Saturday, November 7, 2009


My son Daniel playing, from Summer 2008.

From time to time I get requests to look in on people's artwork and give evaluations, which I try to do, although I don't always have as much time or ability to allow toward this as I wish, especially lately. It does tell me however, that there is a healthy appetite for information on drawing and animating, and that the internets can be a handy provider for such, to an extent. Certainly fine people like Mark Kennedy, Mark Mayerson, John K, and Peter Emslie and others devote a lot more generous time and personal talent to these issues than I can, but for my part, here's the first of a few general tips that seem worth offering.

TIP #1:

"Draw from life, as often as possible."

This sounds simple and pat, but it can't be stressed enough, even to myself. We all love to draw from imagination, and we also love decoding the established formulas of our heroes, often by copying their work for exercise. Both are fine, but the act of drawing from reality is where you can learn some of the most foundational information about your subjects and yourself.

I confess as kid I never drew from my surroundings. It was only slightly less rare as a young adult and even now I really don't do it as often as I should. It's a common mistake and a tragic one. Here's what Andrew Loomis, one of the premiere commercial artists of the mid-20th century has to say:

"All of us tend to discount our own experience and knowledge-to consider our background dull and commonplace. But that is a serious mistake. No background is barren of artistic material. The artist who grew up in poverty can create just as much beauty in drawing tumble-down sheds as another artist might in drawing ornate and luxurious settings."

Wow. That's for sure. When I was a kid, I was under the impression my surroundings were too boring for words, which may have been true from a certain point of view, but Mr. Loomis is here to suggest that from an art perspective, that is really never the case. Go outside and draw the people around you. If that isn't possible draw your family. Draw your pets, look in the mirror, draw your houseplants and your furniture, take off your shoes and draw them! Look at what a master like Philip Guston could do with shoes, and he could draw as elaborately or as primitively as he chose.

For the sake of learning, you don't even have to worry about making "good" drawings. What you are doing is opening pathways in the brain that will teach you to observe what you actually see, not what you want to see, but what is really there. When you can train yourself how to capture that accurately and with authority, everything you draw from there will get that much more well-informed.

A Ronald Searle sketch done while he was a prisoner of war.

Again, Loomis:

"Technique is not so important as you think - the living, emotional qualities-the idealization you put into your work-are far more important."

I'm not sure about the "idealization" part, but the rest is true. If by "idealization" he means creating solid personal ideals about conveying reality, then all to the good. If he means trying to put your sensibilities into a context of what someone else might consider "ideal", then that's open to conjecture, taste, and the context of your times and social conventions.

In any case, practice makes perfect. A lot of people can talk (or write) about achievement, but being able to achieve something is far more important. There is no substitute for time and experience, and there is no experience more instructive than learning to draw from the immediate surroundings of your own life, time and place.


Andy J. Latham said...

Great tips Will :)

It has taken a long time for me realise that drawing anything is a big help in advancing one's skills. Obviously for animators, drawing people is important, but so it drawing anything else. The key is getting your hand to do what your brain wants it to, regardless of the subject matter.

ThomasHjorthaab said...

That post was a great motivation Will! thanks

scott Caple said...

Re: the Searle sketch_ it 's been said before, I'm sure, but the book of searle's POW drawings is one of the 100 art books every artist should own- beyond the artistic integrity and quality, the sheer fact that he did it at all, under conditions we can only begin to imagine, makes the work indescribable. Talk about about drawing form life...he was drawing from life and death. Worth a post of its own sometime!

Mike Caracappa said...

I also think its important for artists too occasionally put away the sketchbook and allow themselves to have experiences in their own surroundings, even if they may seem boring at first. Too often I see animation artists whose sketchbooks are surgically attatched to them everywhere they go, and they're so narrowly focused on drawing everything vs. living a life and having an experience. There's no rush to get good at drawing. Will probably didnt draw much as a kid because he was having too much fun being a kid. The same attitude should also apply to adults. Draw when you feel like drawing, but have yourself a life first.

Vinny said...

Amen! Thanks for the great post! Drawing is essential for all artists.

Will Finn said...

Wow, great comments all. This is a topic that gets truer for me all the time.

Mike C your point is very well taken--exhaustive sketching can burn you out. And whatever life sketching you do doesn't really add up to much if it doesn't come around and apply to your work. That's why Searle's sketches as a P.O.W. are so important to study.

BTW, I did draw pretty constantly as a kid, but just not from life. I was too busy copying Disney, Peanuts, Pogo, The Flintstones...all the usual suspects. I am sure I learned from it, but I could have gained more balance from drawing reality from time to time.

Mike Caracappa said...

Thanks Will!

I always thought the copying characters phase as a kid was part of the cartoon rite of passage. When Beauty and the Beast came out, as a kid I remember trying to memorize drawing the beast so I could do it on command and draw it for other kids at school. The drawings are pretty bad now, but it got me thinking about animation and wanting to be a cartoonist.

As for drawing from life, I know Ive suffered a burn out from drawing too much. There came a point where my brain wanted me to keep drawing, but my gut was saying no. Its a big world out there worth exploring. I say you gotta go with your gut, and pick up the sketchbook only when you feel you have too.

Vinny said...

Mike -

I would like to say thanks for giving your artistic sage advice as well. The advice comes at a perfect time for me as an artist. I do agree, that living a life is more important than drawing every second of ones life. Though I do regard drawing with the highest esteem, I feel like I miss out on life when I try and record everything. Often I loose the passion when I draw this way. It can feel like a chore. A sketch book is always with me, but I find it is best to live life and when a moment comes by that I feel compelled to record, I scribble it down. It does not necessarily have to be right at that moment either, but rather when I get home. This way I can capture a true essence and impression rather than what I saw exactly. I feel my drawings have more sincerity this way. I've been questioning what actually makes a successful drawing. Sometimes I feel that artists (including myself) get caught up in what I call the "business" of drawing, or the superficial aspects. To me, a successful drawings manages to capture a true essence. It doesn't matter so much how it's built, but what it says. I mean, the basics of drawing will always apply, but there is still so much room for interpretation! I study great illustrators such as Searle as well, but I must say that my real source of influence and inspiration comes from the masters such as Michelangelo, Bernini, Degas, Ingres, Klimt, and Rodan, to name a few. When I think of true essence and character within line, these are the artists that my brain tends to carry to most often.

Bruce said...

Just to let you know, I do a balance of cartoon study (from screen capture images, books, etc.) and go to the drop-in sessond of life drawing.

And being the good egg that I am, I try to apply what I learned from all that in my work.

I still have a long ways to go, and I can only do what I can.

Anyway, thank you for the splended advice, Mr. Finn.

From an aspiring animator/ cartoonist

Will Finn said...

Bruce, great to know. Your drawings look fine by the way. The apes are very well done in particular.

Vinny - Glad this is catching you at a good time but as you and Mike say, constant drawing can turn the thing into an obligation and make you miss out on life. And you can't always force a breakthrough, you have to be patient, which is not always easy.

I make a lot of mental notes when I am out and about because I have never gotten away much with drawing strangers in public without incurring more attention (and ire!). When I do sketch in public I pick subjects who are less likely to notice.

Eric Scales said...

Great post Will! Sometimes the basics are forgotten and common sense isn't so common. Thanks for reminding me (us)!

Brandon said...

Pearls of wisdom. Thanks for the pointers. It's easy to forget those things. I'm in the camp of - needing to pick up my sketchbook way more than I do.

Paul B said...

This is so true

Today, with technology, we go from our work to our houses and turn on the computer again, each new generation is less connected with the world around, now we just talk on MSN rather than go where our friends, knock the door and talk to him, see his face, expressions, see a real person.

I think an artist must be conected with the world, the real world,
is essential in our work.

Thanks for the post!

Vinny said...

Paul B.-

I agree! How can one create a true story with integrity without experiencing life? Life influences art.