With Further Ado #201: Greg Hildebrandt Part 2 – Warm Light, Cool Shadows

In last week’s With Further Ado (the 200th Smash Issue), in the first part of my interview with the talented Greg Hildebrandt, we focused on that famous Star Wars poster. In part two of our conversation, Greg and I talk about color theory, art school, classic movies and how these all inspire his approach to art (and specifically his creation of a Tolkien work-in-progress). This candid conversation offers a fantastic way to learn more about what makes this incredible artist tick.

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Ed Catto: I will ask you about these two amazing 2023 calendars on sales soon. But one of the things I love about work, and your collaborations with your brother in the old days, is that you always have such a sense of warmth; warm ‘glowy’ colors and that sense of cool colors.

Greg Hildebrandt: Yep! That’s a big, huge thing for Tim and me, I know that our awareness starts with Technicolor movies. Hollywood Technicolor movies. I can remember those biblical Epics. Where you’d have the set. They would be outside. They have beautiful blue lights coming in through the window, torch lights – tungsten 25 kelvin type lighting…and then the cool light! That was like – waugh! I remember, there was one movie: Forever Amber. (Note: a 1946 Linda Darnell movie) I haven’t seen it in about ten years, but the incredible lighting! The tints! Warm and cool, warm and cool. Hollywood was huge.

Then when we discovered Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth. He became our “main man”, as far as American illustrators go. Wyeth, you know Treasure island…

And we kind of grew up on them. My parents had those books. I remember growing up on that stuff as a kid. And Technicolor movies! Lighting was always an issue. It wasn’t always only the lighting in Technicolor films, but the black and white movies. You take Gregg TolandCitizen Kane – the lighting; that was a key thing for Tim and me, is to grasp it. It’s still there. It’s one of the main devices that I am still focused on.

EC: I feel like you guys always have such great draftsmanship and composition and then the lighting is like “the magic on top”. A lot of folks have fantastic rendering, but you know just that way it’s always like, “Whoa! Look at that! The sun’s coming through the trees! Or… the glow!

GH: Truth to nature. For me, that’s what that’s what my objective is. Then you can crank it up – or settle it down- but you’re trying to be true. The effort is to be truthful to nature and the way the light works in nature.

And after high school, we got the army out of the way, because we didn’t want to enlist. I mean enlist “full time”, and there was the draft. So, we “enlisted”, but we enlisted in the Reserves. We spent six months active duty, then got out.

We had been writing letters to Disney because we wanted to be animators. That was our main goal – that or special effects. Those were the two things we wanted to do.

And we kept writing letters to Disney, and they said go to a school – to apply for an animated position- go to a school that focuses on perspective, anatomy, and lifeform.

I’m from Detroit, and we started looking around after the army quickly to find a school and found one in downtown Detroit near the Art Center.

We went to that school, and it was: Perspective class, Life Drawing class, Coloring design, and anatomy. In the Color and Design class the teacher, Bill Meinzinger, he owned the school, was great. All the school’s teachers wore pinstripe suits. It was fantastic. Just really great. The key issue – the foundation for Tim and me – it went “clunk” after our sessions about lighting color. He said, “if there’s a warm light on a subject, there’s a cool shadow. If there’s a cool light on a subject there’s a warm shadow.”

I mean the thing is this: if you’re going from a highlight to a dark, value wise, it’s going from light to dark. How’s it doing color wise? That went clunk! If that’s a warm light on the top my hand (he gestures) underneath here is cool.

So don’t question it. It’s a basic theory of light. It’s a basic reality of the light – like the way light works in nature. You can alter it. You can screw with it. You can play with it. But that’s the way light works. Warm light, cool shadow. Cool light, warm shadow.

EC: I love that.

GH: That became a platform for us to develop our use of color. That one sentence was worth the six months of art school!

EC: Well, I’m glad you didn’t play hooky that day!

GH: Other than that, … I can’t remember <much>… I mean that was a primal art instruction. The other one was seeing Lust for Life with Kirk Douglas. (Note: this was a 1956 movie about the life about the painter Vincent Van Gogh.)

There’s a scene in there, where he’s sitting on a beach by the water, I think it was a set. Vincente Minelli directed. There was all that beautiful lighting and stylization. There was an actor playing Pissarro talking to Van Gogh look color everywhere, “Look at the shadows underneath leaves”. I’m paraphrasing it, but I remembered something like, “There’s no black! There’s no black! Throw away your black!”

Tim and I went home and said, “If we throw away our black, how the hell are we ever going to get the shadows now? That was always the crutch!

So that, combined with the Bill Meinzinger’s directive…it starts to come together that make sense. How you can handle it. And you analyze it. I still do. That procedure is still there with every painting I do. I’m doing one way now. I’m looking at it – it’s on my easel right now. It’s nine feet by five and a half feet. It’s the great Balrog. Gandalf battling the Balrog for a museum.

EC: Wow!

GH: There’s a guy. He’s starting a museum, and he called a bunch of artists that are known for painting The Rings (i.e., Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings characters) to pick up something they want a paint. So, I decided to go back to where he’s battling under the earth. Now he’s worked his way up: the battle up to the top of this tower. That’s where I have them now. It’s the final confrontation.

EC: That sounds like a beauty!

GH: Again, we’re talking about the color and light thing! I’ve got all the fire of the Balrog and his fiery whip, and all this fire-blasting going on. And Gandalf is holding a sword. He’s lost his staff at this point, and there’s lightning blasting off of it, and it’s hitting the Balrog. I’ve got lightning bolts crashing the skies with these billowing clouds all over the place.

Of course, again, we talk about Hollywood, and I go back to the billowing clouds. It sounds like Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. Charlton Heston was standing and those beautiful black clouds are rolling into that whole sequence. They come together and crash and dive into the water, and the water peels back. But those billowing clouds…. So, I go back to just to get juiced by it!

Next week: We shift to the Greg Hildebrandt’s incredible new Pin-Up calendar