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Seeing The Figure As A 2D Object

Renowned drawing instructor Glenn Vilppu offers the ninth installment in his bi-monthly Animation World Magazine online drawing course.

This is the ninth in a series of articles on drawing for animation. In these articles I will be presenting the theory and practice of drawing as a "how to" instructional series. The lessons are based upon the Vilppu Drawing Manual and will in general follow the basic plan outlined in the manual. This is the same material that I base my seminars and lectures on at the American Animation Institute, UCLA, and my lectures at Disney, Warner Bros. and other major studios in the animation industry, both in the U.S. and their affiliates overseas. Most lessons will also be accompanied by short QuickTime clips of me demonstrating the material discussed. If you have not seen the previous lessons starting in the June 1998 issue of Animation World Magazine, it is recommended that you do. The lessons are progressive and expand on basic ideas. It is suggested that you start from the beginning for a better understanding of my approach. The reality of drawing is that we draw on a two dimensional piece of paper; the drawing is not a three dimensional object. Up to this point, our efforts have been almost exclusively concerned with creating that three dimensional illusion on a two dimensional surface. We used a series of tools and procedures that didn't necessarily rely on the model, but on an analytical and constructive approach to drawing the figure. In drawing from the model, i.e. reality rather than from imagination or an ideal, we must develop a set of visual tools to help us make that translation from the real three dimensional world (3D) to the flat two dimensional world (2D) of the paper. In many ways, this is much simpler than what we have been doing. In general, the fundamentals of the approach based on direct observation of the model are the same as the widely used academic method of copying, one of the methods taught in the studios of the artists of the Renaissance. In this lesson we will use this method to assist us in placing the forms that we have learned about in the earlier chapters. (Much of what we are now discussing has been introduced, in part, in earlier chapters.) The drawback of this approach is that you need the model to do the drawing. In practical application, the camera has come into use as a substitute for having a model pose for hours while the artist does his or her drawing.


Before the invention of the camera, both Leonardo Da Vinci (1452 - 1519) and Albrecht Durer (1471 -1528) and many other artists of that period invented drawing machines to accomplish the same thing.Let us look at Da Vinci's and Durer's machines as a basis for understandingthe approach. Both artists created essentially the same machinewith slight variations. The basic elements were a frame with wiresstretched over it dividing it into equal units, or a piece of glass with lines drawn on it sitting upright on a table and a piece of paper having the same equal divisions on it as the screen. The artist would look through the screen from a fixed viewpoint, either a peepholeor some form of brace, to keep the head from moving. The artistwould then copy what he saw in each square onto the correspondingsquare on the paper. In 1727, the great anatomist, Bernard Siegfried Albinus (1697-1770) started his great work on human anatomy which was to take him 20 years. The following quote is from Albinus On Anatomy, by Robert Beverly Hale and Terence Coyle published by Dover Books 1988 (reprinted by permission): "Albinus overcame the problem of obtaining correct proportions between the parts of the body in the drawings of his artist by using grids or nets madeof cords and divided into squares. These were placed at selectedintervals between the artist and the skeleton. One grid was placed almost in contact with the skeleton by which the artist could draw from a distance of up to forty feet for the drawing of detail, a second grid with the squares greatly reduced in size, was placedfour feet in front of the first grid. The artist would look through the grid and place himself so that the cords of the two grids linedup with one another on his view of the skeleton, and could check his accuracy by means of these lines and their intersections." This is essentially identical to an artist today taking a photograph, squaring it off, and transferring it to a canvas. The usefulnessof the approach is in its mechanical nature. We incorporate basicelements of this approach any time we draw from nature. In the previous lessons I have been incorporating the use of many of the basics, without making specific mention of the procedure as a whole.

The Approach

The basic elements of the grid are vertical and horizontal lines,plus angles and measurements. These are the tools of this approach.Spheres, circles, box/squares, along with arcs are additional aids in seeing the placement of forms. A key element in academy training is the length of the pose. Since a prime requisite for doing this kind of drawing is very carefulobservation, the poses were, by necessity, very long. The student normally would start his or her training by first learning to draw from plaster casts, as is still done in many parts of the world. A pose, using the model, could last for a day, several days, ora week. An hour pose was considered a quick one, used for learninghow to start a drawing.

In this lesson, as in the previous lessons, the drawing is primarilydone in line. In a true academic approach, the use of tone would be a major part of the drawing. Each step being a gradual build-upof values with careful consideration of the direction of the light falling upon the forms. In the following three lessons we will be discussing tone, but in a more constructional and analytical approach. In this lesson I am using the academic approach as a way of carefully translating the three dimensional forms of the model, as we have developed them, to the two dimensional surface of the paper as accurately as I can. As in earlier lessons, the most important point is to get the total.

To Begin...

We start first by establishing where we want to place the figure on the paper. To do this, we must establish the limits of the model and where these are to be placed on the paper. In "Illustration A," you will notice that the seated figure has a horizontal axis and the standing figure, "Illustration B," has a longer vertical axis. This is not always quite so obvious, so it is important that you carefully measure to see which lines are longer and place the figures on your paper accordingly. Notice that I have used a series of straight lines to "block in" the rough placement of the figure. Straight lines are essentially easier to see and make judgments with compared to irregular lines. You "block in" the figure by "eye-balling" it, in other words, by making simple unassisted visual judgments prior to actually measuring. As you develop your visual skills, the simple act of making a mental notation is usually sufficient. Now we have reached the point where we start to place the various elements of the drawing more accurately.

Very carefully using the head as a basic measuring unit, find the center of the drawing both vertically and horizontally on both the model and the paper. At the end of this chapter is a simple explanation of how to measure if you are not familiar with this procedure. It is essential that you be very careful in doing this because everything you do from this point on could potentially reflect further errors. It is a good idea to take a separate piece of paper or a ruler to help make sure that, in fact, you have actually marked the center on your paper. From this point on, the process is essentially one of creating a grid by breaking each section down, measuring, and progressively making smaller units. It is important that you pay as much attention to the width of the forms as you do to the length.

Make diagonal lines and extend them to see what other forms they hit. This is the same as checking your vertical and horizontal alignments and adds another means of checking your placement. The use of the arc works in the same way as the diagonal line and, again, is another tool in the placement of the forms.

On the next page, you will see a visual summary showing the basic tools of the approach we have discussed so far. The accuracy of your drawing will depend on how careful you are. This approach has very little to do with talent, relying primarily on careful observation and patience. Once you have all of the major elements in place you can start to break the larger units into smaller units. The limitation of this approach is only in how small a unit you are willing to create. I have seen artists who work this way carry it down to the finest highlight in the eye. This approach is, primarily, one of surveying and putting everything in its proper place. The value in this form of exercise is developing the ability to reduce your subject to two dimensional observations.

Recognizing the Elements

Let's look at some elements related to this approach. Since you are reducing the subject of your observation to 2D elements, the openings between forms and the space around the forms become equally important. These are called negative shapes. You could, in effect, draw your subject by drawing the space around it, i.e. the boundary between the positive and negative space. The 2D contour of either the positive or negative space gives us the same information. Some basic art school exercises to develop this skill in observation include cutting out the shapes with a pair of scissors the way children do with a silhouette drawing in grade school, copying photographs upside down, drawing with your left hand to make you look more carefully, and drawing a specific contour without looking at the paper. The point of all of these is to teach you to see 2D relationships while looking at a 3D object. It is extremely important that you develop a high degree of skill in doing this. It is this 2D shape or silhouette in your drawing that is needed for a clear reading of the action. The shape is also the area that most clearly reflects the basic design of your drawing. The shape of the form is equally as important as the volume.

In measuring, unlike most drawing tools we have discussed, there are some basic rules. First, measuring is not difficult but you must be consistent and careful or it will work against you. The standard unit of measurement is normally the size of the head, although it could be any convenient unit that you wish to use. The width of the head is another popular basic unit of measurement used by many artists. We are not talking about inches or centimeters but relative sizes. Let us use the head size as an example. To find the center of the figure, or any other point on the figure, hold your arm straight out. You must keep your arm straight. Any variation in distance between your hand and eye will give you a false size relationship. Study the illustration below. The top of your pencil should be at the top of the head, the tip of your thumb at the bottom of the head. You can now move your arm down, turn it sideways, diagonally, placing it visually anywhere you wish on the figure to establish any point or size relationship in comparison to the size of the head, i.e. the navel three heads down, or the shoulders one head apart in this particular pose.

Proportions have been an integral part of the artist's education for thousands of years. The study of human proportion has taken two distinct directions: the real or normal proportions and the ideal proportions of man. Real proportions are, of course, average proportions and should be taken as such. As individuals, we all exhibit slight variations on this norm, but, in general, we all do fall fairly close to the average. This average is a good starting point from which the student to work. The proportions that I have presented here are a seven and three quarters head high male figure and a seven and a half head high female figure. These are in line with the seven and a half heads of Richter, the famous French anatomist, and the idealized eight heads of Michelangelo, the famous Italian Renaissance artist. Many artists have used greater extremes in both directions. These extremes, or ideals of proportion, are used for expressive purposes. The three head high figures in animation and cartoons create children's cuteness. Some of the Mannerist artists of the past, contemporary fashion figures, and super heroes of the comics create ten high figures. First, get a sense of the real so that you do not make accidental proportional statements that contradict your intentions. Then use proportions to make your statement. In the next three lessons the emphasis will be on the use of tone to describe forms in space. Glenn Vilppu teaches figure drawing at the American Animation Institute, the Masters program of the UCLA Animation Dept., Walt Disney Feature Animation and Warner Bros. Feature Animation, and is being sent to teach artists at Disney TV studios in Japan, Canada and the Philippines. Vilppu has also worked in the animation industry for 18 years as a layout, storyboard and presentation artist. His drawing manual and video tapes are being used worldwide as course materials for animation students. Glenn Vilppu first wrote for Animation World Magazine in the June 1997 issue, "Never Underestimate the Power of Life Drawing." His drawing manuals and video tapes may now be purchased in the Animation World Store.