Thanks to all that posted their comments on the last post, that's already many more people than I thought would read such a long and dry post...without even any pictures to spice it up. Many people wrote some really insightful comments and added to my thoughts with their own impressions of the subject at hand. In this post I hope to expand a bit more on what I was trying to say, because I don't know that I really nailed what I was trying to express yet. This topic really shows how difficult it is to write about artistic subjects because they can be nebulous as well as very subjective.
I assume it goes without saying that what I do here is write about what works for me, artistically. It might shock some people to hear that I never go to instructed life drawing, I only go to uninstructed sessions. I have not had very good experiences with most life drawing teachers and I have found it far more rewarding to read everything I can and analyze my own work to determine where I am falling down and what to do about it. Most of the teachers I have worked with seem to be pitching a formula for drawing each part of the body and that has never felt like the right approach to me, so I probably haven't worked hard enough to find the right teacher. Anyway, my approach changes all the time and I adapt to learn the best way I can constantly. Everyone has different needs and learns their own way. Everyone is missing a different piece of the puzzle and in my case realizing the importance of design was very helpful to me, because I was erring too far on the other side of trying to literally transcribe what I was seeing.
Perhaps some people were under the impression that I was saying you should go to life drawing, glance at the model for a second, and then draw whatever the heck you wanted on your paper, like maybe a drawing of Spongebob in the same pose as the model. That's not at all what I was advocating.
So let's talk about this subject in a different way. When you're designing a character for animation, you have an infinite amount of shapes to choose from to build that character. So when you are facing the blank paper, what criteria do you use to make your choices? What's your basis for choosing this shape, this costume, that set of features to create this character? Do you just draw whatever comes to mind?
No, a good animator always goes to character. By that I mean that everything is determined by the personality of the character. When you think about how he holds his body, how he combs his hair, what kind of clothes he wears, it all comes out of thinking how that character would really be, just like a good actor decides these things for a role in a movie. A good animator doesn't draw a goofy looking character just to be silly or recycle what's been done before. A good animator designs a character based on who that character really is and how that would manifest itself visually. We all can tell a lot about people by their outward appearance and a good character design plays into that.
Secondary to the character issue is the shapes of the character. A good designer picks a good variety of shapes to give the character interest and visual appeal, but also uses shapes that help describe who the character is. If a character is strong then you might design them with broad shoulders and big muscles. If a character is small and weak you might design them with little arms and slight shoulders.
And if a character is prickly and snippy you might use more triangles in your design because triangles are a pointy, aggressive shape. You might design a grandmother with soft round shapes so she looks kind and warm. You might use definite, angular changes of direction in your lines for a character who's heroic and decisive, and you might use flowing lines with less definition for a character who's wishy-washy.....
Anyway you get the idea. You use the personality of the character to help make your decisions.
And that's part of what makes life drawing hard for me. You don't know the character of the model, really, so that doesn't inform your drawing. Walt Stanchfield was always pushing his students to make up a personality and a story for the models that they were drawing in his gesture class. The reason he told the students to do that is so that they wouldn't just copy the model, they would use the model as a jumping-off point to embellish, to create a story and a gesture that went beyond just drawing a figure on paper.
But that's gesture drawing and this post is about life drawing. In life drawing, you aren't projecting a personality onto the model to tell a story, you are trying to observe what you see and capture what you are seeing on paper.
So here's what all of this has been trying to say: that I realized the key to life drawing (for me) is design. By that I mean that the best drawings I've done in life drawing are when I captured the model on paper using design principles to guide me (just as I would use personality to guide me in character design or in gesture class).
Okay, let me use some visual aids here to step through what I mean. Let's just talk about the deltoid (the shoulder muscle) for this example.
So here's a deltoid. Okay, what shape is it? Is it a rectangle? Or an oval?
Obviously, it's neither. It is not a square or an oval or any other basic shape. In reality it's a complex form in space. In real life it has a surface that is covered by thousands of microscopic changes in direction. When viewed from the side it loses it's rectangular look and appears more like a triangle, and besides that every single person in the world has a different shaped deltoid. Men and women have differently shaped deltoids. Muscular people have differently shaped ones than flabby people. They can't even be clearly distinguished on some people.
Here are some more angles of deltoids, to show how it looks different depending on it's position to the body (like if the arm is raised) and your position relative to the subject.
Some people have a certain formulaic shape for the deltoid that they just draw every time. But that approach looks formulaic and boring...all of your figures will always look the same. And we were talking about trying to observe and capture what you see, right? So what's going to be our basis when figuring out what shape to use?
Here's a tracing of the deltoid in the photo. So is that how we should draw it? Did we successfully capture exactly what we saw? Did we succeed if we somehow magically drew exactly every piece of the model exactly as it appears on newsprint?
No, of course not. We are drawing lines on paper. The model is not made up of lines. the model is made up of (again) complex forms in real space. A real person's skin has millions of different planes and changes of direction on it's surface.
So, again, that's why I say we have only two things to guide us here - the appearance of the model and design principles.
All right, back to our question: how can we figure out what shape to use to draw our deltoid?
Well, first we have our model's appearance. Your first goal should be to capture the character of your particular model's deltoid. What is unique about the model's deltoid? Is it more angular or rounded? More muscular or flabby? Deltoids look different from every angle, so be careful to observe the kind of shape it is and draw it so it doesn't look like it's stuck on the wrong way.
But still you have to describe in lines something that is a form in space. This is where design comes in (and it can be a subtle interpretation or a little more caricatured, depending on your style and needs). As you draw in the deltoid, you should be thinking of how it will fit with all of the other shapes around it. If you draw the trapezius above it with a gentle curve, you might want to make the deltoid a little more angular for contrast. If you made the trapezius with more of an angular feel to it, you might want to draw the deltoid more rounded to contrast and create a pleasing design. Or you might want to make both the trapezius and deltoid angular on the side of the body that's leaning towards it to give it a "squash" while drawing the trapezius and deltoid on the other side of the body with a more rounded feel to indicate a "stretch".
As you draw the complex area of everything around the deltoid - the traps, the neck, the head, the pectorals, the arms and everything else, you use design to capture what you see on the model and arrange it into a pleasing picture. Design becomes your filter that you run everything through to make all of the "parts" feel like they complement with each other while making sure it feels like one organic form, not a bunch of perfectly but separately drawn parts.
And even more importantly, design is also your guide for deciding what to leave out. Every real person is a mass of muscle groups both large and small, many of which show on the surface, as well as the bony landmarks of the skeleton that show on the surface, large shadows, tiny shadows, not to mention hair, fingernails, toenails, wrinkles, freckles, birthmarks...if you threw everything in that you saw it would be a mess. You edit out what doesn't work, based on design.
Some laymen might think that because Michaelangelo's figure drawings look so convincing that he was good at "drawing exactly what he saw". That's not true at all, he made tons of choices as he drew: he eliminated some of the shadows and organized the ones that he drew into a pleasing (yet very convincing) design. He made a design choice to draw that forearm as an egg-type shape contrasted with the blocky shape of the wrist, and so on.
If you want to see a good illustration of an artist that (I think) is really good at using design to capture the real model, then take a look at some of Glen Keane's work here. His work is probably the clearest example of what I'm talking about and it's instantly apparent when you view his drawings. His work feels very bold because he makes definite changes in direction to define the planes, and he's very decisive about what shapes he uses. Not only does he pick the right shapes to make a pleasing overall design but he also tweaks the pose or the underlying structure where it makes for a better overall design. Now some people might not like his approach. I imagine that, to some people, he is over-simplifying or taking too many liberties. But you can't deny that design is hard at work in his drawings and that it gives his work a real energy and excitement that pleases the eye. His sketches capture the feeling of the model very well while making a strong statement that is unique to the artist. It is clear that he knows his anatomy and he's not hiding behind some sort of formula to create the same drawing over and over. Each drawing is full of choices that are right for that drawing and that drawing alone.
Now on another note I don't know where this blogger got these drawings. Apparently Glen has had a number of his life drawings stolen over the years and I don't know how these particular ones got out into the public (not that I'm accusing the blogger of anything, and I appreciate that these are out there to see) but if anyone knows where some of Glen's lost drawings are, please send them back to him!
Anyway, for the other side of the spectrum, I will share some of my own drawings with you, not because I want to, but because gemini82 put me on the spot and asked me to. Okay, but only with a few caveats....
First of all, these are not nudes like normal life drawings, these are from a clothed model. These are the only ones I had available that I could scan...all of my "normal" (i.e. nude) life drawings are on big newsprint and are done with very messy chalk, so they were too big to scan and too messy to put on the scanner besides. So this is what you get.
These were all three-minute poses, I think...or maybe fives. And the only reason I'm sharing them is because they help illustrate my point: when they work, it's because I used design well and where they fall apart it's because I erred too far on the side of trying to copy the model. Okay, here we go.....
In this first one I like the way I made the front of the figure more angular and her back is more rounded. The seam of the fabric on her shoulder works well to make her look three-dimensional and the rhythm of the top of the fabric of her blouse and the way her neck dovetails into the shape of her hair seems to work. Her far arm works okay for me because the straight lines of the outside of her arm contrast well with the curved folds on the inside of her elbow. Click to see these a little better.
What I don't like is how complicated and uninteresting the folds of the lower dress are drawn. There are many great books filled with systems for drawing folds out there, but again, I sometimes try to avoid thinking that way because I'd rather stay away from formulas...I want to capture the feel of the fabric in front of me at the time. But the dress is uninteresting because I didn't use design to organize it into a good arrangement, which is what a good systematic approach to drapery can give you. The dress is bunched up on the side of the model we can't see, and that made some wrinkles on the side we are seeing that I tried to capture. That's why there's a weird indentation on the fabric that covers her rear end. It looks strange here, though, and I should have simplified it and just let the fabric describe the form of her backside. Then that side of the fabric could be a simple curve and the front could have been bunched up for contrast. Her calf looks too thick as well. I could fix that easily in Photoshop but I'm not interested in creating the perfect life drawing here, I learned something from doing this sketch so that's all I'm after.
In this next one I have to point out right away that from where I was sitting, I couldn't see the model's feet, so I didn't draw them. But it looks weird. She looks like she's floating. The simplest thing to do would have been to add a shadow on the floor to orient the viewer. Also I could've sat on the floor so I could see her feet and add them in where they should be.
Again I like the top half but the dress looks wonky. I tried to draw what I was seeing, with unfortunate results. It's too complicated on both sides and it doesn't read as being tied up on one side. It's doesn't read like much of anything, actually...using design to solve the problem would've helped me out here.
In this next one I could've exaggerated the pose more to get a better rhythm. I might have thrown out her hip more to get more emphasis to it. Also it might be hard to tell what the lower dress is doing but it's actually a pretty good simplification of her dress gathered up.
In this one below I would say that her feet look a bit big and her head is too small (a common bugaboo in my life drawings). The way I interpreted the dress is a little hard-edged for such soft cloth. I was (again) trying to draw what I saw and it's not a totally satisfying result. Still, one of the things I enjoyed about the model was how the blouse, corset and dress divided her body into three distinct zones and how the corset wrapping tightly around her middle gave a great contrast to the loose cloth above and below. I tried to use the shape and form of the corset to wrap it around her body and describe the form of her midsection.
Well, it is certainly painful to share my life drawings with you but it's worth it if it helps illustrate my point and hopefully some of you will get something out of it. Here's one more for you - a doodle I did in a meeting on Friday. I wish I had done more with his hair tumbling down over his hand and I wish that I had left more negative space between his hand and his glasses to emphasize the look at the paper but overall I like this drawing. It feels like it has weight to it and it's not always easy to capture the feel of a lean in a figure but it works here.
For those who might want to review the concept of offset curves that I wrote about last time, this is my previous post on that topic.
And finally one more quote from Albert Einstein: "It is open to every man to choose the direction of his striving and every man may take comfort from the fine saying that the search for truth is more precious that its possession."