Archive for April, 2010

Learn to Draw by Playing the Angle-Abstraction Game: Lesson 2

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

If you haven’t yet seen the first half of this life drawing lesson, you can get to it here.

Briefly, my Angle-Abstraction Game drawing process begins with a simple shape, in this case an oval. Emerging from the oval, you draw lines corresponding to various elements of the body.  With each added line, you build exponentially more reference points from which to base your next lines and angles.

Astonishingly, from this mess of geometry, a human form will appear.  The magic moment when it suddenly does is the reward for forging through any difficulties that precede it.


My 2-minute sketch of Don Duga


Beginning the second half of the life drawing lesson:

Next is the front of Don’s propped-up leg.  By now you have all kinds of reference lines to draw its angle and length accurately.  Which would you pick?

(To reiterate from Part 1, the sequence I’m following here is not preordained.  As you practice with other models, you should move through shapes and lines as you notice their relationships to what you’ve already drawn.  Try to cover the entire body very quickly using basic shapes.  Only after that should you go back to add as much detail as you have time for before your model shifts position.)


Don Duga sketch

2-minute sketch of Don Duga

The next line I drew may be the trickiest of the entire pose.  This is because our normal expectations about legs cloud our ability to see what’s actually in front of us.

If you rely only on your standard expectations about human bodies, you might assume that the inside line of each of Don’s legs would intersect the body at the crotch, the bottom center of the pelvis.  But in this case, the lower pant leg of Don’s baggy chinos is being pulled upward and way off center by the propped-up leg.

Drawing something this disoriented from our normal assumptions is very difficult.  The only way to achieve it is to abstract how you see it from all your expectations of what it should look like.

By now you know the angle-abstraction game routine:  Forget that you’re drawing a leg or pants.  Look only at the line formed by the top edge of Don’s lower pant leg.  Where does this line begin at the top?  Which line you’ve already drawn does it intersect, and where?  If you look carefully, you’ll realize that it intersects the top line of Don’s raised leg just about at the point where it meets his shirt front.

Once you’ve determined where this line begins at its top, ask yourself whether it descends tilting right or left of its starting point?  At what angle does it continue downward?


Don Duga 2 minute sketch

Don Duga 2 minute sketch

After I had sketched this line, I double checked its relationship to my already-drawn upper edge of Don’s other leg.  Note that the two are not quite parallel.  They slant slightly toward each other at the bottom.  If you don’t have this right, feel free to sketch in another more accurate line.

If all this reads like a jumble of geometry, it’s because right-brain processes are always very difficult to describe in words (left-brain).  I promise you that what may be tough to read here is a lot more fun in the doing. And the reward at the end is wonderful, when you suddenly realize you’ve created the image of a person from a maze of angles and lines.  So keep moving through this with that spirit in mind!

Let’s now outline the rest of Don’s upper pant leg.  Where does the bottom-of-the-pant-thigh line intersect with the line you just drew?  What angle does it form there? Where does it end?   I noticed that it ended at roughly the same level as the line just drawn for the other leg.


My 2-minute sketch of Don Duga

My 2-minute sketch of Don Duga

From this point on, completing the outline of Don’s propped up leg is easy because the back calf is almost parallel to the front calf line.

I then completed the bottom thigh line for the other leg, along with the lower arm on the left of the page.

I think you’ve probably grasped the angle-abstraction method well enough by now that it will be more fun for you to play the game on your own rather than reading more verbiage.  So I’ll let my images speak for themselves for the next couple of steps.



2-minute sketch of Don Duga

2-minute sketch of Don Duga

Next, I turned to the hand on the right side of the page.  Many people find hands very difficult.  But hands should be approached exactly the same way as any other part of the drawing.  The lines are short, but the process is exactly the same.

If it’s easier and/or quicker for you, you can abstract hands into their component shapes – triangles and parallelograms – rather than individual angles.  I do this all the time.


Now I drew in Don’s waist – or more accurately, the lines formed where the folds of his pants borders his shirt.  This is another series of those strange and complex lines that you can’t draw in any other way than by looking at the angles and forgetting all your standard expectations about what a waist should look like.


2-minute sketch of Don Duga

2-minute sketch of Don Duga

Last, I sketched in the opening of Don’s shirt along with its buttons.  You’re already used to seeing lines and angles.  For the buttons, look at them as pure ovals.  What is the shape and tilt of each oval?  Each is different from the others because each button is at a different place in the folds of Don’s shirt.  We’re seeing each button from a different perspective. So if you get each button-oval’s width and angle correctly, they will contribute a lot to conveying the shirt folds.  That in turn will begin to give your drawing the depth and detail that make it look 3-dimensional, even though you haven’t added any shading.


The hand on the left of the page is not my finest moment, so I haven’t described how I drew it.  It’s one of those details you leave for the end of your 2-minute sketch period, and time runs out.  This is a common occurrence in these quick sketches, one that only lots of practice helps you improve on.

You may be wondering about the detail in Don’s face and the folds of his clothing which is in my final sketch, but not discussed here.  This level of detail is the last phase of each life drawing.  I hope to get to talking about that soon.

Meanwhile, though, we’ve accomplished a solid, believable drawing of Don’s basic position!  Congratulations, and keep practicing!

Last but not at all least, I’d like to hear from users whether this lesson has been useful.  Are there parts that haven’t been clear?  Would more lessons like this be helpful, or does this one cover all the basics you need to know?  Are the visuals helpful as they’re done here, or can you think of another presentation that would make you feel the fun better?  Would more or less text work better for you?  Please let me know, preferably by clicking “Leave a Response” below to comment, or else by emailing me at abobroffhajal [at] gmail [dot] com.

Learn to Draw by Playing the Angle-Abstraction Game: Lesson 1

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

In this post, I’m going to begin to show you how I do quick life drawings.  If you’ve always wanted to learn to draw, or just to improve your drawing skills, playing this Angle-Abstraction Game will probably help you quite a bit.

To demonstrate my process, I’ll use one of my 2-minute life drawings of Don Duga, of the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

My 2-minute sketch of Don Duga

My 2-minute sketch of Don Duga

Don used to run a monthly life drawing session for members of East-Coast ASIFA (the international animation society).  One night the model didn’t show up, so Don posed for us himself.

Since I can’t post the actual Don here to enable you to see the 3-dimensional model I was drawing from, we’ll have to do this lesson from my sketch alone.

The goal of quick life drawings is to learn to sketch  people within a few minutes or seconds, which is all the time artists often get in real life.  You’re not going for detail here.  You’re learning to make fast sketches that convey a solid body with limbs, head, and torso positioned in ways that are viable in real life.  (There are also more detailed life drawings – an example of one of mine is toward the end of this post.)

My personal key to success in life drawing has been learning to abstract the way I see.  I view the pose as a series of angles and shapes, either positive (the person) or “negative” (the space around the person).  I’ve named this the “Angle-Abstraction Game.”

It may sound technical and inhuman to focus on angles and shapes when drawing a living person.  But abstracting the way you see is paradoxically the best way to capture the unique posture of each very special human being.

Let’s get started with the lesson.  You might follow along step by step below with your own drawing to get a better feel for what I’m describing.  Boiled down, this process begins with drawing a simple shape, in this case an oval.  You are then able to draw lines emerging from this shape which correspond to various elements of the body.  With each added line, you build exponentially more reference points from which to base your next lines and angles.

Astonishingly, from this mess of geometry, a human form will appear.  The magic moment when it suddenly does is the reward for forging through any difficulties that precede it!


Don Duga sketch detail

I often begin a life drawing with a rough egg-shape for the head.  For many poses, this is the easiest way to orient the rest of the piece.  (In the figures below, each line is color coded to match the text describing it.)

In the finished sketch of Don, you can see the lines of my egg faintly under the facial detail I added later.

The important thing with the egg is to set it at the correct angle.  Here’s your first moment of abstracting what you’re seeing.  Look at the head purely as an oval that’s tilted at some angle or other.  Forget hair, forget facial detail – forget even that this is a head.  Just play this game with yourself: Can you get that oval tilted properly?  What direction is it tilted?  Straight up and down?  Toward left or right?  Bent way over or only slightly bowed?

(Oh, and place the head on the paper roughly where it is in the pose, so you’ll have space on the page for the rest of the body.  In this case, Don’s head needed to be placed in the upper left of the page.)

Now quickly add a single line along the side of your oval, indicating the front plane of the profile.   Don’t worry yet about the nose or eyes or anything else that makes this a face.  Just look at the fundamental flat plane of the face and play the angle-abstraction game with yourself: what is the angle of the plane on the front your model’s oval? How closely can you replicate it on your paper?


Now add a line indicating the underside of the chin, using the same angle-abstraction game.  Last, really look closely and add a quick line for the neck.  Forget that it’s a neck.  Just ask yourself: Where along the bottom of your model’s oval does that line emerge?  What angle does it slant at, and how long is it?  Getting these angles down accurately on your paper will help you accomplish the entire rest of the drawing.

Don Duga sketch detail

Don Duga sketch detail

Continuing to move as rapidly as you can, look at the top edge of the model’s outstretched arm.  Forget that it’s an arm.  See it as a line that emerges from the face-plane line.  Play your game:  Where along the face-plane does it emerge?  What angle does it form?

In this particular pose of Don’s, this line emerges at the level of the chin and moves to the right, slanting gradually downward.

How long should this line extend?  As you practice drawing, you’ll get better at sensing how long lines should be.  Meanwhile, you can use the head oval as a rough measuring unit: the line is about twice as long as the width of the oval it’s emerging from.


When I drew the line, I put a bit of a bend in it (where shoulder meets arm).  But fundamentally I knew where I should draw it because in my mind’s eye, I was seeing it as a line emerging from the face at an angle which I could easily replicate on the page.

Don sketch detail

Don sketch detail

Now quickly move to the other shoulder.  Play the game with yourself:  Where does the line of that shoulder emerge from the other side of the head-egg?  At the same level as the first shoulder line?  Above it?  Below it?

And what angle does it form?  Does it slant up or down as it comes out of the egg?   Draw it.

Next, look at the outside line of the arm at the farthest left side of the pose.  What angle does that form with its shoulder line?  Draw it.

Here you may notice that I first sketched a straight line to help me get the angle accurately.  I then drew a second line, more bowed, to follow the curve of Don’s shirt sleeve.


Things are really getting interesting now because you have so many reference lines built up!  From now on, you have a bunch of options for lines nearby to determine where each new one should be placed.

Next I moved to the line of the front of Don’s shirt.  First of all, ask yourself where the top of Don’s shirt front should begin.  Where is the top of that line in relation to the head oval, for example?  You can easily figure that out by imagining a plumb line dropped from the farthest-right point of the head-egg.  You can see that I first sketched in that “plumb line” exactly vertically.  But then I realized it shouldn’t be straight up and down.  It’s tilted.

So back to my game:  How could I quickly determine the proper tilt for Don’s shirt front?   I noticed that it’s the same as that of the face profile plane.  So I drew that line parallel to the face plane.

As you draw, you may choose other reference points than the ones I chose.  That’s great!  The important thing is that you are finding relationships in lines that have come before which make sense to you as guides for each new line you draw.

Don Duga sketch detail

Don Duga sketch detail

We’ve now reached a moment that’s always a lift to me: a negative space enclosed by the model’s body.  In this case, it’s a triangle.  (Can you find it in the sketch to the right?)  To me, a triangle is always easier to size up than a line because a triangle has volume.  A line is a wispy thing floating in emptiness, but a triangle has dimension!

(By the way, the order I’m following here is not preordained.  As you practice on your own with other models, you should move through shapes and lines as you notice their relationships to what you’ve already drawn.  Try to cover the entire body very quickly using basic shapes.  Only after that should you go back to add as much detail as you have time for before you model shifts position.)

Probably the easiest way to generate the triangle bounded by Don’s shirt, arm, and thigh is to first sketch the bottom edge of the arm.  Play the game with yourself:  At its left end, where on Don’s already-drawn shirt front does this line emerge?  Does it slant up or down?  What’s the rough angle of the slant?  At its right end, roughly how far from the upper edge of the sleeve should the lower line end (= how thick is Don’s wrist)?  Another way to check your drawing’s accuracy is:  If you envision the entire arm as a not-quite-complete cone lying on its side, what should its overall shape be?  How thick is the cone at its widest end, and how narrow at the other end?


Finally, complete the triangle by drawing the edge formed by the top of Don’s thigh.  Focus on the broad sweep of the long part of this line, ignoring for the time being the fact that folds in his pant leg create a dip in the line close to his shirt front.  Play the game with yourself: Where on Don’s shirt front does this line emerge on the left, how much does it slant, and where does it intersect with the bottom edge of Don’s sleeve?

Don Duga sketch detail

Don Duga sketch detail

Last, check your accuracy by looking at the overall volume of your triangle. Does it have the same rough size as the negative space bounded by Don’s arm, thigh, and shirt?  If not, check to see which of your angles or line-lengths is wrong and correct it.

Now let’s get the other side of Don’s torso marked.  I drew a quick curved line.  I used the shoulder on the left as one measure, and also checked whether I had placed this line so it divided the arm-torso space accurately.  Would you use these same reference points?  What would help you draw this line accurately?


We’ve now formed a solid foundation of technique needed to achieve the first overall mapping of Don’s pose.   We’ll continue to apply this technique to complete the rough sketch in my next post, Learn to Draw by Playing the Angle-Abstraction Game: Lesson 2.

Isn’t an artist some one who can draw?

Monday, April 5th, 2010

Non-artists often admire artists’ ability to draw.  They wish they could learn how.   Many assume being an artist is mainly having the skill to draw realistically.

My sister Ellen

My sister Ellen

It is a lot of fun to be able to draw.  It’s fun to capture the reality of different shapes, textures, surfaces.  I especially love the moment of finally succeeding in capturing some one doing some activity.

But thinking that drawing is the main role of an artist is like assuming that the main role of a professional mathematician is adding and subtracting.   There’s a vast range of other skills that must be built atop the foundation of drawing, along with natural talent and a vision of what you want to create.

Like arithmetic for a mathematician, drawing is my most basic tool, the thing I’ve been doing since I was a little kid.  I grew up drawing all the time.  I used to pester my sisters endlessly to pose for me.  Here’s a drawing of my sister Ellen.  You can see she wouldn’t stay still long enough for me to add shading – I could only do a quick sketch before she’d run off and play outdoors.   

Fancy doll and ragged Raggedy Ann

Fancy doll and ragged Raggedy Ann

So I’d look for inanimate things to draw.  Here are two of my dolls.  They stayed still long enough for me to add detail to the sketch.

I’d set up still lifes using objects with different types of surfaces in order to figure out how to draw a shiny thing so it looked shiny, a furry thing so it looked look furry.  I would puzzle over how you could make a candle flame look as bright in your drawing as it does in reality.  How could I draw a transparent bottle to make it look transparent?

I drew in art classes in school – my ability in portraiture actually first emerged in a portrait I drew of a classmate.  I drew the kids I babysat for.  Their mother, thrilled with the likenesses, bought the portraits for what was for me a huge sum.

Actually, I drew in all my school classes, not just the art ones.  It was a great way to alleviate boredom.  My sketch book is full of drawings of the backs of classmates sitting at their desks, because that was all I could see in front of me.  Though in study hall I could draw them from other angles.  Below are a couple.  Again, these had to be quick sketches before my fellow study hallers shifted position.  I had minimal time for shading.

Two kids in my high school study hall

Two kids in my high school study hall

The most fun of all is life drawing classes.  I got a scholarship to attend a life drawing class when I was about 15 (I was the only kid in the class.  I had to get special permission from my parents because of the nude models).  In life drawing, you’re given varying amounts of time to draw the model in different poses.  Commonly, the amount of time is 5 minutes ranging down to 30 or even 10 seconds.  The idea is to train the artist to be able to capture the essence of a person’s position very quickly, because in reality people don’t hold the same position for very long – as I’d discovered with my sisters and the kids in study halls.

The second classic life drawing challenge is to practice realistically drawing a hand or foot that’s coming straight at you instead of being seen from the side.  Artists need to figure out how to draw people from all kinds of common but difficult angles without ending up with something that looks completely misshapen.

Below is the last drawing of the life drawing class I took in high school.  As a reward at the end of the course, we were given 45 minutes to do this drawing. Next to that is one of my quick crayon sketches of a rare male life model.  (Unfortunately, most life models are women.  I find that sexist.)

A couple of my life drawings

A couple of my life drawings

In short, drawing for me, and for many other artists, is the thing we started doing as far back as we can remember.   We need to keep doing it all our lives, just as mathematicians have to keep adding and subtracting.

But as in any field, there are many skills beyond the basics which the layperson may be unaware of.  In art, these other skills and talents, not just drawing, distinguish great artists from mediocre ones.  Many of my blog posts are about the range of these other skills and talents.  Many involve artistic sensibility as well as knowledge, such as choice of color palette, medium, style, and subject matter; which elements of a scene you will include; the weight of each element compared all the others; lighting issues (the direction of the lighting, whether multiple light sources or one, quality of the light); and countless others.

Here is one example among the infinite number I could give of artistry over and above drawing.  Alexandra Tyng, a highly successful portraitist, has written on the Forum about her  sophisticated method of thinking about and painting backgrounds:

The most important thing to keep in mind about backgrounds is that they are not actually separate from the figure. The background … is actually the air around the figure. It is three-dimensional space! It envelops the figure, surrounds it on all sides, and recedes from the picture plane to varying degrees….

Whether the background is plain or complex, the … figure emerges from the ground….

The key to achieving the illusion of “emergence” is to understand the roundness of the head (or figure) and the colors of the light in relation to the shadow. The side of the face in direct light gives the feeling of solidity and opacity. As the form turns away from the direct light, it picks up the indirect light or ambient light in the atmosphere. This indirect light is slightly redder than direct light. Crossing over the line into the shadow areas, the complement of the indirect light will predominate…..

An artist who uses Tyng’s approach to backgrounds will create a very different painting than an artist who approaches backgrounds differently.

The online Portrait Artist forum gives some idea of the many, many elements of artistry beyond simple drawing.  And keep in mind, this forum covers representational portraiture.  There are many other forms of art, and many, many other issues that artists must be skilled at in order to produce terrific art.

So if you’ve always wanted to improve your ability to draw, don’t view it as an end point, but as something to play with and experience.  Play with drawing every chance you get.  Draw different types of things – animate and inanimate, shiny and dull, smooth and rough.  See if your friends or loved ones will pose for you.  Set up your own still lifes to challenge yourself with different types of objects.  Go to a park, beach, sports or music event and practice very quick sketches of people doing different activities.  Take a life drawing class if you can and if it seems appealing.

And view drawing as one fun stepping stone on your path as an artist.