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Don't Ruin the Cake! - The Importance of Researching Before Illustrating

Have you ever been in that situation when someone decides to talk about or present a subject they really know nothing about? Have you ever been in that situation when the subject is something that you know a lot about? Yeah. So have I. Lots of times. And I'm sure I felt the same way you did: disappointed.

Why is such a situation so disappointing? Well think about it. Let's say you LOVE chocolate cake, and you go to a chocolate cake party. You're pumped. It's been a really long time since you've met anyone who is interested in chocolate cake, and you're looking forward to sharing with them a Joyful Chocolate Cake Occasion. But it turns out that the chef who is baking the cake has never actually done so before and actually doesn't even like chocolate cake. You become worried, but hopeful that this chef has put lots of effort into delivering a delicacy of a final product.

But he doesn't.

Your Joyful Chocolate Cake Occasion has been wasted.

You can't relate to the chef.

Your hopes of getting to know him and be Chocolate Cake Buddies with him are dashed. I mean, the least he could have done was Google a decent cake recipe, right? Sheesh!

I am here to warn you that this very thing happens in the illustration world. And I'm here to try to save you from being the silly person who creates this situation. I've probably been that person at least once. To all of you were were disappointed: I'm sorry. I've tried really hard to get my facts straight, lately, I promise!

I can't tell you how many times I have had classmates in the past who have decided to do an illustration of something they normally wouldn't illustrate, and it happens to be a subject that I would illustrate. And I get excited about it. YES! Someone else wants to paint a burly Norseman holding aloft his ancestral blade in a dramatic pose! YES! I've always been so alone in the world of burly Norsemen with ancestral blades! Now is my time to finally have a burly Norse buddy! You get the picture. You may identify with it, whether you were excited about Norsemen as the subject matter or something else, like chocolate cake. Or chefs who fail to deliver.

Because speaking of chefs who fail to deliver, it almost always turned out that the illustrators doing the images I was about to be excited about (bless their hearts) didn't do any research. They probably didn't even try to Google a decent burly Norsemen recipe. What should have been a beautiful interpretation of one of history's most fascinating and visually tantalizing cultures (in my opinion) came out being without culture, lacking the visual intricacies that would have added depth to the piece if they had learned the visual vocabulary of their subject matter, and often was not even discernible as a Norseman. They often were not even burly, but actually rather girly. Burly and girly don't rhyme for any good reason, so don't even go there!

Now, I admit that I've approached this article for a rather selfish reason. I've stated that I don't want to be disappointed. And I don't. None of us do. But there is a reason for you to get your research done too: so that people who relate to or even love what you're attempting to illustrate will recognize it for what it is supposed to be, and then make that special connection. "Oh! I've been looking for someone who could paint a picture of Joan of Arc, and finally someone has done it! No one ever gives her pauldrons from the right era, except for YOU! YOU have, and I love you!" Sound silly? Well it's not. By the way, pauldrons are shoulder armor. Anyway, if it does sound silly to you, remember that for an enthusiast, it can make the difference between them buying your art or dropping it like a failed Joyful Chocolate Cake Occasion.

So, now to the part about actually doing the research -- one of the most exciting parts of illustrating. In my opinion, anyway.

Where do you start? With an idea of course. Let's say you just read Beowulf for the first time, and there are images in it that you just can't get out of your head. It was just too cool to leave alone as an artist. You have to draw something. Once you make the choice to draw something, you have two choices. They are:

1. Pick up the pencil and paper and just start drawing. "I have no idea what Beowulf would have worn. He was a big buff guy, so, uh...." *scribble scribble* "...Okay, big buff guy drawn. Uh...he was in a hall..."*scritch scritch* "...Okay, hall's done. And he was fighting a monster named Grendel, so..." *monster monster* "...Okay. I'm done! Wait," you say. "I haven't ever done anything like this!" So you get excited and decide to paint it. It comes out something like this:

This image may or may not be an under-exaggeration of your abilities as an illustrator -- I don't know who you are. 

The other option after reading Beowulf is:

2. You get online and look up Beowulf. You discover that it is an Anglo-Saxon story about the ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons. Hmmm. Who were the Anglo-Saxons? You look them up and discover that they are an admixture of Scandinavian Germanic tribes who conquered Britain in the early dark ages. Cool! You look up what they wore, what they built, where they lived. You realize the hall Beowulf fought Grendel in was probably like a huge viking long hall and not like the hallway in your high school. Things become more interesting. A more beautiful image grows in your head. Perhaps the hall itself is interesting enough to merit its own illustration! John Howe thought so, and, after sufficient research, illustrated this:

What an interesting journey you've just been through. After reading the book, you thought that the idea of a buff guy fighting a monster sounded pretty cool. By the time your research was over, you knew enough about the culture of Beowulf that you found there were lots of things that would be interesting to illustrate. Buff guys fight monsters all the time, as evidenced by Marvel and DC. But you just can't get rid of the feeling you had when you researched Norse halls, and they became something that was visually important enough for you to do an illustration just of the hall the story takes place in. Cool! A new world has been opened up to you. And you can feel accomplished for learning something new and illustrating something that most people will never take the time to learn about. This gives you an edge as an illustrator; you become one in the handful of illustrators who understand environments in ancient Germanic cultures.

The above is a hypothetical situation, of course. This could happen with any subject. It could happen with horses, and by golly, I need to have the experience researching horses! I just don't know enough about how their physiology or physiognomy works. If I don't do research, my horses may end up looking like a ruined Joyful Chocolate Cake Occasion:

A ruined Joyful Chocolate Cake Occasion.
Now, for the final segment of this article, I'd like to go back to Option 2 (researching before drawing), and go with you through the research process.

Let's say you've already discovered who the Anglo-Saxons were, and you are sufficiently interested in finding out enough about what their culture looked like visually to continue learning about them. You really want to know what they wore, so you look around. You find a few basic images of their clothing and armor, and you think that it's nifty looking stuff. But you really want to know what varieties are available as you prepare to design some Anglo-Saxon characters. You wonder what a full Anglo-Saxon warrior's outfit might have looked like, so you find illustrations that have been done by other artists:
A pretty okay Joyful Chocolate Cake Experience. Keep reading.
You could be satisfied with this, as you realize that you've seen photos of those actual helmets and swords before in your research. You can confirm that this illustration is accurate, so why not follow suit and paint those same helmets? It's what the Anglo-Saxons wore!

STOP! You need to realize that you're an illustrator. You need to realize that as such, the thing that makes you special is the ability to invent! And research does not contradict the power or need to invent. Quite the opposite, actually. Research gives you the knowledge you need to make choices you would not be able to make without research. As it so happens, we have an excellent example of illustrators taking their inventive responsibilities seriously when depicting an Anglo-Saxon culture. They knew what the Anglo-Saxons wore and built, but they took it to a creative level, unlike the image posted above, in which the artist simply painted existing helmets and swords and armor exactly as they appear in real life.

The illustrators who effectively used the powers of invention after their research are the guys who worked on The Lord of the Rings movies. The filmmakers knew enough about The Lord of the Rings to know that J.R.R. Tolkien based the nation of Rohan on the Anglo-Saxons. And really, he didn't just base them on the Anglo-Saxons. He made it so they are Anglo-Saxons. So the filmmakers wanted to depict Rohan as an Anglo-Saxon culture. And they did so beautifully. They didn't just copy existing artifacts from Anglo-Saxon culture. They took the principles of Anglo-Saxon design, then made their own designs based on the historical culture. This provided us with something new to look at, but that was believable and fits in with the historical culture that Rohan was meant to reflect. Here are examples:

The most amazing Joyful Chocolate Cake Occasion imaginable.
More of the best Anglo-Saxon cake of all time.
None of those pieces of armor are identical to what archaeologists have found, but there is nothing about them that is not Anglo-Saxon, or at least Dark Ages Germanic. If there was not enough information about some aspect of Anglo-Saxon garb or architecture, they had done enough research to know that the Anglo-Saxons were Norse in origin, and so they would turn to Norse sources to fill in the blanks, knowing the two cultures were very similar. And so they come up with something incredibly accurate. And yet, the illustrators managed to go to town with original designs. The suns on the shields, the intricate little etchings and designs on the helmets and leather, etc. just fill every shot of the men of Rohan in those movies. The artists who worked on them were highly creative, inventive, and resourceful. They did their research absolutely thoroughly, but they didn't allow themselves to be limited by what they found. There is no reproduction of the helmets archaeologists have found. They simply allowed their research to push them to their creative limit - to make a beautiful, believable Rohan.

This is our job as illustrators.

Now, before I let you go and create a multitude of Joyful Chocolate Cake Occasions, allow me to reiterate the main points you should remember:

1. Research before you draw - don't allow yourself to become attached to artwork that is uninformed and won't communicate what it is meant to be.

2. Let your research be involved enough to understand broad, but basic, concepts regarding your subject matter. The example above is that those who made the LOTR movies knew that the Anglo-Saxons and other Norse cultures were very similar. This allowed them to use the Norse to fill in the blanks where there simply wasn't enough information about the Saxons.

3. Don't limit yourself to what you find. Use what you find as principles, but not as the end-all to your visual designs. There is always room to be creative without drifting away from accuracy regarding your subject matter.

4. This article isn't just about researching Anglo-Saxons. I hope you'll take these principles and apply them to anything you need to research for an image. This stuff applies to the basics; figure drawing, color and lighting, composition, etc. It applies to subject matter; horses, 19th century trains, and Lunar exploration.

I hope I've managed to help you somehow. Thank you for reading! Now go make awesome illustrations and bless the world with the best chocolate cake ever. Then share your cake.