Pablo Picasso often gave the impression he never planned his work, a spontaneous genius whose raw talent was more than enough. These studies, done during the beginnings of his cubist period, indicate otherwise. In truth, he was one of the most contemplative yet proactively engaged artists in history.
“There is no art without contemplation.” – Robert Henri
Planning is not living in the future nor is it setting in stone what you’re gonna do or even how you’re going to do it. But it’s easy to be confused about this. I like to think of planning as a process that is ever present, like any other activity. It’s a process of supplementing your already developed routine of preparation and practice with the idea that by doing so, you increase the likelihood of achieving your goals. Planning is, to me anyways, merely a phase in the entire creative process – an important phase whereby you research, explore and prepare for both problems and possibilities that lie before you.
These Milt Kahl thumbnails for Tigger are fun and exploratory. They are part of a solution but also part of the process of creating art. From the Walt Disney production, Winnie the Pooh.
Unfortunately, most artists view planning commonly in only one of two ways: (1) As a necessary but difficult and uncomfortable process that predates actual performance or creative production. Or (2) As a purely mental and controlled process, akin to architectural planning, laying out in detailed exactness the entire course of decisions and actionable objectives.
The first way makes planning out to be a nothing more than a dreaded exercise, rather than as a domain for exploration and thinking out of the box – the place where true creativity, ironically, prefers to dwell. The artist who hates planning solves nothing and remains vulnerable to going with his first ideas, fails often and wastes significant resources doing constant “re-do’s.” This artist is often poor with time management, impatient and rarely creates anything substantial or original. The second view translates planning into a method for arriving at elaborately designed “solutions” to be the end all and be all – solutions that are not only rigid and incapable of adapting to changes or unforeseen circumstances but also rob the entire production process of any joy, flexibility and spontaneity. The artist who favors this path, is often frightful of feedback and faces great emotional disappointment when things unexpectedly change course. The latter artist is also susceptible to paralysis by analysis, thereby overstretching the planning stage and leaving little time for actual execution.
“One can’t live in a future which never arrives.” – Alan Watts
Concept art often serves as the exploratory phase of any serious animation production. These gorgeous concept paintings and studies done for Disney’s Frozen are by Lisa Keene, a long time veteran artist and art director. I still vividly remember Lisa doing live painting demos in our class, with multiple brushes in her hair and between each finger of both her hands. One look at her work, and you get the easy feeling she’s completely engaged in the process and having fun.
So what is an artist to do? If you don’t plan at all, you’re likely to get seriously lost on the way, possibility encountering complexities that will side swipe you right into the gutter. Plan too much and too hard, and you’re bound to meet with disappointment when the situation and results demand that you alter your original vision and force you to trash those “perfect” plans. Anyone who’s worked in a professional creative environment (dealing with directors or clients) knows exactly what we’re talking about here. So how does one create under such conditions – that is, be creative and unexpected – but still produce results with at least some sort of consistency?
The Tree of Life by Gustav Klimt. This great master commanded both the medium of paint and the vision of something more, exploring themes of humanity such as love, death, and spirituality through design, color and composition.
It’s quite a dilemma – an endlessly confounding battle between letting the mind go so that the soul can be free, while knowing that without the service of the mind, the soul can be easily deceived or lost.
Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield, upon which your reason and your judgement wage war against your passion and your appetite.” – From The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran
In life, perhaps the answer is not so simple, but in art, there is another way of approaching the problem, and that is, treating planning itself as a creative process. Since it’s impossible to live in the future and “pre-solve” all your problems, and given that not having any plans is too risky and thus “unacceptable,” your only solution then is to take the planning process in stride like any other action that you’d take, and that is, you must to dive right into it fully engaged. You have to get it into your head that plans don’t have to be rigid. In fact, plans are most useful when they aren’t.
“If we are open only to discoveries which will accord with what we know already, we may as well stay shut.” – Alan Watts
Gehrard Richter, one of the most diverse artists alive today, seen here making his paintings – paintings in which he explores and changes constantly both the method and image that result from the process. From Corinna Belz’s insightful 2012 documentary, Gerhard Richter Painting. To read more about the film, go here.
I often tell my students that making art is often like taking a road trip – and like all road trips, it’s what you make of it. And well-planned trips, which are flexible to unexpected discoveries or side trips along the way, are always the best.
So how do you dive right into planning? First, you need to define your goal or objective, then design a plan to get to your desired destination. This activity can be immeasurably enjoyable. Just ask my wife when she’s planning a vacation. Completely immersed, she voraciously scans through library books, magazines and websites, researching and finding out where all the cool places are to see, what activities to do, where to eat, and which friends to visit along the way. She’s practically intoxicated with the anticipation of the unknown. Watching her partake in this process is always a reminder to me of how much joy you can have “planning.”
The reality is, the preparation phase is a fabulous opportunity to discover and try new things, instead of relying on old formulas or doing the first thing that comes to mind. Besides, every artist knows that your first ideas are seldom the best ideas.
French master Edgar Degas did tons of sketches and paintings not just as tests for later, perhaps more substantial works, but also as part of the process of creating, and of being an artist in general, witnessing and recording the world around us.
Since you cannot live in the future, don’t. You’re only forgetting to live presently when you try. So when you’re planning you must submit fulling to the present state of planning. If you fall in love with the process of planning, your plans have a chance of laying a foundation to something good, and possibly great. And, even if the end results don’t turn out, you’ve at least managed to temper the expectations and enjoyed the process. It’s always great to remind yourself that the journey, and not the destination, is the goal.
These beautiful Edward Hopper studies of his Siamese cat are moments beautifully captured. He may have made them for a part of a painting, but they are most elegant creations, in and of themselves.
So don’t dread the planning process, nor be obsessed with it. It’s great to have a map to know where you might hope to travel to, but it’s best still to allow room, and the expectation that plans can, and often do, change course. Engage in the process of planning playfully and commit wholeheartedly to the process of problem solving and discovery so that you can enjoy the latter process of actual artistic production with greater odds of success, and, possibly arrive at something unexpected, and even exciting and new. Here, the stage is empty and full of possibilities for pure, unadulterated exploration.
These thumbnails sketches of the Gaston song sequence (from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast) show the necessary thought and visual exploration required to make a very complex and difficult scene work. Drawings by former supervising animator Ron Husband, another teacher I had at Disney’s. To see more of the artist’s work, go here.
Personally, I don’t think as much when I actually animate (or design, paint, and storyboard). When I get there, I mostly just execute. That’s when the process becomes physical and emotional, and I move into the next step of expressing tangibly my impressions. From there on, I bounce back and forth between doing and assessment, making adjustments, both big and small, along the way until the entire cycle of artistic creation has run its course.
These Ollie Johnston studies for Penny and Rufus, from Disney’s The Rescuers are loaded with wit and charm. It may not seem so at the time they were created, but these exploratory sketches find their way into the final character animation one way or the other.
Now, sometimes, such as that commonly viewed in the realm of “Fine Art,” a determined goal or vision (such as pleasing a director or a client) isn’t always the objective. Art doesn’t always have to serve a preconceived notion. But even then – in so-called art for art’s sake, pure expression of thoughts, emotions or visual reflexes – the process isn’t always entirely fixed nor unfocused. Things don’t just “blindly” happen. The creative process is rarely aimless. Take painter Alex Kanevsky, for example. He works and re-works his paintings, sometimes substantially, to arrive at a destination. He even lets paintings sit for months, before renewing them, or painting over them.
What turned out was that there really was not a clear progress, more like wandering in the dark with uncertain goals. Not aimless, but not exactly purposeful either. – Alex Kanevsky
It isn’t just in commercial arts such as animation productions where planning, testing, doing and re-doing happen. Fine artist Alex Kanevsky often makes huge changes to his paintings as he digs hard to arrive at the best possible outcome. To see the full scale of change and evolution of this painting from start to finish, go here.
Excellent art rarely comes from pure, absolute spontaneity. The creation of animation art, like anything else for that matter, is cyclical. More often than not, the thinking and hard work that comes before the execution stage help makes it, whatever it is, happen. Consistently effective artists tend to be those who plan their work, and then move on from those plans, and into the process of building their art until they stop. Planning is merely the beginning of the creative process that is not only necessary but, when viewed with an open mind, also immensely enjoyable.
“Art is never finished, only abandoned.” – Leonardo da Vinci