How do you keep an illustration spontaneous and loose, from sketch to finished product?

Here’s the question: how do you keep your illustrations spontaneous and loose from the sketch stage all the way to the finished product?

In my experience, I have see many great sketches suffer a slow, painful death as they make their way toward becoming a final product. The air and life of the sketch dwindles and is snuffed out by excessive overworking and stiff line work.  In fact, I enjoy the sketchbooks of many artists I’ve seen more than I enjoy their finished portfolios. I myself am no exception to this problem and I often like my own sketches better than my portfolio pieces. On the other hand, sometimes fleshing out a piece of art is necessary in order to see if there is a real character hiding under the scribble.

Case study:
The character below is someone I developed for a story based on Rabbi Nachman Of Breslov’s ” The Chacham and the Tam,” or, “The Wise Man and the Fool.” Rabbi Nachman was a famous Chasidic Rabbi from the late 1700’s who put great emphasis on serving G-d with joy. He also told a series of mystical stories with deep kabbalistic layers of meaning. The Chacham and Tam story has always amazed me because it is profoundly meaningful even on a simple level. The fact that these stories are not widely publicized is a crime against humanity. I hope to help rectify this outrage by one day developing an illustrated book based on this amazingly insightful tale.

The character I tried to develop is the “chacham” or wise man. The catch is that he is too smart and impossibly sophisticated, resulting in a loss of happiness and faith. The hero is his childhood friend, “the fool,” who he and many other villagers consider a fool, but in truth, is good-hearted, simple, and straight.
Here are my first attempts at developing the chacham character:

These are certainly rough, but there is definitely some character lurking in there. You can see that the angular shapes immediately identify him as sharp-edged and his expressions are somewhat devious.

With time the finished chacham developed into this:

He has developed much more in terms of his clothing and features, and the finished character  still retains some of the original identity, but has he lost a little of the edge along the way? I’m not sure.

What is the solution?

I once heard a saying regarding painting: “It takes two people to paint a picture, one artist and one person standing next to him to tell him when to stop.” Perhaps part of the answer is to get feedback along the way. Another technique that I’ve found helpful is that when you are close to the finish line,  leave the picture for a while and when you come back to it you will get a better idea of how much is left. I’ve especially found that waiting overnight and seeing anew in the morning is very helpful because you see it with fresh eyes and often a whole new perspective. It is also important to have the guts to leave some parts raw and unfinished if that contributes to a fresh, spontaneous look. Also, of course the most important thing to remember is to never ever… no, actually I’ve said enough, I’ll stop now.

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