autobiography Blog

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Nerd

One thing I ponder, when I’m in the ponderin’ mood, is how my drawing style would have developed differently had the internet been as widespread in my youth as it is today. Today you can find information on almost all cartoonists, you can find examples of their work, you can read interviews they’ve done and criticism about their work. Back in the Dark Ages, I had to read all I could from books and the occasional magazine article.
All of this is to say, when I made a discovery about drawing comics, it was usually on my own. I checked out the “How to Draw” books, but those show you how to draw a car or one of the Simpsons, they don’t teach a system of drawing. The fun part of this was it let me off the hook. I could draw any way I wanted. It made me feel like I was deciphering some code. The more I drew, the more I learned about how comics were put together. The frustrating part was when I wanted to draw something and couldn’t find a photo of it.
At school, my art teacher had an encyclopedia of animals I would dip into whenever I needed new ideas for a project. Drawing those animals was a way for me to recharge. Even now, when I can’t think of anything funny to say, I draw pictures of animals. It usually helps. Animals are pretty funny.
There are a few occasions when I made a discovery which dramatically changed the way I drew. Here are a few of those discoveries.
For years I didn’t know that comics are drawn larger than the size you see in the newspaper. This drove me crazy as a kid. How could you draw Calvin, Hobbes, some scenery, AND the dialogue all in one panel? For all I knew, cartoonists were tiny people living in tiny houses and drawing with tiny pens. Every time I tried fitting all that stuff into a square, it looked terrible. I finally realized that cartoonists love to trick people. Draw at whatever size you want, then shrink it down. Shrinking the art has the bonus of tightening up your lines, which makes you look like a better artist. Also, the larger you draw, the more detail you can add. I can’t remember exactly when I learned this, but I do remember seeing a picture of Will Eisner at his drawing table. The comics in the photograph were huge. They almost took up the whole table.
From the time I consciously began drawing comics (about 4th grade) until about 13, I drew people with two huge eyes that took up most of the face. Their hair sprouted on top of their eyes. Their ears grew out of their eyes and the nose and mouth floated below the eyes, like some kind of Dali painting. They all wore a turtle-neck t-shirt and shorts. The hair was the main way I differentiated between characters, but sometimes I had space enough to draw a design on the shirt. Nobody ever knew who I was drawing until I told them.
When I was 13, I went through The Change. I had my Bar Mitzvah. I drew characters differently. I had hair where there hadn’t been hair before. For the drawing change, I have Bill Watterson to thank. After reading Calvin and Hobbes for years, I made the switch to more Wattersonesque people. I remember consciously making the decision one day. I was terrified that changing my style would forever alter the way I drew. What if I didn’t like it and could never go back? I was leaving my childhood means of expression behind for a more adult style. I took the leap, fortunately, and was almost immediately impressed with the results. It was so much easier to draw people. You could actually tell characters apart. They could move like real people and not look disjointed and wrong. I could show more facial expression (still one of my favorite things to draw). Any doubts I initially had about changing styles were erased.
I don’t think I’ve had a drastic change in style since then, to be honest. There have been changes, sure. Taking figure drawing classes helped. Drawing with real pens and brushes instead of a pencil and a cheap ballpoint pen helped a great deal. The changes have just been more subtle; I can see them only if I go back through my old sketchbooks.
It’s like NASA: once you send a dude to the moon, there aren’t that many huge leaps for mankind left to make. It’s more a refining process. Not as flashy, but just as important.

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