Friday 28 August 2009

Technique - Part 2

Oof! are you ready for this?

Bit of a long one - so brew yourself a weapons-grade-strength coffee and read on.

I recently got a blog comment on another forum from Elo, a caricature artist from India, asking If I could give any advice on drawing technique; especially how to improve rendering certain subjects that he found difficult. It's a common question and I think it involves a misconception that is perpetuated by artists and non-artists alike. I thought that maybe now was the time to conflate my murky thoughts on the subject. So find below part of Elo's email (as he wrote it) and my reply which may resonate with others.

"Hi Russ,....give some tips for live drawings bcos am litlle worried about knowlede in anatomy. i can draw any kind of face but i am not able to draw hands,legs in proper shape and pose. Please help me. Thanks again"

My Reply:

Hi Elo - thanks for your comment. You're asking a tough but common question. The reason is a fairly simple one although no-one likes the answer. That answer is - practice!

OK, I know what you’re thinking; “ There’s got to be more to it than that. Isn’t there a quicker route? There must be some nefarious secret that others have discovered that I haven’t”. Something along those lines, perhaps.

I’m aware that when I say ‘practise more’ it sounds like it's an artistic cliché that's easy to trot out. Well, perhaps it is but there’s an underlying truth which exposes a common myth and I’ll try and explain it here:

First, we're all caricaturists and we like to draw faces - right? We do it almost to the exclusion of everything else. After all, people commission caricature artists and portrait artists to produce faces, not hands, so that’s another reason we spend more time doing them.

Second; we find faces easier to draw than hands (fill in your own example of what you find difficult - four legged animals or bodies in motion seem to be notoriously difficult too. )We therefore all assume that somehow we are hard-wired to find some things easy to draw while others not so. Wrong! and here’s my theory why...

When we draw for pleasure (and not a commission) we tend to draw the things that we're sure will look pleasing to our eye. That pleasure comes from the fact that we’ve produced something that’s technically accomplished (by our own standards) and we know before we start that we’re more likely to accomplish certain subjects technically. Alternatively, all the subjects we find hard to draw we tend to not draw for pleasure so much. We've now trapped ourselves in a vicious circle.

So, here's the question; How do we get better at drawing those subjects that we’re not so good at if we don’t draw them for pleasure? The answer is that they must be drawn as ‘study' or ‘practice'. But most of us, if we’re honest, don’t do much of that - if any at all. But if we don’t spend study time drawing the subjects we’re not so hot at then how can we expect ourselves to get any better at them? This is why people believe they’re facing an unsolvable or difficult problem; they can’t see the vicious circle they’re trapped in. We console ourselves that some things are just inherantly harder to draw than others. The unwelcome truth is that there is nothing intrinsicly harder about drawing horses legs or hands or bicycles or any other example you wish to give. This is borne out by the fact that we all find different things hard to draw. As far the human eye is concerned they’re all of them made of the same stuff: outlines, shadows, reflections, highlights, etc. Therefore the problem doesn't lie in the subject but how we’ve chosen to spend our time in what we’ve observed, tried to understand and then gone on to practice drawing in the past.

I'm obviously not saying that drawing a leaping horse should be no harder than drawing a cricket bat. One requires barely 5 minutes labour to replicate accurately, the other considerably more. So bear in mind we're comparing like with like when it comes to the artist's physical input.

Still have your doubts?

Here’s an example. I have a friend who’s an excellent cartoonist whose speciality is cartoon animals which he employs to embellish his natural history lessons for kids who visit the museum where he works. But he rarely draws people. Doesn’t enjoy it. Doesn’t think he’s so good drawing them. But why should he be so great at animals but not people? The answer; he rarely draws people.Why doesn't he draw people? because he doesn't enjoy it. Why doesn't he enjoy it? because when he does he's not so happy with the results compared to when he draws animals. So he carries on sticking to drawing animals(and getting better at doing so, no doubt). He may disagree, but I'm convinced that if he applied his undisputed artistic skill to practicing the human form he would improve it. Not only that but make his human cartoons the equal of his animal cartoons.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not saying that because I'm expounding on this that I can draw any subject with technical brilliance; far, far from it. I find many subjects very hard to draw and the examples I’ve given above are no exception. The difference is; I know why. And I know what I’ve got to do if I want to get better at drawing them. If you want get better at drawing hands and be able to draw them intuitively then set good time aside to draw nothing other than hands; from all angles and in all light conditions. The more you draw them the more you’ll find their common features. You’ll also see 'shapes' that you hadn’t noticed before which are there from anatomy. After a while you’ll start to ‘understand’ hands. (check out the work of the old master Paulo Ucello whose drawings showed how he constructed his horses from circles).

Try and be as honest with yourself as you can when it comes to assessing your own work. Ask yourself; ‘Is that part of the drawing working?’ if not, why not? (Don't waste time trying to save a badly formed drawing with furious detail - this is very true of caricatures).

In summation I’d say remember general form, observation of detail, training the memory and honest enquiry of your own efforts.

Oh yeah; and practise!


  1. I've enjoyed reading your Technique's but at the end of the day as you have said Practice is the key !!!

    keep posting your sketches you have a great technique..John

  2. Thanks John; I'm glad it made some kinda sense!

  3. You are definitely a wise man! I totally agree!
    My colleagues says "your capacity of drawing is a gift of nature, you have it or not"; ...nothing to do with the fact that I love drawing and that I draw as often I can?!.
    Thanks for your "general thoughts" :)

    1. Hi Mike, many thanks for commenting. There's no denying that we're born with a certain facility to do some things easier than others, be they playing football, bench pressing great weights, managing people or being a good draughtsman. The above post is really about how to improve the skills we've already got in areas we believe are undeveloped.

  4. ... hummm certain facilities. I see more affinities. I always love drawing and finally I reach a certain "quality" (in art everything is relative), by do and re-do, try and retry... I don't like to say "hard work" because it stays joy.
    But what comes first the egg or the chicken... gift or competence, skill, competency, expertise, proficiency, ability: I don't know.
    The environment is also important. In a musician family, it is easier to develop certain affinities to music and thus facilities. One's again: genetic (facility) or affinity.
    What I would say (it is not so easy in English) is, do what you love to do and do it in your style. If you love it enough you will do it enough and you will certainly evaluate in the right direction.
    Find an area that you really like and you will not work a day of your life.
    Best regards from Belgium

    1. Hi Mike,
      There are some interesting points being raised here and I intend to write a blog post on the subject soon where I'll go into my reasoning more fully.