Saturday, March 31, 2007

Carrying a Sketchbook, part two

[UPDATED: added additional scans on Sunday 4/1]

A heartfelt thanks to everyone who left a comment on my post about sketchbooks. Here's some more on the topic, and I apologize in advance for covering some of the same ground again in my second installment. Even though this post is specifically about carrying a sketchbook, I can't help but meander into other territory about the struggles of being an artist.

Reason number two people hate carrying a sketchbook: drawing from life is hard and frustrating, because people and animals are always moving.

True. When I went on those CalArts zoo trips I mentioned before, some students would end up spending most of their time in front of the elephants and the rhinos, because those animals moved the least. They were relatively easy to draw because they stood in one place so you could look back and forth between your subject and your paper and do a nice slow sketch while the subject held the same pose. There wasn't much variety in the movements of those animals either so you couldn't mess it up too badly: they were big heavy shapes with four parallel legs holding them up.

I always sought out the ones that moved around a bit more. I remember running into a particularly good artist in front of the monkey cages. He had pages filled with great drawings of little Capuchin Monkeys swinging around and playing. I was very impressed. His knowledge of animal anatomy and movement enabled him to watch a monkey in action and capture the pose on his paper while it was still fresh in his mind and fill in the parts that he couldn't remember with his knowledge. His grasp of anatomy and confidence enabled him to draw very quickly and capture the poses with a certainty that made them great.

You'll never get to that level if you stay in front of the rhinos or elephants all day, doing nice rendered drawings of the immobile mammals. There's no crime in drawing them, of course, but don't focus on them exclusively. When you go to the Zoo catch a little bit of everything.

People are the same way. Most of the time you'll be trying to catch them as they go about their lives and they rarely stand still in a pose for you. Life Drawing Class is for drawing someone while they sit still for you. Your sketchbook is all about catching real people in real actions, so you'll just have to get used to knowing what you're doing well enough to capture them on paper as they move. The only way to get good at it is to try and try and try. The more you work at it the closer you'll get. It's frustrating, but as I said before, take the pressure off of yourself to do perfect drawings and it'll get easier the more you work at it. Many times a sketch won't be perfect but part of it will succeed nicely: the head has a nice tilt to it, or the legs work perfectly even though the rest of it might not be as great. That's something to feel good about and build on. Ask yourself why the part that works works and the other part doesn't work - you'll learn a lot.

Reason number three that people don't carry a sketchbook: sketchbooks are a pain in the neck to carry around all the time.

This is true. For years I tried to find a good sketchbook that could fit in my pocket, because it was just too much trouble to carry one around. All of the ones that I found that were small enough had terrible paper, and the ones that had good quality paper were always too big. For a while I even made my own with scratch paper, rubberbands and cardboard, but it was a lot of work. What changed all this for me was when I discovered Moleskine makes small sketchbooks that you can carry in your pocket (the 9 x 14 cm version). They fit easily into a front or back jeans pocket or, if you're so inclined, in a purse (I assume so anyway, I don't actually carry a purse). So I got in the habit of carrying one of these and a pen around for whenever I had five spare minutes to sketch. This is a great habit to get into. The good news about the small size is that they are so small nobody can peek over your shoulder while you draw. The bad news is that the small drawing space can start to feel constricting so I started carrying around the bigger Molskine (5 x 8 1/2 inches). I love these babies. I don't mind carrying around one with me all the time now.

Searching for "Moleskine" on brings up many different results. The ones I use have a purple wrapper. They can be found here and here.

Moleskines are a bit more expensive than your average sketchbook. Sometimes I draw on both sides of the paper to make them last longer. There are many other cheaper versions available, so there's no excuse not to have SOME kind of sketchbook.

Reason number four: I've seen a lot of sketchbook scans on other web pages and I'll never be that good.

There are many other blogs where people scan their sketchbooks and sometimes it's like looking at something that should be hanging in a museum. Don't get me wrong, I love to see that stuff and I'm really glad that those people share their sketchbooks with us. Those people blow me away. But let's face it: it can be intimidating. If you look at those you might think "Oh, that's what a sketchbook is supposed to look like" and think that you are doing it wrong.

As I said before, some people are better at doing a great sketch on the first try. When I am storyboarding, I never use the first sketch I do. I always go over it at least once to improve it, sometimes I go over it five times and sometimes I go over it fifty times.

So when I do a drawing in my sketchbook, I get one pass at it. So why would I expect it to be as good as a drawing I produce at work? It's not my strength to do a great drawing on the first shot. Some people are better than this at others. Whenever I draw in a room at work with other people they invariably seem to be better than me at doing a great drawing on the first try. Everybody has a different skill set. The point is that in a sketchbook you only get one chance to capture your first impression. Look at it as a positive thing: in a sketchbook you're freed of the burden of re-doing each sketch. No matter how bad your drawing is once you're done with it you're done.

If you want you can always go back and draw over your sketches and make them better. I did this of a woman clipping her fingernails in public...not something you see every day! I'm pleased that you can tell what she's doing but I would love to go over it and tweak the angles on her wrists and put some bend into that finger she's clipping. But I have a good basis to build on if I want to go over it and improve it, and it would turn out fresher than something I made up entirely out of my head.

Back to the point: it's easy to be intimidated as an artist. Frankly there will always be someone better than you, if you look hard enough (will any of us ever equal Michaelangelo?) and our lives as artists can be so frustrating that we actually look for reasons to give it up, I think. If you'll never be the best, why try, right? It's always a relief to give up a difficult task and, yes, it's easier to give up on your artistic ambitions and play it safe. Just sit on the sofa and watch TV instead.

But if your goal is to be the best artist that ever lived than you're focusing on the wrong thing anyway. Focus on that and you'll be miserable as hell until you get there, and you won't get there until you've at least spent most of your life working on your abilities, so you're going to be miserable for about fifty years. Sounds good, right?

Instead, focus on improving as much as you can as fast as you can. If you can look back and say that you are better now than a year ago then that is a glorious thing. As frustrating as it is to struggle in the here and now, it always puts it in perspective to see where you used to be. It reminds you that the struggle was worth it. It reminds you that you struggle a little less every day. And it reminds you that there will never be an end to the struggle: the better you get, the more you try to achieve. So the best way to approach it is to embrace the struggle, allow yourself to feel frustrated but don't get down on yourself and don't give up. Most artists don't talk about the struggle much but, trust me, everyone flounders. You're not the only one.

No one has spent more time beating themselves up for not being better than myself. Too many times I have focused on the struggle and not seen it as a necessary part of learning and growing. All those hours I spent being down on myself for sucking so horribly were a real waste of time. Don't make the same mistake. If you want to be a better artist, there are only two ways to go about it; first, study and draw, and second, live your life. Living your life is an important part of being an artist - just as important as studying and drawing. Your art is meaningless unless it has life's experiences behind it. Great art captures the truth, joy, absurdity, sadness and fear of everyday life. You can't put this into your art unless you've seen it firsthand. So find a balance of both parts and you will be the best artist you can be in the here and now. Never ever spend your time being intimidated by other artists or worrying about your abilities because these are fruitless endeavors. Worried that you're not a better artist? Grab a sketchbook and head out the door. Watch a movie and get inspired. Look at a book of great paintings and learn something. Take action, don't get down on yourself.

It doesn't help that there are so many published "sketchbooks" these days. Every great artist has a "sketchbook" you can buy, full of perfect drawings no different than their finished work. They should find some other term - those things aren't "sketchbooks" any more than eating a "Happy Meal" will make you happy. I wish they would call them something else. A real sketchbook is a place for learning, where you can experiment and, yes....even do (gasp) bad drawings! Nobody sits down and does a perfect cover-to-cover book of drawings unless they're psychotic or they've filled a lot of books with bad drawings first. And we all know that those "sketchbooks" you can buy are full of sketches chosen from many, many different pieces of paper and the result of many different efforts with the weaker efforts weeded out.

Looking at artwork by fellow artists can be very inspiring but also intimidating. You can get an overwhelming sense of just how much you still have to learn by looking at the work of some great artistic genius. And working in an environment with other artists can be even worse. When you're working alongside someone who seems much better than you you can get really get down on yourself.

In any corporation or business, there will always be a few who go out of their way to intimidate others and make others feel inferior. This is certainly true of every studio I've ever worked at. Nothing takes the joy out of a creative job like dealing with these people. Don't reward this type of behavior by being intimidated. Just do your best and work to improve as much as you can. That's all you can do - there's no secret formula to getting better overnight so don't dwell on that. And if those people really are all that much better than you then look at their stuff and analyze what they're doing well. Learn something from them. Ha! That'll teach them to put good stuff out there!

Don't get intimidated by these people: athletes try to get into each other's heads to get an advantage over each other and artists can be the same way. it's a cheap trick and we should feel sorry for people who do that rather than be afraid of them. They are so insecure in their position and abilities that they are putting a lot of energy into defending their "turf". That's pretty pathetic.

Anyway, to beat a dead horse (and get back on topic), don't feel bad about your abilities, it's a waste of time. All you can do is keep working to get better, and a sketchbook is a great way to do this.

Okay, seriously, that's enough words for one post.

Sketchbooks are a great way to develop observations about how to draw people. I discovered while sketching that a skinny neck makes a person look young. A thick neck makes people look older.

Just like those CalArtians, I find it easier to draw people in repose than in motion. Try to get a good balance of both. When you draw adults in public they are usually walking or standing still - they don't so a lot of extreme poses or interesting variations (like clipping your nails in public - I can't get over that one) but there's a lot to catch about the way people twist and tilt while they are standing still (although some of these are a little too straight up-and-down and symmetrical for my tastes...look out for that. Find twists and tilts).

Kids move around more and that means a trip to the park once in a while to draw kids playing is always a good thing. It's much harder to draw people while they're in motion but it sure teaches you a lot.

Sketching from life is essential because it increases your "shape library" - your mental catalog of shapes that you use to construct when you draw from memory.

It's always fascinating to see how people's bodies distribute their extra weight. Men and women put them in different places and even within that, each person ends up proportioned differently. I have searched long and hard for a book that specifies how men and women differ in where they put their weight but I haven't seen much on it. The general effect is pretty obvious to anyone who looks at people. Sketching is a good way to figure stuff like that out.

More faces. Again, this is easier than drawing people in motion, so I find myself doing this more than I should, but faces are fascinating.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Carrying a Sketchbook, part one

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.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Yo ho

This isn't much of an informative post, but I thought this was cool and I don't have anyone else to share it with. I took this picture from the third floor of the Feature Animation building with my cel phone camera. It's a view across Riverside Drive in Burbank towards the "Zorro" parking structure on the Disney Studios main lot. And on top of the parking structure they built a pirate ship to do re-shoots for "Pirates of the Caribbean 3". Yesterday they were filming some sort of battle with smoke and lots of swordfighting (rumor has it they were shooting a commercial).

Only in LA would you get to see a parking garage with a pirate ship built on top of it. There are trees visible behind the ship but it looked like most of their set-ups were either down low shooting upwards, so only the sky was visible, or up high, shooting down so only the deck of the ship was visible.

Sunday, March 11, 2007


Shoulders are a complicated part of human (and animal) anatomy to wrap your head around (no pun intended). Shoulders are very expressive and can tell you a lot about somebody and how they are feeling. We all know the basic cartoon shorthand that people tend to hold their shoulders up high when they are tense, afraid or angry and low when they are relaxed, sleepy or dazed.

People seem to be afraid to really let the shoulders in a drawing move as freely as shoulders on a living person (or animal).

It's easy to forget how far forward shoulders can go, how high they can go, and how far we can turn our head backwards to look over our shoulder. Isn't it amazing what a difference it makes when someone looks at us with their body facing us or looks at us over their shoulder? It's a totally different meaning.

This may sound odd but Anna Nicole always had very expressive shoulders. They never seem to be down in a normal rest position. Or maybe I just think that because she always wore dresses that didn't cover her shoulders. Anyway, if you want to see some crazy shoulder action just do an image search for her and see what you get (and certainly there is no shortage of pictures of her on the internet).

There are two keys, I think, to drawing great shoulders. Number one, be familiar with the way the actual anatomy works. Every good anatomy book has good diagrams of the way the bones and muscles work. Get to know them, if you want to draw good shoulders.

The muscles do much of the work to hold the shoulder bones (and, by extension,the arms) in place because the bones don't really touch the rib cage much. The two inner edges of the clavicles rest on top of the sternum (the flat bone at the very front of the rib cage) and that's pretty much the only place the bones of the shoulders touch the skeleton. The clavicle connects to the scapula at the acromion process. The scapula and the clavicle pretty much slide around freely, not connected to the skeleton anywhere else, but held in place by the muscles that cover the top of the torso, the shoulders and the arms. The muscles do all the work to keep the shoulders in place. The shoulders have a great range of motion due to all this ability to slide around, unencumbered by attachments to the bones of the rib cage. That's why (I'm guessing) it's so easy to injure your shoulders, particularly in sports. It seems that evolution has given us amazing range of motion in our shoulders, but at a cost of protection: they aren't very well protected from injury like other parts of our body are where they bones are more tightly "welded" together.

As always, please don't let this paltry blog take the place of some good anatomy book, or better yet, a good life drawing class. And no good anatomy book is complete without a top down view of the rib cage, to help you get a good sense of how the forms work in space.

From "Human Anatomy For Artists" by Szunyogy (the same image I used above, except I added some graphic blandishment). Click to see bigger.

From "Atlas of Human Anatomy for the Artist" by Peck. On the lower left is a drawing that illustrates his claim that men's and women's clavicles rest at different angles. I've never seen anyone else say this, but who knows? Anyone have an opinion on that one?

These simple illustrations from Goldfinger's "Human Anatomy for Artists" are really helpful. After you know all the parts of the "shoulder girdle", it's still advantageous to think of them as simple forms - don't get all caught up in the details. Draw the big shapes. These show a great simplified way to think of the shoulder masses and how they move.

The other key thing to keep in mind when drawing shoulders is to use yourself as a model. Always have a mirror around when you draw and use it to study yourself as you draw. See how a movement or an expression feels when you make it before you try and draw it.

This sounds simple and obvious but it's not. Artists tend to get lazy and draw what they've drawn before or what they've seen someone else draw before. Don't do that. Next time you are drawing a pose, get up out of your chair for five seconds and act it out. Yes, you! You know you don't. You should. Once you know how a pose feels to make, or looks in a mirror, you will be able to capture it far, far better. I can't tell you how many times people have walked into my office or looked over the wall of my cubicle while I was making an embarrassing pose while trying to figure out a difficult drawing. Ah, so what? If I got a good drawing out of it, who cares?

More on shoulders to come, but for now, remember them and think about them when you draw. It's always better to push them a little further when you draw than to draw them not pushed far enough. Remember this rule about drawing: it's always easier to redraw something and pull it back a little than to redraw it and push it a little farther. And things usually look okay when they're pushed a bit too far, but things never look good when they're not pushed far enough!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

One Year Old

So it was exactly one year ago today that I started this blog. My goal was to write 200 posts in one year. So far there have been 182 (not including this one) so I got pretty close. It probably seems hard to believe there have been so many but when I first started I was writing three or more a week. I wasn't quite so busy back then. Now I am so busy that I am lucky to post once a week! However I can promise you that I will keep posting when I can and someday I will pick up the pace again. I have a giant collection of half-written posts, many of them just waiting until I can get time to scan all the artwork I want to use as examples. There are plenty more posts to come.

In any case, it's been a blast, and thanks to everyone for all of the nice and thoughtful comments over the past year.