What I'd like to talk about is a trick that has helped me to become better at 2D art. I'm sure many of you have heard that it's always better to draw from real life and from a model, and that tracing doesn't help you learn, but I don't know if anyone's ever explained why. I don't think anyone has ever told me. So I'm going to discuss how to make the best of different reference resources in order to get more out of drawing practice by thinking of your figure(s) in three dimensions.
When we make a drawing, painting, or any kind of 2D artwork, we're breaking down a 3D image onto a 2D plane. Even cartoons are representing a 3D object; it's just been taken further from a realistic painting to its barest structure.
This is an important thing to keep in mind while practicing drawing because it becomes a habit, especially for those people who like to draw cartoons, to think only 2D exclusively. This is the easier, lazier way, but not the best way.
Tracing and drawing from cartoon images will help a person learn to draw that specific 2D form, but will not help someone learn the 3D form that drawing is based on. So when we take that picture of Simba we traced and try to draw it at even a slightly different angle, we've no idea how to do that.
People say that drawing from life is the best thing you can do. That's absolutely true. It's true not only because the nuances are there, the specific colors and details, but most importantly because it's already in 3D. Our brains and eyes are constructed to think about that 3D form, even as we're drawing on a 2D surface. So as we go over the contours and shapes of the body, we're actually committing to memory that 3D shape, and we are becoming acquainted with and memorizing the figure (whatever that may be) as a real thing, rather than a particular pose or flat shape on the paper.
But, as we are all very aware, we aren't able to get our hands on naked people whenever we like. It's even harder to get live animal figures. The best we can do is go to the zoo and hope the animals are out, close, and holding poses for us (not likely!), or go to a natural history museum (and that's helpful only if the taxidermy is very very good).
So then our next best option (after anatomy books, which are only as good as the artist making them) is pictures. Here's the big problem. They're in 2D. A 2D image of a 3D object, but still. Our stereoscopic vision can't help us here. That runs us into trouble. And that's where my advice comes in--to actively translate that photograph or video into 3D in your head before translating it back to 2D on your page.
How to translate 3D from a 2D source:
Anatomy books (and artist renders)-- Provided the artist is a good, accurate one, these are the best sources of 2D study. Why? Because the artist is (usually) purposefully pushing the 3D form in their drawing/painting. They use their pencil or brush strokes to actually map out the shape of the form. Most anatomy books go through the trouble to describe individual muscles and bones, too. The next time you open an anatomy or art history book, compare the way in which the artists sculpt their work.
[link] at the way Leonardo Da Vinci handles his his pen strokes to show you the exact shape of the baby's limbs, trunk, and skull. He's worked hard to describe the baby as a 3D form. Imagine how much the image will have changed if the only marks were the contour of the body.
[link] In this self portrait by Rembrandt, see the way he describes the shape of the lips and his jaw with the pen marks.
A lot of old etchings are excellent examples. And what else? The dollar! (provided you live in America) Get out a good old dollar bill and check out the freakin' amazing way old George's face has been sculpted with the lines. It's almost like a grid with the crosshatching.
*If you're doing practice drawing, employing these same techniques is very useful in seeing and thinking in 3D. Try to map out the shapes with a grid, and push the contour lines inside the form to describe the way it recedes into space. There is a very good reason these hard-core artists did their sketches this way.
Video-- The next best thing you can use is video. Even if the video is a little blurry, you can still observe the shape moving, and by watching that movement, you can get a clearer idea of the 3D shape than in a purely 2D still image. One of my favorite exercises for figures and especially expressions is to pop in a movie an freeze frame for quick drawing.
To really drill the form of the still frame, watch that little bit of video again and again, and really observe the figure in action. Then pause, and while you're working on your drawing, think about the 3D shape you constructed out of those moving images. Videos are also fantastic for expressions. People in videos make some very intriguing faces that you can capture more easily by freeze framing than by snapping photos. They are also great for extreme poses. Videos of the Olympics, action films, kung fu movies. One of my personal favs is Shaolin Soccer. And of course, all those PBS, Animal Planet, and National Geographic videos are great for animal figures. And ideas for backgrounds and scenes, too, while you're at it.
Photographs: These are the trickiest of the bunch, especially blurry, small, poorly lit photographs. If you are going to use photos to learn figurative form, try to find figures which have been well lit in a way that visually addresses the 3D form.
Compare the following photos:
[link] is a really fun pose, but in terms of building a 3D shape, you'd already have to have drilled the human figure and know it pretty much by heart to flesh it out. The folds in the clothing do a good job of describing the shape of the leg, but see how flat the forearms look. It could be a great stock image for a lot of projects but isn't so useful for learning a figurative form.
[link] and [link] look at these two. The lighting more accurately describes the 3D form. A person would learn more having rendered these two photographs than the above one, just by virtue of the difference in lighting.
The most important part with any of these references is actually taking in and drilling the 3D shape in your brain while you're drawing. Shade in a way that describes the form as 3D. Try mapping out the figure's surface with a grid, just to notice and take in those little nuances on the surface. Look at the way the masters did their pen work and etchings for examples of how to render a 2D form in 3D
Drawing like this is literally mentally exhausting. But that's a good sign. It means you're making your brain work. Not only does this allow you to become beefed up in terms of your artistic library, but it's actually good for your brain, too. Your brain, like your body, benefits from use. Making your brain visually problem solve through grueling art drills will also make you better at creative problem solving and helps stave off mental diseases like Alzheimer's*
*this reported to me by my brother, who has been doing research in how brains work, brain training, etc.
So next time you want to practice your human or animal figures and don't have a real 3D human or animal handy, try to think about your 2D reference as that 3D object while you work. Not only will you learn better and faster, your finished drawings will begin to look more accurate and realistic.
Here are some more tips and tricks offered by my lovely watchers who too the time to pass on some information in my journal:
Working in sculpture and modeling is an amazing way to bone up on that 3D form and improve your drawing skills. As with drawing, accurate and detailed reference is a must to best increase your visual library.
Take your sketchbook to a public place where people are going to be, like a coffee shop, beach, track meet, etc. to get some good figurative life drawing in. Great for gestural work!
Using your own photographs are even better than using someone else's because you have stored away the memory of that 3D scene in your head.
A fun exercise to challenge your brain is to take your figure and turn it in space in your mind to draw it from a different angle. This will really make you have to think hard about the dimensions in space.
Establishing your perspective early and correctly will help place the figure and get you thinking about figure/ground interaction.
I hope this has been a useful read. Now get out there and make some art!