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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
MORE ON PRACTICE
HOW TO AVOID LETTING YOUR STANDARDS FALL
LEARNING FROM THE EXPERTS
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.