How to up your conceptual ability?

  • SVS OG

    Asking for resources here: I have realized that concepting is my weak point and I really want to improve it. But there has to be a better way than staring at my tablet for days, drawing mind maps and thumbnails that I later realize are not outside-the-box enough.

    Here's the process I have been using:

    Thumbnails (very primitive, but with value)
    Work out accuracy issues, such as perspective and character design
    Final (as many versions as necessary, usually several)

    It seems the problem comes even before the mind map. Here's an example of one I did for the February contest. There was more to it, but this gives the idea. As you can see, my mind goes straight to carnevale (because I'm rather fascinated with the creepy floats but also the lighting) and I don't know whether the 50 thumbnails should be all that, or if I should force myself to draw other ideas as well. In the end, I did draw other ideas, my favorites being cityscapes and a monk in his cell receiving some kind of visit, perhaps from an angel. And I'm still trying to push these, but it's so agonizing!

    Screen Shot 2020-02-12 at 10.54.00.png

    Anyway, my mind seems to go straight to how I would draw the thing and how I can see it in space, in this case with lighting. Then I get a bit too caught up in research rabbit trails. (At least now I know where to go for a great parade!) It's true that I tend to draw on the realistic side, but that shouldn't mean I can't think outside the box!

    I really want to improve. If this is the only thing I end up doing for the contest this month, so be it! Do you guys have any favorite resources for expanding conceptually?

    I did re-listen to the concepting podcast.

    Have anyone taken Ideation, and if so, was it helpful in this regard?

    I have taken Turbocharging, and it was helpful. It's just that I seem to need yet another boost, a Turbocharging 2 or something. Thanks for any suggestions!

  • SVS OG

    I’ll be very interested in the responses because I feel like this is also an area in which I am weak. I have tried doing tons of thumbnails to generate ideas but always seem to come back to the first one I had as if it lodges in my mind and refuses to be pushed out by anything else. I also love your description of “research rabbit holes.” I was once painting a picture of a small butterfly in a scene and I can now tell you all of the smallest species of butterflies in the US, and the flora and fauna in the places they live. Fascinating, but I might have better spent the time drawing something.

    For me, your question comes back to a subject I have thought about a lot — there are lots of discussions and material on how to develop technical and compositional skills, but how do we develop our imaginations?

  • @LauraA First thing I start researching when I need ways to generate ideas that don't include putting pen to paper yet (mindmapping and such) are creative writing exercises. There are SO MANY resources for generating content for short stories kicking around.

    Other than that, the process from turbocharging is pretty awesome for generating different ideas. You may need to take a long-term strategy at getting better conceptualizing. Things I might do long-term to improve may be:

    • Consume more content (in general)
    • Consume yet more content (in a targeted manner, like reading more kid's books or more books in a particular genre)
    • Find creative play outlets (go find a dungeons 'n dragons group or play creative games)
    • Find other creative outlets completely unrelated to art like a drama group or some such (think of it like a football player learning ballet to increase dexterity or a surgeon learning to play the piano)
    • Go do things you don't normally do. Volunteer. Teach. Learn a new sport. Introduce new content to your life.
    • Write things down as they come. Keep a journal or joy stuff down in your phone. Ideas tend to never present themselves when you need them 🙂

    I'll be interested to se what everyone else has to say!

  • SVS OG

    @demotlj Have a look at @Jake-Parker's latest YouTube video, The World-Building Trap. I caught myself doing this day before yesterday. I hope I can at least use some of the research for later, but I became aware that it was too soon to go down the research road.

    @Braden-Hallett This is a good list! And I actually do most of the things on it. But I especially like the creative writing idea, because in fact we are storytellers and stories should be central to our lives. I was just thinking yesterday that I have less spontaneity and adventure in my life lately, for reasons I am already aware of, but the new piece was how much it was affecting my creativity. And I thought to myself, "Do something about it! Because maybe that dreamy-ness that you sometimes criticize in yourself serves an artistic purpose!"

    We freelance artists can get in a vicious cycle in which we sit at our desks feeling bad both because we aren't coming up with good ideas and because we aren't getting practical things done. I have a bit of a vicious cycle going right now because I realize I take a long time to finish a piece, and the month is already halfway through, and I'm still in the ideation stage. PLUS I'm getting behind in my non-art life. And I tend to add pressure because of my age, and wanting badly to earn money doing this one day. But you have to loosen the pressure valve somewhere, though, or your brain might explode!

    So, thanks for giving me permission and I too look forward to hearing what others have to say!

  • @LauraA I'm interested in seeing how others tackle this too. I don't generate half as many ideas as your mind-mapping exercise below, but I can empathize with the deep dive research and rabbit trails for sure! Maybe that's why SVS has a rabbit as their logo 😉

  • @LauraA The Ideation class starts Friday, so my question for you is based on what I do right now that will probably change: do you have a customer in mind that needs this image? You need to have limits on what's possible, a problem you're solving. I always connect it to something I would create for a specific problem someone might have, the better I am at making this fake problem up the better for my work. If I left it to be whatever I like, I would be lost trying to find subject matter, because that is the kind of thing one develops as a fine artist and comes with time, I think.

  • SVS OG

    @carolinedrawing Is it a live class? If so, I wasn't aware any live classes were starting and wish I could join!

    Anyway, what you said helped me to parse something out. The concepts I usually come up with work in real life settings. It may be an unusual moment or location, but it could still happen. I think I am having problems with this prompt because I am trying to push my style towards something that is a bit more fanciful and line-oriented. It started with my Slowvember piece and I notice that a lot of the thumbnails this time have swirling lines in them. The lines often represent a fantasy element of some sort. I think this is because the theme this month lends itself to fantasy and dream-like states, and I am also noticing this in all the WIPs and submissions so far for this month. Make sense?

  • @LauraA

    It's a live class.

    What you're saying makes sense in terms of the concepts you choose, but it seems like you're talking about subject matter, is that right? What I mean by my question is that I set up a business scenario surrounding the prompt. I'm doing the february prompt as if it were a cover of Ladybug magazine, so as if it would be client work. This means that the age group is very specific (ages 3 - 6), and then some of my concepts automatically don't work.
    Maybe you can think of a publication that would feature the style you're working toward, and that way you can limit your thumbnailing to concepts to something that would work for the client. Would the cityscape work for a literary journal? Would that same literary journal never include a monk and angel? Things like that.

    I'm not going to win any contests around here, but this is practice for me, because if I ever get work I don't think the process should be agonizing. At that point I would want to feel like I can move through a bunch of concepts and pick the best one. There's an art to putting limits on this kind of work so that it isn't overwhelming and I think mimicking a business is a good way to go.

  • SVS OG

    @carolinedrawing Live in the sense that it is released in increments, or is there also feedback?

    I see your point about the client. I am still trying to figure out where I fit in, although I suspect it's not small children. Yes, I am talking about subject matter, and how to push the concept given in the prompt so that the ideas aren't just the obvious ones, but maybe more metaphorical ones.

  • @LauraA

    It's released incrementally, over four weeks. There are assignment due dates and there is a peer-to-peer discussion board. No promised feedback as far as I could see. Most of the classes I see with lots of feedback from the instructor are over a thousand dollars.

    And as for pushing the subject matter beyond what might be obvious? It's setting up the limitations right from the start with a pretend client that lets me do that. I know a business scenario and the subject matter don't seem related, but that's what keeps my focus.

    I honestly don't know if I want to draw stuff for preschool kids, but if i happen to hate doing this as a cover, I will better know which jobs to try for in the future.

  • Mhm, I try to come over this problem by creating moodboards 🙂 There is a program that is called PureRef where you can put all the images in that inspire you and save it as a file. This is how moodboards usually look like if you've never seen one:
    Most of the times they are even more specific. Often times I create myself a section for my character, a section for my environment and a section for the style that I would like my project to be in. I only do that for more complex projects (I come from an animation & game background) but I think if you put more effort in one illustration it could also work really well.

    I think another thing that could help is if you just ask yourself the question: okay, my mind went straight to carnevale. But how can I give carnevale a twist? How could I make this image special? And maybe think of little stories that could happen 🙂 A little bit like childs do and just have fun.

    At least that is how I try to tackle this problem. Also talking to other people and getting their ideas helps a lot! Because they will always have a fresh look on your work and other ideas than you have.
    And creative writing is of course also a great idea!

  • @LauraA It is an interesting question. It is great that you asked and people share tips. I am really interested in what others say here.

    As for your initial question: should you force yourself to draw other ideas? My thought is Yes. I often find ideas developed in making. It is hard to see the idea when it is only a keyword. that said, you need to do a selection if you have many many ideas. My understanding of David's keywords lecture is that

    • Keywords mind-mapping is a quick way to come up with many many ideas. It is about quantity at first, then you narrow down after.

    • It is important to do divergent thinking at this stage. I got a light bulb moment when he said that when you get to the second tier of the words (in your case: it is words like "Fall" "fun" "magic" "peace".), then you have to forget about the word "nightfall", but only focus on the words in the 2rd tier. It sounds a bit counter-intuitive, but it is to prevent the mind from going straight to a fixed idea. Basically, the association you get from "nightfall" and "peace" is very different from "peace" alone.

    Other things that have helped me:

    • Get other creative people involved in idea generation phase.
    • Meditation and excise (I do not do this nearly enough)
    • Copy other artists work on a sketchbook (I do that quite often, as a way to slow down to look at a piece. I do not really do master copies, just trying to copy one aspect of a painting or drawing I liked. )
    • Keep my phone in the pocket while I am on a bus or waiting, so I force myself to look around and observe the world.
    • Read a lot of picture books and graphic novels.
    • Read other stuff, anything that interests you.
    • Travel (I used to do a lot of traveling, not so much after become a mom😀. I really miss that)

    Things I would like to do more:

    • write down ideas as they come, thumbnail ideas as they come.
    • Write more, write often
    • take breaks to go for long walks while thinking about a design problem.
    • Do master copies. Spend more time analyzing illustrations that I love.
    • Creating art traditionally (away from the computer)
    • Life drawing/paintings.
    • Take breaks, and do not stress.
    • Enjoy the process as much as I can.

  • SVS OG

    @LauraA This is a really interesting discussion. In a sense, I think, the issue might be broader than the question of idea generation. For me, your question raises the issue of whether imagination is a muscle that can be exercised and developed, and what even counts as imagination. Your comment about "pushing the subject matter so that it is not just the obvious one but more metaphorical or fantasy based" especially makes me wonder about the nature of imagination as it relates to illustration. In the forum I usually see two kinds of illustration: illustrations that are fanciful and illustrations that are more grounded in real life situations. The fanciful ones can be stunning and beautiful and make us think, "Wow, how did they come up with that? It's so imaginative," but the illustrations that are less fanciful can also be very effective in communicating a story or a feeling. When my son was in kindergarten, he came home one day and told me this story about how he and his classmates had collected wood at recess to use in the school boiler, and his details and the setting of this tale were so realistic and true to life that he had me believing the school administrators had all of those 5 year olds out in the school yard collecting firewood. If he had been more fanciful and thrown in some dragons, I wouldn't have believed him for a second, but he captured my attention and immersed me in his tale because it was almost believable except for that one weird detail. I wonder if that isn't true of illustration too: in other words, there is a place for those artists who can come up with incredible fantastical pieces but also a place for those whose art is set more in the mundane world where most of us actually live but that bring out a small spot of whimsy or beauty in the depiction of that world. Maybe we don't have to stretch our imaginations to see dragons all of the time but just enough to see little children hauling arm loads of wood into the school boiler room!

    Sorry about the long winded post but I had a lot of driving time today and loved having your questions to think about.

  • SVS OG

    Ok, so, some conclusions:

    First, resources:

    I re-watched Jake's creative block lesson. I also watched Lee's five step process and thumbnailing videos again. I also plan to re-watch Jake's creative bank account video.

    I saw that my thumbnails had become too elaborate and were almost at the rough sketch stage, with values. Thus I had too much energy invested in them. I think this happened because lighting is very important in any illustration about nightfall. Lee does two passes in his thumbnail stage, 5 minutes and ten minutes respectively. I'm going to go back to that.

    I particularly focused on what you said, @xin-li, about the second tier of words. That was an eye-opener and it helped me see a problem I was having: The prompt was so huge that I didn't know where to focus. So I did the whole mind map over again, consolidating all my previous ideas into five basic scenarios, each of which had their own mood or secondary keyword. Things started to coalesce more. I picked the three scenarios that lent themselves the most to my original keyword and will probably concentrate on those now. Yay!

    I definitely took an exercise/meditation break.

    I realized that I am getting into a vicious cycle: I don't feel I'm producing enough, and the contests are helping me to be accountable, but then I may skip important R & D stages. So I picked two of the suggestions that @xin-li and @Braden-Hallett made and am going to try to work them in:

    1. Do studies of work I like, contest or no contest.

    2. Look at more physical books: I need a library card. Going into stores in Italy can be a bit uncomfortable because there is pressure to buy. I buy, but not every time. The internet is not sufficient for study because stories, page turns and context are extremely important in our field.

    Now, @demotlj also made a very good point about sensibility. I really do like what you had to say! To me, this prompt suggested imagination and fantasy. My keyword is magical, thought it doesn't have to be literally magic. My usual style is more realistic, but there's something fantastical/metaphorical (???) that seems to be coming to the surface lately, and it is likely related to more linear and even medieval forms of art. It's not just subject matter, but affects style as well. Note to self: Sensibility affects style!

    Ok, Laurie, you think you were long-winded! I apologize for what is basically a personal artistic journal entry posted to the forum, but I think that if we share these things, we can all learn from them. I am trying to read similar discussions that I find here on the board, and I find them helpful. To paraphrase what @demotlj said, there are lots of materials to help develop technical skills, but the conceptual/imaginative part is just as important!

    Keep the ideas coming!

  • @LauraA I can't always get to a library just with family scheduling but I have been watching a lot of those Youtube videos where they read the books aloud and flip the pages. Not as good as a physical but sometimes it works 🙂 Sometimes I want to see books by authors/illustrators I might hear about on podcasts and sometimes I hear about them as examples in the courses here at SVs. Eg. the writing children's book course, when she mentions a book I can go spend 5 minutes or less doing a search and watching it and getting the general idea. 🙂

  • SVS OG

    @Coley Good idea! Thanks!

  • Open the yellow pages in a phonebook (remember those?) and point at random. Say it lands on an animal shelter. Bring in the prompt. What goes on at night in an animal shelter? Do the dogs sleep? Or do they worry all night about their situation? What about an auto repair shop? Are there elves involved? Don't like cars, switch to 1900 and make it wagons. Are there elves involved?

    Make a list of these things and when you hit on one that floats your boat, proceed to the drawing process.

  • Pro SVS OG

    There’ve been lots of ideas here, and I’m not adding my own, but may I suggest a book? It’s called “Keys to Drawing with Imagination” by Bert Dodson. It’s got a lot of exercises whose aim is to make you draw things that you would not have thought about by yourself. It’s a bit unconventional in that it makes you go step by step (building on previous drawings) rather than putting conceptualization at the start - which I believe may be stumping you.
    Maybe you can check out the “Look inside” on amazon and see if it could be something for you. It’s an unconventional approach to ideation, but one that was famously followed by Norman Rockwell, who claimed to always be starting his idea generation by drawing a lamppost...

  • SVS OG

    @Kim-Hunter Yes, sounds like I need to loosen up! I used to do that kind of thing a lot.

    @smceccarelli I really like that idea! I think I'll order the book. Did you know that C.S. Lewis got the idea for Narnia by imagining a faun and a lamppost? It took him several more books to invent a reason that a British lamppost would be a magical wood, but he trusted his original mental image and it worked!

  • Hi @LauraA,

    Since my full-time career is non-art related, my few golden opportunity time blocks for ideas are during my commute to and from work.

    No music.
    No podcast (unless a new SVS episode just came out 😉)

    As I sit in traffic, I create the stories in my head and watch them play out like a movie. I’ll freeze the frame and think about how the camera angle makes the story more interesting.

    I’m like, hmm - That sounds interesting.

    Then I say, ”Hey Siri, make a note!” Where I can literally just dump my ideas for later processing.

    After about 5 stories or so, I then narrow them down based on input from my wife and daughter.

    This all happens before I even put pencil on paper.

    What I realize, is that by the time I’m finished with my sketch, it looks quite different than the story in my head. Perhaps it’s the character, props or backgrounds.

    Then I use whatever free time I have available to draw, ink and color, while not neglecting my husbandly and fatherly duties.

    One day, I hope to be able to illustrate exactly what I see in my mind. Until then, all I can do is put my best work forward given the time allotted.

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