Saturday, January 24, 2009

Why Copying Someone Else’s Drawing Style is a 2-Edged Sword

Many of the art samples I received when I was a comic book editor had the same problem. The would-be comics artists had learned to draw by looking at other comic book artists. There are certainly a lot of things you can learn by looking at the work of others, and even emulating another artist’s approach to drawing.

However, very often, when you copy the work of another artist, you are aping their surface rendering “style”. That surface rendering style is, to some degree, composed of the drawing tricks, shortcuts or techniques an artist uses to cover up weaknesses in their drawing knowledge. (Is all that decorative line work really defining how the drapery works or is it a surface stylistic flair that helps disguise the fact that the artist doesn’t really know where the tension points are on the drapery or how the anatomy under the drapery affects the folds?)

As a general rule, the best you can be when copying another artist is a second-rate version of the artist being copied. How many Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, Mike Mignola or Jim Lee clones have matched the quality of work produced by their idols? An artist who abandons copying the surface style of another artist in order to forge their own creative path has a chance of equaling or surpassing their idols.

For example, when Bill Sienkiewicz started his comics career, to a large extent he was a Neal Adams emulator. When Bill began stretching himself creatively, he forged a great new and exciting style that was unique. Bill’s new stylistic approach was based on his expanding drawing knowledge.

To get would-be comics artists to expand their drawing knowledge and stop copying the surface styles of other artists, I recommended some drawing exercises, starting with those in Betty Edwards’ “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”. Edwards’ exercises are designed to expand the way artists observe and draw, opening up their creativity. (See the link on the right for more info on this book.)

There were a number of additional drawing exercises I used to recommend for artists trying to get into comics. Here’s one of the best:
At least a few times a week (daily is better), pick a different subject (person, landscape, household object – whatever) and draw that subject in at least five totally different styles and/or media. The styles might include—
-Dry brush
-Blind contour drawing (aka leading edge contour drawing)
-Charcoal or conté
-Paint (water color, acrylic, oil)
-Pen and ink.
-High contrast
-Sculpture (clay or similar malleable medium)

Sculpting is a key part of this exercise. Artists sometimes get comfortable drawing a subject from a certain angle and under specific lighting conditions. By sculpting a human figure, artists can learn—
-Where their drawing knowledge is weak and needs beefing up. (Artists can’t cover up their drawing knowledge as easily on a 3D sculpture as they can with rendering styles on a drawing.

-How the figure looks from all angles, including those angles the artist consciously or unconsciously avoids when drawing. This expands the number of angles the artist will feel comfortable drawing the figure from in the future.

-Upgrade the ciphers for “objective reality” that artists program their brains with so they can draw “out of their heads” (without reference) more convincingly.

-How the subject looks under a variety of lighting conditions.

As always, comments are welcome!


Bunche (pop culture ronin) said...

In recent years the artist who most exemplified the points made here, in my opinion anyway, is Bryan Hitch. The guy started out as an Alan Davis clone to an alarming degree, and while his work today still bears a certainly stylistic influence traceable back to Davis, Hitch's work has a look to it that's less "cartoony" than Davis' standard look. His recent run on Fantastic Four illustrates this (no pun intended) and Hitch's stuff strikes me as striving for a sense of photo-realism within the realms of spandex opera fantasy figures.

Dan Fraga said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dan Fraga said...

Carl, you're absolutely right. Learning form and function are the basic building blocks of constructive drawing (drawing from the imagination)

I believe that if would-be comic book artists were to follow your advice to the letter, they will most definitely be better off if they had not. Learning the "Why" is infinitely more important than the "how".

Only when someone learns the basic foundations, can they begin to tell the truth with what's in their imaginations and not a second or third hand cypher of what was in some other artist's mind.

Many thank you's for this blog. You have my gratitude. -DF

Mark B said...

I always thought Mingola was a Frazetta clone :)

Working with Mike on the Dr Strange graphic novel was fun, we basically geeked out discussing his layouts , lets do Frazetta here, make this Wrightson stuff, stick Hermann colors here, do those little scribbly lines you do, this has to be Rackham trees, can you do Badger clouds there. We weren't fully evolved artists yet but we were both romping through riffs to form the work. I think the trick is to treat other artists like their a vocabulary to use, not to copy them cold.

Heck I just "swiped" a Chaykin layout, big full figures with a couple of insets heads as a pacing break in a sequence. But I'm not drawing like Howard at all.

Tony Figueroa said...

Carl, part of the problems facing amateur artists like me is that despite calls for artists to not imitate someone else, people who draw like someone else are hired for gigs. That sends the message that this is what gets you a job.