Today I'd like to share the work and words of a phenomenal artist named Lane Brown. I first became aware of Lane's work back in 2010 when he was selected by ImagineFX Magazine as one of the "Rising Stars" of sci-fi/fantasy art, and I have followed his work religiously ever since.
Lane specializes in fantastical illustration and concept art, though he often breaks away from genre to produce a myriad of observational works that seem to convey a compelling story in their own right. Primarily digital, his work exhibits a deep understanding of expressive edges and painterly strokes that complement a wonderful sense of light and color. Storytelling permeates every piece in his portfolio and is evident through the sensitive characterization of both the human and non-human figures in his work.
I am thrilled that Lane agreed to indulge me in this opportunity to learn more about him and his work. So without further ado, here's the interview!
JM: Could you tell us a little about yourself and your artistic path so far? Do you have a formal arts education or are you self-taught?
LB: Sure! I'm the guy who sits happily alone in the corner of the library, with piles of art and illustrated history books, wearing a hole in my paper as I vigorously erase and redraw in an effort to find the right pose for my character's sword arm. At least, that was me in high school, but not much has changed. I get paid a little more to do it now.
Out of high school I was pretty set on doing art as a career, but beyond that general goal I had no direction. So I naively went to a small liberal arts college for four years where I earned a degree in Graphic Design. The experience was most valuable, as I soon realized that I didn't enjoy graphic design. I find it very tedious and restricting. The design skills I picked up are invaluable, but corporate logos and stationary just don't allow for much personal expression of the imagination.
Expression of the imagination. That's the key. The freedom to dream up characters, creatures, and stories and then to bring them to life. That's what I want to do! Illustration and painting just happen to be a great way to do that.
I am thankful for the many foundation courses in drawing and painting that I could take advantage of in college. They weren't always fun, but looking back I really appreciate that I was required to draw eggs and other mundane objects under a lamp for days on end. Like wax on wax off, training the fundamental skills is the surest way to mastery. It requires a discipline that I probably wouldn't have mustered on my own.
Now that I am out of school, I try very hard to remain a student. The internet provides an enormous, and ever-growing, fountain of knowledge that we should take full advantage of. There are so many professional artists sharing their craft through demonstrations and online courses, it's really a wonderful time to be a student of art.
JM: Do you have a background in traditional painting or did you start out digitally?
LB: I was introduced to digital painting pretty early on thanks to the discovery of online art communities like ConceptArt.org and DeviantArt. Still, my formal education was all focused on traditional tools and mediums, and I have always appreciated their tactile nature. I would much rather get my hands dirty in paint or clay, than sit stiffly in front of a computer, if only time was not a factor.
I think there is a very romantic appeal to being a traditional painter. Brush and palette in hand, you can stand like a swashbuckler in front of a massive canvas and live model, really putting the full gesture of your body into each stroke of paint. Yet as much as I find that appealing, as a working illustrator it seems like an unpractical fantasy. Really, the digital tools are perfect for the job that requires speed and flexibility.
I also feel that digital has helped me to progress much faster in terms of training. It allows for rapid and low cost failure. Each failure, though agonizing, is a great learning experience. As a purely traditional painter I would probably have more patience, less bare studio walls, and also less ability as an artist.
JM: Can you break down your working process for us? How many hours do you typically spend on a piece?
LB: My process changes with the direction of the wind. I tend to avoid all types of structure in life, for better or worse. Structure feels like a prison to me, whether it be a schedule, a written outline for an essay, or a step by step process for creating an image.
When I am most inspired to create, I forget any organized process. I submerge myself in my fantasy and just start trying to capture it on paper/screen by any means possible. Sometimes I will start with a series of thumbnail-sized sketches, and other times I will just start slinging big swabs of digital paint over a large area. The digital medium allows any approach to work. Some just require a lot more fixing along the way.
One constant that I have found is the different and complementary functions of line drawing and broad painting. Line is best at establishing gesture and design. So when I am trying to capture a moving character or design their outfit, I attack it with lines. However, if I need to evoke the atmosphere of a scene, like the colors and light, I use large soft strokes. In order to get the best of both worlds, I often apply them in unison. For example a delicate line may define the profile of a character's face, while a large wash of color may be used to lay in the soft mass of her hair as it blows in the wind. One defines form, the other creates a sense of atmosphere.
I use a technique whenever it serves me best.
For a large illustration I generally spend 2-4 days working on it. I find that my best work is completed in one or two sittings. That way there is less time to get distracted, and the original vision doesn't become muddled.
JM: What do you find to be your most useful and most detrimental work habits?
LB: My spontaneous and unstructured approach to work is both useful and detrimental. At times it gives birth to a surprising image that I never expected to produce. At other times it leads to hours of pushing pixels back and forth without any meaningful progress.
JM: When drawing or painting photorealistically, it's fairly easy to determine when the work is finished because it either looks exactly like what it's supposed to or it doesn't. With your more expressive, painterly work, how do you determine that the piece is finished?
LB: I think a work can be called finished whenever the idea or story is communicated clearly. I find tight rendering to be the most boring and often tedious process, so I aim to do as little of it as possible. Once my idea is down, I then try to eliminate marks that might distract from or lessen its impact.
Still, most of my time spent on any image is in the act of simplifying shapes, refining brushstrokes, and general fine tuning. While I don't like to render tightly, I probably spend just as much time finishing a work as someone with a more detailed style.
My greatest desire is to make a subject feel real rather than look real. The mind sees the world differently than the eyes do, and it is that emotional impression that I seek to capture.
JM: What part of the creative process do you enjoy most? Which part do you find the most frustrating?
LB: I have the most fun at the early stages of creation, the part where I'm putting big ideas down. That's when all the drama happens in my mind, and when I feel most excited and optimistic about what I'm working on. I can imagine the finished image clearly in my head and I can't wait to show the world!
Then, a few hours of toiling later, the image in my head begins to get muddled. The flaws of my rough work begin to dominate over my vision. This is the dreaded ugly stage, and it occurs in almost every work I do. It's like starting a journey atop a peak with a clear view of the distant horizon, but in order to reach it you must climb down through a dark and foggy swampland. In this territory there are all sorts of obstacles that might cause me to lose my way, or hazards that might end the journey completely. Indeed, many exciting starts have died here.
This is where I struggle most, not just with technical problems, but also with my own emotions. The key I've learned, is simply (and arduously) to keep at it. I must trudge onward through the dark swamp, using every aid at my disposal to keep myself oriented towards my original vision. This is where reference and studies make all the difference. They light the path forward, and keep doubts at bay. The more preparation made before the journey, the better.
JM: From your blog, it's clear that you take enjoyment in painting a wide variety of subject matter. Can you talk a little about what inspires you to create an outlandish character concept versus a tasty portrait of pie? How do your goals shift from piece to piece?
LB: I like to jump around between purely imaginative subjects and observational work, and I think it's important to have that balance. Imaginative work suffers if it becomes too detached from reality. I make a habit of observing all manner of subjects, largely out of curiosity, but primarily as means of improving my ability to work from imagination.
I feel like imaginative work is my ultimate product as an artist. Sometimes successful, often not.
JM: Much of your art is presented alongside some form of wonderful short story excerpt. Do these story ideas usually inspire the painting, or do the paintings inspire the story?
LB: In most cases these narratives come to me while I'm painting an image. I'll usually start with a general goal for character in mind, but it's only after I get to know them that I can tell their story.
JM: What is your favorite kind of commission to work on?
LB: I find environments, especially natural landscapes, to be quite easy. There is so much flexibility with them, they tend to be rather relaxing. You can move trees and mountains to wherever the composition needs them.
Ultimately I do prefer the thrill of a challenge, and characters are always that. Figures are tools of expression. The mere slant of a brow or gesture of a hand can communicate so much story and emotion to the viewer. There is a great power in that! If I want the viewer to feel something, then depicting a character is an great way to do that. But as any artist who has ever tried to compose figures from imagination knows... it ain't easy and the stakes are high!
JM: If you could interview any artist throughout history, who would it be and what would you ask them?
LB: There are so many artists throughout history who's thoughts and ideas I wish I could absorb. One would be a forgotten master painter and illustrator by the name of Walter Hunt Everett (1880-1946). I discovered him only about a year ago, and instantly fell in love with his work. His style exhibits a wonderful blend of painterly realism and shapely design. He was a student of Howard Pyle, and you can certainly see the influence. Looking at his work, I view him as a cross between a romantic like John William Waterhouse and a draftsman like J.C. Leyendecker, both of which I adore.
Sadly, Everett's story is a bit tragic — at least from the perspective of a working artist. Despite a strong demand for his work from high profile clients, his temperamental nature and perfectionism caused him to miss deadlines. He was so poor at maintaining his career in fact that he continually failed to pay bills and rent. Worst of all, one day during a fit, he set fire to most of his life's work! It seems such a tragedy to know that so many incredible works may have been destroyed, and by his own hand.
So I would simply like to ask Walter Everett, why?! In hindsight, and with a cooler head, I imagine he would ask the same thing of himself. What character flaws got the best of him, and how can I avoid such a fate? I know I struggle with similar issues as an artist. (who doesn't?) A sense of perfectionism has caused me to abandon many works, and is often a source of strong discontent with my ability and progress.
How do I know when I'm being too hard on myself, yet still avoid the hazard of complacency?
I am greatly inspired by Everett's work, at least what remains of it, but just as valuable is the opportunity to learn from his mistakes.
JM: If you could see a retrospective of your work from the future, what would you want it to be? How would you want your work to be remembered?
LB: One of my favorite books is The Art Spirit by Robert Henri (1865-1929). Henri was a brilliant painter and an even greater art teacher around the turn of the 20th century. In his book he states "The world and life are common, every day, and almost empty to a great many people, but there are those who see that the world and life are mysteriously wonderful."
We live in a world, a creation, so mysteriously wonderful. Through my future work, I hope to share that perspective.