Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Secret to Practically Everything (well, duh)

I’ve read a lot of books about life drawing and tried for many years to figure out a way to find success at drawing from the model in life drawing. I don’t have much time to attend life drawing at work so most of my drawing from life consists of carrying a sketchbook and sketching people I see as I wait in line at the movies or while my kids play at a local park (on the rare occasions they let me stop playing with them for a few minutes!). I must admit that my motivation to attend life drawing sessions at work is low anyway because I am always frustrated by the experience. My drawings always seem disjointed – it looks like I drew all the parts of the model individually and they don’t flow together in a pleasing way.

The work I do in my sketchbook is more successful – there are still some clunkers here and there, but by and large I am pleased and surprised by my results, and I find sketching to be rewarding and enjoyable. However in life drawing, I almost never produce any work that I like at all and I find the experience frustrating and unpleasant. So obviously I would be a fool if I didn’t examine this phenomenon and ask myself what the difference is and why one method seems to work while the other doesn’t work at all.

When using my sketchbook, I am always drawing people on the move as they go about their lives. Unlike life drawing, these people aren't posing for me and they rarely sit still in one place long enough for me to get a really get a good look at all of their parts. So my method when sketching in public has become like this: I glance at the subject, get a split-second impression that inspires a drawing and lay it down in my sketchbook within about 5-10 seconds, usually without another glance at my subject. On the rare cases that I do look back at the subject it’s just once, very quickly, to double-check a detail (on the infrequent times that they're still there).

So I record the parts of the figure that inspired the drawing first and then I rely on my imagination to finish out the parts of the drawing that I can vaguely remember or didn't get a good look at with my initial glance. Usually the face, the head and the overall body shape and proportions are the things that I spark to and try to capture on the page. But there are always part of the figure that I wasn't focused on in my initial look and so I have to fill those parts in as best I can. And when I am filling in parts from my imagination, I naturally use the only criteria I can: I have to invent shapes that work with what I've already drawn to make a completed drawing that looks good.

So in other words I do a quick drawing that combines a quick visual impression combined with some design choices to fill in the rest.

By contrast, when I'm drawing from the figure in life drawing, I have the "advantage" of a model that I can reference as much as I want while I draw. And that becomes the problem: because the model is sitting there, totally still, my mind becomes convinced that the whole point of life drawing is to copy the model, as exactly as possible, onto the paper in front of me.

Now anybody can read that last sentence and tell you that trying to create an exact copy of the model on paper is going to be a recipe for failure. I remember even back at CalArts twenty years ago a fellow student complained to me that our life drawing teacher was encouraging us to simplify and organize what we were seeing, rather than telling us to transcribe the model onto paper faithfully, which this student thought was the way to do a good life drawing. Just hearing this person say that it was instantly clear to me that trying to draw exactly what you could see on the model was going to be a recipe for disaster. It was pretty evident from that exchange that one key to great life drawing is to use the model for inspiration and capture the essence of the model and the pose while using design to make a pleasing picture.


That's why my sketchbook drawings work when they do: I am filling in the gaps in my memory, using design to make choices instead of trying to remember exactly what I saw.

Albert Einstein said "Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution." I think of that quote all the time while drawing (at least the first, more famous part of that quote) because in drawing it is always important to remember that design is more important than knowledge.

It seems like such an obvious statement to say that using design principles will help improve a drawing far more than the most detailed knowledge of anatomy ever could, and yet, too often when I sit in front of the model I suddenly forget everything I know about design and I try only to slavishly copy the model. I struggle to capture the exact form of her feet in space and fret over every wrinkle of her knee so that I will finally know how to draw the world's greatest knees. It's no wonder my drawings end up looking like a mass of disorganized parts: all I am doing is recording bits of a model and not thinking about the whole of the drawing.

The times I've had success at life drawing were the times I used the model as inspiration, as a starting point, but when my eye drifts from the model to the paper my mind switches to design mode, and instead of remembering how many bumps of the external oblique are visible, I am thinking how to offset the curve of her stomach against the curve of her back so they are asymmetrical. I am thinking about making one side of her leg more of a straight and the other side more of a curve. I am finding a rhythm that captures her pose and also works as an abstract composition. I am dividing her tangle of hair into small, medium and large shapes so there is an order to her hair that is far more pleasing to the eye than if I faithfully recorded every wayward strand.

So to beat a dead horse for the thousandth time: design principles are more important than anything else in the creation of a successful drawing (as well as painting, photograph or any other piece of visual art).

I know, I know, that sound I hear ringing out across the land is a collective: "well, duh". Followed by "...and don't paraphrase Albert Einstein, you moron."

It's one of those truths that seem completely evident but reams and reams of crummy drawings are created every day and poor design choices are usually the cause. Like most things that are amazing, life-changing truths, basic design concepts seem so simple and obvious that we don't treat them with the reverence they deserve. Most first-year art students (if they're anything like me) hears the basic principles of design and rolls their eyes while saying "yeah, I know, but tell me the real secret of drawing, okay?" not realizing that there's really nothing else to drawing but basic design. Just for clarification, here's a list of some basics that I find apply to every life drawing: rhythm, straights against curves, offset curves (basically, making sure that no two curves are symmetrical), using a variety of small, medium and large shapes, and balancing areas of detail with blank areas for the eye to rest.

Anyway those are a few tidbits to keep in mind next time you go to life drawing...everyone has their own way of approaching design and their own technique that works for them, all I can do is to articulate mine and hope it helps spark an idea in you that works for you.

And for something that seems so obvious and self-evident, I am surprised that books about life drawing don't talk about this much. I guess it's because it's so unbelievably obvious that most people would be insulted if a book felt the need to remind them. But sitting in front of a real live model and undertaking the daunting task of turning them into a work of art by using the same techniques that Rembrandt and Michaelangelo used...well, that can make the most basic of truths fly out of your head, only to be replaced by a voice saying "okay, record that bump there, and make sure you capture that weird little shadow there, and draw all of the toenails exactly right..."

The only book I can ever remember reading about this in was, I think, Robert Fawcett's book on life drawing called "On the Art of Drawing" (or it may have been "Drawing the Nude"). If memory serves (and I know I wrote a post about it long ago), he wrote that he didn't actually know anything about anatomy: he just looked at the live model and applied design principles to what he observed to create a great drawing. He asserted that he had never really studied anatomy and had no use for it. Design was all that he needed. At the time I read that, it was so contrary to my established way of thinking that I almost couldn't comprehend it, but now I see the wisdom and the truth of what he was saying. Also, my guess would be that as an illustrator, he probably was in the habit of taking photographic reference of figures for each painting he did so that he was rarely faced with making up figures in his head. For those of us that have to make up characters and poses every day, it is probably more essential for us to know a bit about anatomy. Nevertheless, his point is well taken.

38 comments:

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Absolutely! (link is towards the Einstein quote, among others)

Judy said...

I wish you would write more about "offset curves." (Or tell me if you already have.) I think this is something I'm struggling with. Judy W

mark kennedy said...

Thanks for the link Benjamin! Great quotes. I am reading a new Biography of Einstein and there are a lot of great quotes in it, I will post some sometime.

Judy - I did write a post about it...I think under the "Drawing and Design (or D & D) posts. I will try to post some other examples of this soon.

J said...

Stanchfield touched on this, but you've definitely fleshed it out and given me some clues to my own struggles in life drawing. Thanks!


From one of Stanchfield's handouts:

"In the Illusion Of Life, Ollie or Frank had written a paragraph on cleanup people which lists some of the functions of a cleanup person which coincide with some of the things I keep stressing in the drawing class: a crisp line against a soft shape (using angles), designing shapes that work with the action rather than copying, emphasizing squash and stretch, and drawing detail only as it furthers the action and the drawing."

gemini82 said...

Could you post some of your life drawings from work?

zoe said...

The Bridgman series of books on life drawing are a great resource for anyone who understands the point you're making here. The author compares human anatomy to architecture - which is a subtle way of reminding the reader to think about beauty, design and style instead of photographic realism.

Tasch said...

Great post. It helped me recover a memory from college...

In most of the life drawing courses when I was in school we did what the profs called "gesture drawings" before we settled into drawing the model. I assumed this was common, but maybe not - basically the model would hold a pose for 10-15 seconds and change. One of my first profs told us that this was to get our hands and minds warmed up and into the right place - but also that when things slowed down we should start with a quick sketch from the model and then build on it looking back for reference points and proportion.

JP said...

I enjoy your articles because I have the same approach to drawing: trying to define rationally the principles of design.

It might sound obvious but it isn't, because many artists rely on their talents and instincts alone, and even if they know and apply those principles perfectly, are unable to explain them in words. My teachers were brilliant artists, but their approach was intuitive, which was frustrating for me -- and them!

I agree that design is *the* essential tool for effective communication. An image can convey form, space, mass, movement, atmosphere and so much more -- but only if we can make the viewer's eyes decode and understand it.

It's fascinating how the brain solves an image, simplifying and ordering... How it orders excessive detail by categorizing it as texture, how it recognizes and locks on objects and relates them to concepts and emotions.

So it's very useful to study how perception works, so we can set up "ambushes" for the brain, to achieve an effective and unambiguous communication.

I'm always looking forward to your articles Mark, they are very inspiring. Thanks!

DanO said...

My advanced life drawing teacher in college would have strangled me if i explained to him that i was recreating my minds impression of the model. If i brought out a Bridgman book, he would have thrown it out the window.
i agree with you, but i also agree with him as well...
i think there is a discipline that is being dodged when we use our sense of design to capture "the essence" of a model.

but then i'm a purist.

Dave said...

I was taught very similar to this by my last life drawing instructor. He said life drawing is to teach you how to observe, more than anything. Copying the model's pose exactly, to him, is less for making a nice picture and more for training your eye to observe detail so when you went out to observe life - you could record it acuratley, more quickly. Like before going up to bat holding 3 bats while you do your practice swings so when you actually go up to swing - it might feel smoother.
Just another viewpoint - thanks so much for another great post!

Thomas Fluharty said...

AWESOME mark just what i needed to hear. very cool great post my friend~T

Will Finn said...

Mark,
great post. great quote too. i go thru love/hate with life drawing and i think you have hit on a number of the potential pitfalls. ever since i can remember i got great grades for 5-10 second gesture sketches but any longer and my results plummeted. sometimes i feel like the longer i work on a drawing, the worse it gets...

heres's a way of thinking about it: in class you are "learning to draw." it's public, your teacher is there to guide you...

on the other hand in your sketchbook you are "drawing to learn." its private, its intuitive... you're searching for discoveries... maybe i'm just stubborn but i always like learning something but i hate being 'taught.' Learning is fun, its exciting. being taught is usually a chore. i can think of a number of exceptions of course.

maybe there's something about the self-conciousness of the long study, the awareness of the subject (like you said)--in any case it almost always flusters me. then there's always the instructor (even the great ones i admire) prowling the room, peering over your shoulder...

there seems to be no happy medium for me, i can do a nice loose quick sketch, or i can reallllllly take my time (and i mean days) to do something finished. when i was animating i worked very fast and rough until i liked the 'performance' and then took my sweet time tying everything down...nothing else seemed to work.

i have to say i find digital drawing a great boon, because undoing and erasing are tedious, i tend to make my marks more carefully than with pencil (where i know i can erase). at the same time, the crisp permanence of the line make for very loose and liberated sketching--its the best of both. digital has actually changed the way i draw to a significant extent. i noticed in the Art of RATATOUILLE it says the same thing happened to the late great Dan Lee when he began drawing digially too. you can actually see it in his artwork too.

keep up these thought provoking posts!

Sugar Mouse In The Rain said...

If one is trying to make an exact copy of a scene then that's not art. Art is when you capture your feeling about the scene and try to represent that. Good but a long post.

whoreray/redfive said...

Man.
Everytime I go down the road of doubt and uncertainty you make some post like this that kick starts me back on track.
Thank you, so much.

k. borcz said...

use the model for inspiration and capture the essence of the model and the pose while using design to make a pleasing picture.


- i've never thought of it that way. thanks!

TS said...

Funny... but this was what I was always taught!

The idea is that drawing isn't good at replicating reality. We draw to take advantage of the medium. If you push elements around, push the pose, make the lines work better, then you are only strengthing the final outcome. Also the gesture is the basis for everything for many reasons.

- it gives a solid connected under drawing to work from - everything after the gesture is like icing on a cake.
- if your model slips off pose the gesture will keep you locked down.
- in animation the gesture is the most important thing because it helps you to nail the pose and rip through your animation.

You also have to remember that your initial impression is often the most important and strongest thing you will ever get about a subject. Sometimes over analyising something can work against you. The gesture helps you get around that because it is inherently loose and forces you to avoid detail. It is amamzing what you can get down on paper with very few lines. An eye that may appear to be fully drawn may actually be just an upper lid and a dot yet it can read like the real thing.

I think an important thing to understand as well is how perception and reality don't necesarrilly mirror one another. A gesture is about perception. If you look deeper though, very few artists really copy reality because it just isn't that exciting (this is why rotoscope never seems to look good). Take a sculpture like David: it appears to be the embodiement of the perfect male form yet its proportions are completely unrealistic. Again perception vs reality. Your perception is often a heightened version of what something really is.

Sorry... I appear to be rambling!

CCG Coordinator said...

OK, this is my first time posting here and I've not read any of the comments to this topic "The Secret..."
I don't think there is a right answer to the anatomy vs design issue. They are just like two opposites on a continuum that all life drawing artists traverse over time. Sometimes my conscious brain is chattering away about strategies to make a "good drawing" and other times I just become a recording machine and just draw. Is one right and one wrong? I don't know, but I seem to enjoy the latter situation more and almost feel a meditative release when in that mode.
Hey, thanks for a great blog detailing honestly the struggle to learn and grow that we (every artist) faces!

Randeep Katari said...

Hey Mr. Kennedy,

It's been a while, how are you? Thanks for this awesome post, this is something that, as someone who is still in school, I keep forgetting amidst all the stress on anatomy and such. Obviously I realize how important anatomy actually is to drawing, but this is most likely the key to why I enjoy cafe/subway/observational sketching better than academic life drawing. As Mr. Finn said (and I hesitate to even post a slight comparison to people of his and your calibre) I find as well, that my quick gestures are usually much more successful than anything I spend more time on.

I think I need to tattoo this on my forehead and arm "design is more important than knowledge."

Thank you.
-R.

the clownninja said...

i know tons of artists that are really limited by there lack of understanding of anatomy. On the flip side people who rely on it too much sometimes make drawings look like erector-set people or something. I'm definately wary of reinterpreting the model too much, especially if your observational skills are weak because it' easy to avoid your weaknesses like that, but the key to capturing likeness (on the occassions when i have) has been imagining the subject as a drawing i would make and then drawing it. Which seems like what you're saying. The word design feels a little abstract or static though.

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