Last week I talked about figuring out which tools to use when starting an illustrative piece. Once I’ve decided what the materials and size will be, I can start to rough out a sketch.
Sometimes this is organic, for example, in digital media I can easily just sketch right onto a layer and resize as I go if I need to. But in real media, it’s helpful to thumbnail out some design ideas on a paper with pencil to see what works and what doesn’t before using the final materials. Many times the final materials can be messy or expensive, so it helps to have a plan before going in. For example, when working on a commission I like to know that the client is happy with the direction before putting a lot of time and effort into production. This is also a common way to start storyboards, as you have to get the story and the ideas out quickly in many cases, and things can change rapidly as the movie and script progresses, so it’s important to be able to stay flexible.
The thumbnail, in my view at least, is where you can work out the composition and story. A lot of times this ends up looking like a collection of shapes or blobs. It’s not really about details, it’s about setting up where everything is going to be and making sure that the intended audience will be able to read it the way that you want it to be read. And colour can definitely be involved, too.
Usually I’ll also take this thumbnail time as an opportunity to seek out reference if I need it, as it can influence the composition and sometimes the story. A bird looking up tells a different story than a bird looking down, or looking at you, etc.
These days it’s easy to find photographic reference on the internet, but you will get better at drawing if you can work on finding the real thing. Many times this isn’t possible, but you’d be surprised what you can find out there.
If there’s an animal for instance, go to the zoo with a sketchbook and practice drawing the animal you want to incorporate, or a similar animal if your local zoo doesn’t have it. Rocks and trees have thousands of different textures and shapes to learn and emulate also, and those (usually) are pretty accessible without having to go too far.
When it comes to people and figures, a life drawing class is always a great place to get some mentorship, but seriously you can also just go to the park or a cafe and people watch.
The best thing about referencing from life for drawing practice, in my opinion, is understanding mass. Your ability to make something pop off of a piece of paper will be more effective if you understand mass, and you’ll be better able to capture it from life. The way I see it at least, is that it’s physically impossible to visually comprehend mass from a 2D image – probably because it’s been flattened!
The other big benefit of using live or real life reference in my opinion is movement. If you’ve ever tried to draw a kid or an animal, you’ll know it’s pretty difficult because they don’t sit still! Try doing some very quick gesture drawings, which are simply lines which try to capture a flow of movement. It will add quite a bit of life to your illustration.
Next week we’ll talk about taking that thumbnail and all the gathered reference and finally starting the final piece. Note that all my suggestions are definitely not hard and fast rules for drawing, but they’re processes which I’ve found helpful, especially when making certain kinds of artwork. I hope that you find some of this information helpful.