Lessons from high school art class.
When working from someone else’s image (be it a photograph or a drawing), you receive your own artistic training. Depending on how you copy it, or what you copy from it, you can learn a lot from an image.
Tracing is the most basic way to learn how a drawing was put together. Take the drawing, slap some lightweight paper on top, and follow the lines. Most people consider this cheating. I don’t mind as long as you’re not using it for publication or to show off your awesome art skillz.
Tracing helps you understand composition and structure. Especially in comics, which show so much using so few lines, getting everything exactly right in a panel is imperative. When I was a kid I traced Garfield. By ten or eleven I moved on to FoxTrot and Calvin and Hobbes. Each cartoonist helped me better understand how to make good character design.
Drawing, as I call it, means simply looking at the image and drawing the same image yourself. This is more difficult, requires much greater concentration, and is ultimately more rewarding. Not only do you learn how to put compositions together, you do it without training wheels. I believe the muscle memory of drawing other people’s good comics can help you draw your own good comics down the road.
Since I was paying such close attention to an artist’s linework, I began to try out different pens to emulate the line quality. I went through a brief phase in high school when I used a brush, just like Bill Watterson. It was kind of a failure, but I had fun trying. I kept thinking that I’d come around eventually, but I’ve found that I like my drawings with a finer line than brushes allow. I’m always changing, though.
I had an art teacher who told us not to look at the page at all while we were doing figure drawing. At first it was difficult. You get what you’d expect: lines everywhere, no shape of a human body to be found. After some pretty intense concentration and practice, I could draw the model without the need to look at the page more than once or twice. This was great. I was spending more time concentrating on the person I was drawing and less time on the paper. (And, really, paper is a lot more boring to look at than a nude model.)
A strange side effect of this was that I had a harder time drawing when I had a cold. That level of concentration was hard to maintain in good health, but being sick made it incredibly tiring. I made some pretty bad drawings the days I wasn’t feeling well.
Creating is my word for taking what you want from an image and integrating it into your own work. I like to think of that general from Dr. Strangelove: I’m stealing the image’s essence. This is kind of what I do for Friday Robots, or when I’m sketching for new character designs. I’ll take a look through pictures of the Book of Kells:
I don’t feel as bad about that because Vincent openly stole images from Japanese woodblock prints for his paintings. I also read that Watterson took some landscapes directly from Krazy Kat. The moral: if you steal, steal from the best.
Of the three, I only do drawing and creating now. You can’t keep tracing forever. Not only is it bad form; it’s kind of stifling (and boring). Drawing “freehand,” as we used to call it in high school art class, is more rewarding. You learn more, and more quickly, that way.
Now go forth, and be creative.