Suzanne Forbes, an expat New Yorker in Berlin. Made possible by the generous support of her Patrons. https://www.patreon.com/SuzanneForbes. Former DC Penciller for Star Trek, former courtroom artist, painting portraits and teaching drawing.
You know they do. If human hands were like kitty hands, they’d be easy to draw.
But instead, human hands have a renegade element, a fly in the ointment, a crazy uncle who makes everything complicated. You know why thumbs ruin everything?
Because they operate on an entirely different plane of existence than fingers.
Or at least, they move through a different spatial plane, at a right angle to your fingers.
Let’s look at the basic structure of the hand, then examine this whole spatial plane problem. First, of all, hands (like feet) are wedges. They are not flat.
Why are hands wedges? Partly because the heel of your hand is a thick, muscular body part, with significant bone mass. And partly, because of thumbs.
Your thumb lives downstairs from your hand and fingers, maybe in the janitor’s apartment.
And it’s not just living in a different apartment. Because of opposability, the thumb is anatomically different from the fingers in important ways.
(As you can see in this helpful public domain image I got from wikipedia, verified by my own personal knowledge, thanks to Minerva Durham my incredible anatomy teacher at Parsons!)
The thumb is missing one phalange, the intermediate phalange.
It might be more helpful, however, to think of the thumb as attaching to your hand in a different place than the fingers.
Your thumb and fingers have the same amount of knuckles, three, but the third knuckle of your thumb attaches to the base or heel of your hand instead of at the top of the palm!
It’s like we’re creepy mutants or something.
Your fingers splay out from the top of your palm in a group; your thumb projects from the bottom, on a much larger axis of rotation.
Your thumb rotates from the crazy midden heap of your carpal bones, where things are much more dynamic than at the top of your palm.
So your fingers travel in a pack, while your thumb has its own adventures. A good way to understand this is to draw broad arrows on your fingernails, as shown in the drawings, and observe the difference in the way your thumb points for a few days.
A great way to understand the limited rotational arc of the fingers is to visualise a pack of french fries.
Seeing the hand as a wedge is also important for understanding how the hand attaches to the wrist.
Basically you have a wedge of meat and bone, your hand, pivoting on the junk pile of carpal bones, which are cupped into the ends of your radius and ulna. Your hand doesn’t join your wrist- it pivots on a ball of bones which attaches to your wrist. BJD dolls provide a fabulous reference for this. If you want to draw some awesome wrists, get yourself a BJD doll arm and practise drawing it from every possible angle.
Of course, the best way to draw great hands is to draw bad hands for as long as it takes.
At Parsons I was notorious for choosing the cruelest, harshest, most obsessive teachers and doing whatever awful things they demanded with glee. One of my favorite teachers insisted we spend two entire weeks drawing nothing but hands, and then two weeks doing nothing but feet. I was thrilled, and everyone else was miserable.
I drew hands at home at night, on the subway; I studied my hands obsessively and read my books on how to draw hands for hours.
I wanted the confidence and power of being able to draw hands as accurately as I drew figures, so that I would never be limited in the poses I could draw.
It was really, really hard, and it was worth it. I can’t recommend it enough, taking the time to learn to draw hands really well.
And once you can draw hands, feet are no big deal!
I am most delighted. Here you can also preview the drowningly deep teal, the color of Homer’s wine-dark sea, that I have painted the atelier. The room is so big it echoes.
To the left of the jeweled mantis is another mantis, an experiment that failed. The thing I love most about the jeweled mantis is that you can see the scribbly wire armature through the gauzy layers of organza, paper and thread. So…
I have a long-standing obsession with translucent/transparent resins and plastics and I thought maybe I could do something similar with Translucent Fimo.
I made another armature of green florist’s wire and covered it with translucent FImo, as in actually the brand Fimo. In Germany you can get one or two brands or something, not fifty, and of course Fimo is a German company.
In the US I had used translucent Sculpey, which I’d had good results from. (This pin on my Sculpting Tips board explains all the different translucent clays amazingly.) I put the mantis in the toaster oven, since we haven’t had money to get our oven hooked up yet.
Probably it was ill-advised to put painted wire in the toaster oven, but I put liquid LSD in my eyeballs when I was fourteen, so I’m a little cavalier about toxins.
Sadly, the Fimo developed “plaques”, just as predicted on the wonderful Blue Bottle Tree. I went to the art store (two minutes’ walk to the U, a two-minute one-stop ride, there’s an entrance to Ideein the U-Bahn station) and bought some translucent green Fimo, and put a coat over the white.
Upon rebaking, it was clear I wasn’t going to get the result I wanted. Which is ok! Because I have another project that requires a posable mantis with a wire armature, a gold mantis, so I’ll just paint that little lady once I finish the sculpt.
Meanwhile, this shot in our kitchen kinda shows the jeweled mantis’ terrifying eyes, which have a luminous focal point that moves with your gaze.
This is because of a subsurface specularity in the beads I used. I learned about subsurface specularity and scattering when I worked in digital effects, and it’s remained an important concept to me when talking about painting human skin. It’s sort of related to my translucency obsession with materials.
In the last picture you can see Viviane is so over this mantis shit and has tipped out to Berghain to dance to techno.
This month I have been powering through ridiculously time-consuming embroidery projects, clocking eight-hour chunks over and over.
(When Netflix asks if I’m still watching for the third time, I’m allowed to hit yes but have to stop the next time! I love embroidering so much it’s easy for me to overextend and I had tendonitis last year. )
Also I finally got a Swarovski crystal application tool that runs on EU current. It is vicious- it heats up so fast.
My friend Mike, who took this nice picture of me working like a fiend, pointed out that the current here is a BEAST. And of course I have already burned myself with it. I don’t mind, though.
It’s like burning yourself with the glue gun- it helps you know you’re alive!
I decided to try scanning the pieces besides using my pathetic photography “skills” and D’s iPad. The color reads a little cool but I think you can see the details much better. As I’m increasingly doing re-embroidering, going back over every stitch many times with layers of color and metallics, it’s nice to be able to see all the work.
Also I realized it’s time I start signing these on the front, and I’m really happy with how the deco monogram came out!
I adore life drawing with ballpoint, because there’s nothing to hide behind.
Either you have the skills to depict the space in front of you, or you don’t, and every hesitation mark and mistake is there forever. I’ve made a few ballpointdrawings over the years that I really love. And of course over the years I’ve made a lot of drawings of men sleeping, particularly my third husband.
A sleeping person is an amazing subject for life drawing, because they’re far more still than anyone awake will ever be.
My husband is a particularly good sleeper, and his clean features and sharp Black Irish coloring make him a easy subject from any angle. So I’ve been doing an exercise where I take my glasses off and actually lie down beside him and make the drawing with my head on the pillow next to him, sideways. The drawings look off while I’m doing them, on the sideways sketchbook, but once I rotate the sketchbook to its proper orientation, they correct. It’s totally weird and interesting!
I did this drawing of loved ones at the Piano Center in Berlin, in about 20 minutes.
Even for me, that’s extraordinarily fast, and it’s a terrific drawing. The wonder and joy of all the handwork I’ve been doing in these last few years of not painting or drawing very much is that it’s made me a better artist. It is my job in this life to become a better artist, of course, but I have paid terrible dues approaching that goal directly.
Making art was always an arena of terrifying risk, the place where my entire identity was on the line with every stroke. Failure meant total failure, to myself and my goals. I’m enormously grateful that now I am engaging with my craft in a way that’s more nourishing and less savagely self-critical. I still put the pencil to the paper with a sense that my value is at stake, that it is work in the sense of breaking rocks, but at least I have a parallel arena of play.
I have no false modesty about my draughtsmanship- there are only a couple thousand people left in the world who can draw like I can.
As storyboard artists continue to be replaced by animatics software and pre-vis studios, as hand animators continue to be replaced by 3d animation, as book cover artists are replaced by graphic designers, as comic artists continue to focus on style over technical skills, as the remaining fashion illustrators and courtroom artists, almost entirely replaced by cameras, die off, the number of deeply trained great draughtsmen who can perform reliably under any conditions will continue to diminish.
Drawing isn’t like beer and bread; it won’t be saved by a new wave of artisan DIY makers who decide to preserve the old ways.
You can learn to make great bread in a year-long apprenticeship; it takes a year to learn technical perspective alone. A year to learn anatomy, a year to learn foreshortening. Ten thousand hours, or as Chuck Jones said,
“Every artist has thousands of bad drawings in them and the only way to get rid of them is to draw them out.”
I grieve for my craft, of course. I ache for the days when you could go to San Diego ( we didn’t call it “Comic Con” then- in 1986 comic artists said “Are you going to San Diego?” to each other) and Howard Chaykin wouldn’t shake with his left hand because he had to “protect the instrument”. The days before Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane. When there were still journeyman illustrators in ad offices on Madison Avenue, and the Lord & Taylor’s ads in the Times were still drawn by fashion illustrators.
When I was a teenager it was still a completely reasonable, practical life choice to become a commercial illustrator.
I would never have committed over a decade of training to something frivolous, like “fine art”; I fully intended to be self-sufficient by my own means and a working artist. The only reason I know anything about “fine art” today is that when I went to treatment in 1989, the best halfway house was in St. Paul, Minnesota, and after I got out they said I’d relapse if I went back to New York. I’d seen enough of my peers relapse that way to believe them, so I stayed in the Twin Cities, where the only art college happened to be a conceptual PostModern Fine Art emo wonderland.
I’m not sorry my tradesmans’ view of making art was disrupted by conceptual art- it was a priceless experience.
Even though I wandered the halls of the school muttering, “Why can’t Johnny draw?” sometimes, and it was tremendously hurtful to have my skills disregarded. In the Parsons Illustration Program I’d been a hotshot, a teacher’s pet, the example held up in class, until my nodding and vomiting disabled me. At MCAD traditional drawing was already completely devalued, utterly passé, and a boy I foolishly loved once sneered at my senior thesis paintings, “Why don’t you just get a camera?”.
But I was lucky in my work, at first. An illustration teacher who admired my skills suggested I look into courtroom illustration, since Minnesota was then one of the three remaining states that didn’t allow cameras in the courtroom. There were four major tv stations in town, and four courtroom illustrators; by a morbid coincidence, one of the four artists died just a few weeks before I contacted the stations. By the end of my senior year I was working regularly for the CBS affiliate, making ridiculous money for the time. CNN bought my drawings and people who knew me saw my name around the world. I worked with journalists and loved knowing them; they are a special breed. I told people what I did and they said, “Oh! How interesting!” and I could say, “Yes. It really, really is. ”
If I hadn’t had my heart set on drawing comics, I might have been ok.
But all I had wanted from 1983 on was to draw superhero comics. The story of how I broke in, after years of struggle; how I drew one of the first DC comic issues ever to be pencilled, inked and edited by only women, how I was then (and perhaps still) one of less than a dozen women ever to be a fulltime penciller on a monthly book by the Big Two, how the industry collapsed around me in ’95 and I left comics- that’s a story for another time. The point is, I wasn’t crazy. I didn’t build my skills out of a selfish desire to do something I loved and enjoyed- I built them to do work I was good at and expected to be well paid for, even though doing it had an enormous emotional cost. And then those skills became obsolete in my lifetime.
So it goes. Now there is just the puzzle of the next fifty years.
Andy Warhol painted by Alice Neel when she was 70.
Because portraitists do their best work late in life- as anyone who has ever been in a gallery of Millais’ assured later-life portraits or seen the incredible Hockney portrait show at LACMA knows.
I have no idea if I can build a portraiture practise here in Berlin that will support me financially; I only know I stand a better chance here than I did in Oakland, and that at least if I can’t, I’ll still have medical care and housing.
I am a repository of everyone who taught me, everything I studied, all the work I put in to be the craftsman I am, and I just can’t let it go to waste.