Transept art project: debrief and reflection on the drawing process.

30 March 2021 - Reading time: 11 minutes

I said back in Dispatch #8 that the Transept 2021 exhibit is the biggest art project I've ever worked on.  As an amateur artist trying to move from mere hobbyist into something more, this was a great opportunity to produce art for an audience beyond myself, and learn a bunch of new skills along the way.

Transept put out their call for artists in late January, inviting artists to submit proposal to the IN/BREAK theme.  I already had an idea in mind when I read it, but initially didn't think of joining because, well, I'm an amateur and not really in the fine art game.  But after a bit of self-reflection, I decided to take the plunge and give it a go anyway.  Nothing to lose, right?  And amateurs were welcomed to submit a proposal for the exhibit.

I created this "Gospel Quartet" series for the exhibit.

(top left:) "Mark: Entering the temple."
(top right:) "Matthew: A confrontation."
(bottom left:) "Luke: Breaking ground."
(bottom right:) "John: Wind-borne."

Graphite pencils on A4 sketch paper.

And indeed, I learned a lot.  This blog post is my attempt to summarize what I got out of this experience, especially what I learned in terms of art process.

Links: IN/BREAK Transept 2021 homepage - my page in the exhibit

Drawing to theme

The biggest thing I learned was how to develop and produce original art to theme.  At that point, I'd been drawing a lot of fan art, which is well and good for developing technical skills, but I was starting to move out of fan art into original work.  Producing original art from scratch is a completely different league that brings in additional skills such as composition and storytelling.

Transept 2021 was a great opportunity to practice those skills.  The theme of IN/BREAK is essentially a very elaborate "drawing prompt", in that I had to think about how to translate an abstract idea into a concrete work -- or in this case, a series of works -- that told its own distinctive story but also reflected the overarching theme.

My chosen subject matter, the Gospel Quartet series, has been kicking around in my head for a long time.  In Christian tradition, the four "Living Creatures" (animals) of God have traditionally been associated with the four Gospels of the New Testament, one Creature to one Gospel.  (They are: Matthew = human, Mark = lion, Luke = ox, John = eagle.  Some more background here.)

I'd wanted to create a 4-part series around the relationships between the Living Creatures and the Gospels, but never got around to doing it.  When I read Transept's call for artists brief, this idea immediately came back to mind.  I could envision how to mould this old, amorphous idea into the IN/BREAK theme.

Moving from abstract ideas to concrete techniques

Now that I've established an overall subject matter, how to compose it into pictures that tells a coherent, meaningful story, but remains within the constraints set by theme and subject matter?  Image composition has been high on my learning list, but clearly not that high because I went into Transept not having studied anything yet!  So I winged it and relied on my existing pool of knowledge and having viewed a ton of fine art over time.  It was definitely a stretch, and in retrospect, I would've liked to have more theory under my belt.

The process involved a ton of brainstorming/ideation: taking abstract ideas about "theme" and anchoring them into concrete drawing methods. I already knew what animal to link to what Gospel, but it took some brainstorming to figure out what kind of scene to draw.

For example, to depict the "idea" of invasion and incursion, I chose to use extreme perspectives such as overhead view and strong foreshortening, and attempted to organize subjects in diagonals or V-shapes across the page.  I also chose to make the animals as central figures of agency, while arranging people around them in more reactive poses and positions.  This was quite tricky to do, and I'm not sure that I achieved it in all the drawings.

Initial brainstorming and ideation, in writing because that's how I generate ideas fast.

After brainstorming came thumbnailing: creating many thumbnail "rough drafts", testing out how well those abstractions worked in practice, and iterating on the draft until I was confident of what I was doing, and could start drawing the actual piece.

Thumbnails made at every stage of the drawing process.

Were these methods effective?  I don't know: I haven't formally studied image composition, and I'm not sure whether I'm following image conventions at all.  But these choices gave me some visual constraints to work within, and I think it helped to add more visual coherence to the series.

Gathering visual references/photo library was another step in the process before actual drawing.  Verisimilitude was important, especially since these subjects were set in real-world setting.  Building an image library also helped in the thumbnailing and detailing process, as it continued to establish parameters on what I could/couldn't depict.

Some of the photo references I gathered for the series.  I used the software PureRef to assemble them.

Applying existing art skills

After drawing thumbnails and collecting photo references, it was time to begin the final work!

Progress animation of "Luke", second image finished.

The more I progressed, the more I discovered how many moving parts go into image composition: lighting/values, shape design, perspective, hierarchy of emphasis through manipulating size/shape/lighting, positioning of subjects, organization of all elements to guide the viewer's eye across the image... and I'm sure there are more.  Some of these parts could be figured out during brainstorm and thumbnailing, but others had to be practised when I got to the relevant stage of drawing.

I'd been practising various techniques, such as shading and hierarchy of values, separately through fanart; now I got to apply all of them in synergy through IN/BREAK.

Progress animation of "Matthew", third image finished.

Establishing a workflow for creating illustrations

Ideation, thumbnailing, gathering references, actual drawing, and iterating all the layers of the drawing... doing four pieces for this exhibit meant I could practice and solidify my workflow.  I also learned how to pace my entire pipeline to produce one illustration a week, so I could meet the submission deadline.

The images were drawn in this order: Luke (mentioned in dispatch #9), John (dispatch #10), Matthew (dispatch #11), Mark (dispatch #12).

I was still figuring out my workflow through Luke; it started to come together in John; various techniques (especially shading method and values hierarchy) really clicked in Matthew; and reached their peak in Mark.

I'm still amazed that I pulled off both Matthew and Mark; and to think I'd left them to last because they gave me a lot of trouble in the ideation stage (recorded in my Dispatches).  Luke is noticeably inferior compared to the others, I actually had to circle back and add more detailing and texture to it.  In retrospect, I would've drawn the scene in a completely different perspective.  So far I've received the most appreciation for Mark -- no surprises there, since it's the last piece and a lot of techniques came together for it.

Progress animation of "Mark", last image finished.

This was a good learning experience

In terms of achieving goals, the Transept 2021 exhibit was a superlative learning experience.  I got to test out my workflow for producing art (illustrations, in particular) to both theme and deadline, and a lot of techniques I'd been practising in isolation finally came together here.  While fine art and religious themes aren't my main subjects of interest, it was good to step out of my favourite genres art and try something different.  And illustrative work is the kind of art I want to keep doing in future anyway.

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