Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Framed Ink is a short book about narrative art, predominantly as regards storyboarding for film but also briefly touching on graphic novels. It’s a good book to flip through if you haven’t ever studied narrative art before, and if you have it is a succinct and visually intensive review. It reads quickly and gets to the point, focusing on the compositional elements of each still as well as on the movement of the camera throughout the sequence.

In my particular case, I enjoyed its brevity as I used it as a review of things I’d studied previously and thus I didn’t need all the “fluff.” However, if you’re looking for this to teach you how to draw narrative art, you’re better off getting a different book. Framed Ink gives you a few pointers, but it’s definitely not a “how to.”  The author’s purpose is to convey some basics of developing emotive compositions through what you do and do not draw or emphasize; lighting; camera work; etc but does not delve into too much detail as the author presumes that you are already working in the field on some level and are simply seeking to heighten your awareness of how you may better convey the story you are telling with your art. By the same token though, if you are already working in the field I don’t think this book is going to present you with anything groundbreaking or new. It lists some good tips to be sure, but if you’re already constantly working on storyboards and/or graphic novels you will naturally already employ the techniques mentioned. This book may suggest something to you in such a way that you wish to further explore that particular element, but overall I wouldn’t consider this to be “required reading” the same way I consider the books by James Gurney.

It was worth the time it took to read (which wasn’t long at all), and it will remain on my shelf as a reference to flip through, but I also definitely could have survived without it. You may wish to preview this book on Amazon to see if it’s right for you – if you’re newer to the art style this may be very valuable to you.

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I bought this book due to a sudden intense impulse to create a vegetable garden on my apartment patio. Although I’ve kept plants off and on in the past, I haven’t had a vegetable garden of my own since I was a little girl (and even that was a family garden) and thus I felt it would be a good idea to educate myself about the matter.

First, let me say that this book does the trick. It’s a handy reference guide with detailed information on 160 different vegetables, herbs and flowering edible plants. It lists growing regions of Texas, planting and frost dates, troubleshooting for each plant, info on beneficial bugs as well as pests, techniques for improving soil and so on. Thus, if you live in Texas and want an all-in-one veggie guide, this is a good book to have. The only thing I’d say is that it lacks real photos of the bugs mentioned, and the quality of the photos in print isn’t the best, but it has all the info you will need in either case.

Now, as to the source of the information, a large chunk is regurgitated from the extension service and so you can probably get most of this info yourself for free from them. However, in my opinion it takes a lot more time and effort to get the info yourself, print it and organize it than it takes to get a copy of this book to use. To me, the price is worth it in that case. There are tons of critical reviews on this book in a variety of locations, but speaking from my own personal viewpoint the book is good to have, succinct, and easy to navigate. It will remain in my book collection for some time and was a worthwhile purchase.

If you’re curious about what’s going on in my little garden, you can check out my personal life blog category.

Color and Light by James Gurney

Posted: 2012.02.10 in Books

Color and Light by James Gurney is the follow-up volume to Imaginative Realism. Like Imaginative Realism, Color and Light is not a “how to” per se, but rather more of a reference book including a basic history of the usage of the title subjects, modern application, and differing approaches for each. Although the principles Gurney details may be applied to any medium, there is a chapter solely about pigments as found primarily in (oil) paints, which also touches on other tactile mediums such as markers, pastels, etc. Perhaps because I have a longstanding interest in color and thus am a bit more educated about that subject, I did not find the first half of this book to be quite as useful. However, there is a turning point in my case once Gurney discusses his Yurmby color wheel and the gamut masks he uses in conjunction with it. Almost everything after that point is fresh and interesting for me.

The Yurmby color wheel is Gurney’s original creation. Although you cannot find a premade one in any art store, upon a Goggle search I found a gamut mask tool online which features both a “standard” color wheel as well as the Yurmby wheel. This is a great tool for artists, though I caution you as to its use as all monitors display differently and print outs will also vary from what you see on screen (they will not be exact). It’s far better to obtain a printed copy of Color and Light and create a Yurmby wheel yourself using the book as a guide.

The discussion of gamuts and gamut masks you can apply over ANY color wheel (regardless of whether you use Gurney’s version, the Munsell wheel, or any other) so as to achieve a more harmonious palette is pivotal. Gurney makes the point that many artists face the issue of having too many colors, not too few, and that many paintings are, as a result, disjointed. Gurney merely comments on some common gamuts/palettes, and more or less says, “play with it.”

Other information you will find in this book includes: a breakdown of the types of light sources and of light itself; the effects of strong light on various pigments and dyes over a period of time (what sort of fading occurs); local color and our assumptions about it which influence our color mixing habits; considerations of how to use light and color to affect the mood of the piece; various methods of premixing and organizing your palette; the factors which influence light and color and what changes in each situation; various methods for gauging the color of an object; the shifts of color and light across surfaces and spaces; the anatomy of shadows; various lighting and color issues commonly faced in art; and the differences between how the eye sees versus how a camera sees.

Some of the principle points of the book are as follows (from the final segment of Chapter 11):

  1. Color and light are not separate topics, but rather closely related.
  2. Viewers will see the subject, but feel the color and light.
  3. Choose a lighting plan and stick with it.
  4. Know your wheel. (Whichever wheel you use.)
  5. Know your gamut.
  6. Vision is an active process.
  7. There is not a single brand of realism.
  8. Compare, compare, compare. (Color shifts, etc.)
  9. The outer eye fuels the inner eye. (Look for resources and study materials, and observe nature.)
  10. We are fortunate to be living today. (Use all of your easily accessible, high-tech resources and relatively inexpensive materials to your advantage.)

I like the fact that he is anything but absolute in his discussion of different aspects of color and light; that is, he will discuss different opinions of each and leave the reader to figure out his or her particular stance on the matter. I also like that he consistently describes the scientific explanation for everything he mentions, from the chemical composition of pigments to the angles of reflection and refraction of light in various situations.

Above and beyond his “technical tips,” he also has a reference section filled with terms and additional resources for you to look into should you desire more information about the topics mentioned in the book. All in all, this is a wonderful textbook for any artist, as it teaches information that may be simple review for more experienced artists yet foundational for neophytes. It’s definitely worth the money – I’d say that it is even more valuable than its predecessor, Imaginative Realism.

Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist by James Gurney, much like The Artist’s Guide to Sketching which he co-authored with “Painter of Light” Thomas Kinkade, is not really a “how to” book although it is a shade more instructional than Sketching. Imaginative Realism is a wonderful tool for any artist seeking a scientific method by which to go about the creative process. This is a great book for getting your imagination going, and also for breaking a painter out of the studio and into hands-on research and reenactment. I believe that for me personally, I loved this book because it provided a new perspective for me, and also put concepts I’d already been practicing into words. Although that seems like a silly thing to place importance on, once an idea is given a description it is easier to focus on it with intention and purpose and therefore to apply it when in the studio.

The main idea of this book is as follows: in order to paint the fantastic, you must first start with the mundane. Use real-life references whenever possible: adapt plein-air sketches to fantasyscapes; base your original creatures on mixtures of real animals and people, giving them a solid core of anatomy which is believable; create maquettes and lifecasts – either temporary or long-term use – in order to get your lighting and composition as accurate as possible. Set up your studio with theater lighting. Purchase or make costumes and act out your own poses. Draft friends, relatives, and neighbors in for your projects as needed. Keep a morgue of reference photos and drawings, cleanly filed for easy access. Use multiple references: sketches, photos, maquettes, live models.

Imaginative Realism also touches upon several different points which an artist may find useful:

The methods of the Great Masters: The very first chapter of the book deals with the various steps the masters of art employed when creating their work. By studying these methods and employing the steps which suit your work style, you are better able to thoroughly understand your piece before you ever set the brush to the final canvas, be it digital or physical.

Your studio setup and materials: Gurney explains what he has in his studio, and why. Everything from what brush sizes/types/shapes to lighting and other useful tools of the trade are listed and photographed for easy reference. He explains what he uses them for and whether it is essential or an “optional extra.”

How to get a fresh perspective to spot what needs work: turn the painting upside-down; use a mirror and look at the painting in reverse; set it aside and work on another project so you have “time away;” ask loved one for their response to the painting – they don’t have to be experts to spot what seems “off” about it.

How to research: He gives tips on how to go about the researching end of the project, as having knowledge about the subject you are painting (or about something relevant to your original creation) will grant you insights into how to best compose and illustrate the work. He takes pains to explain how to think like the subject matter, be it an imagined creature or a recreation of the past. In becoming the subject, you better understand the movements, behaviors, and other important aspects which will assist you in illustrating your story.

Maquettes: The book more or less emphasizes that maquettes are invaluable to a fantasy artist who employs a realistic style, as they provide a window into that which does not exist. You can better comprehend the lighting, and also more accurately render the same character several times if you have a maquette as a reference. Gurney explains a few details about materials he uses, and methods by which he creates them.

Compositional elements: Gurney explains various types of elements to consider in your work, and ways to employ different types of compositions depending on what the nature of your project is (be it a book cover, an illustration for an article, a stand-alone work, etc).

Careers for fantasy-realist artists: He lists several different fields that this sort of artist may find him/herself in, and explains a little about what the responsibilities and work environments for each are.

This book – while not quite as invaluable as The Artist’s Guide to Sketching – is certainly full of plenty of pointers for an active and experienced artist. It will retain its place on my shelf, along with Gurney’s second solo instructional book, Color and Light, which I will review in a separate post.

The Artist’s Guide to Sketching by James Gurney and Thomas Kinkade is a wonderful reference guide for established artists. This is not a “how to” book; this is a book detailing the experiences and methods of two famous, splendid artists. James Gurney is the author of the Dinotopia books, and has worked as an illustrator for such clients as National Geographic; Thomas Kinkade is known as the “Painter of Light.” The two artists took off across America, living the life of a hobo, with nothing but their sketchbooks and knapsacks with some clothes and food (at least that’s the adventurous description of what happened). They “drew their way across America.”

Please note that this book is, at present, out-of-print but available for a premium on Amazon, eBay, and other websites. Why is it so expensive? It’s a great book. I believe the best way to explain why is to say that this book will invariably alter your way of thinking about sketching, and place that activity in the spotlight as the key to adventure, imagination, and recording your life and times.

The first and most important premise of The Artist’s Guide to Sketching is that an artist should get outdoors and draw from LIFE, not photographs, as much as possible. They authors take great pains to explain that the process of sketching is not just drawing a specific subject such as a tree; it’s about incorporating the rest of the environment, including sounds and interactions which are not directly in the picture you are drawing. Carrying across the feel of a lonely tree out in the middle of an abandoned field is a much different task than accurately recreating the feel of a tree in the middle of a park, filled with families and pets, noise and bustling life.

You are in control of what you draw; the subject matter you are drawing is merely a reference tool. Most realist artists — myself included — will feel at times as though they need to render the subject matter the way it looks exactly, and that the successful translation of that subject matter to the paper or canvas is therefore a successful piece of art. However, everything that you use in the creation of your picture is merely a reference. You may omit or add anything you wish. You may invent extra color in some places, texture in others. You may mix and match realities, taking two unlike things and merging them together. You are in essence the god of your sketchbook.

The most important aspect of the sketch is the feeling you convey. You must decide upon a specific mood, and make all judgments about the drawing based on the theme you’ve chosen to work with. It is best to write down keywords for this theme on the paper you are working with, to help prompt yourself. The lonely tree vs the tree in the middle of an active park immediately call forth certain lighting and color schemes — maybe even specific line work, paper size, and drawing mediums.

You should record everything via sketching, and keep a sketchbook with you always to jot notes, draw quick doodles, or compose fully rationalized pieces. The artist’s sketchbook is a point of reference for their daily lives, their adventures, their experiences, their minds. The great masters of art all had sketchbooks filled with mundane objects and scenes regardless of their fantastic oil paintings. This is your window, your reference tool, your way of preserving memories, thoughts, and situations. You should draw, write notes, add in quotes, jot down ideas, and so on. And, you should have several sketchbooks.

You must distinguish between a sketch and a study. A sketch is a picture you create based on one or more references. You “take artistic license” with these references in order to further your goals for the picture. A study is a rendering of a specific subject matter in as faithful a manner as you can create. Studies assist an artist in being able to recreate objects, learn about their inherent properties, learn about their forms, lighting, and so on. Studies are learning tools. All artists should actively draw studies, but should also be conscious of the difference between a sketch and a study and set out with intent to draw either one or the other. It is also a good idea for an artist to dedicate sketchbooks to studies of specific subjects, such as a sketchbook dedicated to drawing trees. This is an invaluable reference tool for an artist to return to whenever composing a painting. All sketchbooks are invaluable to the artist and should be kept in an easily accessible place.

There are several other points that this book makes; the above are just a few summaries of certain key ideas. Gurney and Kinkade explore everything from how to get a stranger to pose for a drawing to handling curious onlookers to what materials work best for plein-air sketching. This is an essential reference for any artist, as sketching is the cornerstone of all visual art regardless of medium.

This book is perhaps best described as a sparse, relatively short account of the situation during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It’s obviously written by someone who was directly involved, as Mr. Kennedy is careful to explain that all heated debate and all actions were reasonable due to information at hand or which was lacking, natural human response, and so forth. He takes paints to be sure not to insult anyone or even remotely sound as if he is “pointing fingers.” Yet on the flip side, this book is often very vague and lacks detail about what happened during the meetings of the Ex Comm, probably because that information is either classified or so entirely full of dithering that it was less relevant than the outcome of each meeting. Many parts of the retelling also seem repetitious — yet the reader must recall that during those days of crisis, everything was hashed and rehashed endlessly and thus a lot of what was discussed was in fact repetitious to the point of being entirely maddening.

The account by Mr. Kennedy is, as previously stated, short. A large section of my copy is an afterword by another author; thereafter is a smaller yet still substantial “Documents” section. There is, furthermore, a foreword. Even so, Mr. Kennedy’s part is over before you hit triple-digit page numbers. I believe that this is a good thing as there isn’t much else for him to tell which is of lasting importance other than what he’d already written, however, a prospective reader should not go into the book anticipating that it is all Kennedy’s tale. The foreword and afterword are crucial in setting up the scene and thereafter discussing the impact thereof.

All in all, this was a quick, interesting read. The thing that I took away from it most strongly was the emphasis during the crisis on America’s moral obligations to the world, particularly in light of subsequent administrations’ decisions as regards the international political scene. During the crisis, JFK and others were very highly concerned about the example the US would set in its course of action, and how a secret invasion of Cuba to destroy the missiles would be the US “picking on” a smaller country, using brute force when diplomacy should have been the first course of action. At one point, some of the pro-invasion members of the Ex Comm had actually proposed to either a) send a letter to Khrushchev advising him that the US would invade in 24 hours or b) drop pamphlets over Cuba advising what sites would be bombed so that civilians could evacuate.  These ideas, as history shows, were vetoed along with the whole notion of invasion, although there were a few “close calls” when it might have very well come about.

The interesting thing about the crisis is that JFK was so adamant about preventing the US and USSR’s slipping into war to “save face” or due to rashness, etc; was so adamant about preserving life of the people of all countries involved (and not involved); was so adamant about upholding the moral standard of the US that he very nearly faced impeachment over it. The timing of the Cuban Missile Crisis was also during the campaign season, yet that also did not cause him to alter his position.

Of course, this book is written by the former President’s brother and thus is of course biased to a certain degree. However, other reports by various members of his administration — and also his ultimate decisions to most frequently ignore the recommendations of his Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Ex Comm — back up this claim.

When I consider JFK’s strong stance and juxtapose that with what we have seen in the last ten or fifteen years in Washington, I can only shake my head and sigh. I think that Kyle put it very succinctly when he stated to me today that “we have become a nation of parties not politicians.”

On another note, reading this has made me want to read more about Oppenheimer.

The Complete Chronicles of Conan by Robert E. Howard is a wonderful collection of classic fantasy stories. By and large they were serialized in a pulp magazine called Weird Tales, which is why they are arranged in an episodic fashion. Originally written in the 1930’s, the Conan stories have fascinated readers ever since. Howard is lauded as the “grandfather of the sword and sorcery genre.”

The world of Conan is richly embellished, based on the actual history and speculative prehistory of reality. Even the names of the various peoples and places in the tales are often derived from antiquity. Howard was highly interested in the past, and that line of study served to lend authority to his writing. Even now, the free-to-play MMO Age of Conan is based in Howard’s world; Red Sonja – whom was based upon a character created by Howard – is also popular in comics and saw her own movie produced in the 80s. But what exactly makes Conan so interesting?

Conan is based rather directly upon Howard himself. Howard was a large man who took up bodybuilding in order to be strong enough to take down anyone who might try to bully him. He had blue eyes just as his main character, and his demeanor and bearing were often likened to Conan’s. Conan in that way is an alter ego for Howard, who admitted that the character more or less “wrote himself” unlike other protagonists he’d envisioned. This is by far the point which made Conan so strong and likable: he was real. His stories and situations were invented, but he was none other than the author himself.

Conan’s character is that of a wild white barbarian from a rugged land. Despite his lack of understanding for the pomp and procedure of civilized society, Conan is not without his own moral code. He protects women, and though he lusts after pretty much every female in every story, he never forces himself on one (most of the time they fall over themselves, madly in love with him). He is “moody” but also as quick to laugh as to draw his sword. He is easygoing but alert, and full of wry humor. He does not fear death. He does as he pleases, and assumes new roles simply because he had never assumed them before – so why not? Throughout the course of Chronicles, he is a mercenary, a freedom fighter, a pirate, a thief, a king. Though he was not raised among society, he is intelligent, eloquent, and knowledgeable about various customs, languages, and histories. He is in short a little bit of everything, and seems to accept and absorb every new situation or bit of information like a dry sponge.

His stories were written in no particular order, so the chronology is a bit jumbled. Certain characters are recurring and will pop up occasionally for a repeat performance, however, so paying attention to names and places as you read will yield surprising results. The stories are at times somewhat redundant, as certain scenarios are repeated for multiple stories (inserting new names and with a few small tweaks to the plot, but otherwise identical), and after a certain point a reader will come to understand how the story will end (Conan getting the girl and becoming victorious, with either new loot or new prospects for what he will do next) much as a reader of Sherlock Holmes knows that Holmes will always clear up the mystery succinctly by the end of the story.

Certain aspects are products of Howard’s upbringing in a rural Texas town in the early part of the 20th century. In his stories, for example, dark-skinned races such as the Picts are considered savages and Conan would save even a treacherous white person from them due to a loyalty to his skin color. Although Conan does not exhibit particular prejudice towards black people (other than saying that he doesn’t care for black women), the stories almost always pit him against some dark-skinned race of crazies. Back when Howard was alive and writing, however, that sort of mindset was popular in the South. His contemporaries such as H.P. Lovecraft (who was also featured in Weird Tales) also expressed this same sort of opinion in his own writing. It doesn’t lessen the quality of the work itself, but it does speak volumes about the man behind the writing and the world he lived in.

Another “dated” aspect is the portrayal of women. All of the women were shapely, with huge breasts and curvy hips; they were almost always either naked or half-naked, or at some point during the story their clothing would be torn off. They often were portrayed kneeling before Conan, clinging to his shins, which is now a trope of the sword and sorcery genre’s art. They cried, they begged, they fantasized about being Conan’s woman. Howard wrote the women as having inborn instincts driving them towards supplication to Conan. Although a few would at times manage to be useful and either help free Conan from imprisonment or guide him through some maze or challenge, they all invariably were useless and needed to be rescued.

There were only a couple strong female protagonists that I can recall from the stories, and only one who lives through her part in Conan’s world: Valeria. However, Howard made her into a lesbian. Only a few hints of lesbianism made it to the final, published version of her story, but his intention was clearly stated in a letter to Weird Tales prior to its publication. Even Valeria found herself impotent for a good half of the story, falling at the feet of Conan and depending on him to save her. An ironic note is that in the 80’s movies, Valeria is the name of Conan’s one true love, who dies during the first movie and is pined for in the second.

Combining these two attitudes together, let’s talk about black women in Conan stories. Well, there’s not much to talk about. They don’t really show up to any great degree. Conan fights against the evil black men, and that’s about it. There are black women, but to my recollection they are mostly unnamed and are only appear for cameos, often juxtaposed with the a white woman of some variation or another. It gets tedious to read the keyword “white” as respects the females in the stories – that’s how you know Conan will get some action (except that one time with Valeria, although Conan saves her just the same).

Being pulp fiction, the tales of Conan the Cimmerian are full of gore and violence. There is a lot of blood, a lot of political intrigue, and a lot of nudity. The audience for these stories has always been white males, so these sorts of aspects are to expected. Yet despite the pulpy nature of the writing, Howard’s style is richly detailed and full of wonderful descriptive and memorable passages. The work is, all in all, a delight to read, though not of course everyone’s cup of tea. I was raised on action movies (including the old Conan flicks), so this book was well worth the time to read.