Category Archives: figure drawing

Looking at the Past

I came across a bunch very old illustrations the other day, and thought, man, I would not recognize this as my work, compared to what I do today. Here take a look. (Happy Reed? Pictures! Also forgive any formatting issues. Since these blog entries are as I think of them I don’t take much time to try and re-size images and such.)

These are part of a series done for Reeling, the Chicago GLBT film festival. They got a lot of attention and people really liked them. So much that someone ripped off the style for several brochures, and people thought I had done the illustrations. To bad I didn’t, because more then likely, the person who ripped me off got paid. I did this for free for the exposure. I didn’t get any work from this.

I was very proud of these at the time. They were the best work I had done at the time. I can still see elements of these in my current work.

My friend was working at Chicago Magazine, handling the entire online website. This was back before the internet started killing magazines and newspapers. Chicago Magazine didn’t support the online site then. It was just her, and she had no budget, no direction to take the site. It barely served as a, whats happening. So she asked me to do these tiny illustrations for the site. For free. I thought, at least I can say I have worked for Chicago Magazine, and maybe I might get to network to get some work in the actual magazine. But that didn’t happen.

For a while I worked at a company that did corporate communications, mainly newsletters, brochures and more. Sometimes, they wanted illustrations. My boss never wanted to spend money of art and graphics, which was good for me, since it fell to me to come up with illustrations.

I really don’t know what I was trying to do with the shape of the heads. These were for a brochure about hospital credentialing. Back then, computers had these giant, thick monitors, that took up your whole desk!

Oh hey! One of the first illustrations I got paid for. For Lakeland Boating (I still do illustrations for them). It was about how the head (bathroom) on boats often can be left…messy. I wrote a dirty limerick on the wall, and thought I had smudge it enough. I didn’t, but thankfully they caught it before it went to print. I don’t do that anymore. (Here I sit, broken hearted, came to shit and only farted, in case you were wondering.)

Back then, I did  lot of work with actual materials, and would have to send them in to be scanned. The good thing about that, is you can work in different ways. Like this for an article about Morse Code.

I did it on scratch board. I really liked it. So did the editor. So much he kept the original art and never sent it back. Nor did he offer me any money for the original art. Yeah, people actually do that. A contract prevents that.

However, this did lead to me doing a series of these of skeletons. A friend of a friend opened a small knick knack shop, and wanted artists to put their work up for commission. So I did a bunch, and they sold. The first few that sold she gave me my share. The rest, she kept all of it, because her shop wasn’t doing well, and needed the money.

Come to think of it, she was friends of the editor that kept the image above. Another good reason for going digital, or at least only delivering digital. And contracts

These are some images that I did that were not for clients, but just myself.



It’s always interesting to look back. I also found a disk with all these illustrations I did for this interactive CD a bank put out to help people prepare to take a test to get their real estate license. There were 3 of us doing the illustrations, and a 4th guy doing all the photo researching. I think there was over 500 illustrations that were needed. I was working for a company that was doing the CD for the bank. I never dealt with the person at the bank, but we always got to hear her feedback. Like, I don’t like the color green. So what about the illustrations about lawn care and such? She also didn’t like red. Or bright blues. In fact, she doesn’t like primary colors.

So the color palette eventually became grays, beiges, purples, light baby blue, and where appropriate, some greens.  She also so everything as sexual and violence towards women.

I honestly can’t say what I think about my old work. I can say my skill has improved a lot.

How to get better

One hurdle we often face as artists is how to get better? It’s hard to look at your own work subjectively sometimes. You might have an idea and think that’s good. And then later say, Oh, wait, lets do this! And you have a better idea. Then you show it to others, who offer much better ideas, and you think…man, this sucks compared to what it could have been…

The fact is, we all have to make our own choices on the road to the final piece. I’m working on some illustrations for myself, as a form of practice and skill building. Recently I sent this to a few friends to get some feedback on it.

From those three friends I got 3 different kind of feedback. All valid too. It’s my choice on how much of that feedback I use and incorporate into the piece.

I then posted the image on a site that has a monthly crit of work either finished or in progress. And I got some more feedback, some of it similar and some of it different. All good and valid. So this work will have some tweaks done and some parts reworked in more major ways. But hey, since it’s for me, that’s fine!

Right now, though I had another idea I wanted to get down on paper. A goblin raiding party.

So, here are the first rough pencils:

I just wanted to get the different characters in place and a general composition set up. After I went and did tight pencils of each of the different goblins. First I did the axe wielding goblin in the back.

I knew he needed a much more action ready pose then what I gave him. Then I moved onto the goblin mage to his right. This one, man is that boring, it looks like he’s just doing parlor tricks and is about to ask “is that your card?” rather then blast you eldritch energy. But he took a while to get something I liked. First I thought I would make him more sinister, but also frail. Wasn’t to happy with that, so I made him less frail. Then I decided, it’s partly the direction he’s facing. I imagined he was the kind of mage that delights in his craft, and cultivates an air of mystery by being devious. So he might hide what he’s going to do. So I turned him away from what the group is looking at. It added some variety to the com as well, so that not everyone looks like they are holding the same pose.

I like this set up much better.

So, on I went, with each character. What were they wearing, what features in their face made them different from another goblin? In particular the Rat Master was fun, since I decided that he’s kind of filthy and particularly smelly compared to your average goblin, he does after all, sleep with the rats he trains. After I had all the characters penciled in, I tweaked their positions, as I had a few spots where I had bad tangents, where several elements meet that become distracting. For example the Squatting goblin, the archer and the one rat all meet up and made it a confusing mess, it wasn’t clear what was what.

So here is the tight pencils as they stand now. I will not start on the final version till later, so I can go back in a day and look and see if there is anything I want to change.

For example, I think the lower leg on the squatting goblin is too short compared to his upper leg. So I will go back and fix that. I’m also not sure about his hair. Maybe he just needs to be bald and an eye patch. His dagger will certainly have a poisonous  The goblin mage needs bigger hands. Maybe a few animal skulls and feathers and such. These aren’t quite savage enough right now. Perhaps the archer needs to have his cowl down over his face more. The warrior and rat master I think are at good where they are. The rats are certainly what I want.

After heating some good feedback on the first illustration, I took those thoughts into developing this drawing. And before I start on the final work, I’ll get some feedback on that as well.

If you don’t know any artists personally or professionally, I suggest finding a site that offers a forum for posting work and getting feedback.

Get Involved, some how.

I can credit part of my freelance work because I got involved with a figure drawing group. I came to the group when a friend asked me to go with her to a Meetup group that met in Central Park to draw. I looked through the other members profiles, to get a sense of the people in the group. I found a couple figure drawing groups, so I signed up for those. I have to admit, I was nervous about going to my first session. The guy who started it was running it from his in home studio, and is a pretty amazing artist.

I went, drew and felt good about it, even though I knew my skills were pretty rusty. I think it was also a right-time thing. I had been let go from my job in March, and had decided I would make sure that my unemployment, was FUNemployment, and really de-rust my skills and build them up. I talk a lot about goals. At that time it was improve my drawing skills. I know in the year since then I’ve achieved both those skills. If I hadn’t gotten involved with something outside of myself, I don’t know where I would have ended up.

I’m a firm believer that drawing is the base skills for most art. I also have a very open mind to what a successful drawing is. Looking “right” is subjective. However, the ability to convey your idea’s visually, and to work them out is really what going to the figure drawing group is about for me.

At first it was every other week, then we moved to a bigger space and it was every week, thanks to Kristen who worked with the artists who owned the studio. The owner went to China or Europe for a few months, so we found a new place. Jeff who had been coming to the group, offered his place. But after a few months, we outgrew that. One of the people coming (Liam) started organizing Saturday meetings, every other week. This week, Marc and I went shopping for stuff we need for the new stage the group has taken on. A professional space we are paying for. The money comes from the people who attend, it covers the cost of the models and space.

Around this time, I was reading a book, My So Called Freelance Life, by Michelle Goodman, which was recommended to me by a fellow cartoonists, Monica Gallagher. The book is more about changing the way you think about freelancing, rather then what you should be doing as a freelancer, such as mailings. One of the things it talks about, which I’ve written about, networking. Basically just finding people who want to do what you do.

Getting involved in the drawing group got me several new friends, who want to do the same thing as me, making a living off our creativity. We are all at various stages of that. So any of us can ask someone for advice or give advice. We formed our own network.

You don’t have to get as involved as I did. But doing something art related can’t hurt. I recommend groups more geared towards professionals. Don’t worry if you don’t see yourself as a pro yet. If your goal is to make a living as an artists of some sort, get in there with them. You also don’t have to find a group that does specifically what you do. If you want to be a cartoonist, you don’t have to find a cartoon drawing group. Chances are you aren’t going to find that.

Our group says we are for professionals and people serious about improving their life drawing skills. I’ve been asked how we determine that. We really don’t make any judgment about that. People come, if they feel it’s a good fit, they keep coming back, if they don’t, they find a group they like better. We are a fun group, but we are serious about what we do, and I think both come across during the sessions.

If you are worried about someone looking at you and saying your not a professional, only a real jerk is going to do that, and who wants to be around those people? If you are worried about people thinking you aren’t that good, going will soon change their mind as you get better. Like I said, when I first went, I was rusty and was worried what people would think.

Doing art is often a solitary act. But as artists it’s so important to interact with other artists. From going to this group I would say I’ve gotten the following out of it:

Better Drawing Skills
A network of fellow artists
Self Confidence to be a freelancer
More resources
New friends

There was some good timing and maybe a little bit of luck involved. I signed up for two figure drawing groups, both being run by talented artists. I only made it to one of the groups. What if I had went to the other one, and it clicked as well as this one did?

There is another factor that had nothing to do with timing or luck, which came from me, and that was my willingness to get involved, and following through. Looking back, some of what I did, seemed very natural to me, even though it wasn’t anything I had done before. But also looking back, I can see why in the past it had trouble trying to be a freelancer, be an artists and be the person I knew I was.

If you find yourself struggling and maybe a little isolated, get involved.

Putting practice into action

Picasso was in a park when a women approached him and asked him to draw her portrait.

Picasso agrees and quickly sketches her.

After handing the sketch to her, she is pleased with the likeness and asked how much she owed to him.

Picasso replied, $5,000.

The women screamed, “But it only took you five minutes!”

“No madam, it took me all my life.” Replied Picasso.

Recently my idea of what it means to be an artist/writer/dancer/actor/musician has changed. To be an artist/writer/dancer/actor/musician you must always practice your passion. Only the rare prodigy comes forth as a fully functional artist. The rest of us talented folk have to sharpen our skills. For me being a cartoonist means drawing all the time, and not just comics. Drawing sharpens my eye and hand. Much how you learned to write your letters, drawing them over and over, till now it’s so built into you, you don’t even realize it.

I’ve mentioned that I attend a weekly figure drawing session. (if you live in or near Brooklyn, I suggest checking it out.) It’s been about a year, and I’ve definitely noticed improvements in my figure drawing. Other benefits I’ve seen is I’m able to sketch out a layout or a thumbnail for an illustration idea quicker and cleaner. That kind of benefits comes over time, and is some what passive, it just happens.

I’m in the middle of a project (which I got with the help of my good friend, Marc, an amazing artist), working on the pencils. I’ve got a lot of reference material on the human figure, which I refer to, when doing action poses. But one panel, I really didn’t need to refer to anything, because I knew how the figure was going to look. It was a straight forward shot of the character busting out of the ropes holding him. I knew how the shoulders connected into the pecs, where the line between them and the biceps would be, how the arm would connect to the chest.

I’ve drawn similar poses in the course of the drawing session. What I had been practicing, I was putting into action, in an active way. It was very clear that what I was doing in the drawing sessions was having a direct impact on what I was doing, both passively and actively. It was pretty cool to have a moment where I could see both happening.

Some one once asked me, “Does anyone ever get good enough to not have to use references?” I seriously doubt it, save for the prodigy mentioned earlier, or people who draw the same thing over and over. And even then, all that happens is that you probably rely less and less on reference material for what you know. But if you have to draw something such as Washington Square Park, wouldn’t you look at a picture?

Also, this project has been a good one for re-evaluating my composition. Take the above image again. That is not how I originally drew the inset panel. This is how I drew it:

How boring. Very boring. The same idea is in both, that hasn’t changed, but how I executed the idea has changed. This in fact happened several times. One panel in particular, I redrew about 5 times, over the course of many hours. I had a lot of trouble finding a pose to reference* that I really liked. Eventually I found something that lead me to the final solution.

For me, being a cartoonist and illustrator doesn’t mean that I make money doing that. It means the way I think about it, the way I approach it. I need to always look for ways to expand my talents, what I know, and the information I can bring to each project. Being an illustrator/cartoonist is more then a full time job, since all the work I do to be a better illustrator isn’t done for direct pay, and comes on my own time, after the time spent on paying work.

*When I reference an image, for me that doesn’t mean copying it, but using it for a guide on how things line up on the body. Especially for hands and feet.