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Deep Time: Using My Visual Library

This week I'm sharing another image from Deep Time, a wordless novel I'm creating about a little dinosaur from Jurassic China named Caihong. Some pictures take me weeks to conceptualize, draw, and paint. Others--a very small number--emerge as if they were waiting for the chance to spring out of my imagination, fully-developed. The painting I made above was one of those. I think this had something to do with a fortuitous coalescing of images in my visual library.

I tend to think not in words but in images. Like actors memorize lines, artists memorize pictures and file them away for future use. Imagine a google image search that only exists in your long-term memory. Artists use these visual libraries to assemble their work from a panoply of pictures they've stored there. The librarian is my own subconscious, which suggests references that highlight specific pieces that have a color, a pose, a mood, that I need. I assemble them all like a complex, invisible collage--the painting slowly coming to existence in my mind before a pencil or brush touches a surface.

The genesis of the picture began--I think--on one of my walks in the woods near my home. A log covered with colorful fungus caught my eye. I thought how seldom one sees an object like this in illustrations of prehistoric environments. You tend to see emerald green plants in the prime of their life--not so many mushrooms and fungi. Possibly this is because large animals tend to be the focus of these pictures. But I'm working on a much smaller scale. A log like this becomes a whole environment.

I began to imagine Caihong hiding underneath the log. I thought it would make a perfect setting for a moment in the narrative when he has suffered an incredible amount and has reached a nadir of pure abjection and despair. My goal was to do this with a minimum of anthropomorphism--to pose him in a way that was naturally plausible but at the same time conveyed the emotion I was after. You can see how the idea grew in a very short time in a series of thumbnails I made:

With the image of the log in the forefront of my mind, I began to use my visual library to find the right mood and composition. As you can see, I first imagined a large painting where I focused on the fungus and kept the dinosaur in the lower left, like he was hiding there. I had a feeling, however, that it would be more effective to have less clutter in the background and balance the rotting log with emptiness--like something Hokusai might do in one of his bird and flower prints:

But I wanted something a little moodier. I'd been working on projects with students where I introduced them to illustrators of the past. One of them was a favorite of mine, the painter George Ziel, whose work I admire for its creepy atmospheric backgrounds. I liked the effect of the moonlight breaking through the thick, dark clouds.

I added my own touch--rain beating down on the log and the little dinosaur hiding beneath it. Elements in your visual library don't create interesting pictures. You don't simply copy them--you use them to generate ideas and solutions for your own particular problems. The originality and artfulness of your response comes from decisions you make about how to use those elements from your visual library--decisions that are sometimes conscious, and other times unconscious.

All that was left was how Caihong would fit in there. The pose emerged relatively quickly. Before I started drawing I had already drawn images from my visual library that conveyed a mythic kind of gried I was after--like this still of Richard Harris in the film The Bible:

I wanted the face more concealed--and thought of Massacio's painting of from the Brancacci Chapel where he shows Adam covering his face in grief.

But I couldn't position the wing to make that pose work and then hit on the idea of letting the log itself obscure his face.

Immediately it clicked, no doubt because this silent expression of anguish reminded me of this picture of a survivor of Bergen-Belsen after the liberation in April 15 1945. The way he turns his head away from the camera, lost in his own private world of silent agony and sorrow, has always moved me deeply. It is an archetypal image of a supremely isolated human being confronting evil and senseless suffering. It was exactly the emotion I wanted for my painting.

All my elements were in place except for the color. This came quickly too--in just one color study thumbnail I got it:

I usually agonize over the color for a particular painting. But this time I had a clear sense of what I was after, thanks to a recollection of one of Goya's Black Paintings--one of his most enigmatic and uncannily gentle pictures:

I kept Goya's focus on dark and dismal earth tones. The only elements I added were some clouds--a dim light barely leaking through them--and drops of rain slicing through the painting in sharp diagonals.

All of these images form part of my visual library. They come from nature, from European painting, Japanese prints, Gothic romance paperbacks, cheesy Biblical epics, and WW2 photography. Without that storehouse of images, I would never be able to generate compositions that eloquently express the feelings I have within me.


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