Tuesday, February 26, 2008

On Cheating

Never draw what you can swipe.
Never swipe what you can trace.
Never trace what you can cut out and paste.
And never do any of that if you can hire somebody to do it for you..

--Wally Wood
Master Cartoonist

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I hate drawing cars. I'm not good at it. There's always a kid in the high school art class who earns minor fame, and maybe even a little pocket change, drawing beautifully rendered hot rods, with giant exhaust pipes roaring, tires squealing off the page, and every chrome reflection perfectly in place. He (invariably a "he" in my experience) is a venerated specialist, and he is not me.

In theory, an artist who understands perspective can draw anything. Establish a horizon line and vanishing points, and build the object out of simple shapes. It works great for a lot of things. The problem (or rather, my problem) with cars is that they're pretty complex objects, with lots of compound curves and subtle angles. Another problem with cars is that everyone is intimately familiar with them; if a drawing doesn't get the proportions just right, readers know it looks "funny" even if they can't say exactly why. Yet another problem is that every car model has dedicated owners and fans who know every bumper and bolt. I'd really like to get 'em right. .

So when I recently had occasion to draw an old car, I knew I needed help. The first resort is reference photos, and indeed you can google hundreds of pictures of old cars in various states of restoration and repair. That helps, but didn't give me the angle I needed. Evidently, no one in automotive history has ever photographed a car from a spot hovering 30 feet above the front left fender. That's a tough angle to extrapolate from a bunch of ground-level front and side shots.
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I needed a model. After combing fruitlessly through dozens of Hot Wheels racks, I found an online vendor of affordable, accurate models of old cars. A couple weeks later, I had a 1939 Chevy coupe ready to pose for me.
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At this point I might've drawn it freehand, but I decided not to do that. Instead, I put the model on a sheet of white poster board and took digital photos of it from several angles.

1939 Chevy coupe, with a smaller-scale 1940 Ford on its tail

I chose the photo above, opened it in Photoshop, and made the Chevy approximately the right size to fill the hole I'd left for it in another drawing several weeks earlier.

At this point I might've traced the photo using a light box ... but I decided not to do that. Instead, I converted the color photo into a duotone image, which is like a black-and-white photo except you substitute shades of some other color for black and gray, in this case cyan.

Cyan duotone

I printed that picture onto a sheet of the same 2-ply Bristol board I use for all my cartooning. Then, I used a brush and pens to ink directly over the light blue image.

Inked

The tricky thing here is to not get bogged down in detail and draw too tightly, despite the pains I've taken to this point to be as precise as possible. Cartooning is distillation and simplification. It's got to look as loose, relaxed, and hand-drawn as the rest of the artwork that will eventually surround it. I didn't go nuts putting in lots of reflections and spotted black because, again, that wouldn't match the style of the rest of the page.

Next, I scanned the drawing into Photoshop, where I made all the blue disappear (I likewise pencil all of my artwork in light "non-photo" blue so I don't have to erase after I've inked). All that remains is my black line art, ready to copy and paste onto the open road I drew for it elsewhere.

Blue erased, ready to copy and paste

Semi-final (I may add some shadows and such later). The road texture is a charcoal rubbing I did of my concrete front porch.

I ... kinda wish I hadn't had to do that. I'd love to have the skills to dash off any car from any era from any angle, but I don't. I admit I feel a little disappointed in myself--but not much. Over time, I've come to regard both writing and drawing as primarily problem solving. I know what I want to accomplish; now what's the best way to do it? This is the best way I could think of to solve a particular problem and produce the result I wanted.

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12 comments:

Joseph Brudlos said...

There is this stigma between artists that it is wrong to use shortcuts like tracing or photo manipulation in your work. Maybe it's an undercurrent of competitiveness left over from when we were all in school I don't know - but it's mostly irrelevant.

Consumers aren't concerned about the process - they care what the end result looks like. These days there are a million different ways to produce art - hundreds of tools at your disposal - thousands of years of inspiration and processes.
I'm sure in the old days there were people who thought drawing from models was cheating too - it's all about using the tools you are comfortable with to extend your artistic vision.

You're only wrong if your work looks wrong ;)

Brian Fies said...

Thanks and you're right, Joseph, I agree. If I really thought I'd done something to be ashamed of, I wouldn't have blogged about it! A few people like my infrequent posts about process and I thought they'd appreciate this one. Short of plagiarism, I'm open to whatever gets the job done 1) best and 2) fastest.

Still, your comment reminds me of a story I read about Norman Rockwell. His reputation was growing but he was still young when J.C. Leyendecker visited his studio to find photos of models all over the floor. Rockwell wrote that "neither one of us appeared to notice them but it was just as though a fresh corpse I had just murdered lay there." It's a hard feeling to shake, and probably a healthy one to have. Keeps us honest.

Anonymous said...

Hi Brian,
Your Art work is superb, you added something to the mix thats unconventional but an effective tool. A broke clock is right twice a day. Its not cheating, you have simply took the express way. If you look at history most Artist use alternative techniques to create their Art. Artist in the past used almost the same technique to create beautiful landscapes. They would trace their image on glass or other materials, and then finish their works of art in their studios. I specialize in Hand Tinting Black and White Photos the Classic way, I never use any computer aids in any way. I am not a Techno phobic, I love the freedom of expression that my dark room affords me.
Thanks, Artfully Yours, Pacco J Pompei.

Namowal said...

That's not cheating in my book. If anything, it's pretty clever. Cars (like realistic humans) are tough to draw.

A similar trick (sans Photoshop) was done when Bambu was animated, to tackle the antlers, and in Yellow Submarine for when the sub spun.

p.s. Wally Wood was one of the greats.

Lady Luck said...

Don't feel disappointed in yourself - because solving a problem by thinking outside of the box is also a gift!

I think what you did is really neat!

I once passed an anglo saxon translation exam at university by learning an extremely long passage by heart - so I could just write it out in the exam (as my translating skills were not up to par).

I didn't feel guilty when I passed with flying colours (top marks) because I felt that thinking outside the box to solve a problem would no doubt make me a very useful employee in the future!

:-)

Sherwood Harrington said...

Over time, I've come to regard both writing and drawing as primarily problem solving.

I've come to regard life as an exercise in problem solving, mostly -- and mostly one of solving those problems of my own life's making. Sigh.

I hate drawing cars. I'm not good at it. There's always a kid in the high school art class who earns minor fame, and maybe even a little pocket change, drawing beautifully rendered hot rods, with giant exhaust pipes roaring, tires squealing off the page, and every chrome reflection perfectly in place. He (invariably a "he" in my experience) is a venerated specialist, and he is not me.
He is, however, Greg Evans.

[from the comments stream:]
A few people like my infrequent posts about process and I thought they'd appreciate this one.

I sure am one of those few people, and I absolutely, positively, appreciate this one, you betcha.

I can't draw much more than a breath, but I sure apppreciate those who can draw more than that. And especially those who can draw and explain.

And super-especially those who do all those things well and with a sharing heart.

Mike said...

I think the problem with this kind of "cheating" comes when the results don't match up with your normal style. That's not just an issue in tracing model cars or photographs, but comes up in other areas of the art form.

Examples would be the new characters versus old characters in Luann, or the one-time characters in Blondie who don't look like the continuing characters (though I don't think the new artist does this as much as the one just previous).

In my view, your style, while light and smooth enough to be inviting, is realistic enough to allow for this sort of detail work, and your example, as given, really shows how the "cheat" can, at the level at which you apply it, fit seamlessly into your work.

Alex said...

Brian,

I can't tell you how happy it makes me to find another artist (especially one I admire such as yourself) who has trouble rendering the ole' automobile! Plus has the cajones to let everyone know about it!

I've always felt like every artist other than myself had no trouble drawing cars and I am somehow inferior because I truly stink at drawing them..and always have.

Thanks for giving a fellow doodler hope...

-Alex
september23rdstudios.com

Brian Fies said...

Thanks for the kind comments, everybody, I appreciate them. I might do more of these; just don't expect me to give away all my secrets....

Alex, as I think Dirty Harry said, "a man's got to know his limitations." Sadly, I discover new ones every day.

Mike Lynch said...

Brian, I'm in awe of you.

m.e. said...

way cool...which is why i'm passing along the Big E for Excellent award...or would, if I had your email address....kind regards, m.e.

Jack Ruttan said...

It's good to have the skills to do anything well, and I'd work on cars (I practice lots of things, getting resemblances of faces is my toughest challenge).

But in the meantime, if there's a deadline, than anything can be done to get the image on there.

Of course, that's completely separate from whether it's a good drawing or not. If you draw like Virgil Partch, it's a different answer than if you draw like the late Dave Stevens. (fill in names of cartoony and realistic artists you like).