I've talked about that idea a little bit on here before, and it's an important concept implicit within most of my articles. After all, it makes no sense to do the kind of complex critiques I do here if you can't turn those critiques around and apply them to your work as an artist. Still, I haven't talked much about my own artistic process in that light, and since I just had a show yesterday (first place in the Graphic category, wooo!) this seemed like a good time to walk through the steps I go through in my artistic process. This should help to illuminate my own problem solving process a little.
I'm an illustrator at heart. I love the idea that visual art can be used to tell a story or accompany and augment a tale. So, I tend to start my process with an idea of a story that I want to tell.
This series of works that I'll be talking about today comes from what might broadly be termed Abrahamaic mythology--so, Judeism, Christianity, Gnosticism, and other, smaller offshoots such as the Judeo-Christian folk traditions and fanfictions such as Milton's Paradise Lost and Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell. I've been interested in these works for a long time, and my study, a few years ago, of Byzantine art fanned that spark of interest into a flame.
I was confronted by two problems, though. For one thing, I was interested in a number of characters from totally contradictory mythologies. The Gnostics creator god, for example, is actually evil, and the whole Garden of Eden thing is an escape from a prison of blissful ignorance! But Milton's Satan is an evil being that orchestrates the fall from the Garden of Eden to cause suffering. How do you reconcile those two things?
Secondly, what characters did I want to focus on? There are, if you didn't know, a WHOLE LOT of biblically-related characters, not even counting the giant selection of angels and demons that medievalists created, the mind-bendingly complex Gnostic system of heavens, and so on.
This is the first major part of the artistic process: narrowing your stuff down to a manageable size. It's a matter of paring down the concept itself before you put pencil to paper. After all, it's a waste of effort to do a whole series of pieces that fall apart at the conceptual level. For that reason, I tend to ask myself, before I begin: what is the driving idea behind this piece or series? What is the major theme I want to convey? What holds these works together?
In this case, I solved both of my problems by deciding to focus on the early part of Genesis--a miniscule part of the story, to be sure, but a manageable part. This let me negotiate some of the difficulties the varied sets of stories presented by making the act of creation and the birth of evil the focal point.
Now, I'm going to try to walk through the whole combined mythos that I designed. It's dense stuff, since I'm compressing a lot of myths together, but I'll try to make it clear. As I walk through the first four pieces (all that's really far enough along to show you) I'll be posting the mostly pretty awful rough sketches I did.
Sophia (a character from Gnostic mythology) emerged as an emanation of a sort of primordial Godness--a light outside of time. Although she was accompanied by other such emanations, Sophia decided to go off on her own and call into being another creature, a sort of reflection of herself. This is Samael, the Gnostic creator god.
Now, Samael was created without the timeless light of Godness, and was born hidden by Sophia within a cloud of darkness. Coming into being in such a way, as a flawed entity from the outset, Samael looked around at Chaos and declared himself God. He, the Demiurge, the will to create, was the masterless lord of this primordial chaos, and from it, he would summon the world. He is the Gnostic creator god.
And he is piece number one.
This is where the story starts to go downhill. See, Sophia quickly realized, presumably around the time that Samael declared himself God, that she done goofed. Now, Samael had already summoned a whole hierarchy of beings to rule over this world in preparation for his prime creation--more on that later. Among them were seven Archons, lords over Samael's heavens, and beings far more terrifying even than the alien Angels. (Yes, angels are freaky.)
These seven were the first to witness Sophia's entrance into the world as a being of pure light. They were captivated by her glory, and tried to touch her, but as beings of shadow they could not come near her. Six of these beings became resentful toward both the light they could not grasp, and toward their master, Samael, who was rather shocked himself to discover that there was a being who could match his power. One, however, received Sophia's wisdom--the knowledge of Good and Evil--and betrayed Samael, establishing his own kingdom of light in Heaven. His name was Sabaoth.
And he is the second piece.
Samael was shaken by these events, and the stab of the world's first Betrayal, but he was not deterred. After all, he had a whole Creation planned out and he wasn't going to let this stop him! He announced to his angels that he was going to create Humankind, and that their king, his Son, would rule over all, second only to his power.
This did not go over well with the archangel Lucifer, (a character from more traditional Christian mythology, and from Milton's Paradise Lost) who coveted power for himself and had come to recognize, with Sabaoth's betrayal, the possibility of defection. He was not motivated by truth, however, but avarice, and his war nearly destroyed the newly formed Heaven. After the newly formed Son refused to enter the conflict (another major departure here from traditional mythology) and Lucifer's fellow Archangel Michael was unable to bring himself to destroy his former friend, Samael entered the fray and personally cast Lucifer and the rebel angels into Hell.
Lucifer is the third piece.
This (and an unfinished illustration of Samael's creation) ended up being the first four pieces that create, broadly, a connected narrative arc. There are other stories I could have included--the relationship between the Archangels, for example--but these events in particular seemed to say some interesting things about creations getting the best of their creators, and about the complex nature of good and evil.
From there, I shifted focus to the Earth itself. See, Samael, after the whole War In Heaven thing was sorted out, finally got the spare moment he needed to create the first humans: Adam and Lilith. Yes, I know, bear with me here. Samael sent out four of the remaining Archangels--Gabriel, Israfel, Michael, and Azrael--out to gather the dust of the world (an event taken from Islamic sources). Only Azrael succeeded, and from that dust Samael created the first two humans and set them up in an earthly paradise known as Eden.
Paradise only lasted a relatively short time, however, and it was, of course, Adam who screwed things up. See, Samael had declared Adam the ruler over Lilith, and she wasn't particularly pleased with that, since she had been created at the same time as him, from the same earth. The final straw came with Adam demanded that he be on top during sex. Lilith was fed up with the whole Creation thing and decided to leave Eden and make it on her own in the land beyond the Red Sea. She apparently was quite capable of doing so, as well: when Samael sent three angels to harass her, she used the biblical equivalent of a banhammer on them and sent them packing. See, Lilith had somehow managed to learn the anagrammed true name of God.
The biblical first Strong Female Character is the fourth piece.
The series concludes with Adam, Eve, and another image of Samael, but I won't get into that, since all of them are still largely in the sketch stage.
So, I had my stories, I had my characters, and I had sorted through the cosmology and stitched it together into an ugly Frankenstein's Monster that I could love and pamper. But, problems always resurface. I now had three new problems to deal with. First, what medium should I use to create the pieces? Second, how could I convey the philosophical ideas I was interested in exploring? And third, how could I still make it accessible despite the density of the material?
The third and the first are connected through the consideration of display. I could not count on people knowing what was going on in the pictures, so I had to make the pictures interesting enough aesthetically that they were still captivating. Essentially, I had to draw people in long enough to explain the thought behind the pieces. If my audience reacted the way I have often seen audiences react to contemporary art--looking at it, feeling confused, and moving on--I was lost.
I tried a number of different processes and hit on a few techniques I was satisfied with. They're all a little difficult to display on the internet, so I won't be including them all here, just the last technique I hit upon. See, I was experimenting with printing from my computer onto what is essentially a kind of thick, sturdy tracing paper, and I found that if I stacked pieces of this semitransparent paper, I could hide the lower layers. You're probably wondering what the point of that was. Why have invisible layers? Well, the semitransparent nature of the paper meant that the layers could become visible if they were lit behind.
Turns out having artwork that glows with color when hit with the sun makes for a good point of conversation.
I'm not having a good time getting photographs of these works--one of the inherent problems with what I'm terming Digitally Irreproduceable Artwork is that it's not, you know, Digitally Reproduceable. Go figure. However, I can show you the composite pictures and, in the process, give you a sense of how I solved that second problem of message conveyance. See, one of the things I picked up from the Byzantines is that you can convey complex ideas by juxtaposing stories together, and limiting your images to simple iconography that makes characters and events more readily recognizable.
I'll post the pictures with the explanatory text that I've been giving out to people. You can judge for yourself how well it came together.
Now, that's not where the process ends, though, despite these being finished works. See, I covered all the big problems. But there's lots of little technical problems to cover that come as a result of most drawings just being plain bad. See all those sketches up there? I did about twice that number overall for just these four pieces, at minimum. That means that about 1/5 or 1/6 of my overall work actually ended up as a finished piece. And what's more, I drew those first sketches about a year and a half ago now. I've done a lot of drawing since then, and I can't help but look back at those early sketches and cringe.
How do I know they're bad?
Well, this is what I've been working on lately:
|So, he's symbolically washing his hands of Samael... and literally washing off the angel blood. Charming.|
Yeah, that's the revised version of Sabaoth. It's a hell of a lot more dynamic, the anatomy is working much better, the face is more detailed, the pose makes more sense, there's a LOT more background detail, that left hand is actually doing something meaningful... and so on. It's a much better drawing. It's unfinished, but it's already significantly improved.
I got to that point by taking the drawings I had done and analyzing their shortcomings. This is a huge part of artistic problem solving: figuring out what doesn't work and how to fix it. You end up in some pretty strange situations at times... like, standing around in your room making odd poses and flexing your muscles in order to sort out a tricky bit of anatomy--but if you work at it you can create a more complete work, and grow as an artist.
I think that's what I most want you to come away with as a reader: artistic problems are not just a matter of intuition and feeling, but are intellectual puzzles that have findable solutions. Finding those solutions often takes countless rough sketches, doodles, thoughts, jotted notes, philosophical musings, and so on. It's a long process that, sure, ends up with you Expressing Your Feelings, but you can't just Express Your Feelings and expect everyone to understand. Hell, I honestly still don't know whether I've succeeded with these works. There's always more problems to solve, after all. And that's the ultimate struggle of creation: that your plans don't always work out right, that sometimes your solutions just lead to more problems later on, and that only through time, lots of hard work, and understanding can you get everything to work out.
Makes even Samael seem a bit more sympathetic, doesn't it?
You can follow me on Google+ at gplus.to/SamKeeper or on Twitter @SamFateKeeper. As always, you can e-mail me at KeeperofManyNames@gmail.com. If you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.