Sunday, July 29, 2007

A Question and a Quickie

First off, is it just me, or is "Ratatouille" the first recent big-budget animated picture to not have a tie-in with a big fast-food franchise (here in America, anyway)? And isn't that a welcome change? Animated movie tie-ins with fast food places are always the same thing: the kid's meals come with a toy from the movie, thus cementing the idea in people's heads that animation is for kids only and that animation itself is cheap, low quality and unsatisfying like fast food. Who wants the public to equate their film with greasy cardboard Happy Meal boxes and the smell of French fries?

It would also be an uncomfortable proposition for any fast-food giant to have a tie-in with a movie that's all about eating well, I would assume. When I worked on "Home on the Range" there was a lot of debate over whether a movie about cows should have a fast-food tie-in. In the end Disney and/or McDonalds decided not to partner on the deal, so I guess that makes "Ratatouille" the second recent animated film not to have a fast-food tie-in. In any case, let's hope it's the beginning of a trend.

Anyway, after watching the Spielberg documentary (see below) I watched part of "Saving Private Ryan" to look at some of the staging. Spielberg is a master of great staging - there is absolutely no one better to look at to get a feeling of how to place the camera to tell the story. For all of the amazing staging in all of the incredible battle sequences, I was struck by this example, in particular: the Jeremy Davies character (Upham) is asking the Tom Hanks character (Miller) the question all of his men want to know: where did he come from and what did he do before the war? He asks the question in a roundabout way and Miller deflects the question, and the lengthy scene is all staged from this angle. The light and focus are all on Upham and Tom Hanks is out of focus, in the dark and turned away from us the whole time.

Spielberg resisted the obvious choice to cut around to Tom when he is giving his answers. Most directors and/or producers would want to show as much as they could of Tom, I would think: he is the most famous actor in the world, and why give all the emphasis to Jeremy Davies instead? Well I can't speak for Spielberg but I'm guessing it's because the visuals underscore the point of the scene: at this point in the movie, the Miller character is remote and unknowable. Because Spielberg has made such a point of that information, it has become important to us and we want to know the answers, but we are not going to get them just yet. On that point Miller is inscrutable and so he appears that way to us: he looks away, we can barely see his face and he won't meet Davie's gaze (or ours either). Even though we have had many close-ups and explanatory scenes with him so that we feel we know him pretty well, when it comes to his past he is still a cypher to us, blurry and unknowable. It's a subtle piece of staging but very effective.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Spielberg Documentary

So I missed the recent Spielbery documentary that aired on TCM and I have been hoping someone will post it on YouTube someday. In the meantime, I found this 57 minute film about Spielberg and his work, apparently from a British TV program called "The Culture Show".

For being such a prolific and influential filmmaker, Mr. Spielberg rarely talks much about his process. He never does commentaries on his DVDs and rarely gives interviews, so it was really a treat to find this and hear him talk about his films, even though the show is only an hour and he doesn't have the time to discuss each film in depth.

Especially interesting is hearing George Lucas talk about the weaknesses of Spielberg's film "1941" and saying that Steven had gotten too successful and had no limitations placed on him and that lead to Steven being out of control without anyone to reign him in (which I would say is probably the case with Lucas and the newest Star Wars movies, but that's just my opinion). Also, Lucas calls Spielberg's films a little "too saccharine" for his tastes. It's rare to see such honest appraisals from Hollywood filmmakers of their peers, that's for sure.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

More Stuff from My Sketchbook

Just what this blog needs right now...less words, more pictures. Click to see bigger.

Peeking over the shoulder of an old lady filling out forms at the Doctor's office.

A guy reading a magazine at the Doctor's office.

Another lady reading a magazine at the Doctor's office.

A kid at the counter in the Doctor's office (I've had a lot of long waits at the Doctor lately). Most of these full body ones are about actual size here, but the faces below are a bit bigger than actual size.

Anyone that sketches from real life will end up with a lot of drawings of people talking on their cel phones.

I can't help but draw faces when I am sketching. Drawing a face is much easier than drawing the whole body so I admit it sometimes comes out of laziness. But I am fascinated by faces as well and I am a big believer that someone's personality is expressed in their face. Someone one said that by age 40 we all have the face that we deserve (meaning that by then, if you scowl a lot your face will be in "scowl" mode by default most of the time. If you laugh and smile a lot then your wrinkles at 40 will show that). I don't know if that's true or not but always trying to capture the personality I perceive by the way I draw their face. All this in a couple seconds, of course.

The back of some guy's head, playing a game on his cel phone while waiting for a movie to start.

Some kids at swim lessons.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

More of the Same

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."

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.