Of Wet and Peace

May 24, 2010

I have been an avid visitor to the National Gallery since June of 2000, when I moved to Washington, DC. Over the years, I have tried to take full advantage of the benefits it offers to professional artists like myself, by studying the collection and master works contained there, whenever the opportunity availed itself. One of the oldest, most common, and widely used methods of learning for artists is the practice of sketching from classic works in the attempt to learn how the masters before us resolved problems in the conveying of an image to paper. I have always attempted to abide by the rules of gallery, which are clearly stated on the NGA.gov website as “Visitors may sketch with pencils or other dry media in the galleries without a permit.” That’s it. There is nothing more, not the slightest mention of any restriction beyond that. I have never attempted to skirt this rule, not even to use markers (like the Faber-Castell Pitt Brush Pens that are being sold in the Gallery’s gift shop!) when sketching from the works, out of respect for the Gallery.

Imagine my confusion this morning, Monday, May 24, when I was all but assaulted by a guard in gallery 26, while viewing the German Master Drawings exhibition. Despite following the above rules of conduct, nor being in violation of special exhibit rules (as stated under the Museum Policies page on the website) Photography for personal use is permitted except in special exhibitions and where specifically prohibited.” Please note, there is no mention of “sketching” under the special exhibit policy. Upon arriving I pulled out my sketch book, my black graphite and my white chalk, then began my attempt to learn the proper use of light and dark from all the masters I could find. This is the same method I have been using at the National Gallery for the past 10 years, without a single comment every being made to me, but today was different. A guard approached me and made the inquiry “What are you drawing with? You can’t use color.”

I found this as odd since I’ve never heard (nor read in the policies included above) that “color” was not allowed. I asked him to repeat himself, thinking perhaps I misunderstood, but again he said “color”.  I replied “I think you mean paint, but this isn’t wet. I know the policy I’ve done this for years.” So I went back to my drawing, and he walked away. I assumed he was satisfied, but apparently not. He approached me several minutes later and again said “You can’t use color.”

“What do you mean? I’m not using color- these are pencils.”

“That- THAT is color!” He said pointing at the white chalk.

“That’s not color, that’s white chalk.” (I won’t get into the age old art debate of white being the presence of all color and black being the absence of it, etc…)

“You have to stop!” He stated.

“No I don’t. I know the policy- no wet paint- these are pencils!”

“You have to leave if you don’t stop.”

“I don’t think so- you’re wrong.” At this point I knew he was just going to keep saying “color” at me. My mom always said when you can’t reason with someone, move up the ladder.

“You need to get your supervisor.” This seemed to stop him for a moment. I said it again, “You need to get a supervisor in here to clear this up.” Knowing that I was not in violation of any of the museum’s stated policy, I was being firm, and I was going to demand that I be proven wrong rather than bullied. At this point, you might think a guard would welcome the assistance, and even better, a supervisor (as requested by the visitor) to prove his point, if in fact he was correct. The reply wasn’t anything of the sort, rather he responded with “Are you trying to tell me how to do my job?!”

“No, you just need to get a supervisor in here to explain the policy to you.” He just stood there. “Go on. I’m not leaving until you get a supervisor in here.” He stuttered a moment and then finally got on his walkie-talkie and asked for a supervisor. Then he turned to me and said “Sit down.”, pointing at a near-by bench.

“No. I’ll stand here and wait for the supervisor.”

“You have to sit down.”

“No I don’t. You’re not a cop.” I replied. With that he walked to a side area of the gallery. So then we began standing for a few minutes, and I waited. After a bit he started to walk toward the area I was in, and I started watching him, half expecting him to explain something, the other half not trusting him to try something more forceful. At this point he said something entirely unexpected.

“Are you staring at me?”


“You- stop staring at me. You can’t stare at me.”

“I’m not staring at you, I’m waiting for your damn supervisor to show up. You can’t tell me where I’m allowed to look!” Moments later another guard came into the room, a heavy black man. I thought, “Finally, the supervisor!” I started to approach him to make sure my case was heard with equality. Turns out this was another guard, and I heard him ask the man “You’ve got an emergency?” “No.” he replied, then muttered something to the new guard in a whisper. I won’t try to guess. A few additional minutes went by, and the guard requested on his walkie-talkie that a supervisor needed to appear, once again. Then what looked more like an armed security guard from the entrances, rather than someone of management, entered the room. He asked what the situation was, before the guard could speak, and I told him. “I was sketching, he told me to stop, he saying I was using color, I said I wasn’t, and that this isn’t paint. He said I couldn’t, but there’s no such policy, you’re only prevented from using wet medium!”

“Well you’re not allowed to use color.”

“That’s not right. You’re not allowed to use paint or anything wet. These are pencils. It’s all dry! I know the policy I’ve been doing this for 10 years the same way!” Then the “supervisor” said the same, insane thing the original guard did…

“That’s color.”

“NO, it’s NOT, it’s white chalk! This is a tonal rendering, it’s not paint!”

“OK, calm down. He’s just doing his job.”

“He’s doing it wrong! I know the policy, he’s the one who doesn’t!” After a few moments the supervisor turned to me and said.

“Fine, well, that’s cleared up, have a good day.”

That’s it?! I’m verbally assaulted, my safety is threatened, I’m surrounded by three guards, one of whom attempts to physically intimidate me, another who has a gun, I’m falsely accused of violating museum policy when I haven’t, I’m embarrassed in front of countless people, so flustered that my hands are shaking, and all of this because people don’t understand how to do their jobs! Yet somehow I’m supposed to just turn away and go back to sketching? This whole situation is mind numbing on so many levels. There is no possible way, after something like this that, a person can simply go back to doing an activity as delicate as drawing. The most infuriating thing… not one apology was offered by any of the guards, despite the fact that they know they were in the wrong, and the published policy of the Gallery clearly states they were wrong. This is another example of how the Gallery has failed to educate their staff in the policies the Gallery itself initiated. If the museum has decided that the posted rules are in fact that- the rules- then they need to make sure the entire staff understands them, and can enforce them properly.

If I decide to return to the gallery in the near future, which I’m not sure I can right now, I will be sure to take a printed copy of the Gallery policies from the website with me, and I will suggest to every artist I know that they do the same. It’s sad when visitors to our Nation’s art collection have to carry documentation of their rights to protect themselves from the people who are supposed to be the experts on the rules to begin with.

So in an attempt to unwind from my “relaxing” day of drawing at the National Gallery, I went to have lunch with the wife. She decided to record my mood with a picture. I hope everyone else had a better day.


Sketch, rinse, repeat.

May 23, 2010

Almost every time I see someone getting a portfolio review it ends with the same comment, “Sketch from life”. Invariably you can tell which artists listen to this and which ones don’t based on one simple fact, what their work looks like the next time you see it. I know artists, and even some friends, who never heed this advice. Over the course of years, I never see any improvement in their work, yet they always talk about how they’re on the verge of getting a big break at Marvel or DC. It never happens.

When I moved to Washington, not knowing a soul, I spent a lot of time at the local coffee house sketching, and sketching, and sketching. Within six months I felt I had improved more than I had in the previous five years. Why? Sketching. It’s not something I have a ton of time for anymore, but I try to get out there and do it whenever possible.

Why do it though? What does it actually help with, other than filling time and justifying the adage of “practice makes perfect”? What’s so damn helpful about it that drawing super heroes from imagination all day doesn’t do?

Sketching from life isn’t some snooty requirement of art schools- it serves a purpose. It trains the eye and brain in all the basics of drafting at once. Every sketch done from real life is a crash course in drawing. It trains one to see proportions, perspective, anatomy, shading, textures, dynamics, composition, etc, all at the same time. There’s not a wasted moment with sketching from life, not that I’ve found. Drawing from imagination, before you’ve learned how to draw to begin with, only reinforces your mistakes and poor decision making.

Despite slight variations in design, we all know the approximate height that a seat of a chair should be in relationship to the human body, how high a counter top in a kitchen is, the width that a chair/couch needs to be to accommodate an adult human, or how wide/tall a door needs to be to allow a person through it. The practice of drawing those proportions makes us more aware of the relationships between objects, so when we are drawing from imagination, we can gauge these fabricated spacial relationships more accurately. Artists who fail to understand these proportions will convey it in their images, often that is what feels off about a drawing. One common mistake I see is in overhead (bird eye angle) shots of people standing next to a car that they could never fit in. Sometimes, it’s a dining table way too short for people to fit their knees under should they have a meal at it. These are obvious mistakes to spot, mainly because we see these spacial relationships between humans and objects every day.

Clothing is the same, many artists can not draw a suit jacket to save their lives. It’s one of the most common costumes seen in comic books, yet so many artists can’t do it. Clark Kent = suit, office workers on street when heroes are fighting = suits, mobsters = suits, secret service agents = suits, hell, any government agency guys = suits. Folds in fabric are like snowflakes, never the same twice, but subject to certain consistencies by their nature. Cloth has certain tendencies, but no hard fast rules, yet again, it’s obvious to the eye when it’s drawn incorrectly. Drawing from life is the best education an artist can get for rendering fabric. Yes, understanding the basics of drapery is beneficial, such as how folds tend to radiate out from a pinch point, and how they stretch from whatever structure they snag upon; from an elbow to a knee. But sketching from life trains the mind to understand how clothing moves on the form, so when you draw cloth from imagination, you have a sense of how it should look. Pant cuffs around the ankle are some of the most difficult as they change shape drastically from standing position to sitting down. An artist has to be aware of these tendencies for in those subtle, but highly important, details one can make or break a drawing.

Drawing from life will help an artist more than all the books, lectures, suggestions, or insights anyone can give. My wife read an article that said it takes 10,000 hours of practice (on average) for a person to master any skill. I know I’m not even half way there yet, and we all need the practice. This doesn’t mean an artist should labor all of those 10,000 hours on one drawing trying to get it perfect. Jason Pearson told me about an artist who used to show him artwork at conventions, Jason would critique it, and months later that same artist would show Jason the same pages with the corrections. Jason said the artist did this several times, always showing him the same pages for critique, as if he got those pages perfect, then he would get work. Jason told the guy, “You need to do new pages every time, not just continually correct these. You’ll never learn how to handle new challenges if you only address these over and over. Plus, when working on a book your schedule only allows about a day to each page. What publisher is going to give you six months to get one page right?” The basic idea is to sketch, rinse, repeat. As an artist you learn more from the challenges in a blank sheet of paper, than you ever will in perfecting one image. By the end of a month, what would you rather have? 100 sketches showing a clear, forward progression of skill? Or one drawing you think is perfect now, but will find fault in within the week? I’ve never known a great artist who thought they had done a perfect drawing. I have known plenty of artists who think they’re ready to go pro, and all the guys working just don’t know it yet.

Now, shuddap and go sketch something.

Style by design

May 16, 2010

A while ago I had a conversation with my friend Micah (who has an uncanny ability to sum up art issues in a simple statement) and he said, “It’s not the style that matters, but if an image is drawn well, that does.” A simple concept, but an important one. After having drawn comic versions of Monsters Vs. Aliens and Shrek. I know that bending your own style of drawing to an established design, can be difficult, and there are artists who don’t wish to work under those expectations, or restrictions (as they often see them). They prefer to work in their own “style” with less attention to established design. The problem is that young artists often confuse the terms, or abandon their definition altogether either through laziness, or for convenience. To help simplify, let me point out how style and design work within animation.

Style in animation defines the overall look of a film or show. They use established “designs”, through the use of model sheets for characters, limited color palettes, etc., to maintain the chosen style for the entirety of the work. If you’re still not sure you understand this, here’s an example that my friend Gonzalo said had helped him to get this concept.
Family Guy.

The cast of Family Guy

There is a definite style to the show, where the characters all have similar bubble eyes, blocky forms, and restricted detail in the figures. Not long ago, that tv show had an episode where Brian and Stewie travel into various universes, one of which is a Disney-verse. Family Guy’s style is in direct contrast to that of Disney which utilizes a more fluid line work, higher levels of detail to their figures, and a wider range of expression in the character’s eyes. If you don’t think you can recognize the difference, look at this image from the show. These are the same characters from Family Guy as seen above, but drawn in a style that mimics that of Disney.

Same family trapped in the Disneyverse

Style is a subtle thing, and a difficult concept to understand when compared to design. Even images that have a similar design qualities can look enormously different based on style. A subtle change in style can mean the world of difference, while maintaining a unique look all on its own. Consider if you told an animator from another country to draw Peter from Family Guy.

Peter- Family Guy

Now imagine if the animator wasn’t familiar with Peter, you might described Peter as a character with perfectly round eyes, circular ears, curved lips, not a lot of hair, rounded fingers, tube like limbs, a rounded belly and crotch, trunk like legs, simplified shoes, and a white shirt with a collar. Yet you might get this in return.

D'OH! That's Homer Simpson- not Peter!

The design of the two characters, on the surface, have a lot in common, but it’s the style that separates them visually. When you establish an overall design, but leave space for stylistic interpretation you get variations, that’s how we can recognize one artist’s work from another. A competent artist will maintain their style from image to image by making their marks, and solving visual problems they face, consistently. Even someone only moderately familiar with comics can recognize an artist’s work by one example.

To help show what I’m talking about, take a look at the drawings below of Conan the Barbarian, one by Jack Kirby and the other by Neal Adams. Those familiar with Jack Kirby know his work when they see it, and not many would say that his drawings are anything like that of Neal Adams. This image of Conan has some of Jack’s stylistic trademarks, such as angular edges and squared off fingers.

Jack "the King" Kirby does Conan

Now, here is Conan drawn by Neal Adams. The character design is the same, but the “style” is different. Neal is often credited with bringing a more realistic approach to comics, through proportions, anatomy, shading, and body postures more in line with real people.

Neal cranks out Conan!

The issue of  style is still something that has caused me frustration, in battle after battle on the comic boards with wannabes who continually attempt to justify the inconsistencies in their art by claiming all those failings are just part of their style. It’s a vague term that can be manipulated by people who don’t want to be held to a specific standard. To see if you can catch these visual traits, which artist from above this image is drawn by?

Didn't know there'd be a quiz- did you?

If you said Kirby, then odds are you recognized the style in his work.

So many amateurs like to just say that whatever they do, however they do it, is their style; yet, it’s the consistencies in an artist’s work that are the true definitions of that. In combination with design, it establishes the universe the artist is attempting to show us. It doesn’t matter what style an artist works in, as long as the consistency is there. Randomly set up environments, fluctuating heights of characters, varying facial features, irregular architecture, and the like, are not the things that make up a style– that’s just laziness.

A friend passed along some info that I thought some of you might find useful. The Washington Post is holding a comic strip contest, and entries are due June 4! I don’t think I’m eligible anymore, but for those of you that are… go for it!

If the jump link doesn’t work, try copying and pasting this.