Filtering Ideas, Focused Concept

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One of the problems I really struggle with in both my art and my writing is staying focused on my concept and filtering out ideas that may be good, but which don’t really fit.  I have lots of ideas when working, especially when my creativity is really flowing, more than I could ever use in a single project.  While many of those ideas may be good ones, too much of a good thing can ruin a great project or it could cause me to go past deadlines by trying to do too much, often both.

One example was a short story I wrote for a sci-fi contest.  It was set in the Fading Suns universe which I know very well and enjoy.  This should have been an easy project for me.  But my initial idea for a short story soon began to expand into what probably should have been a novella.  The contest rules stipulated a story had to be at least 10k words in length but no more than 25k.  What initially was about a 15k to 20k story length soon exploded into 30k, then 35k, then 40k words in length.  With the deadline for the story looming I found myself hacking apart my story trying to get it back down to the 25k word cap.  In doing so I cut out a lot of detail, shortened scenes and ultimately nearly ruined the story.  This was a contest I should have won, easily; instead I placed 13th.  While not bad out of a field of about 2,000 entries, I could have and should have done better.  In retrospect I know exactly why I ended up placing 13th, I’d let my story get out of control.  I’d lost my initial focus and concept because I didn’t do a good job of editing out all the extra ideas.

More recently I’ve had the same problem in 3D modeling projects.  Two different projects have ended up on hold because of the same “concept creep”.  What started as a fairly simple idea grew and grew as ideas got added.  While many of those ideas were good ones  the problem was I didn’t know when to quit; I just kept adding more and more.  The real problem was that lack of a crystal clear concept that defined what I was doing, what needed to be including and just as importantly when I was finished.

This brings me back to the comic and manga styles of art I’ve mentioned in previous posts.  One of the main reasons I took an interest in these styles is because they’re fast.  For example, cell shading is a very quick method of creating a color shaded concept image.  Its not that I’m particularly interested in becoming a comic or manga artist (though it never hurts to keep your options open), but rather I wanted to develop my speed at producing concept art quickly and efficiently.

Being able to draw and color multiple concept images of a character or a scene or a prop allows me to quickly play with ideas without spending either a lot of time or effort on it.  I can start with silhouettes or simple line drawings and quickly put together a panel of different ideas.  Should that creature have 2 arms or 4?  Would that building look better with arched windows or not?  What if I added some decorative details?  All the various ideas that come to mind as my creativity gets going can be tried out quickly in my concept images, juggled around until I have a complete image.

That’s the important point, being able to see and know when the image, the concept, is complete.   Concept art gives me a very visual way of doing that.  It also gives me a visual reference that tells me when concept and project is finished.

From the silhouettes and basic line art I pick one that I like and develop it further, maybe doing a couple of different perspective drawings (front, side, back, etc.).  Again, just to help me work out all the ideas and details so I know exactly where I’m going.   Drawing an extra detail in a concept image is quick and easy, and if I don’t like it its also easily erased.  Not so easy to do if you wait til you’re working on the 3D mesh and try that.

Once I have a firm concept defined and my concept art finished, then I start on my 3D models.  I’m finding that having done so I work faster and more efficiently, I’ve got more confidence going into the model.  Whether I’m working with splines to build a mesh or starting with a 3D sculpt, I know where I’m going and I get there quicker.

But I also know when to stop, I’m not constantly adding details as I work.  I might refine a detail I’d planned in my concept images but by this point I’m no longer adding anything new.  My brain has mentally shifted gears and my focus is on giving shape to that specific concept rather than still creating a concept.  That’s been key for me.

So there you are, hopefully that may give some insight to other artists out there struggling with the same issue.  For me its been another step in the process of going from an amateur artist to a truly professional one.

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