For Critical Studies this week we have been looking into the process of art direction in the games industry (and indeed other visual industries). As art is created it is very important to think about the aspects that make something visually appealing such as colour, composition, mood, lighting, right down to the orientation and shape of the canvas. Although subliminal, these points and more are the keystone to creating good art. When I look at an image I like, I sometimes find it easier than others to work out why I like it. To me, colour is beyond important alongside lighting and general mood (which tends to be influenced by all of the above). They are the first things I consciously look at and make me decide I like an image, but of course composition and the likes will also be important to my opinion and I won’t even be aware of it. I am therefore going to look in detail at the following piece of work and consciously examine what makes me love it as much as I do.
This is Ether Swamp by the artist Tom Scholes. His work is gorgeous. *swoon* He’s worked on a whole array of titles including Guild Wars 2 and one of my favourites; Halo 4. Not going to lie though… I didn’t know that until I actually researched his background. It isn’t his work for Halo that really grabbed me though. It’s stuff similar to Ether Swamp (created for an unannounced abandoned project, whaaaat!) in his portfolio that really grabbed me. I can’t remember where I first saw this painting but when I rediscovered it in my ‘inspiring art’ folder on my computer I literally sat and stared at it for about 20 minutes. No words, man. No words. It’s art like this that gives me shivers. I have to be like this one day! On to the serious bit now…
I’m going to talk about the most important fundamental aspects of an artwork to me, and throw in some of the other stuff I don’t really understand yet and I find boring (Cough composition cough. I don’t like theory much). I’d like to bulletpoint them for ease, and I will try and keep some structure, but many of these aspects blend together or link in a way that bulletpoints will not suffice to get across my point. Also I’m so excited about this painting that I am about to splurge a stream of consciousness. Enjoy.
I’ll start with colour, a major part of art for me. I actually know next to nothing about colour theory, but to an extent I feel I have a natural ability to pick nice colours. I read an article a while back on colour theory and believe this piece may be using a tetrad colour scheme? It’s a really tough colour scheme to pull off. I can definitely pick out these 4 colours as the outstanding elements of the piece. Of course, the Mother of Pearl look that’s been aimed for doesn’t necessarily follow a colour scheme; it’s just a natural occurrence but to me it seems very much like a conscious choice. I think the luminescent look of the painting is staggering, and I really don’t know how it’s been achieved. The ochre-like colours work perfectly to to harmonise and calm down the vibrancy of the mint, blue and pink so that they do not overwhelm the piece. Colour has been cleverly used so that very few tonal values are actually required to create a sense of distance like you would usually expect (darker values closer, lighter further away).
Lighting obviously is extremely important for this painting, because how you shine a light on a piece of Mother of Pearl for example vastly changes how it looks due to it’s pearlescent properties. I’m not 100% sure where the main light source is. There is quite a strong light at the focal centre, but it doesn’t feel like it’s necessarily casting light on the whole scene. There is almost an aurora-like sense to the lighting that doesn’t really cast light on the landscape, but serves to make everything feel much brighter. Other than that, due to the lack of tonal values, the light feels very diffuse and random which gives a lovely dream-like feel. This is emphasised by the orange specs of lens flare mainly to the top right. It’s so subtle it works fantastically. I think we’re all used to the vibrant blue lens flare we see in like… every sci-fi game and movie in existence and it’s killed the effect a lot. Tom Scholes has made it awesome again. The diffuse lighting is bouncing off vibrant pearlescent surfaces surrounding the viewer, catching the light in many colours and temporarily spotting your vision. I feel like I could be there.
Tom Scholes’ painting style in this particular piece has taken a very abstract turn when compared to other works for the same game. I mean, really. What are we looking at here? The piece is called ‘Ether Swamp’, so it’s a swamp… right? It could be anything; a lake, an iced over lake, a hot water spring, the edge of a city, a forest… What kind of swamp is it? I can see the potential for it to be a humid mist-shrouded abyss mostly, but there’s nothing visually particularly suggesting the nature of the environment we’re seeing other than colour. And that’s the thing… we all have our own perception of what different colours mean and how they make us feel. The scope of this environment is perfect to the point that there aren’t too many or too few possibilities. It satisfies everyone’s imagination without over-straining it. I adore the blended, wishy washy feel because it doesn’t go too far; I’ve seen way too many artworks that take the blend and smudge tool to the next level and beyond, and everything becomes too smooth. There are still tight lines and forms to lead the eye and give everything some solidity and kind of guide your imagination a little. I really wish I could know how he achieved it.
Carrying on with the topic of form and shapes, I’m not quite sure how to classify the forms here. There’s a very organic feel without there being much in the way of painful textures to look at, as it’s all been achieved using shapes and the way lines have been blended and sharpened accordingly. Especially towards the focal light, shapes start taking on an ink-in-water type feel. The overall line direction of the piece is difficult to determine but I can see a lot of definitive horizontal lines to the centre which give a sense of how still the water is, and then very subtly in the way the colours have been blended there are actually a lot of lines pointing inwards to the centre focal point. I’ve done a really quick paintover of what is going through my head compositionally when I look at the painting;
Yeah there’s a lot going on that I haven’t really explained very well. I’ll try explain the less clear parts. I feel like there is quite a strong circle of lighter colours surrounding the focal point, which is important for drawing the eye to the centre of the piece. In addition to this the top two corners are much darker than the rest of the image, giving a sense of height and again drawing the eye inward. Colour has been cleverly used to add to the composition, creating a cross shape across the entirety of the piece, centring on the middle. I have overpainted these coloured bands I can see in yellow, blue and pink. The area it focusses your eye on is in green with the main focal in white. Personally I can see a band of mint green from top left to bottom right (yellow) and a band of pink/blue from bottom left to top right (blue). There is also a dark horizontal band cutting the piece in half (pink). All these elements subtly focus your eyes to the area highlighted in green. I’ve never thought of myself as someone who likes compositional techniques but I actually find this fascinating…
So yes. Apologies for the long post, but I’ve really enjoyed talking about this painting. Fine art side emerging slowly… at this rate I’ll be off on one about symbolism and all that crap. Anything unclear then please feel free to comment.