I get asked this question a lot. The answer is so simple that people think I am fucking with them.
No one did. Everyone did.
Every line I draw today comes from something I have seen before. Be it another artist’s drawing that I traced when I was 14, a great master’s painting I saw when I was 17, or a building in shadow I saw when I was 23, I have seen it somewhere before. This leads some people to accuse me of being derivative, and I couldn’t disagree more with that.
To say that because I used a facial shadow like one I saw in a Frank Miller drawing 20 years ago, or because I drew that building based on a layout I saw on a postcard in Brooklyn back in 1980 or even because I have used a similar panel layout on a page I did personally 10 years ago that my art has been done before is to shortchange the drawing I just made.
Every time I put pencil to paper these days, it is with a blank page in my head. On that blank page, my mind literally throws image after image onto the paper like a deck of cards until I see one I like. When I get that image in mind, I hold it onto my mind’s paper and begin drawing it on the real paper. This process can last anywhere from 2 seconds to days, and I have learned by now never to rush it. It is from this storehouse of every piece of art I have seen over my life, every shadow, every person walking down Main Street in Deep Ellum on a Friday night, every image I have seen in movies and television that I draw these images I fly through on my mind’s canvas. I mold these images to fit what I need, like morphing them ala Terminator 2. If I get half a pose from this one and the rest from that, and the shading from another, the three merge and shift until I get the one I am happy with. Sometimes I have to sketch these out to lock them in place and then resift them until it’s just right, but for the most part, they all come from that same mental canvas.
It is precisely this mental manipulation that I think makes all the difference between being unique and being derivative. The amount of artists these days that exist solely because they can copy another artist’s style never ceases to amaze me. I remember back in the day when Todd McFarlane left Spiderman and Marvel brought in artist after artist that drew like him that this notion cemented itself in my head. I would never be that type of artist. I would never copy another. My art would come completely from my own mind. But it doesn’t really, does it? If, as I just wrote, I pull from an enormous mental library of art, video and real life…I’m really just copying, aren’t I? This is the part of the method that I try to explain in my answer to the question “Who taught you how to draw?”
No one did. Everyone did.
We all have this mental image Rolodex in us. This is what enables us to navigate rooms, recognize faces and generally interact in a visual world. The fact that some use this to create something out of an amalgam of all they have seen, while others simply redraw another artist’s work is immaterial. We’re both getting our inspiration from an external source. Where my method differs is in its approach.
When I was in Jr High, my art teachers recognized my ability before I even realized I had it. I just knew from an early age that I could draw well, and never really concerned myself with the fact that others couldn’t. I never realized that made me different.
In High School, my art teachers tried to get me to conform to a copying mentality. Their opinion was that If I could draw the garbage can just like the artist in the School Book did, that made me good. I rejected this. I refused to comply with this idea and my High School art career was cut short. This was not a bad thing though. I disappeared into the library where I discovered other artists like Michelangelo and Picasso. My school didn’t have a lot in the way of art books but I absorbed every page from them nonetheless. I saw in Michelangelo’s painting the subtleties between the color of a fabric in bright light vs. the same fabric nestled under an arm’s cast shadow. Till then I used a single color for a garment. This taught me that there were different ways to signify shade. This was a very valuable lesson for me. Looking at Picasso was more of a challenge for me however. His early work was recognizable. That was a clown, while that was a man. His cubist growth, though well documented in print, was confusing to me. I remember asking myself “Why did he switch gears like that? He was good?” I was unable to answer this question right away but eventually I learned that this was growth. Just as I am not drawing the same things I did at Age ten as I am now, Pablo simply began seeing a better way to do things. Armed with this understanding I began seeing differences in everything I looked at that I never saw before. I began to see growth. This was the most important lesson I learned in High School.
In College, I was an arrogant ass. At least for one semester, I was. I was set in my way, in that I was a comic book artist, and nothing would deter me from learning everything about that skill as humanly possible. Again, my first assault came by way of the school library. Immensely more diverse than the one I was used to, I became exposed to Thomas Nast, Alex Raymond, Burne Hogarth and the like. These artists became my surrogate teachers. It was this point where I began mimicking what I saw; trying hard to do it JUST like Alex did in that third panel of Flash Gordon. I took this mentality to my Art class and while I did passable work, there was just something missing. It was here that I received the absolute best teaching that I have ever gotten, when my professor, Larry Felty asked me quite simply, “Do you have to outline everything?” This was near the end of that first semester, and he had said hardly a word to me the entire class till that point, but this question shook me to my core. In those six words put a mirror to my face and I began to see that I was becoming a mimic. I was trying to draw like someone rather than become a good artist. There IS a distinction between these two, and I will attempt to explain it.
I spent the next semester in college working this out for myself and finally got a grasp on it. I was trying to draw LIKE someone rather than to learn what they knew. I came across a book with a quote “Do not seek to duplicate the efforts of Great People. Rather seek to learn what motivated them to MAKE their decisions.”
In other words, don’t draw like Frank Miller. Learn why Frank drew like he did.
This was a watershed moment for me as an artist. I began to look at chiaroscuro art from the 13th century, and in Japanese woodcuts. I actively studied Rembrandt, who till then I had dismissed entirely. I went over every Leonardo sketch I could get my hands on, and upon learning he did drawings from life, including dissected animals, signed up for a biology class for the SOLE purpose of drawing the dissected animal I would have to produce. I taught myself anatomy from Grey’s Anatomy (Not the television show, Dammit) and studied architecture from Frank Lloyd Wright and then Louis Sullivan, HIS teacher. It was THIS stage when my mental Rolodex began to fly images past me. Prior to this discovery, I would cement an image and doggedly stick to it, come Hell or High Water. I began to see the world in line, shape and shade.
I began keeping a sketchbook and drawing from life whenever I could. I drew the students in the halls, in class and on the bus. I went downtown and sat on the roof of the Starlight Diner in Deep Ellum and drew every building in the Dallas skyline until I could do it from memory. But I had completely chucked my earlier drawing method, and this new one was not as smooth a transition as I make it out to be.
One of the greatest art books I have ever read is Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. One of the tenants of this work is that it is in our nature to draw in ‘code’. When we learn how to draw a nose, we will perfect that drawing and use it as a representative for every nose we ever draw. This is a shortcut, and it was one of the habits I had to break. Granted I still kept that perfected nose in my mind, along with all the noses every other artist ever drew (Good or bad) I also kept a wireframe image in my head of the structure of the nose. The line, the shape, the shade. This way I would be able to manipulate it any way I saw fit until it was the right one to use. This was the method I had to teach myself to use for everything, and it is still the one I use to this day. I never was one for drawing from models. All those figures you see in my comics come from my understanding of the line, shape and shade of the human body. I still use reference photos for things like buildings, cars and guns, but every time I draw one of these, I keep that wireframe image in my head alongside that picture.
I have always thought in pictures so this was pretty easy for me to do. It is this reason that keeps me maintaining to this day that I do not have a ‘style’ in which I draw. You look at comics today and, for the most part, it is pretty easy to tell the artist on any book assuming you have seen their work before by their style. Romita has a very unique style. Miller does too. Simonson also. These artists are masters of their craft, but I do not want to fall into that trap of trying to duplicate them.
Musashi, the great Japanese Samurai wrote that ‘No-Style’ is the best style to have. Limit yourself in one way, and you limit yourself in all ways. Therefore, remove the style, and you remove the limits. (he also said “Distinguish between Gain and Loss in worldly matters.” And “Become acquainted in all arts.” But that’s for another day.”) This means to the learning artist, Draw that line, but never copy it. Know what the line MEANS. Learn what the line IS. These are pretty esoteric terms for a young artist to absorb, but this is the most important lesson of them all.
When an artist learns THIS one single lesson, he or she will understand exactly what I mean when I answer “No one did. Everyone did.”
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