Three Frustrating Revision Notes (and how to translate them into something actionable)

This one sailed through the approval process unscathed, but read on and I think you'll see how it speaks to all three hazards.  Of course, the best defense against tough revisions is to anticipate them and correct in advance.

David Palumbo

I think we can all agree that revisions are no fun, but it is a part of the job to take them in stride and continue giving our best effort.  Even with good communication and sketch feedback, all parties involved in a commission should anticipate fine tuning.  That isn’t really much of a problem when the notes are along the lines of “Make the robot a bit more beat up” or “The pistol should be a revolver, not an automatic” or even “The costuming is a bit plain, give it more drama.”  Even when the feedback feels nitpicky, at least comments like these are pretty straight forward.

The problematic feedback is the stuff that indicates unhappiness with no clear source or solution.  Every now and then I think everyone is or has been faced with that situation.  Further discussion sometimes brings more light to what needs fixing, but this type feddback can be demoralizing.  Demoralizing in a way that, for me at least, makes asking for clarifications almost the same as just saying “by the way, I have no idea what I‘m doing.” 

Not that clarification is likely to help much anyhow.  Vague revisions most often happen when the AD knows something is wrong but can’t pinpoint it.  In some cases they may even be mistaking a symptom for a cause (you can spot this when every revised version is met with “better, but…”  You are both missing the root problem.).  Note that this isn’t to say ADs need to know how to fix every visual problem.  They don’t.  That’s really, essentially, our job.  The key is correctly identifying the true flaw in the first place.  Once we know what’s really wrong, we can find a way to fix it.

1. “It needs more color”

Which sounds to most of us like “we want it bright and vivid to an unreasonable degree, make it really garish.”  Pumping up the saturation is not usually going to solve this issue, though it will probably make the piece look like a nightmare.

More likely, you should usually interpret this note as: “The color feels dingy or inappropriately dominated by an overall tint” or, looking at it another way “the white balance is off.”  From that point of view, the solution isn’t really MORE color, the solution is CLEANER color.  If the overall piece has an undesirable tinge (a green tinge, a blue tinge, a yellow tinge, etc.), think about how this could be corrected with color balancing or, even better, adding some contrasting accents in key places.  Possibly shifting the temperature of the highlights or shadows will do it. If you’re a traditional painter photographing your work, it might even just be that you’re not properly white balancing when you process your photos.  Whatever course you take, your goal should not be to add color willy nilly or oversaturate the current colors, it should be to add depth, clarity, and punch to the existing palette.

2. “It needs more detail”

Which, to my painterly brushstroke loving ears, sounds very similar to “we have an arbitrary level of visual noise that we expect from a finished piece and this is not quite there yet.”  But maybe it’s just me who gets their hackles up over this one.  Can more detail really hurt?

Well, yes, sometimes.  Like all other aspects of a painting, what is spelled out and what is suggested help build the drama and depth of a piece.  Over cramming details in, especially in unimportant areas of the painting, can water it down or distract and confuse the viewer.  Also I just don’t personally like work which is indiscriminately rendered for no clear purpose.  Going back into a piece looking for places to add superfluous detail feels at best like a major waste of time.  Additionally, the first place we’ll probably begin sharpening things further is in the less developed peripheral areas (since they‘re easy to identify as lacking detail), which I feel is exactly the wrong place to solve the problem.

And when this note comes down there probably is a problem, it just isn’t that the threads of the clothing, leaves on the trees, and strands of individual hair need definition.  More likely, this should be interpreted as “The focal points are too soft/rough.”  If you ever have to go back into a piece to tighten things up, you can solve that problem 99% of the time by pushing those focal areas.*  When your key areas of interest are solid, you’re good.  This may be personal taste, but I like suggested subordinate areas contrasting to sharper defined focal points.  You’d be amazed how loose some tight paintings really are when you stop looking at the portraits and hands.

*it also may not be a render issue but a design issue.  If the costumes or props of the piece are bland and vanilla, think about making them more interesting and specific.

3. “It just doesn’t look finished yet”

Also goes by “It needs more love.”  And sounds exactly the same as “Are you sure you painted all that stuff in your portfolio?”

This is the grand daddy of vague feedback.  It sounds a lot like #2, and the panicked response would probably be to do the same: go tighter in the rendering in the hopes that it will get approved if we can see just a bit more definition in that chain mail.  And often the more appropriate response of #2, concentrating on the focal areas, might be all you need. 

When you get a note so generalized as this though, it might go beyond focal areas that are a bit under cooked.  More likely, the true problem is that the focal points are not properly drawing our attention.  In addition to render, look at the value structure and value shapes.  Drop unimportant things back (simplifying the render or compressing the values) and pull the key areas forward (punchier values, contrast, color, and/or render) and ALWAYS ask yourself if you could give more interest and realism to your costume and scenery designs.


So, do you have any favorite frustratingly cryptic or misleading revision notes?  Share in the comments!