Monday, July 31, 2006

Design and Drawing

When I first went to CalArts in 1987 the very first class I had on my first day was design class. I thought to myself, "I'm going to be a big-time animator. Who needs design?" and I would spend much of my time in the class sitting and drawing (and not listening) while our great design teacher Bob Winquist talked, which is pretty much how I got through high school.

It only took me about fifteen years to realize that design is the key to everything in our business, especially being a big-time animator.

People who can draw well are good designers. Much of what we think of as "good draftsmanship" is just good design.

For years and years I thought that the key to good draftsmanship was knowing the structure of things. I thought I would produce good life drawings if I knew every muscle and every bone. I used to spend a lot of my free time drawing from anatomy books.

Then I read one of Robert Fawcett's books on life drawing. He claimed that he didn't really know all of the muscles. Basically he claimed he looked at the model and drew what he saw. He used the properties of design to create a pleasing drawing.

When I read this it was so shocking to me that I didn't understand it at first.

It makes total sense though. Maybe this is obvious to most of you. When you look at a great life drawing, are you responding to the fact that the scapula is in the right place? Or are you responding to the graceful curves of the body captured on paper, and the way they seem to occupy space, even though they are drawn on flat paper?

The latter, of course, but I never thought about that, or the implications of that: design is more important to a successful drawing than knowledge of structure. Don't get me wrong, I think a knowledge of structure is important too, but I think it's secondary to a good sense of design.

I've known a lot of people who could draw really well, and I have to say that I think most of them had a natural sense of design. They weren't completely aware of how they were exploiting good design, because it came naturally to them. I think that it's hard for people like that to articulate what they are doing because it comes effortlessly to them and they aren't really conscious of it. Then there are other people who have to learn design and make a deliberate effort to use it while they draw. These people may not always be the best artists but sometimes are probably better teachers because they can speak a bit more about what they are doing.

You may already know all of this or you may think that it is nonsense. But you can't deny that certain drawings are very powerful and have a deep impact on you when you see them. You don't always know why but you gravitate towards that drawing. And another drawing you see may not appeal to you very much. Why? It has to be design. There are certain elements of design that everyone seems to respond to. But there seems to be a frustrating lack of material written about design and what makes it work. And what you can find written about design is about design in the abstract and doesn't specifically apply to what we do.

So I made a list the other day of all the design principles I can think of and I am going to try and illustrate all of them here with examples. It may take a while to get through them all.

The internet is wonderful because so many people post amazing artwork. You can surf from blog to blog and see one piece of amazing art after another.

But just letting great artwork wash over you doesn't teach you much. What makes it work? Why is one piece better than another? These are the questions I always wonder about, and nobody ever seems to address. Or am I just not going to the good sites?

You have the ability to figure all this out yourself. Every artist makes choices. Just stop, look at the beautiful artwork, and ask yourself: why did they do this? Why did they do that?

Anyway, that's what I did here here. I figured I would start with some "simple" drawings. By that I mean there's not a lot of distracting rendering or anything. But there's no doubt this drawing is striking. So why is that? I am simply trying to analyze what makes me respond to the drawing. I am trying to articulate and analyze something that I feel in my gut...not easy to do.

I am formatting these on 8 1/2 by 11 paper so I can print them out and keep them in a binder that I have been filling with stuff on drawing for a couple of years now. Feel free to do the same.

Click to read and see these better.

As always leave a comment if you get something out of what I've written. If you think it's all hogwash then tell me that too. Any viewpoints or observations from others are always welcome.


Anonymous said...

I never thought of it either but since I started drawing 20+ years ago I would view others work and ask why they did it this way or that way.
I'm glad you pointed out Design so I better know what I'm trying to research and understand.

As a silent reader I've gained much information from your topics over time, this time though I decided to say Thanks!
I'm sure i'm not the only one mooching off your knowledge! :)

bboy said...

i would like to post some observations as well.. when i look at the drawings.. for me... my eye goes towards the thicker lines first.. .. long ago i was taught that.. thicker and darker lines.. seem to attract the eye and also standout. In the top two drawings. I could understand why someone might do that.. to have the interest in the face. The first donkey at the top has darker lines along the face area, the horse next to it, seems to have thicker lines on the saddle which lead to the face. I don't quite understand the bottom left one.. why darker lines on the bottom of the body? bottom right.. along the neck, to the head?

here's a question though.. if thicker lines make something come forward.. why put thicker lines on the head of the donkey. (top left) would this not seem to "flatten" out the drawing... .. because the head and body start to compete for attention? or is this intentional.. so that perspective or depth is overruled by the focal point.?. being the head.

RoboTaeKwon-Z said...

Great post Mark!! Your description of Bob's design class sure does bring back memories.
I had a similar revelation after reading on of Fawcett's books. It helped take the drudgery out of drawing for me. I still think it's important to study the figure, but instead of spending hours drawing cross sections of muscles and bones out of anatomy books, I spend more time observing real arms and legs and how they act and react in real life.

mark kennedy said...

Thanks for the comments! Anonymous - thanks for the feedback. Comments always help let me know people are out's helpful.

bboy - great stuff. My guess is that Searle isn't really doing the thick and thin so consciously - I think he did these quickly with a fountain pen and when you do that, you just get a random thick and thin without so much control. I could be wrong...but these are from a sketchbook he did while watching "sex shows" in the Netherlands (so you can only imagine what the horse was doing there). So I don't know how much thought he was putting into where thick and thin went.
The rule on thick and thin I always heard was to put the thin lines on the top and the thick ones on the bottom of the figure, so that the underside had more weight. Of course you are right that thick lines come forward as well. Good point!

Robo - exactly! So you have Fawcett's books too? Man I wish I had found them years ago...better late than never. But you are right...I actually enjoy life drawing now! Amazing.

Anonymous said...


This is a great post. I think that design is a skill that has been deteriorated by the computer, rather than enhanced. While the tools may have become more precise and facile, our eyes are not weathered by experience and experimentation in quite the same way.
When I think of the salience of design over sculptural depiction, two artists come to mind: Hans Bacher and Shane Glines. For me, these guys create magical images by referring to reality through design, rather than literally.
For a while, I was enchanted by hyper-realistic "concept art." I am finding now, increasingly, that I cannot get emotionally invested into these images. The principle that Bacher (and also Maurice Noble and his boys--"Noble Boy" is frickin great) seems to understand better than anyone is that we have a limited range of perception in an image: you can't make every aspect The Most Important Aspect. The strategic use of a selected hierarchy (consciously selected or otherwise) seems to separate the good from the great.


matt said...

Wow. This might be the mother of all drawing topics. Great start in the analysis, Mark. Looking forward to more.

I wonder how long it took Searle to sketch those horses. Seconds? He goes right for the essence and there's your horse.

I'll check out Fawcett. Thanks for this and future recommendations.

K McLeod said...

It's Curoius I read what you wrote and I spent my lunch break staring a the picture but for some reason I don't find the hoese and donkey to be apealing or worth looking at for more than a couple of minutes and I don't know why. Now I'm sitting here wondering why I don't like the picture, well If I figure out why I'll be sure to let you know.


chickennuggets said...

That's not a horse, it's a zebra!

Jayenti Collins said...

love the post mark! i have to agree that most great artists are great designers. when i read your post i thought of scooter tidwell. i know he was a graphic designer before he turned to animation and his storyboards and art are gorgeous to look at. he is an uber-talented designer and it makes him that much better an artist!

Anonymous said...

Mark- Great post- I love checking these out.

Question- can you post your list of design principles?

I had been reading one of your other posts and started to try and list them but couldn't get remember them all. Since you mentioned a list and that you were going to cover them over the next few weeks, could you post them?

Zac (can't remember my damn password)

fredland said...

as always, another thought provoking and educational post. love the blog!

a good example that comes to my mind is Bruce Timm. sure he can draft the human figure but it's his DESIGN of the human figure, the poses he's able to strike, that makes his characters exude personality, sexuality and heroism.

so good it makes me wanna puke.

Abraham said...

It's refreshing to see someone talk about design in this way! And I totally agree.

Don de Castro said...

I remember reading in one of Marcelo Vignali's first post about life drawing on his blog. He said that he realized after a few years of going to figure drawing workshops, that he was not drawing the figure, he was designing it!

When I read that it struck me, and now with your added insight it makes that much more sense.I try to remind myself that I am designing the figure not drawing whenever I go to the my life drawing workshops.

Thanks for feeding me with wholesome drawing goodness!

Desirée said...

Being a silent reader just like usuario anĂ³nimo, thanks a lot!! i even used to print out your scans in the office (shhh...) for practising later at home. I'm 23 and have soo much to learn, yet i always find new ways of facing drawing here! Thanks!

mark kennedy said...

Thanks so much for the comments everyone...good thoughts! Keep it up!

Kevin-thanks for saying you don't like 'em. Taste is subjective. Searle is not on everyone's list of favorites, I'm sure. Maybe you'll like someone I post about next!

Zac - I don't have it typed up or anything. Also I don't want to post it until I kinda explain a lot of it. If I get it kind of coherent I'll e-mail it to you.

Thanks again for all the great comments everyone! Except you nuggets. Who would put a saddle on a zebra?!?

Danarchy said...

Design done well is definatly something that is hard to do, but does seem to be more intuative to some people rather then others. I am not one of those intuative people. I struggle with design alot, I shared the exact same view point you had, being "well if I know my anatomy I will be a better deisgner." and even though this is true to a certain extent I agree that there is more to it then just that. thanks for the help with my search for the "more to it" great read

Kevin Skarritt said...

Great post!!

In 1968 (at the ripe age of 7) I remember very clearly the time when my father told me how important it was to be able to draw as part of how you communicated with people. He was an engineer with GM and I was on that same path until college where I switched to Biology -- and a minor in Fine Art. Over the years I've thanked him thousands of time (in my mind) for that lesson.

Your post, however, is the one of the best explanations of WHY his lesson was so important. It's all about design!! As the president of a creative design firm, I struggle with bringing on employees who "get it". It's not about pretty pictures as much as communicating ideas effectively through great design.

Thanks for putting the idea into words.

- Kevin Skarritt

Benedetta said...

Thanks so much for this beautifull blog ! You help me so much in my I spent too much time to learn the anatomy of figure, but I feel that my mind is close and the works seem you give me the key to fly away and at last I can express me in my real form!
Thanks , thanks so much !

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Anesha said...

Hi Nice Blog . I don't really know a lot about Human Anatomy study or art, but that's just my 2 cents. Really great job though, Krudman! Keep up the good work!