How to teach myself illustration?
August 24, 2010 10:19 AM   Subscribe

I'm re-learning how to draw, and particularly interested in illustration/cartooning. Looking for resources that will aid me in my quest.

I've doodled as a hobby for most of my life. I majored in art (painting and drawing); I learned and improved to some extent, but mostly I half-assed it through my classes. That was several years ago, and I haven't done anything with my degree other than more idle doodling. This year, I've decided to really work at it and get better, so I can make art that I'm satisfied with.

I'm not a complete novice to drawing, but I am rusty, and the way I've been drawing all these years feels more like a collection of habits than a coherent style, and it only gets me so far. I know what looks "right" when I see it, but I have trouble making it happen in my work. So I figure I need to do two things: practice as much as possible, and read and observe and gather and absorb all the outside information I can. I've been doing the former, and could use recommendations on the latter.

Currently I'm working through Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, since it's been recommended in so many previous AskMes, we already had a copy, and it seemed like a pretty good jumping-off point. It's a good refresher, and I like having specific exercises to do. On the other hand, I prefer playing around with styles and am drawn to illustration and short-form comics, which the book doesn't talk about.

I read Understanding Comics several years ago, liked it a lot, and will need to return to it. Will Eisner is on my to-read list too. I really like the Indistinguishable from Magic blog so far. This previous question has a lot of recommendations that I'll be checking out, too. However, I don't want to limit my focus to comics and comic-book styles.

What else should I be reading, looking at, or doing? Who should I be following or talking to? I'm looking for both instruction and inspiration, any skill level or style. Pretty much anything and everything.

Thanks, as always!
posted by Metroid Baby to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
My last drawing teacher was big on Gene Franks.
posted by bukvich at 10:23 AM on August 24, 2010

I don't draw at all but I still check out this blog all of the time. It is good for ideas but they also link to you tube videos etc about how to draw. Might be a good resource.
posted by Busmick at 10:27 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you're particularly interested in cartooning, read some of John K's blog:
posted by RobotHero at 10:29 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Stephen Silver was releasing a podcast for a while that I found to be good motivation fodder. Unfortunately, he only gets to 13 episodes. But he talks about a specialized sketchbook he makes with some parts tracing paper some parts regular drawing paper and some other variously textured materials. He talks about finding time everyday to do it and how having a drawing buddy can be helpful as well.
posted by edbles at 10:34 AM on August 24, 2010

Here's a direct link to the Stephen Silver artCast.
posted by edbles at 10:43 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

There's always that old standby "How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way".

How to draw, a blog by Rad Sechrist, storyboard artist at Dreamworks.
posted by Artw at 10:43 AM on August 24, 2010

Get these books
posted by Theloupgarou at 10:48 AM on August 24, 2010 [4 favorites]

Take a look at

I have not worked through any of these lessons, but it looks fairly extensive from novice to advanced.
posted by JJtheJetPlane at 10:51 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, and though rereading Understanding Comics is never a bad thing, you might want to take a look at Making Comics, which is more of a practical guide.
posted by Artw at 10:59 AM on August 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

- Seconding John K.

- HIGHLY seconding Andrew Loomis (download all the PDFs, but start with Fun With A Pencil)

- Adding Dr. Sketchy's

Also, go to indie cons, friend online comic artists, find a cartoonists' group near you -- I've never met a more welcoming, "you should do a collaborative strip with me", "here's how you screenprint a cover", "want to share a table at ____" community than aspiring cartoonists.

Make friends, aim to always be the worst one in the group and just do. A really great cartoonist said to me that the good comics are just smushed under 80,000 bad ones so he just drew and wrote as much as he could to get those out of the way. I'm only about 10k in.

Never use expensive tools or paper or books or whatever as a crutch -- great comics can be made in MacPaint and the aspiring folks who never make anything always seem to be buying light tables and moleskines.

That being said, I always have a pencil I love in my bag and a sketchbook and try to take advantage of every wasted waiting moment that other people are tweeting and bejeweling to doodle things.
posted by Gucky at 11:22 AM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Put in your time. Draw about 6 hours a day. You'll get better, quick.

What to draw? Everything.

How to draw? Every which way.

When to draw? Whenever you can?

On what, with what? Doesn't matter.

Don't follow books. Drawing books teach you how to draw like movies teach you how to create suspense. You gotta just do it.
posted by alex_skazat at 11:41 AM on August 24, 2010

Honestly, as someone who grew up with books on how to draw cartoons and Comics the Marvel Way, I feel like starting with that stuff does more harm than good.

Start with drawing from life. Even if you just want to draw cartoon cats with big eyes, if you become competent at drawing from life you will be just as good at drawing cartoon cats with big eyes, and be in a better position if you ever want to draw something else, or even want to draw big-eyed cartoon cats in proper perspective or big-eyed cartoon cats holding a spoon or opening a door or something else that's awkward to draw if you've never drawn anything but cartoons.

I'm not against books about larger principles like perspective and anatomy, but at the same time the relationship between reading books about drawing and actually drawing is roughly similar to that of reading books about running and actually running.
posted by lore at 12:10 PM on August 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

There are two prongs. Observational drawing and construction. Practice both and let them cross-pollinate. The most common mistake is focusing on one to the exclusion of the other.
posted by RobotHero at 12:15 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

"If you do something for three or four hours a day for 10 years, with just a reasonable amount of aptitude, you're going to get good." - Keith Anders Ericsson, (Psychology professor @ FSU who has studied expert performers) - I have this taped to my mirror.

Inspiration: Go to a Barnes & Noble, sit down and browse through the book The Illustrated Life by Danny Gregory (2008). Also, there are 6 Flightbooks/magazines full of all kinds of different comics/artists. Look around for artists who interest you and follow them... Danny Gregory has a website with lots of ideas:

Just keep practicing, draw everything, take classes, look for art everywhere, and DON'T GIVE UP!
posted by Leah at 12:28 PM on August 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sorry - not good with sticking the website in, I guess:

Okay, think I've got it...
posted by Leah at 12:32 PM on August 24, 2010

My answers always sound like I'm a smart ass, but there's some truth to the saying, "C'est en forgeant qu'on devient forgeron."

One remarkable book that's made a great impression on me, is Scott McCloud's, Understanding Comics, it won't teach you to draw, but it will teach you a lot about visual communication.

Another thing, maybe a little more helpful than just, "Draw, bitch!" is to keep a sketchbook and self-critique when you're done with a drawing, following it up with a new drawing.

For example, here's a rough sketch of an idea I wanted to do - complete with scribbled notes - and then, the final. I find shitty roughs essential - it's less about making a great drawing and more about forcing you to look at your subject.
posted by alex_skazat at 12:42 PM on August 24, 2010

I was a pretty decent art student and was able to fake my way through the animation industry for 2 decades before getting to your point. In the last 5 years I've learned a lot more:

ANATOMY+ANATOMY+ANATOMY+life drawing+copying any other kind of drawing you like to do (manga, 50's illustrations,...) Get this anatomy book. Anatomy is something that can't be learned entirely from the observation of the live figure. It helps you to interpret the live model. Use the knowledge to build your own mental mannequin and you can use it as a guide when you're doing quick sketches. Observation is about comparing the proportion and structure of people to your internal manniquin.

This may not be as true as it was in the early 80s/70s hangover time I went to school but lots of art students can only draw if they have a large sheet of paper, a stick of conte and a live model. Give them an HB pencil and a sheet of paper and they are lost. They have only a small vocabulary of hand or body positions they know how to draw convincingly from memory. Push yourself to draw people in the oddest positions and perspectives you can imagine. Try to give them personality.

Good luck!

p.s. -the John K. site is gold but try not to imagine him looking over your shoulder. Everything he says about the Preston Blair book is spot on.
posted by bonobothegreat at 1:18 PM on August 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

Copy master drawings.

The reason everyone keeps recommending the JohnK thing is because he teaches drawing using this approach. It works. Copy a master drawing and then compare your copy to the original, making notes about your mistakes. Then copy it AGAIN. It doesn't matter whether the master drawing in question is a cartoon dog or a Caravaggio.

One of the drawbacks of the "draw what you see"/right-side-of-the-brain approach is that it doesn't empower you to make up novel scenes and objects in an imaginary setting. The appeal of the right-brain approach is that it gets rather remarkable results very quickly, even from people who have never drawn before -- but it's easy to top out and plateau as a sort of human visual copy machine.

If you want to be an illustrator (as opposed to, say, a portrait painter), you're going to have to compose your own scenes and build your drawings, which requires far more LEFT brain: an abstract, analytical understanding of perspective, three-dimensional form, light, color, etc., etc. You can life-draw for years and NEVER get this critical understanding (because you can make a reasonable likeness without it), and therefore never gain the facility to illustrate things from imagination.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 1:44 PM on August 24, 2010 [5 favorites]
posted by xammerboy at 2:47 PM on August 24, 2010

Find a good life drawing session, and combine that with a good art anatomy book--I like Bridgeman's, but that's just me. It's always immediately apparent to me when novice artists (especially cartoonists, as they seem more liable to incorporating shortcuts and assumptions about the human body into their stylistics) have never drawn from life.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:06 PM on August 24, 2010

Response by poster: These are really helpful nail-on-the-head answers so far, thank you so much. (I don't want to mark any Best Answers just yet, since I don't want to dissuade other potential answerers.)
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:17 PM on August 24, 2010

To solve your problem of drawing from your collection of habits, here's something I have done: Either buy a cheap sketchbook or one of those 200 ream packages of printer paper. Draw everyday, but once you have finished a page, rip it out of the sketchbook and throw it out. This will train you to give your practice work a low value and thus train you to experiment more. Also, it will start to get satisfying to see your paper count go down.

Try and set up different themes to draw on a week by week basis, starting with general topics (nature, human figures, buildings, stairs). Repeat themes every now and then. Over time try more complex themes (composing a scene, light sources, drawing the same human figure doing different actions, using line to express a certain aspect of your subject). Start the week drawing these themes from life/photos then shift to drawing from your head. Fill the page if you can. Don't use your old drawings as reference (which should be impossible, since you're throwing them away). Pay attention to what you draw while you're drawing and do self-critique it over once your done.

Do copy from masters as well. I don't recommend anatomy or how to books, though. I find they too easily become a crutch. If you're diligent, you can learn all of the "rules" (you should have a good idea of them already, since you studied art) and more. I'm not sure what you're doing with Understanding Comics, though. It isn't going to teach you much about drawing (the chapter on emotion, maybe, but I don't think he writes anything revelatory). Do you mean you want to learn how to make comics too?
posted by bittermensch at 10:48 AM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

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