I could tell by the look in her eyes that she was up to no good.
Her expression – eternal, enticing and vile – has, for centuries, lured many men to awful consequences.
Fortunately, a grumpy docent intervened and saved me from a similar fate…
He kicked me out and locked the beautiful, deadly spirit-girl inside.
I wonder if I’ll ever see her again…
Yesterday, I visited The Getty Center Museum (one of my favorite places in Los Angeles) for the special exhibit: Gustav Klimt: The Magic Of Line.
I almost had to leave half-way through.
…and not because I was trying to escape the tempting gaze of that ancient femme fatale The Getty curators call ‘Lasciviousness.’ I hadn’t even met her yet.
The awesomeness was just completely overwhelming.
In this post, we’ll go inside the mind of Gustav Klimt, The Master Draftsman and gather four lessons that will supercharge your sketchbook…
Klimt-Class Lesson #1: You’re Never Too Good To Practice:
Gustav Klimt, an austrian painter, famous (and infamous) in his day, is one of the few classic painters to have become a household name.
He’s the guy behind the iconic work of obvious title The Kiss.
As evidenced in his very linear, stylized paintings, he was also a master draftsman.
When he died, he left behind over four thousand sketches, studies and color comps.
The dude was a machine.
He drew ALL the time.
…and most of his drawings are flawless.
His sketches were so numerous and to him, incidental, that he let his cats play with them.
While you break down in tears at the thought of Klimt’s cats shredding these gorgeous drawings, check out this very cool video from The Getty exhibit:
[The video and the rest of this blog post contain sketches of nude figures that might be considered NSFW in some cultures.]
I said most of Klimt’s drawings are flawless and I meant it.
He did almost no “searching” with the pencil and almost no erasing.
He just put pencil to paper and…
BAM! Gorgeous figure drawing… BAM! Gorgeous portrait… BAM! Gorgeous composition…
If anyone was worthy of skipping the studies and diving right into the painting it was Klimt.
He usually got the drawing right the first time.
But he didn’t just chump-out and settle for what was familiar or comfortable.
He was always searching for the best version of the idea.
His many sketches and studies enabled him to move beyond mere skillful painting to the innovation of his ‘Golden Phase’ which is one of the most unique and inventive artistic styles EVER.
Klimt-Class Lesson #2: Sketches Sharpen Your Vision:
Lots of you are frustrated because you can’t get the vision in your mind to move through your hand…
…to the tablet…
…and onto the screen.
If the vision is still in your mind, it’s still blurry.
If the vision is still in your mind, it’s still just inspiration.
Sketches make your vision clear.
If you can accept this truth and put it into practice, you’ll be a better visual communicator by the end of your next painting.
I know I’m probably over-explaining this (especially after last week’s controversial drop-kick) but this is absolutely vital. For many of you, it could bring an unprecedented peace of mind.
You can let yourself off the hook. Stop beating yourself up because you can’t produce a work of genius every time you open Photoshop.
Everyone struggles with this. Even the legends.
It’s just that the legends were more patient and determined than we are.
Despite his remarkable drawing skill, Klimt had to sketch his way to genius.
That’s exactly why he did more than 4,000 sketches, studies and color comps!
Klimt-Class Lesson #3: Sketches Are Spiritual:
Klimt was convinced that the audience could understand the thoughts of the characters in a painting if the artist was determined and able to capture the right facial expression, pose and tone.
He began his process for each painting by drawing models whom he cast for the roles of the characters in the scene.
When it was necessary for a character to float, Klimt’s models would lie on a bed in poses that simulated floating.
The knowledge and muscle memory he gained from observational sketches of the live models informed the design of the floating figures in his imagination.
Klimt also made entirely new drawings for even the most minor variation of a character’s facial expression.
For example, in some of the studies for ‘Medicine’ (seen in the Lesson #4 section below) Klimt drew a stream of floating babies. (Wow, that sounds especially weird when you say it out loud.)
He made many drawings of the same baby in the same pose and only changed the mouths (open, shut, relaxed, tense). He was searching for the expression which would most clearly communicate the character’s thoughts and emotions.
Many of Klimt’s preparatory sketches were very sparse – contour lines only.
Most of the floating baby sketches were like that.
I can’t prove it, but I think I could see that Klimt only continued to work on a drawing if he thought had captured some spiritual essence in the first few marks.
Most of his well-developed sketches and studies had an initial, emotional gesture to them. …and most of his seemingly-abandoned drawings weren’t as lively.
When I compare his sketches to the final paintings, it seems that Klimt’s vision for each painting became clearer with each sketch.
…and his sketches became more alive as his vision became clearer.
Klimt-Class Lesson #4: Learn On The Job:
One of the main objections to slowing down is: “If I slow down, I’ll never hit my deadlines.”
Although I understand that this objection comes from an honest place, you must remember a few things about preparatory sketches:
- They sharpen your creative vision and accelerate the final painting.
- They allow you to focus on the whole painting instead of struggling with anatomy or facial expressions.
- They’re a long-term investment. They build up your mental library of possible solutions to future problems.
- There are no deadlines for personal work. So why not properly prepare for the paintings which should be your best?
- If you’re legitimately under-the-gun, a little bit of preparation is better than none. You can watch a couple of deadline-driven examples which yield some pretty good results here and here.
The nihilistic masterpiece Medicine has always been one of my favorite Klimt paintings.
I learned yesterday that the painting I’ve been in love with is actually just a preparatory oil sketch – Klimt’s version of a color comp. (I also learned that floating babies totally creep me out.)
The final painting was destroyed and some of the only remnants are an old photograph (seen in my side-by-side comparison above) and a detail of the main character, Hygieia.
Medicine was commissioned by the University Of Vienna at the turn of the century, the time of the second industrial revolution. Back then, man was feeling pretty invincible and modern medicine was a trending topic.
Klimt portrayed Hygieia, goddess of health as detached and unaffected by the “river of suffering souls” behind her as they flow upward to an unknown fate over which they have no control.
Unsurprisingly, the idealists in charge of the Vienna University hated it, rejected the painting and fired Klimt. Medicine was the last public commission Klimt ever accepted.
Klimt put a TON of work into this masterpiece.
There were several intermediate versions which were way more complicated.
I saw one or two well-resolved drawings of the scene with two separate streams of suffering souls.
(Those were the versions with all the floating babies.)
Although he continued to make revisions to the final painting in subsequent years (Yep. Klimt got all George Lucas up in this one…) he committed to a much simpler composition for the final painting – more like the oil sketch.
Klimt thoroughly explored his vision as he pushed the boundaries of visual communication.
He focused his own career through this job, generated a bunch of new ideas that wouldn’t fit in this one image and he became a better draftsman in the process.
Medicine was a stylistic and thematic breakthrough for Klimt and many of the ideas he explored while preparing for ‘Medicine’ he continued to explore in future works.
For example, he explored the idea of pregnancy and birth in the Hope series (one of those can be seen in the Lesson #2 section above) and other works. As far as we know, he hadn’t approached the subject of pregnancy until Medicine.
[If you’re interested, The Getty published a fantastic book with many of the drawings from the Klimt Drawings exhibit. If you order through MY LINK, I’ll receive a small commission.]
If You’re Still Not Convinced…
Artists email me every day asking me to share all of my secrets about concept art and illustration.
These are my secrets.
These are the proven disciplines that have worked for centuries.
Crazy freelance deadlines, the near-infinite scope of current video game design and the economic drain on movie & TV productions have relegated sketches and studies as a vocational luxury.
But if you want to grow as an artist you must find a way to transcend the status quo.
This won’t be true for everyone but maybe some of you just need to stop making excuses.
Slow down and focus.
Great paintings happen before the paint.