Saturday, August 30, 2008

Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles/ Simple vs. Complex

One of my favorite illustrators of all time is Noel Sickles. He's not very well known and it's always been hard to find out much about him or see much of his work...until now.

There's finally a beautiful book dedicated to his work. It includes the whole run of the comic strip he was famous for, "Scorchy Smith", as well as tons of his other illustration work. He did a lot of great WWII illustrations for "Life" magazine that are my favorites among his work.

Over at Today's Inspiration, Leif Peng has written great posts about the Sickles book here, here and here.

Here are a couple of great line drawings he did that illustrate a really important concept that few people ever talk about...simple vs. complex.

We all know that every drawing needs blank, simple areas for the eye to rest on. But if the piece is all blank, open areas without any areas of detail, then the piece will lack contrast. And if a piece is all complex areas of detail then it will seem too busy and frenetic and will be tough for the eye to absorb.

You should always place your simple blank areas right next to areas of detail. After all, putting two blank areas next to each other is meaningless. Putting two areas of heavy detail next to each other is also meaningless because the eye will probably have a hard time telling where one area ends and the next starts.

So in the first illustration take a look at how Sickles put the big empty areas of the tents against the complicated, detail-rich drawings of all the soldiers. In the second illustration, take a look at how he put the simple, blank areas of the log cabin and fence in the foreground to contrast with the complicated drawings of the soldiers in the background.

Balanced areas of detail and empty space can help you create a composition that is very pleasing to the eye.

If you are a fan of Milt Caniff, be sure to check out Sickles's stuff. He and Caniff met early in their careers and were friends their whole lives. Sickles had a big impact on Caniff and had a giant influence on the way Milt drew. I like Caniff but I prefer Sickle's stuff by quite a wide margin, so for me it's great to finally have a collection of all his stuff in one collection.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Advice for Students 2008

It's that time of year again, with many animation students returning to school or even attending an animation program for the first time. Last year I felt compelled to write some long-winded advice to help students, particularly those who are faced with the task of making their own student film, based on what I've learned since I was in that position myself and what I've seen work well (and not so well) over the years.

I will try to be more brief and succinct this time around. I don't know why I feel I need to write this post but I just wish someone would have given me some advice when I was in school to help me navigate those difficult waters. Actually, I did have several great teachers that gave me great advice back then, but like a lot of things we have to learn these lessons on our own; they don't make sense to us until they're learned though experience and no amount of rambling blog posting will help us learn it any quicker!

Over and over, I have seen the same thing repeated as far as success in student films: the ones that are all about character and personality always, always, always, generate the most enthusiasm and excitement from the audience. The ability to put across a unique and entertaining personality to an audience is a true talent. It doesn't even require the ability to draw well or animate slickly to pull this off; just some amount of observation, honesty and sincerity.

We all have known interesting people and we have all had life experiences that made an impression on us in some way. Everything I have ever created was based on a combination of these two things and I recommend it as a way of approaching your work. If your work has it's basis in observation of the people around you and real things that have happened to you, then it will have a weight to it and a reality that makes people think "yeah, I can relate to that", even if it takes place on a planet that's populated only with aliens who are blobs with one eye. All great films that speak to people are really about people and what makes them tick and explains why we do the things we do, because we are endlessly fascinated with ourselves and each other. For better or worse, people are still the most interesting and complex things ever invented for our amusement.

So if you've ever been fascinated by a person and something they've done or the way they've acted or behaved, think about that and how you might be able to get it into your work.

Not that everyone is interested in that sort of animation or that everyone's goal is to please an audience. You may not ever get to dedicate a year of your life to making your own film again, so make it what you want it to be. Don't try to "give them what they want", because the insincerity of that kind of thinking always comes through. Instead, as Andrew Stanton often says, make a film that you would want to see and chances are other people will want to see it too.

I just offer the above advice because I always like to watch little films about character that are very simple and entertaining, but I somehow didn't make that connection when I was at CalArts and I made films that were pretty much nothing. I had no idea of what I was trying to communicate, really, and so I communicated nothing. If I had been smart I would have realized that when I sat down and watched the films of all the CalArtians that came before me, I always enjoyed the simple ones that were all about personality.

Which leads to my next piece of advice, which is simply: simplify.

If you want to make a short film that expresses a lot of character, you don't want to be devoting a lot of screen time to explaining things or covering territory unrelated to personality and character. So simplify - just put an interesting character into a situation that we all get right away.

Also simplify your character designs so that you can move them around well and they are expressive and appealing without being time-consuming or difficult to draw, so you are able to focus on animating and the performance and not spending all your time drawing and fussing over lines.

"Simplify" is always good advice, and it applies to everything. Simplify your film as much as you can, without making it bland and uninteresting, so that you can spend your time working on the parts that are important.

Simplifying your drawing is always good advice as well. The best animation drawings always make a strong statement and have a strong pose to them that communicates well. One of the only ways I know to do this is to "simplify" the drawing so that everything is additive to the statement that you want to make and nothing is making a counter-statement. The great life drawing teacher Steve Huston calls it "grouping" - the more you can bind everything together in your drawing to make one statement, the better the drawing will be. A figure drawn so that it looks like a bunch of parts stuck together would be the opposite of this, and we've all drawn figures that look this way, and all know how bad that looks!

Very few people are as good at "grouping" things as Fred Moore. Even the long cigar, which could easily "fight" the statement of the pose, fits in line with the gesture. Everything in this drawing is drawn to fit into the same rhythm. Everything becomes subordinate to it, and that's how "simplifying" can really help your drawing.

I hope that's helpful in some way. If I've confused you horribly, my apologies. At least it was pretty short!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Unseen Peet

Over at is a site run by Bill's son dedicated to the life, art and children's books of Disney's greatest Storyman. That's where I found out about the show of Peet's work that's going to be at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Also over at is a new page dedicated to the children's books that Peet planned but never completed, including synopses of the stories and great, never-before seen artwork. Check it out here.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

FAC Life Drawing (part three)

UPCOMING BILL PEET EXHIBIT: If you're fortunate enough to be in Chicago anytime between next week and May, check out the Bill Peet exhibit that's going to be held at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The people at Famous Artists Course continue to publish books about anatomy and drawing animals, as well as other topics. If anyone has a recent copy, I'd be curious to know: are they still publishing this same material? Years ago I bought a version of their human anatomy book and I didn't think it was as good as this stuff, if I remember. I wonder why they don't just reprint this same stuff? Its great. Anyway, enjoy.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

FAC Life Drawing (part two)

Okay, thanks for everyone who posted a comment, sorry to put you to all that trouble but I'm glad to know everybody likes the Famous Artists Course stuff. I will keep it coming. Here's part two of Chapter Four of the 1950 version of the Famous Artists Course.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Paul Briggs was the first to point it out but I'll help spread the news:

Disney Animation now has it's own snazzy website! Very tasteful and understated.

I'll post more FAC this weekend.