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Disconnect between life drawings and cartoon drawings

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Disconnect between life drawings and cartoon drawings

I regularly read John Kricfalusi’s animation blog all kinds of stuff ( In a recent post (3/7/07) he was talking about the importance of life drawing skill’s in an animator’s education. But he went on to lament about many animators’ inability to transfer their life drawing skills over to animation. Here are some of his comments…

[I]…having good life drawings is absolutely no indication whatsoever of whether you can be a functional cartoonist or animator.

I know every animation school tells the students how important life drawing is, but then they don't teach you how to apply what you could be learning from your life drawings to your cartoon drawings.[/I]

He went on to suggest the following…

[I]School should be methodical. It should teach you skills and then how to apply the skills to typical practical problems that you will encounter in the real world.

There should be a class that is a link between your life drawing class that makes you remember certain things about your life drawing class and then methodically apply what you learned to a cartoon drawing or a scene of animation.[/I]

As a soon-to-be animation student, I’m curious to know what animators’ thoughts are on this. Have you encountered curriculums that have taught you how to apply your life drawings to your cartoon drawings (and if so, where?) Have you learned these skills independently of a school setting? Or do you disagree altogether with John K.’s statements.

Any thoughts on the subject would be much appreciated!

" Should it be requisite for those pursuing 2D animation, or cartoon art? Oh yes, very much so. But, again, finding a school that specifically addresses those concerns becomes somewhat tricky."

Take a look at Max the Mutt ( we do address these concerns.Our curriculum teaches one year of cartooning before character design. It also includes a lot of life drawing, anatomy etc. etc. we also teach classical animation before computer.

The main problem students seem to have is letting go. They want everything to be perfect. If you're thinking about the right things, you have to just let go and draw. This is especially true when doing gestures, or roughs in cartooning. This seems to be a problem everywhere. Was it always thus, or is something going on culturally that is causing the problem?

By the way, our fourth year 3D students do find that cartooning and character design , as well as life drawing and anatomy, are relevant. Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc, and many other 3D films surely benefited from having animators who understand cartooning, don't you think?

PS Any school that is simply teaching students to copy the model, isn't teaching life drawing properly!

Gesture drawing is the transition


Everything Ken says is right on...

And, not all life drawing seems to apply to cartooning and animation - though it really does.

Longer poses (3 minutes to 2 hours) help you see and understand the "machine" you are drawing. The anatomy and construction are important to know and understand- muscles, bones, tendons and how the skin stretches over them is important information to know, especially in character animation.

The shorter poses (10 seconds to 3 minutes) are gesture drawings. Here is where you see the "machine" in movement. With the gesture drawings
you are trying for the essence of not only the movement but weight, torque, balance/counter balance, posing and center of gravity.

Ward Kimball taught Action Analysis at Art Center - thats where I learned, I teach it from time to time.

When doing your gestures start with the "line of action" from the model and build on it. The line of acton basically has to do with the spine- or can start at the feet and continue through the spine.

Then start to "push" the line of action. If you have a line at an angle- push the line to be less vertical and more horizontal.

Remember, the model is just reference.

Have fun with it!!!!!!!!!

This is the way I explain it...

Writers must learn the structure of written language before they attempt to write in a specific format (i.e. book, screenplay, script, graphic novel, comedy, tragedy, sci-fi, etc.)

Artists must learn the structure of visual language before they attempt to draw in a specific format (animation, cartooning, illustration, etc.)

Life drawing strips away style, and focuses on fundamental drawing elements which comprise ALL styles.

Also all forms of creative drawing are an elaboration of life for the purpose of expression. An artist can’t elaborate what they don’t understand, that’s why drawing from life is indispensable.

[is this where I plug my school:) ]


London Cartoonish Figure Drawing Group


I have recently set up, in London, a group for cartoonists, animators, illustrators and anyone else who likes drawing stylised figures to draw and photograph people hiding behind lamp posts and pretending to fly through the air!

Rather than having the traditional nude sitting on a box with drapes and a pot plant, we'll make it totally cartoonish with people in costume / having exaggerated expressions / acting and anything else we can think of.


I'd be interested to see some of the drawings from your group if you'd be willing to post some up.

Just adding in what Stephen Silver has mentioned in show 6 of his podcast:

When you're in [a] life drawing [class] tend to just copy what's in front of you. You're not necessarily analyzing or observing... I noticed in a lot of people's portfolios [that] there are beautiful life drawings but when they go in and draw anything made up out of their head or invented it kinda falls flat. They don't have the balance, the life, the motion. Everything is kinda missing from the drawing.

By doing the memory sketching you're in a sense given a story...take that into consideration and analyze [the observed person]. Once you go back to your desk and start drawing, the beautiful thing that happens is you end up caricaturing that person. And it becomes a lot more fun, and there's a lot more life in the drawing because you're not necessarily looking at someone and copying...Now you're using your imagination and plus you have the story so the job is pretty much done. Now you just need to execute that drawing.

What he refers to as memory sketching here is the exercise of drawing on your sketchbook in public, observing people and basically getting the essence of what you observe (how they walk, posture, clothing details, etc.) so you have "raw material" that you could use as a basis to draw a caricature or a newly designed character. He has video example of memory sketching in his blog for those interested.

Also in show 4, he advises to limit life drawing portfolio pages to 2 (10 pages is too much).

Keep in mind when you are doing life drawing, that you exaggerate the figure. You maybe, give them a different personality. You give them more character...and therefore making an actual character.

I've been trying to engage students with the exercizes we've been doing, trying to explain what skills are being developed. They are regularly put off with gestural drawings of a minute or less, yet without exception wish to be animators. They are always surprised when I tell them that 3ominute speedpaints from photographic reference is less valuable for concept art than it is for cg lighters.
But its this information and working in context that allows them to bridge what they're learing to their film-making process... so, I think John's got some great p[oints. As pointy as he is, that's some incredibly valuable stuff he's putting up in his blog!

Great comments form everyone here. Good stuff!

there's some stuff up (only from mine) from our sessions at my blog...
and links under "Louisville AKA" to the students...

Those hands have become one of my favorite warm-up exercizes: everyone poses their non-drawing hand and has one minute per hand to draw everyhone's hands, including their own.
The extremize exercize is also great. I'll try to get some of my others up there.

cartoon figure drawing


We can post images on the meetup site (left hand menu - photos). However, we haven't had our first session yet! When we do I'll encourage people to scan their drawings and post them on the site. So check it out maybe end of April there will be something to see.

I'm really excited as the session is fully booked and people are really keen to have a go...

I'm not a regular on this forum but I'll try and remember to drop a line to let people know how it's going. It could be worth starting one up of your own. I'm not running mine as a class, but perhaps there would be demand for that? We'll see.


Thank you all for the input. I'll be teaching a character design workshop next semester at the animation school where I work, and we'll try to cover this subject. I see many students with great life drawing skill, but no cartooning skills, and vice versa.

I think that the difference is mostly between people who draw from what they see and people who draw characters out of the blank paper. It's a completely different approach: when you do life drawings, you must observe and study what you see, and then reproduce it on the paper, doing an interpretation, but using what you see as a reference. When you draw a cartoon, you must start out of something else - action lines, basic geometrical shapes, etc. It's a completely different approach, and I think that's what the students lack. They can "draw like a photograph" but they can't turn an oval into a dog :)

John K. generalizes an awful lot, this in amidst of making a somewhat sound point.

Well, to begin with there's very, VERY few schools that have curriculum set up with the aim of creating cartoonists per se. Most tend to treat the curriculum as a catch-all kind of instruction, so the aim more often is to create illustrators that can veer off into cartooning, or go into other crafts that do not specifically involve cartooning.
Animation isn't strictly cartooning any more and with a lot of focus on 3D media the emphasis actually lessens.

That said, students themselves tend to be a large source of the problem, in that a large majority compartmentalize instructed subjects so that they stand alone in terms of relevance. I've had students ask out loud why they need life drawing when don't plan on drawing "like that" ever again.
I've implored students for years to keep in mind that life drawing is NOT just about drawing nudes, its about learning to see, and sketch and train the hand to work more precisely while creating more intuitive line-work.

But some tend not to listen.

So I'll see perfectly nice life-drawing studies come from them, and then the usual stiff tight line drawing on cartoons when it should be loose gestural roughs. There's often a real dichotomy in terms of approach.

I see both kinds of drawing as being much the same. Different things to focus on to a degree........yes, but still much the same kind of function.
Part of it comes from their introduction and attitudes to the material. Since life drawing is often foriegn to them to begin with, their first exposure says that "this kind of drawing" is how this is done, whereas their often life-long exposure to cartoons says that they must be done as a finished line drawing--usually because that's how the student has always drawn them before.

Should there be a distinct class to address this?
Depends on the program really.
There's no point trying to train 3D animators the suppleness of lines and shapes of cartoon art when they are going to jump into the computer arena. I think it would be nice having such animators versed in such things, but there's voices amongst us that would argue its unnecessary.
Should it be requisite for those pursuing 2D animation, or cartoon art? Oh yes, very much so. But, again, finding a school that specifically addresses those concerns becomes somewhat tricky.

"We all grow older, we do not have to grow up"--Archie Goodwin ( 1937-1998)