Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Dog Days of Summer
Yesterday, I had to teach myself to draw a prairie dog, and it occurred to me I was applying some principles that some of you might find interesting. If not, come back in a few days and I'll try to write something better.
Reference images are a good place to start, and one nice thing about living in the 21st Century is that several hundred prairie dog photos are just a google away. Pause for a moment and offer a quiet prayer of appreciation and pity for old-school artists who diligently clipped pictures out of newspapers and magazines to create their own enormous "morgues" of reference images on every subject imaginable and then cursed themselves for not having a prairie dog on file.
But, to paraphrase Spock on logic, reference images are the beginning of wisdom, not the end.
I don't recall ever needing to draw a prairie dog before. However, I start with the knowledge that many vertebrates--and all mammals without any exceptions I can think of--are basically built the same. We've all got the same parts; only the proportions are different. (I'm talking about quick and dirty cartooning here, not veterinary textbooks.)
Human arm, Bat wing
Knowing that is a big head start and helps avoid some common mistakes, like drawing animal legs sticking out of the bottom of bodies like table legs.
Now this is a perfectly valid cartoon cow, depending on what you're going for. However, it will be a more problematic cow to show walking, running, lying down, or chatting about the weather with its fellow cows. It won't move right. Also, if you don't understand how the legs basically attach to the top of the cow instead of the bottom, you miss out on drawing the nice fiddly bits like the hips and shoulders that give your line something interesting to do and help position the cow in space. Since I don't want to spend all day learning how to draw cows, I borrowed the cartoon below to illustrate how an artist who know how cows are put together can do a lot more with them.
I've got no argument with a cartoonist who draws a "table leg" cow, but they should realize it's a choice, with pros and cons.
So with a basic understanding of bone structure and some reference photos, I can sketch out a prairie dog, always looking for how its proportions differ from a human's. I don't need to do a detailed anatomical study--after all, it's a cartoon--and I end up with a critter that might be a prairie dog, groundhog, woodchuck, nutria, or any of a hundred similar rodents. I'm not claiming it's a great prairie dog but for my purposes it's close enough; if I draw it standing in a hole, readers will get it and I've done my job.
However, I still have some decisions to make. How much do I want to anthropomorphize my prairie dogs? Do I want them to move and react like fuzzy little humans (e.g., Mickey Mouse) or retain their essential prairie doginess? In real life, an alert prairie dog looks different than an alert person. Depending on the character and story, I may want to map human poses onto their little bodies to help readers recognize movements and reactions they're used to seeing in people. There are different degrees of this:
Alert prairie dog, Alert anthropomorphized prairie dog, Alert prairie dog businessman wondering if the coyote next door is going to catch him before he gets to his commute train
If I were drawing a lot of prairie dogs or creating ongoing characters I'd have to draw the rest of my life, I'd spend a long time sketching them in every pose and activity imaginable, making sure I understood the shapes and how they moved in space, always looking to streamline and simplify. But in this case I just need a prairie dog to be a prairie dog, and I'm done.
Writing it all out, that sounds like a lot of thought and analysis just to draw some stupid prairie dogs. In fact it's a pretty quick and not entirely conscious process, and I've already made a lot of decisions before I put pencil to paper. But these principles and questions are always in the back of my mind. I ain't sayin' it's the only way or the right way; it's just one way that seems to work sometimes.