Sketch for “Stormworks”
A Pulse class freight hauler unloads and undergoes routine maintenance, before inclement weather rolls in.

The last few weeks and months have been pretty crazy for me, so I’ve had to try and find creative outlets whenever, wherever, I can in between fits of depression, high anxiety and general aloofness. So what does that mean? Well, it means that I end up having “half an idea” and the need to do something with it.

So, what can you do with half an idea?

Before that, what the hell is “half an idea?”  To me, its defined as that idea that gets you really excited, but when you sit down to capitalize on it, you realize it was an only empty shell and work on it is stalled almost as soon as you put pen to paper.  In my imagination, ideas come thick and fast, but most of them are tenuous and useless. “Half an idea” is basically the minimum that can get you anywhere, but there’s a lot of work to do with it. Given time and effort, that idea can be transformed into something worth sharing, so long as you can get over the hump of impatience that awaits you.

I’ve been sitting for weeks on the need to do some colour sketches/paintings of spacecraft, notably the one from my WIP novel, “Pan Spectrum Analyzer“, but often find myself lacking for enthusiasm and energy when I try to get things moving. A lot of this is pure mood, but the rest is simply trying to run with an idea that’s half-empty. I’ll be thinking about it on the drive home from “work”, trying to visualize the image, but the details end up being frozen gas – when they are warmed up on the drawing board, they escape into thin air. The image is clear in my mind, but its really just an overall impression, so when trying to commit it to the canvas, there’s nothing to draw. I draw a few strokes, some blotches of colour, trying to capture what I can, but with each failed step, frustration and even desperation digs in further, becoming almost immovable. After awhile, one of two things will happen. I’m either discouraged from the project completely, resulting in a half-assed, unshowable mess, or I get a bit of a surprise – a drawing that looks okay, or at least promising in some way – and this leads to the idea that the project might end up being finished, but ultimately flawed.

My own brain is held responsible. Over the years, my patience and attention for certain things has diminished. As a kid, I delighted in detailing drawings. I drew imaginary vehicles in cut-a-way form, mimicking the engineering diagrams in my dad’s aviation journals, spending many hours on them. Later, I did airbrush work, requiring more time spent planning out sequences of painting, cutting of frisket masks and only a few minutes at a time of actual painting. It was laborious work. After that, I did 3D Modelling and Rendering using computers, from the very first commercially available renderers (Vu-3D, anyone?) on the Commodore Amiga while at the University of Waterloo, to 3DS Studio Max working for a video game developer. Technical details were everywhere, standing between the idea and a fully realized image. When the forum CG Talk/Society exploded with digital paintings and computer rendered wonders, my brain literally imploded. I could barely look at a smoothly graded, exquisitely formed digital rendering. It made me sick to the point where I made a conscious decision to move away from it all. I was tired of the process, the planning, the tedium of creating artwork through highly developed stages. I sought shortcuts, rather than accepting the cost of craftsmanship.

As a result, my artwork became increasingly frenetic and sketchy. My already “hairy” drawings became almost psychotic, with pencil motions stabbed in uncontrolled guesses at each line. Paintings followed the same route, trapped somewhere between scrappy impressionism and weird refinement in areas where there shouldn’t be any.

Why am I telling you this?  Well, this is where my mind is at, lying at the bottom of a creative gravity well, struggling to work its way out, with a combination of relearning, experimentation, technique development, patience and hope for the objective win – something I can share.

In this case, I had a desire to draw a spaceship, or rather some business around it. I had a thumbnail sketch showing rough composition, and my minds-eye picture. Thinking I had enough to start, off I went.

Landed-WIP Steps

Evolving sketches for a painting, done in low-resolution in Photoshop. No real preparation sketches dragged the process down.

Step 1 (left), this is after 2 hours and doesn’t show the numerous types of skies – grey/overcast, sunset (always a fave, er, easy fallback, lol), greenish tinged, pastoral, mountains… bleh. My sketching resulted in some spastic buildings, which I kept and refined to something a bit more usable. I hit a “feel” for the painting, a sort of twilight sky, and liked the colour scheme that was evolving. It was something. Jello nailed to the wall.

Step 2 (middle) shows the project after its new “lease of life.”  The composition of Step 1 was pleasing to me, but it didn’t show enough of the ship. So I expanded the composition. The ship grew longer, wider. At one point, it was longer and wider and actually looked no different from Step 1. The desire to draw an engine exhaust (a strange fetish of mine) grew to the point where it could no longer be ignored, which added the issue of what the “corner” of the ship looked like: the smooth curves of the hull sides didn’t help.  This composition shows the extents of the city laid out, but it was flat and uninteresting – it needed a foreground and mid-ground. That dark stripe to the left was blocked in as a building, and left. If you look closely the catwalk leading to the docking pad on the right extends to nothing, looking for a place to be. Frustrated, I left it for another day.

Step 3 (right) shows the project in its current state, trapped between lighting conditions and an unraveling composition, perhaps headed for complete abandonment. There’s no focus in its layout, just a bunch of elements that the eye seeks purchase on and meanders.  The building at left wasn’t working out, so was replaced by another bulbous, almost featureless, ship landed on the same platform. It was feeling more late twilight and more moonlit when the platform was extended, hence the weird value colour scheme at left. Not a big deal, keep going. The ship started out grey, became Thunderbird-2 Green, then was reverted to grey. The Green bit led to another idea: after the colour was blocked in, I thought that some reflections of the cityscape beyond the picture frame at right would add interest. Sketching them in, I realized it didn’t, but the idea that “maybe its sunset falling across the city”, which led to a recolouring of the background forms with bright light colours, but that idea fell flat because it meant planning out where the shadow line might be, what buildings were nearby and how they might affect everything else. A last ditch attempt to fill the foreground with visual interest resulted in a haphazard placement, poor perspective and even more bleh. At that point, the frustration made developing the idea further seem fruitless.

Half an idea was used and pushed to breaking point – not of the idea, but of my patience. If I had spent a lot of time refining the idea through my usual work-up sketches, small colour studies and drawing plans of what I was actually drawing/painting, rather than evolving it on the fly as I painted, things may have ended up differently.

Its not all bad news though. It may seem like a waste of time, but the urge to paint something – to create a new image – was sated.  Its still “half an idea”, but half an idea is better than none. One day, when my mind settles down and time presents itself without being stomped on by numerous other distractions, I can come back to it and make it a full idea and a finished painting.


The Latent Pulse approaches its destination at Esona, Bustani sector.

Images: All works, by Ken McCulloch.

Top image: “Storm works”, rough sketch with digital pastels in Corel Painter Lite.

Middle image: “Landed”, evolving painting in Adobe Photoshop CS4.

Bottom image: “Approach”, rough sketch with digital pastels in Corel Painter Lite.