Saturday, April 28, 2007

"Sketchbook in Africa" by Ken Anderson

These pages are from a magazine you could buy in 1970 at a gas station (I think it was Mobil). A friend loaned these to me to scan.

Disney Artist Ken Anderson used to go to Africa - rather frequently, I gather - and would come back with sketchbooks full of drawings. I've heard that he would xerox his drawings and staple them together as books to hand out to his co-workers - whether they wanted them or not. For some reason this gas station Disney magazine did an article on Ken and his sketching trips to Africa. They feature some beautiful samples of his sketches. If anyone has one of those old xerox books I'd love to see it!

The weird part about this article is the last page where, for some reason that's not explained in the text, Ken drew some African animals dressed up as hippies. The stoned-looking Lion even appears to be smoking a joint. For a guy who always seemed to have a lot of good taste and sophistication in his approach, it seems like a striking lapse of good taste. He drew every tired hippy cliché you can think of.

It's also interesting to note the way he refers to a drawing of a sleeping leopard in his sketchbook as being "flaked out." Click to see them bigger.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Carrying a Sketchbook, part four: Listen to Your Ol' Pappy K!

Okay, this is the post where I sound like an old crumudgeon.

The last thing I want to say about sketchbooks is that there are many other things that technology has developed that have made it harder and harder to carry a sketchbook. Sketchbook killers, I calls 'em! The proliferation of handheld video games, cel phone games, ipods and the like has taken away a lot of the time when we could be sketching. I can't tell you how many times have I been waiting in line to see a movie and using that time to fill my sketchbook with drawings of the people around me, and noticed that most of the people around me are using their PSP, GBA , DS (which are all handheld video game systems, for the unitiated), or just tuning out and listening to their ipod, closed off to the world around them.

Certainly these wonderful modern machines have taken the tedium out of sitting around and waiting, and they help pass the time while traveling. But if you can get out of the habit of using these things and really connect to the world around you, that will be much more helpful to your improvement as an artist. Those times when you are just sitting there with nothing else going on, immersed in the people and happenings around you are when you really get to see special things: people just going about their ordinary business. That's when people are at their most fascinating. You'll never get to observe all that much of the world when you're busy rushing from place to place so that times when you're sitting and "doing nothing" are actually prime observation opportunities. Take advantage of them by sketching and seeing what really happens when people are just going about their regular lives and interacting with others.

Even the most boring of moments is interesting to a good artist: how do different people sit differently while they wait at the doctor's office? How do different people flip through magazines differently while waiting for the dentist? Who just flips nervously through without looking at it and who gets so engrossed in an article that they don't realize it's their turn? What type of person picks what magazine to read while waiting? Just how old are the magazines in the doctor's office, anyway, and what kind of magazines do they subscribe to? What does that say about the doctor, or the nurses who ordered them - what do they think their patients are interested in reading about? My physician's office is full of magazines. Mostly things like "Car & Driver" or magazines about golfing. I've never seen anybody read any of these. Everybody reads the same thing: People, Time and Newsweek. Occasionally some daring lady will be reading a Cosmopolitan. So I suspect the car and golf magazines say a lot more about the doctor who subscribes to them than the patients who visit him.

All that kind of information-gathering is valuable to any artist who is trying to learn about the world and put that into their work. And I never would have noticed any of that if I didn't watch and observe in the doctor's office. And my sketchbooks are full of drawings of a wide range of different types of people I've seen waiting to see him: from the patient old people who seem to exist in a constant state of visiting doctors and seem not to have any sense of time, to the harried businessman who is on his cel phone the whole time and checking his watch every five minutes while constantly bugging the receptionist to see when his turn with the doctor will be.

And I even have sketchbooks pages full of drawings I have done in the examination room while waiting for the doctor to come in (not being interested in Golf magazine, I had nothing else to do). There are pages in my book with sketches of jars of tongue depressors and those round stools on wheels that all doctor's office have as well as drawings of the view outside the window of the exam room.

And I never mind all the waiting around too much because it's really the only time I get to sketch. Things are too busy for me to ever actually set aside time to sketch in a normal day. It's a great habit to set aside time for a sketching trip to the zoo, but the great part about sketching while waiting around in an everyday place is that, unlike the zoo, you have no idea what you will see. And even waiting in line for a movie there is plenty to draw - everyone has a different way of standing or sitting. Try to capture those nuances - every character you draw will stand or sit differently, depending on their personality and emotional state, so learn to see the difference in real people. Sketch the difference between an impatient person standing in line and one who is standing at ease, waiting patiently. To be able to capture the difference in those two things is an amazing feat for an artist and will really help you start to see degrees of subtlety which is a big step in developing as an artist.

So don't make the mistake of ever thinking that there is nothing around you worth sketching. There is always something around to capture and see anew. Don't wait to sketch until you are facing that perfect-looking lion at the zoo. Sketch the stuff you see every day and see it in a fresh way. That's the kind of stuff that great art is made of!

Although I have to soften my stance a bit on video ipods. I have one and I love it. Mind you, I never watch it in public when I could be sketching, but sometimes at work when I have a couple of minutes I love to watch three or four minutes of a movie. That's a great way to study the way a film is put together, because when you watch a whole movie in one sitting you end up being engrossed in the story and events and it becomes near impossible to focus on the nuts-and-bolts filmmaking. But when you watch a movie for a few moments at a time you can really focus on how the staging and cutting works, how the shots are composed and how the actor's performances are put together.

But other than that, I say ween yourself off of those new-fangled time wasters, you whippersnappers!

For the rest of your life, you can always look back at your sketches and see what you learned when you were sketching. You can remember the places you've been and the people you've seen - and even remember the way you felt about them - through your old sketchbooks. I promise, getting to level ten of Haloman 3 or Grand Theft Motorcar 11 will never be as fulfilling as finishing a sketchbook! And if I see you in public playing your new-fangled video game computer machine when you should be sketchin', I'll slap it outta yer hands with my cane and get away with it too, because I'm a crusty old man and I can pretend I was just befuddled at the time.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Secret Sketchbook, part two

There are so many great blogs that just publish great artwork that I never wanted to be one of those...I always wanted to force myself to analyze what makes great artwork so great. But the great response to Searle's "Secret Sketchbook" compels me to add more scans for you to check out. I don't have anything in particular to say about it and I'm pressed for time so....just enjoy. The pages of the book are rather small but I scanned them at a big resolution. Sorry about the gap between the pages but the book has a strange binding and it doesn't quite lay flat. Click them to see them bigger.

Amid pointed out that there's a great tribute to Searle at RonaldSearleTribute. There are lots of great rare Searle pieces there. The blogger responsible, Matt Jones, does some great analysis of Searle's method as well. I only saw a couple of pages from "The Secret Sketchbook" so I don't think these scans of mine are redundant.

Check out the street signs...apparently "Tabu" means about the same in each language. Also one of the night clubs appears to be advertising the fact that they sell Coke. The Coca Cola company must be very proud.

It's amazing how much form and sense of volume Searle gets on the paper even though he is mostly just drawing the outside contours of the figures. He's a master at drawing the outsides of the forms just right so that they really suggest the forms in the right way. That's so hard to do - every line has to be in exactly the right place to feel right. And each interior line is placed carefully so that it suggests form and volume.

That's the fascinating thing about these nude ladies: the spare use of interior lines gives them a lot of blank negative space inside their forms and makes them feel really naked! The empty blank space suggests unclothed flesh better than a lot of interior lines and shading might (One thing that would be interesting to heighten that effect would be to put black tone around the outside of one of the naked forms; then the contrast between outside and inside the form is more defined and also the black exterior would make the white interior look even paler and more fleshy by contrast). Obviously he was sketching fast so he didn't take the time to do a lot of interior lines anyway, but in general Searle does that better than anybody: he draws outside contours that look simple, but the thick and thin of the line and the careful placement of the line describe form beautifully.

He also seems to be conscious of drawing textures. He takes the care to make each texture on the nude girls very carefully - hair, stockings, etc. - so that the busy areas of texture contrast with the open, unclothed areas and emphasize how empty and nude the girl's bodies are.

Also he is masterful about overlapping shapes - there are always forms in front of other forms to show that these are forms stacked up in space, moving away from us.

Oops, my apologies, I guess I did have some things to say about these...more to come.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Secret Sketchbook

Years ago, I bought Ronald Searle's "The Secret Sketchbook" from a book dealer. Published in 1969, it's a reproduction of a sketchbook he drew while in the red light districts of Hamburg, Germany. It is filled with scenes he witnessed there, like a patron being removed from a club in a stretcher.

If you feel uncomfortable when people catch you drawing them, imagine how hard it would be to draw the patrons in a strip club. If they caught you drawing them they would probably be upset, but then again maybe Searle didn't have that problem because their attention was firmly focused elsewhere. I can only imagine that trying to draw in darkened, loud, noisy nightclubs would be very difficult and uncomfortable for the faint of heart.

I wanted to scan these because some pages contain what I called before "floaters" - sketches of several subjects scattered around one page, as opposed to the more "classical approach" of doing a little self-contained scene on each page. In some instances here he catches a whole tableau but several pages are covered with floating women of all different sizes and shapes.

Click to see bigger.

More than any artist I know, Searle has had many books published showing his sketchbooks. I have one he did in a refugee camp in the sixties as well as the book that contains his sketches done while a Prisoner of War in a WWII Japanese prison camp. His sketches are amazing. He has a way of capturing the underside of life and bringing to it a grace and beauty while portraying all the ugliness as well.

If you like, in future posts I will scan more of his sketches. Things are going to be very busy for me for the next few weeks so I probably won't be writing too many posts but I can set aside some time for scanning stuff that relates to sketchbooks, if people would like that. Let me know in the comments if you're interested.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Sketchbooks, part three [or Good Advice from Famous Artists that I Never Took]

I am glad that everyone has enjoyed my posts on sketchbooks. Thanks so much to everyone who left a comment and let me know that my post meant something to them. It's always great to get feedback.

I wish I had a lot more to say about sketchbooks but I already said most of what I wanted to say. I have a couple of other posts to go on this topic but nothing that earth-shattering.

However, a well-known Disney Artist once gave me some sage advice that I never took, but I will pass it along to you. He and I were talking about sketchbooks and looked in each other's books. Needless to say, every single one of his sketches fell into that "should be hanging in a museum" category. The first thing that I noticed was that his approach differed from mine in two distinct ways.

My sketchbooks usually have several figures and/or faces "floating" on each page. This person used one page per drawing and he always drew the people within the environment, so each page of his sketchbook was like a separate painting or piece of stand-alone art. This allows him to deal with composition within each frame and really can tell a story about where it was drawn and what the story of the whole scene was. Each page could be removed, framed, and hung on a wall.

It was very impressive and I highly recommend his approach, if it works for you. However, it doesn't really work for me. I tend to only have time to sketch in two places: at the park with my kids and at the movies with my wife. There isn't a very interesting environment to draw behind the people I see at the movie theater, so I don't feel compelled to indicate the background unless it's integral to the gesture (like someone sitting on a seat or leaning up against the wall). And when I'm at the park with my kids, I probably should indicate the BG but I rarely do. I love capturing gestures and faces and I don't have much patience for drawing in all the elements in the background because before I can, some other person or action has caught my interest. That's just me, though. Adding the BG and keeping each page as it's own scene really looks great when you do it. It's just not me.

The other thing he did was to add tones. I add a little cross-hatching here and there or lines for a shadow sometime but not too often. This artist actually used water to smear the ink of the pen and create a cool halftone effect (a little saliva on your finger works in a pinch). Again, if you're going to do a whole scene on a page you're going to need tones to organize it and give it form and space. He uses one of those black Pentel markers most of the time. I use one of those Expresso medium felt-tip markers, which are thinner than the Pentel, and they smear easily with water too. The only problem with the Expressos is that they tend to turn into an ugly brown color over time (don't tell anyone, but the reason he and I use those two types of pens is that, well...we can get them for free at work. I assume that it's okay with the company, because sketching outside of work makes me better at my job, and many times I sketch ideas for work in my sketchbook in my spare time. And after all, I buy my own sketchbooks, which is the expensive part of the equation anyway).

Again, I conditioned myself to think of my sketchbook as a tool for practicing and experimenting and I purposely trained myself not to do pretty drawings. This was the only way I could make carrying a sketchbook fun. This particular artist, I think, sees it as more of a way to create little pieces of art because that's more his focus and it comes naturally to him. And it sure works for him! So whatever approach makes you interested in sketching is what you should follow. But the thought of drawing in the BGs and adding tones is foreign to me because I'm not trying to make a finished piece. So even though I tried his approach it just didn't stick - it didn't fit with my mindset. Maybe someday!

One more thing he does differently than I do is to sign his name to every sketch - basically, his signature is on every page of his sketchbook. I think his reasoning is that it makes him take ownership and pride in every sketch and makes him put his best into every effort. It just helps him in his approach, I think. I'm not sure that I am articulating his explanation correctly...but, anyhow, it works for him.

I hate to be obtuse about who this artist is, but I am doing my best to paraphrase what he told me the best I can remember. Once I use his name people will take what I say as a direct quote from him, and it's not. It's my interpretation of our discussion and what I saw in his sketchbook. Anyway, it's a different approach and it works well for him. Maybe that approach speaks to you as well, so I pass it on as best as I am able.

Some of Ronald Searle's sketches from "The Paris Sketchbook" that show the approach of making each page it's own scene and using tone on the pages. He seems to sign all of his sketches as well. Click to see bigger.

This is a picture of the pens and the sketchbooks that I use. The moleskines have a purple label, but if you order them from, the labels look blue in the pictures on Amazon (and in my photo as well). Confusing, huh?

One other piece of advice came from the great Vance Gerry. Once a long time ago he mentioned that he always draws while he watches T.V. and I casually replied that I was too tired after a ten or twelve hour day of drawing to draw. I told him that after work I just sit in front of the TV and vegetate.

Now it was unintentional on his part, but he gave me a look that cut me to the core and made me feel like an idiot. He was absolutely right, there's no excuse for not drawing while you watch TV. If you are just drawing things out of your head at work all day long then you probably aren't improving because you're not drawing from life or looking at the works of others. If you're not taking in any kind of new information your drawings and your ideas will become stale. So if all you can do at the end of the day is sit in front of the TV then at least draw what you see and give your mind some fresh information. Caricature the actors, draw the compositions or draw the coffee table in front of you...something!

So, suffice to say, from that day on I always drew while I watched TV and I can tell you that, like I say, it actually gives you more energy and refreshes you better after a long day than just sitting there like a passive lump.

So that was one piece of advice I did take, but that was long before I had kids and, believe it or not, I don't really watch TV in the evenings anymore. After my kids go to bed I usually have to draw actual work stuff. If I don't have work to do I work on my drawing, or work on my own projects, or I write something for this blog. If I'm not doing any of those I watch a movie, and if I'm watching a movie I'm studying the filmmaking and drawing is too distracting, I find. If I'm not doing any of those things I play some videogames. But on those rare instances that I watch TV I always draw. And believe me, if I could somehow give every one of you that look that Vance gave me, you would do it too, for the rest of your life.