I wrote a little about my Sketchbook Skool class the other day. Yesterday I had a chance to put into practise a lesson I picked up from Rebecca Green:
Art is not fragile. Nor do you only get one chance at it.
I watched in her demo as she changed her mind many times. Painted over previous sections, then coloured over them with pencil, then crayon. In her Q&A she said that changing her mind is her usual process and she can often just rework a section, without ruining the illustration. Additionally, when the materials do start to crumble, she just starts the final illustration again – now with more information about what she wants to do with it.
I started the final of this illustration yesterday, and it felt like my second pass with paint was an absolute disaster. Hence yesterday’s post. But I sucked it up and decided to push the piece as far as I could, in the hopes that I’d learn something from it. What I learned was that the second pass wasn’t a disaster at all. It just needed more. I layered and scrubbed and scribbled and scraped and smudged and painted over mistakes. It turned out really well!
Today I’m gonna have another go at the same piece. I probably won’t post it again, unless I learn something really cool. But there are some things I want to try. I want to change the drawing a tiny bit, and I want to test some different ways of handling the pencil textures.
So much of the creation of art is just mind games with myself.
Right now I have, of course, reached a point where I’ve managed to develop several sketches pretty well into actual drawings. This is, definitely, a huge success.
Unfortunately I’ve become very attached to them. I really want them to work. I really want to capture that emotion and convert it into a picture. I really want them to become finished pieces of art that I can share and show you and be proud of. I know that these could be great illustrations.
But, of course, that’s not the point at the moment. The point is to push myself to learn to finish illustrations traditionally. I have just (admittedly half-heartedly) attempted that with one piece and… it’s not going well.
And so I get scared. I worry that it will never work. I procrastinate because I don’t want to fail and I do nothing, because that’s psychologically easier than trying again. I put in a half-hearted effort because why try hard?
Fortunately, I knew this was going to happen, and wrote down why I am doing all this at the beginning, so I could refer back when I didn’t want to anymore. And so, here is the essence of my why:
I really like a lot of traditional pictures I’ve made. I want to be able to do that consistently, and for imagined scenes. I want to explore my own artistic voice in other mediums. I want to see if I can transfer my sketch style into finished pieces. I want to sit down, without a computer, and create something beautiful and meaningful.
Right now, of course, this doesn’t feel like quite enough. But it’s a useful reminder that this is all part of an ongoing learning curve. I’m doing this for the sake of my many, many future sketches, that I will love as much as these ones.
Time to take a deep breath, and figure out a way to make this work.
This year I’ve been very happily illustrating for The School Magazine (a NSW-based literary magazine for primary school students). I love it. I feel like there should be a lot more to say, but that’s really it. I’m learning, I’m challenging myself, I’m generally pleased with how my illustrations turn out. I’m enjoying the wide variety of texts (including poetry!) and artistic possibilities. It’s good stuff and I can’t wait til I can show you September’s illustrations. And October’s. And November’s. But for now, here are the June and August illustrations.
Nikola Tesla and his cat Macak:
A spider for a poem:
And finally, Benjamin Franklin and Frank Epperson: two historical kid-ventors, along with Brandon Cowan, a modern one!
I only made it 4/5 days this week, but they were all very useful! I definitely understand lemur hands and feet more than this time last week.
I spent a fair bit of time chatting with the keepers, who taught me fun lemur facts (they hate water, including rain) and explained how to tell the lemurs apart. There are two with shorter tails, two with longer teeth, one who’s always a bit dishevelled, and another with a lopsided smirk. They’ve also got varied markings, particularly in their faces. I can only pick one or two at the moment, but maybe I’ll learn more in the next few weeks.
Some of the keepers asked whether I was learning to draw lemurs for a particular project. Beyond ‘learning to sketch more’ the answer was no, but now of course I’ve started to come up with one. So that’s fun too, because in trying to sketch lemurs from imagination I learn what it is that I still don’t understand about their shape. At this point the only reference I’m allowing myself is my own sketchbook, which is really showing me what I still need to learn. Mostly it’s to do with movement, and those really quick gestures, but I still have a few anatomical confusions too.
Along with going to the zoo every day (I missed today shhhh) and setting my own assignments+exercises, I also signed up for a course at Sketchbook Skool.*
The class I signed up for had Mike Lowery and Rebecca Green as tutors, and I love them, which was basically the clincher. But it’s Vanessa Brantley-Newton, whose name I didn’t know, but whose books I have seen about the internet, that has really got into my head with useful advice. (Not that the others haven’t been great. I’m sure I’ll be back with some of their advice later. But for now: Vanessa.)
She taught herself how to illustrate for children by going to bookshops and studying up on all the books that exist. She told us about how she would dissect the way they worked, and set herself homework assignments. I felt like Anne of Green Gables finding an instant kindred spirit…
She also talked a lot about the psychological side of making art, and the importance of setting aside time to just… play with art. This is something I’ve heard other artists talk about many times before, but without any guidance whatsoever. Vanessa, however, gave a demonstration. She set herself a prompt (the word ‘ridiculous’) and collaged her way to an end result. Perhaps it was just good timing in my brain. Perhaps it was the fact that she was using collage, which I find a particularly freeing medium. Perhaps it was that she was singing one of my favourite songs as she worked. But I felt like I finally kinda understood. The point was to make something for the sake of making it. It wasn’t for anything other than herself. It wasn’t because it would hopefully lead to a big fancy project. It wasn’t going to be perfect, but it could be expressive. It could still hold meaning.
I like to solve problems and it’s generally how I approach illustration. This is useful but means that ‘playing’ always seems a little perplexing. I’ve often tried it just to end up with an unsatisfying drawing that I feel needs to be taken to my computer and worked on for several hours to get anywhere worthwhile, or I’m left with scribbly marks that have no meaning or value to me at all. Using a prompt though, and with the challenge of combining bits and pieces to cobble together the result, it really worked for me. The challenge will be to hold onto that essence when my brain wants to be ~productive~, or when I’m using a medium where I feel like I should end up with a ~better~ final result, but we’ll see. It was fun and reminded me of painting nights with friends in Adelaide. (@UnwiseOwl, yeah I’m looking at you guys).
*This is not an ad for them – I’ve also previously taken courses on Schoolism and Skillshare (what is with all the S’s?) and downloaded tutorial videos from James Gurney. If you wanna chat pros and cons and specific purposes, come talk to me in the comments. But for this specific goal, I thought a sketchbook focussed class would be ideal, and a variety of tutors would give me a bunch of different ideas, so hopefully something would stick.
Following on from yesterday, I’ve tried to break down the gaps into specific skills I can focus on learning/practising/re-learning.
Copying Accurately: Seeing and replicating the exact angles and proportions and measurements that make something what it is is pretty central to being able to take the good of a sketch and build on it in a later drawing.
Refining a Composition: Taking a basic idea and testing out various compositions to find an arrangement that works well is the only way I’m going to make illustrations I really like. In a workflow I’ll want to draw lots of tiny thumbnails of the one idea – changing one aspect at a time. Hopefully these exercises will help my brain to do that without panicking.
Draw an object/still life from a different viewpoint than the one I’m looking at. (Simplify: Draw it twice, changing viewpoint in between)
Draw an object/still life with different lighting (and hence shadows) than reality. (Simplify: Draw it twice, changing the lighting in between.)
Draw a still life. Then redraw a more pleasing arrangement of those objects, without rearranging the physical objects.
Draw a rough sketch of an imagined interior, or other angular setting. Fix the perspective, and redraw basically but accurately.
Refining Details and Adding Information: The final stage is to add details, and make things feel right and complete, without losing any of the energy of the previous steps. Accurate copying should help with this step. But there’s also the fact that at this, the most precise step, I often use the undo button when working digitally. I need to practise being deliberate.
Draw a rough sketch of anything simple (animal, plant, prop, hand) and then refine/stylise using reference or memory, without losing overall shape.
Draw a composition of broad shapes. Turn into 3 different scenes by changing the details/objects.
Design a character. Roughly sketch different expressions/poses and refine each into the designed character.
There’s a lot to do here. I probably won’t even end up doing all of these exercises, but I hope they’ll start my brain and hands moving in the right direction.
That’s the usual state of affairs. See the other pictures for this story here.
Research: First I research and read the context: in this case a piece about Nikola Tesla and his cat, so I spent some time sketching Tesla, and cats.
Ideas: Then I come up with a bunch of scribbly ideas. Usually, but not always, in my sketchbook.
Rough Sketches: After that I take a few of my ideas and turn them into rough sketches digitally. I check any large important research, like period appropriate buildings or the layout of a ship. I make sure I’m using the right dimensions and determine the rough final composition. In this case it was as simple as adding a shelf and lamp to the background of the picture, but sometimes I might change the viewing angle a lot, or add a foreground element or something. By the end of this step, all the big pieces are in place.
Underdrawing: This is when I zoom in on all the pieces of the puzzle and make them work. I fix the anatomy and character consistency. I make sure the clothing is right. I add smaller details – particularly in larger and more complex illustrations. For this one I make sure the style of lamp is period appropriate and worry about the cat’s expression, and the placement of buttons. I’ll usually do a colour sketch too, though I haven’t here.
Final Illustration: Most of the thinking is done, but there are subtleties of texture, expression, and colour to tend to here. I have a lot of fun adding shadows and highlights, and generally less fun just blocking in colours. And then ta da! It’s done!
For this art study time, I wanted to take this whole process traditional. And I was really focussed on the Final Illustration stage, because of course that’s where the real difference comes in. But I’ve realised that I need to start much earlier. It turns out that I’m having a lot of trouble developing my composition on paper, without the digital tools of cut, paste, scale, rotate, etc. It turns out that I’m having a lot of trouble developing my underdrawing, without the ability to redraw a more refined version directly over a rough version. It turns out I’m having trouble with the drawing, full stop.
There are two main directions I could go from that realisation:
Continue to develop my underdrawings digitally, but otherwise continue as planned, working with traditional media for the final step only.
Switch my learning focus to the earlier stage of refining my drawing traditionally, and don’t worry about the final step in the process yet.
(Bonus: Give up and go back to digital art altogether.)
To me, the second option seems the more fundamental and useful skill, so that’s what I’m going to put my focus for the time being. More on the specifics of that in a future post 🙂
Even before I knew I was doing for the rest of Blaugust, I already had one plan in place: to visit the zoo every (week)day.
I narrowed in on lemurs as my main sketching subject because there are lots of them and they’re usually easy to see. One week in and I now have pages and pages of lemur sketches, from which I’ve pulled out just a few to share here.
The main purpose of the project was simply to get used to having my sketchbook out, and to use it more often. It has already been a complete success. I also sketched while out and about on the weekend and in a lull while volunteering today (for the Melbourne Writers Festival).
My focus for the next week is to really watch the lemurs and then sketch my impressions of them. Less direct observational drawing and more short term memory of specific poses or personalities.
After that, maybe I’ll focus on particular anatomy: how do their hands and feet work, perhaps. We’ll see. It’s been really nice, anyway. I think I’m just gonna wanna visit the zoo every day forever.
Earlier in the year, I did a month-long evening drawing project. It could, perhaps, be seen as a precursor to this project, so I want to share it.
Task: draw people from reference photos.* Materials: brown paper and coloured pencils. Successfully completed daily: yes.
After a rocky start, I realised a few things.
I needed to limit my palette. The colours were overwhelming. Once I realised that, I chose a limited selection of pencils at the start of the drawing (based on the main colours in the reference photo), and used only those. It made everything easier and more fun. Also it looked better.
The material I was using was important. There was no point using coloured pencils as if they were paint – I was better off enjoying them for what they were. This led to me leaving much more of the paper blank, actually using pencil textures, and creating more interesting illustrations.
After these realisations it was fairly smooth sailing. I had pictures I liked and pictures I hated, but overall I was learning. And that was the main thing.
*I created a selection of pictures before starting and just worked my way through them in order. Taking away my choice of subject and material was a really useful technique that helped me actually sit down and do the work. Credit to Roz Stendahl for the idea. I really recommend her blog posts on projects and goal setting and the internal critic if you want to get better at something (anything) but struggle to stick at it.