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