Why Classical Training is Important

Sometimes I feel like there is a large population of artists (mainly younger) that have little idea of what the animation, film, game and illustration industries are looking for, and what has built them in the first place. Or, they have little interest in classical draftsmanship. What comes to mind is the group of freshmen that started classes in my university's animation program last semester. I don’t care to rip these new students apart (especially since, for the most part, they seem willing to learn), but I do care about what drawing and animation are, and how they are shaped. Disney’s “9 old men” didn’t draw just cartoons. They were influenced by classical draftsmanship, and they had a knowledge of art history before them and had reference for things around them, which is why their drawings and animation have so much life. Yes, it is stylized, but there are layers upon layers of deeper understanding that feeds and nourishes what comes from the hand at any given moment. This understanding comes from classical training.

Classical training in draftsmanship is important. In fact, it might just be the most important thing on the planet. The more stylized the drawing, the better understanding an artist needs of how the thing actually functions. This can be the figure or environments or animals; it doesn’t matter. You can’t distort what you don’t already know, and if you try, you’ll get it wrong. The best and brightest animators and artists, (keep in mind, I’m talking about illustrators and film artists here, rather than “studio” artists), have mastered their subjects classically before moving on to highly stylized and dynamic work. They know that always drawing in the same style, or doing stylized drawings from the start is dangerous, because you don’t learn anything else. Manga and Anime tend to be the scapegoats for this (and for good reason).

The thing is that classical training always shows through the most stylized drawings. The way things, (whether it be anatomy, architecture, machines, landscapes, etc), are simplified, how perspective is handled, and how value and color is used will reveal (and amplify) the base skills, whether good or bad. Artists like Bill Watterson (author and illustrator of Calvin and Hobbes), Ben Caldwell, (the author of Fantasy! Cartooning), Glen Keane, James Baxter, and Don Bluth (three of the best animators to grace the earth), the illustrators of Blacksad, and digital artists like Samikichan, (digital illustrator), and Tracey Butler, (the author and illustrator of Lackadaisy), have all studied the real human figure, real landscapes, and real animals in order to distort their drawings into ones that still have the essence of the subject, but also fit the aims of the story or style. The amazing part is that you can tell that they have that knowledge just by looking at their drawings. You are drawn (heh, puns) to their artwork because it is solid.

Solidity comes from being willing to sit down and draw a model for an hour or two once a week (or more!), or from going outside and painting your backyard, or going to the zoo and doing gesture sketches of the animals. I’ve noticed that many younger people who like to draw find those kinds of things boring or useless because they don’t directly relate to what they want to draw right now. I used to think that way, too, but over the last 3 years, I’ve been kicked in the teeth and I’ve found that you can’t skip these steps. The knowledge that successful artists in the industry have is built up over time, and you can’t rush it. This is what I struggle with the most. I know where I want to be, and I know that where I’m at now won’t get me where I want to go. I have tried time and time again to skip figure drawing, or skip practicing landscapes, or skip drawing animals from life instead of finding photos from the internet, and every single time I get frustrated and end up walking away from my sketchbook incredibly unhappy with my work. But, when I slow down, and take time to really focus on a landscape or model in front of me, I find that I see more. The details, shadows, textures, foreshortening, etc, are learned and then applied to other drawings of characters or places that don’t exist in real life. And then, when I step back and take another look at what I’ve just drawn, I like it more because it has borrowed more “real life” than my other drawing, and has translated it into something different in a smoother way.

These concepts separate the people who “just like to draw”, and those who will be successful. Does this mean I’m guaranteed a job at Pixar? No, but they do give me a better chance because I am starting to know how to work. Now I just have to keep working. The more you work, the more you understand. The more you understand, the more life and power you can plug into your drawings, and that is what people look for. So set aside your presuppositions about what you think your drawings should look like, and go draw what you see for a while. You’ll gain a deeper understanding of what you draw and why, and your draftsmanship will be all the better. Win/win.