At my LiveJournal, someone wrote to ask the following question:
“I am not a kid anymore, far from it, but after years of half-assed attempts I am trying to learn to draw comics and visual arts in general. My final purpose would be to draw some stories I have had in mind for years and years; not saying they are great, just that I need a way to express them using my own skills and not somebody’s else. It is late for me to learn and I have been told it will be very difficult for me to become good at my age and without huge amount of time to study, but I will try. … I have been recommended Bridgman and Andrew Loomis and I am studying through some of their books even though they are certainly too advanced for me. But is there some course or method YOU would recommend to a late learner? …just wanted to know if you have one or two books, courses, online schools you would recommend to a person starting from zero, nothing.”
I don’t think it’s ever too late to learn to draw. The biggest obstacle adult students face isn’t the learning itself, but rather carving time in their schedules for art. Most people who take up art in adulthood will fail at it — not because they can’t grasp the information, but because patterns of how they spend time are hard to change. They practice art regularly for awhile, but eventually their old lifestyle asserts itself, their art is pushed aside, and their skills never improve. If you can overcome that problem, and fit some hours of drawing into your weekly schedule for the next few years, you’ll do fine. (Artist Harley Brown tells of a lady he once met who drew so well that he assumed she must have studied art from early childhood. To his surprise, she revealed that she had only been drawing for a few years. Her secret: she’d practiced for several hours a day. Few have THAT much free time, but the point is that age doesn’t matter.) Pick some activity that currently takes up a few hours of your weekly schedule, kiss it goodbye, and replace it with art.
Another common myth is that cartoonists must master draftsmanship (anatomy, perspective, shading, etc) before they can draw comics. So, students get bogged down with learning how to shade spheres and memorize bones and plot vanishing points, when they should really just be cartooning. Those other skills may be necessary to move on to the more ambitious levels of cartooning, but they aren’t primary. At its foundation, cartooning is about picking the right objects in the right moments, and drawing those — even if only badly. That’s how cartoonists like Cathy Guisewite, Chris Onstad, and Scott Adams are able to craft effective comics without drawing well. They aren’t draftsmen; they are object-and-moment-choosers. Cartoonist John Campbell takes this to its extreme: Pictures for Sad Children
You should be able to follow his lead and begin cartooning your story ideas immediately. Just divide your written scenes into the fewest essential moments (panels), and ask yourself which characters, body parts, and props ABSOLUTELY need to be in each panel. Then draw only those, as simply and clearly as you can.
Of course, to increase the appeal and nuance of your stories, you’ll want to layer in whatever useful detail your growing skills allow. A good “first steps” book to study is DRAW 50 FAMOUS CARTOONS, by Lee J. Ames. Ames’s books show how to draw characters beginning with simple shapes and adding more complex details. This book in particular is useful because the characters are familiar and they range from the simple (The Little King, Felix the Cat) to the complex (Blondie, Flash Gordon). After working through these, you could move on to designing and drawing cartoon characters of your own.
From there, the next step would be realistic draftsmanship. The best book to start with here is DRAWING ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE BRAIN, by Betty Edwards. Edwards teaches techniques that artists use for overcoming the mental obstacles to realistic drawing. I plan to cover this in a future Toth article, but for now, in brief: the system our brains use to handle imagery is good for storing and recalling ideas, but bad for drawing. It’s like a biological version of the the difference between hi-res jpegs and lo-res bitmaps. Typical thinking works best with “lo-res,” but realistic drawing requires “hi-res,” so artists must use certain thought tricks to switch their thought mode over to the “hi-res” way of thinking. This may sound complicated and Jedi-like, but Edwards explains it well, and it’s frankly crucial to realistic drawing. You can see the effectiveness of her techniques in this “before and after” gallery of her students’ work, spanning a five-day period. Using the techniques Edwards teaches, you can begin drawing fruitfully by observation (drawing objects you see before you, or in photos), which is every artist’s most valuable calisthenic.
After working through those books, you’ll be in a good position to absorb what Loomis has to offer. His books (especially FIGURE DRAWING FOR ALL IT’S WORTH [anatomy], SUCCESSFUL DRAWING [perspective], and CREATIVE ILLUSTRATION [the best one, about picture-making in general]) are great (and back in print!) and should provide a sound foundation for everything else your comics might need. If he’s still a bit beyond your grasp, I recommend any of Jack Hamm’s excellent how-to books, which are simpler but top-notch, and cover similar ground.
But above all, keep cartooning. Pick the crucial story moments, pick the props and body parts that illustrate them, and jot those down.
Hey Folks! Shaenon Garrity has posted the rest of our space opera collaboration, “Trash,” in her webcomics archive:
In other news, I will be exhibiting at the STUMPTOWN COMICS FEST in Portland this weekend. You’ll find me at TABLE M02, where I’ll be drawing sketches and… well, drawing sketches. IT WILL LOOK COOLER THAN IT SOUNDS, OK?! Drop by to commission a sketch or shoot the breeze!
I’ve posted the second part of my essays on the linework of Alex Toth:
There’ll be three or four more parts on the way. Thanks for reading!
I wrote a new Alex Toth essay. Check it out here.
I just read at the Comics Beat that the Eisner Award judges have inducted cartoonist Mort Meskin into the Eisner Award Hall of Fame. I had written a blog post/article last year arguing for his inclusion, and I’m thrilled to see him included. As I argued in my piece, Meskin was a key figure in the development of the American comics idiom and deserves wider recognition. Interested readers can find my article below, or linked in my Essays archive:
Each Sunday at Skin Horse, cartoonist Shaenon Garrity has been serializing pages from a graphic novel called TRASH that she and I pitched awhile back. Shaenon wrote it and I provided the art (and the tiny lettering — please excuse the ad hoc “pitch samples” font!). The publisher who first requested the pitch had acquired a too-similar property while we were putting this together, so we had to shelve it — which is a shame, because it was fun to draw and full of heart and good humor. And space opera!
Here’s what’s up so far, with a few more pages to come in the weeks ahead: