[Former Sony Computer Entertainment artist Chris Solarski takes us on a tour of art from classical to modern, and in the process shows how film and game art are underpinned by foundational concepts.]
The notion that artistic ability is a divine gift has proliferated throughout history -- it's an idea often propagated by artists themselves. However, Michelangelo, the Renaissance genius did, in fact, experience the odd lousy day of drawing just like the rest of us. He burned many of his sketches to conceal the intense work and discipline that was vital to the creation of his masterpieces.
"If people only knew how hard I work to gain my mastery, it wouldn't seem so wonderful at all."
This point is not intended to dismiss Michelangelo's abilities, but rather highlights that a successful artwork doesn't generally just happen. Art that has a lasting appeal is predominantly the combined outcome of three elements: training, discipline, and natural ability.
Artists today have over 2000 years worth of artistic principles to draw from, including principles on form and composition to developments in color theory and light.
What these principles constitute is our visual vocabulary. Artists can play with the viewer's eye like never before to not only create believable other-worlds, but to also manipulate how viewers will receive these worlds in terms of emotional significance.
Despite the empowerment these principles give us to communicate visually, the theoretical aspect of art has been somewhat sidelined in the last century. With the arrival of modern art it is often no longer a case of artists concealing their hard work and knowledge of artistic principles, as with Michelangelo's sketches, but ignoring these principles altogether.
Whilst overemphasis on theory can indeed inhibit creativity, in the field of video game development we are especially interested in taking advantage of traditional artistic principles to enhance the player experience. This is because our task is to design a player experience, meaning a deliberate attempt to influence an emotional change in somebody. It is not simply any emotional change.
Surprisingly modern art, a period that has actively sought to sever itself from tradition, has contributed many new devices to our visual vocabulary that naturally build on what came before. At the same time, this very same movement has had a negative impact on the education system. What does this mean for the video game development industry and video game artists?
To investigate these questions we must journey back to the beginning of Western art before evaluating the impact that tradition can have on contemporary design. By doing so we also examine whether arts evolution is a continuous thread of development or a series of isolated artistic movements.
Our journey starts in ancient Greece and focuses on a principle often missing from applied art courses; something that influenced subsequent generations of artists such as Michelangelo: applied geometric forms. No divine blessing required, although that always helps.
The ancient Greeks laid a miraculous groundwork for Western culture, and these early philosophers equally affected the arts. One such artistic principle that was established over 2,000 years ago was the process of simplifying complex forms. Believing that everything in nature aspires to the perfection of geometric forms such as the sphere and cube, old masters would use these primary forms as foundations for their masterpieces. An artist whose preparatory sketches explicitly illustrate this principle is Luca Cambiaso.
Preparatory study by Luca Cambiaso demonstrating the process of simplifying the complex human form (16th Century)
The chalk study by Raphael -- the high-mark of classicism in the Renaissance[i] -- shows us how the concept of simplification appears in a drawing developed to a higher degree of finish. Of primary interest is how these artists reduced the forms of the body -- the ribcage, pelvis, and head being the largest and most important [ii] [iii] -- to box forms and large simple shapes.
Putto carrying the Medici ring and feathers by Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520), Teyler Museum, Haarlem.
What is significant about this principle not only relates to the practical benefits for the artist: the box's simple planes and eight corners make it easier to render an object's three dimensional form and orientation in space without the distraction of details. It is also significant for the fact that a simple concept makes it is easier for viewers to comprehend an artist's message. In other words, less is more.
This classical approach to drawing is very much based on principles originating from a period when art was associated with craft rather than individual expression, as it is now. Artists of the Renaissance would have spent upwards of 10 years perfecting their skills under the guidance of a master. As late as 1860 in the time of Jean Auguste Ingres, mastery in drawing was considered a prerequisite to painting. For about six hours each day, students drew from a model, who remained in the same pose for one week.[iv]
Attitudes towards art and long-held traditions started to change around the start of the 19th Century. Artistic expression split from craft in reaction to liberating cultural changes, which led to the general movement known as modern art. Correspondingly, the established education system championed by traditionalists like Ingres also began to change. These events did not transition smoothly with general consensus. As it turns out, the art world is not one big happy family.
[i] Vilppu, Glenn. Language of Drawing Series, Vol.6: The Classical Approach to Figure Drawing. Vilppu LLC, 1985.
[ii] Bammes, Gottfried. Die Gestalt des Menschen. E. A. Seeman, 1964.
[iii] Bridgman, George B. Bridgman's Life Drawing. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1971.
[iv] Boime, Albert. Strictly Academic: Life Drawing in the Nineteenth Century. SUNY at Binghamton, 1974, p8.