Observation is the most important tool in any artist’s kit. Without it, none of the works that you create will ring true. Art is all about finding the truth, and presenting it in many different fashions. “Truth” as a term used in this article, refers to the truthfulness of the material you are creating. In essence, it means that you are capturing what makes your subject real to you. Not necessarily photo-real, but rather the impact that your subject has on your artistic spirit.
Artists who draw have an advantage, typically in the form of a sketchbook (or i-tablet). You might find yourself noticing people doodling in their books at various locations like the coffee shop, park, airport, mall and so on. These artists are capturing moments in the lives of the characters they are doodling; whether they decide to apply what they have captured later is up to them. It’s a great exercise, and quite fun. Rather than technique, the exercise of sketchbook doodling in live environments forces the artist to capture the “moment;” it might be in pose, attitude, shape, or other trigger that has attracted the eye of the artist in the first place.
And therein lies why observation is so important to what we do. Without observing your world, your daily life, you are effectively missing it all. You are missing that cab driver with the tired eyes and the slack jowels as he is on is hundredth run of the day. You’re missing that cute barrista behind the counter who has a smile that could light up New York City all by itself. Your missing the kindness and the horror of humanity. Extreme, yes, but true nonetheless.
There are so many aspects of everything around us, which can make observation overwhelming—that is why it is so important not to reply on your memory. At some point, you will forget a moment that meant enough for you to take the time to record it, whether via sketching or photography, or even by voice recording as you describe what you are seeing. You need something for your memory to key from.
As noted in the previous paragraph, those who are not the best at drawing have other options (though you must practice your drawing, and learn those skills to the best of your ability!) You can record photos on your cell phone cameras, or use a point and shoot. Using heavier gear is fine, though you tend to attract attention with more expensive gear, sometimes unwanted. Today’s cellphone cameras are more than good enough to capture reference materials for your mind, not to mention actual textures and image maps for rendering. Describing what you see in words to a voice recorder is another great way to capture what you are seeing. Verbalizing forces you to use a different part of your brain, which can help keep you younger longer, in addition to giving you a different perspective.
Another benefit of observation is that it gets you out from behind your computer. Go outside! Feel the light of the sun on your face. Notice who is out and about, and what they are doing. As you go through your day, see how the office runner is breaking a sweat to get that package to the third floor. Or the lady in the line at the grocery as she pulls out a huge wad of coupons, and you get to find out the hard way that half of them are expired. How does that make you feel? Agitated? Anxious? Capture the feeling and use it later when you need to. To paraphrase Bruce Lee, you need to put “more emotional content” into your work. That can be difficult when many of the tools that we artists use in DCC are created by engineers, with engineering sensibilities, and technical and scientific terms describing all the attributes that artists must deal with. Its easy to lose the humanity of the experience under these conditions, and when you do, your work will feel cold. Don’t let that happen.
Observation itself is a skill that needs refinement, and that can only happen with practice. Start at the top, and work your way down. Capture the generalities, and worry about the details later. That’s not to say that the “master shot” is more important than your close up per se. In fact, depending upon your immediate situation, the opposite may, in fact, be true. However, if you are always focused on wrinkled skin, or the veins on a leaf, or the coffee stain on the napkin, you will miss the context of these things you are observing, and context is vitally important. Quoting Bruce Lee again, “don’t look at the finger, or you will miss all of that heavenly glory,” when retelling the ancient Chinese story of the old man pointing toward the moon in “Enter the Dragon.”
As much as importance is placed about how subjects look, its just as important to observe how subjects move and interact with their environment. Animation is motion, and if you intend to mimic a person or animal, or create a fantasy creature, you need to capture the truth of their movements as much as their silhouettes. And, like visual observation of the physical characteristics of your subjects, you should also consider the “master shot to closeup” method of observing motions and actions as well. All of the research that has been done in computer graphics has been to get to the point of being able to reproduce what we see every day. All of those quintillions of photons assaulting our retinas with color, brightness and darkness that allow us to experience our world is impossible to simulate in a reasonable amount of time, and that’s assuming that the algorithms that are in use have got it right in the first place (they don’t, but they are much better than they used to be.) The same holds true for motion. Much work has been done on skin and muscle, on inverse kinematics for easy to animate motion, on simulations to capture natural phenomena, but in spite of all that, nothing can be created without you, and the power of your observation, and your skills at reproducing what you see, maintaining the emotional content that your observations contain.
So, practice observation. Use different methods to record what you see. Keep that handy, as you will find uses for your observations. Most of all, enjoy the process!