Part 1: What is Drawing?
This is how I've come to understand the act of drawing. Its best to first set the semantics (the specific meaning of the words) straight, so there are no crossed purposes.
By 'drawing' I mean loosely the act of making visually representative marks on a surface.
Anyone can draw. Anyone can attempt to recreate what they see in front of them - or a scene they imagine - by making marks on a piece of paper. If you hear someone say "I can't draw", slap them for me. As long as they have a moving part to which a pencil can be taped, they can draw.
However, "attempt" is the operative word here... because that's all anyone can ever do. They can come indefinitely close to recreating what they see or imagine, but no matter what they produce, it can always be improved upon. Bear this in mind, Ill come back to it in a moment.
Part 2: Good and Bad
This section is very subjective, so just be aware that what I'm giving you is my opinion on how to see things. Only an opinion, but, I'd like to think, an informed opinion.
As far as I'm concerned, drawing should not be regarded in terms of good and bad... and even more dangerous are the terms succeeded and failed. Let me reiterate the point I made in part 1 in order to show why these terms are unhealthy.
"no matter what you produce, it can always be improved upon"
Going by this statement, if you ever want your art to be good or to succeed, you will always fail. There will always be someone out there who is more accomplished than you, and you will never be satisfied. This is why art can seem so futile, and be unendingly depressing for some people.
Unfortunately, because of the way in which most of you who can read this will have been taught by school, parents, friends and life experience, it will seem like everything is a matter of "pass" or "fail". For the remainder of this writing, I just want you to try to forget these words, and try to forget about the concept of making money with drawing, or drawing related jobs, or anything but drawing for drawing's sake. I'll come back to all this at the end, and hopefully put everything into perspective.
Part 3: Symbols
Rather confusingly, I think that drawing is not about the act of mark-making itself, but the things that precede the act. Namely sight, language and knowledge. This may sound very wishy-washy, but let me elaborate:
As we grow up, we learn to see the world. As a baby, a human has no language, and so all the things a baby sees have no names. The world around you is literally one great, unnamed landscape. You then get taught to divide the world up into understandable objects, that are separated from each other by name... "this is a tree", "this is a person", "that is a stone". Endless qualifiers, classifiers, describing words & nouns.
At the same time as learning to name the objects around you, you get shown drawings of them, in educational books, story books, cartoons, adverts, you name it, drawings are everywhere. So, as far as the growing mind is concerned the word "tree" doesn't just bring to mind a real tree, it also brings to mind a simplified drawing of a tree.
This is where the trouble starts as far as "drawing" is concerned. What you are learning during this stage of your life is to sub-consciously recognise everything around you as a "symbol". When you look at a row of trees, and turn away, what remains in your head is most likely not the exact image of the trees themselves, but a bizarre mix of the word "trees", the average pictorial representation of a tree, and a vague memory of the shape of the trees you saw. Depending on the person, this memory will be (in various proportions) both photographic and symbolic.
So essentially, the average person's understanding of the world is a mixture of words, symbols and images. To demonstrate this, as you sit at your computer reading this, try to recall the exact shape of something you can't currently see (say, maybe, a "car"), and you'll come across a big problem...
There are loads of different types of car! And even the cars that look the same can be in different conditions from each other. In order to visually understand the word "car", you actually need to simplify the image in your head, otherwise it cant be representative of all cars. Otherwise, the word wouldn't just be "car", it'd be "rusty Audi A4" or "brand new Mini Cooper", or whatever example of a car you happened to choose as your starting point.
This point doesn't just apply to cars, it applies to everything; trees, stones, pavements, walls, eyes, noses, faces, whatever. For each word there is an infinite number of visual variations, but ultimately only one word. So when you come to draw a "car", which one do you draw? Is it going to be realistic? Do you design your own?
Depending on how much you think about these questions, the car you end up with might be anything from crudely representative, to fantastically accurate, to wonderfully inventive.
Part 4: Overcoming Symbols
So, here's the problem... when you come to draw something, you obviously need to remember what it looks like first. But, for the majority of people, that memory is not an easy thing to access or even define. There's a massive mental barrier of words and symbols between them and a perfectly pictorial memory. And what's worse, is that this mental barrier was created during the earliest stages of life, and has been constantly re-enforced ever since. This is part of why drawing is hard (and usually remains hard) for most people.
What's even worse is that during any art based education you get, the vast majority of teachers are unsuccessful, if not downright terrible at describing this problem and how to overcome it.
So, before you even pick up a pencil in order to draw something, what you need to be asking yourself are the following things:
"Can I really remember what this looks like?"
"Which specific example of this thing do I want to draw?"
"Do I want to design my own variation?"
Then, if you don't have a perfect photographic memory; if you can't decide what example you want; if you don't know how to design your own...
go and look at it whilst you draw it.
And, contrary to a lot of opinions, this is not cheating or copying in any way. Why rely on an imperfect memory, when you can go straight to the thing that your mind is remembering?
This can be annoying if you're not used to it, but if you put yourself in the right frame of mind, it can be really enjoyable and exciting. There are plenty of different ways to do it too. Here are a few:
1) Go outside (or wherever what you need is) with a sketchbook, and practice drawing what you want.
2) Go out with a camera (preferably digital for ease), and take pictures of what you want to draw. Then use the pictures as reference when you get home.
3) If you're lazy (like me), sit right where you are now, and search around the internet for videos and photos of what you want to draw. Be careful when you do this though, because essentially you're letting other people do a part of your work for you, which is rarely advisable for obvious reasons.
And remember, when you draw:
Draw the object in front of you, not the symbol of the object.
Forget words, and treat the object (be it natural, human, mechanical or otherwise) as a set of shapes, a sculpture, a physical entity. Look at it as if you've never seen it before, you don't know its name, and all its form is fascinating and unknown.
If you find this hard, a good exercise is to imagine slicing it into cross-sections and figuring out what shape these sections would be, or to look at it from odd angles to appreciate it in a new way.
After you've searched a good volume of material, and done a few quick sketches, you'll find your imagination should be fired up with all sorts of different ways to draw what you want, and based upon what you've seen, maybe even ways to design a new one, or come up with a unique variation. You'll also know exactly how it appears in reality, so you'll have a good starting point from which to simplify if you want to use a less detailed or realistic style.
The great thing is, the more you do this, the less you'll need to do it in future, because each time you do, you break down another part of the wall between you and understanding reality. Conversely, no matter how experienced you become, never delude yourself that youre beyond referencing.
Part 5: Practice Makes Perfect
So, it's that simple? Well, no, unfortunately there's a little more to it.
In order to be able to draw the thing you want to, you have to also have sufficient control and experience with your chosen medium (be that paints, pencils, pens or whatever). Some who have never picked up a pencil find it hard to simply draw a straight line, let alone draw the complex set of lines that might describe a human face.
Unfortunately, the control you need to do this comes only with practice and perseverance, which can seem daunting and frustrating. The only encouragement that can be given here is that patience is an incredibly valuable and necessary life skill. There are much worse ways to learn it than by drawing.
An exercise to help:
For pens and pencils, try practicing by drawing something in front of you without looking at the paper, and in one unbroken line. Never take your pen off the paper, and never take your eyes off the subject.
The resulting drawing will look crap, but that's not the point. Remember I advised you to forget about "succeeding" or "failing". The point of this exercise isn't to produce a "good" drawing, it's just to draw. Be fast, confident, and easy. The various elements of the exercise help in the following ways.
- By looking only at the subject of the drawing youre forced to really think about how to describe it using line, and subsequently increase your awareness of the space in front of you, and the space on your page.
- By describing the subject in only one line, youre forced to place that line as accurately as possible. Sketchy lines, while visually appealing, allow you to get away with not quite placing the line in the correct place, and never fully committing to one stroke.
- The visually jumbled pile of lines youll probably end up with is hard to regard as a finished drawing. Itll encourage you to simply move on without worrying about the result, focusing only on the process itself.
This won't instantly make a difference, but just like with all practice eventually it will. Do 1 or 2 of these (drawing random objects) every day for a month, and you will start to see progress.
Part 6: Learn to not Give a Damn
It might seem like common sense to improve your drawing by analysing your past mistakes, and fixing them in your next drawing. However, this process can be slow and unproductive for a number of reasons.
First of all, as you draw, a strange psychological process occurs
your mind learns to see not only the lines youre actually laying down, but also the lines you want to lay down. By the time youve finished a drawing, when you look at it, youll actually be seeing a slightly different image from the one everyone else sees. In your head, the drawing will appear closer to the result you wanted to achieve.
To see concrete evidence of this, there are a few things you can do. First of all, try looking at art thats more than a few years old. Its always surprising how different your drawings will look after not having seen them for years. For a more immediate effect, try turning your paper round, and holding the drawing up to the light, or up to a mirror, so you can see it reversed. This should make all the flaws in the image leap out to you in a rather frightening way
the reason for this is that the flipped image is completely new to your mind, and won't remind you of how the image was 'meant' to be.
So, if your mind literally tricks you as you draw, how do you spot mistakes and improve? Luckily, there are a few things that can be done about this.
Firstly, let other people do the critiquing. Place your work on a community like deviantart, or a forum like Concept Art ( www.conceptart.org/forums/ ), and encourage people to criticize your work. Be open to what they have to say, and take everything into consideration.
Secondly, the trick is to move on as soon as possible. Doing the observational drawing that I mentioned before is the perfect way to do this. Put in lots of small, quick practice, so that when you sit down to spend a long time drawing something, you can use everything you've learnt doing smaller things that didn't matter.
Remember, when doing your practice, the process is the point, so disregard the completed sketches, and learn to really not give a damn about what you're producing. Get rid of the normal pressure associated with drawing something, and you'll find that your other drawing will become easier and easier, and less and less stressful.
Not dwelling over the exacting details of what you did wrong last time is actually the best way to move forward. If youve identified that the anatomy of your upper arms is off for example (like mine often is), then focus upon doing as many free-hand sketches of the upper arm and how it connects to the body as possible. The more you look, the better you get. If you endlessly tweak one drawing until it appears right, all you're doing is battling with your mind's preconceptions about how your drawing looks which - as we covered earlier - isn't how it really looks. For someone who hasn't learnt to control the way their mind sees their drawing, trying to tweak a finished piece is frustrating and usually unproductive.
Part 7: Stylism
This is a nasty one. This produces endless arguments, heated debates, wild opinions and sore prides. Here's my (hopefully all-encompassing) take on it.
Let's sort the semantics quickly, so we both know what we're talking about. A "style" as I refer to it, is some form of methodical simplification. Something that produces a recognisable look to the way in which a thing is drawn. Stylism is usually significantly different from reality, but doesn't naturally rule out realism (although it does rule out photo-realism). To place it in context with the way we see the world, a style takes a linguistic symbol (say, an eye), and creates a distinct and recognisable visual symbol for it (for example, an eye drawn by a Disney artist). Variations on that visual symbol are used when different examples of the object are drawn.
An example of a style is the variously revered, emulated and derided "anime/manga" aesthetic. Although there are many styles within manga, the archetypal manga aesthetic is universally recognisable, and often aspired to. I'll discuss this example, since it's what seems to cause the most heated discussion, but in the following sections I could potentially be referring to any recognisable style.
Essentially, when someone learns to draw in a style, what they normally do is this:
Instead of learning how to draw by exclusively observing reality, they also observe other artist's work.
Now, just to get this straight I think this is a perfectly valid way to learn.
Many established artists obviously did a similar thing, and it's impossible to avoid doing completely. If you're into drawing, it's a fair bet that you're inspired by a particular artist, movement, style or trend, so (if only subconsciously) that's always going to bleed into your work. It doesn't make you unoriginal, and it doesn't make your work any less valid.
What does make you unoriginal, is if you set out to say "draw exactly like Clamp", or "draw just like Katsuhiro Otomo". That's when a learnt style starts to become redundant. If however, the majority of your artistic influence happens (like mine) to be Japanese Animation and Comics, having its influence in your art isn't a crime. It's natural. As long as your influences within that umbrella are open minded and varied.
A big problem often occurs here though, which I've heard discussed all over the internet. People who are into a style think that they can get away with only using existing art in that style as reference. And doing this is perfectly possible. You can learn to draw without ever consciously considering a real-life example of what you're drawing. However, I believe it's an extremely detrimental way to draw, and ends up creating derivative and uninformed work that is only appealing to people who love exactly the type of art you love.
It also misses one fundamental element of drawing: figurative drawing like manga is a visual representation of life. Even if youve never drawn from life-reference, somewhere down the line, reality was the influence for your influences.
To demonstrate, if you want to draw as well as Clamp, remember that they were inspired in part by Rumiko Takahasi and Osamu Tezuka*, and they, in turn were inspired by Kazuo Koike (Takahashi's Sensei) and Disney, and so on and so on...
(*source: interview in "Manga: Masters of the Art")
However, Clamp dont draw like Rumiko Takahashi or Osamu Tezuka. And their style isnt a cross of the two either. Rumiko Takahashi doesnt draw anything like her teacher, Kazuo Koike. So what changed?
These steps from artist to artist are unavoidably informed by the environment of the artist in order to progress. So if you want to be the next big mangaka, you can't draw exactly like Clamp, because if Clamp simply copied styles, they'd draw exactly like their influences. And weve demonstrated that they dont at all.
So, learning to draw also means learning to draw observationally</i>, at least in part. As an immediate visual example of this, check out mincedniku's deviation Eight Years of Art
The steady improvement is plain to see (and considering her current ability, very encouraging for anyone just starting out), but to my eye, there is a particularly marked improvement during the 2004 year. After asking her about this, we had a brief conversation from which Ive extracted the most relevant details:
[Thats] probably the time I started trying to combine anime with realism to get the style I have now
what a lot of people don't understand is that if they practice their realism, their stylization of it will be much stronger
You need to understand something before you can take it outside of itself, make it something different, and still be recognizable.
Mincednikus art, is in my opinion one of the strongest examples of an anime/manga influenced style Ive encountered on deviantart, and her popularity attests to similar sentiments from a large number of people. Its evident from her comments that observational drawing needs to be a primary point of inspiration before a style can truly come into its own.
Part 8: Reference vs. Imagination
But! I can picture some people crying out what about my imagination?, "What about fantasy?", "Not everything we draw are things we can see!".. Well, good point. Surely a good imagination should be enough. Ive read pages upon pages of argument claiming that imagination can be a replacement for observational reference. So, lets do the semantic thing again. If we accurately define imagination, we can be sure were discussing the same thing
Life is necessarily a collection of experiences. For the spiritual among you, you also believe there is something above and beyond experience, but, describing this higher existence visually is always very tricky and ultimately symbolic. If you do so, you do so using recognisable images that everyone has experienced such as bright light. Self evidently, you cant describe something using an image no-one has ever seen.
So, to simplify, the visual part of life is made up of the experience of sight. This means, that if you imagine anything visual, you have to either recall something youve seen, or mix together a number of things youve seen. Imagination is a highly creative process, but its not divine. It cant create from thin air. To do so would be the same as claiming youve invented a new primary colour.
Take a fantasy creature like a dragon. How can that spring from life example? Surely you can only know what a dragon looks like by looking at drawings of one. But no, those drawings are informed by things that exist. The scales of a lizard, the skeletal wings of a bat, the claws of a bird... all grown in majesty, and morphed into a new form, but drawn from life none the less. Understanding the underlying process of inspiration from life is the only way to truly bring your own drawing to life.
To say that imagination can replace observational reference is like saying that a building has the same function as a brick. It doesnt make any sense. Life-reference feeds imagination; it is the fundamental building block of creativity.
Bearing this in mind, it becomes incredibly important that even if you prefer drawing from pure imagination (and I think, most people do), that you also reference life in order to stop your imagination relying on the same set of images over and over, and growing stagnant.
Returning to the discussion of style, style works by creating a drawn symbol from an object in life. When emulating the style of another artist without considering life, you essentially create drawn symbols from more drawn symbols, and your drawing takes a step away from what its describing. It becomes less vital and less able to represent the original object. A symbol of a symbol might be recognisable, but its not going to be as well informed as the original symbol.
Finally, bear in mind that referencing from life ultimately has no bearing on how realistic (or how manga) the resulting drawing is
thats your choice. It only changes your understanding of what it is you're drawing.
Part 9: Practicality
Well, with all that said, what does it mean if you want to apply art to life. If you want to make a living, there is such a thing as succeeding and failing, and no matter how you perceive reality, ultimately its other people who decide how good your work is. They may not know or care about symbols or reference.
Basically, what the methods of seeing and drawing Ive described do, is to provide you with a stable platform.
This platform is free of pressure, and from it, you can produce drawings which you can then send to either fly or fall. But the flying and the falling is nothing to do with you. If you seek to observe, learn, improve and practice, and above all, enjoy, then you've truly done all you can. And if (as I believe), every person's potential really is infinite, you'll most definitely succeed in time!