With any worthwhile project, you need to spend time beforehand to learn about the subject. Going in blind may seem exciting, but that commonly leads to mistakes and getting lost. This takes time to do, but I have so much fun during this step. It’s usually at this stage where mythic historical figures become humanized and ideas become solidified in my mind.

Research doesn’t just have to come from books. I look everywhere I can, from movies to maps, to gather the material that will improve my work in the end. I’ll do my best to explain how I approach the research process…

Why do you need to research?

A dangerous fact of art making, I’ve found, is generalizations. I can discuss most things on a superficial level, and I suspect that most other people can too. Art is about expression, about revealing new perspectives. Generalizing about a subject becomes boring and common. You need details! The only way to get those details is educate yourself and to dive into new territory.

If I’m painting a simple boot from memory, I may only know the overall shape and color. But if I want to make it look realistic, I need to know how the material reacts with light, how many laces there may be, or the different styles. I also need to know the right decade since fashion changes over time. I’d like to know why they change as well; is it out of necessity or artist vision? All of this for a simple boot. Imagine how far I have to dive in to understand how a steam engine locomotive works or why the trees of Virginia look different than my home town. All of these details add to the realism of the project.

Sources

The first source I start with is usually Wikipedia. If I need a general rundown on a subject, it’s a wonderful resource to use because it’s easy to wade through lots of information. If I need a more in depth look, I will attempt to find a blog or website that specializing in the specific subject. There are an endless number of people out there with enough fascination, whether because of a career or general interest, to write about a subject. They’re usually my best resource.

The most thorough type of source I use is always a well written book. They’re big, they’re long, and the authors aren’t afraid to elaborate. I use reference books, biographies, picture books, whatever provides the best information. You can take a look at my library. Another source that I have a lot of fun with is maps, especially older ones with sepia tones and hand drawn lines. Photographs and images are another obvious type that I use constantly.

When does the research take place?

During the art making process, I use research throughout, from the beginning to the end. I do try and front load my learning though. I realized¬†early on that you need a better understanding of a subject early on to make quick decisions when you are in the middle of actually creating something. You can’t get caught up in constantly going back and forth; it’s not efficient.

So, I usually do a broad look, then start to pick apart the info I need. Once I have a general grasp on a subject, I move further into the project. It’s quite often the case, though, that I fall down a rabbit hole and end up on a completely different subject than I started. I love when that happens, but I have to be careful not to waste too much time on irrelevant information. It’s difficult to find when to stop, but it’s usually when my mind can’t absorb any more or I forget why I started. Some research I can remember and recall later in my mind, but more often than not I have to leave the source up as I create, whether it’s an image, article, or just a list of facts.

Reasons for Research

Modeling

When I build an object to use as reference, I can’t do anything until I understand how the object is made. Materials, colors, size, parts, etc. The eye can perceive when something is off, and I need to understand why as well to overcome that obstacle. Luckily, computer programs are improving constantly so I can create believable objects in relatively quick time.

Interest

It’s hard to accomplish a task when you have no interest in it. The only way to gain interest is to try to understand it a little better. Why is it important? Have to learn about the history of the steel making process? It may sound boring, but if you know about the person who discovered the process or the inventions it lead to, it might pique your interest to understand how it was done. Learning can be an addiction if you let it be. It’s only gotten worse for me over time!

Painting

Like with modeling, I need reference materials. I’ve trained myself to study objects with a critical eye. I’m not good at guessing, but I can analyze the surface of an object and render it with accuracy. This skill adds to my ability to gather other types of information.

Cause and Effect

You can’t truly understand something in it’s entirety unless you know where it came from. The origins of a subject and the way it evolved over time is essential. You can start to predict reactions or events with better accuracy when you know the cause and effect. If I need to describe, build, or paint a fire scene, I need to know how fires start and grow. Same idea for why a city might decline or improve over time. This is very important for being able to plan ahead and create a long term project like this one.

What are some subjects you’ve researched?

People

If I didn’t have access to biographies or wasn’t able to observe the people around me, I’m afraid every character I create would be a clone of myself. Each person has their own experiences that shape the way they walk, talk, and act.

Fashion

Blue jeans don’t belong in Civil War period artwork just as top hats don’t fit modern times. Those are obvious examples, but there are a lot of little tweaks throughout the fashion timeline that can make a scene historically incorrect.

Architecture

I’m a fan of ornate architecture, and I need to understand why modern architecture stopped using certain details. Styles also differ depending on region. I can’t add a building with giant glass windows in a time period before it was even possible to make glass in large sizes.

Furniture

It took me a long time to build up a fascination with antique furniture. I still lose interest if there’s too much of it around me. But when I have to design a piece, or organize an interior room scene, I can concentrate on each piece at a time and learn about the details at my own pace.

Events/timelines

This is where my love of history comes in handy. Learning about larger events gives me access to everything above – the people and their surroundings. These are the stories that pull me into new worlds and make the process of gathering information a little easier.

Visuals

Again, I need images to work from when drawing, painting, or modeling. I’m looking for different lighting conditions, textures, scale charts, etc. I’ve been collecting images for many years, and I hold on to as much as I can because I never know when I’ll need to use it again.

Science and Engineering

driver_wheel_testDuring my childhood, playing with toys wasn’t just about have fun, it was also about discovering new ideas. Every year would bring more complex gadgets that would fascinate me to no end. These toys lead to my gradual interest in science and engineering. During school I had to learn how bridges worked or how clouds were formed.

Now, I’ve moved on to tinkering with computer simulations. All of these resources give me new information to work from and help me make better artwork based on physics and chemistry from the real world. An artist has to understand how light travels and why colors appear. We also need to know how it refracts when it comes in contact with different surfaces in order to build accurate materials in 3d. The realism in my work depends on my grasp of how the world works around me. I’m still looking for new toys to play with.

Education for the sake of education

Finally, this is not just an art project. My goal from the beginning has been to start to build an educational project, either by passing on information I learn about or inspiring others to do the same. I’ve found tactile ways to learn about the world, and I’m looking to draw people into my interests through my artwork and website.

The way we analyze and interpret information around us determines how we move forward. Wisdom and improvement relies on trying new things, discovering new ideas, and being able to learn from our mistakes. Appreciating artwork depends on a deeper understanding of its context as well.