Thursday, February 2, 2017

Why Drawing Matters

In this ad for the Famous Artists Course, Norman Rockwell says, "If you can draw, your future is secure." You notice he didn't say "If you can paint, your future is secure."

Norman Rockwell The Handkerchief, 1940
Many students want to skip ahead to color and brushwork and revel in the juicy fun of painting.

But the foundation of any picture rests on the planning stages.

Dry media such as pencils and charcoal are perfect for exploring compositional decisions. You can draw quick thumbnail sketches, and you can erase elements and move things around. Because of the lack of color, you can easily see the bones of the picture.

In the Famous Artists Course, Norman Rockwell shared a preliminary drawing to show students how his thinking developed in this 1940 illustration. Before arriving at the final design of the old woman in the chair, he had the woman and the girl sitting on a settee with a low table in front of them.
Images courtesy Curtis Publishing and the Famous Artists School.
He says:

"I like the intricate shape of the old settee, particularly the flow and movement of the frame. It could actually act as a sort of an old-fashioned picture frame, holding the two figures in."

But he later had second thoughts. The table is too important, and the settee is too insistent. The active line of the settee's edge was too active, out of keeping with the quiet relationship between the lady and the girl.

Those second thoughts drove him to think the design afresh and to do a new set of drawings.

If Rockwell had those second thoughts after the picture was already committed to paint, it would have been very difficult to make the changes.
On Amazon you can still get copies of the original instructional binders of Famous Artists Course.
There's a book version of Rockwell's teaching, republished in the '80s called Rockwell on Rockwell: How I Make a Picture


David Webb said...

'If you can draw, your future is secure'. Sadly, that was not the reaction of my 'school careers' officer' when I announced that I wanted to be an illustrator. He gave me three choices...
The army (always top of his list for awkward students with lamentable qualifications)
The bank (only applicable to those who were good at maths, which automatically disqualified me from that list)
The local sweet factory (despite taking full advantage of the 'fill your pockets lads' field trip to Trebor, I decided it was not a valid career choice for me)

Luckily, I ignored his advice.

Eugene Arenhaus said...

"If you can draw, your future is secure"

... and then came 1950s, when magazines stopped buying illustrations and switched to photos, and it suddenly wasn't.

James Gurney said...

Eugene, wow, are you right on that! There hasn't ever been much job security in the illustration field, or for that matter, in VFX or animation. But let's say that if you can draw....and if your business model is have a better shot at making a living at it.

David, I'm glad you ignored the career officer's advice. Most of us received the parental speech or school counselor's advice suggesting we reconsider the art career and go for a more reliable choice. I'm always impressed when I hear about someone who got encouragement from parents all the way from the start. More power to you! Looking back to the early 1950s, it's remarkable to reflect on the fact that illustration was really an aspirational career choice, offering promise of both money and fame.

Bob said...

Sorry for the heresy, but this is exactly why I do my fooling around with GIMP. With multiple independent layers, I can modify and move elements around to my heart's desire. As long as I have the basic concept of a plan, it's easy to just jump in and have fun!

James Gurney said...

Bob, no worries; I'm happy to have a different view. I'd be interested to hear from people using digital tools, especially how those tools affect the picture planning process. Do you still need to go through a "drawing / thumbnailing" phase (or its digital equivalent)? What is gained or lost by jumping in, as you say?

Chris Beatrice said...

Like Bob, I do a lot of my initial noodling digitally. It allows me to work with value (and color when needed) while still leaving things completely fluid. I love drawing with pencil, and usually my first thumbnails are pencil, but digital tools allow you to move, rotate, rescale, adjust, etc. quickly and easily. In fact some artists do their sketching and planning digitally, print the drawing on watercolor paper, then do the finished art with physical media on that. Separately, I think a lot of artists overemphasize drawing, and, unlike the Rockwell example, they ignore value, do a tight drawing, then they just paint that. Rockwell was clearly using the 'drawing' to plan his big value areas.

James Gurney said...

Chris, great point. I've seen students do really elaborate preliminary drawings, using sharp pencils on a big canvas and drawing every hair—even though the composition hasn't really been thought out. It's almost impossible to paint the final on such a "spiderwebby" line drawing. Of course Rockwell as you say is talking about separate small preliminary studies that simplify the design into basic tonal areas.

Another point is that an artist using physical tools can do lots of planning studies purely in paint— little separate painted thumbnails in a variety of media. I do that a lot. It's not "drawing" exactly, but planning all the same.

Michael Mellinger said...

How do I learn how to draw? Learning to draw is a very hard thing to do. Last year I grabbed a sheet of paper every day for 6 months and drew for 30 minutes. I don't think I improved much. You can learn almost anything on the Internet but I haven't found a good resource to learn how to draw.

David Webb said...

Eugene, luckily for me here in the UK, illustration won over photography for a few more decades. In the end though, I could see the slide and gaps between jobs got longer and longer. It was good while it lasted though.

James, yes I was fortunate to have parents who supported me in my efforts. At the time I started, there wasn't another soul in my school who'd chosen to follow the same road. I was extremely lucky to find an agent, when I was 18, who saw something in me.

sketcher said...

Very happy to see you stress the importance of drawing. Next week I will begin teaching an Introductory Drawing class with the local art group because I see so many people struggling to paint before they know how to draw. Some potential students have told me they think it is nice that drawing is available but they want to paint not draw so they will be taking the painting class instead. Thank you for making the point. I will be sure to show this item to my class.

rock995 said...

I took that course and still have the books today. Wonderful.

Bob said...

James, thank you for your reply! Most often I begin sketching the main subjects with thin, grey lines (like pencil). Having these objects on layers allow me to fix common mistakes -- for example, if a Skybax rider appears too small for his mount, I'll resize him without redrawing. So really, by "jumping in" I mean just finding the courage to begin. I've found the sketching techniques from your Watercolor video are quite transferable to digital -- shading, cast shadows, etc. It's all fun and therapy for me.

sketchanything said...

Concentration is the key in my opinion in any profession.

Matt Stewart said...

I have heard that Norman Rockwell worked exclusively with grids, do you know if this is true?

Elena Jardiniz said...

I own a couple of the Famous Artists books my grandfather started. He was a placard artist (before there were xerox machines, and very cheap printing, those thousands of 'on sale' signs found in department stores were painted by hand) and he wanted to be 'a real artist'. Some of the exercises are done, I can see where he worked on them, and I have a few of his travel and other posters, all hand painted. Alas, he died of cancer and never achieved his goal professionally - but his work was beautiful. Some of his lettering work (labels and such) were stunning, but I don't have any of those now. He used long, square tipped sable brushes as well as pens - none of the brushes survived my toddler self. But I do have the drafting set, including a ruling pen, which are superb - older than stainless steel the compasses and beams are all nickel silver. The pen is steel and ebony. If you've ever tried to use a modern ruling pen you have no idea how crappy they are compared to the really good old ones!

Jesse said...

James, after most of my life spent purely drawing, I switched over to digital 4 years ago. I still thumbnail often. The difference being that in digital I can use the small sketch as basis for an under painting/drawing with a keystroke/gesture. I can also go back and alter the under layer independent of the colors. It's certainly a massive change from traditional. It's a double edged sword, because you can go back and 'fix' things at pretty much any stage; sometimes you miss out ( if you're not careful) on organic, happy 'accidents' that I think give some pieces character. My two cents.