I'm doing something, but I'm not sure what I'm doing.
February 20, 2008 10:12 AM   Subscribe

I can draw stuff I look at. I don't know if that's a talent or a skill or in any way useful to me. Is it?

When I was a teenager I used to collect comic books. Lots and lots of them. At some point, for some reason, I started drawing certain images and pictures I found in them. I found this a rather soothing process, I guess, and I was pretty good at it, if I do say so myself, which I do.

This was a process whereby I basically took out a pad of paper and a pencil and using a particularly iconic picture of Superman or Spiderman or some such I would try to copy the image.

Eventually I started inking and coloring them.

I was told that my drawings were pretty good - very good, even - but I always felt like kind of a fraud. I wasn't tracing, I was drawing totally freehand, but I was always looking at something and copying it.

I've tried my hand at drawing with no point of reference, trying to work on original compositions, and they never really were of the quality of my "copied" work (obviously), and I usually lost interest pretty quickly and scurried back to drawing from my comic books.

For a decade or so I stopped doing this.

Then, the other day, partly because I was reading Stephen King's Duma Key, I think, I went out and bought an Artisan pad and some pencils and started sketching. Again, I found a nice World of Warcraft wallpaper from Blizzard's website with a cool picture of a troll and I put that on the table next to me and started drawing.

I think it came out really well! I'm pleased that my capacity to do this has not diminished, or, rather, has not diminished that much.

But then I started to think, you know, what is this? I guess my question is for the people out there who do paint and draw in a conventional sense.

I mean, I guess the fact that I can copy something somebody has already drawn is a skill, but it seems like a relatively useless one. I mean, I find it to be a pretty relaxing activity and I take pleasure in it, so that's great.. for me, but if we're talking about skills that are useful and can be traded for goods and services, there is probably not a job out there that could use this talent. Please, someone, correct me if I'm wrong.

So, ok, if that's the case, does the fact that I can do this and do it pretty well translate into the possibility of real actual artistic ability if I decide to be patient and go in that direction? I mean, I understand that sometimes artists will tape a picture that they've taken or a particular image up next to their easels as a point of reference, or will even sit outside or look out the window and paint what they see.

I optimistically see this as an extension of what I'm doing right now, but I'm not sure if that's the case.

To refine my questions, I'm I guess I'm asking...

A. If the fact I can do this is in any way a useful talent in a commercial sense.

B. If not (or even if it is), how far away am I from actually drawing something? I mean, I don't really know, in artistic terms, what it is I'm doing, or how it fits into the creative process.

posted by kbanas to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Keep copying. As your skill increases, your imagination will expand, and you'll find yourself embellishing and improving upon what you observe-- providing, in other words, what the original does not. That's how you discover your interests as an artist-- which are often much different than your interests in everyday life.
posted by hermitosis at 10:18 AM on February 20, 2008

I know that some people make a profession with medical illustration. Can you look at something realistic and then draw a better, more clear illustration?
posted by amanda at 10:22 AM on February 20, 2008

If the fact I can do this is in any way a useful talent in a commercial sense.

Absolutely. It's part of what animators who work in traditional drawn animation do for a living. (You also need a deep understandng of movement and perspective, as well as some other skills, but perfectly re-creating someone else's drawn designs and characters -- i.e. staying "on-model"-- is an important component.

Or you can combine your drawing talents with well-developed storytelling skills and the ability to frame a shot well, and you're a storyboard artist.
posted by dersins at 10:25 AM on February 20, 2008

does the fact that I can do this and do it pretty well translate into the possibility of real actual artistic ability if I decide to be patient and go in that direction?

Maybe. I remember being able to do what you did strictly by rote, but freehand I had no knowledge of anatomy, composition, perspective, detailing, shading, etc. I think this is just a form of lower brain-level mimickry, but if you are serious about illustration you should really move towards formal training at this point. I doubt this approach will get you far.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:39 AM on February 20, 2008

Plenty of artists use references while working. Picasso used African art as references for most of his early works, Andy Warhol just outright stole images from pop culture, Van Gogh and the impressionists used landscapes around them as well as people, etc...

No need to feel dirty about it.
posted by ISeemToBeAVerb at 10:56 AM on February 20, 2008

I can't draw to save my life, but I did try out Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain several years ago. My memory is a bit fuzzy, but the basic concept was to translate elements of what you see into actual lines and shapes. For example, instead of "draw a car," you draw the line you see on the left side of the hood, you draw the curve of the wheel well, etc, until you have a full drawing. After reading it, I was able to do a "copy" drawing that you described and some rough drawings from still life, but not especially well. Still fun, though.

Perhaps you have this ability naturally, and you just need to translate what you see (or what you see in your mind) into this framework.
posted by shinynewnick at 10:56 AM on February 20, 2008

beyond the animation or medical illustration (additionally, I'd point out that there's still a market for botanical illustration, believe it or not) I'd also say that if you wanted to do something CREATIVE with it, you could certainly harness this ability for parody. Make copied drawings of things and give it a clever caption or just change something about the thing you're copying to make it humorous. I wish I could copy-draw myself! If for no other reason than to start my own comic strip. =)
posted by indiebass at 11:06 AM on February 20, 2008

I think what you do is in fact very good and more than half way to being an excellent artist. I for one have a very hard time making a picture that's close to the original. What you should do now is not to try a completely new design but to make slight modifications to the picture, i.e. different expression on their face, slight turn, etc. Then try to combine elements from another picture into the first i.e. a different weapon or part of clothes. No copy is exactly the same. Look carefully and you will see that emotion of the character will be different. One will look more powerful or angry than the original, the other less. Designs you were copying were likely also copied from somewhere with modifications. I suck at art though so I could be very wrong.
posted by rainy at 11:12 AM on February 20, 2008

Can you draw people and other real-life objects? You could be a court artist.
posted by radioamy at 11:19 AM on February 20, 2008

Along the lines of dersins's point, part of the work I do is licensed children's books. Most of these do have illustrators doing original artwork, but the artwork needs to look pretty much exactly like the style guide art of the characters in question. It's not straight up copying, but you might be looking at a drawing (or several) of Billy Bunny (totally made up, just pretend it's a well-known cartoon/greeting card/puppet character), and you have to draw Billy Bunny with the exact same proportions, colors, and textures as the drawings you're looking at, but you have to draw him flying a plane instead of just standing there. Or whatever.

Also, I notice that you don't say you've tried any middle ground between copying someone else's drawing and trying to come up with a totally original idea/drawing completely from your brain. Have you ever tried to draw from real life? Or from a photograph? You could take a few objects and arrange them and try to draw those. Or, if three dimensions aren't your bag, but you find you can handle drawing from a photograph, it's not stealing if you copy photos you took yourself.

And you can always start experimenting with the drawings you're copying. Like, oh, here's a drawing of Batman I copied from this poster. Let's give him a top hat! That type of thing.
posted by lampoil at 11:42 AM on February 20, 2008

Can you take a photograph and turn it into a drawing? plenty of artists use film to caption a scene before going back to their studio to paint/draw it.
posted by jrishel at 11:44 AM on February 20, 2008

I don't know how useful this skill of yours is, but if it makes you feel better then you ought to keep doing it. I am an artist and have taught beginning drawing and composition to people from their teens on up. I have also taught film pre-production at the college level. Most of my students fall on the good old bell curve... a few suck, a few are very good, most are just sort of okay. The sucky and just-okay ones are the ones who benefit most from lessons in basic perspective, composition, layout, etc. You might want to get some lessons just to fill in the blanks, as it were. Just being able to copy what you see isn't the same as being able to take advantage of synergy and synthesis to create new art.

I had one student who was very good at drawing whatever he could see -- but who couldn't "see" anything in his head. I never quite knew what to make of this.

FWIW I am no fan of the "photo-realism" school of art. If you can draw something so well that it looks like a photo, take a fuckin' photo. Me, I'm an Impressionist in terms of painting -- I am interested in fleeting effects of light, color, and shadow. I couldn't care less what a tree "really" looks like; I want to know how it feels to be looking at that tree around sunset on a blustery day. So if you cannot imbue your art with some feeling then it is not art -- merely draftsmanship. IMHO.

That said, you can possibly make a career out of portraiture -- people, pets, houses, what-have-you. I can't do that because my brain doesn't work that way. Even when I was doing comics, back in the 70's, I wasn't interested much in how things "really" looked. Comic book anatomy is to anatomy as TV sitcoms are to real life.

But I would certainly encourage you to explore your talent more fully. It cheeses me off when talented people just blow it off. There is so much bullshit in the world... we need more art, more creative expression. It is the exploration of self, and that is a Good Thing.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 11:49 AM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

I recently read this interview with Tony Millionaire where he talked about having gone door to door selling drawings of people's houses. That sounded fun. There are also other things like band posters and cd covers. Another idea is band posters and cd covers. Also, you might want to check out the comic Ex Machina, which is drawn (at least the early issues that I've read so far) entirely from photo references. Also, it's awesome.
posted by smartyboots at 12:21 PM on February 20, 2008

About (B): if you can draw limbs of characters in different pose than the original, then you are drawing.

You seem to have at least one useful talent, and that is drawing proportions and shapes like you intent to draw them.

Other skill you've probably learnt by copying is to know where you need to put lines and what to leave empty.

The third, which you yet haven't tested and which either needs talent or lots of conscious practice is rotating the figure so that you see in your mind's eye, for example, how a hand would look like when it's half-reaching towards the viewer. There was this post about awful comic book artist who had serious problem with feet. You should find similar problems and study them over.
posted by Free word order! at 12:52 PM on February 20, 2008

Stop copying art (and photographs, if you do that too) and start drawing from life.

Yeah, you've probably heard this a million times. And yeah you won't be as good at first. But if you keep at it you will get to the same level of skill that you have now drawing from other people's images. Then you can draw whatever you want, and pursue any drawing-related field that you want.
posted by Squee at 12:59 PM on February 20, 2008

An addedum -

It's certainly good to *study* other people's artwork and photographs, so that you learn how other people draw and how anatomy or other things are put together. One way to study them is by copying them. But do this sparingly - if you really want to learn how to draw, you should be drawing things that you observe in all three dimensions.
posted by Squee at 1:01 PM on February 20, 2008

I've tried my hand at drawing with no point of reference, trying to work on original compositions,

What do you mean, no point of reference? Most artists copy from things around them - draw the dog or the chair or the pair of jeans lying across the bed. Have you tried that and found it harder? Or just tried to draw things magically out of nowhere? It would be no surprise if that didn't turn out as well.

A lot of art students take their pad of paper to the museum, and copy the great works, so it's a common way to get better at what you're doing... and going to the natural history museum and copying the dead animals is another way to practice. But still lifes and life drawing (naked or clothed models) are the most common things for students to work on, generally. If you can draw things from the world, you can develop your style and create things partly from your mind, though many artists still use a lot of resources when creating. If you think in pictures, you may have an image in mind that you can then 'copy', but not all artists work this way.
posted by mdn at 1:11 PM on February 20, 2008

Picking one character, like the troll in the WOW wallpaper, and transferring it faithfully into your sketchpad can be a bit like doing a great Purple Rain at karaoke. It's a skill, and if it makes you happy and impresses your friends it has value, but it's not really something you can take on the road. Still, everyone begins by copying.

My progress at drawing hit a mental snag when I became confused about how to approach reference copying. To some degree I can draw without reference, but often I need some input outside my imagination to achieve the look I want. But then I'd get caught up worrying that copying was cheating. Or I'd feel that I was losing my approach or style when I directly copied a line from a photograph, so that the result would become too tight and bland. When I wanted to draw a portrait or especially a caricature I'd gather 12 different photographs, but would resist deciding on the focus of any one picture, and I'd end up lost. Sometimes when sketching from reference I'd turn the object to a completely different angle without making a conscious decision to do so. It was more an act I did by instinct trying to avoid copying. Drawing became undisciplined frustration for me. I probably failed to gain adequate control of form and structure, so that I could move confidently beyond tracing surfaces. Now I'm trapped at a point where I suspect I don't know how to hold a pencil correctly.

Often I'm surprised when I see how directly a successful illustrator has used one reference photo. But an outstanding artist knows how to make subtle shifts to achieve the affect they desire, and how to choose what to include and what to leave out. That's where the skill is. Lots of people can copy lines. If you're copying another artist's drawing out of a comic book, they've already made most of the necessary choices for you.
posted by TimTypeZed at 3:11 PM on February 20, 2008

radioamy beat me to it: court artist. generally, photos are prohibited in courtrooms, as you probably know. news sources still want images of the proceedings of high-profile cases, though. this might pay well, and give you free time to pursue other creative avenues.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:14 PM on February 20, 2008

Not to naysay, but this previous AskMe thread seems to say courtroom artist may not be a viable option anymore.
posted by shinynewnick at 6:52 PM on February 20, 2008

damn dirty ape picked up that this is the most important part of your question:
does the fact that I can do this and do it pretty well translate into the possibility of real actual artistic ability if I decide to be patient and go in that direction?

The answer is yes, of course this does. You are only a tiny fraction of the way there, this is how most people who are self-taught start out (remember the mail order art classes in the back of the comic books: "Draw Mickey, you might qualify for art school").

I taught foundation figure drawing to art majors at a state university where a portfolio showing mastery of basic drawing skills was not needed for entrance into the bfa program. Like Guy_Inamonkeysuit (who has very good advice, I'd mark his answer as "best" if I could) my students on their first day of class ran the gamut from Durer-like craftsmanship to stick figures.

In my experience, there are very few people who would be unable to draw well if they really applied themselves, regardless of what level of skill they start with. It simply takes a lot of rigorous practice, extreme concentration, as well as a dose of helpful guidance in learning how to look at familiar objects in an abstract manner. The fact that the copying you are doing now is something you enjoy and might be serious about building on tells me you do have the potential for "real artistic ability".

Do people make a living drawing? Well, heck yes. If they couldn't, we wouldn't have so many competitive art schools in this country. "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" was mentioned up thread. Pick up a copy of this if you decide to continue on the self-directed route for a while, and treat each exercise in it as you would a class assignment. It's no substitution for taking an actual drawing class, but it will be an extremely helpful guide for practicing the sort of "looking" necessary for drawing anything well.
posted by stagewhisper at 9:33 PM on February 20, 2008

I’d call what you have a talent (you can do something easily that others have to work at, and usually don’t bother). It’s not a rare talent, but it definitely puts you near the edge on the bell curve, so it’s distinctive.

Obviously, you can develop your talent into a skill if you’ve got the time and the motivation. And as stagewhisper says, sure there’s a market for this skill when it’s highly developed; just look at how the movie industry is becoming ever more reliant on drawn imagery over photographed imagery, in every sort of film, not just fantasies. You need to know how to draw well to get a computer to draw well...

But you’d need to develop many other skills and talents to turn this mechanical facility for seeing and reproducing shapes and proportions accurately into some kind of art. For that, at the very least, you’d have to develop a sense of what makes a drawing, picture or image powerful, beautiful, moving, compelling, etc. rather than merely impressively accurate, and develop whatever skills support these aspects of picture-making. It’s hard for me to imagine doing these things without being so personally motivated toward drawing and picturemaking that it would never occur to you to ask the question you asked here, but maybe that’s just me. I’ve encountered a few skillful and successful commercial-art and design folks who didn’t seem to care at all about their skills outside of work; I found them baffling, but they were getting paid.

In short, if I thought you were asking “Hey, I love to draw and am pretty good. Can I get paid to do this?” I’d answer: Yes, definitely, if you work at it. Just realize that (outside of scientific illustration, perhaps) there’s a lot more to making desirable or valuable images that accurate reproduction.

It seems more like you’re asking: Is there any good reason I should develop this talent I seem to have? To that I’d say: No; not unless you love it.
posted by dpcoffin at 9:09 AM on February 21, 2008

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