Before I say anything else, my big announcement is this:

Yes, the first Bearmageddon shirt is done.  I kept it simple.  No words, no clever slogan… just an Octo-bear in all its majesty.  Admittedly, the above photo is the mock up I created of the shirt.  When you click the image it will take you to a photo of the actual shirt.  the colors are a bit different but I think it looks pretty close.  Us artists always want people to see how we originally intended things to look.  So please, go buy one!  I had fun drawing it, and some of you even watched me draw part of it on UStream.  Well, it’s here and it’s ready to engulf you in its fabric and make you the envy of your neighbors.

Today’s episode is significant… I mean, a girl just stepped into the comic.  Andrea.  Everybody meet Andrea.  Joel does a complete 360 when he realizes he might be chained to a tree next to her.  That’s every man’s dream when he sees a pretty girl… please Lord, force her to sit by me so she can find out how great I am.  Any time I am about to get on a plane and I see a beatiful woman is getting on too, I am praying that her seat happens to be next to me, even though she is looking at me praying her seat is not next to me, usually the fattest guy on the plane.  May the best prayer win.

This also reminds me of myself back when I lived by the very erroneous idea that to impress a girl, you do what they say would impress them.  One of the first lessons a man learns about females is that you never do what they say to do to win their heart.  This is how bad I was… I started taking piano lessons because a girl I liked said she is really attracted to guys who play piano.  Another girl told me she would be so enamored with a guy who made sushi, so I learned to make sushi and made some for her.  Both situations ended in complete awkwardness. Some people seem to understand these things, but for me I always learn things the hardest and silliest way possible, like Wile E. Coyote or Mr. Bean.

I got some good questions in the email… I will do one now and save the others for another time.  This one comes from Josh (edited down a bit for brevity):

I have an interest in drawing. After believing I was incapable of drawing anything with any sort of quality, I …found that if I had a model or photo or some other reference to look at, I could draw reasonably well. I went through a phase where I was drawing all the time. But after a while, I started to get discouraged because I couldn’t ever seem to draw anything as I imagined it …starships or dragons or other fantastic things I could see in my head. I confess I draw much less these days for that reason. I have scenes in my head that I want to put on paper, but I just can’t seem to get them there unless I can find some kind of real-world example to look at.

When you draw, and especially when you draw “Axe Cop”, I know you must draw from your imagination all the time. Do you have any advice about how to learn to do this?

Josh, I think a LOT of people who first get into drawing experience what you did.  Illustration really comes from three places:  Reality outside your head, reality inside your head, and the creative use of that information.  You really can’t create anything new, you can only create combinations of things that already exist.  You can’t make up new stuff, as it says in the book of Ecclesiastes, “there is nothing new under the sun”.  The moment you think you made up some cool new animal, flip through a book of weird nature and you’ll realize something already exists that is ten times cooler.  This realization may be disappointing, but it shouldn’t be.  The fact is that reality is endlessly fascinating… wonder is infinite if you will engage it.  So look at reality and all it has to offer as a plethora of inspiration you get to draw from.

To break down the three aspects of information one uses to draw, the first is reality outside your head.  Things as they are.  You look at an apple, you draw the apple.  I remember this guy in elementary school who drew this amazing ninja.  I realized later he had looked at the cover of Ninja Gaiden for Nintendo and copied it.  We got together and drew pictures and he could not draw freestyle for the life of him.  He could do amazing renditions of things that already exist, like a lo-fi photograph (as you said in your original email) but ask him to change the character’s pose, or his costume, or make him punching a dragon and he became helpless.  I meet a lot of artists who are good at copying an image and that is it.  I am not knocking it, only saying that it is the easiest form of art.  Some people learn to do it amazingly well, but I have seen total non-artists get the hang of drawing a figure using certain methods.  It’s still challenging, but drawing a copy of what you see is only the first step to becoming an artist who can draw whatever the heck you want.

One advantage I had from the time I was a kid was that I very rarely copied an image.  I would look at multiple images of a character and make it doing a pose I wanted it to do.  I remember one time I taped a bunch of paper together and drew what I thought was a life-sized Pete’s Dragon (I was 7).  I remember some adult asking me where I got that image from and I told them from the movie Pete’s Dragon, but they wanted to know what specific image I had copied.  I hadn’t copied a specific image.  I looked at a bunch of pictures of Elliot the dragon and I drew him in my own pose.  I did not know it at the time, but I was setting myself up for success.

This leads to how artists must learn to use the information inside their head.  When you go to draw figures, you are not going so you can translate charcoal photographs to paper.  You need to be studying the structure of the body.  When you practice drawing figures (and you must do it a lot) you are not their to show off how awesome you can smear charcoal and use smudge sticks.  You are there to download information. Think of it as millions of megabytes of information on what the human body looks like in three dimensions you need to download into your slow little skull hard drive.  You are practicing drawing the person in a million poses, so that you can leave that studio and redraw them in any pose you want.  This takes tons of practice.

How is this done? First, don’t go to figure drawing sessions with charcoal or chalk, go with a pencil.  Force yourself to translate the figure into three dimensional objects, not values of light and dark.  Learning how shadow works is very important, but if you base all your art on the values and not on the shapes, you will be helpless when that model puts their clothes back on and leaves you all alone with your sketch book.

You also need to study some figure drawing masters.  There are a ton of great ones out there.  The two that taught me the most are Bridgman and Burne Hogarth.  Burne Hogarth is controversial in the artistic community because his figures are very stiff and robotic looking, but his focus is on trying to master each shape of the human body as a three dimensional object.  I remember one time Doug TenNapel saw a nose I drew and asked me how the heck I draw noses like that and I told him I learned it from Burne Hogarth, the guy everybody always craps on.  My warning with Hogarth is that you do need someone else who is not so stiff and teaches you how to see the figure as one harmonious thing.  Bridgman is the best for this.  His book is the one everyone recommended to me when they could see how bad I was struggling with my figures.  If you only do one, do Bridgman, but I think a but of Hogarth won’t hurt if you are studying Bridgman.

The above aspect of learning to draw… drawing from the information inside your head, is the toughest step.  They say it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill.  The bulk of your 10,000 hours will be in developing that database and skill set of knowing what stuff is shaped like, how light effects it, how lineweight works… all these things have to become second nature that you can draw from anytime you work.  This is one reason animators are so good at drawing.  They have to make drawing second nature so that they can focus on the movement.  I spent a lot of time animating as a kid and it really helped too, even though I don’t animate these days, it helped me develop the skill of drawing things fast and working them into my subconcious.

As usual, the next part… the fun part… is taking all that information and using it creatively to draw awesome monsters and space ships and who knows what else.  The sad news is that to get really good at this part, you have a lot of work to put in on what I previously discussed.  If you want to draw creatures, study animals.  If you want to draw cartoons, study the work of other cartoonists.  Whatever you can add to your database will determine how versatile you can be when you get creative.

A lot of people want to become guitar players because they hear an awesome song with a guitar solo and they want to write their own.  Most are pretty discouraged to learn that doing a good guitar solo requires many hours studying scales.  The solo is the fun part after you indoctrinate yourself with guitar knowledge and practice.  Creative drawing is the guitar solo of illustration. You don’t just have to learn how to play a song someone else wrote, you have to learn how to write your own by studying what notes fit where when and how you get your finger to do that twiddly thing.

All that said, don’t wait until you have mastered the human anatomy before you ever try to draw a dragon again.  You should still be working on that as well.  Your imagination needs to be worked, exercised and strengthened just like your other skills, so set aside time to practice that stuff.  You will find, as you fill your head with information on shapes, shadows, lighting and all the elements that make an image make sense, that your creative drawings will start to really come together.  This is the fun part where you have an image in your head and you can draw it just as you see it.  You have taken all that information in your head, learned how to render it on paper, and have combined it in a vision that you can now work from.  This is exactly how that Bearmageddon banner up there came together.  I saw that image in my head and it came out basically exactly as I saw it.  That’s not to say I still don’t have my fair share of drawings that miss the mark of the vision in my head, but if I really want to meet that vision nowadays, I usually can.

All good artists use visual aids, especially when drawing cars, buildings and animals.  That stuff will be necessary for ever unless you are drawing in a really exaggerated or simple style.  So, keep that in mind as well.  You don’t have to become an encyclopedia of knowledge, you just need to get those basic skills worked out so you can see things in three dimensions.  This is one reason sculpting is much easier than drawing.  In sculpting you have three dimensions in front of you.  In drawing, you have two.  You have to imagine the third.  You have to see what is unseen, on the other side of the character not facing the viewer.  The sculptor can just look back there and see it.

Alright, LONG answer but I hope that helps.  Your dilemma is pretty normal I think.  You stepped into the world of illustration and got a taste.  Getting to that point where you can really draw what you see in your head is still a way off, but you took the first step.  The rest of the journey… well, you have to really love it to do it.  Remember how I said it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill? (and I believe it really does take at least that).  Think of all the kids who go to art school and come out still not very good at drawing.  They still have hours to put in.  No art teacher can make every student invest all that time, you have to want it and you have to do it on your own.

Anyway, that’s it for today.  Thanks for the question and thanks in advance to those of you who buy the shirt!  See you Friday.

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