Hayao Miyazaki and the Splendor of Nature

Viewing a Hayao Miyazaki (or really any Studio Ghibli film) undoubtedly involves awestruck wonderment at the beautifully hand painted backgrounds. I recently had to watch most of his films again for a research paper, and even though they’re all very familiar to me, I remained captivated as a viewer. Watching his films is like living in a painting for a few hours.

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All gifs courtesy of Studio Ghibli gifs

All of Miyazaki’s films are a visual treat, and always include lush landscapes that celebrate the beauty of the natural world- which are reflective of his own environmental concerns. I admire how he combines the Kurosawa-esque shots of sweeping, dramatic landscapes-

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– with more intimate shots:

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The environments are so immersive, and the fact that they’re entirely created by artists, rather than a set designer, lends them a more magical and fantastic quality, despite their obvious painstaking realism. I guess the realism anchors the more fantastic elements:

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Overall, Miyazaki’s films all reflect a deep appreciation and respect for the natural world, and the importance of preserving it. He’s stated: “For me, the deep forest is connected in some way to the darkness in my heart. I feel that if it is erased, then the darkness in my heart would also disappear, and my existence would grow shallow.”

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Being Free with Watercolor

Watercolor is a difficult, temperamental medium, as anyone who has had the pleasure (or displeasure) of working with it knows. I’ve only pretty recently started to use watercolor, and transcending the frustration can be hard sometimes. I find that when I’m working representationally I tend to become the most frustrated. I realize that every mark I make will be on the page forever- never to be undone. I feel anxious and inhibited- the opposite of how I feel working with acrylic or oils. I’ve found that I can overcome this anxiety by working freely and abstractly with watercolor. Here are a few of the experiments that I’ve done recently that I think turned out pretty well:

Here, I started with just thin glazes and gradually built up the form in the middle, then I had a little fun adding the thin lines with a squeeze bottle (using watered down acrylic paint.) I made the dotted brown lines by soaking a textured yarn in some pretty highly saturated watercolor, and simply laying it down on the paper until it dried. Using golden fluid acrylics like watercolor also works as a great substitute, and takes away some of the anxiety that people like me have with the combination of permanence and translucency of watercolor.

Here, I scored the paper beforehand with an ExActo blade. I then worked with some light washes, letting them gradually settle into the gashes. I then used the marks that emerged to inform my next decisions. I chose to further emphasize them with the orange marks.

This one didn’t turn out so well. One has to be careful when working with watercolor that, since it’s translucent, every layer builds upon the last, rather than cutting through or covering the previous layers. Unfortunately, the result of not being careful is getting mud. There’s always acrylic to fix the problem, which I think is my next move on this one.

I think that so many art students have anxiety about watercolor mostly because their only real experience working with it was in a studio class, with all the restrictions that that experience usually brings (in mine, we weren’t allowed to use any opaque medium, including gouache.) Unfortunately, many of these students leave that classroom with absolutely no desire to use watercolor again. Revisiting watercolor on my own has been a great decision, and one I think that more students should consider doing as well. Who knows, it might be fun!

The Wonderful Women of Miyazaki Films

I’m on a Miyazaki kick! I’m writing a paper on his films, so they’ve definitely been taking up residence in my mind lately. Every time I think about these films I’m always in awe of how considered, complex, and just plain dignified the female heroines and regular characters are. There’s no fan service exploitation, no pandering- these characters are like real people, even while doing extraordinary things.

There’s, of course, Nausicaa, the titular heroine from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (first a manga, then a movie, both by Miyazaki.) I was thumbing through my copy of Nausicaa: Watercolor Impressions and was struck by this image (which warrants re-posting!):

I just love how powerful she looks, just sitting there. And you really get a feel for the burdens that she’s carrying. In Miyazaki’s comments on it, he said “I never liked drawing standard heroine pictures of Nausicaa looking cheerful… When she’s alone, I always imagined her looking very unapproachable. Not because she was intimidating, but because of a quiet isolation, like she wasn’t a part of her surroundings at all.” I find it amazing how deeply he thinks of his characters, seeing them as human beings, rather than devices or objects. Do I think that the same amount of thought went into most of the Disney Princesses? I doubt it. I would love to see an image like this of a Disney princess in a non-fan art capacity, but they simply don’t exist.

And who could forget San from Princess Mononoke? The titular heroine is just an unabashed bad-ass:

She’s fierce, quick thinking, and a true warrior. We’re introduced to her in battle- she moves swiftly and almost catlike. But she doesn’t fight for the sake of fighting, she fights to protect her forest from destruction by other humans (mainly the also bad ass lady Eboshi)- so much so that she’s developed a hatred of humans, and even rejects her own humanity.

from Studio Ghibli gifs

What I love about San is that she has her own obvious motivations to pursue- she’s not just an accessory to the main male protagonist of the film. She has her own story arc that’s integral to the film. AND her warrior garb isn’t exploitatively sexified- it looks believably like something someone raised by mythical wolf-beasts would wear.

Then, we have Ursula from Kiki’s Delivery Service

From Studio Ghibli Gifs

-not exactly a heroine, but a secondary character. She’s a painter who befriends Kiki on one of her delivery misadventures. Watching the movie when I was older, I was struck by just how amazing it is that we see a young woman who lives a very solitary life in the woods, and not once in the film is this ever treated as a Big Deal. We’re never told to pity her, she never shows indication of unhappiness/desperation- instead, she’s spunky, thoughtful, and full of life. She is shown to be perfectly well adjusted- and that’s pretty remarkable for a female character in any feature film, let alone one made primarily for young girls.

What’s great about these characters is that girls can relate to them incredibly easily, and/or look up to them just as easily, much more easily than with the more typical aspirational , shiny, idealized caricatures that dominated the Disney films and other anime of my childhood. There’s a place for those too (they can sometimes be a lot of fun) but I’m glad that I “met” these women in Miyazaki’s films when I was an impressionable young girl, and I’m glad to revisit them now, as a (hopefully wiser) adult.

Artbook of the Day: Nausicaa Watercolor Impressions

It’s no secret that I love fancy (and sometimes not so fancy) art books, nor is it a secret that I love Hayao Miyazaki films. So, it’s no surprise that I own nearly all of the art books in the Viz series about his films. They’re all weighty hardcovers with gorgeous illustrations, concept sketches, and other unseen gems from the making of each film. I love looking through these books every once in a while- I find comfort in visiting his fantastical worlds, given that I grew up with his films.

One such book that sort of stands out from the rest is Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind: Watercolor Impressions. This book more emphasizes concept work than the others, given that Nausicaa was originally a manga penned and illustrated solely by Miyazaki in gorgeous watercolor.

One of Miyazaki’s favorite illustrations of princess Nausicaa

Nausicaa is such an amazing film (unfortunately I haven’t read the manga yet,) about a post apocalyptic (pre-apocalyptic?) and environmentally damaged planet. As a result, the planet tries to heal itself- by eliminating all humans. It’s up to the spunky, empathetic princess Nausicaa to save the day, which culminates in a heartbreaking climax where she begs the planet to forgive the human race-a theme that Miyazaki revisits in his proceeding work. It’s such a beautiful story, and even after all these years, relevant. I was always struck by how powerful Miyazaki’s female heroines were- not necessarily in physical power, but there was just an energy behind them. They seemed like real people, with real emotions and conflicts behind their expressions. They make the highly idealized, wide-eyed faces of the Disney princesses seem vacant by comparison (I guess they look kinda vacant without doing a comparison…)

Of course, you come to a Miyazaki film for the great characters, but you stay for the incredible world-building (or is it the other way around?) He almost always features incredible flying machines-

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-and incredible creatures of fancy, and sometimes destruction:

It was also interesting to see some early concept art Miyazaki made pre-Nausicaa. I especially loved this gem:

I love these books. It’s so amazing to be able to take a trip into a sketchbook see the thought process of one of the greatest artists of our time through his own personal sketches and paintings.

Done with Art History??!!

 

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Every art student, no matter their major, has to take at least one art history course as a part of their course requirements. I, being a painting major, am one of these people. And I don’t mind. I don’t always love it, what with the sometimes bad projections/photos of paintings, the occasional droning voice of a less than enthusiastic professor, and the sometimes intense speed at which works and time periods can be moved through. But I bear with these small hiccups, and end up learning a lot about the field I’m trying to break into. However, I hear more than enough of my fellow students decrying their art history courses. Now, being a junior, I hear a lot of people saying that they’re so excited to be “done with art history.” I find this to be kind of an alarmingly sad statement coming from studio art majors.

Now, like I said, art history courses can sometimes be boring- maybe your professor has a weird voice, they’re a little boring, whatever. In my opinion, these are things you just have to get over. It’s not their job to MAKE you interested in the material- you chose the course. What I find alarming about an art student wanting to be “done with art history” is that, in my opinion, to make art, you should have some sort of knowledge of what came before you. A lot of people with the “done with art history” attitude tend to be really invested in the fallacy that by not learning art history, they’re somehow producing their own work in some sort of vacuum of ultra-originality, free from outside influence. It makes their artwork more “unique!” i.e. immature and suck-ish (sorry, way harsh, Tai.) But seriously, whether you want to remain ignorant of it or not, your work is influenced by other works, which are in turn influenced by other works, and so on. So, if you choose to remain ignorant of that fact, you’ll also be ignorant of when you’re treading on familiar ground, maybe very familiar ground, and your self-constructed world in which you’re oh-so original will come crashing down once someone who knows about these things sees your work, as tends to be the case.

And overall, my work has only improved from my learning art history. We don’t really learn how to”read” art when we’re in high school, so a lot of artwork that had seemed esoteric to me before became really interesting or even inspiring to me. Did I like every painting that I learned about? No. But I learned about some artists that I’d never heard of before, or gained new understandings of ones who I had. Connecting art with an actual time period or movement puts it into context, which makes it much easier to appreciate. Looking at Mondrian works, for instance, is hard without knowing of the De Stigl movement.

Piet Mondrian. Composition No. II, with Red and Blue. 1929 (original date partly obliterated; mistakenly repainted 1925 by Mondrian)

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red and Blue, Courtesy of Moma.org

Who knew that this image is representative of a movement fixated on a utopian and spiritual mission? Also, knowing this, one becomes privy to just how incredibly influential these simple works have been:

Yves Saint Laurent 60’s Mod dress.

Learning art history just helps you understand the world more- specifically visual culture. And this is, you know, pretty important to an aspiring artist! Honestly, I couldn’t imagine ever being “done” with art history- I have so much to learn and understand; and as we gain understanding of the works of others, we also get closer to understanding our own work as well.

Banner image courtesy of wired.com

Coming Into Focus

Lately, I’ve gotten back into the groove of working more abstractly. I tend to move in waves- I eventually get a bit bored of doing abstraction so I move to more representational work, then the cycle starts again. I’m starting to use less of the liquid acrylics and more paint of tube consistency, keeping my brushstrokes more distinct.

Lake by Megan Koth. Acrylic on Canvas

I’m also becoming even more conscious of color in my abstractions. I can even see a bit of a continuation of my desserts series in my new favor for “yummy” looking colors here.

Pink by Megan Koth. Acrylic on Canvas

I still haven’t completely abandoned my love for working with liquid acrylic and getting those kinds of effects, but I can see my starting to apply paint more thickly as a sign that I’m getting more confident in my mark making. Slowly (very slowly) building up form and color using watered-down acrylic can sometimes be a kind of crutch for avoiding bold, distinct marks. Now, I feel like I’m starting to blend the two techniques together, and am starting to get really excited about working non-objectively again!

Simple Beauty: Leo Lionni

Leo Lionni books were some of my favorites as a kid. Lionni stories are deceptively simple fables always involving animals and an appreciation for the magic and wonderment of nature. Thumbing through these stories again reminds me of how stunningly beautiful the illustrations are.

Every story has its own distinct style of illustration as well. For instance, in Swimmy, the story of a fish searching for his own place in the world, explores the beauty if the ocean. As a result, the illustrations make use of wet paint applications.

In contrast, for The Biggest House in the World, which tells the story of a snail who’s insatiable desire for a bigger and bigger shell spirals out of control, Lionni employs a more sharp, smooth use of pencil.

Then, of course, there’s Frederick, the story of a mouse who, instead of collecting grains, corn, and other supplies for winter, instead collects “colors… for winter is grey,” and words “for the winter days are long and many, and we will run out of things to say.” This is all, of course, much to the chagrin of his fellow mice. But when winter rolls along and the food is long gone, the mice turn to Frederick for his “supplies.”

The illustrations use paper to highlight the colors and simple beauty that Frederick sees around him. I see this story as a testament to the importance of art and culture- it’s just as essential as food and shelter to a community. Looking at it now, this story may even be one of the reasons I became interested in being an artist at such a young age. Just as Frederick did, Leo Lionni’s stories remind us all that our world doesn’t just provide us with the basic necessities of life that feed the body, but with a profound beauty that feeds the soul.

Revisiting Old Experiments

Last year I didn’t do a whole lot of my usual acrylic painting (my dorm room being so small and all) and started to experiment with watercolor. I took a watercolor class, and continued to do some little doodles in my spare time just at my desk (really the only surface in my tiny dorm.) I saved the small doodles I did, and recently dug them up and began working back into them not with watercolor, but with acrylic.

I already use watered down acrylic in a lot of my works, but using this same medium on paper is interesting (and entirely different.) I quite like watercolor, and it really takes me out of my comfort zone of working on a canvas and getting that immediate payoff of acrylic/oil paint. Working on such an absorbent surface is an interesting change of pace.

Most of the painting here was done in watercolor, and I added the orange dots (and a little more orangey-ness) with acrylic. I also added the dark blue lines with acrylic using a needle-tip bottle, and painted in the green bars. I like the mixture of the wispyness of watercolor combined with the crisp sharpness of acrylic. Working in mixed media opens so many possibilities! Revisiting old sketches and doodles can be really rewarding. Sometimes we do our best work when we’re not even in “work” mode, and just let our mind wander onto the page.

Design Competitions: Scams?

Recently I was browsing my Facebook news feed and saw an interesting ad on the right hand side. It was for a “design competition” to design the album cover for a band’s upcoming release, the prize being $1000. Now, that prize is pretty good. Hiring a graphic designer to do an album cover would cost around that amount, probably. However, it got me thinking of all the similar contests I see out there that offer prizes closer to $100. And even if the grand prize results in what may be fair compensation, there are other factors that I think need to be considered…

Like copyright issues. During my senior year of high school, like many of my classmates, I started a fastweb account (a site that matches you up with scholarships to apply to.) My matches included some of these types of art competitions, one of them being to design new packaging for red vines (I think.) I was contemplating entering, but I made sure to read the fine print first. To my surprise, I found that the Red Vines company would retain copyright on all images I submitted. I would no longer own the work that I submitted, regardless of me winning or not. I think they offered around $1000 in scholarship money to the winner, an absolute bargain to the company, given that for that $1000, they not only get a new logo/design, but they also own the rights to the thousands of other entrants who didn’t win. It all just seems more than a little exploitative to me. Why not just hire a talented graphic designer to do the job? Or just nix the contest and just start a damn scholarship if you care about education so much? Oh, because it doesn’t involve getting tons of cheap/free labor. It just seems a little shady- and it’s such a gamble for the entrant. All but a small fraction of the entrants walk away with no prize money, nothing they can (legally) use in their portfolio, and out however many hours they spent on their work. Seems like an exceedingly bad deal to me. Oftentimes, these contests don’t produce very good work, and sometimes a winner isn’t even chosen.

Would you want being paid for your work to be a roll of the dice?

There are so many young designers/artists out there (me included) who are really hungry to break into the industry and get exposure. I feel like many of these types of competitions take unfair advantage of these naive dreamers. This website is a great resource on spec work and its unethical nature. Generally, these types of contests ask for designers and artists to put in hours/days of their own time, not to mention use their own materials, to produce work that has only a slight chance of actually paying them. Think about working at your own job only to be told when you clocked out “sorry, you weren’t the winner today, so you worked for free this week. No paycheck for you!” So, I’m not saying that all art/design competitions are bad, but be sure to read the fine print and seriously weigh the pros and cons before forking over your work and (often) money in entry fees. Overall, I think one is better off taking on small clients and getting experience that way. If someone truly respects your work, they’ll pay you a fair wage for it.

On Again, Off Again: My Love Affair With Sketching

At some indefinable point in time, I fell out of love with sketching. Like many artists, I started sketching at a young age. From the ages of 8-12 or so, I carried around my sketch book at all times. I drew everything. Pots and pans, flowers, bowls of fruit. It was a clean, non messy or difficult medium for a youngster to start with- no complicated or dangerous paints and chemicals. As a result, I really got a good start on learning how to “see” as an artist needs to from an early age.

I also drew a lot of fish for some reason… Fish, age 8

I got nostalgic recently and started to thumb through my old sketchbooks. It’s interesting to look at my childhood drawings now as an adult. I can sort of see what interested me at certain times. Landscapes were a big thing for me early on.

Apparently, at age 9, I also really loved ‘Murica.

However, once I started to really get into painting- around junior year of high school, I started to neglect my sketchbook in favor of the canvas. I would sketch things out with paint on the canvas ahead of time, or, in the case of my increasing interest in non-objective work, not at all. I began to see sketching as tedious once I graduated high school. I no longer “kept” a sketchbook. I’d made some here and there, but that previous childhood enthusiasm for carrying a sketchbook with me was gone. If I wanted to collect something for reference, I just snapped a picture. In college even, my Painting 1 class required me to “keep” a sketchbook and show it to my professor at the end of the semester. I think there were a grand total of four sketches by the end, and two of them were probably forced out a few days before. I just wasn’t a ‘sketcher” anymore, I thought.

Then, a few months ago, I was cleaning out my desk drawers and found this incredibly cool sketchbook that I must have received as a Christmas gift from my mom:

The cover has a holographic image of a pencil and three crayons, designed by Susan Kare. I saw this empty book, with its cool design and thick binding, and felt compelled to put SOMETHING in it. I couldn’t just let it sit there being all blank. At first, I just wrote in little notes; ideas for posts, little doodles, whatever. But then I started to feel the urge to fill it with beautiful pictures. I did these cake sketches for that very reason, and also to test out color schemes.

I ended up using this color scheme as an actual painting. And it all came from one silly little sketch. I’ve really started to get back into the groove of sketching lately. I don’t know why I abandoned it for so long. Something that at once seemed tedious to me now seems like an incredible time/frustration saver. I don’t have to rework my paintings so often because of minor compositional and placement issues. My ideas are far more developed early on, so I don’t have to do as much backtracking (which is pretty easy to do with acrylics regardless.) Obviously, that’s always been the point of sketching. You’re probably all going “well DUH, Megan!” But I guess I may have associated sketching too much with my childhood- it was something that I had graduated from. It wasn’t until recently that I’ve come to realize that, as an artist, you never “graduate” from the basics, they “graduate” with you.