Friday, January 19, 2007

BGs and Style - Part 4 - Use Organic Shapes AND FORMS

The manual pages below are about BG design, but they feature the principle of "organic" so I figure I better give you a clear definition of what I mean by that.

Organic as opposed to mechanical or geometric. Natural objects are organic. They are uneven, they flow, they are not symmetrical, they are complex. Humans, animals, rocks, trees, rivers and old cartoons are organic.

Nothing in reality is perfectly geometric. Man tries hard to make things into simple shapes and forms sometimes, like boxes, balls, mailing tubes and modern cartoons. This kind of form is simple, regular, predictable, easy and in most eras, boring.

Organic art uses smooth flowing lines and shapes describing various surfaces and densities and textures as opposed to geometric lines and shapes that describe all surfaces and substances stiffly and the same way. Organic art under control gives you an infinite palette of ideas to create from. Geometric is limited. There are only so many types of shapes you can make with straight lines and simple curves.


Organic comes in infinite variations and styles.

Stylized cartoons can be organic - and should be.

Of course you have to be a much more sophisticated, intelligent, cultured and skilled craftsman to be able to take advantage of organic art, but if you regularly haunt this blog that's your goal, isn't it?

If you want the easy way, then get a circle template and a ruler and you can create cartoons like these:


Because the trend for the last 30 years has been stiff, regular and evenly composed art, it makes it hard for me to hire current artists-especially if they are over 25 and set in their ways. This happened to me on The Ripping Friends. I hired 2 Canadian studios who were used to drawing in the Canadian style, which is even stiffer than the LA styles. Jim Smith and John Dorman would draw brilliant backgrounds and character layouts and we would send them to the Canadian studios who would look at them in disbelief, toss them away and then "correct" the drawings by spacing every object in the scene on a grid and standing all the characters straight up and take out everything interesting or worth looking at.



So I made all these manuals to try to teach them. The younger folks, Helder, Kristy, Nick, Steve, Jose and a few more caught on quick. They hadn't been ruined by Nelvana yet. Jess already drew in an organic old fashioned sophisticated way, so I didn't have to teach her anything.

The studio's old guard of calcified brained 30 year olds and older were hopeless. They couldn't even grasp a single concept I wanted - and refused to even try.

So here's more free information for you. Learn it and practice it and if you become decent and functional, work for me. If you understand these concepts you will be suicidal working on Samurai Jack or the other million modern cartoons.


Alberto said...

Hey John, your lessons here are pure gold.

By the way, in your post talking between the difference between cartoonists, illustrators and animators I wanted to ask you what do you think about Bill Watterson´s work.

JohnK said...

He's very good. The last of a breed.

Anonymous said...

Wow! All these great lessons one after another. I can hardly keep up. But that doesn't mean stop or slow down. Keep piling it on us. We desperately need them!

-David O.

sean said...

sweet. wonderful. seems like there's a lot of interest in these lessons.
tons of hope for the future.
now we all just have to figure out a cheap way to animate that's not digital

Mr. Semaj said...

If you want the easy way, then get a circle template and a ruler

Even when I try to sketch modern cartoon characters (I have dived into fan fiction), I don't use rulers or any tool besides a pencil. It's actually more fun drawing Bart Simpson my own way.

For one of your Canadian examples, I would've liked if you also used Braceface, just so someone else can rip that show apart. :P

iamscottevil said...

Have you heard about the woodsy owl debacle? So much for old form.

Anonymous said...

Poor Canadian children.

I absolutely love those shots from the Bjork music video- I would freeze frame them for hours and draw them.

And holy CRAP that Katie drawing is too cool! Attack of the giant girl-eating babe! I love it!

JohnK said...

>>Even when I try to sketch modern cartoon characters (I have dived into fan fiction), I don't use rulers or any tool besides a pencil.<<

well you better change your icon then.

Katie said...

THANKS KALI!! I'm glad you like her. :)

Me and Luke were kinda keeping that character/project underwraps, but I guess it was bound to get out anyhow.

this post is great- I hope everyone reading is paying close attention!

Mad Taylor said...

ahhhh jesus man...well this one clears a lot up for me. Flow and organic are two words I needed to hear. That changes a lot for me. Modern cartoons could lead one to believe the right way of drawing is all perfect, even, to the T, mathematical. You're absolutely right, it's not, and it's what I've been fighting all along with myself. I've never been able to be absolutely perfect. I hate using rulers. I'll have some drawings up soon.

Julián höek said...

hi john.
do you like uderzo's work? i'm a big fan of asterix. i think there is a lot to learn from his comics too like perspective, strong costruction,line of action, caricature, ect.

thanks for the amazings posts!

Anonymous said...

The more I read, the more I didn't know I didn't know.

Keep this up John and maybe you will save the world!

(From a Dirty Canadian)

Desiree said...

Right on julian, i love Caesars toes. they're so toesy and their fingers too!!
I love art nouveau stuff. Very composed organic no symmetry. I love mucha all in all! And the colors are amazing and the outlines of the people he draws. It reminds me of manga, i mean, the japs frame/ compose things in a similar way as he does, but they always draw the characters very stiff instead of flowing.

Very cool Xenagiantess!!!!! Can't wait to see this one either!!!!

Anonymous said...

Simply amazing, John! This seriously puts me back on track. Its amazing when I go back and look at my drawings before college. They were fun and full of organic elements. Now I am desperately trying to unlearn all the theroies of the ruler syndrome that I picked up in college. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

another brilliant post John, there is so much truth in those lines! Very helpful, a true eye and brain opener!
It's great that your theory is combined with some personal experience, I mean the time when you outsourced some of the work to the canadian studios. That makes reading your articles very interesting.


Anonymous said...

So much Information John!
Keep it coming please!
Your posts (lessons) are like finding water in the desert!
I agree with kali, katie's drawing is way cool.

Your too funny John, (" you better change your icon then") I blew coffee on that one!

Cayen said...

Guess all those times of people telling me I wasn't drawing correctly because it wasn't in 'correct' human proportions are now starting to haunt me. oh well :)

Anonymous said...

Jeez, John.... I hate to just say the same things everyone else is saying, but I need to, just to make sure know how much your work is appreciated. Your postings are wonderfully informative... just great. I stop by every day to see if there's a new post, and it makes my day when there is.

Reading them all, however, has made me wonder something, so can I ask a couple of questions for you to address here or perhaps in a future posting?

Do you see any shining lights now in the world of mainstream commercial animation? In your opinion, are there any good examples of commercially produced animation in the last twenty, thirty years that you haven't been involved in in some way? Or at least, bad works with SOME good aspects that show potential? And do you see any hope that the large corporate producers of commercial animation will improve, given that they make their decisions mostly on dollars and cents with little regard for the artistic merit of their product?

In short, will we ever see another Golden Age of animation?

xtracrsP said...

Katie said...

"Me and Luke were kinda keeping that character/project underwraps, but I guess it was bound to get out anyhow."

Oh boy! The drawing is funny, but I thought the idea of this cave-girl hunting down and masticating pixies was pure story gold. Glad to know you're taking it further!

Do not delete. *cough*

Anonymous said...

Goddamn, I'd give a billion dollars for a feature-length animated cartoon of whatever concept Katie was working on that produced that crazy drawing!

Nah... screw that. I'd give that billion dollars to be able to draw like her, or even half as well.

But since all these billions of dollars are hypothetical, I'd also give another billion for the aforementioned feature-length animated cartoon of Katie's concept.

Anonymous said...

Goddamn! I'd give a billion dollars for a feature-length animated cartoon of whatever concept it was Katie was working on that produced the drawing in this post!

Nah... screw that. I'd give the billion to be able to draw like her, or even half as well.

Actually, since these billions are hypothetical, I'd give another billion for that aforementioned animated cartoon of Katie's concept!

Pat Lewis said...

Great post, John! I'm straddling the line between influences, myself, but stuff like this helps to tip it back in the right direction. Do you know Paul Coker Jr's work (he was a MAD Magazine cartoonist from the 60's-today)?

Anyway, I hate to plug my own stuff, but if you (or anyone) cares to check it out, I've got lots of my work posted here:

Max Ward said...

How Bambi was the tour de france in color styling, were you trying to make The Ripping Friends the tour de france in oraganic forms that are beautifully composed?

Franky said...

When I think organic artist the first thing that comes to mind is the late Vaughn Bode's art.

It would rock to see you animate his comics, John.

Anonymous said...

Hey john
I put up some screen grabs from "Stupid Cupid" ones I've sure you've seen, but I feel they are great examples of Organic drawings

Check them out if you have time

Anonymous said...

I had no idea I drew like that...
thanks for th ehead's up John.

K. said...

Don't approve this comment through - I just wanted to ask you a question without having to get a MySpace account.

I was just wondering if you wouldn't mind if I made a forum for all we internet-pupils of yours - to help one-another out in exploring the lessons and share our work with eachother in a fashion rather more communitycentric than bloggery. As far as I know, one doesn't exist already.

If you please, send a jaunty oui or a shrill nein to:

Anonymous said...

isn't the preston blair model based on shapes as well though? is the main difference, pliable shapes with depth vs flat shapes that never bend?

JohnK said...

>>is the main difference, pliable shapes with depth vs flat shapes that never bend?<<


Anonymous said...

Funny that you opened with a Frazetta painting. I just got the book ICON last night and have not been able to put it down!

You never get a chance to see the forms and detail of Frazetta's work in small prints or on the net, but the images in this book are stunning!

This was an excellent post, John!

JohnK said...

>>I was just wondering if you wouldn't mind if I made a forum for all we internet-pupils of yours - to help one-another out in exploring the lessons<<

sure, but there danger is taking advice from other beginners. This happened on Shane Gline's first forum and a lot of bad advice was traded back and forth.

In my lessons I showed you a fool-proof way to check your work and criticize it, so use that easy tool!

Anonymous said...

Pure Gold,

Now I'm glad I decided never to work for any of the big studios. Thanks a lot John. :)

Mr. Semaj said...

Maybe it's the coloring, but Katie's example of organic designs reminds me of a cartoonist's (or illustrator, whatever) work I've seen in some childrens' novels. I'm thinking it was Quenton Blake. Or James Stevenson?

While we're on the subject of organic drawings, what's your opinion/critique on Joe Murray's cartoons (Rocko's Modern Life, Camp Lazlo)?

Anonymous said...

Wicked nice stuff.

Hey, I've been looking into Ward Kimball's stuff lately, and it seems to me that he's a really good example of what is badly emulated with cardboard toons today. He makes shape, silhouette, and color seem so easy with his deceivingly simple character designs, but they do have serious 3 dimensionality and pliability. I tried copying some of his stuff, but only realized the fact afterwards. Organic shapes really comes full circle even with stylized design.

Anonymous said...

Hey John, I'm not disagreeing with you or anything, but Copernicus studios, who helped you make "Close but no Cigar"
I am pretty sure they are canadian. ;)

Cale said...

First, everything you post is just wonderful. However, I find it difficult to be able to say one style is better over another. Geometric and organic styles both take a lot of talent to render properly, and both styles can be rendered poorly. You have some great examples of poorly rendered geometric style. I think good geometric style exists, it's just different than organic style. It's like comparing Impressionism and Surrealism. Can you say one of those styles is better over another?
Anyway, just wanted throw that in there. Thanks again for the great posts. I look forward to more.

Kris said...

You're right, most modern cartoons don't seem to contain any organic forms.

I'm curious what you think of some of the early to mid 1990s commercial cartoons, some of which had really great organic forms, like Animaniacs or the Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog. Milton Knight worked on the funny Robotnik character in the latter.

Gabriel said...

waaaaa forestland! i hope this show materializes!

El Bergo said...

Hey john, i just made a BG for an animation im making for my final college work, and i would really apreciate your oppinion about it! If its shitty, you can say it is, i really want to learn.
link to the BG:

Eric C. said...

Hey John,

Since you do charactures, do you know about the masters of the UK Fluck & Law of Spitting Image fame?


El Bergo said...

i dont know why but the link i wrote was cutted by the edge line of the post, so, the end of the link should be =cenariotvpd4.jpg

murrayb said...

>> I'm not disagreeing with you or anything, but Copernicus studios, who helped you make "Close but no Cigar"
I am pretty sure they are canadian.

john and katie drew every key on paper and we tried our best not to ruin 'em.

>>Jim Smith and John Dorman would draw brilliant backgrounds and character layouts and we would send them to the Canadian studios who would look at them in disbelief, toss them away and then "correct" the drawings by spacing every object in the scene on a grid and standing all the characters straight up and take out everything interesting or worth looking at.

We were told at said canadian studio by the bitter veterans our drawings had to be very on model, because the indian studio's animators would just slap a spacing chart on the layout pose and inbetween it. We have one of those "careless" indian animators in OUR studio she's one of our best artists.

JohnK said...

I figure I can make fun of the Canadian style since I'm Canadian...for those of you who didn't know that.

Copernicus and Carbunkle are 2 of the good Canadian studios.

Anonymous said...

Oh my god, you're Canadian!

The Butcher said...

Dear Mr K,

If ever there was a time I wanted your feedback it is now. I've finished my first color painting ever. I'm sure your critque would be most helpful for future refrence. It's a little too centered. I started trying to apply your rules for color and composition after I had already started. The Frazetta paintings you posted were the most helpful. Perhaps I'm trying to take on too complicated a scene right off the bat. I promise to take whatever critique you give me to heart and practice as much as possible. Thank you.

Max Ward said...

That geometric Flinstones drawing you have on this post is one of the most ugly and terrifying things I have ever seen.

Anonymous said...

Ok, So this might be a stupid question, but on the cinderblocks page, it seems that the artist is consciously aware of the perspective of those objects, but doesn't seem to be following any strict fundamentals. Is it neccesary to be accurate and start with vanishing points or should you just let your natural sense of depth illustrate the scene?

Anonymous said...

Hey, John, don't mean to bring up something we've beaten to death already, but on the subject of the Cal-Arts style: I just realized that "the Incredibles" characters are actually 3 dimensional representations of this style. Do you concur?

JohnK said...

That, combined with me and Bruce Timm...

JohnK said...

...if you already understand perspective, you can play with it.

kurdt said...

You guys want to see some really horrible stuff?
I almost threw up

Alex said...

Is there a noble prize in animation? If there is, then john already won it!

Chris_Garrison said...

(Great post as usual, naturally.')

Did you see this interstitial thing that TCM is running, where Michael Douglas is talking about Kirk? It's nice. They mostly show clips of Kirk being layered and complex, but at some point, of course, he completely blows up.

I think one big reason people are open to all these bad conventions is that - when they look at them, to their untrained eyes, it seems like something fresh and new. They don't know about flat UPA stuff, etc., so when Dexter's Lab came out, they were all," Wow! So different!" So by that theory, it's a fad, and it's only a matter of time before depthy, organicky drawings come back into vogue with the corporate types. I noticed that Class of 3000 (hideously atrociousious though it may be) has reintroduced the curved line to television. So maybe it's been long enough since Dexter's for people to finally start tiring of it.

Speaking of the corporate types, I'm also theorizing that - Since, in our current system, animators are beholden to corporations, and since that's not fostering quality, we need to find new a system, to break out of this mess. Or maybe use an old system, like when art was all commissioned by kings. Like you could have a Ren & Stimpy feature, funded by the emperor of Mongolia. Or turn to organized crime. That's a zillion dollar industry. There must be a way to funnel some of that money into quality animation, without getting your legs broken.

PCUnfunny said...

Hey John, have you ever heard of a cartoonist named Douglas Tennapel ? He created Earthworm Jim.

Anonymous said...

III am coming back to LIIIIIFFFEE

i am wondering why i was French and inmsomniac, now i know it is to discover your blog

What a bad man i was

. I LOVE your work since a while and in a way because of Frank Zappa ( hey a compliment, you're for me a mix of Tex Avery and Mr Zappa, not too bad )
i simply didn't know you ve got a so good blog , i m reading all of it in the next days . And i m going to draw again like hell and do shit everyday .

Keep on the good work Mr K

Lord Turbine said...

I recently found out that you directed a sequence on Class of 3000 - a sequence which I found to be the only good part of that show so far, but that's besides the point. I look at Class of 3000 outside of your sequence and I see what essentially is modern cartoons with more flexible characters, superior background design, and in terms of actual content (story, characters, plot, writing, etc.), beyond lacking.

I also noticed that you haven't mentioned the Class of 3000 stint on your blog as of yet - what are your feelings concerning the show? I think that in terms of design they're on the right track, but I also think that there's more to a cartoon to just design - which is one of the reasons why older cartoons are so good, is because they also knew this and backed up solid cartooning with excellent writing.

Anonymous said...

Hey John,

I've been working on my cartoony sketches, and I just posted a bunch of them. Even if you don't get a chance to take a look at them, I'm sure some other folks who read this blog will.

They are availible at:

Just scroll down a's worth least to me.

Anonymous said...

its great to learn from you, its teaching me a lot of things that i dont know, i am going to art school as well as study animation but still they dont teach me how to build character stuff. need to start to looking around great people for inspiration and i found your blog :) and animation archive!

i admiring your design and animation :)
thank you so much..

Hryma said...

What the frigg is that Canadian drawing of, the one with the 'Teenagers?'

Anonymous said...

Hey John, what do you think of
Al Hirschfield's work?
No animator I know, but just curiouis

Mcnuggetinator said...

I love these lessons, there so infromative but I dont exactly understand how we can practice this stuff. Were do we start?

By the way, I took your advice you left on my blog and here are the results.

Anonymous said...

Hey John, great stuff!
I'm trying to learn more about the right color for my sketches. Come see my blog:
I'm posting some drawings and I wanted to get your opinion on some. Well, now I only have one. I just started my blog. I can't wait for Sody Pop & George Liquor!

Raff said...

It bugs me SO MUCH when people try to imitate computer crap with their pencils. It's like how drummers imitated loops and drum machines in the 80's.

Last year I was trying to find an animation drawing tutor or teacher (Good luck finding one in Montreal). One dude, 20 years old or so, had a great sense of gesture and knew all the principles but he deliberately flattened it all down into triangles and circles with the big fat silhouette line like so many do now.

I told him, "Man, I can't stand that Tartakofsky/McCracken stuff. It's so flat and alienating!" He said, "You know what? You have to open your mind a bit. I used to hate it too, but the more you draw, the more you'll want to try different things and find out what you really like."

I thought, "I can't be corrupted this easily. I'm going to be very choosy about what I learn from this guy." I'm glad I stuck to my guns.

And get this - these guys are all too quick to blast the 80's cartoons. But the 80's were the last era to have any semblance of volumetric layouts, textured backgrounds, characters who moved in true (albeit very sloppy) 3-dimentional space and even the slightest traces of organic curves.

Now before I get flamed, I don't need a laundry list of things they did wrong in the 80's, I know them all. But my point is that they sure as hell didn't look like



or THIS!!!

ethel aldehyde said...

i'm not sure if you realize how eye-opening your posts are even for non-artists. you're so eloquent and passionate in describing these fundamentals; it's inspiring.

i cannot tell you how many times i read your posts and think "so *that's* why i hate/love this style." thank you so much for verbalizing and illustrating these details. if it's invaluable to me, i can only imagine how helpful it is to artists.

Kris said...

I'm not sure the problem is so much that people are drawing in a flat or geometric style. At least Dexter doesn't move like he's in a Flash cartoon.

I guess that is what I hate most--every new cartoon looks like it was made for the Internet.

Scooter said...

To start off with, I LOVE YOUR WORK. I love your world you create for your animation. You have a formula that you stick with and use threw out everything you do.
What I have a hard time understanding is how you make it seem that if you don't do it your way it WRONG.
Every animation has a style, ingredients they use to make there world come to life. It not wrong if they choose this way and use it threw out there work. I feel that every animation work in diffrent ways. Some animation it very stiff geometrical not organic and IT WORK VERY WELL. People respond to it and like it for what it is. Just because it not flued animation and every frame is a new drawing doesn't meen it doesn't work. Your stuff is amazing for what it is and it work for what you do. But it won't work for everything. So all I'm saying is sometimes people create work that are stiff and geomatric and other work for being smooth and organic. Crude animation make me laugh because of how raw and cheap the animation is. Your stuff make me laugh to in different way. I'm asking do you hate any animation that doesn't use the same tecnique as you.
Most people who comment on this blog make it seem only one way and doesn't look at both sides.

JohnK said...

I just gave about 20 examples of different styles that use organic concepts. Good drawing is not a "style".

The more skills you have the more choices you have.

Flat and badly drawn is not a style. It's just bad. There is only so much you can do with geometry.

Add drawing principles and an infinite variety of styles become possible.

Anonymous said...

I work in an office but have been a doodler and sketcher for years, and i feel i'm never going to stop learning and understanding the concepts of creating fun art to draw and see that's not stale and void of life. I'm reading your blog all the time and taking notes(well practicing the new stuff I learned on my own creations). Thanks. Your statements on cartoons and the cartoons you do show me that my kid will have good cartoons to grow up with and not this ugly factory cartoons all over cable. I'll keep up the learning and doodling. Maybe you'll hear from me one day or receive some of my cartoons. Thanks a million, Mr.K!

Anonymous said...

Just out of curiousity to do you find yourself browsing over to CG Talk?

You're break down of the art styles was straightforward. Could give me some other websites that in your opinion would be benifitial to a art student in computer Animation? I give props to my art teacher for introducing me to you.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Krisfalusi,

Here here! "Bring back elasticity! "

Hello from a retired 2d asst animator/ designer dinosaur...
While I find some designy flat shape animation kind of fun and pretty to look at, I do prefer a little bit of overlapping action in MY scene...
From my more recent experience it's been , "design by schedule", often with a frantic director and nervous producter on my hiney, and knowing that computers can animated a triagle much faster than cartoon shapes with weight and soul and all...well... it's just economics. Anyone who has been in da biz long enough will see that it's the bottom line that matters to many a folk these days. It's a tough to be in a trendy based biz.

Keep up the good fight!

Ms. Jane D'oh
Former Miss Inbetweener USA 1998

chris said...

Toad Patrol, i worked on that retarded, bland and generic piece of toad turd.

*rubs forehead* phew, just had to get that out.

John, you rock my world.

John Paul Cassidy said...

I hope you don't think that Richard Williams (one of my favorite animators ever) is one of those "dirty Canadian" animators (yes, he's Canadian, although he lives in England)!

Ehh, I know you don't. :)

Laura Hamby said...

Hi! What a wonderful blog you have here. Found it by pure chance while searching online for an example of an organic drawing for my son, to help him with his art homework assignment. Thanks.

Dante Rivas said...

John, there is something I don't quite understand, I would like to know your opinion: Why does Alex Ross draws geometric versions of DC superheroes?-I found some in his page... I know he sells 'Em, well, but I don't know what might he feel about that kind of drawns... I thought if you don't know the reason, atleast maybe you can tell me what you think about that. Hehe, I hope I made my question clear, I don't speak english very well... Did I tell you I learned to speak english thanks to Ren & Stimpy? Haha, sure I did in some other post, I just wanted to thank you again :)

el_lang said...

I think I am an old fashioned artist even while I am 28.when I was a kid I was taught never to use the ruler for drawing,I thing this is one of the reasons why I can`t draw using shape tools on computer. I just recall this after reading this post...

mom said...

Thank you for the great description of the difference between organic and geometric shapes. I used your blog to help my son with his homework:)

el chachi said...

Thank you jhon this is for me a great help.
Im form argentina and in this moment im studing this form of draw.

Thank you very much!

SparkyMK3 said...

John, that Batman design is a redesign from the retooled version of the Batman Animated Series, which donned the characeters with those awful geometric corner-covered designs.

The original episodes were much, much better designed, having actual construction and weight in the designs--although it's still really stiff and crudely animated, so it's still not something you'd want to watch.

Apparently the original designs were too much for the budget, so they opted for those geometric designs later.