Thursday, August 24, 2006

Drawing From Life

One of the reasons that I like living in a small town like Tuberville is that you just feel like you have a lot more time to go slow and observe things. It is amazing how many folks just don’t stop to look at their natural surroundings.

I’ve written here in the blog before about how much humor is inspired by just watching people and critters. Which naturally leads into today’s topic which is the importance of drawing from life. I suppose that “life drawing” is almost as misunderstood as thumbnails and gestures.

Thumbnails and gestures are a shorthand way for an artist to take notes or capture essential information quickly so that they can have them for future reference. It is amazing how novice cartoonists think that they have to jump right to finished art work. Cartooning is a process and therefore like most processes it has more than one step. In fact, one thing that I’ve noticed in many of the students I’ve encountered is that they don’t make the connection between thinking and drawing.

I suppose it is another age old misconception that art is an emotional form of expression which leads people to assume that drawing is a sensory kind of thing totally involving “feelings”. Sure there are all sorts of emotions expressed through drawings or paintings but because emotions are expressed, it doesn’t mean that the artist disconnected their brain from the process.

Drawing is communication of information, emotions are information too and therefore to communicate information clearly and concisely the artist needs to be thinking about what they are doing when they are drawing. Every line and every form is there for a purpose. It is all information. So if you are making marks on the paper without thinking about why, then you aren’t drawing you're doodling. Now artists tend to like to think with their pencils so gesture drawings and thumbnails are the first step in that thinking process. They are like making notes before writing a story or jotting down ideas for future gag development.

Back to the topic of life drawing, if drawings are meant to communicate information, then the artist must have a foundation in how people perceive and understand things. Sure there are short cuts and conventions that have evolved in cartoons over the years for communicating ideas but fundamentally visual communication is based on perceptions grounded in life and nature. People learn from their experiences in the real world from the time they are born so if you present things to them that don’t closely mirror that real world they will subconsciously reject those things that are unnatural.

Now many people who want to be cartoonists just start out copying cartoons themselves. That’s not a terrible thing, but it is similar to learning to speak by only copying the way that Daffy Duck talks. Could you imagine how limiting it would be to try to communicate if your only reference to speech was based on what you copied from mimicking Daffy?

One objection, which I often hear from students when the subject of life drawing is first presented, is they don’t feel comfortable drawing pictures of “necked” people. I can appreciate that some people are uncomfortable with nude models. But life drawing isn’t just learning to draw the unclothed human form. It is about drawing everything in nature, cats, dog, birds, clouds, trees, rocks....everything. Just start looking around you and you will find millions of natural things to use as your life models.

More importantly life drawing is a first and important step in developing your observational skills. You can’t make animated cartoons if you don’t learn to observe real life and translate and exaggerate it in your drawings or puppets.


Sunday, August 20, 2006

Thumbs, Gestures, and Other Tips

Marty and I were having a recent “on-line water cooler” type of discussion. We do that a lot when we are working. After all, we live thousands of miles apart. So when we collaborate, we also catch up on the latest personal or family news as well.

Now Marty is always sketching while we talk on-line, as you may have gathered from all of his scribble drawings that I use here in the blog. So as usual we were discussing “shop talk” related to our animation productions, and we began to comment on some of the misconceptions that are inadvertently created by most published works relating to drawing and animation.

For example most books written about drawing and animation tend to only show finished examples. We decided it was a cost of publication restriction, but none the less, it creates the false impression with many readers that drawing for animation is a one step process as far as those nice clean finished drawings. I’m am often surprised at how many people think that cartoonists only draw in these clean thick and thin flowing lines. They are only being shown the finished drawings so they just assume that these lines are how the artist started and finished. Of course that’s a misconception. Depending on the artist there are usually many steps between the concept and the realization of a drawing or animated sequence. Unfortunately, examples of most of these steps don’t get published even though they exist.

Thumbnail drawing, gesture drawing and rough sketching are so important to the process of animating and yet so often rarely emphasized in texts that introduce new artists to animation work. This misconception carries over into many aspects of the work.

I find that not only do beginning students not understand how to draw loose feathering lines made up of tiny short strokes but they also try to animate starting with finished drawings. I often refer to this as the “snapshot” approach to animation. Many people see examples of animation work in books which are a series of finished drawings that make up a sequence of action. They already have the normal perspective, from childhood learning, that drawings are still pictures or “snapshots” like photographs, so it is natural to view animation as a series of snapshots.

So the novice assumes that to animate they need to produce a finished frame, and then do the next frame to completion and then do the next frame and so on. Now they occasionally stumble on discussions of straight ahead versus pose to pose animation so they do sometimes at least think about the differences in those fundamental approaches. But basically the thought process is to finish each frame before doing the next frame. Some people even paint in the colors before moving to the next frame. That is sure to kill any spark of life in your work. The rush to have a finished product is a strong urge that should be avoided.

The result of this snapshot approach is stiff, low energy work. Most people blame their results on their lack of drawing skills. But I think they just don’t give themselves a chance because they are laboring under such misconceptions.

Here are a few suggestions that might help you get more out of your animation work. First, forget finished drawings and focus on learning to sketch loosely in a more gestured or thumbnail style. Second, start thinking about animation as art across time and not as a series of snapshots. Learn to work back and forth across the frames. Your goal is to capture rhythm in motion so working back and forth using the instant testing and viewing capabilities of your software to flip your drawings is a great advantage. Professional animators are constantly flipping back and forth checking the action and making adjustments.

Besides learning to work back and forth across a series of frames, it is also important to not worry about the finish quality of your drawings, but to stay loose and forget about a lot of details. You want to capture the energy and rhythm of the action. There is plenty of time to clean it up and layer in the details after you get the business worked out. We like to do just rough thumbnails for the most part. That way we don’t have a lot of time and effort invested in the work and therefore we find making changes less painful. The more finished your work the less you will want to try different views or angles and the stiffer your results. The looser and more gestured your work the more you will try stuff and the better your results will be.

Marty Says "Hello"

Monday, August 07, 2006

In Search of Crocs and Gaters

Being a cartoonist, you learn how to be observant. Recently I got in my old Chevy pickup and drove up the highway to the big city. Like I said previously we occasionally have to leave the quiet comforts of Tuberville and venture out in the world to buy art supplies and to get a fancy coffee at Starbucks.

So, as I wandered around the streets of Atlanta, my naturally curious and observant cartoonist mind began to ponder a strange phenomenon. All those city folks were wearing these funny looking brightly colored plastic shoes. It looked like a Dutch invasion, except they weren’t wooden shoes from Holland, but rather they were shaped like them, but made of plastic full of holes and in a rainbow assortment of colors.

Now it wasn’t just little kids wearing them but whole families of people and each person had on a different color. I finally had the nerve to ask as to the origin of these strange shoes and the reply was .“They are Crocs”. Now even us folks who live in small Georgia towns know about Crocs. Why those are like Gators and we have them in the bayous and in the swamps. So I knew they were pulling my leg, because Crocs don’t come in those bright colors and they don’t have plastic skin.

But sure enough these strange shoes that everyone is wearing are called Crocs. It seems that people have just gone completely nuts about wearing these shoes and they just can’t help themselves from buying several pairs in assorted colors.

So upon telling Marty this tale of rampant consumerism, he promptly shot back his take on the social ramifications of this new trend.

"I wan dose Crocs....gotta hab dose Crocs now!"

"Son, the only way to enjoy a Croc is Bar-be-qued"

One of the joys of being a cartoonist is you never run out of funny subject matter to use as inspiration. Of course we would never be caught dead walking around Tuberville in those sissy shoes. We just wear them around inside the studio, after all, they are really comfortable.

I can't wait til Al Gore finds out that Crocs are made of "Plastic" and are a primary cause for Global Warming. Speaking of a cartoonist's treasure chest of funny material, I just love Al Gore.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Drawing on Local Inspirations

It isn’t easy trying to operate a cartoon studio in a small country town like Tuberville Georgia. Claude, the owner of the local bait and tackle shop never seems to have much in the way of art supplies. Why if it weren’t for the occasional delivery on the UPS truck, we would have to go into the big city for everything. Fortunately Tuberville does have one of the most critical supplies needed by anyone in the cartoon making business. It is just heaping full of funny characters. Anybody can order up pencils and paper over the Internet but you can’t find such amazingly interesting to observe people as we have in Tuberville, not even on eBay.

Cartoons require a constant source of inspiration. You need subject matter that is just full of the human condition. And Tuberville Georgia is rich in two things for sure, pig manure and the human condition. Just walking around town is a wonderful opportunity to fill up your sketchbook.

I suppose that was one of the things that attracted us to this place, that and the really cheap rent we pay for our studio space.

When you’re struggling with trying to imagine an entertaining situation for a new cartoon you don’t want to be sitting in some Starbucks in Atlanta drinking a Frappachino. You will be far more inspired by a visit to Dwayne and Effie’s Truck Stop and Moterlodge out on route 23.

Sometimes we just grab a booth near the back of the diner and soak up all the local culture. It is never long before someone will start telling the story of their latest fishing adventures. Or more often they relate some amazing tale about the local legendary critters that everyone knows exist but which no one except Luther Suggs has actually seen. You know the type of critters that seem to show themselves only on Saturday nights after Luther finishes sampling his latest batch of Okra and Raisin mash. We call it liquid inspiration.

Yes, we may not have a good stock of pencils and paper here in Tuberville but when it comes to shoveling the fertilizer we have an abounding talent and an unending source of supply.

On a follow up note, we recently were visited by an irate reader who insisted that we gave much too much credit to Houston Texas for having the largest and most fierce cockroaches. So in order to set the record straight we promised to give the entire state of Florida equal billing.