I've been thinking about how and why we learn to draw for a few years now. I started self-analazing my own drawing and character design thought process when I began writing my first art instruction book, "Creating Characters with Personality". It was harder than I thought to verbalize how I've learned and how I process drawing. This has led me to start looking back at my artistic life and how I learned art. What made me learn the most? What drove me to draw and stick with it? What led to others I knew as a child to stop drawing? I think I'm ready to present some of those thoughts here on DA and hear what you think. This is part 2 of three in a series. I'm not sure where this is leading, but step one is my establishing an online art instruction school called Taught ByA PRO (www.taughtbyapro.com) that will (in phase one) concentrate on drawing instruction for all forms of media. Here we go:
I believe there are THREE major problems in the way we learn art instruction in the United States. PROBLEM #1: Well-meaning adults kill a children's joy for drawing (can be read here: tombancroft.deviantart.com/jou… ) and PROBLEM #2: Artists are not training artists (can be read here: tombancroft.deviantart.com/jou… )
PROBLEM #3: We’ve been taught incorrectly- we need to know WHY and WHAT we are drawing.
This one may be the most controversial in this series.
In the mid- 70s one of the most popular art instruction book series were the “Draw 50” (airplanes, prehistoric animals, caricatures, aliens, cartoon character, etc, etc.) by Lee Ames. They are still in wide use at schools and libraries the world over. In the 70s and 80s these books were the obligatory gift at Christmas or birthdays for any child that liked to draw. The premise of these books was to create a step-by step way to draw a certain subject by breaking it down into simple lines and shapes. Step 1: Draw a circle, Step 2: draw a triangle below it, Step 3: add a curved line from the bottom of the triangle to the top of the circle, etc., etc. until you had a drawing of a beautiful OWL! For myself, as a young artist, I couldn’t help being drawn to being able to create a drawing of an owl that looked like a professional artist had done it! I still remember showing my mother drawings from the “Draw 50” series and her not believing I drew it. “Surely, you traced it, right?” she would say. There was a reward in that feeling. I wasn’t as frustrated as if I were looking at a photo of an owl and tried to recreate it. Those drawings never looked right. Now I had an art book were I could find a drawing of an owl that an artist had ALREADY simplified for me. I was piggybacking off of his training already by copying his version of an owl. In addition to that, the way I LEARNED to draw that pre-made Owl was through a geometric approach of following a formula. If one of my friends asked me to draw my new owl character from a different angle, a different pose, a different expression- I would be lost. This is because I didn’t know HOW I created that drawing. I really didn’t learn how to draw that owl; I learned how to replicate lines that in 7 easy steps BECAME the owl.
To back up a little, I do want to say that Mr. Lee Ames (who died a little over a year ago) WAS a classically trained artist in his own right. He had worked for 18 years at Walt Disney Studios and illustrated many paperback novels and illustrations for magazines. I don’t know how the “Draw 50” series came about but the step- by- step drawing approach he used had been around long before he created his books. I assume Mr. Ames had very good intentions in sparking kids desires to draw. In many ways, he was successful in that, and I include myself in that group. My point with using the “Draw 50” book series as an example is because its such a well-know series that has spun off many similar books on drawing horses, manga, comic book characters, etc. that are very popular today. This step-by-step approach DOES have some value. For children at an early age, it can give you some confidence and help you understand the most basic principles of drawing: shapes and lines, put together in the right way, can create a recognizable character, person, animal, or object. This is the most basic element of drawing and where we, as artists, gain our first “successes”. It's ALSO a way we, as animation artists especially, can replicate the same character from different angles, expressions, etc.- by breaking it down into basic shapes. THAT part of the art instruction WORKS. The point I'm trying to make is that there was a whole bunch of OTHER information that was not mentioned in those books (and books like them) that we needed to know to really grow to the next level. To be able to create that owl from the SIDE view, for example, I needed to know how that triangle and circle shapes turned in perspective. How do those shapes change when the owl is now flying? Its a huge leap for a child to do anything with that system of 7 steps and understand how to make ANOTHER, different owl. You have only learned THAT owl, from THAT view, with THAT expression, and in THAT style.
Once again, to be clear, THESE books are great for getting young kids interested in drawing. As children, we learn by copying. We also learn best by creating "known" things from simple shapes. The "Draw 50" books do those two basic things well. And with little to now text, so they books are easy for very young children to use. Someone asked me if she should tell her child to stop copying pictures (from comic books, comic strips, manga comics, etc.) and create his/her own characters. Ultimately, the question was: "Is copying bad?" My answer to this question is: No, not if they are young. We ALL first learn from copying. (Understand, I do not mean tracing. There is very little value in that.) Copying a professional's artwork gives a child the ability to make their work look ALMOST as nice as a professionals. It gives them some confidence, it gives them a little added knowledge, and it gives them practice drawing. Its a challenge to make your work look as CLOSE to the professional artwork as possible. Its good to give kids some challenges. And there are some drawing lessons/principles they will pick up through osmosis. Some. I used to draw Don Martin drawings, just to try a different style. His hands and feet-especially- were wonderfully odd and I remember even at a young age, thinking about how could I do that with my hand and feet. Did he add joints to get into those positions? I was comparing his very cartoony drawings/style to real anatomy and picking up some knowledge along the way. We learn from EVERYTHING we draw. So, at a young age, let them copy. We have to go through it. But, watch out, what comes next is what separates "doodlers for fun" from kids that might make a career of art.
It's the blank piece of paper. I still remember when I started creating my own characters/drawings. When I started drawing scenes out of my head. When I stopped copying. It was HORRIBLE. My artwork took about 100 steps backward and suddenly I felt like I couldn't draw. I had leaned too much on copying other peoples artwork (probably for longer than I should have) and, most of all, I had gotten used to some drawing success because of it. I was horrified how bad I drew when I wasn't looking at someone else's picture/art. I didn't know what to draw either. I was uninspired and lacked real knowledge of any real artistic principles. This is the point I stopped drawing. Not for too long, but I remember thinking maybe I wasn't an "artist" like I thought I was. The kids at school still said I was, it was my label at school and I was proud of it. It was what made me different. I was the guy the kids went to if they wanted a drawing. But now I was stripped of that ability, or so I thought. Slowly, though, I started back at it. Like a smoker trying to break a cigarette addiction, I decided I shouldn't go cold turkey. When I designed a new cartoon character of my own (back then I wanted to be a comic strip artist), I surrounded myself with art books of artists I liked and styles I wanted to emulate (today, you would call this the internet). I would try an nose from one character, mix in eyes i liked from another character, a body shape from another, etc. Pretty soon, I had an "original" character but with the help of the pros. It looked a little "Frankensteined", but it at least looked semi-professional. AND, the more I did it, the more some of those elements became my own. I started "Frankensteining" a style, you could say. After a while, I didn't need those books around me so much. Maybe just for inspiration, but I started figuring some things out for myself. AND, I was simultaneously, getting books on anatomy, perspective, techniques, tools, etc. During that time I was experimenting and learning drawing basics and applying that to my "research" into the artists that I loved and how they drew. BOTH were paying off and soon I felt like I was an "artist" again. But this time, I was drawing with a blank piece of paper in front of me. I was able to CREATE art. Not just copy it. It would be years (15 -20 years) before I felt I could CONSISTENTLY create art I liked or felt was working pretty well. I still make mistakes to this day. I still have drawings that don't come out correctly and I don't like. I always will. We never stop learning and growing in our art.
And, by the way, COPYING isn't bad later in life. We call it research then. Looking at photos of people in poses and "using" that pose for an illustration of a DIFFERENT character is great. It looks better, it has a natural sense to it- its based on reality so it has added believability. Win-win. Again, TRACING is always bad. Copying, when you get older, is about HOW you use the research in front of you. Its gaining knowledge through research on a given subject. We drew real lions and watched video after video of lions running, playing, etc. for our animation in "The Lion King", but none of it was traced from film of lions. No, we just wanted to gain some believability and knowledge from the real thing so our caricatured lions (after all ours talked and gestured with their paws as if they were hands) could feel more real. Sorry, this was a slight tangent from the main point.
HERE's THE POINT: I believe once we are ready to move past copying pictures from books, comics, photos, etc. and want to advance to creating a drawing from a blank piece of paper, we need to change the way we are taught. Its at this point, an artist needs to start thinking through their drawings more. Knowing WHY and WHAT they are drawing become the two MOST IMPORTANT questions to answer as they progress as an artist. From the "Draw 50" books I didn't learn to ask myself why I was drawing those lines, I was just copying them as I was told. I wasn't really learning how to draw. What came after that was a very disheartening search for real drawing principles. Some of that was going to come through lots of practice, but some of it, I needed to find other books on more advanced subjects so I could grow. I had to ask the questions in why I was drawing what I was drawing. I had to start having a purpose behind what I was sketching. Why do I draw a ball shape for the cranium of the head, then add construction lines too it? It means nothing if its not explained to you. Real art instruction is a lost art. Most of the great books on art instruction are from the 40s because art schools- not just elementary school art programs- have stopped teaching art instruction and they just put a life drawing model on a stand and say, "GO".
Ultimately, artists need some help getting through the transition from the copying phase to the “blank piece of paper” phase. This is the point we need REAL guidance and I believe it’s the point where we are most lacking in art instruction in the U. S.
I guess I just wish the talented Mr. Ames would have had some more advanced books so that the kids he got drawing with the "Draw 50" series could use that seed and start really learning drawing concepts so they could grow past the 7 steps to draw A OWL. He started a fire for many of us, but we are left to fan that flame on our own.