Wednesday, September 21, 2016

What I Will Not Teach You to Draw

Anyone remember these guys in that little pamphlet from the 1990s?

I remember being so excited when I was a kid because I knew I could definitely draw that turtle, but no, I never did send in my sketch or take this course. But drawing cartoon characters is how a lot of kids get interested in art. It's easy to see why: the lines are already there for you to copy, and most of the guess work has been eliminated. The hardest part is usually where to place that first line on your paper, because it determines whether or not your whole drawing will fit when you've finished.

Darkwing Duck (Disney) drawn by me, circa ©1995.
So this drawing of Darkwing Duck was something I did a lot. I mean, A LOT. I was a nerd in high school and I was known for being able to draw just about anything Disney, but Darkwing was my go to cartoon. I can still draw him in any action pose I want - some 20 years later - because I'd studied him so much. I was even taking AP Art in high school but didn't listen to my teacher much on how important it was to study and draw from life because I thought I was already a great artist and liked drawing cartoons. I regret that deeply.

Flash forward to today, when I get requests for me to teach how to draw Manga or Disney characters, or any kind of animation/illustration. I simply say no. Manga, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, is a style of Japanese illustration used in comic books and graphic novels. Think hair every color of the rainbow and really big eyes. It's cool, engaging, colorful, and easy to see why people want to draw that way. I was hooked myself when I was a kid. (When are they ever going to make that Robotech movie??) It's a beautiful style of cartooning, but it is not what I teach, and honestly anyone who is a professional animator or illustrator - be it for Disney or Studio Ghibli - that person is a professional artist who has already mastered how to draw from life. Every single one of those illustrators had to take a load of art courses learning how to draw skeletons and every part of the human body, how to draw a bowl of fruit, how to properly shade a circle to make it look like a sphere, how to capture the texture of a feather, how to draw movement. Their illustrations look so easy and effortless to us because they have spent years studying every curve of the human face, the way hair falls, the way muscles change when we tense an arm or brace our legs for a race. Those artists practice again, and again, and again, much like a musician perfecting their musical tone. Then - and only then - will that artist's cartoon images look so good, because they've learned how to draw a realistic version of a person and can then boil those lines down to the essentials and create simplified cartoon characters that still convey personality, emotion, and natural human movement (or in the case of Darkwing, more duck-like movement).

3D Darkwing Duck study drawn by me, circa ©1995.
I'm sure there are always exceptions to the rule - there are plenty of self-taught artists who are successful and take a different path, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But even for those artists - like ALL artists - we reach a point where we know something is missing in our arsenal of tools and we decide to fix that. When I was a teenager I never cared about drawing realistically because it was slow and boring. I only wanted to work with flashy colors and abstract ideas. But now at the age of 39, I'm obsessed with observing the world around myself and capturing it as accurately as possible, and I find that it thoroughly enriches all of my other artistic endeavors, abstract or not. It's like the old saying goes, once you know the rules you'll know how to break them.

So yes, I know how to draw Manga and Disney and pretty much anything like that but my focus is teaching the fundamentals - drawing realistically from life and from direct observation - because I firmly believe it'll give you more satisfaction as a budding artist than just copying the lines another artist laid down first.