Confessions of an Artist Part 3

Last week’s discussion led us into the exploration of breaking out of our comfort zones. This week, I want to make my most horrifying confession of all.

I was a tracer.

Now, before you throw stones and Nerf balls at me, let me tell you the story of a girl who loved her Barbie fashion paper doll set. There was never more delight in stenciling in the trendy orifice-free figure of Barbie and tracing on any variety of clothes that she wanted. Why, there was even a texture sheet to rub on leopard patterns, zebra stripes, and more! This budding artist found hours of entertainment and a confidence in her finished fashion designs that blossomed into a genuine interest to explore more and the confidence to continue. The act of tracing blew on the embers of interest in visual design that the girl would grow up to discover later.

Over the years that followed, I switched methods to freehand tracing, the act of ‘eyeballing’ an image and copying what I saw rather than tracing it directly. I copied my favorite comics, Wild C.A.T.s and Jim Lee’s indomitable Zealot, Jack Kirby’s glorious reign as artist of the Uncanny X-men, the luscious lips of Michael Turner’s Witchblade. Eventually, I graduated to copying the poses only and filling in my own character’s details.

However, when I tried to draw without a reference, I failed miserably. My works carried a tinge of what I had copied for so long. My figures had diamond shaped feet, pouty lips, perky breasts, long legs, teeny waists, and exaggerated muscles. Copying the work of others for so long left an imprint on my sense of anatomy that I was not able to wash away till I began studying the Golden Mean in high school. Even still, that was only the beginning of what be a long and grueling journey to learn what ephemereal bones, muscles, and physics went into making human figures look human and not like statuesque anatomical anomalies.

My anatomy finally began to improve when I was exposed, literally, to nude models in college. Like many, I snickered at the unveiled human form and all its strange nooks and crannies, at first. Eventually, I came to see the beauty behind the skeletal structure and the awe-inspiring complexity of natural musculature. The difference between drawing from a photograph and drawing from a live model must also not go ignored. To fully understand the human figure, one must be attuned to the little things that seeing a human figure with your own eyes can reveal; the subtle way a model holds the tension in their shoulders, the shadows cast by the joints hooded just beneath the skin by flesh, the elegant sweep of shadow as a model turns their head. All of these tiny experiences lead to an understanding that seems barely noticeable at the start, but begins to show itself as you practice and absorb the intrinsic knowledge of how the human form breathes, moves, and shifts.

Sometimes the puffy lips inspired by Turner’s Witchblade still raise their poofy little heads up in my art. I still use references to help insure my anatomy isn’t wonky, but I have learned the important lesson that one can never rely too much on copying what one sees. Stock and photographs can be useful for adding realism to one’s work, but it is fairly easy for it to overpower your art. For those among you who may not be able to afford life drawing courses, take your sketchbook outside and draw people in the park. Draw your face in the mirror. You may get some funny looks, but in the end, most people are absolutely delighted to learn you’re an artist and are immediately intrigued by it.

Remember to put your reference away after awhile and let your imagination fill in the rest. It can be a hard thing to balance the perfection of a photo and your own knowledge of anatomy, but practice will make perfect. Hands, and particularly thumbs, remain a constant challenge for me, as does the physical anomaly of man-crotches in jeans or tight pants.

The mysteries of figure drawing continue to elude me and as such, I find I never stop learning.

So tell me what little secrets you might have to reveal? What malpractices did you have while you were learning how to draw? Or, if you have any now, how do you hope to improve your drawing processes?

My Favorite Figure Drawing Resources:
Figure Drawing: The Structure, Anatomy and Expressive Design of the Human Form by Nathan Goldstein
Posemaniacs – A site full of 3 dimensional figures which you can rotate.
Lockstock – One of the most beautiful galleries of classically inspired stock images on DeviantART
Cobwebstock – A gallery full of knights, cyberpunks, and other great stock featuring a male model.
Andrew Loomis Figure Drawing Books – A downloadable collection of figure drawing books from skilled figure artist, Andrew Loomis.

Find more resources at my forum.

5 comments

  1. HAHA!!
    “let me tell you the story of a girl who loved her Barbie fashion paper doll set.” had me howling XD

    awesome 😀

    I confess, I was like you, a tracer as well. Unfortunately my experiences were sailor moon and dragonball, but I am pleased to say I grew out of it within a year. so that was good :phew:

    and i love you you described the life drawing. it’s a hard thing to explain to non artists how important things look all the time, and how exciting light and shadow is. I had a repair on my wool coat that was a cool grey, but the sweater was a warm grey, and the only people who see it are artists, my mum thinks it looks identical. Funny our world, isnt it?

  2. To Jay, you know, I think it’s funny because I imagine more artists start out drawing this way than many of us want to admit.

    I too had a Dragonball and Sailor Moon phase. With as prolific as these shows were for bringing anime to North America and beyond, it’s hard not to have been influenced during this time period by the art style. I grew out of my phase in more than a couple of years, but it did leave me with a horrible habit of drawing baggy pants on men and squaring off jaws to the extreme.

    Haha I’ve had a similar conversation with my own mother regarding the exact shade of blue in the sky. She marveled at my conflict between Cobalt Blue and Cerulean Blue.

  3. nichol says:

    oh i freely admit i was a tracer (in fact i continue to do so – though now i only trace my OWN work 🙂 glad to find someone with the same influences. (think i cried when MT died. he was such an influence. what i liked most about him was that he started out as a technical illustrator – he drew for medical textbooks so he KNEW anatomy.) you are correct though, no matter how skilled your ‘idols’ are, they are NO substitue for the live model. i remember fondly my life drawing classes ! glad i finally got over here to look at your blog. (nichol who follows eventide unmasked.)

  4. Welcome to my blog, Nichol! Always great to see new faces around here:)

    I was really disturbed to hear that Turner had died as well. I had been away from the industry for quite some time, so when I finally decided to get back in the loop at random, I was so sad to find out one of my favorite artists had died. He will be missed.

    Hope you enjoy my continued ramblings:)

  5. Mascot says:

    Of course I am a tracer. Mu best friend in primary school used to draw horses – i traced from her.
    Then I had a friend who drew anime in high school – copied her lines a bit.
    And then I started exploring myself, at first using a drawing course in a local anime magazine – it had anime along with the Golden Mean.

    Now I draw fantasy characters mostly from the head, but I use reference photos a lot when I want the pose not to be off. Or if I want to draw myself 😉

    yay fot tracing as a starting point 🙂

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