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Vilppu Drawing Online: Gesture

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

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© Glenn Vilppu.


This is the first 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 animation studios both in the U.S. and in their affiliates overseas. Each lesson will also have short video clips of me demonstrating the material discussed.

Drawing, as it is practiced in the animation industry today, most approximates classical drawing in the tradition of Raphael, DaVinci, Pontormo, and other great draftsman of the past. The drawings of the past were used primarily in planned stages toward the creation of paintings, sculptures, and murals. As such, they were practical pragmatic steps in representing ideas. The classical approach of constructing forms in an effort to create the ideal perfect form, along with the desire for clarity, transition, and ease of understanding, are the same requirements of good animation drawing. The main difference is in the ideal of the form created.

'Drawing from imagination toward a conceptualized ideal is the norm in animation.'

Drawing from the imagination toward a conceptualized ideal (the model sheet) is the norm in animation. The drawing that we do from the human model is research that helps us to better understand the human form and its movements. Unlike the illustrator, learning to copy the model has very little value for us. Rarely do we work from the model except in training situations. One of the primary requisites in order to create is the ability to draw from our imagination. Understanding and being able to create believable attitudes and movements, i.e. bringing our characters to life with our acting, is the basis of our art. A child, learning to speak, starts by mimicking the sounds that he hears and slowly develops the relationship of sounds and meanings that we call speaking. This is unlike most training in drawing given today that teaches to mimic nature without an understanding of the elements of visual communication. Of course, there are those individuals who through an innate talent have developed this ability of communication in the same way that there are accomplished musicians who do not read music.

Glenn Vilppu. All drawings in this article are by and © Glenn Vilppu.

Alexander Marshack was commissioned by NASA in 1963 to write a book in collaboration with Dr. Robert Jastrow "to explain how man reached that point in science and civilization to make it possible to plan a manned landing on the moon." The research led to his book The Roots of Civilization. Marshack draws the conclusion that one of the basic elements that distinguishes man from most other animals is his ability to think in sequence. He uses the analogy of sending a man to the moon; in his discussion he talks about how impossible the task of sending a man to the moon is when considered as a whole, but taken as a series of small steps or problems, it becomes possible. As each step is broken down into even smaller steps, the impossible becomes possible. The main element is the building of one step upon the previous in a time factored manner. The pace of learning of any given subject, after the initial rapid advancement, seems to move upward in ever shortening steps, while the time between those steps seems to stretch out longer and longer until we begin to wonder if there is any movement at all.

Everyone talks about being on a plateau, or hitting a new level, or experiencing the learning curve (a classical example), without actually understanding that each level of development is, in effect, a level of complexity that must be absorbed before one advances to the next level. Trying to skip levels of development only slows you down and creates frustrations that jeopardize the achievement of your long-term goals. Yet to accomplish anything complex there are three basic elements that are required. First, you need a plan or approach; second, you need the knowledge to put the plan into effect; and third, you must have the spirit to carry it through to completion.

'Each step being broken down into even smaller steps, makes the impossible become possible.'

The basis of my teaching is the development of an approach that allows you to acquire knowledge and visual skills in a systematic way, building upon your understanding and abilities in logical simple steps. I have made a real effort at trying to keep each step as simple, clear, and logical as possible. In fact, many of the steps in my basic approach seem so simple and basic that quite often the student tends to ignore developing these fundamental skills, feeling that he has advanced beyond them. My experience has shown me that the majority of students' problems in drawing are with the basic elements, or tools of our trade. If you think of all the possible visual elements that you must learn as keys on a piano, the more keys you have, the wider range of possibilities you can enjoy. Of course, you can make music with just a few keys, but that should be based on choice not limitations.

Since the basic approach that I use in teaching is one where we analyze the model, and not copy it, the approach itself helps us acquire the knowledge needed about our subject. I use the word subject, not model, because the basic elements of this procedural approach apply to drawing anything, be it a tree, interior, or figure. You cannot really draw something unless you know what it looks like. The more knowledge you have of whatever it is that you are drawing, the better off you will be.

An extremely important element of knowledge is that we must develop our ability to use our emotions. Probably our most important skill is to be able to communicate our feelings through our drawings and to draw upon our own emotional experiences at will. One of my favorite sayings is:

'You have to be emotional about your intellect and intellectual about your emotions.'

A particular difficulty I have in teaching such a systematic approach to drawing is that the end result can too easily be a mechanical and boring formula. I continually have to keep reminding the student that there are no rules. What I am teaching are visual tools and strategies for approaching the figure, a means for helping students to understand what they are looking at. In the end, it is up to each individual to bring to his drawing that spark of life.

You will find me stating over and over again,'There are no rules, just tools.' Visual tools are fundamental concepts used not only to aide us in drawing but in seeing. These, in some cases, consist of procedures and, in other cases, elements such as the box and sphere. A large part of this course is in fact the development of these tools.

I will end this introduction with my favorite quote by an artist which exemplifies the pursuit of drawing excellence that we can only hope to achieve.

"From the age of six I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was fifty I had published a universe of designs. But all I have done before the age of seventy is not worth bothering with. At seventy-five I have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am 80 you will see real progress. At ninety I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At a hundred I shall be a marvelous artist. At a hundred and ten everything I create, a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age. I used to call myself Hokosai, but today I sign my self 'The Old Man Mad About Drawing.'" (The Drawings of Hokusai, Introduction by Stephen Longstreet, Borden Publishing Co.)

Lesson 1: Gesture

The action of a figure is usually expressed as "gesture." It means the movement and attitude of the figure. It is body language and all of those subtle differences that characterize individuals, whether they are human or animal. In this regard, when I refer to the model, I mean not only a model posing for short poses of thirty seconds to three minutes, but also people who are not posing and are in real life situations. We use essentially the same learning procedure in what is referred to as the "quick sketch." It will be assumed that for the sake of learning, at this point, they are the same. Other terms used for what we call gesture are "attitude" and "body language."

'Gesture is the single most important element in the drawing.'

No matter how well a drawing is rendered, without that feeling of individuality that we experience in looking at real life, the drawing is nothing more than an academic exercise. Long before we can actually see a person's face, we can recognize him by all those elements that make up that individual, such as his general bearing, proportions of his body, how he dresses, how he walks, and holds his head.

I am going to present this material in a series of steps stopping to explain and clarify points as I go. In reality, of course, it is never quite this neat or simple. Many of the steps are actually done simultaneously. The total is a summation of the action in simple terms and is essentially what this lesson is about. The illustrations are examples of this total which is what you should, in a sense, see before you start the drawing.

'You are not only learning to draw but to see.'

Practice looking at your subject and then drawing it from memory. When doing gesture sketches, you do not usually have the luxury of models holding still while you draw. Practice this skill continually wherever you happen to be - on the bus, watching television, or in the shopping mall. In looking at the action, or gesture, it is important to try to grasp the total before you put a line down. Practice looking at your subject and then drawing it from memory. This exercise is particularly useful when you don't have your sketchbook with you (which should never happen), or are in situations where it is awkward for one reason or another to be drawing. When drawing in your head, go through the same steps and use the same imaginary lines you would if you were drawing on paper. You draw with your mind, not your hand. Then when you can, redo the drawing on paper. With practice you will be amazed at what you can do, but it takes practice.

The Basic Procedure

You should do each drawing using the same series of steps until it becomes second nature to you, like how driving a car becomes almost automatic. Start the drawing with simple lines that take in the total action of the figure, without worrying about the shape. A simple sequence of steps is indicated in the following examples. Remember, there are no rules, just tools!

Step One

Start with a simple oval for the head, imagining a central axis so that the oval clearly represents the tilt and lean of your subject. Use a simple "dot" on the top to indicate when the head is tilting toward you, and possibly an ellipse for the eyes to help show more clearly the action of the head.

Step Two

Draw a line from the head, representing the neck. This line is not necessarily any actual contour or line that you see on the model but a general feeling of the attitude of the model. Continue this line, representing the neck, pulling from the head, into the upper body down to the hips. You should be more concerned with the how the lines show the action of the model, rather than any actual line that you see on the model. Look at the examples on this page to see the variety of ways that this can be accomplished. These are not the traditional stick figures that you see in many basic books on drawing. They are lines that show the flow of the movement and relationship of the parts in a simple way.

Step Three

Continue in the same way, drawing the legs. Notice that all of the lines do not have to be connected. Remember, there are no rules, just tools. It is important to remember the simple fact that what the viewer sees is the lines you put down on the paper. The lines have to convey the sense of action in your subject by themselves. To give a sense of movement and continuity, you must draw each line in such a way as to have one line lead you into the next.

Step Four

Now, add the arms and hands in the same manner that we drew the legs. Again, they do not necessarily have to be attached but must indicate the movement and general placement.

In practice, these steps should take you a maximum of 30 seconds with 10 to 15 seconds being the average.

You should practice these simple steps as often as you can. In a regular day class I will have the students doing this lesson for six hours.

Continue this simple first step in feeling the form, then go a step further and start pushing outward with your lines. "Feel" how forms contract and stretch, pinch and expand. Look at the sample drawings.

The hardest part of this lesson is to overcome the desire to copy the model. Remember, we never copy the model but analyze it.

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.