The best advice I can give you about becoming a better artist is to carry a sketchbook with you all of them time and to draw in it whenever you can. There are many reasons why very few people ever do this. I didn't do it for many years and I wish I had, so this is the first of several posts wherein I will try to convince you to do it.
Carrying a sketchbook is very, very important. A sketchbook is your best opportunity to catch real life as it passes by you. Why is this important? Because what makes great storytelling, animation, characters and films of every kind is that they capture a truth about real life. Any film that can show us a reflection of life as we know it will always resound deep within us. "Lady and the Tramp" may be about dogs, but what makes it such a great film is that we watch it and think "yes, I've always thought that being a dog would feel like that" and, even more importantly, the dogs in that movie act like very real people and have all the same hopes and fears as we all do: the fear of not belonging, of being replaced by someone your family loves more than you, of getting old and not being useful anymore, just to name a few.
The truth never gets old or uninteresting. Any film that captures a truth about life will be compelling to an audience, no matter what other flaws it might have. There are so many films made today by people who don't try to say anything about life or attempt to portray real people - they're too busy trying to be slick or clever or stylish or something else.
Anyway, if you haven't listened to Brad Bird's recent podcast at the Spline Doctors, he covers this idea pretty well. He talks about how "The Incredibles" is more than a film about superheroes. It transcends the superhero genre because it's about a family and a guy with real problems, not contrived ones.
This is a point I belabor all the time, but it's because if there's one thing that animation suffers from it's a tendency to be in-bred and fall back on animation clichés rather than re-invent itself and search for new ideas and fresh avenues. So many animated movies and TV shows seem to want to repeat what's been done instead of breaking new ground.
Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that a sketchbook is more than a way to improve your drawing, it forces you to focus on the world around you and analyze it. Just trying to record the world on paper makes you observe and study everything around you instead of just letting the world wash over you without a glance. True, you can get the same thing by just being an incorrigible people-watcher whenever you're in public, which you should do as well. If you're not fascinated by people and what makes them do what they do, I can't imagine why you're in the business of telling stories or interested in acting through animation.
And in an even more direct way, carrying a sketchbook will help free you from acting clichés because when you keep a sketchbook, if you are drawing people that you see in everyday life, then you are drawing them as they are in real life and capturing their real emotions and movement, which will help build up a library in your mind of how real people move. This is a good antidote to relying on the same old tried-and-true animation stock poses, acting and business that get rehashed and reused all too frequently in our industry.
Anyway, in the next posts about sketchbooks I will run down some of the reasons why people hate carrying sketchbooks and do my best to talk you into forgetting those things and getting in the habit of carrying one and using it. Ultimately, you won't do it unless you enjoy it, so my ultimate aim is to help you get to a point where you can find sketching to be fun.
Reason #1 people don't carry sketchbooks: Everybody hates having people looking over their shoulder while they're drawing.
This is the biggest reason I hated carrying a sketchbook for so long. In animation, most of our drawing output is done in private, where we can re-draw something over and over until it's perfect. Some people are good at doing a perfect drawing on the first try but not me. I need to try a lot of different things and go over a drawing a few times to come up with a result that I like. With a sketchbook, that's just not possible - you only get one shot at it. And whenever you're out drawing in public, people are bound to look over your shoulder and try to see what you're doing and it's hard not to feel like they're judging you.
When I was at CalArts we regularly went to the L.A. Zoo to draw the animals. There were always a lot of elementary-age schoolkids there at the same time and they had absolutely no compunction about looking over your shoulder and passing comment about what you were doing.
It's funny - I don't know what people expect to see what they look in a sketchbook but they always seem mighty disappointed. I think people expect to see what they would see in a Hollywood version of a sketchbook. Whenever someone is sketching from life in a movie, it's always supposed to look tossed off and effortless but it's really some totally finished and labored-over drawing that some artist spent hours rendering.
Any real sketchbook is full of misfires, false starts and stumbles, with a few successes sprinkled here and there. If you were capable of doing a perfect drawing every time, you wouldn't need to carry a sketchbook! But the quickest way to learn how to do perfect drawings is to do a lot of crappy ones first...and learn from them.
So don't view your sketchbook as a place for perfect drawings. That's not what it's for. It's for learning. If you pressure yourself to do perfect drawings you'll never carry a sketchbook. That's too much pressure and it takes all the fun out of sketching.
Don't focus on how good or bad your sketches are, instead focus on doing your best to capture what you see and learn from it. In order to carry a sketchbook around I had to just tell myself that my sketchbook is just for learning, not filling with beautiful sketches. Focus on just doing a drawing. It doesn't have to be perfect. You'll get a lot out of just moving your pen around and trying to capture what you see. You'll inherently sense what could be better and apply that next time. Try not to get frustrated - just remember a sketchbook is not about doing perfect finished drawings. A sketchbook is all about learning, and when are you learning more than when you're making mistakes? A mistake is a perfect opportunity to figure out what you could do better next time.
Anyway, back to the point: if some kid looks at your drawings and passes some judgment, that's just a kid being a kid. Laugh it off or, better yet, record what the kid said in your sketchbook. That definitely fits into the "record life as it happens" category. What's better fodder for a document that's all about recording real life than writing down what some honest kid said in a very real moment? Or trying to capture that expression he had on his face as he looked at your sketches? That's what makes kids so great: they almost always react honestly and say what they think without considering how you might take it or how it might make you feel...they're just honest (for the most part). There's no malice.
However, it's inevitable that you run into adults who want to see your sketchbook as well. Just a few months ago, one of my wife's friends picked up my sketchbook from a table (without asking) and started flipping through it. Then when she's about halfway through it she says "Oh, can I look?" ("Be my guest" I say, as if I had a choice). She flips through it and puts it back down, and her only response was "hm".
Now any fellow artist who looks at your sketchbook is going to say nice things, because they know how hard it is and besides, it's the polite thing to do. But for some reason non-artistic types don't always grasp this. It's part of the hazard of being an artist. You just have to let it go. Laugh it off. It used to bother me but as I got older I realized that I was letting people like that keep me from doing what I wanted to do, which is carry a sketchbook. And I was tired of letting people keep me from doing it, so I just decided to get over it. If I'm going to be brave enough to carry a sketchbook in public and let other people see it, good for me. If someone doesn't have the common sense to be polite when they look through it, that says a lot more about them than it does about me. And if you ever find yourself in the same position as I did, just remember that they aren't doing it intentionally: people who aren't artists don't really understand what you're trying to do, and they don't realize that what they're saying might be irritating or insulting to you.
The best part is that this goes back to the observation part. I already knew what this woman's reaction would be because I know her and I know all about her personality. She's just that type of person. She's never shy about her opinions and she isn't very open to ideas other than hers once she's made up her mind. She doesn't have much patience or respect for artistic endeavors (her focus is much more on business and the financial side of things). She isn't mean, she's just very direct and she's actually a very sweet person and always there when you need a hand. The whole thing was totally worth it to see her character in action. If I could ever create an animated personality that had one-tenth of her real spirit it would blow people's minds.
Anyway, don't let a fear of other people keep you from doing what you want to do and developing as an artist. The worst that will happen is that someone will look at your artwork and say it's not very good. This is pretty rare but it's the risk we run as artists. How good we are as artists is not the measure of our worth as people. Our ability to be humble and admit we still have things to learn speaks much more about who we are than our artistic ability. And anyone brave enough to sketch from life and run the risk of failure in an attempt to get better has the right to be very proud of themselves. After all, it's much easier to sit on the sidelines and not attempt anything, but that route will never make you a better artist.
So what kind of blogger would I be if I nagged you to get over what other people think and then didn't share some of my own sketchbook pages with you? Not a very good one, but I still hate having to put my money where my mouth is. Anyway, as I said: I don't focus on doing good drawings. I focus on recording what I see and working towards being a better artist, not filling a sketchbook with perfect pretty drawings. This is for two reasons: number one, I can't. It's totally beyond me to do perfect drawings while I am trying to record the messy and confusing life erupting all around me. Every time I draw someone in a pose, I am drawing it for the first time, because everyone moves differently and does actions differently than anybody else would. So I am always trying to capture something new. This is not a good way to be perfect. If I wanted to be perfect I would just draw the same standard poses over and over again. My sketchbook would be more slick-looking but I wouldn't be learning very much.
Number two, it's not any fun to try to do perfect drawings, because (for me) that's not a realistic goal to set for myself. So I take all the pressure off myself by just letting myself draw. I do my best and I get just as frustrated as the next person when a drawing looks like garbage, but I just dive into the next one and try to do better. That's what makes it fun: trying to do better, and trying to capture something entertaining and unique about every amazing individual I happen to see. So take the pressure off of yourself and just start trying. The more you draw, the more improvement you will see and the more fun it will become. And the better you get at drawing, the more drawing becomes second nature and you can focus on observation and really capture the beauty of real life, which should really be our goal, not filling books with perfect drawings.
Of course, mostly I try to capture a movement or a pose with the whole body of the subject. However, I can't help but draw a lot of faces as well. I see so many people for just an instant and I can't resist the impulse to try to capture their face and their character as it comes through in their face. I'm not very good at capturing likenesses but I am trying very hard to get better at that. Sometimes the feeling of the person comes through and that can be pretty pleasing.
Captured this guy at the movies, eating his popcorn rather intently.
More faces. This guy looked like an older, more tired version of Prince Charles.
Anyway, there you go. I'll scan some more stuff from my sketchbook for next time.