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.

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