One of the subjects I talk a lot about here on Ctrl+Paint is the importance of reference materials. Today's post is going to explore a deceptively mundane subject: pigeons - and how a bit of reference material can make all of the difference.
First off, why pigeons? My wife recently came across a website devoted to 'show pigeons'. To get a visual, think 'show dogs', and replace it with pigeons in your mind. You might think that this is an extremely boring hobby - but an unexpected thing happens when you look a bit deeper. As it turns out, there are nearly a hundred pigeon varieties - and only a handful of them are the boring, gray, beggars that you're envisioning. Just like national dog competitions, these pigeons represent a huge variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and textures. Take a look at the images above and right to see some of the more flamboyant examples.
Avoid the Icon
So what does this mean? It means that the world is filled with weird, strange, variety - and your art should be too. It's easy to default to your mental short-hand. If you were to think of the word 'pigeon', it's likely that you'd come back with results much more in line with this clip art (right). These clip art images are closer to icons than they are to actual imagery. Sure, this would communicate the idea of 'pigeon', but only in the most superficial way. To make your work stand out, it's important to be aware of icons. Just like a writer avoiding cliche, it's your job to add a bit of nuance.
Design + Nature
Let's pretend your next assignment as a concept artist is to design a 'pigeon king' monster. If you took the time to do a bit of research, including unusual real-world details like the photos shown above would be easy. More importantly, the audience will probably find the image so much more compelling because they've never come across the world of show-pigeons. As far as they know, you've just ventured into cutting-edge creative territory - envisioning pigeons like the world has never seen. Our little secret, however, is that evolution did all of the hard work and you're just borrowing it. It's not to say that concept art isn't about creativity - but there are times where your effort is better spent on research than on painting.
Become a Professional Observer
It's easy to think of painting as hard work, and time spend painting as 'practice'. I'd argue that keeping your eyes open and experiencing the world is equally valuable. This sort of observation has to be active - not just walking around while thinking about your to-do list. The ultimate goal is soaking in the strange details around you, remembering them, and being able to recall them when painting from your studio. Especially if you don't have enough time in your schedule to paint every day, there's always an opportunity to spend some dedicated time observing your world. Whether it's photos or your physical surroundings, critical observation is time well spent.
Ultimately, the world is full of strange stuff. Take advantage, and keep your eyes open!