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.
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.
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:
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Below are some examples of really ingenious ideas that exemplify creativity and originality.
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.
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 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.
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.
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’.
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”.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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