Fun Reference Drawings for Animation

These are the pictures that I showed in class the other day.  Have fun looking them over and learn all you can from them.

Jiminy Cricket from the film Pinocchio.

The Duke from Cinderella.


I’m having some trouble uploading all the images.  I’l try again later.

Using the Basic Shapes.

It seems to me that every time I teach this idea of constructing the figure using basic shapes, there are many who think it too elementary and are anxious to zip ahead to more advanced levels of thinking and drawing.  Yet even after drawing as I have for the last 25-30 years, I find myself benefitting form these basic techniques.  There doesn’t seem to be a drawing problem that I have ever encountered that can’t be solved by resorting to the basic shapes.

Just as the veteran concert musician never outgrows the basic rudimentary scales and warm-up exercises, the artist never outgrows the need for these rudiments.  The more time we spend with them, the more they become second nature.  The more they become part of our reflexive nature, the more we can draw with facility.

This is the kind of stuff that should fill your sketchbooks.

Practice and practice. The possibilities are endless.

Download these pages and copy them (by drawing, not xerox).

When you're sick of copying them, make up your own.

You can modify the figure's proportions to anything you'd like. Short, tall, skinny, fat, young, old.

Some may turn out better than others, but always try to do better the net time.

Again, this is what your sketchbooks should be FILLED with!

Study this.

I can assure you of one thing.  If by the fifth or sixth week you are still struggling to draw a good looking figure, I will assign you to copy these drawings 400 times.  I have never had a student fail to improve with that kind of drilling.  Do yourself a favor and start doing it now.  You’ll see the progress.

Drawing for Animation, Basic Shapes

The first thing we will practice is the idea of constructing the figure from basic shapes.  This begins with the basic shapes.

The Circle, the Square, and the Triangle are our basic shapes.

From a design standpoint we must realize that we can create many complex pictures by simply combining these basic shapes.  They start out very basic, but become complex and varied as we assemble them together.

Very rough, very quick, and very easy. Simply combine basic shapes.

We can also construct the human form.

The Basic Shape Figure, or mannequin. As simple as this is, it is far better than the stick figure.

Stick figure man.

Although this is very basic, we must not get impatient.  WE must practice these basic shapes so that we improve our fine motor skills and develop our eye.  Use these as exercises to warm up.  In fact, a good exercise is to draw successive shapes that overlap each other and connect to form secondary shapes.  Just keep adding more and more.  Practice the motion, practice in different sizes and practice seeing them as 3 dimensional forms.

Warm up and practice using one shape at a time and fill the page. See what you can come up with.

Once we have the basic shapes down we need to start thinking about them as FORMS, or shapes that have three dimensions.  Of course, our drawings will always be two-dimensional, but we want to learn how to make them look as if they were three-dimensional.

Our basic shapes become FOUR basic FORMS. CUBE, SPHERE, CONE, and CYLINDER.

Perspective in drawing.

When I say perspective, I am thinking more along the lines of depth and form in the subjects that we draw rather than the typical linear perspective.  Linear perspective is very important to understand and master, you know, with the horizon line and vanishing points etc.  This post is about dimensional drawing.

I want to share six very simple and basic rules that will help you endow each drawing with dimension.

The first, is the idea of objects sitting at different points along the ground plane.  Typically we show this by drawing one object higher on the paper than another.  Difference in Surface position.

Difference in Surface.

This drawing with no other indications begins to suggest that the higher ball might be farther away simply because it is sitting in a different point along the surface.  This is especially true when we can see the contact with the ground.  In and of itself, however, it does not present an entirely convincing illusion of depth.  But it’s a beginning.

With two recognizable objects that we know are flat, there is no illusion of depth. It just looks like one quarter is sitting higher on the table top than the other.

The second is a difference in Size.

Difference in Size.

In this example, all we see is one object larger than the other.  In and of itself, it may or may not mean that one is closer, but remember this rule, it can become a powerful cue to depth.

Looking at the same two quarters. We know that quarters are all the same size. Therefore, one starts appear farther away because it is smaller.

The next is combining these first two depth cues.  Surface plus Size.

Surface and Size.

Now we definitely start seeing the illusion of depth.  Most viewers would interpret this as two balls, with one closer than the other.

The fourth rule is Overlap.


While it may be possible that the one shape is simply a crescent that is pushed up alongside the circle, this appearance of overlapping will convince most people that one sphere is overlapping the other, therefore making a very clear statement of dimension and depth.

Next is Surface Lines.  These are lines that travel across the contour or surface of the object and deliver a lot of information about the three-dimensional form.  These lines may come in the form of stripes on a costume, shadows, or wrinkles, but they tell a lot about the form.

Surface Lines.

With these lines we can no longer mistake this for a coin, disc, or plate.

Finally, we have Foreshortening.  This is where we see the shape receding into space and actually getting smaller as it goes back.

Foreshortening with Receding Lines.

Now if we start combining all these elements, we can really get some perspective an depth into our drawings without getting very complicated.

All six rules are being utilized here.

Here is the rule of Surface being applied on a vanishing foreshortened grid and it is pretty convincing.

Here is Size on the grid, and it does not make the smaller one look further away, just smaller.

Surface and Size on the grid. Definitely depth and perspective here.

Notice this optical illusion. These two balls are exactly the same size. Because we expect to see the further one appear smaller, and it is not, it actually appears like it is larger than the one in the foreground once we place it on the grid.

Remember, shadows are shapes too. When a shadow overlaps an object we get a distinct depth cue.

Now let’s apply these rules to some simple drawings.

Notice the diminishing size of the two hands. If done correctly, they will feel the same size, only different proximity to the viewer.

Can you see the other dimensional cues that exist in this drawing?

There is Foreshortening an Overlapping as well.

If there were stripes on the shirt of this character, they would be Surface Lines and help us to demonstrate to the viewer the 3 dimensional form and how it sits in space.

Even without stripes on the clothing, there are plenty of opportunities for Surface Lines. Cuffs, belts, watchbands, and Wrinkles can all create cues to not only indicate the contour, but also the overlapping.

Can you see the perspective in this drawing? It looks quite natural.

There is forced perspective that helps create the illusion of form and not just shapes.

Notice the size differential of the individual elements like the eyes.  This is not meant to be a mechanical thing.  You should feel it more than anything, but sometimes it helps to use a few reminders (like perspective lines) to keep the perspective working right.  Again, notice the little things like the eyebrows and how they overlap the head.  Every little thing should contribute to the effect we want.  All the shapes on the far side are smaller and therefore appear to be receding in space.  Simple idea, but if we can see it and train ourselves to draw this way, our drawings will become much more dimensional and appealing.  They won’t look amateurish.  Amateurs draw flat because that’s all they know how to do.

Compare these two drawings. Which one has the better use of the six rules of dimensional drawing?

Notice all the cues. Every little thing needs to contribute to the dimension of the drawing.

Why would we want to draw a square when we can draw a cube? Show as much depth as you can in each of your drawings.

By twisting shapes we can create overlap and therefore depth and dimension.

Can you see the cues being used in any of these drawings?

Can you see how Overlapping, Foreshortening, and Diminishing Size are making this drawing very appealing? Look closely and you'll see that even the feet that are close together are NOT on the same Surface level.

Notice how the stripes help us understand which limbs are coming forward and which are receding.

Another example of Surface Lines defining form and perspective.

I always think of these guys when we talk about Surface Lines.

Make a concerted effort to utilize these “rules” every time you draw so they become second nature to you.  Even your rough sketches should be indicating a lot of this kind of thinking.

Thumbnails, thinking with the pencil.

A sample of a series of thumbnails planning an interactive game.

What’s the difference between doodles, thumbnails, and comps?  Doodles are taking you from the “nothing” to the “what” (many refer to this as blue-sky thinking).  Thumbnails take you from the “what” to the “how”.  Comps take you from the  “How” to the “best how” or “more complete how”.

Thumbnails are not defined by what you are seeing on the paper, but rather the purpose and thought process that occurs in your mind.  In the end, you must define what a thumbnail is by what it means to you.  In time, you will come to discover what works best for you and your particular style.

This is a thumbnail version of one Howard Pyle's great illustrations.

Thumbnails seem to mean slightly different things to different people.  For example, an animator will describe them one way, while a landscape painter may offer a different explanation.  But there are some basic characteristics that are universal.  Let’s examine these characteristics so that as you develop your style and skill, you have something to guide and direct you.

Thumbnails for animation of Daffy Duck.

Thumbnail sketches from a painter's sketchbook.

Thumbnails are Small.  Why?  Small makes it easier to view them as a whole and not get sucked into the details.  When the size gets big enough, the natural inclination of the viewer is to start focusing in on the details.  The larger the image, the more we tunnel in on the parts rather than the whole.  By keeping it small, it is much more natural to see it from corner to corner in one glance, which gives us the ability to judge it as an entire composition, never being distracted by minutia.

This sketch isn't much larger than a postage stamp.

Another small drawing.

This drawing is getting large enough that we want to look at the details.

Thumbnails are Simplified.  Why?  We want to work from general to specific.  This works hand in hand with the small concept above.  When it is simplified there are few details to speak of, so again, it is easier to evaluate it as a whole composition.  It stands to reason that our initial efforts should be focused on general ideas and not the nuance of details.  By eliminating the details we are designing the larger, more general shapes.  If the design works at this level then we can embellish it, adding detail on top of the basic arrangement.  If it does not work well at this level, no amount of embellishment can solve its short-comings.

This drawing is composed of the simplest of lines.

These shapes are so simple they are abstract, and allow us to evaluate the composition as an abstract design.

This is only the beginning, but the details can come later if we like this simplified design.

Thumbnails are Quick.  Why?  Being able to execute one thumbnail quickly gives us the ability to execute many thumbnails in a relatively short period of time.  We are trying to generate numerous little pictures to look at without becoming burned out and spending lots of time (time is money).  These little pictures give us options, and open up a variety of approaches to our project.  The more choices we have to choose from, the more likely we can pick one that is going to work well.  Our creativity becomes realized in the process of making these choices.  Having options is always better.

It does not take a long time to sketch this sort of thing.

Since they are done quickly, we can afford to do more and throw some aside.

Another view of the same scene.

And still another, completely different view, exploring many options.

This just doesn't take that long to do.

Thumbnails explore a Variety.  Why?  There would be little point in creating a bunch of little pictures that all look about the same.  Because they are small, and quick, and simple, this is an ideal time to ask ourselves, “what if I tried an entirely different approach?”  If we don’t find out by drawing five or ten more thumbnails, we rob ourselves of the benefits of this exploratory phase.  Once we have drawn a few, we need to step back and think about what new direction we could take to make it look completely different.  We need to identify elements and deliberately attack them in the opposite way.  For example, if an object is dark in one version, let’s try it light in another version.  From there we will create a few more, then we repeat this process over and over until we have a wide variety to choose from.

See the variation on an autumn theme explored here.

Many variations are found with these sketches.

Although similar to an extent, the artist is trying the same idea in various ways.

This is a nice example of exploring variations.

Although the view is from above in both of these, the composition changes quite a bit.

They are Expendable.  Why?  Because the fact is, we are not ever going to use the vast majority of thumbnail sketches.  Think about it.  If we do 25 thumbnails for one project, how many will we wind up using?  One.  That means we throw out 24.  If we spend too much time on them, they represent too much of an investment and it’s harder to drop the poor drawings because we just spent too much time on them.  We ruin our objectivity.  If they are done quickly, it’s easier to say to ourselves, “this only took me a few minutes and it just isn’t working too well, I’ll just draw another and I think I can make it better.”  In the end, the overall improved result should justify the time spent on a bunch of thumbnails we don’t use, because the one we wound up with is great!

We pick the one that works best, and the others become expendable. We didn't spend that much time on any of them, so we can afford this exploration.

If for some reason you had to choose not to use this one, it didn't take that long to do, so you're not being hurt to leave it out.

We may have to pass on this one too.

All of these things are closely related.  Quick, simple, small etc.  A key aspect of the thumbnail is that it should be serving as a vital part of our creative process.  Creativity is defined as coming up with an original idea that is useful.  Sometimes great ideas just pop into our heads.  Okay fine, but usually we need to be able to conjure up ideas on demand.  This is not an instant event, but a process.  It needn’t be a long drawn out ordeal, but it does take a little time and attention.  And we do have to realize that one step leads to another, then another, then another.  After some time, some great ideas have emerged and stand out clearly over the rest.

In this example, the choice of how to crop it can be made after the basic sketch is drawn.

In these sketches by Scott Gustafson, notice how he has explored and searched for the right feel.

These sketches are so rough that they may only serve as notes to self, but that leads to additional thumbnails that become more and more refined.

The next pass of these same ideas becomes more refined and developed.

We should be able to start with an empty brain (devoid of any ideas), doodle around, start to get into it, generate some ideas, modify them, improve them, try some more, get excited, realize that there are some other, completely different approaches, explore them, discover some more ideas, realize that most of these are crappy, start focusing in on the ones that really seem to be working, make them a bit better still, and finally come down to two or three great thumbnails that will work quite well.  Then all we have to do is make our choice (then we’ve achieved creativity).

In this sample, the larger thumb was deemed to be too balanced and two additional thumbs explored what would happen if the darker shape was pushed higher or lower.

Do any of these seem obviously better to you?

Many of the thumbnails we’ve done will be easy to label as useless.  Instead of trying to erase and correct a bad thumb, just move on to a brand new one.  It will be a no-brainer to know which ones we should discard.  There will be another group that we may think is not too bad, but again, once we compare them to the best ones, it shouldn’t be too hard to set these average ones aside.  If we find ourselves in a pickle because we have three different thumbs that all look great, well, what a nice position to find ourselves in.  Ask some other people, get some feedback and make the choice.

Frequently, sketches like this are just a part of the process in arriving at something much better.

By the way, don’t throw any of your thumbnails away (except for the really horrible ones).  You never know when they may yet come in handy.

It’s all about exploration, trial and error (don’t forget that the error is an important part of the equation), and generating options.  This is what creativity is all about.  The concept that creativity is just having an idea magically pop into your head, is myth.

I think this one could be better, don't you?

This is what thumbnailing is all about, not the specifics of size, medium etc.

Don't be afraid to mix media. This one has pencil, ink and white-out correction pen all on colored paper.

Of course as artists, we should take advantage of the thumbnail process to refine the underlying design as we go.  In other words, with each sketch, we are looking at all of the design components and visual elements and evaluating it.  Most of what we are judging as we compare one thumbnail against another, is its design merit.  Where’s the focal point, is there unity and variety, flow and dynamics, etc?  This is a great stage to be doing this, for if we can determine that the staging is not right, it’s so easy to whip up another sketch that addresses the problem.  Once we solve one problem however, we usually realize that there is another weakness appearing, so we move on to address that problem.

The thumbnail phase is one of the best opportunities to study our composition as an abstract design.

The thumbnail phase is a great time to consider how the subtext, or basic abstract composition is contributing to the mood. See how the figure on the left is separated from the couple on the right?

If the focal point comes across in this small thumbnail, then it will certainly work when we enlarge the final image.

There are a lot of things to be looking at that will eventually make the composition work well.  If we don’t recognize or address some of these issues until we have invested hours and hours of drawing time, it can become very difficult if not impossible to correct.  It should become easier to see the problem in the simplified thumbnail, and it is certainly a lot easier to change.

This process is what accounts for so many versions being done in the thumbnail process.  We shouldn’t be creating 25 thumbnails just randomly. If you try to come up with a bunch of thumbnails just to impress your instructor and somehow avoid this process of creativity and developing the quality of design, you clearly will be frustrated and come away thinking this whole thing is a waste of your time.

It is important to thumbnail the overall composition.  To this end we must frame our thumbnails in a box with the appropriate aspect ratio.  We should know the size and dimension of the finished product, therefore, design the thumbnails in the same dimensions scaled down.

Though the unframed thumb on the left is useful to a degree, before we are done, we must frame it up to know how our composition is really going to work.

We should also do thumbnails in a full value range, meaning blacks and whites and two or three shades of gray.  The value structure of the composition is the single most important element of the composition, so don’t move onto larger comps until you have established the design with these values in mind.

These are nice thumbs in a full range of values. We need to be thinking about the mood that we are seeking.

Although done in an overall higher key, this is better than a simple line drawing.

While the gesture drawing in this sample is great, notice how the lack of lighting and shadow compares to the samples above.

You can also do color thumbnails.  Not everybody feels the need to do these, but the same principals would apply.  General colors, simplified and small to establish the basic structure.

We want to look at the basic color scheme. Cools against warms.

Again, the small size allows for exploration of different color schemes.

Keep it as simple as posible.

A lot of information for such a simple sketch.

Here's another idea, not exactly full color, but a suggestion of it.

Along with doing the entire composition, you can thumbnail any segment or part of the picture.  For example, you may want to explore the pose of the character in thumbnails.  This wouldn’t be a substitute for the entire composition, but additional studies to nail down the gesture and staging of the character.  It would be a matter of personal preference whether you did these pose thumbnails first and then added the rest of the composition around the selected pose, or the other way around.

Focusing on just the face.

These just focus on the character.

There are times that for one reason or another we elect not to spend much time on thumbnails.  We need to make sure that we are opting for this course for a good purpose and not just because we are being lazy or don’t feel comfortable thumbnailing.

Here's a sample from a children's book showing how the pages are laid out in thumbnails.

While these are nice sketches, they invite too much attention to the details and don't address the overall composition like we should in a good thumbnail.

This is what I would call a good doodle. It doesn't make a bold enough design statement to be a good thumbnail.

While some of the detail is now missing, this version makes for a much better thumbnail because it has a bold statement of composition of lights and darks.

Notice in this one how you can focus on the whole because there are few details in any of the parts.

In this one however, there are enough details to tempt us away from looking at the whole.

Stylizing, finding your voice.

As a disclaimer, the intent of this blog is educational.  Please do not be offended if I have featured YOUR art here.  Simply inform me, so I can give you proper credit, or request me to remove it and I shall be happy to do so right away.

As I mentioned in the previous post, Draftsmanship is the ability to control the pencil and render convincing illusions.  Here are some examples that have amazed people around the world.  You may look at these and respond as many have by thinking, “Those can’t really be drawings”.

Hyper-realism in graphite.

Another amazing piece of work.

These pieces are perhaps the most amazing examples of draftsmanship that I’ve ever seen.  But what they have in fantastic rendering, they lack in originality and design.  Why? because they are portraying the lion and tiger as they appear in any number of pictures.  That is to say photographs.  When you  adhere this faithfully to realism, you do so at the expense of your individual inventiveness and sense of design.

I believe that these exceptional drawings are most certainly created from photographic reference.

Photorealistic pencil rendering.

But I also believe that it is important for the artist to contribute his/her own creative interpretation and invention to the art, modifying and embellishing things from what they actually are in the world, so that they become uniquely beautiful and imaginative.  It is a personal decision that we each must make (how much to deviate from reality in pursuit of the “ideal”).  In illustration, we can call this “stylization“.

Here are some more drawings that are finely rendered, yet still offer a small degree of artistic interpretation.

Cath Riley's work.

The rendering is as realistic as it can be, but the composition here leans to the abstract in the sense that we are not exactly sure what we are seeing.   We tend to accept some of this form as an abstract shape (we recognize the hands, of course).  We know it is flesh, but not sure what part of the anatomy.

More Cath Riley work.

They are harmless enough, usually hands gripping the soft flesh of a leg.  Because of the tight cropping, the forms become more abstract.  The influence of the artist’s choice and decision is an important part of this design.

In this one, the rendering is still very realistic, but the hair has been styled to surround the face and make a subtle design statement.  This could also be styled in the photograph, but does represent to influence of the artist.

Realistic rendering and design.

This work is more of a fantasy image.  Very realistically handled, but beginning to assume a feel of something aside form straight photo-realism.

Unknown artist.

Okay, enough of this stuff.  It’s pretty amazing, but what if we don’t wish to render in such a way?  What if we CAN”T render with such realism?  To whatever extent we do not wish to approach our drawing with such detail, we can infuse our work with a sense of design and original ideas that will more than make up for the difference in draftsmanship.  When we exaggerate, simplify, and redesign reality, or make up something completely imaginary, we can call this stylization.  Truth be known, it may actually be easier for most of us to earn a living by not doing the type of work that we see above.  That is, if we can create marvelously delightful, original, and adorable images like we will look at below, we will probably find an easier voice in the marketplace.  Let’s move from the hyper-realism to strength in design and originality.

Brian Cook weird animal.

While the actual lines faithfully depict a ram and flamingos, the idea of combining them together makes for a unique image.

Artist: Hoon.

Likewise, the above image by Hoon, is drawn with great skill, but does not leave it to skill alone.  The concept is full of interesting and innovative ideas.

Rebeca Puebla

Again, this piece by Rebeca Puebla takes a lot of skill to draw and paint, but also has a very unique and interesting mood and style.

Kazuki Takamatsu

I’m not exactly sure what these images are by Japanese artist Kazuki Takamatsu, but I know I’ve never seen anything like them before.

Now I will just load a whole bunch of images.  I won’t say much.  Just look at them, and study them.  Notice how they use strong design and imaginative ideas to create images that are wonderful, fun and very very marketable.  Many of these do not require the super human skills of realistic rendering that we started out with, but they are just as valid and worthy.  Each artist has to find hie/her own voice through the style and techniques they develop.  What they all have in common however, is that they must be appealing and interesting to the viewer.  Each in their own way.  Enjoy.

Adolie Day.

Adolie Day

Adolie Day

Alison Jay

Unknown artist

Unk. artist.

Book by Benjamin Lacombe. I believe the illustrations are his also.

Blue Emu and Rain forrest.

By Cindy and Mindy.

Cathy Delanssay

Cathy Delanssay

Cheer girl.

What a fun horse.

Great design and great draftsmanship.

Vector art tiger. Real clean and cute design.

Another Vector illustration. Great design.

Cartoon style.

A dragon by our own Don Seegmiller.

Another Don Seegmiller.

How fun is this? Great color.

Children's picture books have great and imaginative style don't they?

Look at how they use the space.

Look at how they use the space.

Who would have thought that a green girl could be so appealing? It's in the design.

It take all styles for fun and diversity.

Gian Lucamatia (I think). If someone asks for creepy, we need to be able to give 'em creepy.

I believe an artist from the UK.

Very simple design work.


This takes very clean draftsmanship, and strong graphic design as well.

Fun and funny.

Great style for narrative illustration.

Cute licensing art by Ivanova.

Very intense rendering combined with wildly imaginative ideas, our neighbor, James Christensen.

Hey Trent, check this out!

Karin Coma. Or Karincoma.

Fashion designs by Kathryn Elyse. Very stylized handling of the figures and clothing.

Laila Hills, one of my favorites.

Another Laila Hills.

This is fabulous. Larsen.

Laura Laine. Look at how ingenious the bird/feather thing is.

A very elegant and beautiful face mostly achieved with graphic design.

Marsha Carrington.

Mary Engelbreit is the most successful licensing artist around.

Another Mary Engelbreit.


Moby Franke.

Artist, Nic.
This is actually a sew felt piece. Good design can be accomplished in non-drawing type mediums as well.
Patrice Barton.
Patrice Barton.

pbcb studios.

Created in computer, 3-D, but how cute is the design?

More pirate ship. pay attention to how trends move. Pirates, dinosaurs, and such things.

From Pixar's visual development.

From Pixar's visual development.

From one of my co-workers at DIsney, Teddy Newton.

Simply cute.

Rachelle Anne Miler.

Rachelle Anne Miler.

Some at-ti-tude here. The red headed stepchild, by Lynn Alpert.



Super stuff.


Stefano Morri (thank you Denise)

Stefano Morri.

Stephanie Fizer.

This guy looks a little odd to me. What do you think?

One of my favorites, Svein Nyhus.

Svein Nyhus.

Svein Nyhus (Norwegian).

From Thumbelina (the book).

Tricia Tusa.


Really beautiful, simple composition.

A weird family in comic book style.

Our own Will Terry.

Yoko Furusho.

I hope you enjoyed these.  I don’t claim to like all of them equally, but they show a wide variety of stylization and design.

Drawing, what makes the difference?

I remember how surprised I was to find out that the Walt Disney Animation Studios actively recruited from only six colleges in the entire nation.  When I asked what attracted them to those particular schools, I was told that it was because they were the only ones that taught good solid drawing fundamentals.  Unfortunately, these drawing fundamentals are not considered essential by many of the nation’s universities.

It should be understood that illustration is founded on good drawing skills.  I suppose that I must reluctantly admit that there seem to be some drawing styles that are getting published, that have avoided any semblance of skillful drawing.  Even though these styles are getting recognition, they are limited in their range.  An artist that has good drawing skills has much more versatility to illustrate a wide range of material.  Such an artist can always choose to illustrate an assignment in a way that downplays sophisticated draftsmanship.  On the other hand, the unskilled draftsman cannot simply choose to raise their drawing style to some never before attained level of skill.

Andrew Loomis

Doing this kind of illustration requires the full ranges of skills and abilities. It doesn't come without years of hard work. (Andrew Loomis)

Is the artist that draws this type of illustration capable of drawing at a higher level as well?

If we are to discuss the idea of drawing and what makes the difference between “Good” and “Bad” drawing, we must begin with an understanding of terminology.  Basically, the word “drawing” has too broad of a meaning in the English language to serve us well in this discussion.  For example, when we see a small child gripping a crayon tightly in his little hand and making random and meaningless marks on a paper, we would say that he is “drawing”.  On the other hand, we refer to a masterful piece of art that has been created with a pencil and paper as a “drawing”.  Clearly there is a difference between some of the things we call drawing.

Technically speaking these are both drawings.

So, let me offer an explanation of what I consider to be “good” drawing.  In order to make the most of your learning experience in the illustration class that I am teaching, it will help for you to know how I define good drawing.  It is not a simple affair.  I shall list ten different concepts that I use to evaluate the quality of a drawing.

I must preface my remarks with the proviso that drawing is art, art is subjective, and this is all my opinion.  From here on out however, I will speak emphatically, and make no further attempt to qualify anything as ‘my opinion’.  This merely is intended to simplify the writing process and make it easier to read.  Realize though, that I share these opinions with the controlling illustration faculty at UVU and a great many other commercial artists and accomplished professionals.  I have acquired my understanding and point of view over many years, working alongside some fabulously talented people, and having been tutored by some of the best in the industry.  I may not be totally right on all points, but I’m not far off either.

The following ten concepts are difficult to assemble in any order of importance.  They are independent of each other to a degree, and therefore merit their own mention, but are very inter-related as well.  I will try to be very clear with the terms that I use, and explain them as I go.  Terms are used loosely in the art world, and what one person may mean by a certain term, may not coincide with another’s use of the word. The concepts that I wish to cover are the following:

  1. Draftsmanship
  2. Structure
  3. Concept
  4. Appeal
  5. Clarity
  6. Craftsmanship
  7. Expression
  8. Purpose
  9. Design
  10. Vision


By definition this refers to drawing.  It leans towards the technical aspects of applying the line and/or shading.  It refers to accuracy and control of the pencil (or whichever tool we draw with).  Draftsmanship deals with fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.  Can you put the point of the pencil to the paper exactly where you want it?  Can you then move the pencil and thus create the marks and lines where you want them?  This not only includes placing the tip of the pencil, but all the other nuances that are a part of drawing.  For example, the amount of pressure, the angle the pencil is held (which with some tools makes a significant difference in the quality of the line).  All these speak to draftsmanship.

The artist that drew Doctor House, obviously has greater skills in draftsmanship than whoever drew the green boy.

Exquisite draftsmanship from Audrey Kawasaki.

Another comparison of draftsmanship.

My first question to any aspiring artist would be; “can they see the difference in these comparisons?”  I think these show a big enough difference that most can see it, but I have been surprised at the inability of some students to recognize different levels of draftsmanship.  This actually pertains more to vision which we will discuss later on.


There are two areas where “Structure” applies.  One is with the organization of the image space.  We call this composition. There are conventions and techniques for ordering and organizing the composition.  These can be referred to as the “structure”.  It implies that there is a deliberate and meaningful design to the way we have arranged the composition.  We’ll talk more about this later.

The other area where the term structure can be used is in the actual drawing of the subjects, objects, and things.

In reality all drawings are two-dimensional, a flat piece of paper with lines on it.

However, we must think in terms of three-dimensional form when we are attempting to represent dimensional objects. In these cases we are trying to create an illusion of depth, form, and space in our drawings. In order to achieve this, the subjects depicted in our drawings must have structure.

Remember, the word “shape” refers to the 2-dimensional, and the word “form” refers to the 3-dimensional.  Therefore, all things that appear on the surface of a paper drawing are, by definition, shapes and never forms… technically speaking, that is.  As an illustrator we are allowed to refer to ‘shapes’ as ‘forms’.  This is because we are immersed in the effort of achieving the illusion of form in our drawings, and we have to be able to evaluate them in terms of how well they are achieving this illusion.  When we speak of them as forms, we are referring to how well they are representing the actual 3-dimensional world even though in reality they are merely two-dimensional shapes on the surface of the paper.

In drawing, structure means that we show that we know and show how things fit together.  Not only must we know how an arm attaches to the body, but also how one object sits in space near another object.  In the drawing below by Dean Cornwell, we get the clear impression that Cornwell knows full well how the arm attaches to the body, even though the whole shoulder area is covered by elaborate costuming.  We also can see a logical and believable relationship (spatially) between the man and the dog.  Even thought the legs of both are intertwined.

If we are to achieve this, we must understand the mechanics of the various things that we are drawing, and we must make it clear by our drawing techniques how these things relate to one another.  If we don’t exactly make it clear, we must at least avoid creating confusion in the mind of the viewer.  It is so important to remember that if we don’t understand the structure of an object, there is no way we will be successful in representing that object in our drawing.  In other words, if we don’t know what we’re drawing how will the viewer know what we’re drawing?

Dean Cornwell's drawings are some of the most solid drawings I've ever seen. There is no doubt about the structure in these drawings.

A strong draftsman should be able to demonstrate the structure clearly enough to serve as an actual illustration of the structure as in this instructional illustration.

cutaway technical drawing

An insanely technical drawing that is all about the structure.

We can discuss this quality by using words like “believable”, “solid”, or “convincing”.  I prefer not to use the word “realistic” because it’s not just about making things look “real” or photographic in detail.  When we draw things that are clearly fantasy, cartoon, or very stylized (in other words not realistic), they must still have solid structure.  If they do not, the viewer may find the drawing confusing, un-convincing, and therefore unappealing.

A simple cartoon drawing, but still very solid and descriptive of the structure.

In order to create this visual illusion, we must be able to understand the structure of our subject.  We must be able to SEE the structure of our subject in order to be able to convincingly draw it (again, this refers to “vision” which we will discuss later).  And we must be able to SEE or visualize the form on our paper in order to draw it believably.  Think about it, if we do not understand it, or we cannot see it, how can we create an image where others will be able to understand or see it?  The plain and simple answer to that question, it’s not possible.

Being able to create drawings that are faithful to the structure of our subject can be greatly enhanced by learning to “draw through”, and learning to construct our drawings from basic shapes.  For example, when drawing the human head, if we have developed a drawing technique where we identify the mid-line, and eye-line, this will help immensely to maintain a believable structure.  Relying only on the outside contour of the head shape is an unreliable method of capturing the accurate representation of form.  Such drawings can too easily become distorted and seem flat.  At the very least, it takes a great many years, and high levels of natural aptitude (talent) to achieve proficiency at this type of contour drawing.  Furthermore, when we choose to stylize our drawings the methods of constructing from basic shapes, and drawing through have proven very efficient.

Notice the construction lines in this ruff drawing of Ariel.

This is not realistic (a dancing crocodile?), but it becomes convincing in it's form because of the structure. This structure has been accomplished through the use of basic shapes and drawing through.

Cartoons can be highly stylized and simplified, yet with skillful use of line techniques and an eye to structure, they can be very convincing in their illusion of 3-dimensional form.

A good example of how a solid figure can be constructed from the basic shapes.

Complex figure actions built up from basic shapes. Notice the midlines and 'drawing through'.

It is clear that the artist of this comic book illustration understands the structure of his subjects. It shows in how he has sketched this preliminary drawing.

The finished drawing of the same illustration.

One of the most common problems in the inexperienced artist is the lack of understanding of structure, and the inability to see it both in the real world and on the paper in front of them.  When asked to identify on their own drawing where such things as the mid-line would be, they are unable to do so.  I have always found it more difficult to draw a shaggy dog than a short hair breed, because all the underlying structure is obscured.  Nevertheless, when we stylize and simplify it enough, it becomes easier to draw the shaggy dog for the same reason.  We can hide all the structure and it’s attending responsibilities under a mass of fluff.  In such cartoons however, we cannot achieve the same degree of illusion of depth, form, and space.

Two styles of drawing. Both have their strengths and weaknesses.


This is simply means the idea.  Many adjectives can be used to describe an idea.  The concept behind any piece of art is very essential to its value.  The concept is so powerful and influential to the worthiness of a drawing that it can make the difference between success and failure.  A clever and original idea can excuse a multitude of shortcomings in the other areas.

Is the idea clever, cute, funny, sublime, profound, original, inspiring?  Even the most amazing rendering is considered pretty forgettable if it does not have an original and striking concept.

Originality is especially important to the concept.  We’ve all seen copies and knock-offs of already existing ideas.  They are especially offensive when they are not even done well.  I was advised when submitting my portfolio to Disney not to submit any drawings of Disney characters like Mickey Mouse.  The reason; the people who would be judging it were the very people who drew Mickey Mouse for a living, and would hold my drawing to an extremely high standard of pure excellence.  There was no way I would measure up to their expectations.  It would be portfolio submission suicide.  If, on the other hand, I drew my own original character, what could they say?  They may not like it much, but at least they could not tell me the 101 ways that I had drawn it incorrectly.

Take this example of Sonic the Hedge Hog.  Sonic is the licensed intellectual property of somebody else.  It is of limited value to be drawing Sonic as part of your development as an artist.  At least, if you insist on drawing him, do a super-professional job of it (as seen on the right).  The pencil copy seen here is poorly drawn, and handled in a sloppy manner. We may wish to copy techniques of other artists as a learning exercise, but we should always be striving to cultivate our own ability to conceive of good and original ideas.

If you must copy another's idea, at least make it really really good.

If you must copy another's idea, at least make it really really good.

This is a copy of Struzan's work by Peter McKinstry. While a good learning exercise, I would avoid using drawings like this in my portfolio.

Below are some examples of really ingenious ideas that exemplify creativity and originality.

The concept behind this combination photo/illustration is very original and creative.

The concept behind this combination photo/illustration is very original and creative.

Syd Mead made a living with innovative ideas like this one.

This may not be a great masterpiece of illustration, but it sure is clever and cute. (unk. artist)

J.C.Leyendecker came up with this idea of representing the New Year as a baby, and it established an american icon.

J.C.Leyendecker came up with this idea of representing the New Year as a baby, and it established an american icon.

Ideas and Concepts are so critical to any political cartoonist.

Ideas and Concepts are critical to any political cartoonist. (Oliphant)


Okay, this is admittedly very subjective.  That does not in any way diminish the fact that appeal is of extreme importance. When we think of appeal, think of words like “entertaining”, “interesting”, “amusing”, “inspiring”.  Appeal does not simply mean that something is cute or pretty.  Anything that attracts the viewer’s attention, piques their interest, and captures their imagination is to be considered appealing.

Closely connected to all the other topics mentioned here, the appeal of a drawing may be the single most important issue.  Whether we like it or not, at the end of the day the appeal of our work is what determines it’s value.  If people don’t like it, well, they don’t like it.  Have you ever heard someone say that they may not know much about art, but they sure know what they like?  Appeal seems to trump most everything else.

While there are small groups with very peculiar interests, we must recognize the reality that broad, mass-appeal carries certain obvious advantages.  In the end, each of us must find our own niche, whether it’s providing very specialized imagery to that small specialty group, or creating imagery that entertains the masses.  Whoever our chosen audience may be, if we are to enjoy success, they must enjoy our work.

Some may find this type of thing appealing...

...While others prefer this sort of thing.

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then we must find out what the beholder finds appealing.

Simplicity can make for elegance, grace, and beauty. But remember, the draftsmanship becomes all the more critical.

Although appeal may seem to outweigh the other aspects of good drawing, most often high appeal is in fact a product of all the other areas.  There are a number of underlying principals that contribute to the appeal of a drawing, and they bear mentioning here: unity and variety, flow, staging, focal points, and solid drawing (structure).


It’s self-explanatory enough I suppose. Illustration is after all a form of communication.

Usually in illustration we are trying to convey a specific idea based on an action, event, or notion.  If our drawing does not articulate this clearly, then it fails.  In spite of our best intentions, if others do not understand what they are looking at, we have come short of our purpose.

There are two levels of meaning where clarity must be attained.  The surface level would include the actual objects, characters, and setting that we are drawing into our illustration.  After all, who wants to draw a picture of a dog and have someone say “what a nice cow”?

At times we deliberately design some of the elements to be obscure.  We don’t want the viewer to get a clear view of the figure lurking in the background.  We want that to be mysterious.  But, we still want them to see that there is a figure lurking in the background.  Part of achieving clarity is prioritizing.  We want to direct the attention of the viewer.  They must see what we want them to see.  Clarity does not mean that everything on the page has equal detail and attention.  It means that those focal points that we want to be seen are clearly understandable, or “read-able”.

The clarity has to be addressed right from the beginning, as seen in this rough sketch.

Careful staging and composition give clarity to this Mort Drucker cartoon.

To a large degree, clarity is a product of good composition.

Even with everything going on here, the focal point remains the lady's face.

The other level on which we want to achieve some clarity is what may be called the ‘subtext’.  Some call this the metaphorical level.  As any fable has a moral to the story, often our drawings have an underlying message, connotation, or meaning.  Although this message may only be implied through signs and symbols (semiotics), or other devices, we still want it to come through clearly.

We sometimes design this to be very subtle, and therefore may find it lost on some viewers.  This has to be an acceptable risk, but we certainly don’t want it to be misinterpreted or lost entirely.  This subtext is often worked into the abstract design of the composition, such as when we surround a figure with large dark shapes that loom over them as if to signify how they are oppressed.  This is the one type of “Structure” that was mentioned above.

We accomplish clarity in our drawing by careful design, staging, composition, and appropriate levels of rendering, among other things.

This piece by Drew Struzan is loaded with subtext. The placement of characters, the tone, and spatial relationships imply several things that are not explicitly communicated in the content.


When talking about drawing, craftsmanship refers to those areas beyond the draftsmanship or actual rendering of the subjects with the drawing tool.  When I look at a drawing and see smudges, smears, and paper that has been battered and coffee-stained, I think it is an example of poor craftsmanship.

When it comes to painting, craftsmanship includes the quality of the painted surface.  Many paintings are marred by blobs, streaks, hairs, and other extraneous distractions.  It’s about the neatness of the material and it’s presentation.  This does not necessarily have anything to do with the artist’s ability to “Draw”.  With a little bit more care and attention these issues can often be resolved.  But I have found that some people do not seem to be able to draw without creating a mess.  In some cases there does seem to be an inseparable connection between their drawing and craftsmanship, and for them it must be addressed as if it were part and parcel to the art of drawing.

In all fairness, this is from a sketchbook, and I would expect to see this level of craftsmanship in a sketchbook. Believe it or not however, I have had students that turn in "finished" assignments like this.


Personality, emotion, attitude, and mood are vital elements that we must be able to convey and control in our drawing.  These are the things that people relate to.  We want the viewer to become involved in our drawing on an emotional level.  This emotional connection is what gives the viewer the ability to find our drawing appealing and meaningful.  Much could be said about this concept, but suffice it to say that when the viewer becomes emotionally engaged and relates to what they are seeing, it becomes meaningful to them.  Does our drawing evoke an emotional response?  In the final analysis this is the essence of ‘entertainment’ and what we deem as ‘interesting’.

The viewer will most quickly relate to the attitude and personality of characters. These subjects convey lot's of mood in their body language.

In addition to the expressions and postures, lighting effects mood.

Even though we are talking about drawing, we must acknowledge the fact that color is a huge contributor to mood.

Gesture in our drawing plays a big part in achieving a expression.  So let’s talk a bit about gesture.  The gesture of our drawing, whether it is in the posture of a figure, or the flow of a branch of a tree, creates mood and rhythm that are likely to evoke a response from the viewer at an emotional level.  Drawings that are stiff and rigid, figures that stand straight up and down, compositions that are symmetrical and evenly balanced and static, are generally considered boring and uninteresting, because they don’t evoke emotion.  In talking about the kinds of things that tend to get the viewer emotionally involved, certain words seem to come up, such as; tension, rhythm, attitude, personality, and tone.  I sum these all up with the word “Expression”.

Gesture drawings should be capturing movement, attitude, and the flow that connects the entire figure.

A gesture drawing of Ariel by Glen Keane.

Good gesture samples are very valuable to study.

Another good example.

This example by Tom Bancroft shows gesture, color, caricature creating personality.

When drawings are cleaned up, they still need to retain the gesture and personality.

In this example by Bill Mauldin, the line quality and brush strokes contribute a lot to the personality and mood.

While we are talking about the viewer’s response to drawings, it may be useful to mention this;  Amateur and juvenile drawings show things from straight on, flat, eye-level views, no depth, minimal overlapping, everything standing on the same level across the paper, and implied movement or action going from side to side.  This unsophisticated approach does little to stir the emotions or imaginations of the viewer.  They are viewed as boring, unworthy of any attention, praise, or value.  The typical response to this type of drawing is something disdainful, like “my kid could do that”, unless their kid DID do that, and then it’s “isn’t this nice? My kid is such a darling!”.

If we are going to take the time to draw something, let’s make it as expresive as we can.

Tell me there is no personality in this cartoon by Bill Mauldin.

Another cartoon by Bill Mauldin that has expression, attitude, and mood. This one is a Pulitzer Prize winner. The impact is what it is only because of the ironic contradiction between the imagery and the text.


Basically speaking, what’s the point of what we just drew?  Is it telling a story?  Is it teaching?  Is it sending a message? Is it a celebration?  It should be pretty easy to assign a purpose to anything we draw.  After all, we could just say that beauty in and of itself is purpose enough to exist.

The main point here hearkens back to clarity.  If we can identify what the purpose of our drawing is supposed to be, then we must ask; is the way I’ve executed my drawing achieving that purpose?  More specifically, is the way I’ve drawn contributing to that purpose or distracting from that purpose?

Many pieces that may seem weak, simply do not have clarity of purpose.  If we are illustrating a narrative story, then we must have a clear idea of what aspect of the story we are trying to illuminate.  We must remind ourselves as we design and prepare, what purpose we are trying to achieve, and stay focused on that. “Whate’er thou art. act well thy part”.

Just as one example, the Mad Magazine satirist Mort Drucker knows his audience, and knows that his purpose is to lampoon the movie Star Wars. Each drawing such as this, is focused on that goal.


This one is a doozy.  The word “design” has some pretty broad connotations.  It’s everywhere and seems to be associated with just about everything.  Let’s see if we can’t narrow it down a bit for this discussion of drawing.  Design is about the choices we make with all the artistic elements such as shape, line, and tone.

Design is about the three-dimensional as well as the two-dimensional.  In drawing, our sense of design helps us establish our composition.  It precedes any attempt to render a subject to look three-dimensional.  We must first decide how to arrange the shapes, and fill the working space to create the mood and achieve our purpose.  Even after we have locked the various elements of our drawing into place, and we start to shade and render them, we still must be thinking about design.  We continually consider how all the parts of our drawing relate to each other.  We must be able to step back and think of them in an abstract way, as shapes.  In other words, instead of looking at an object as a nose on a face, we look at it as a shape.  We consider it’s size, contour, tone, and location as it relates to the other shapes around it, not as a nose, but as a shape.  We compare it to the corresponding shapes in our model, or reference photograph.

Throughout the course of our drawing we jump back and forth continually from seeing things as 3-D forms to 2-D shapes, always looking for the most interesting way to design them.

Often in drawing, the term design leans more to the flat and graphic connotation.  It seems to reflect the outside contour of a form more than the interior shading and modeling.  The more we stylize a drawing and move away from the realistic representation, the more we rely on design to achieve an appealing look.  There have been many beautiful drawings that balance a strong graphic design quality with shaded and rendered forms.

Most what is going on is flat contour outlines, but the design is brilliant. (Audrey Kawasaki)

Black blobs on white paper. No rendering, all design. (Pablo Picasso)

Can you look beyond the identity of the objects and see them simply as shapes? If so, how do they fit together to make a successful design?


Along with having great ideas we need to be able to have eyes that see.  We need to have great powers of observation, be able to recognize a shape and remember it to duplicate it in our drawing.  Along with this, we need to be able to envision things that do not exist, imaginary things.  This is a huge topic, that encompasses many different ideas, both abstract and tangible, technical and aesthetic.  I cannot begin to do it justice here.

What I do want to touch on is how our vision empowers us to see the structure of things through observation and analysis.  Our vision empowers us to accurately render shapes and forms on our paper, whether they are real or imagined.  Vision is developed to a large degree by studying the successful works of others.  What makes their work so powerful?  Where have they exaggerated, and distorted? Where have they simplified and traded stylized design for realistic representation?  Vision is developed as we concentrate our powers of observation in the world around us.

Is the level of this work attributable just to draftsmanship? I think that what is also happening is a lack of vision, or the ability so SEE what the facial features actualy look like.

We develop our vision over years, not months.  It takes time, and continues to evolve and mature throughout our lifetime.  Ultimately, it is vision that separates they great from the mediocre.

It's hard to tell from this if the artist is "seeing" the form or not.

In a good caricature such as this, the artist not only has to see the reality in front of him, but also have a vision of how to distort it.

In conclusion, let me review by telling you what goes on in my head when I look at a drawing.  To begin with, please realize that I have reviewed literally hundreds and hundreds of portfolios and drawing samples.  Many, if not most were of college level students from the better art schools around the country.  I have studied drawings of many of the industry’s celebrated professionals, and compared my observations with numerous other qualified artists that hail from a variety of backgrounds.  What I have noticed is that it only takes a few drawings samples to get the idea of a person’s ability.  This is especially true when one is looking at a portfolio that has been prepared, because presumably it represents their selected best work.  There have been many times that I’ve come to the conclusion of an individual’s skill level after only a few samples, and found after going on to more and more drawings that I see nothing more that changes my initial impression.  I have discussed this with many people over the years, and they find they same to be true in their experience.

So when I look at a drawing, I see the lines and shading.  I notice if they look controlled and deliberate, or disorganized and chaotic.  I notice if it is clean and orderly.  One of the first things that quickly becomes apparent is if time has been spent on the work, or does it just look unfinished, or hurriedly done?  I see the composition and how the pieces are arranged and organized.  Is my eye directed where to go?  When it gets there do I understand what I am looking at?  Do things make sense, or do I see shapes and forms that seem unexpectedly irregular, distorted, and “wrong”?  I often call this “wonkey”.  Is it fun and interesting to look at?  Do I want to keep looking at it?  Does it bring up any emotions, humor, drama, or suspense that tends to pull me in?  Do I see any things that have cool shapes or designs that capture my attention and imagination?  Is it original and clever, or just like so many other things I’ve seen before?

Hopefully when I first look at the drawing I loose my ability to analyze and dissect, and just get caught up in the picture, just soak it up for awhile.  Then, after a bit I can step back and say, “okay, so what makes this thing work so well?”

I hope this helps.  Now, keeping these things in mind, look over the following drawings and see what you think.  Look for the draftsmanship, appeal, mood and so forth.

Audrey Kawasaki

vector art from Adobe Illustrator.

Pen and ink cross-hatching.

Classical engraving.

J C Leyendecker

One method of drawing preliminary construction.


Japanese or Manga influence.

Classical figure, Pogany.

Super-render nude, Prudhon.

Charles Shultz.

Sketchbook sample page.

Unknown artist.

Chris Sanders and Alex Deblois

A fun little sketch.

Former Disney animator Sandro Cleuzo. This is not him, but a picture done by him.

Zhuangzi, Japanese minimalist.

A "turn-around" model sheet for animation.

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