My art­work lacks any spark – what ad­vice can you give me?

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Girty Felt, Eng­land

Robh replies

The key is graphic de­sign. Paint­ing still comes down to making a com­pelling im­age, which ex­ists on a flat sur­face of some kind. It needs to hold up as a de­sign. The shape, in­clud­ing the fig­ure–ground re­la­tion­ship, is the first thing to tackle. Is it an in­ter­est­ing de­sign? Have you used the neg­a­tive and pos­i­tive spa­ces to their ut­most? This ap­plies to all styles of art – look at Jamie Hewlett, for ex­am­ple. He’s a mas­ter­ful de­signer of shape and neg­a­tive shape. Who’s go­ing to ar­gue with his iconic Tank Girl or Go­ril­laz?

Once I have some­thing sketched out, I look at its sil­hou­ette. Some­times I even de­sign a page of sil­hou­ettes first and pick the most in­ter­est­ing one. If it doesn’t work at this stage, it most likely won’t get any bet­ter, no mat­ter how much you add de­tail and ren­der it to death. Par­tic­u­larly when a sub­ject is in­vented (not ref­er­enced), I work bet­ter with a plan. Happy ac­ci­dents are great, but cer­tainly when paint­ing in oil, you can’t rely on them.

To min­imise dis­as­ter I do a quick draw­ing to work out the ma­jor forms. I then paint in the tra­di­tional French Acad­emy way of lay­ing in flat colour and get­ting the form to turn by care­fully mod­u­lat­ing the val­ues. Once the op­ti­cal ef­fect of turn­ing form is right, I can lightly brush the tones to­gether, barely fus­ing the edges. This way the strength of the form re­mains with­out the overly soft, am­bigu­ous form you see so much of. The best pain­ters con­trol the form by controlling the value!

This fan­tasy por­trait of an imag­i­nary

night­mar­ish crea­ture is done in oil, which is how I learned to paint. I carry the same process into my dig­i­tal work.

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