Drawing Less Wrong: Technical Skill

by Raemon8 min read5th Dec 201136 comments


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The ability to observe is probably at least 2/3rds of what separates non-artists from amateur artists. But those 2/3rds are near-useless without the ability to move your pencil the way your eyes want to it to go. And once you've transitioned into an amateur artist, around 9,000 hours of honing your technical skill is what separates you from a professional.

"Technical Skill" is a broad term - kind of a catch all for all term for various motor skills you'll need to develop, background knowledge about how particular types of lines and shapes are perceived by most humans, and how to combine those skills and knowledge to produce particular effects with your drawing.

I can't even begin to cover all of it, and most of it isn't really appropriate for Less Wrong. But I will talk about some key motor skills that tie in with the next article, and a significant bias that plays a role in them.

This article was challenging to write - distilling a kinesthetic process into written words is difficult. This article will not be a substitute for having a teacher and a model, nor will it tell you exactly what exercises to do. But it will try to lay down some concepts that I'll further expound on later.

Holding the Pencil

For many of you this may seem basic, but at least one reader commented that they went for years without understanding this, and because it seemed basic, nobody ever noticed it and corrected them.

Holding a pencil should look approximately like this:

But its a bit more complicated that that. Many skilled artists hold the pencil in different ways. The biggest things to keep in mind are:

  1. Don't grip the pencil too tightly. You'll hurt yourself, and it won't help.
  2. If you hold the pencil closer to the tip, you will have more control over it, which is useful for fine details.
  3. If you hold the pencil towards the back of the pencil, you'll have greater range of motion, and allows you to quickly draw larger lines in a single stroke. It also will be looser, which can feel hard to control but can also produce certain line qualities you may want.

(I personally tend to hold my pencil similar to the image above, but closer to the middle of the pencil)

A few examples of a pencil grip in motion:

This man's grip is similar to mine, although the technique he describes isn't something I think you should be worrying about just yet. (I'll be talking about Darrel Tank's website later on - I think he has good tutorials on technical skills, but does not prioritize them based on their low-hanging-fruit-ness.)

This cartoonist switches grips a few times, demonstrating how they can be useful at different stages of drawing. This video is particularly interesting because his "loose" grip is actually closer to the front, which I haven't seen often.

Slow Drawing and the Sunk Cost Fallacy

I've spoken a few times about "slow, small, precise lines," and implied that they are a terrible idea. They often are. You'll be drawing slowly during some initial exercises that develop observational skills. But as soon as possible, you'll want to start developing a form of hand-eye coordination that involves moving quickly using long lines. Until you achieve that, the small, meticulous lines will probably have a choppy quality, and certain compositions will be harder to capture.

Much of the "energy" of your drawing1, and the quality of the composition, will be established within the first one to two minutes. This isn't a hard and fast rule, but holds true most of the time. Yes, you can erase, and rework things. With pure observation, infinite time and brute-force-reworking, you can craft a drawing that perfectly captures reality. But every time you erase and fix a drawing, two things happen:

One is that the paper smudges, tears slightly and otherwise degrades. This might be okay if you're working on a computer tablet, but so long as you're practicing with a real pencil, it's an issue. After erasing 5-10 times, your drawing will have noticeably degraded. It's not game over, but you'll have to work harder to overcome it.2

The other, more important concern, is that the more you've drawn, the more you're attached to the existing sections of the drawing. Say you've drawn an arm bent awkwardly. You can erase it and fix it. But the arm doesn't exist in isolation. It connects to the shoulder, which connects to the torso and neck. Fix the arm, and you have fix the all those other things.

You probably won't want to fix them all, because it will feel too sad for you to have to erase large sections of your drawing. And even if you DO fix them all, the result won't be a fluid, graceful image that captures the motion and interconnected muscles of your subject - it'll be a hodge podge of Frankensteinian bodyparts, awkwardly sewn together.

(There's also anchoring involved: once a line exists, you'll have trouble evaluating new lines on their own merits, instead of how they compare to the existing ones.)

Several times over the past year, I've worked on a drawing of a person for 5-10 minutes. By the 1 minute mark, I know something's off about the drawing. By the 2 minute mark, I've started erasing and reworking things. I have a nagging sense that I've done this before, and that the next 8 minutes will involve lots of erasing, and a drawing that still isn't very good.

10 minutes, and lots of erasings later, I have a disappointing drawing.

The nagging sensation that this isn't going to work well... that's what the sunk cost fallacy feels like. You've put in a few minutes of work (sometimes much longer - you can go down this path for hours). Starting over would feel like defeat, like your previous work was a waste.

The correct action is to start over anyway. It's true when you've only been working for a minute and have just noticed the feeling. It's still true 10 minutes later. It's still true if you've spent 4 hours painstakingly erasing and doublechecking against reality, adding lots of nuanced shading. It's an oddly near-universal truism, not just in drawing but in many projects, that the thing you just spent 4 hours working on, which would take another 4 hours to finish, could be done in 10-30 minutes if you started over.3

There are reasons to spend 4 hours on a drawing. Those reasons will not be relevant to you in the near future. All the most important elements of a drawing should take you no more than a few minutes. After that, you're getting distracted by details, which might make the drawing more interesting, but won't actually fix the existing problems with it.

Most importantly, it won't help you learn to avoid those problems in the first place.

Fast, Confident Lines

So, you need to capture the most important elements of a drawing, quickly:

  • You need to capture how different body parts connect together, as a seamless whole.
  • You need to establish a good composition, so that the details you work in later aren't just reinforcing a bad design.
  • I haven't elaborated on it yet, but you're going to want an energetic, interesting drawing, which is simply hard to compose without working quickly.

To do all this, you need to develop a particular kind of hand-eye coordination, which is probably different than what you're used to. You need to be able to draw large sections of the body, using a single line. That line can change direction. But it needs to be done in one fluid motion.

This artist demonstrates what I mean by "confident lines." She blocks out large chunks of body with long curves, without second guessing. She doesn't bother drawing the arms or feet, but she does end those lines AFTER they've curved in a new direction, so if/when she continues them she's set herself to continue them gracefully.

No Erasing

You need to work quickly, and fluidly. Stopping to erase will interrupt your flow. So you need to learn to draw without erasing. There are two ways of doing that:

1) Don't make mistakes ever.

This actually is not as unreasonable as it sounds. In the first 30 seconds, identify the most important lines of the drawing, and draw them. It's what the artist in the previous video did. Obviously, this is... essentially impossible for a beginner. You're going to make mistakes. But what you CAN do is draw boldly, confidently, let the mistakes happen, and then rather than trying to fix them, move on to the next drawing after 30 seconds. Over time you'll get better.

I haven't watched new students try to learn with JUST this philosophy, and I have no idea how long it'd take to develop from scratch. But if you DO have some previous drawing experience, I think this may be a good approach, at least to try out. If your goal is to produce something like the woman in the video, drawing 5 drawings in 30 seconds with simple, bold lines will probably produce at least one drawing that's better than the one you'd do in two and a half minutes.

2) Be okay with your drawing being messy.

This is what I actually recommend for beginners.

A big hurdle young artists have, when they're transitioning onto the path of a "professional", is they feel that "messy is bad." They're drawing like this:

[2017 Note: this used to be a link to a perfectly bad high school Dragonball Z fan-art, which was really useful for highlighting the sort of error modes I was pointing at, but a) it was sort of mean to use it, b) in 2017 the link is apparently dead, c) I was unable to find another example that illustrated the exact qualities I want to point to]

[Followup: Someone volunteered this old high school art, which doesn't quite hit on the same set of issues but works well enough to illustrate the basic concept]

When they should be drawing like this:

They're looking at the former, and seeing it as a fairly clean drawing that just needs to be fixed a little.

A college professor looks at Example A, cringes, and thinks "man this person is going to need to systematically broken down over the course of two semesters until they're ready to begin learning, and it's going to be painful for the both of us." They look at Example B and think "This person knows exactly what to do already, they just need to do it for another 10,000 hours."

The problem with Example A is that the artist is copying superficial elements of a particular style, without understanding the underlying principles that make good a good figure drawing. Example B has lots of overlapping lines, and vague messy shapes. But the figures there communicate a good understanding of anatomy, a grasp of weight, decent composition.

As an aspiring artist, don't ask if your drawing is better than A. Ask if it's at least as good as Example B. If you want to draw truly good Manga art, you must first learn things OTHER than the superficial characteristics of Manga. And while it may look like a mess at first, as you learn to draw that way, you'll understand that there's actually a lot of information there that Example A has missed.

(No offense to those of you out there currently drawing Example A. I've been there. It's a rite of passage. In particular, no offense to the blog I took Example A from. The blogger identifies it as one of their old, middle school works and gives other examples that show a lot of improvement. I tried to draw my own version of Example A, but it's actually really hard for me to draw that particular way now, and I can't find any older examples).

Begin Light, Emphasize with Darks

One important part of technical skill is being able to draw lines in the location you want them. Another important part is being able to adjust the lightness or darkness of those lines (as well as thick and thin-ness)

Your drawings are going to be messy. But you want a particular kind of mess. If you look at the right-most figure in Example B, you'll see that all the lines are the same thickness. This is okay - the artist has enough skill that they're all approximately correct, and the ones that are off have been repurposed - instead of being pure mess, they end up representing the volume of the figure.

The cluster of scribbles in the face suggest its roundness, and having a bunch of them devalues the importance of each individual line, so that even if none of them end *perfect*, your brain doesn't really care - it sees that they're all sort of fuzzy and accepts the average position in a sort of "Wisdom of Crowds" way.

It's okay that all the lines are the same thickness, because none of them are *completely* off. There's no giant leg that accidentally stuck out way too far and ruined the image. If it had, it'd be really hard to repair the drawing. Especially since you're trying to work quickly, without erasing.

You're going to be making significant mistakes, and you won't want to start over every single time.

The solution is to do your early work lightly, and then, once you've identified the parts you like, use dark lines to emphasize those areas. This tutorial demonstrates how to draw like this. Notice that within 30 seconds, he's established a framework, without worrying about making any "clean" shapes. Over the course of 2 minutes, he builds on that framework, filling in the mass of his subject matter, and eventually adding much darker lines to emphasize the final shape.

To do this, you need to be able to adjust the "value" of your lines (how light or dark they are). This takes some practice. A good exercise is to create a sequence of value-swatches like this:

Begin with the swatches on the far sides - make the darkest dark and lightest light you can possibly do. Then try and fill in the rest, gradually darkening.

Begin your drawing with something close to the second-lightest swatch. For now, try not to get much darker - it's easy to accidentally get too dark too quickly, and then are your lines are uniformly black and you can't emphasize the parts you want.

So... Recap:

These are only some of the skills you'll need to acquire, but they're the most important in the immediate future. So in summary:

  • Hold the pencil with three fingers, not too tightly.
  • Don't be afraid to start over.
  • Work quickly, without stopping to erase.
  • Draw strong, confident lines.
  • Be okay with your drawing being messy - let extra lines help define the form.
  • Start with light lines, make your mistakes, then emphasize the good parts with dark lines.

[0] There's something akin to anchoring bias here as well - once part of the drawing exists, even if you're trying to completely ignore it, it'll be warping your perception of what's actually going on.

[1] I promise I'll explain what I mean by "energy" soon.

[2] Each drawing tool has separate rules that need mastering. This includes pencils, charcoal, fountain pens... and computer tablets. I'll be specifically talking about the pencil here. Information here WILL still generalize to tablets, but I'll warn you that you'll experience some awkwardness transitioning to or from them.

[3] Why starting over saves time is a complex question. Part of it has to do with you already having studied the problem. Part of it is that a fresh canvas frees you from bias towards your old solutions. Part of it is that your existing work is suboptimal, and you'd need to spend extra time fixing it.

[Final 2017 note: We are now at the abrupt ending I warned you about. Sorry!]

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