06 October 2016

[art] No Models Allowed: Books About Figure Drawing From Your Head

I have drawn with a model. I, in my modest experience, have drawn in a life-drawing class.

Presumably my interlocutor knows what that is, but if there's any doubt, you know those drawing classes where everyone is arranged in a diverse semicircle around a raised platform where a real live nude model comes out and poses a lot and you have this easel with this big pad of newsprint and then everyone takes out a piece of charcoal or a stick of graphite or a light saber and starts furiously making marks with the whole of your arm over this pad and you're drawing something which looks vaguely like a naked person but could actually be mistaken for a frog, and the light saber pokes through the paper and singes the back of the head of the person in front of you and there's EMS and a trip to the emergency room for someone?

Well, I'm telling a bit of a fib there. Nobody ever called EMS. We were artists, dammit, we were tough. And light sabers are copyrighted anyway. And they don't actually exist. As far as you know.

Anywhoozle, to be serious again, it was quite an experience. You want to draw and if you're unfamiliar being in a room with a totally naked stranger, it's amazing how quick you get over this. Anyone who's ever been in the zone drawing knows this. The ecstasy of making those marks and experiencing the flow really overtake any nervousness you might have. I'm glad I did it.

After you get out of school, though, life-drawing class experiences come few and far between. Classes cost money, yo, and asking strangers on the street for volunteers leads to enquiries from the police. No bueno. It's a goal, then, to learn the human body well enough to be able to draw figures from those that may only pose in your minds eye.

Seriously (again), this is a goal of mine. It's something I nearly achieved in the past and an acme I really want to work toward. Drawing credible figures at the drop of a hat, literally if needs be, seems to me to be serious playing at art on an elevated level. And it's not that drawing with a model is a bad thing either; some of the best classic comic artists did it. But this is a powerful tool, and if you had the chance at a power tool, well, who wouldn't?

Currently I'm studying two books that deliver an artist's knowledge of anatomy in a way that you can adapt it to just about any situation. They really are good books, and I recommend them.

In The Classic Style

The two books take a similar yet divergent approach to the idea of drawing figures directly from imagination. They are Draw From Your Head, by Doug Jamieson, and Freehand Figure Drawing For Illustrators, by David H. Ross. The former comes from what I consider a 'classical' approach, the second, from a more 'modern' point of view.

Draw From Your Head is by Doug Jamieson and was released in 1991. It's a distillation of the system he taught at the New York School of Visual arts. As described, the essential difference between it and other system of anatomy visualization is that it starts with the skeleton, renders it down to a grammar of basic lines and shapes in accordance with the classic 8-head canon, then progressively drapes that simplified skeleton with simplified masses representing muscles, rather than starting with the muscled figure and working back to the basic. The student is encouraged to draw each at each stage and at the end of each stage, a new group is explored and added to the student's growing repertoire.

This sequence, near the back of the book, illustrates very well the progression from simplified skeleton, to dressing it with the muscular masses, to the ending fully-fleshed figure.

Along the way, the student is encouraged to get to know the muscle groups so there is awareness to back the practice of abstract shapes. The figures are most detailed.

In The Modern, Action Style

The second book, Freehand Figure Drawing for Illustrators, is very much geared toward the modern illustrator who wishes to draw from their head and illustrate for the modern comic book and graphic novel.

The author is David H. Ross, whose bio includes credits from Marvel, DC, and Dark Horse, as well as storyboards for movies and consultation for television; this book is for the hot, fashionable constituencies and serves them with depth and erudition.

Ross' central trick is what he calls the glass mannequin, something illustrated on the book cover in good detail, which is his way of viewing the human body as a series of abstracted shapes which, once familiar, can be positioned in any number of ways, just like the wood mannequins adorning my own desk. Tellingly, though, we don't go there straight away, we start in on the one subject every decent art instruction book should contain: perspective. Given that this is a book aimed toward the comic and graphic novel artist, it's a good place to start; you get a skeleton of a world to place your action figures in. After a thumbnail of the freehanding process, we are introduced to the mannequin, then, once we get to know him/her, we go into the anatomy informing the mannequin, the details, the differences between male and female bodies, and how to put them all in motion and action.

We call him Manny.
So, two routes to the draw-from-your-head-mountaintop, two different ways to reach similar goals. The appealing thing about the idea of drawing model-less is that you are ready, at any time, to close your eyes, imagine something, and bring it out.

That's real User power, as Flynn might say. Totally worthwhile, it's a power tool for artists in the best way, and the prize of any artist's tool box.

For a strong modern artist's auto-didacting, I can think of few things better to have on your shelf than these two books.

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