the Creative Process and Self-Teaching

Bill Evans

It isn’t often that a drop-dead genius sits down to speak directly to students. It’s even rarer for these special events to be recorded for television. My musical pal, Skip Heller tipped me off to a real treasure… a TV program from 1966 titled, "The Universal Mind of Bill Evans".

I’m a big believer in interdisciplinary study. An artist is an artist, and an animator can learn an awful lot from musicians, actors, dancers and performers in all of the other fields of creative endeavor. Here, we have the opportunity to learn from one of the giants of Jazz, pianist Bill Evans.

Evans was normally a quiet sort of person, and didn’t speak a lot about his work. But he had studied to be a teacher, and his brother who was also a teacher convinced him to sit down and address the fundamental principles of his work. As I first listened to this interview, I was amazed to hear many of the same theories I had heard from the great artists I have had the opportunity to work with in animation. I’ve broken the video into four YouTube movies, and I will make note of the most important quotes below each segment.

Part 01: Direct YouTube Link

I believe that all people are in possession of what might be called a “universal mind”. Any true music speaks with this universal mind to the universal mind in all people. The understanding that results will vary only insofar as people have or have not been conditioned to the various styles of music in which the universal mind speaks. Consequently, often some effort and exposure is necessary in order to understand some of the music coming from a different period or a different culture than to which the listener has become conditioned.

Bill Evans argues that style, for better or for worse, eventually comes of itself- out of that mysterious interior well of creative inspiration that nourishes everyone to one degree or another. It’s much more important, Evans feels, to master fundamentals both in theory- so you understand what you’re doing, and in active practice- developing one’s musical muscles… not just technical dexterity, but the brain connection. Developing that facility to the point where the subconscious mind can take over the basic mechanical task of playing thus freeing the conscious to concentrate on the spontaneous creative element that distinguishes the best Jazz- and the best in all human activity.

Jazz is the only form of art that America has created and given to the world… but I think it’s more of a revival in a different form than what went on in classical music before. In the 17th century there was a great deal of improvisation in Classical music, and because of the fact that there were no electrical recording techniques to permanize or to “catch” music and to record it, the music was written so that it could be permanized that way. Slowly but surely the writing of the music and the interpreters of the music gave way to more and more interpretation and more and more cerebral composition and less and less improvisation. So finally, improvisation became a lost art in Classical music and we have only the composer and the interpreter.

I feel that Jazz is not so much a style as it is a process of making music. It’s the process of making one minute’s music in one minute’s time. Whereas when you compose, you can make one minute’s music and take three months… We tend to think of Jazz as a stylistic medium, but we must remember that in an absolute sense, Jazz is more of a certain creative process of spontaneity than a style… Any good teacher of serious classical composition will always tell a student that the composition should sound as if it’s improvised. It should have a spontaneous quality, so actually, the art of music is the art of speaking with this spontaneous quality.

The person who succeeds in anything has the realistic viewpoint at the beginning in knowing that the problem is large and that he has to take it a step at a time and he has to enjoy this step by step learning procedure.

Part 02: Direct YouTube Link

It’s better to do something simple that is real. It’s something you can build on. because you know what you’re doing. Whereas, if you try to approximate something very advanced and don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t build on it.

No matter how far I might diverge or find freedom in this format, it only is free insofar that it has reference to the strictness of the original form. That’s what gives it its strength.

Part 03: Direct YouTube Link

The whole process of learning the facility of being able to play Jazz was to take these problems from the outer level in- one by one and to stay with it at a very intense conscious concentration level until that process becomes secondary and subconscious… Then you can begin concentrating on that next problem which will allow you to do a little bit more.

I don’t consider myself as talented as many people, but in some way that was an advantage. I didn’t have a great facility immediately. I had to be more analytical. It forced me to build something.

Most people just don’t realize the immensity of the problem and either, because they can’t conquer it immediately, think they don’t have the ability; or they’re so impatient to conquer it that they never do see it through.

I remember coming to New York to make or break in Jazz and saying to myself, “How do I attack this practical problem of becoming a Jazz musician- making a living and so on… Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that all I must do is takke care of the music- even if I do it in a closet. And if I really do that, somebody is going to come to the closet and open the door and say, “Hey, we’re looking for you!”

When you begin to teach Jazz, the most dangerous thing is you begin to teach style… If you’re going to try to teach Jazz, you must teach principles that are separate from style. You have to abstract the principles of musi which have nothing to do with style. This is exceptionally difficult.

Part 04: Direct YouTube Link

Pretty amazing, isn’t it?!

Lest you think that Bill Evans’ ideas only apply to music, scan over those quotes up above and try to apply them to animation…

Animation in its purest form follows the rhythms of music and speaks to the same universal mind. Think of the funniest walk cycle you have ever seen and try to put it into words. You can’t. It doesn’t matter what language you speak. Great poses and pure movement speaks to our humanity- the part of us that operates below the verbal level.

The difference between acting for animation and acting on the stage is the difference between composition and real time improvisation. Yet the goal is the same… a feeling of spontaneity.

Deviation and exaggeration is best when it reflects the strictness of the form of the idea. Angles on characters for no reason other than to put angles on them, arbitrary exaggeration and deliberately wonky perspective don’t have the same strength as exaggeration based on the original form you’re depicting.

Style is something that comes from within after the abstract fundamentals are mastered and absorbed. If you try to learn to draw by learning a style- be it anime or Spumco or Disney- you are building upon a foundation that won’t support your artistic growth.

Learning to draw and animate is a huge undertaking and the way to do it is to break down, analyze and practice the principles one by one- from simple to more complex- just like the way the Preston Blair Course is organized. As you master the principles, they become second nature and you can move on to learning new principles.

It can be daunting to imagine how one is going to create a career in animation, but ultimately, one just has to serve the artform- even if there is no audience for your work yet. Eventually, if you serve the artform well, the audience will come.

Musicians are talking about this post.

If you enjoyed this program and would like to own it on DVD, you can order it from Amazon. It’s a bonus on this video of Bill Evans in Helsinki…

If you would like to hear more of Bill Evans’ amazing music, I recommend this DVD…
Stephen Worth
Director
Animation Resources

TheoryTheory

This posting is part of a series of articles comprising an online exhibit entitled Theory.

Friday, February 20th, 2015

Theory: Organic Shapes- Ernst Haeckel’s Art Forms in Nature

Artforms in Nature

Artforms in NatureArtforms in NatureToday, I hope you’ll bear with me as I get philosophical. (I promise not to get all “hippie college professor” on ya!) Think of this as one of Eddie Fitzgerald’s theory posts at Uncle Eddie’s Theory Corner.

When an artist sits down to draw something, he is focused on how the object he is drawing appears. But there are other aspects that can be caught in a drawing beyond just the likeness. Believe it or not, it’s possible to also capture the place that object holds in the universe.

Artforms in Nature
Artforms in Nature

We scanned an interesting and inspiring book today- Ernst Haeckel’s Die Natur als Kunstlerin (Nature as Artist). This paperback book from 1913 is a popular adaptation of Haeckel’s landmark book, Kunstformen von der Natur (Art Forms in Nature) originally published in 1904. Haeckel was a biologist and an artist, and he merged both disciplines into a study of natural forms, shapes, symmetries and patterns from every aspect of the natural world.

Artforms in Nature
Artforms in Nature
Artforms in Nature

Natural history studies are beyond the scope of what we do here at Animation Resources, but this one is an exception. Haeckel didn’t just attempt to document lifeforms and their place in the environment… He documented the structures and shapes that are common to all plants and animals on this Earth. His drawings have no indication of scale or habitat of the various organisms he depicted. A jellyfish would appear right next to a single cell animal or the patterns of folds of skin on the face of a bat. The focus was on the form.

Artforms in Nature
Artforms in Nature
Artforms in Nature

Biologists in Haeckel’s time thought of man’s place in nature much differently than we do today. Haeckel was a staunch Darwinist. He saw mankind as a part of evolution, and a vital part of nature. Today, when we turn on the TV to watch a nature show, we see jungles and tigers, or underwater coral reefs full of fish. There isn’t a human being in sight. Many people today look upon humans as "contaminants" to the natural world. But in Haeckel’s day, nature was seen in everything- Darwin’s Theory applied to the evolution of fish or birds just as much as it applied to the evolution of people. social organizations, business practices or creative processes.

Artforms in Nature
Artforms in Nature
Artforms in Nature

Haeckel saw no contradiction in his role as scientist/artist. In fact, he considered his work to be an expression of his own natural place in the world he was attempting to represent. Instead of approaching the subject from an objective viewpoint, he subjectively and selectively edited what he saw to reduce it to a form that appealed to him on a basic level as an artist. Thus, the scales of a fish become arabesques, and microscopic diatoms become beautiful sculptural forms. Haeckel was using nature’s imagery to express his own inner nature.

Artforms in Nature
Artforms in Nature
Artforms in Nature

At the turn of the century, when this book was published, Art Nouveau was popular. Natural forms were incorporated into everything from architecture and illustration to street signs and ornamental patterns on clothing or wallpaper. Today, we have nearly eliminated natural forms from our lives. We live in shoebox shaped houses and drive cars shaped like shoeboxes with rounded edges. We pave the landscape with geometric grids of asphalt and design characters for animation out of triangles, rectangles and circles. We have isolated ourselves from natural shapes; and in so doing, we have isolated ourselves from ourselves.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES

Proteus DVDProteus DVDErnst Haeckel was a remarkable person. He straddled the seemingly contradictory disciplines of art and science and was able to reconcile them in a way that fully expressed the best attributes of both. The DVD documentary, Proteus presents an amazing look into Haeckel’s life and work. It includes eye bogglng animation based on his drawings of the remarkable single celled creature, the radiolarian. This is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen on any subject. It changed the way I think about the world around us. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The following three books comprise an encyclopedia of natural shapes for you to explore. Don’t copy from them- incorporate them into the way you think…

Art Forms In NatureArt Forms In NatureArt Forms In Nature by Ernst Haeckel

Art Forms In OceanArt Forms In OceanArt Forms From The Ocean: The Radiolarian Atlas Of 1862 by Ernst Haeckel

Cabinet of CuriositiesCabinet of CuriositiesCabinet of Natural Curiosities: The Complete Plates in Colour, 1734-1765

I promise you, you won’t be disappointed by these books. They may just change your life!

UPDATE

Pita, a reader of this blog sends along this link to a page with all 100 images from Haeckel’s landmark book, as well as a downloadable PDF version.

Also, check out Pita’s great image blog, Agence Eureka. It’s at the top of my blogroll; and I bet once you see it, it’ll be at the top of yours too.

Stephen Worth
Director
Animation Resources

TheoryTheory

This posting is part of a series of articles comprising an online exhibit entitled Theory.

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

Art Education: Practice Types

Last time we talked about how to objectively judge a person’s current ability within a discipline using the Dreyfus Model. Today I’ll be giving my personal theory about what types of practice are best for students and professionals of various levels, and how to determine what type of practice is right for you.

I formed this theory by combining my own experiences learning sports, art, music, and mathematics with advice given by notable teachers of animation and art. My litmus test has been that I must be able to apply these practice methods to any subject a person might want to learn, although practicing skills is this system’s focus, not academic memorization.

The five categories I’ve identified are listed below with a short description of each and an example of the type of activity you might engage in if your goal was to learn how to draw. Remember that these are broad categories however, and may be applied to any skill or discipline.

Willy Pogany’s Life Drawing Lessons

Academic

When first approaching a subject, the concepts and working methods are all completely new, therefore the first and most basic type of practice is the type which is most widely used in the classroom: Academic practice. This would include all newly introduced or researched information which comes from an authoritative source such as a textbook, tutorial, lecture, or guide.

This type of practice is most helpful right at the beginning of a student’s study. If you find that general knowledge about the way your discipline works is absent, or that parts of the working methods of your skill are hazy or poorly understood, this is the type of practice you should engage in first. However, as soon as a workable understanding of the concepts is obtained Academic practice should be abandoned in favor of a different type to allow the student to internalize what they’ve learned.

In drawing this would be the equivalent of learning body proportions and anatomy. These are very critical and useful areas of study, but if that’s all you practice, your work can only ever look like a textbook illustration.

Public Sketching – Gordon Grant

Drilling

In order to become a confident and skillful practitioner, a student must commit to hours of practical application. In sports all minute aspects of the game are drilled endlessly until each action becomes as natural as breathing. In music, scales and rhythm exercises are used as warm-ups even by highly accomplished musicians so that they become second nature. Drilling is any task which you already know how to do, and can perform repeatedly in small rapid bursts.

This type of practice is the next most common type of activity employed by students and professionals. In essence, the purpose of drilling is to gain confidence and familiarity with your working methods. A pleasant byproduct of drilling is an increase in speed and a decrease in error making. Many professionals if not most of them continue using drilling throughout their careers as a way to keep sharp.

Drilling in illustration would represent public sketching, thumb-nailing compositions, or plein air painting just to name a few.

William Lee Hankey

Quality Test

At the point where a student believes they have learned enough to become competent, it may be time to put all of their acquired skills into practice by attempting to perform their discipline to the best of their ability. In sports, this would be game day, in music it would be the concert or recital, and in art, this would represent a single piece of artwork meant to  showcase the artist’s talents.

Art made for a quality test should be made carefully, slowly and deliberately. No time limit should be imposed and the artist should be as thorough and careful as they can possibly be in order to push the limits of their ability to the extreme.

Performing work of this type may often have humbling results, revealing exactly what shortcomings the student has yet to overcome. As a diagnostic tool, this type of practice is invaluable, and also provides milestones for the student as they progress so that they can compare their current work to their past work.

Quality illustrations should  make up much of a student’s portfolio along with life drawings.

Gustaf Tenggren Comparison

Experimental

After mastering the basics through the use of Academic and Drilling practice, it becomes necessary for a student to explore their own preferred methods and to attempt to expand their ability beyond what can be taught to them explicitly. Experimental practice is done to attempt to create a new work method or a unique result which is entirely the student’s own. It is important to note that this type of practice is most useful in the hands of an already skilled practitioner of their craft, but it may be useful to novices as well, as a method of discovery.

In my opinion, this is where many graduate students and professionals fail to expand their abilities. It’s very easy to copy and reproduce from textbooks, instructors, and tutorials, but it’s a very different and altogether more frightening thing to try to create a new method of working, or a new way of seeing the world.

In illustration and art in general, those artist who are synonymous with a particular style or artistic movement likely owe their success at least partially to experimental practice. The need to perform this type of practice need not be that grand however, as even small modifications to an artist’s working methods help to personalize and internalize their craft.

Albert Hurter

Freeform

The last form of practice is the free and non-structured kind which children indulge in. Although non-academic and not strictly intended to improve a practitioner’s ability, freeform practice serves as a crucial way for the student to enjoy themselves with their chosen craft. Although it may seem unnecessary to list it here, I believe that maintaining a fun and creative attitude toward your work is at least as important as academic study, if not more so.

Work of this type has one goal: to make you happy. After all, why are you putting in all of this time becoming skillful if not to use that skill in a way which pleases you? Very often unfortunately it seems that the mark of a professional artist is that they draw at work but not at home, having long since ceased to enjoy what it is they do for a living. Don’t fall into the trap of slowly choking the life out of your art, have a little fun now and then!

I hope these practice methods are helpful to you or your students. Next time I’ll be talking about motivation and forming a practice habit!