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Sunday Mailbag- Getting Rusty?

Sunday, June 15th, 2014

Q: Imagine you have to quit drawing for a while because maybe of an injury. Do you think your drawing skills are getting worse after a longer break? Or is it more like driving a bike: If you once have learned it, you will never forget it?

A: I think the physical act of drawing, i.e. your hand responding to the impulses sent from your brain, is a skill that can degrade somewhat from lack of use. However you really draw with your head, not your hand, so unless you have an injury which interferes with the normal function of your drawing hand you very quickly return to your usual form after a layoff.

That said, certain types of art techniques require constant practice to stay sharp.

Inking is one of those skills that will suffer without constant use, especially using a brush. I will spend long periods of time where I do not have to ink anything substantial and then suddenly it’s time to ink a 7 page parody for MAD, and I find my skills a little rusty. I will warm up with some direct drawing with the pen and brush on some scrap paper, and maybe start inking in the middle of page 4 or someplace other than the splash page. I find it quickly comes back, though. Within an hour or so I am inking right along.

Live caricature drawing is a skill that definitely degrades without constant use, although a long layoff also has it’s benefits. These days I don’t do much live work, so when I do I feel very rusty and frustrated. Those bold, snappy lines don’t go precisely where I want them to go for a while, and by the time I finally get warmed up whatever event I am doing the drawing for is usually over. I do a lot of mediocre or lousy live drawings for a while, and it really is frustrating because I can “see” in my head what I wanted the drawing to look like, but I didn’t accomplish that on the paper.

As to the benefits of a layoff from drawing live caricatures, that is more true for newer artists. I remember seeing a big leap in my skills each summer after taking the winter mostly off to go to art school back in the late 1980s. I think your eye becomes fresher and you have matured as an artist in other ways, and you bring that better eye to the drawing table. It would take me perhaps a week of drawing to recover my skills with the lines and the airbrush, but that is all surface stuff. The “underneath stuff”, meaning what I was actually drawing and how I was caricaturing, got better with the time off. That would lead to major leaps of ability during the summer when all that drawing and practice was used to maximum effect.

Thanks to Dominick Zeillinger 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!

Sunday Mailbag

Sunday, August 5th, 2012

Q: I just have a couple of quick questions for you. How big do you draw your art? When you do a piece for MAD, like a two page spread for instance, how big is the original drawing? You manage to get such a lot of detail in, so I can only imagine that it would be drawn quite big.  

Lastly, do you recommend always drawing big when practicing?

A: I usually do my non-MAD illustration work at 150% of whatever the print size is going to be, which is an unwritten traditional standard in illustration. So, a full page magazine illustration (given an average magazine page size of 8 1/4 x 10 1/2 inches) would be 12 3/8 x 15 3/4 inches. However, if an illustration goes all the way to the edge of a page (i.e. the illustration does not stop or fade away before the edge, but is cut off at the edge of the paper), I also have to add a little extra around the edges for “bleed”. Bleed is an overflow area that allows for slight variances in the place a magazine page will be trimmed off at, so you don’t end up with a white edge if a page is trimmed a little off. I add 1/4 inch bleed  on all sides to original art size, which makes the final art of a typical full magazine page 12 7/8 x 16 1/4 inches.

In the case of MAD art I work at 200% of print size. MAD movie and TV parodies have always been done at 200% by everyone since the early days of Jack Davis, Wally Wood and Will Elder through Mort Drucker, Angelo Torres, Harry North and Sam Viviano. This is much bigger than typical comic book work, which is usually done at about 135% of print size. I am not sure what the genesis of that practice was, but I assume it was to allow for greater detail and a the more “dense” art that MAD was known for. This makes for enormous original art. A full MAD page is 8 1/8 x 10 1/2 inches. A full original art page is 16 1/4 x 21 inches, with bleed it’s 16 3/4 x 21 1/2. A two page spread is 33 x 21 1/2 inches with bleed.

Back when I first started for MAD in 2000, they would send me the actual bristol boards for a job with the panels and word boxes already drawn in to match the layout sent to me. These where usually done by Lenny “The Beard” Brenner, former MAD art director and long-time production artist. I was surprised to see the boards were laid out at 200% of print size, but who was I to argue with 50 years of tradition? These days I prep my own boards, so I am free to work at any size I like. Actually I was always free to do that, but chose to stick with the time-tested 200% practice.

I must admit there is something magical about that 200%. I tried working at 150% on one parody job for MAD (which shall remain nameless) and didn’t like the results. There is great freedom in the larger size, and I am able to work in details that smaller art sizes would not allow, or would look bad if attempted. The danger in working so big is that the greater reduction will turn too fine a detail to mush, so you need to be aware of the limitations of the print process a bit more that when working closer to print size.

By the way, I am only talking about the physical original drawing and inks of an illustration, which I would then scan for computer coloring, in all cases here. When I do my digital color or full digital illustration work, I size the scanned art down to print size at 300 dpi, and color/paint it at that size and resolution.

As to your last question, it does not matter what size you practice at, so long as you practice.

Thanks to Chris Clarke  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!

A Very Snappy Answer

Friday, June 15th, 2012
YouTube Preview Image

MAD’s Al Jaffee spends two minutes giving you some of the best advice about being a professional freelance artist you will ever hear.

Via the Daily Cartoonist via Mike Lynch.

Sunday Mailbag

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

Q. You may have covered this already but when drawing clothes, do you look for real examples in perhaps magazines to see how a material would crease in certain positions. Or do you just imagine in your head how it would look? So basically my question is, Tom, how do you draw clothing so well!?

A: I’m not sure I would agree that I draw clothes all that well, but thanks for the kind words. I do think I have improved quite a bit in the last few years on how I draw clothes, particularly simplifying the folds and such so they don’t look overwrought and too “wrinkly”. I was guilty of that early on in my career, and have learned over the years that less-is-more, and that if the folds and wrinkles you draw describe what is going on well, you don’t need that many of them. To answer one of your specific questions, I mostly just imagine these things in my head when I draw them, as I do not have the time or need to get references for every position of every figure.

With regard to drawing clothes, I would first cite a piece of advice I received from longtime MAD artist and current art director Sam Viviano. Sam told me he often will sketch out a figure as if they were nude first, then draw the clothes over the figure. In this way he both avoided the tendency to miss the accurate drawing of the figure beneath because he would be so busy thinking about the dynamics of the clothing, and made sure the figure looked like they were really wearing the clothes rather than them being painted on (see most superhero comics). I do this sometimes, and it really does help when you are struggling with a figure.

Drawing clothes is like drawing anything, you need to make good observations and understand the basics of what you are drawing to do it convincingly. This is especially true in cartooning, where simplification demands an understanding not only how something works, but what the most important basics elements are. Things like seams, buttons, cuffs, collars… knowing how they basically work and developing a repertoire of how to draw them is essential. There are not that many different kinds of clothing… pants are pants with only superficial changes in look and design. Knowing how pants are generally constructed means you can draw any type of pants by just observing the details. Certain types of pants, like jeans, are almost universal in their sameness. Men’s suit jackets are almost all the same, and follow the same tendencies with movement. Ditto shirts, skirts, etc.

That said, when people ask about drawing clothes, mostly they are asking (as you have) about how to draw folds and wrinkles so they look convincing. That really isn’t all that complex when you think about it. Clothing tends to wrinkle, crease and fold the same way with the same actions, positions and movements, with only the type of cloth making a difference. A thicker and coarser cloth, like a wool sweater, will wrinkle and fold in a bigger and less complex manner than thinner cloth like silk, for example. The dynamics of the folds and wrinkles are the same, however. Learning the basics of how clothing wrinkles and folds will get you through 90% of all the drawings of clothing you do.

The more you have movement from a “neutral” position (i.e. the way clothes would hang from a hanger) the more wrinkles and folds are evident:

Understanding the dynamics of where cloth is pulled and where it gathers helps to figure out where the stresses and folds happen. Folds and creases always emanate from a stress point, usually a joint like the elbow, knee, shoulder, crotch, etc. In a bent elbow area, for example, the outer part of the elbow is “pulled”, and therefore stretched with little or no creases/wrinkles. However in the crook of the elbow, the cloth gathers and is compressed together, creating folds:

Even in a neutral position, the weight and clingy nature of clothes will cause some creases and folds:

There are lots of different kinds of folds that you see all the time. Here are a few to look for:

You are (usually) wearing the perfect reference for learning to draw folds… your own clothes. Take a look at how the cloth gathers across your chest, how your lower pants legs gather past the knee as they go down to the cuff at your ankles, what happens when you sit down with the folds at your knees and waist… observation and experimentation with drawing will build that repertoire of folds and how to draw them.

Finally, I’d recommend the following resources for learning how to draw clothes:

Drawing the Head and Figure by Jack Hamm- If you do not own this book, you are missing one of the essential learning tools for drawing of the past century. IMO it’s the best overall book on drawing the human figure ever published based on its simplicity, conciseness, ease of understanding and richness of content. There are many more comprehensive books on various specifics out there, but this one is a must have even if it is dated-looking. Short but brilliant chapter on drawing folds in clothes, especially useful on learning how men’s suits are drawn.

Dynamic Wrinkles and Drapery by Burne Hogarth- It is not often I recommend a Hogarth book, because I am no Hogarth fan. I think most of his books are overly complex, with impossible and convoluted figures in positions that defy physics, and ridiculously over-drawn and over-rendered illustrations. This one, however, is shorter and less pretentious than most, and breaks down the types of wrinkles into fairly easy-to-understand categories… just imagine his illustrations with about 1/10 of the wrinkles he overdraws on them and you will get the idea.

I’m sure there are others, but these are the two on my bookshelf.

Thanks to Rob Rollason 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!

Cleveland Magazine Spot Illustrations

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

These just saw print in the latest issue of Cleveland Magazine for their “Best of Cleveland 2011 Awards” feature:

Best of Food: Luxury Sunday Buffet

Best of Entertainment: October “Dead Ride” zombie bike race

Best of Drink: The “Slap Shot”…

A fun little project. They wanted bold and colorful… Here are the pencil sketches:

Sunday Mailbag

Sunday, April 3rd, 2011

Q: I see whenever you mention working digitally, you cite “PhotoShop” as the software you use. Why PhotoShop? Painter seems to be more of an artist-orientated program with a lot more choices for emulating natural media. Why don’t you use Painter?

A: I have also heard that Painter, and least compared to previous versions of PhotoShop, was a much more artistically versatile program. I dabbled in it once and found there was a dizzying number of choices as to drawing and painting media, paper and canvas textures and ways to mimic natural media down to applying watercolor “wet” and then “drying” the watercolor whenever you wished before moving on. Amazing stuff… but for me it was overkill.

I taught myself how to color and paint in PhotoShop, and so that program is the easiest and fastest for me to accomplish what I want to accomplish. I don’t use many filters or tricks, but really just paint using the opacity and size control of a pressure sensitive pen and table (actually the Wacom Cintiq) to get the look I want. Probably there are a lot of easier ways to accomplish the same look, but it works for me. Therefore, I go by the old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

No doubt if I had taught myself on Painter I’d be using Painter and not PhotoShop, but I didn’t. Painter offered too many choices and the learning curve was too steep compared to the relative simplicity of PhotoShop, so I went that route.

It looks to me that PhotoShop is closing the gap with respect to natural media emulation. I have CS5 but find myself still working in CS4 because some of the new features are a pain.

Thanks to Terry J. 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 your questions and I’ll try and answer them here!

Sunday Mailbag

Sunday, March 6th, 2011

Q: This is a follow up question to last Sunday’s mailbag (about computer crashes). I fix Macs, and something I hear all the time from photographers is that the glass panel on the iMacs makes it tougher to accurately edit photos.  Do you have that problem as an illustrator? Am surprised to see you’ve gone with an iMac, so I’m wondering if the glare doesn’t bother you, or if you work in a dark room. :)

A: I don’t have that problem for two reasons. First, my studio lighting is of the halogen track lighting variety and the fixtures themselves are almost directly above my head. Therefore it is impossible to see a reflection from the lights themselves on the screen… one of the bigger culprits with the glassy surfaces of the new Macs, also, my screen is tucked beneath a 12 inch shelf that further shields it from direct lighting. Because of the way the studio is lit, I really don’t have any glare  or reflections on my screen. The second reason is I do all my actual artwork on the Wacom Cintiq 21ux, which has it’s own screen and that has a sort of half glassy, half matte surface that reduces glare and keeps the colors truer.

I actually like the glassy screens on the new Macs. I used to have one of those 30″ Apple Cinema Displays with the matte screen and the colors on the new iMacs are much sharper and more dynamic. Maybe that isn’t so good for color proofing work, but I go by the colors on my Cintiq and know what to expect in terms of color shift from experience anyway. Other stuff looks great on that iMac screen, like video or regular computer stuff.

I was a little nervous trading in my Mac Pro for an iMac… but not because of the screen glare issue you mentioned. I don’t like having a computer where I cannot open up the case and replace or add a hard drive, dvd drive, etc. I went with it because desktop computers have reached the point with processing and graphics power and memory, available RAM and such that the work I do not longer requires a high end graphics workstation. Computers like a Mac Pro are really only necessary for CAD/CAM work, heavy duty video editing and animation/3D rendering. This iMac is actually quite a bit more powerful than my 5 plus year old Mac Pro was, and was less expensive than even a low end new Mac Pro. Plus no cables everywhere and less space utilized. Winning!

Thanks to Mike Solin 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 your questions and I’ll try and answer them here!


Sunday Mailbag

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

Q: Like yourself I prefer to ink and scan. I do use a digital pen for all the colouring, washes and so forth but for the fine detail of the lining I prefer the real thing. So, I notice not all of your artwork is black outlined, some of your work you colour the lining to match the area it is next to, so perhaps a brown for the lining around the skin, blue for jeans, gray for hair and so on. So my question is, do you alter the colour of the lines in Photoshop or do you use inks or paints on paper first and then scan it in?

A: A few years ago I began experimenting with a colored line style of illustration that was essentially my MAD line and color style but with… wait for it… colored lines. It didn’t change my approach at all but made the final results more painterly looking and softer, which many art directors like better than the more cartoon looking black line.

Here’s an example:

Click for a closer look…

I ink the illustration as usual with black ink, then color the lines in PhotoShop. It’s easy to do. First follow these instructions to create the linework on it’s own otherwise transparent layer:

  1. Scan line art as grayscale image
  2. Create a new blank layer, rename it “Inks”
  3. Go to the “Channels” palette, there is only one channel called “Gray”
  4. At the bottom of the channels palette, click the “dashed circle” icon entitled “Load Channel as Selection”
  5. In “Select” drop down menu, select “Inverse”
  6. Go to your “Inks” layer
  7. Press “D” on your keyboard to reset swathes so full black in active color
  8. Press “Option” + “”Delete” to fill selection with black
  9. On background layer, press “Command” + “A” to select and then “Delete” to delete line art on that layer
  10. Convert to RGB or CMYK

With the line layer as the active layer, go to the layer’s palette. Above the list of layers, there is the word “Lock:” followed by several icons. Click the first icon, the box with the checkered pattern. This locks the transparent areas of the layer. After that, color will only “stick” to the lines, allowing you to paint them any color with the brush tool and maintain the line integrity.

Thanks to Scott Evans 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 your questions and I’ll try and answer them here!

Busy, busy, busy

Friday, January 7th, 2011

Too busy to do much of a post today. Instead, here is another of the spot illustrations done for Penthouse‘s new column by Dave Navarro

Finished art- click for a closer look…

The rough pencil sketch

The printed illustration should be in this month’s issue of the magazine.

Sunday Mailbag

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

Q: Do you find architecture grueling to draw? Is there any trick to it or do you really have to draw each and every stinking brick and tile?

A: Drawing buildings and architecture can be very tiresome, but you have to know when it’s appropriate to draw every brick and tile and when you are better off “suggesting” the features of something like a building. Every illustration has a focus, and adding too much detail to an element that is only a supporting player in an image will distract from the focus and make the illustration too busy. If a building facade is close to the focal point of the illustration, I will add a fair amount of detail, but if it’s a background element, then I will just suggest detail.

The human eye and the brain are limited as to the level of detail they register because of two factors: the physical limits of the eyes themselves and the narrow focus the brain applies to the eyes as they look at a single object.

When I teach artists to draw live caricatures, I talk a lot about “distance specific” drawing with respect to detail. Intellectually we know that skin has pores and imperfections in it, that eyelashes are made up of tiny little individual hairs and the iris’s of the eyes are filled with cilia, the fibrous membranes that radiate out from the pupil to the edges of the iris and give the eye it’s color. From a typical distance that two people might stand speaking to each other, those details are not really seen because the eye cannot see that minutia from anywhere but extremely close up. From a comfortable distance, the skin appears somewhat textured but basically pore-less. The eyelashes are indistinct clumps of dark values without visible individual hairs. The iris becomes a gradation of color and the cilia are not visible. Despite this, many artists insists on drawing those pores, individual eyelash hairs and the cilia in the eye. This creates an odd look that detracts from the natural look of the face. Similarly when you draw a building in the background, you might know it’s facade is a brick pattern, but your eye only sees a vague suggestion of the pattern. Other details melt into the overall when the observer is removed from them by distance. Drawing these details like you were close up destroys the illusion of depth and distance in the illustration.

The brain can really only focus on a small area of the eye’s entire field of vision, and things like movement can enhance that effect. Say you watch a person walking along a wall littered with posters. Look away… do you remember what any of those posters depicted? No, because even though they were right in front of you your focus was on the person. Likewise the focus of your illustration needs the greatest amount of detail while the rest of the image the detail should be downplayed to draw the eye more to what is important. Generally I add detail to the elements of an illustration that is within the same plane of focus of the main elements of the image, and as you go away from that main element the detail begins to dissolve.

Getting back to the original question- buildings. The really important thing about buildings and architecture is not so much the surface details but drawing a convincing structure in the first place. Buildings aren’t just boxes with a roof… they have a lot of interesting planes and structural nuances that need to be drawn or suggested to make them successful. Things like soffits and fascias on the eves of a roof, mouldings around windows and doors, multiple layers of the sides of a skyscraper… these elements are visible even at a quick glance although we tend not to dwell or notice them. We’d notice if they were MISSING, however. Especially important is to add or suggest things that are part of the contour/silhouette of a building. Buildings would look spartan and block-like without the simple structural basics that make them look “real”. Buildings have personalities… no one would look at a 1980’s steel and glass office tower and mistake it for an early 1900’s New York commercial structure, even though they might have the same function.

Tricks to suggesting detail without drawing it all are doing partial patterns of bricks or windows, using color or values to indicate planes or shadows without drawing every edge and not continuing lines for elements like roof lines or mouldings but allowing the lines to fade as they get into the inner part of the building.

I have a fair amount of reference of different kinds of buildings, and sometimes pull them out if I want to make sure I give a building the right look to match the type of environment I am illustrating. Here are some examples of some different treatments for buildings:

Suburban street scene- I did some higher detail on the corner of the house in the foreground and “suggested” the siding and shingles on the house in the background. Note the addition of the roof vents and pipes as well as the multiple-level roof line… it’s those kinds of additions that, while simple, give the building a solid and convincing presence.

This New Orleans scene obviously needed some specific architecture to pull off. The balconies, wrought iron railings and curved eves are typical of New Orleans’ buildings. Note I did NOT draw the brick facades but only suggested them in the building peeking up above the main one, and the modern skyscraper in the far background is very much abstracted with only a suggestion of a pattern of windows. My using a gray/purple color further distances that background element.

This is a Times Square-like scene. Note the father you go back the less distinct and detailed the buildings get. Color and especially a gradual reduction in value contrast adds “atmospheric perspective”. Lots of suggestion of brick patterns here using color.

Scene looking down on city rooftops. The details like the arched upper floor windows, inset floors, vertical facade columns and rooftop elements like vents, pipes and mechanical units add an air of authenticity to the scene, even though the scale of the figures don’t match.

This Chicago skyline is abstracted and obviously bent for the sake of design. It uses recognizable Chicago buildings and again the structural individuality of each is suggested in the basic drawings without going crazy rendering every window or detail.

Thanks to Dave 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 your questions and I’ll try and answer them here!


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