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, Horse, Bird

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.


Sherwood Harrington said...

Brian, this is absolutely fabulous! I learned a great deal from it, and that's valuable to me -- even though about the only thing I can draw are breaths and baths -- because it will deepen my appreciation and understanding of critters as they are drawn by those who can. For example, now I understand why Greg Evans's two dogs in Luann look so startlingly different: Puddles, I now recognize, is essentially a "table leg" dog, while the seldom-seen-any-more Royce had his legs hung from his spine.

You could be a wonderful teacher (if you're not already), Brian.

Bonus points: your prairie dog commuter is an absolute hoot. Thank you!

Mike said...

I just enjoy knowing someone who has to learn to draw a prairie dog. And I agree with Sherwood that your analysis of this seemingly simple task shines a lot of light on the difference between slapdash cartooning and the stuff that really works.

ronnie said...

Really interesting! Yes, Sherwood, this post really explains the jarring differences between Puddles and Royce. I guess Evans' dilemma there was that Puddles was an established character, while a cartoony table-leg look wouldn't work for noble ability-dog Royce.

Also explains the eternal mystery of Goofy and Pluto!


Brian Fies said...

Thanks, guys. I wasn't sure about this one.

Good insight on Puddles vs. Royce, Sherwood. Not sure if the same holds for Pluto vs. Goofy, though. Whether they're separate species or not, they're both solidly constructed.

It occurs to me that another example might be Snoopy pre- and post-standing. When he walked on all fours, Snoopy had the anatomy of a dog: his joints were in the right places, bent the right way, etc. But when he stood up, he had no resemblance whatever to a real dog walking on its hind legs; structurally, he became a little human. But given that, his infrastructure had the same integrity as the other characters', so I think the analogy doesn't hold. Interesting to think about, though.

Peter B. Steiger said...

Brian, you have a way of bringing difficult material to an untrained audience to make us all feel like we could be experts on the subject. If you're out of ideas for your next book, I recommend a drawing tutorial for beginners!


Anonymous said...

I immediately thought of your excellent blog presentation (including your mention of legs bending the right way and then using a cow as an example), when I saw today's "Popeye":


For extra points, compare that drawing to this one:


Ted Kerin

Anonymous said...

I immediately thought of your excellent blog presentation (including your mention of legs bending the right way and then using a cow as an example), when I saw today's "Popeye":


For extra points, compare that drawing to this one, just 2 days ago:


Cows' knees can evolve really fast in the comics!

Ted Kerin

Anonymous said...

Sorry about the double post -- I thought I only Previewed the first draft -- but, notice I had to re-do it with tiny URLs because (as I have seen before in Blogspot) the long URLs cut off instead of wrapping. So, use the second version to get links the "Popeye" (from the Chron) that work.

Thanks for the great lesson, Brian. It was a great read, even for those who sort-of knew this stuff but never really articulated it to themselves as you have done for us.

Ted Kerin

Brian Fies said...

Ted, you're welcome, and thanks for thinking of me. Great Popeye examples!

Trine said...

Great explanations. For more than 2 years I have dreamt about making my own character but the going is slow. You explained very well all the practice and choices one has to do to both make the character flexible but also keep its animal charachteristics. I am now off to look for more gems on other places on your blog

Brian Fies said...

Thanks, Trine. Best of luck with your character development--and with however you use them.