Sunday Mailbag

July 20th, 2008 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: I’m currently an art student in my junior year (just getting in the thick of things) and I continue to see small improvements in my rendering and modeling of the human form but still feel as though I have miles to go. So my question is was there a definitive point in your art career where the cliche’ light bulb came on and you finally felt you understood how to handle form?

A: I’m still waiting for that light bulb to go off… I consider my handling of the figure mediocre at best.

Complete understanding of the human form is, I think, a lifelong pursuit. Drawing the figure is like playing the guitar… you can practice just enough and learn to play a few good tunes on it, but it takes a lifetime of work to master. It’s not that the body itself is so complex that you cannot learn every bone, muscle and tendon in it by name… it’s that those bones, muscles and tendons are animated by life, and it’s the life you are trying to master capturing in your drawings. People lean, slouch, straighten and arch, spines curve and twist, weight is distributed and moved about, balance is maintained or lost… so much happens to the individual body within mere moments of movement or rest.

Developing an instinct for the figure is the only real way to learn to command it. That comes from endless life drawing and forcing yourself to get outside your comfort zone. It’s a little like weightlifting… if you do the same exercises all the time eventually you hit a plateau and stop gaining. If you surprise your body by changing tactics… switching from heavy weights and low reps to a series of super-sets of higher reps and lower weights, you will shock it into growth. Alternating between drawing long, static poses and quickly doing gestural, 30 second to one minute poses and then to 5 to 10 minute sketches will help develop those instincts for weight, form and movement.

Alas my bohemian days of sitting about drawing models are long behind me. I have no time for drawing co-ops or model sessions anymore. Still, drawing is drawing and I will do faster sketches and more time consuming ones in my sketchbook or when I am loosening up from photo references. However there is no substitution for drawing from life. I wish I had the time to do it.

There will hopefully never be a point where that light bulb pops on and you think you have total understanding of the human form… because that day will be the last day you improve your ability to draw it.

Thanks to Daniel Singley for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!

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