Insights straight from Steve Rude

Here is the original set of answers to my questions from Steve. The article and video about him, with lots of images from his legendary career, can be found here.

HUMAN FORM, REFERENCE AND IMAGINATION

The only way I know to get good at anything is by persistent, goal-oriented practice.  And since we’re artists, this naturally goes hand-in-hand with using our imaginations.  That’s where it should start.  What I try and end up with is an authentication of the image I originally saw in my mind.  The best artists are also the most resourceful.  This means when problems come up, and they always will, you’ll eventually find a way to solve them.

When I’m working in my sketchbook, which I usually do either before I start the day, or during the day just to break things up, I do both imagination and references studies—pretty much anything that catches my eye or need practice at.

DAILY REGIMEN

Part of my regimen is taking things that are difficult to draw, breaking them down into basic forms, and see what remains when the complexities are stripped away.  And since I can sometimes get hazy on what I’ve learned over the years, these studies can include everything from the human foot to a horse’s nostrils.

Sometimes I’ll just come across a picture of an interesting pose from my reference files, or some random thing I’ve found in my book shelf.  I’ll draw these things for the pure fun of it, just to get me warmed up.  My library has hundreds of books on all subjects, and when take breaks, I’ll just scan the shelves for something to copy in my sketchbook.  This also helps take my mind off what I might be struggling with.  Drawing uses a lot of mental energy and this helps recharge me when it starts to run out.

If I had to categorize the soundest process I know of producing an Illustration, I’d recommend breaking things down into two simple stages.  I would start by sketching something you see in your imagination.  Then I’ll move into the “thumbnail” stage, something that’s about 2 inches in height—I’ve found they don’t need to be any bigger than that.  In these miniature sketches you’re looking for the best ways to position all the elements, along with deciding how the lighting should work, and finally working out a good color scheme that goes with the atmosphere you want to convey.

Step Two would be gathering reference materials to help give the picture a sense of authenticity.  This reference might include posing yourself in mirror studies, photo shoots of models, or finding something helpful from your reference files. The photos you take should be  accurate to the figure positions and lighting angles that you’ve worked out from your “imagination” studies.

Some people go to great lengths when it comes to gathering accurate reference, doing extensive photo sessions with models to make sure every position and expression is precisely captured.  Others just grab what they can and wing it.  After many years of trying both methods, coupled with my general impatience of wanting to throw myself into the painting as quickly as possible, seems to have put me in the “grab and wing it” category.  Your temperament and personality  determine much of how you go about doing something.

Back in my early art school days, I was always told by older artists that I would eventually acquire more speed and my art would become better and easier in time.  While you can generally always find ways to improve and “get better” throughout your lifetime, because everyone’s individual make-up is set-up to learn at different speeds, there’s no telling at what pace these “improvements” are going to come along at.  And while some do come “easier”, I don’t remember any that didn’t come without some kind of struggle.

Another important thing I’ve tried to keep up with, mostly for the pure fun of it, is to attend open class sessions to paint or draw the live figure.  As we’ve often heard, painting from life helps keep your senses alert and helps you to retain the little things that live figure work gives to your “made-up” illustrations.  Because you can produce a fairly finished work in an afternoon during these classes, you get the instant fulfillment of doing something that looks fresh and unlabored over.  It’s just you and the model, testing yourself with whatever medium you choose to work in.

BASICS

The basics of art need to be understood by every artist.  You can’t ignore them, and you can’t go forward without them.  All the things you hear about, such as perspective, learning how to construct things from basic forms, the mechanisms of anatomy and how bodies work—human, horses, birds, and anything else under the sun, have to researched and studied.  Seeing how the  great artists from barely 100 years ago had about 1/50th the materials we have to learn from today, it stands to reason that we of the 21st century should be able to learn it in 1/50th the time.

Learn from all these great artists on how to use color, muted or full strength, along with arranging your picture in tonal values to get the most impact out of a scene.   If you want to get good at something, it all has to be learned, practiced, re-learned, and practiced some more.  If you can put these things into continual application and “re-learn” mode, as I have done, you can begin to free yourself from the endless frustration of perpetual guesswork.

HOW I STUDY

From early on, all the skills I’ve acquired have come from the same basic sources;  By studying artists I admire, practicing things in my sketchbooks, and taking classes from hopefully really good teachers.  I also think about how to solve problems a lot, hoping to make the process a little easier each time.

Reversing things in a mirror and looking at things from a distance are two methods all artists seem to rely on to help spot problems in symmetry and compositional things that might be off-balanced.  When I’m about 50 to 75% done with an illustration and not sure where to go with it, I’ll prop it up against a wall about 10 feet away and figure out what I need to pull it off–things I’ve never been able to catch when working close up.

In my comic book work, just as in my painted illustrations, the final stage always involves this error-spotting procedure.  This is the part I like least, because the longer I look at it, the more I’m guaranteed to find something that’s not quite right.  To help with this bothersome stage, I’ll reverse xerox the pages, sometimes taking things like faces and blowing them up to 250%.  At that size, it’s hard to miss whatever’s out of whack.

COLOR

My color palette is simple:  white and black, two yellows– like lemon yellow and yellow ochre—orange, two reds—as in a medium to light red and alizarin crimson–a dark brown like burnt umber, a couple greens, and two blues, usually a thalo blue and an ultramarine.  Unlike most people, I don’t think in terms of “warm and cool” colors.  To me, they’re just colors.  Whatever color works best, that’s what I put it in.

Understanding color was frustrating to me because it was never a natural ability.  I had to learn it from scratch.  I had to because not learning it was unacceptable. Things like color, values, how to lead the eye through a picture—I knew I couldn’t learn them without constant practice or studying the works of other great artists.  So day by day and year by year, living in a low-rent apartment and trying to exist on $20 a week, I set about to learn these things so I could actually become “good” one day.

MORE ON PRACTICE

One reason behind the constant and diligent practice, is to see if I can take things that are difficult and work at them until they become more “automatic” or intuitive.  Just like trying to ride our bikes for the first time, I wanted things that were extremely difficult and unnatural for me to become natural and less difficult.  I also wanted to become less shackled by all the rules and theories that have cluttered my mind over the years, so I could finally come full circle and “ride the bike no-handed” someday.

HOW TO AVOID LETTING YOUR STANDARDS FALL

Another thing I always keep in mind, is the importance of “self-monitoring”.  When an artist’s standards fall over time, which is not uncommon, I don’t believe they are self-monitoring themselves properly.  People can go backwards in life, and I’ve seen this happen to more artists that I can count over the years.  Unexpected physical ailments aside, one should strive to stay healthily self-monitored for the sake of your art and the people counting on you to keep them inspired by delivering good pictures.

LEARNING FROM THE EXPERTS

I’ve always liked learning from my favorite artists, in hopes that copying their works will help assimilate their long-mastered skills into my own work.  I’ve been doing this seriously since I was about 16.  Now at 61, I’m still doing it.

DIFFERENT MEDIUMS

As the many volumes of my valued Andrew Loomis How-To books have reminded me, the principles of any medium are the same, but in actual practice they can be quite different.  Oil paint doesn’t behave like acrylic or watercolor, and that’s one good reason why I’ve tried to learn them all.

Much like my fellow humans, each medium has its peculiarities and frustrations, in the way they react to things.  But with every disadvantage we striving artists encounter, there seems to come an advantage to balance things out.  Oil, acrylic, pastel, watercolor, gouache, charcoal, pen and ink, or just a plain old H-B pencil all have different way of behaving.  I’ve never totally figured any of them out, but that doesn’t stop me from trying.

DIGITAL vs. REAL

Digital art?  It seems everyone in the commercial art field has converted to it, and it’s amazing how far it’s come.  These programs have gotten so proficient, it’s hard to tell it from the real thing.   But, for me?  No thanks.  I’m a traditionalist and always will be.  Besides, I have no mind for machines and the crazy daily trials that come with using them.  New trends and tech updates will bombard us till eternity.  With everyone else investing in the latest $2,000 program, I’m happy to keep the art stores in business by using the “real thing”.
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I hope you enjoyed those insights from master illustrator Steve Rude! Check out his website at steverude.com

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