Wednesday, January 5, 2011

2010 - The year I got MORE serious

A year ago I wrote a pair of posts about how I 'got serious' in 2009: Part 1 & Part 2. 2010 has come and gone and I have some thoughts to share about the past 365 days.

Getting MORE Serious, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love REFERENCE.

In retrospect I feel I spent most of 2009 just getting my ducks in a row and getting my name out there in attempts to drum up work. Coming off of Illuxcon 2 in November of 2009 I had a lot to think about and some helpful but rather bruising critiques to process and absorb. All of my efforts in 2009 lead to me beginning 2010 with a group of clients I felt comfortable working with that were sending me work on a regular enough basis. All that aside 2010 started rather slow work wise, but at the time I didn't realize how advantageous that was. It left me with a lot of time to think and work on my own personal projects as I filtered through all that 2009 had taught me. Concentrating on Jon Schindehette's advice to figure out the types of monsters I really wanted to make and make them I did a lot of thinking and sketching. Surprisingly, in the end, Jon made it even easier for me by having a Mutation Nation challenge on Art Order. I kind of got carried away and before I knew it I had finished three paintings of crazy mixed up animal monsters.

Scuttling Grizzly
© 2010 Christopher Burdett

© 2010 Christopher Burdett

© 2010 Christopher Burdett

While working on the sketches and paintings I looked at a lot animal reference. Mother Nature has spent a lot of time making some astounding critters that offer so much to work off of. I found color palettes and body forms that never occurred to me and something finally was clicking after I don't know how many years…

Reference + thumbnails + reference + sketching + MORE reference + planning + painting = a much stronger final piece.

Who knew? Well, apparently a whole lot of people that had been trying to tell me that for years, but I was too clueless or stubborn to listen. If I am going to make a crab bear monster it really helps to look at lots of images of crabs and bears. Sitting there trying to pull what a crab and bear look like out of my head is a huge waste of time and will result in some less then inspired results. Sure, I have used reference, loads of reference over the years, taken photos, used props, searched the web and I have a very large library to pull from, but I don't think I was using it correctly. When I talk about reference I also group into that being aware of the world around you. This includes how light and color works to make and describe the world around us. Understanding light and color better has been a real challenge for me. For me it was one of those 'Ah-ha!' moments. Having reference and USING reference to it's full extent are very different things. In some ways I feel I had to also learn how to look and see better and that I need to look and see in a very particular way to get the most out of my reference. For me at least it was as this change occurred overnight, one day it was not there, the next I was looking at everything differently.


This is a good time to say I am still learning and making mistakes, still struggling with old habits and really making an effort to make sure I give it my all and not just enough. You want an example? Lets look at an assignment that came in just a short time after I finished working on the Mutation Nation monsters. The project was to work on a new expansion for the Talisman board game. I had worked on two previous expansions so I was eager to work on another. To my surprise I was assigned two horse pieces and three pieces centering around humans. Having never even drawn a horse before I leaned heavily on reference to get me through, as a side note, my home library now has several new horse books. The three human pieces on the other hand almost proved my undoing. With the help of my wife I had a lot of photo reference of myself in costumes, with props and with appropriate lighting which I 'used' for my sketches and final paintings. Please note I will not be posting silly pictures of myself here posing for reference, use your imagination. Looking back now I can't even see the hint of my reference being used in my sketches‚ they may as well be out of my head. I was drawing and eventually painting what I thought was there rather then what was actually there. Not using the reference correctly or at all.

Warlock Apprentice sketch and early painting
(Still SO much work to do - I bet some good reference would really help out!)
© 2010 Fantasy Flight Games

I was falling back on old bad habits. Habits and practices that have proved detrimental to my work. I kept staring at the paintings and working and reworking the pieces, but ultimately it was a bad foundation to the entire piece that lead me to a bad painting. I finally had to just stop what I was doing, realize that I needed to get serious about what I was doing, get better reference and actually look at it and use it to make a better painting. Reference is not cheating. All the top artist use reference. I wish I knew where I got this notion in my head that to be a good artist it meant getting everything out of my head.

So I took a deep breath, got serious, and got some reference. You can say this is not my best painting, but it is a much better painting then I was at first allowing myself to make.

Warlock Apprentice
Original Sketch / Under Painting / Early Painting / REFERENCE! / Final Painting
© 2010 Fantasy Flight Games

At the time this was a huge moment for me as an artist. I am sure for some it seems like a no brainer… but it was definitely a hurdle I had to overcome and one that had been dogging me for years. It is up to me to make the best product I can and that means planning ahead on all my projects and using reference effectively. No one else is going to hold my hand and walk me through this. The only reward for not doing this is to stay at the level you are currently working or loosing clients when someone else is willing to push to that next level with their work. In 2009 I produced far too much work with not enough or no reference at all. Looking back it definitely shows in those pieces. This leaves me with substandard work and it made it very hard to get more work with some clients I really want to work with. A little extra time and effort in the beginning really pays off in the end. Case in point, I posted the processes of a piece I did for Dungeon Magazine late last year that went through all the steps that lead to a finished piece I am really pleased with: Part 1 & Part 2.

Sea Demon Shire
Some Reference / Thumbnails, Comps, Final Drawing / Painting Process / Final Painting
© 2010 Wizards of the Coast

To wrap things up, make sure you plan out what you are doing from the very beginning of an assignment and USE REFERENCE! Reference is not bad is it vital, it is necessary and I wish someone would have pounded it into my skull much sooner.


It is VERY important to point out that I spent this entire year repeating one thing over and over to friends, fellow artists, art directors, clients, perspective clients, past clients, current clients, the cat, the wall and just about anything else I could tell‚ I MAKE MONSTERS. No elves, no pretty girlie things, no expansive battle scenes with hundreds of figures‚ just monsters. Monsters are what I am passionate about, what I love and what I will do the best damn job that I can on. Will this limit the amount of work I get? Maybe, but by looking at 2010 I am not so sure that focusing on just monster is having any sort of negative impart on my work load. I would like to think that my clients understand that I will be giving them a much better product if I get assigned the type of work that I can really get excited about.

The funny thing was is that I think I told everyone in 2009 that I just make monster too… but I don't think I was showing them that I just wanted to make monsters. I got a lot of assignments that were all over the place in 2009. I am learning that some of this comes from a better relationship with the clients and art directors and some of this comes from being able to communicate well. In the end though, I think a lot of this comes from being able to show everyone clearly the level of work to be expected if you are assigned the type of work you are best at. This may mean turning inappropriate assignments down and this may mean not making it onto an assignment because there is just not anything for you. If you are one of those folks that can do it all, I salute you and wish you the best, just leave me some monsters!

© 2010 Christopher Burdett / © 2010 Wizards of the Coast / © 2010 Paizo Publishing

As well as focusing on the type of work I am creating I am also focusing on the amount of work I am taking on. I am trying‚ and sometimes succeeding in taking on fewer pieces when possible so that I can put more into each piece and raise the over all quality of my work. Not always possible, but it is a goal I am trying to aim for as I move forward with my work. I know that not everyone is able to do this, but right now, for me, I think it is a good decision to make.

Patience. For the artist it is time to eat as well.

Lastly, I would like to share the one constant throughout all my struggles, the one thing that seems to be a constant frustration… it just takes time. You can't rush growth and change and we can't rush the time it takes to make a finished piece. We are all going to have to put the time and effort into the process of getting better. There are no shortcuts and there are no tricks, just good old fashion hard work. As frustrating as this is and how much I curse it myself there is no way to get better then to work at it. I have begun to think of each painting as a road trip. It takes a certain amount of time to get from point A to point B. Sometimes they are closer, sometimes farther, but you are going to have to put in the time to get there. You just need to sit back and give the road trip - or painting the time it needs to be completed. Sure, you can try to speed, but you risk something bad happening that way - a ticket or accident or a less then polished paint that has careless errors in it. Yes, there will always be the folks that work much faster and advance much faster then everyone else but the rest of us have to put in the time.

Wrapping it all up…

The three things I can say I have taken away from 2010 is: REFERENCE, FOCUS and PATIENCE (in that order). I don't feel you can get by without addressing all of these, well at least I have not been able to. If you have any questions or would like me to clarify, let me know. I hope my ramblings have been helpful, useful or at least mildly amusing. I hope 2010 was a good year for you and here's to 2011 being even better! Now, let's get to work!

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  1. Chris,
    What an amazing post! So much introspective prose, and a great tale about the stumbles and successes. I truly got choked up reading this and realizing that you are making huge strides in your personal growth as well as the leaps that your art work has been making. I am humbled to have had a small part in this metamorphosis, and look forward to seeing what wonderful things you do in 2011.

    It's been a pleasant and wonderful journey these past two years...looking forward to many more.

  2. This is what growth is really about. I think sometimes I forget various elements of where my focus should be, as well as balance and truly getting serious. I've been a college professor for a few years and I spend most of my time saying these things to my students but now find myself in a similar position of sitting back and looking at my body of work, which, for lack of a better expression, is all over the place in regards to the fantasy element of creating creatures/monsters, etc. Your post is the exact thing I needed to read, helps put things in perspective.

    Thanks, Chris, and good luck!

  3. Thanks for the excellent post. Your monsters are inspired! I enjoyed seeing your work at Illuxcon and around ArtOrder. I'm taking your words to heart, reference, focus and patience. Hopefully I can remember a three word mantra. Time will tell. Thanks again for the post.

  4. I love your year reviews! :)
    I would love to understand better how you mean you were using reference wrong. Is the difference: BEFORE you would look at it once then put it away, and AFTER you would draw directly from it like life drawing (look draw look draw)?
    The thing that has made me reluctant about reference is the idea of being limited by it. Your warlock with reference looks more believable, but it also looks like the person in the photo, so to have a variety of bodies and faces you have to pull in lots of people into your studio for shots? So if I want a skinny tall guy and a short fat guy I have to go find some people like that? If you're warlock was angular emaciated undead, wouldn't you have had to change the surface/light so much from your reference (for sunken cheeks and angular nose) that it would be more out of your head then the photo anyway? That doubt is what's holding me back from crossing the reference line (and laziness :P ) any thoughts from the other side.
    good luck to you in 2011 :)

  5. Thanks Chris this was a really encouraging post. I have felt frustrated with my lack of ability to get things finished quickly and your last paragraph greatly encouraged me :) Thanks again! And all the best for 2011 too :)

  6. Thanks for writing up this review, it's inspiring and encouraging to read about such growth. I have been unhappy with where I am in terms of artistic skills; I have the feeling I can do a lot better, but seem to have difficulty actually getting down to study the things I need to learn. Stories like yours help me get over the barrier that seems to hold me back.

    I echo Anonymous' comment on the question of how you were using reference wrong :)

  7. Thanks for posting Chris - I really need to do my review to sometime! All I can say is I'm on the same page as you these days - reference, focus and patience are the goals to aspire to. Looking foward to seeing more monsters - you should consider doing a book one day. All the best!

  8. Thanks so much everybody for all the kind words! Really appreciate it, glad to hear that my post and observations have been so well received! :)

    I will be sure to talk more about how I was and now am using reference as well as some thoughts on it in general. Please be patent, this might take a little time to pull together. It will be along soon though!