Monday, September 3, 2007

Back to the Old Drawing Board

Today's post comes about from a smattering of posts around the bloggosphere that I've noticed lately concerning a very fundamental, but oft overlooked truth about creating art. Whether illustrating children's books, animating cartoons, or creating charactures (list not exclusive), it is absolutely crucial that an artist be well-educated (and well-practiced) in drawing. Friend and skilled draughtsman Brent Eviston (his art featured above) beautifully describes the importance of having a thorough understanding of the foundations of drawing in this way:

There are numerous master painters throughout history who have insisted on seeing only aspiring apprentices drawings, not paintings, in order to see whether they had any future in art. I believe that this is because of the immediacy and honesty of a drawing. The immediacy of a thought translated directly into line and the honesty of a medium which, unlike paint, cannot be easily covered or edited. Every line drawn rests on the surface as a record of exactly what the artist was thinking.

When you think of it this way, all the other fluff you add to a drawing like color and texture is really just, well, fluff.

There is a sad phenomenon happening in many of the art schools around the country. Lately, it seems, colleges and universities are more intent on cultivating "creativity" and "free-thinking" than students who are armed with the fundamental skills that launching an art career requires. And please, before you start labeling me as one of those hyper-conservative, stodgy old-fogey types who's hell-bent on poo-pooing anything new or revolutionary, understand that I value creativity and free-thinking as much as the next liberal. But sheer creativity does not an artist make. There have been plenty of "creative" and "free-thinking" inventors, scientists, doctors and politicians. And many of them contributed invaluable tools, laws, and medicines that would never have been possible had they lacked the necessary "creative" and "outside of the box" thinking that those contributions required. But the same is true for all of them as it is for artists: behind every successful "creative genius" lies a person armed with specific learned tools of the trade - tools that make the implementation of creativity successful and that give ideas the necessary structure to flourish.

It's something so instinctual, something so ingrained in us since childhood, yet still so easy to just gloss over. Just as a student can't be expected to calculate mathematic derivations without first knowing how to add, subtract and multiply, neither can we expect an artist to successfully create a believable landscape in oils unless he or she understands the basic principles of line, perspective, and light. And too often for artists drawing becomes a chore ("ugh I should be keeping my sketchbook with me and doing short studies while I'm riding the metro in the morning"). But just as doing higher order trig functions requires years of practicing times-table drills, so does creating successful art require putting in hours of quick sketches and gesture drawings.

The ASIFA Hollywood Animation Archives had a fantastic post up last week about artist Carlo Vinci. Behind this man, a master of animation, was someone skilled across the board in a host of types and styles of art formally trained at The National Academy of Design in New York City. The moral, as the article points out, is this:

If you're an animation student, focus on your core art skills, regardless if you plan to do hand drawn, CGI, cut out or puppet animation. Computer programs will come and go...Demand that your school provide you the same quality of education that Carlo Vinci had. Work hard. Study to become an ARTIST...Vinci's job was to animate, but his occupation was ARTIST. The same was true of most of the other great talents in animation- Marc Davis, Milt Kahl, Grim Natwick... The reason they were great animators was because they were great artists.

Vinci, best known for his animation of The Flinstones, was also responsible for producing outstanding drawings like the one featured below (courtesy of the ASIFA website).

I was really inspired this week by some fantastic figure drawings by Pete Emslie on his Cartoon Cave blog (see my noteworthy links). He posts some fantastic examples of gestures (see below for some of the drawings courtesy of Pete's blog) as well as more detailed portraits of one of his regular models, Heather. What's particularly fascinating is seeing Emslie's transition between close-to-life drawings and the caricatured product. I strongly encourage you to look at the drawings on his website to see how important that base in good technical drawing skills is to producing well-constructed caricatures and cartoons.

There really is no substitute for a solid background in drawing and the fundamental concepts of line and construction in an artists repertoire of tools. Similarly, there are no shortcuts to having outstanding drawing abilities save taking the time to sketch on a regular basis to keep yourself sharp. So this week, for all of you artists reading, take some time to give your art, whether paintings, graphic designs, cartoons, or illustrations, a solid scaffold to run on and get back to the old... well, you know.


Dan Goodsell said...

I found your post to be an intersting take on things but I am not so sure that every artist needs to take the path of learning to draw like an old master to achieve success. Every artists path is different, I went to a "free thinking" school and learned very little technique but I learned how to be creative. Later in life I picked up the basic drawing and painting skills I have needed to move my creative projects along. Yes I wish I had more techinical skills but I think my formative years of learning were better spent learning to be creative as opposed to being skilled.

I think kind of like John K. you are laying out a path to become an employed animator. This need not be the path to become an "artist". Technique may play a part in being a great artist but creativity is by far the more important part. When you see a great Rothko painting in a museum, it matters little what he learned from the old masters while he was in school. He has taken his own path to to get to the top of the mountain.

I think you are half right when you say "it is absolutely crucial that an artist be well-educated (and well-practiced) in drawing". An education may be helpful but it is not necessary (just look at the work of Henry Darger). But practice and hard work can lead to be skillful and creative.

Lainey Schallock said...

First of all Dan, let me say that I'm really honored to know that you found your way to my humble blog here. I simply love your page and I've heard great things about about your books which I'm dying to get my hands on. I really appreciate your taking the time to stop by and post a critique - they are always welcome. Lively debate is always more interesting and educational than the same old "nice post" comments (which I also like by the way!)

I thought over what you said quite a bit, and I think certainly some of your points were on cue and perhaps I should have emphasized the importance of knowing basic concepts about what makes art "work" and what makes art "not work" more often. Knowledge of composition, color, and light are more important than knowing how to DRAW per se.

I certainly agree with what you said about laying out a path to be an employed animator - each person's path will be and SHOULD be different - that's how new and interesting ideas/stories/perspectives are born. Goodness knows I'd hate to see every animated film come out the exact same way - how frightfully dull. But I think it's important not to entirely dismiss what we can learn from the "old masters" - even if it's learning what DOESN'T work as much as what does work. There's no reason that we have to follow their paths exactly and replicate their styles for all eternity to come, but I think there's a good argument that many things don't change about what makes a composition work.

I think we've all seen bad art - something about it just doesn't appeal to the eye or sit right with the viewer, whether it's a more modern/abstract painting of color compositions or a classical figure drawing. That said, I completely acknowledge the importance of encouraging free thinking and creativity in school. Maybe what needs to be said is that a marriage of technique and creativity should be a more common occurrence. No law dictates that a school should teach classic technique only, or free thinking only.

On that note, I'll go ahead and wrap up this lengthy response by saying again that I really appreciate your taking the time to respond and critique my post as like all good artists and writers I'm still learning and feel the best way to grow and learn is through healthy criticism. Hopefully I haven't turned you completely away from my blog. Again, I always enjoy reading your page and hope you'll come by and visit again with lots more to say. Thanks again Dan.

Dan Goodsell said...

I must say I enjoy your blog and your take on things and my comment was meant to talk about my own point of view. I love to get into it about art and your post was nice because it got me thinking about all those things I love about art.

And I will happily contiunue to read your blog:)

Matt J said...

Brent's drawings are insanely good-shame his blog doesn't allow for comments.