People have a hard time with hands when they start drawing, because hands are very complex. There are a lot of techniques and instruction on how to draw hands – here’s mine– but actually just doing it is the biggest part of learning.
These paintings are from my first year at MCAD, winter 1990, I think.
From early 1990, found in a sketchbook.
1990, a class assignment – probably to draw hands using volume created by light and dark.
1990. Always gotta draw all kinds of hand positions, not just flat.
1990. A strong light source helps to understand the structures.
I was searching for the image above for this post, knowing I had scanned and edited it, knowing it had “fist” in the filename, and let me tell you, well, most of the drawings with “fist” in the filename in my archives are quite different. My comic teachers often said the superhero fist resembles a Dixie cup from many angles. A reference which probably dates me!
I tell you this: if you are struggling with drawing hands, read all the books, watch all the Youtube videos, but most of all, draw your hands. It’s free, and they’re there.
And feet. Gotta draw feet nearly as much as hands.
These are from the late 80s I think, and they’re definitely my chunky little feet. I’m sure more will turn up as I archive. While feet have less moving parts than hands, they are still complexly structured. Because they receive so much impact, they change shape dramatically as a person moves. So you need to understand the bones and the tissue volumes underneath.
In 2016 I made some studies of the basic volumes and shapes that make up the feet for my drawing students.
None of these drawings had ever been photographed; until now, no record of them existed – if we had a fire or flood they would just be gone forever.
I am so grateful to my Patreon Patrons, whose monthly financial support makes it possible for me to take time to document my art archives.
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.