Another opinion on what are the fabled "fundamentals"

  • Pro SVS OG

    I've just watched a tutorial by concept artist Stephane Wootha (check him out if you don't know him: Stephane Wootha portfolio) and among many other things he said something that I found enlightening.
    He said that when people say "you need to learn the fundamentals," they normally intend anatomy, perspective, 3D-visualizing, etc...but he believes that these are NOT the fundamentals of good art. He thinks the real fundamental is only one: composition.

    He goes on to give very interesting perspectives on composition and what it is (the ability to direct and manage attention) and what are the elements of it, etc...

    I found this to be an interesting shift in thinking, because it puts not only abstract art, but also the whole vast landscape of highly stylized or primitive children's illustration at a higher level of appreciation.

    Maybe it's only me, but I've always struggled with balancing all the focus on "fundamentals" in the classical sense (which I've spent years studying and I don't regret that) with the fact that the art I like most makes no use whatsoever of any of that stuff.
    Wootha basically encourages to spend a lot more time studying composition and design than what you spend studying the muscles of the leg or the rules around 3-point perspective. He says "you can look up that stuff if you need it" 😃

    Just sharing for discussion and because I had an "aha" moment.

  • I think that is spot on. You use all the principles of design to build a composition. You can be a master of the elements but have a poor composition and it would all be for not.

  • SVS OG

    @smceccarelli said in Another opinion on what are the fabled "fundamentals":

    Stephane Wootha portfolio

    Wow, what work! I think he knows a bit of everything.

    It all depends on what you're trying to do, though. My university fine art teachers would have said you need authenticity and the rest will follow. So they didn't teach the rest. This may have been cutting it down a bit much. But certainly I would agree that you need composition for more styles than you do for correct anatomy.

    And for example, I really like patterned work, Japanese influence, etc., but can't stop thinking about light, 3-point perspective and anatomy, and they fight with those influences. In fact, right now I'm trying to do a Japanese-ish flat composition and I find I'm drawing my figures from above, anatomically correctly, even though they are hard to read. I've redrawn them three times already today and think, "Oh, heck, why can't I just decide and finish something?!" Yes, I hear you!

  • Thank you for sharing this artist. I really like his colours and painting style in his environments and his colour scripting. 🙂 I will go back later to look at the "composition" part.

  • SVS Instructor Pro

    I just responded to another SVS post about composition. (I have thoughts on this topic!)

    Since it's on my mind I'd be interested to get a clearer sense of what Stephane Wootha means when he talks about "composition". Can you point in the tutorial you mention?

  • SVS OG

    @smceccarelli Nathan Fowkes says the same thing in his classes on schoolism.

  • SVS OG

    @jason-bowen I was reminded of Nathan too.

  • Pro SVS OG

    @davidhohn It´s available on Gumroad for 4 USD - if you search for Wootha on Gumroad you´ll find it straight away.
    It´s only 1.5 hours and he only introduces his general thoughts on the matter - but I found it interesting and worthwhile.

  • We should study the PARTS and the WHOLE.
    I don't see how one is more important than the other.

    If you can't draw at all, then you obviously can't draw a person, and you can't illustrate a composition with a person as the focal point.

    If you can't draw in perspective, you won't be able to draw believable compositions of landscapes.

    Wouldn't you agree?

  • btw I follow him on Instagram 😃 his art is amazing!

  • SVS OG

    @heidigfx it's a case of being able to form a pleasing image early on in your art journey then all the other things can be added afterwards as you become better at rendering, perspective, anatomy, finding a style etc.

  • @heidigfx I agree, but I think composition often gets the short stick. I think that it is because it is much more intuitive. You really have to be able to articulate in words what often you just sense. "This works is in the right place?" We should be able to use the elements of art to show a good composition. "Those lines create movement and draw the eyes back to the focal point" "That repetition of curves really lends itself to a nice unity in the work as a whole." etc. (I am starting to sound like an art critic, sheesh!) I have a hard time getting my students to grasp the importance of composition even as they have many good fundamental skills. As a result, their work is often good but not great like it could be. But that is just my two cents on the matter.

  • Interesting! I don't know how to feel about this. I think I'll have to watch that tutorial when I get the time, as I often think about the best way to learn and make art.

    I'm interested to know what the recommended curriculum would be for this approach, for an artist who wants to incorporate a fair amount of realism into stylized pieces. What, if any, studies, classes, and books would they be working with? How much emphasis is placed on making your own finished work during this learning process and at which points? How will idea generation and thumbnailing be dealt with and developed, if at all?

  • @smceccarelli I completely agree! Composition is what actually makes things work and get the point across. The other fundamentals are tools to make that easier and are necessary when the lack thereof distracts from the point of the artwork. In the same way that Story is King, Composition is King. Primitive illustration and the various design disciplines utilize this very well.

    However, not knowing anatomy or perspective or proper color and light can severely impede on one's ability to create innovative compositions. (Especially value and/or color in my opinion) The things artists like N.C. Wyeth, Pascal Campion, Nathan Fowkes, and Dice Tsutsumi can do compositionally because of their knowledge of color, light, and shadow are extraordinary. Having that toolkit available makes their ability to find design solutions easier, fresher, and more genuine. Also knowing what things are worth discarding for the sake of a good image is important.

    I took a class my freshman year (that I didn't appreciate fully at the time) called 2-D design. It's essentially a basics of composition class. We tried to isolate and focus on the concepts of Contrast, Shape, Rhythm, Emphasis, Color, Balance, Rhythm, Value and then bring it all together with Unity. These are the true fundamentals of all art. Including music and dance, etc. Designers typically understand this very well. But I was crap at drawing at the time, so it was hard for me to properly conceptualize these things in my work.

    I will also argue for the practice of fundamentals like anatomy, perspective, color, and light. A basic device such as putting the highest point of contrast, be it value or saturation, on your focal point can determine so much about your composition. A piece could be completely midtone without nuances if turned greyscale, but in full color all the temperature and saturation shifts could make it breathtaking. Using hard and soft edges is also a great tool in building composition. Which paper stock a collage artist chooses to use, or the textures they want to include, or a painter knowing that a scene taking place in the golden hour will have a certain color palette, certain shadow shapes, and certain mood can enable them to make a dynamic composition. Or a calm composition. Or whatever the point is.

    If composition is the building, all the "fundamentals" are the bricks and scaffolding to get there.

    I think one of the problems with artists and fundamentals, is that after the initial wave of learning how to actually see as artists, we can get stuck in learning and practicing fundamentals just for the sake of it rather than with intent of application. That being said it's pretty hard to focus on composition and storytelling if you are struggling with putting anything down in the first place, be it primitive or hyperrealistic. Reference is eternally useful, but if you can't draw or visualize well enough in the first place, you'll have a tough time of it. Or at least, I did and do.

    Another analogy is teaching a child what letters are, then how to write letters, then how to combine them to make words, then using those words to compose sentences. Then using sentences to make paragraphs and essays and novels, and so on and so forth. You don't have to be a perfect linguist with impeccable spelling and grammar and knowledge of every single word and meaning in order to write something good, but you need a good enough grasp that you aren't still trying to figure out how to form a sentence while trying to get a point across.

    Thanks for bringing this up! Love it!

  • Pro SVS OG

    Yesterday I listened to an interview of Wootha on YouTube and that lent some more clout to what this artist is saying. Wootha was a software engineer until he was 36. He came from an artist´s family, but he didn’t draw or paint himself. At 36 he went to a comic convention and decided that´s what he wanted to do. Because he didn´t know how to draw but he needed to earn money straight away, he applied for a job as colorist. He spent 20 hours coloring the test page they gave him (because he didn´t know how to do it) but he got the job.
    Three years ago, he got fed up of just working on other people´s drawing and took 6 months off work (6 puny, little, short, months....) to learn how to do his own art. He said he had to be very selective on what to learn because he didn´t have much time. He showed some of his own work at the start of those six months and it was really not good.... So after those six months, he was working as concept artist and has been since. Looks like he chose the right things to learn, apparently....
    You can look it up if you´re interested in more details, but this guy is really humbling (and humble!).

    @Teju-Abiola great summary of the elements of composition! Value, color, edges, detail-density, shape and rhythm. They apply to layout of text and graphics (aka, classic design) as much as they apply to art.
    And knowing anatomy, drawing, perspective, lighting, etc... I always thought those were equally important and definitely don´t regret studying them...but now I’m not so sure. There´s so much wonderful art that doesn’t use that knowledge at all. I’d argue that the majority of great children illustration doesn’t. And I very often feel that sticking to them is holding me back.

    @chrisaakins Because composition is largely intuitive, Wootha mentions an exercise that I’m going to try. He suggests picking 100 pieces of art that you feel are closest to the type of art you want to do and are highly inspirational for you and putting them all in a folder. Then look at them every day for 10 minutes - six seconds per piece. You can analyze them if you want and take more time, but he suggests not doing that because the most essential thing is looking at them every single day. That´s why he thinks there should be definitely never more than 100, so that it takes a max of 10 minutes. What that achieves, supposedly, is that your brain slowly absorbs at an intuitive level what makes those pieces work - and then automatically applies it to your own art.
    It´s an unconventional approach, for sure, but I think he has a point....and 10 minutes per day is worth a try!

  • SVS Instructor Pro

    @smceccarelli As one who placed great stock in the technical aspects of art when in my undergraduate years I know exactly what you mean about finding that relying on them too much can actually stunt your growth in children's books. All of these concepts (anatomy, drawing, perspective, lighting, etc) are tools to be used or not used based on the needs of the image or the book.

    And what are those "needs"? They are how you want the viewer or reader to feel as they look at the image(s). The trick is to know what you are trying to say, and then utilize the tools that allow you to visually express it the most clearly.

    And the Wootha suggestion of creating a inspiration portfolio ( @Lee-White calls it a "Dream Portfolio") is a great idea! Only I would suggest that you take it a bit further. Many artists think of composition as something that is "intuitive". I would swap that word "intuitive" to "subconscious". The next logical step is to make that subconscious understanding "conscious". Imagine the level of understanding you could achieve if you spent 10 min a day deciding how a specific image made you feel? Understanding why you intuitively liked the image and decided to include it in your inspirational folder.

    I would suggest specifically writing those observations down. Or even saying them out loud. Over time patterns will emerge.

    For example, an image that makes you feel "happy" might use a specific color palette, and has an energetic eye flow thought the image.

    An image that makes you feel "stressed", might use optically vibrating colors, tons of detail and has carefully considered tangents scattered throughout.


    Those patterns will coalesce into more conceptually tangible tools you can utilize at will for the specific needs (feeling/keywords) of a future image.

    I say this from experience. Over the last few years I've created what I call "Picture Book Breakdowns" in which I pick a book and dissect it for all the elements that go into a picture book. The PDF's I create are pretty big and it definitely takes me quite some time, but I've never learned so much about what goes into my favorite picture books!

  • I kind of get what he’s saying but looking at his portfolio he clearly does know ‘the fundamentals’ beyond composition and that has come from practising them even if a little unconsciously, no?

  • Ok, so after listening to his lecture, and seeing some of the youtube interview, it appears that he composes his objects, perspective, and lighting in 3D to help achieve his work and portfolio pieces. He says he hates drawing, and that for pragmatic purposes a 3D foundation makes more sense for him. I think this is a very valid process, but perhaps this might be a reason he dismisses things like learning perspective, etc. Do you need to put much effort into learning perspective, anatomy, 3D visualizing, lighting if you are primarily working with 3D programs to achieve your idea generation and structure layer?

    This all does bring up some great things to think about. What skills do we actually need to learn for the field we are in, and are there any processes that can replace or substitute what is traditionally thought of as important foundational skills?

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    @tessaw That is an excellent point, Tessa! Because Wootha's portfolio shows mastery of all the things he says are secondary and 3D helps with all of them. Of course, learning 3D is a whole other ballgame and could take considerable investment itself.

    I also agree that much of children's illustration in the past hasn't made use of half of these fundamentals. When I think of my favorite illustrators of the past, there was some anatomical knowledge, but the perspective wasn't as challenging as it is now and lighting was frequently rudimentary. I think a certain group of illustrators make use of them now, however, especially unusual perspective angles, and I often wonder how much of it has to do with the influence of concept art and computer design.

    Thanks for opening up this discussion, Simona. It's interesting and I will keep following!

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    Awesome thank you for sharing!

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