Thursday, February 26, 2009

Drawing What You Hate

The last post outlined a drawing exercise designed to help would-be comic book artists expand their drawing knowledge.

This entry will outline another exercise that can help artists expand their knowledge and grow creatively.

A good comic book artist has to be able to convincingly draw a wider variety of subjects that most other representational artists. Other types of representational visual artists often specialize in certain subjects. For example, a commercial artist might specialize in motor vehicles or architectural renderings or celebrity caricatures… the list is nearly endless. Many fine artists also stick to a tight subject grouping.

When a comic artist is handed a plot or a script, it’s his/her job to render all of the subjects the writer calls for with equal credibility. If the writer calls for a shot of a baby in a crib and the artist can’t draw small children convincingly, the awkward results will look out of place compared to the art in the rest of the story. The unconvincing child will stick out like a sore thumb. (Or, the artist may try and “cheat” and use a silhouette, or only show the baby in a long shot.)

This not only puts the artist in a bad light, it pulls the reader out of the story, disrupting the reader’s suspension of disbelief. That’s the equivalent of a Cardinal sin for a sequential visual storyteller.

Some artists love a challenge and will, on heir own, aggressively tackle learning how to draw new subjects. Many artists, however, if left to their own devices, will usually stick to those subjects they already know fairly well and will avoid the discomfort of learning how to draw subjects they don’t have to.

Many artists who try to break into the comic book business draw the same types of subjects repeatedly while avoiding other subjects like the plague. The subjects in these two categories vary from artist to artist.

Those longing to work in super hero comics often generate art samples containing dynamic shots of figures flying and slugging it out. Even though many super hero stories feature city scenes and characters in civilian identities, samples by would-be comics artists often lack shots of civilians wearing street clothes with convincing drapery, or realistic-looking cars. Animals comprise another category often absent in comic book artist samples. Many samples also show a lack of basic perspective knowledge.

Artists steer clear of some subjects consciously – avoiding what they don’t enjoy drawing, or what they don’t yet know how to draw convincingly. Artists also unconsciously avoid some subjects.

Versatility and depth of drawing knowledge is one of the major considerations an editor has when deciding which artist to hire for a job. If all other considerations* are equal, the artist who can draw more subjects at a high level will have a distinct advantage over the competition.

For an artist to expand the number of subjects that he/she can draw well, they need to concentrate on the subjects they avoid both consciously and unconsciously.

If you are an artist and want to expand your drawing knowledge and increase your “subject quiver”, make a list of all of the subjects you KNOW you’ve been avoiding. Be brutally honest. If you hate drawing dog, add it to the list. If you avoid complex perspective shots, put it on the list. Can’t stand the thought of drawing toddlers, put them on the list.

Next, to try and identify the subjects you don’t realize that you need to learn how to draw, list the various subjects that appear in a number of comics over the course of many months. Be attentive so you don’t again miss the items that have escaped your notice before.

For example, the tires on a car have a number of multi-level planes and curves that need to be understood in order to be drawn properly, especially when seen at an angle. Up to now you may have unconsciously avoided this by silhouetting all of the tires you drew, or by awkwardly cropping your vehicles.

Do your buildings really look like businesses or residences? Do they exist in convincing perspective? Does the way they are rendered reflect the materials they are made from? A old building made from masonry should not have the same feel or texture as a steel and glass structure.

Or, when a script calls for an office scene, you may fall back on the same simple ciphers for a desk and chair that you’ve been using for years. It may be time to actually look at how different desks and chairs are designed. If you are drawing a story taking place in the 2009, you should not be drawing the same desk and chair that you’d draw in a story set in the 1959.

After compiling the list, you should relentlessly tackle each item on the list. Try to make significant progress on at least a few subjects per week.

If you have difficulty conquering a tough subject, refer to the drawing exercises in Betty Edwards’ “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.”

You can also first break the subject down into its most simple shapes and build it up from there. Under some lighting conditions, if you squint at the subject you’re drawing, the subject will appear to be more high contrast. (Running photo reference though a copy machine or scanner with high contrast settings will save you the eye strain!) You can then use a large pen or brush to block out the high contrast dark areas to get a feel for the subject. Then you can attack the subject again with a more detailed rendering approach.

Some people like to trace photo reference to learn how to draw new subjects. Tracing can be an effective learning exercise IF the artist concentrates on learning the structure of the subject as you trace. Be careful not use tracing photo reference as a crutch. There are artists who become slaves to photo reference. If they can’t find the right shot to trace, they either turn out an unconvincing drawing, or they avoid the subject and hurt the storytelling.

If you truly learn how a subject is structured by tracing it, you’ll be able to draw the subject convincingly from a variety of angles without having to continue to trace it.

Use whatever method that works for you.

Often, after “mastering” a subject that he/she used to avoid, an artist will experience a great feeling of accomplishment.

*These can include visual storytelling technique, dynamic figure drawing, use of light and shadow, rendering style…