Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Monday, July 26, 2010

Making Stuff Up

At The Bar, 16 x 12

I get a big kick out of making stuff up. I don't know if there's a difference between painting from memory and making stuff up, but it's all the same to me. I particularly enjoy inventing environments, characters, and stories when I'm painting from a live model, often in a figure class or an open session.

Typically the model just sits in a chair with not much else going on in terms of props and set up. Sure, there are times when you have the luxury to set up exactly how you want your painting to look, but unless you are a committed figure painter, (I'm more of a landscape guy) you take what you can get.

Just because the set up is less than exciting, it doesn't mean your painting has to be boring also. In fact, a minimalist set up is like a blank canvas. Because there's nothing there to distract you into limiting your imagination, it's much easier to just create whatever you feel like.

But of course, being able to imagine a situation is not the same thing as being able to paint it. Whenever I do these, someone will always ask me "how do you do that?" The truth is, there is no trick to it except practice, practice, practice. If you draw a thousand trees, I'm certain you can draw one from memory pretty well. The same with figures and furniture. It helps to know your perspective rules in order to construct objects on your canvas. It helps to know what kind of shadow patterns you get when light hits an object, but that too, can be deduced and constructed if you know your perspective rules and the basic (very basic) rules of light and form.

I can't do what some of these concept artists do for sci-fi movies and video games. I don't have that kinda patience and control, but I can do some landscapes and interiors with figures in them. I usually paint the model first, then take cues from the abstract marks I'd made during the process. I stare at my painting till an idea presents itself. It doesn't come all at once, but it develops piece by piece. In this painting, the guy in the white tank top was the model, and he was sitting in a regular nondescript chair. I painted him first, then added a table in front of him. The table became the bar. He needed a drink, so I gave him one. He looked lonely so I quickly indicated a friend(?) next to him (guy in green tank). When I added a girl on the other side, I started to sense a story, and next thing I knew, I turned the guy in green to face the girl, ditching his friend in the white wife-beater shirt. I painted the girl with no particular gesture in mind, but she looked like she wasn't interested in the guy in green. So she must be interested in something or someone else. Which prompted me to add the guy on the far end. Everyone got beers. I added a few other figures to make the bar crowded, and some abstract color notes to suggest an interior. At this point, our main character is isolated despite the fact that he is surrounded by people. What's his story? I don't know, but I can think of a few interesting short story ideas.

To tell you the truth, I developed my habit of making up environments when I was an illustration major at Art Center. You see, I believed that, when I graduated and became a real illustrator, I would have to be able to draw and paint anything and everything the client asked me to. I was afraid of being in a situation where I wouldn't be able to fulfill my client's request, so I tried very hard to learn how to deal with all kinds of lighting situations, drawing objects not by copying but by constructing, and to draw tens of thousands of gestural figures. My early efforts were dismal, but I knew that it was possible to learn this skill, because I'd seen it done, and it seemed to me a very logical process. In other words, I was very much encouraged by the fact that it is learned skill, and not raw talent that made it possible to "make stuff up". I'm sure raw talent couldn't hurt, but I wouldn't know about that. I have friends who seemed to possess unfair amounts of this talent stuff, and I had to work three times as hard just to do what came naturally to them.

Anyway, I'm still practicing every chance I get. The difference nowadays, is that I'm not driven by fear and anxiety, but by fun of seeing a picture – and a story–emerge out of nowhere. That I'm not doing this for clients is a big plus, because I am allowed to fail and I won't get fired.


  1. Thank you Terry for such a great post. I love this painting more than many others, and I do love your others. So I guess I'm saying this is my favorite.
    I appreciate that you shared how much hard work and practice it takes to pull this kind of thing off. It's great to know that you can explore and create like this.
    Very exciting and encouraging...
    I am drawn to enterior scenes like this one and I love the light coming into the forground onto the bar, the mood, everything sings to me.

  2. What an interesting post! Thanks for taking me down your thought process. I really enjoyed being part of it. No raw talent? Its hard to believe... I think you have way more than you realize. Your imagination, for one, is talent in itself. Your execution also reveals talent. It may have come easier to some of your friends, but you certainly have talent too.

  3. You have the most intrinsic need of an artist: vision. This is a wonderful piece, Terry.

  4. Thanks Randy~ I'm glad you like this painting. It's one of my favorites also. I always have so much fun doing these at an open session because this is the only time I really feel free of pressure to do a proper painting. Ironically, they usually turn out better than my other efforts where I fret over everything!

  5. Thanks for that, Susan!~ it may be that my so-called "talent" is my stubborn and desperate belief that it can be done, that if something is logical, it can be learned.
    Some people just seem to have it and when I talk to them they're like "what the hell are you talking about?" So who really knows where to draw the line? One of my instructors once said hard work always trumps lazy talent, and that's my mantra.

  6. Very cool Terry. I love the rhythm of this one. The way the diagonals of the arms oppose the diagonal of the bar, and then the shadow on the main figures arm cuts off that diagonal and separates him from the pattern. Very cool, very cleaver.

  7. Love the way you make stuff up - looks like I'll have to log more hours at the bar to be able to create a scene like this...:)

  8. This is a great post!
    "Making Stuff Up" is "playing pretend" at its finest.
    Almost as much fun as eating ice cream :)

  9. Thanks for noticing the angle - counter angle thing, Steve~

  10. For sure, Janice~ Log more hours at the bar. It's all about improving our craft, so have another drink and write it off!

  11. Thanks Leslie, yes, it's all fiction. It's all lies. definitely fun.

  12. Great post Terry. What interesting timing too. While cleaning out my studio this weekend I rediscovered my copy of Andrew Loomis's "Creative Illustration". I forgot how timeless his books are and how much wisdom is packed into them. I would recommend them to any artist be it fine art or Illustration.

  13. Thanks Tom~ Yeah, Loomis should be on your nightstand, along with Payne and Carlson.

  14. Here's an interesting link to most of Andrew Loomis's books in PDF format. Not sure about the copyright issues around this or if they're deemed public domain. http://alexhays.com/loomis/

    I do have Carlson's "Guide to Landscape Painting" on the nightstand and I'd love to have Edgar Payne's landscape book too but can't seem to find an affordable copy at the moment.