On Solid Drawing

  • On October 27, 2009 ·
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There are many different ways to approach drawing, both stylistically and from a technical standpoint. I’m just going to go over the things I’ve cribbed from my years of studying and practice. Hopefully you can pull something useful from these concepts.


This is something I picked up as an animator because we have to be able to turn our characters, keep them solid, and make the actions read well on screen. There are different degrees of understructure, the most basic being the Line of Action, as illustrated by Preston Blair. (And explained further in depth on the ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive)

The line of action is a simple line showing the direction the drawing is moving in. This is important because it makes your drawings more dynamic. Rather than the stiff static figure being parked in place, you have fun posing. Once that’s figured out, you can start placing the Skeleton Foundation. The skeleton foundation is a stick figure you use to keep arms and legs the same relative length with each other and to figure out positioning. Once you have that it’s merely a matter of building up the overlapping shapes of the character on top of it. Remember when designing characters to try and give them Unique Shapes and Silhouettes to distinguish them from each other. Another thing to remember when constructing a character is to use dimensional shapes that have depth. Instead of working with squares and circles, think in cubes and spheres. Rotating Screwy Squirrel’s head is a lot easier when you see it as a solid shape that can be moved, rather than the outline that defines it in one drawing. Also, organic shapes like muscles squash and stretch. Usually you’ll find one part of the body squashing while the other’s stretching. This creates a dynamic asymmetric figure that looks more believable. At Disney they explain it as Avoiding Twins. (John K talks in depth about this on his blog)

How to avoid drawing twins

Be sure to draw through your figures to get placement right. We’re all guilty sometimes of hiding a hand behind a head and just assuming we know what it looks like. Don’t just draw what you think you know is there. Draw what is there. Sometimes you’ll be surprised when you realize you have the length of an arm off or need to show more of something because it’s not as hidden as you think it should be. Plus taking the shortcut of always drawing stock poses without developing them underneath can cause the poses to become too stylized and abstractions of what they’re really supposed to be.

Looking Inside a Drawing

Study for a piece by Michelangelo

I had a classmate once who could do very good line drawings of the models in the style of Michelangelo. He was frustrated, however, because he couldn’t turn his drawings or adjust for the distortions brought on by perspective. Once he drew something as he saw it, he couldn’t easily move it to another angle. The professor sat down with him and explained the idea of blocking in a box for the chest which could then be positioned and he could then lay down his linework on top of that. Contour and line is an important part of making a drawing look nice. But if your figure isn’t structured underneath lines are only going to get you so far. Now, some artists have a very design-centric style that doesn’t rely so heavily on depth, but they usually develop that look once they practice life drawing and learn basics. Even the most simple-looking drawing can have a wealth of knowledge behind it on making it work.

Talent vs. Skill

Here’s something that gets brought up on forums and such a lot and I thought I’d mention it. Drawing is by and large a skill. Some people may have a knack for it naturally but anybody can learn and improve over time. Too easily we dismiss the ability to draw well as some magical God-given power that only the lucky ones get. Mystifying drawing like that is a discredit to the hard work artists put into making their art better. If you were a doctor would you rather have somebody say you’re talented for being able to perform surgery or would you rather have them recognize the years you spent in med school? When I hear people say, “I wish I could do that,” I usually turn to them and ask why they don’t. Then I get the litany of reasons why they never had the time, they had bills to pay first, so on and so forth. Which is all well and good. But it doesn’t mean I just got the ability to draw one day. I made a constant effort to improve on the things I was having trouble with. I still make that effort.

Drawing is a skill in much the same way writing is. Some people may take to it early. But an artist learns, grows, figures out what works and what doesn’t. Lots of people who start out wanting to be artists have a few things they’re good at drawing, then they get asked to step outside of their comfort zone and can struggle. Some fall back on the defense, “Well, my family and friends all think I’m good.” That’s great. Your loved ones should be supportive. But when you start trying to sell your pieces your family or friends probably can’t buy them all. Eventually, if you want to make art that appeals to people who don’t know you, you have to work at it. Just as the creative writer who’s really good at poetry has to learn to outline, edit, and reword an essay, the cartoonist who’s really good at drawing anime faces should learn anatomy, perspective, and backgrounds.

Toning/Rendering/Developing an Image

Portrait of Sylvester and Tweety

This is more a word of caution than anything else. Don’t start shading/rendering/toning/whatever your drawings until they’re ready for it. I see this in life drawing a lot when people don’t block in their figures right and then jump into shading only to find they have to move a face or change an angle. Don’t be afraid of reworking a drawing. Do a light, quick gesture and work on it. If a leg’s at the wrong angle, redraw it in a better one. If you’re working in graphite you probably won’t even need to erase the first attempt because it’ll disappear into the reworking you’re going over and developing. Some artists will do a bad drawing and freeze, wad it up and start again or storm off in a huff. There are times when starting fresh is a good idea. Say after you draw a panel and realize the poses are great but the angle needs reworking. Or maybe you’ve sketched up the page with pencil already and you want to draw something new in while keeping older elements. There’s no strike in that.

Photoshop is not some all-magical solution to your problems. It’s a great tool for accomplishing tasks but it’s not a substitute for skills or fundamentals. In the right hands it can speed up workflow and produce some very beautiful and clean art. In the wrong hands it can make a lazy artist look lazy with pizazz. I’m not saying this as somebody in his ivory tower looking down. I’m saying this as a former lazy artist trying to reform himself and encourage others.