Ron Lemen

By: Travis Bourbeau

Hi Ron, can you give everyone a little bit of background of how you got started in the industry?

RL: Hello, my name is Ron Lemen; I came from a town called Fair Oaks in NorCal. My break into any industry was at 12 or 13 when I painted the Towe Ford Museum Signs in old style lettering, hand done, 8 foot signs hung on the walls of the building. Next, when I was 14 I ran a silk screen shop off Folsom Blvd in Fair Oaks. Running a shop as a kid was a trip, but I knew more about art than the owner and he assigned me that task immediately. It was fun for being a kid and doing all this work, but when I look back, he used me pretty hard. But I learned a great deal and that helped me move on next. When I as 18, legal to move, I did quickly to Southern California to my sponsors home and shop, where I screened the decks of the skateboards I rode for. That was a great time. I worked for 3 different magazines and freelanced for over 30 different companies for over 10 years. They paid my way around the country when we went off to ride.
When I was 28, I was asked to come to work for a game studio to do concept work. I was a friend of a friend who needed some help with concepting a game. At the time, I knew nothing about concepting except for what I had seen in my Art of Star Wars, Blade Runner and Indiana Jones books. I copied that stuff a lot not knowing that it was an actual craft to be practiced and there I was practicing for my future as a concept designer. I worked with Presto Studios until about a year before they closed, and I went over to Angel Studios, now Rockstar. I then went over to Gratuitous Games where I was their Creative Director. From there Sony, then I freelanced for EA, Activision, Microsoft, and a small studio I forget now what it was called: then TV, a movie, then comics, back to storyboarding, illustration, storyboarding again, and now illustration and full time teaching. And during the time I was ending my career as an action sports artist, I was going to an art school to hone up on what I knew nothing about formally, and was sucked into the teaching world. I was teaching and studying parallel to my art career and that has been the way it has been ever since. Except now I share that career with my wonderful soul mate, wife and amazing talent in her own right, Vanessa.

GW: With a focus on fundamentals, what are the best tools an artist can learn to grow?

RL: The best fundamentals an artist can learn are checker boards, chrome reflections and lens flares hands down. And know how to draw Dragonball Z from all angles. Seriously though, the basic skills as an artist, the 7 design elements, the value scale, shape- analysis, design and breakdown, form, edge understanding, color/color theory, perspective or understanding space and how to manipulate the camera we view it from, and if you are into the real stuff, that is realism, then a good understanding of figure drawing is a must, where you learn to see for real and all. Heh! I know that list is a tall order, and in no particular order, but to be a good artist, you basically need to know your craft through and through. I am not a big advocate of someone half learning and jumping in, albeit I started with only an understanding of design, and not much more than the talent I had which was already exceptional for my age, but not exceptional in any grand scheme of any much of anything. I was good but good at what I knew, which was not much, and the rest was hard work until I learned and learned well.
Ron Lemen
First, the 7 elements of design are the basic tools needed to make a graphic image from an ad to an illustration. These 7 elements are also accompanied by the seven principles of design. I do not remember which is more important since all of it is important to remember. But no less these design principles and elements are everything an artist needs to understand to help that intuitive eye see the strongest image that artist can possibly make.
Values are light and dark, or light to dark, a value scale consists of 10 -12 values, and is the basis for how we see things either as a design with separate cut out shapes or as a form with light and dark contributing to its completeness in space.
Shape analysis, design and breakdown helps to interpret everything around us, objects, and the spaces surrounding those objects. If we frame an image, then the atmosphere is a negative shape, or another part of the whole that is divided up within the frame. Some objects make very obvious shapes while others are more difficult to name or interpret. Nonetheless, we are identifying all parts of the whole within the confined framed space and learning how to manage and interpret them.
Form is the basic shapes from above more fully realized dimensionally because of light and the shade produced from the light. The stronger the light source, the more powerful the effect of shape that can be seen as a form, or the more dramatic the shadows become, contrasting the surfaces of the shapes more dynamically.
Edges are the boundaries between shapes, or the boundaries between light and dark, more commonly known as the light terminator or in some schools of abused terms, the CORE Shadow. I say this because the difference between light and dark is not a core; it is a stopping point, or a terminator. A core shadow is something that can be seen when there is a lot of reflective or bounce light on the shadow side of an object, causing the edge boundary between the light and dark to appear as a line, or a strip darker than anything else in the shadows save the accent points, or deepest pockets of darkness within darkness.
Color theory is the understanding of value/color/temperature, a term I have created that utilizes all three words like a string theory or formula in a math science. Remember kiddos, art is science at the foundation level. Art is coined from the “human spirit” initiated into the technical craft. Color theory is the science of light, and how it affects both the local objects and their local color and the atmosphere or surroundings of that object/objects and/or how they all relate to each other within the frame compositionally and spatially. There are 3 thoughts on color theory, the composition of color, the spatial delineation of objects through their use of color in design and in local surface, and the local delineation of surface color vs. the color of the light source illuminating the surfaces we see.
Perspective would be related not only to the Italian linear perspective and its formulae but also to spatial coloration and its atmospheric illusions based upon ozone and other geographical distortions. Another attribute that is important to understand, especially for theater, film and video games would be lighting theory and how the use of colored lights effect the emotional response from an audience, and a visual mixing in our eyes that can either be pleasing and thoughtful or muddled and obnoxious or overwhelming optically.
Figure drawing/painting are the coup de grace of art education because they combine all the fundamental aspects of the visual arts, more so with painting than with drawing although with two tones of pencil a drawing can quickly exude the properties of a fully lit, fully colored realization minus subtlety of the color although they might be found in pure value only.

GW: What are the fundamental skills an artist needs to keep focusing on to keep growing?

RL: All the skills can be improved upon from when learned to the end of our career. Art is not something that is learned and then forever perfect in our way of practice. Unless we do constantly practice, I can honestly say from experience and from observation that all the skills go to crap pretty quickly. That is, we forget things fast. These are muscles we are developing and just like working out, they atrophy if not exercised enough.

Ron Lemen

GW: You work in both fine art/atelier realm and entertainment as an artist, teacher and consultant… Can you explain what you are most often brought in to do for studios in these capacities?

RL: When I am brought in to a studio to help them out, either in a workshop environment or in a training capacity, I am often asked to help understand the basic components missing in each individual, and how to address them while on the job. Also, there is this need to understand how traditional and digital merge together or how traditional aspects of thinking and doing apply digitally. As many digital artists as there are out there, I am still surprised at the number of them who don’t understand the digital world, if they were educated traditionally. Further, I don’t know how they can keep their jobs with such a large disconnect from the two disciplines.
Many artists have holes in their training and I come in to help identify them and how to correct them, if as a temporary patch until a class or lesson plan is covered that can help heal the art-wound. Many artists I find have little to no understanding of color, no creative control over linear perspective, poor figure drawing skills and a lack of design in both a creative sense, and a fundamental level.

GW: What are some of the recurring mistakes or where do you find the biggest lack of fundamental skill in concept work?

RL: I should read all these questions first before I start answering them one by one, heheh, well, as stated above, I find that a good portion of the fundamentals are poorly understood, and a majority of technical tool sets, identifying the tools, and or the problems to solve, that there are problems in the art and that they do have solutions, and of course, the biggest problems in an artful finish, lack of perspective understanding, lack of color theory, lack of inventive design, and then a breakdown from there on specifics such as figure drawing and manipulation, design on a functional level, then again on an imaginative level.
But more than these technical problems which can be blamed from a lack of quality education would be the lack of understanding between a good illustration and a great design. Design is not illustrating. It is drawing, but drawing is so many different things just as much as saying a I am a doctor is more general than saying I am a Pediatric Orthopedic Surgeon, the equivalent in the art world would then be called a Technical Conceptual Designer, or a fine art portrait painter. Too many illustrators that get hired to do concept design, I once was one of them, think too much about the finished image. They should be thinking about the finished product, and not the canvas, but the idea portrayed on the canvas. Just as too many concept artists assume because they make images that they can illustrate. Technically they are illustrating, but more in terms of technique, they are making things more generalized than specific. Today’s illustration in a realism sense is so polished that a conceptual painting sort of way there is too much ambiguity for the image to truly serve as an illustration that serves as a product image or a story driven image such as a book or an interior story piece.
I also see too many artists copying the look and feel of another more popular artist of the time. The problem here is that each artist is drawing just like each of us talks, or writes; it is our own personal voice you are attracted to, not a way of doing art. Understanding this concept will keep the artist on their own path and hopefully use the artists they admire as signs that they are on the right path, not styles to copy with dollar signs clouding their eyes.

GW: How does life drawing and traditional sculpting help an artist working in Photoshop specifically what are the key points they should be focusing on?

Ron Lemen

RL: When we learn to draw and sculpt from life, we learn to see. The eyes get a fixing on how to find form, which is the root of all realism. Without that life training, we rely upon other artists’ interpretations and clichés, not the real deal. What do I mean? We have two eyes. Between those two eyes they make up more than 180 degrees of seeing, that is, a ball with a single lens views exactly half the ball. But our eyes, 3 inches from pupil to pupil can see more of both sides. Not to mention with value and color that two eyes pick up more sensitive tones than 1, and two eyes together create the optical rightness of perspective where linear does only a fixed point. Bottom line, the eyes see things reality throws at us that any reproduction whether digital pics or otherwise cannot show us.
When I paint in Photoshop, I am aware of whether I am making something to look fake or something to look real based on my training, and I know when it does or doesn’t, and have a choice whether to address it or not. Many times, the deadline for me tells me whether I can address it or not whether I see it now or later. Deadlines are the bottom line in your work. Something I can still use some practice in meeting.

GW: Can you explain the difference between production art and fine art?

RL: Production art is assembly line art. That is, you are making something functional for everyone in a process to use, and understand. Fine art is not like that. A painting is a singular moment, painted once in a spirit that is usually reflected in the brushwork something that cannot be done again and again and again, ala production style.
Production art has a sterile, technical necessity to it. It is a map or a blueprint for the next guy down the line who has no idea what goes on in your head to understand and make use of. It is the sum and the measure of an object to be built or manufactured, it is not an inspiring moment, but it should inspire, in its creation, the rest of the team to want to build, or create to its fullest potential, which includes embellishment from all participants involved in its creation.

GW: Were you quick to pick up digital media like Photoshop? What do you think are some of the advantages and disadvantages to digital?

Ron Lemen

RL: I started with the ground floor of Photoshop, quark, illustrator, and painter. I was later shown how to use 3D but it was soooo expensive when it first started that I steered clear of that financial burden. Thanks to the wide use of the program and teacher/student discounts I can actually own a legit copy of a high end 3D package. It was a privilege to those who could afford way back.
Since I started with the programs starting, there was no learning curve, and still to this day, the only learning curve is the technical knowhow like a new filter or a new brush with some funky feature. My problem digitally is that when I teach it, I teach it to be practical and efficient, but when I do it, I get all painter guy like and need to make it a labor instead of treating it like the tool that it is and make it work faster for me. I still have something in me that needs to prove “I PAINTED THIS” and I need to just get over it.

GW: How has your fine art influenced your Concept art and vice versa?

RL: The two disciplines feed off each other greatly. When I do fine art, I am perfecting a craft about rendering, and about seeing light and form properly. When I conceptualize, I get a truer sense of form, and realism from it. Without the realistic stuff I do, I would not be able to access the fantastical stuff I do otherwise. I would become a specialist like so many self taught artists default by nature to become because of the limited scope of training they have.
What I found with Concept Art, I have to experiment to find new designs, and doing so requires sort of experimenting with the materials we use to make markings. So I have a moment in my work where I have to screw up what I do, and in so doing, I find a new way or many new ways the materials can be handled. That experience, very few fine artists allow themselves to try, as they must always do things very rigidly. I have taken advantage of that exploratory process to grow as a mark maker in my art.

GW:  How do you feel your traditional background gives you an advantage in today’s pipelines?

RL: As a creative director, or as an art director, I have to oversee the big picture. Having trained in almost every aspect of seeing from an artist’s point of view, I have an advantage of the big picture if I take the time to focus upon it, which is what the job title of director states you must do and be. So, if something is off perspective, or if something is out of tune with color and or atmosphere, if a character is not correct, if a ship has too much going on with its design structurally, I can sense it quickly and come up with several alternative solutions at that moment. I don’t think many artists can grasp the big picture when they are self taught or near that which, in most schools today can teach you very little to none of what is important in your line of work.

GW: What does it mean when someone says an artist has a good eye?

RL: When an artist says someone has a good eye, they are referring to the artist fixing all of his mistakes, or, that his piece shows very little flaw in what the artist does on any foundation level, and that they have great taste in what they choose to put in, leave out, or design. The artist we are referring to is a specialist who has had quality training and has had an upbringing that allowed them access to quality works of art, or at least taught them what good taste is in design and choices from thinking things through.

GW: Draw or observe? Discuss how you correctly use reference for design without directly copying what you see?

RL: Reference is something tricky to talk about. It is important and not important all at the same time. Ideation requires you come up with new versions of something that maybe exists already, like a gun, a ship or a person. But at the same time, it requires an understanding of that thing you are making for the ideation process to be effective and meaningful. So, to start off with, read the design doc, the manifesto, and the goals of the project. Then in a vacuum, if it is a historical piece one is working on then go study. And this is a true study period where you become familiar with your subject the way you learn in a classroom environment. The who, what, when, where, how and why of what you are doing to a layman’s level of understanding. If you have a passion for the subject then you just need to refresh or dig a little deeper into the exotic niches of what you are designing so you have a deeper understanding of the subject.
Then, out of your newly found wealth of understanding, start to design. The info you have acquired will help you design things you never thought possible, because you have intention, and history to help you. Without a place to go, and without a past to refer to, the designer is basing the designs solely on aesthetic or fanatical choices.
True originality in ideation stems mostly from a total understanding of what goes on with something to seek out improvements or embellishments, and coupled with visionary thinking, which is an entirely different talk, or topic to discuss.

Ron Lemen

GW: What are some of the key ways a concept artist can simplify the modeling process for the 3d department?

RL: If an artist is good at conceptual design, then they gave what is pertinent to the modeling department. What would that be? A great solid 3 view, maybe even a 4 view, that is, a front, side back and ¾ view for effective vision of the welding of the front and side views.
The artist will have provided a solid attitude view, or pose drawing with the characters personality larger than life in the image.
The artist will have provided a chart of expressions for the modeler to understand facial deformation, spatial displacement, etc.
The artist will have provided any additional detail sketches that outline visually the deformation or transformation of an object or objects such as the Transformers, and all the parts that are changing while morphing from an automobile to a robotic human like form.
The artist will have provided either visual or written descriptions of color keys, and or texture sets that would best suit the design.
And all in all, the artist leaves about 10 – 20 % of interpretation to the other artists in the pipeline. A great artist also understands that a great team is what gets the job done. Not a great grand godly artist with a team of henchmen. The gaming and movie markets just don’t work that way, at least not on the production end of things.

GW: How do you handle detail and originality in design?

RL: For my design work, I handle detail loosely enough, but not loose enough. That is, I want there to be some room for improvement since I am not a mechanical engineer, but at the same time I want there to be some solid grounds for the next guy to understand where to begin. So if I am going to use an axle instead of a fixed rod, I need to understand the difference enough to draw it out that way so the next guy to add to the design knows exactly what I meant before making it absolute. Sometimes I am both of those guys, since the modeler might not know anything about what they are modeling, in which case I can lie and tell the truth at once. I can fake the design and put enough in that we can get away with more than not. But, when in doubt, I call upon one of many of my expert friends to help me out of the hole I am in. Details are a nuisance, at least to me. And that contradicts me as a person since I am a detail oriented person. When it comes to drawing them out though, I prefer to be looser and more suggestive than absolute and polished. Go figure…

GW: What does it take to get into your school in San Diego?

RL: To study with Vanessa, myself, Mark Hill or Reed Cardwell, you must have a good attitude, and a desire to learn. We are very particular about the students we get. We do not want “prima donnas”, we do not want attitudes, and we do not want negativity. Beyond that, anything goes. I enjoy and art community, as does my wife, so we are not going to be absolutely particular about your skill sets. But, if you don’t mesh well with attitude, you are somewhere above and beyond, or so weak and feeble you need someone to wipe your nose for you, well, we can’t go there. Not to say those types of personalities are negative, we just can’t do that sort of thing. We both come from the camp of work hard and earn your chops. We believe in that, and we believe in passion in your craft or field: that more than anything else will win our hearts over.

Ron Lemen

GW: What is the instructional focus at your school? What do the students learn?

RL: When you study with us, the first thing you will notice is that we repeat the same concepts over and over. Repetition in a craft is so important to understand. More so, foundation is what we preach more than technical tricks or techniques or styles. That word is the hardest for me to say because I don’t believe in it being the leash that leads you in life. Every project is its own creation, and bending the look and feel to that creation is ever so important. By sticking to what you the artist do best is not always going to help a product shine on its own.
Foundation is basic principles in drawing and painting, along with sculpting. But we are not sculptors first, there are better suited to teach you that. We do have an outstanding sculptor helping me teach my anatomy classes and you get that quality 3D training between my drawing and his dimensional art. I believe it is important to do both if you really want to conceive dimensional illusions (art).

GW: Your wife is an artist as well… Does that help the creative process or create competition?

RL: She is my adversary through and through. We wave knives at each other daily. We plant landmines under the other’s chair when we can. Really though, we understand each other very well and we are the best critical mass either one of us could have for helping weigh decisions whether they be personal or artistic. When you have found a true partner, soul mate, however you want to put it, you have no fear in both help and happiness from them. I rely upon Vanessa to help me with my artful decisions. She has the other half of me in mind because we are very much in sync with each other and how we both think and feel about our art we are creating. She is brilliant, and I want to know that when I ask for advice I go to the best source possible, a brilliant mind or an expert. She is both at many things and I am getting better and better at understanding that about her. In the past I think I was a little too stubborn or “male” when it came to those same decisions of letting someone else help out when I knew no better. I hope she feels the same way, I feel she does but cannot put those words into her mouth. And I am not going to wake her now to ask.

GW: What is the 5 year plan? Will you be more involved with studios or primarily focus on the schools?

RL: For the next 5 years I would like to be more involved in work, but, right now, with many studios receding with the economic tide, I will be working with schools a bit more than not. I love our studio, and I am always happy to do more than my share there because it is our baby. I am also teaching currently at LAAFA and have some wonderful students I want to see through their entire learning cycle, or 4 years to a degree. I believe in them and I also feel I am contributing to their future. Without kids, every student becomes more important to me than life itself sometimes.
We have also signed on to become a POD for TAD. I am very excited about this, both from a teaching on a great staff stand point and on a virtual school stand point.
First, we are with the greatest art staff the world has ever been witness to. Secondly, I can now reach out to many more students than I can fit into a class room at one time, and that has always been a big goal for me, to actually give more than I can to more than a room would fit. Art is a hard thing to teach, and I wish I had that room filled with as many people as could fit to learn this stuff. The more people that learn what foundation and quality art education is, the more art buyers we will have that only favor a good product and not just “any” product.
But, I want to focus on good art for the next 5 years too. Great gallery representation with traditional story telling in the works once again, there is a loss of this because everyone is too busy with singular portraits, landscapes and still life painting, and not incorporating the 3 disciplines into one image as once was done. Great story telling, my time to shine in comics as well as their covers, and finally, great teaching to any and all that really want to learn what great art is. I am not alone in any of these endeavors, but I do hope that by having these high aspirations, I can do my part and do it well in what I wish to contribute to. You know I did not say “I hope to have all the wealth in the world so I can ride an easy life”. I know life is not easy, and my wealth comes from both my family around me and that I can try to contribute to something positively, and possibly make an impression positively: that is my wealth. Money is a bonus.

Ron Lemen

GW: Can you explain what digital artist and concept artist gain from your portrait DVDs?

RL: I hope that every artist can utilize the DVD’s that I do with Gnomon Workshop Group. I am glad to have a large venue where I have a chance at a larger audience immediately, not building this base group of people up from square 1 on my own. I hope for a large audience because I am really giving everything I know into these DVD’s. Everything about making foundation art from every job I have taken on, and every great teacher I have learned and am learning from. I am a sponge with all this info, have more in me than I can use, and I am giving it all up in hopes to save a future of foundation/realism/art roots when so many other of these art movements can have such a loud voice and pushy way of delivering their manifesto that other art movements can be lost in their shadows quickly, as our art history has shown. The internet and any mass media venue helps contribute to the permanency of important linear historical content, both factual and process driven. I wish we had the knowledge to make the great pyramids or the Colossus of Rhodes. At least great representational art stands a chance of everyone having access to that knowledge where the pyramids and other great wonders of the world are lost to history, war and the victor rewriting that history, or losing it.
My DVD’s are both filled with finishes that are strictly school related, not something I would do for a gallery, but something I would do for a student to learn, and the DVD’s are filled with factoids and details on the art of drawing, painting or conceptualizing.
I have many DVD’s to do with Gnomon, we have talked about over a dozen and more covering every subject from drawing to painting, from color theory to composition, using perspective, and conceptual thinking. We are building a foundation library, and hopefully I will be your guide into this new platform for the Gnomon Library. I am proud and thankful to be working for such a prestigious educational facility and proud to be a part of their amazing talented line up. Thank you everyone at Gnomon, and thank you everyone purchasing my DVD’s and everyone interested in learning about art as much as I am )about teaching it. Now go create!

Drawing the Male Portrait Construction and Abstraction Methods With Ron Lemen Ron Lemen website


  1. […] we are developing and just like working out, they atrophy if not exercised enough……. Read the interview with Ron Lemen by Travis […]

  2. […] we are developing and just like working out, they atrophy if not exercised enough……. Read the interview with Ron Lemen by Travis Bourbeau View full post on The Gnomon Workshop Leave a Reply Click here to […]

  3. MR.DENIS says:

    good job..

  4. Bruno Cerkvenik says:

    not only his DVD is awesome, so is his interview, not afraid to share his process, inspiration and future plans.