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30 September 2008

Book Review: Bold Visions

I recently picked up Gary Tonge's "Bold Visions" on a whim while browsing the art section of a local bookstore. I generally tend to avoid the "how to" books on comics and fantasy art, other than a quick glance through the pages. This is mainly because I find that most of them teach very limited material, showing how to draw very specific characters in very specific poses, without really exploring the fundamentals of drawing or character design. Even rarer is it to find a good book on digital painting and illustration.
I hadn't scanned "Bold Visions" very far before I knew that this book was something different from the usual, and it practically demanded that I take it home and give it more attention. For the price ($21.00, less if you order it online), I was well rewarded with a book that is both inspirational and informative, and that I think would make a welcome addition to any aspiring artist's reference library.

Tonge's book stands out for three reasons:

1) the author is very good at explaining his process in as few words as possible, with only moderately technical language. His descriptions of his usage of layers, special effects and the basic tools of Photoshop are clear, and encourage experimentation, whereas some books on the subject scare off the reader with jargon. Beginning artists will find much of value in this book.

2) as obvious as this might seem, the book is full of pictures! Rather than relying on blocks of text and captioned images to communicate his methods, Tonge has used a simple yet brilliant technique of using well-labeled images to show the comparative effects of various tools. For example, when describing layer effects in Photoshop, he uses one large image broken down into smaller square areas, each area showing the result of applying the layer effect. The composite picture shows quite clearly the difference made in each case, and communicates the point much more clearly than could be done with traditional text and captions. This may seem obvious, but a quick glance at many art instruction books will show that it is not a technique in widespread use.

3) Tonge is a very good artist. Many of these books, I find, are done by artists who are mediocre, whose work does not really stand out. Take, for example, the many comic and manga instruction books authored by Chris Hart. While they're fine for raw beginners, or those who just want to draw action figures, the art itself is below the standard of even the better than average comic artists working in the market, and as such does not generally inspire the reader to want to take pen to paper. Tonge's work, as the title states, is indeed bold. It is well executed, polished and powerful. Tonge has a wonderful sense of color, and some of his digital paintings have the depth and detail of a John Berkey or a Syd Mead. Seeing this proficient work explained in such a simple way is great motivation for the reader to take mouse or stylus in hand and try some of the things he writes about. If nothing else, this is just an enjoyable book to look at, and makes a fine portfolio book for fantasy art collectors.

Aside from magazines like "Sketch" or "Draw", I've only added a few reference books to my library in recent years, great ones like Scott McCloud's "Making Comics" and "How to Make Webcomics" by Dave Kellett, Kris Straub, Brad Guigar and Scott Kurtz. "Bold Visions" will hold a welcome place among them, and I hope that more publishers will see the value in producing similar books by quality artists. This is the kind of stuff I really need in my collection.

For anyone who's curious about Tonge's work, you can see it for yourself at his website, VisionAfar. It's definitely worth a visit.

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