Category Archives: Concept Art

Mr. Stanley Kubrick

I am proud to be a creator.

As I was reading this morning about the directing techniques of Stanley Kubrick, I felt a newfound pride swelling inside me. Here was a man who tried and failed, thousands (if not millions) of times, in a near-endless battle to achieve perfection. Here was a master, someone who drove his work beyond the boundaries of excellence and into the realm of genius.

Humans are flawed, and I’m the first to admit it. I can’t draw straight lines. I can’t light my scenes with the accuracy of a photograph. I am a human, and that means constant mistakes in my work and my personality. I will never sit down at my desk and produce something perfect on the first try.

I am not like my computer, which can always draw straight lines, every time, tirelessly, or always render a scene with accurate lighting. Knowing this hurts me; it feels like lifting weights but never getting any stronger. I am no Kubrick.

Nonetheless, Kubrick makes me proud of my humanity. I’m not a creator like him.  But like him, I am a creator.

yeahpaintingstyle_barrylyndonBarry Lyndon, 1975

Kubrick’s 1975 film, Barry Lyndon, is one of my favorite movies. I was first motivated to watch it by one critic’s suggestion that “every scene was like a painting”. Their appraisal was accurate: every scene in the film was riveting in composition, color, and lighting. The story cleanly encapsulates a man’s life and struggles in the space of three hours. It is the perfect film.

How did he do it? How did Kubrick manage such a massive undertaking with any level of mastery?

vlcsnap-2010-12-11-14h39m36s28 barry_lyndon_1280x800_64186Barry Lyndon, 1975

It is both a great comfort and a great challenge to me, knowing that Kubrick made mistakes. The difference between his work and mine is that he never allowed his mistakes to appear in the final product- he worked through them, no matter how difficult. This meant hours upon hours of painstaking thought and labor. It meant he only completed 13 feature-length films in his career.

However, it also meant that each one of those 13 was a masterpiece. It meant that Kubrick will go down in history as one of the greatest directors ever to call a retake.

There are several artists like Kubrick, whose work is irreproachably brilliant. The first one that springs to mind is Rembrandt (only because I recently got the chance to see some of his first editions in person). But there are outstanding masters in every field of the arts. They are like aliens, supernaturally gifted with creative ability. Is this true? Are some people just different, capable of genius from birth?

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6a0120a8545b6a970b01a3fcd536c6970b-piBarry Lyndon, 1975

It is not true. Kubrick made mistakes. It was his ability to work through his own mistakes that made him a genius.

All of the great masters were (and are) humans. They were (and are) all fundamentally flawed. None of them could draw a truly straight line.

barry-lyndon-landscape barry-lyndon-duelBarry Lyndon, 1975

We know instinctively that nothing perfect comes from a flawed source. The root defines the fruit. Yet this natural law is defied when humans like Tchaikovsky, Steinbeck, and Kubrick composed a symphony, wrote a novel, or directed a film that still stands straight and tall in a gray crowd of mediocrity. They have done what a perfect computer will never do. They brought what is flawless out of what is flawed. They drew a straight line, and in the process it took on a quality of humanity; it became something more than perfect.

Short Ride in a Kitsch Machine

Parched and bored, I staggered around the Internet Desert, looking for something to spark my interest. The morning was only beginning, and already I was staring into the white abyss of a google image search with caffeinated blood an empty skull.

“Pink Panther,” I typed into the search box.

I like the Pink Panther. He’s cool under fire. Imperturbable and Inimitable. The pink incarnation of sangfroid.

He also has a sweet car; have you ever seen it?  It looks like this:

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Jay Ohrberg, Pink Panther Car

Clicking on this image, I found myself drawn into an oasis of polaroid photos and retro cars. What was this website?

WWW.JAYOHRBERG.COM, the URL said.

WWW.JAYOHRBERG.COM, nearly every one of the pictures insisted with their enormous watermarks.

Who is this Jay Ohrberg? Apparently he makes cars. And he’s very, very good at it.

JayOhrberg_Bat+skiboat JayOhrberg_Bathtub+car JayOhrberg_Black+Moon+Rising+1 JayOhrberg_Calico+Surfer

There’s something wonderful about Jay’s work. It’s over-the-top, painfully corny, and reeks of nostalgia. It’s silly.

JayOhrberg_Flintstone+4 JayOhrberg_Mini+Too+Much

As I clicked through Jay’s enormous (and not very user-friendly) image gallery, I began to wonder about the people who had commissioned these cars. He had done work for several major films, including the Terminator, Ghostbusters, and one of the Batman pictures. There were also a lot of tribute cars, commissioned by the dedicated fans of Elvis, Marylin Monroe, James Dean, etc.

Then I began to wonder about the man himself.

He didn’t have “taste”. The cars are loud, maybe even obnoxious. Very low-brow. He had a “friends” page on his website, and it was just photos of him posing with people. Really? No one does that, not on a professional website. He wasn’t an artist in the true sense of the word, right?

Right?

JayOhrberg_Monkee+mobile+post JayOhrberg_Pinocchio JayOhrberg_Sand+Draggin JayOhrberg_The+Invader

To dismiss Jay’s work would be a mistake. As tacky as some of his vehicles are, each one of them is charming. There’s something admirable about Jay; there is always something admirable about people who are dedicated to doing what they love, and doing it well. He probably brings other people a lot of joy too.

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Keep it up, Jay Ohrberg!

Composition: Who Cares?

“Yeah, I remember those pictures. I remember looking at them as I listened to the music.”

Mom was sitting across the table from me, reminiscing.

The album in question was the Point, by Harry Nilsson. Its accompanying booklet, with tiny grayscale illustrations, was spread out in front of me.

“I didn’t really like the illustrations. They were actually kind of scary,” she went on.

She was right. Gary Lund’s illustrations for the vinyl sleeve of Harry Nilsson’s 1971 concept album were not exactly inviting.  But they grabbed me nonetheless.

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Gary Lund, Sleeve art for The Point, 1971

These are some of the most beautiful panels I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been poring over these since Saturday.  Is it the amazing draftsmanship at work? No. Is it the use of tasteful colors? Nopers.

Composition.

Look at that composition! These loose, energetic panels are actually playing together, leaking into each other, and letting the story flow organically. It makes for a visual experience that even my Mother, initially turned off by the art style, couldn’t resist.

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Gary Lund, Sleeve art for The Point, 1971

What a wild, wonderful way to present an album! It’s so much fun to let your eye wander over the landscape of broken frames, vibrant colors, and funky shapes.

Sleeve art like this almost entirely supplants the movie, as fond as I am of its cheap lovableness.

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Gary Lund, Sleeve art for The Point, 1971

Gary Lund shows us just how glorious it can be, breaking the rules and thinking outside the visual box.

This is the sort of thing that happens all the time with sleeve art- the fact that there’s no “standard” for this marginal application of illustration really frees artists up.

What’s your favorite sleeve art or album cover?

Frank the Barbarian

So, with all the media buzz surrounding this new Conan the Barbarian movie, I figured it would be a good time to give a shout out to one of the greatest Sci-Fi and Fantasy cover illustrators of the 80’s: Frank Frazetta.

He painted a lot of voluptuous women, none of which will be posted here. Google ’em yourself. Said women graced the front covers of innumerable paperbacks, which graced the shelves of myriad book shops, which graced the streets of cities all around the world.

Our boy Franklin is best known for his work on the Tarzan and John Carter books by Edgar Rice Burroughs (someone I’ve been meaning to bush up on in my reading time), and Conan the Barbarian, by someone I’m not going to bother looking up.

Young Frank was also an avid athlete, but no one really cares. This just goes to show you: the arts have infinitely greater staying power than athletics.  Who even knows who Babe Ruth was any more?

Without further ado, here are a few selections of Frank Frazetta’s work. No further ado. I’m going to wrap up all of the ado in a Hefty bag and put it out for the trash man. If you see any ado lying around, sweep it under the carpet. But watch for carpet vipers.

Frazetta-ConanTheUsurper-1967Frank Frazetta, Cover for Conan the Usurper, 1967

Frank-Frazetta-Combat_1968Frank Frazetta, Combat, 1968

Frank Frazetta-Against The Gods_1966Frank Frazetta, Against the Gods, 1966

So, lots of muscular people; you get the idea. But sometimes these center-stage, anatomically awesome humans steal the show from Frazetta’s truly terrific fantasy critters.

Frank Frazetta-TheMoonMen-1978Frank Frazetta, Cover for The Moon Men, 1978

(Not to be confused with The Moomins)

frank_frazetta_gollum_1973Frank Frazetta, Gollum, 1973

frank_frazetta_manapeFrank Frazetta, Man Ape from Conan the Barbarian

Frank Frazetta-John Carter1-c1970Frank Frazetta, from John Carter, 1970

Aren’t those great? You only get that good at monsters by studying animals.

Frank Frazetta-Black Panther_1972Frank Frazetta, Black Panther, 1972

Frank Frazetta-Kane on the Golden Sea_1977Frank Frazetta, Kane on the Golden Sea, 1977

Fun fact: Frazetta was good buddies with infamous, irreverent animator Ralph Bakshi. He and Bakshi collaborated on the 1983 high fantasy/lowbrow film Fire and Ice, but I don’t recommend it. I don’t recommend any of Bakshi’s films, even if I do admire his spunk.

For more of Frank’s work, check out this gallery!

Great Job, World.

The World has treated its brilliant minds well. Beethoven, Michelangelo, Andy Warhol (hmm, maybe not Andy); they’re all comfortably ensconced in shrines of eternal adoration, their names ringing through the halls of history. While they were alive, they had the best of everything.  Now that they’re dead, they’re immortal.

And then there are the others. The World nervously bites its lip as we list the names: Van Gogh, Bach, Oscar Wilde. The ones who died face-down in the World’s ditch. Yeah… about those.

Kay Nielsen was one such artist.

Fairy Tales by Hans Andersen_1924Kay Nielsen, from Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen, 1924

Nielsen_In Powder and Crinoline_1913Kay Nielsen, from In Powder and Crinoline, 1913

A contemporary of Arthur Rackham, he was one of the last “greats” of illustration’s Golden Age (roughly 1880-1930). He began his career in book illustration, tackling the traditional fairy-tales with singular flair.

Nielsen_In Powder and Crinoline_1913_02Kay Nielsen, from In Powder and Crinoline, 1913

Hansel and Gretel and Other Stories_1925Kay Nielsen, from Hansel and Gretel, and Other Stories, 1925

Nielsen_eastrofthesun_troll_1914Kay Nielsen, from East of the Sun and West of the Moon, 1914

In the late 30’s he moved to California to work for Disney, where he did concept work on Fantasia and The Little Mermaid.

Night On Bare Mountain_Nielsen_1939Kay Nielsen, concept painting for Night on Bare Mountain from Fantasia, 1939

And then, after 4 years at Disney, he was let go.

Returning to his native country of Denmark, Nielsen attempted to renew his career in book illustration, but he found that his turn-of-the-century style was no longer in vogue. Vogue is a capricious mistress.

Need I say more? He died a brilliant pauper, sick and penniless. When a friend tried to place his work in museums, none of them expressed any interest. Good job, World.

Nielsen_EastoftheSun_1914Kay Nielsen, from East of the Sun and West of the Moon, 1914

Nielsen_WestofTheMoon_1914Kay Nielsen, from East of the Sun and West of the Moon, 1914

This is upsetting. So I want to take this moment to say: Kay Nielsen, we’re so sorry. You were pretty great, and we should have taken better care of you.

At Rest in the Dark Wood_East of the Sun and West of the Moon_1914Kay Nielsen, from East of the Sun and West of the Moon, 1914

Christopher Nolan, You’re Doing It Wrong

I’m what you might call an “armchair film director”.

Without any training or legitimate background in Film, I like to watch movies and tell people what I would have done better.

“See that lighting?  I wouldn’t have lit that shot like that.  Not if I was the director.”

“See that elephant?  I wouldn’t have put that elephant in the foreground like that.  What were they thinking?”

“See that arrogant jerk directing from his armchair?  I wouldn’t have…” and so on.

Some of my favorite directors also happen to be pretty decent artists; and this is a skill which serves them well.

Guillermo Del Toro keeps notebooks full of concepts for his films.  Here are some doodles for Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and two for Hellboy II: the Golden Army (2008):

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Guillermo Del Toro, concept work for Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006

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Guillermo Del Toro, concept work for Hellboy II: the Golden Army, 2008

Ridley Scott is another terrific director who uses his artistic abilities (and a background in drafting) to great effect.  Below are some of his boards for Alien (1979).

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Ridley Scott, storyboards for Alien, 1979

All of the films listed so far are on a whole ‘nother level, visually.  Of course, nearly all movies are storyboarded these days, just as nearly all movies have a team of concept artists.  There’s no apparent need for a director to have any skill with a pencil; but I’d like to make an argument for the Artist-Director.

A director’s job is to have a vision for the finished film.  He oversees the progress of the project, always moving toward greater cohesion between film elements.  The movie has to be a whole, with each of its smaller parts working together in harmony, if it wants to move the audience.

Since film is primarily a visual medium, wouldn’t it make sense if the person who carried the artistic vision of the project (the director) was able to actually express his ideas on paper?

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James Cameron, concept painting for The Terminator, 1984

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James Cameron, concept painting for Aliens, 1986

In my not-very-humble-opinion, the director’s role should not be specialized.  He or she must be a storyboard artist, concept artist, expert on lighting, sound engineer, and everything in between in order to effectively manage an artistic vision.  The director should be comfortable wearing all of the hats at once.

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Terry Gilliam, storyboards for Brazil, 1985

What are your thoughts?  Is this too much to ask, or are we asking too little of directors?

Runes and Demons- Q&A with Hannah Christenson

I had the opportunity earlier this week to get in contact with Hannah Christenson, a tremendously skillful illustrator from Texas.  She specializes in crisp, high-detail digital work featuring fantastic settings, mysterious characters, and brilliant colors.

Apprentice GateHannah Christenson, Apprentice Gate

Where do you draw inspiration from?  Are there any resources that you often fall back on?

Hannah: I’m inspired by a great many things that range from the Golden Age Illustrators, fantasy stories, video games, table-top RPGs, and books. But I feel like it’s most important to go out “into the world” and experience at least a bit of it. There is nothing quite like being exposed to different people, ideas, cultures, religions, histories, lands, and languages that are not your own.

It is so easy to get caught up in your own imagination, your own life, experiences, struggles. Those can be endless wells of inspiration in their own right, but there is also much more beyond your doorstep that can give you a perspective you weren’t expecting.

I’m not saying you need to travel the world, it can be as simple as going for a walk and observing. Maybe strike up a conversation with someone at the bus stop? However, I don’t think that one needs to be struck by an almighty bolt of genius first in order to make something. Sometimes the inspiration comes from doing the work.

One thing that I find really helps me is to take notes. I always try to lie to myself by saying things like “There’s no way I could forget that!” or, “I’ll write it down, I swear! But I just gotta do this first…” As you’re reading a manuscript, article, whatever, take notes. Carry a sketchbook and write down your impressions and crazy ideas. Allow yourself to write down your stupid ideas, they might lead to better ideas. Or they could just be awful and will allow you to move on to something else. The point is to get things out of your brain.

Betha's GathererHannah Christenson, Betha’s Gatherer

Moorland 2013

Hannah Christenson, Moorland, 2013

Could you talk about your process, after you have an idea?  What steps go into creating the final art?

I head straight to research. Research begins with getting the thing out of my brain and onto paper, even in a rough and ugly way. Thumbnails are like the notes. Get them out of your brain, some are stupid and some are ok, just get it out! Also, hit the books, shoot relevant photos, gather reference. What do feet look like, anyway? I spend my reference-gathering time at the beginning so I can focus on painting and not have to interrupt the painting process with a frantic reference search.

Much of your art seems like it has a story behind it.  Is that true?

I love making personal stories about questing, finding interesting and/or shiny items, defeating demons and monsters, and eating beautiful bread. Those are my favorite things.

EphronHannah Christenson, Ephron

Winter Hunt 2012

Hannah Christenson, Winter Hunt, 2012

What are your goals for your work?

My goal is to get the things out of my head. Also, to make enough of a living so I can get my hands on some beautiful bread and a health potion.

Baba Yaga 2013Hannah Christenson, Baba Yaga, 2013

Sala and the DragonsHannah Christenson, Sala and the Dragons

Rune Stone

Hannah Christenson, Rune Stone

I guess this means I have to talk in bold for the rest of the post. Maybe not, though… (Inhale, Exhale) The thing about her work that stands out to me is how a larger narrative is implied in many of the pieces, especially in Rune Stone (above).  I’m excited to see what comes from Hannah’s desk in the future!

To view more of her work, visit her website at www.hannahchristenson.com