Saturday, September 22, 2007

Toy Drawing 1: Top Cat Turnaround Toy Construction Exercise

Toys are Better Than Life Drawing for Cartoon Construction Studies
Life drawing in theory can be useful to an animator. It can teach you perspective and construction, foreshortening and the like, but in reality, it's very hard to look at very complicated structures of human beings and break them down into fundamentals you can use for cartoon shapes.

You get too easily distracted and confused by the tons of details on real live creatures. You can't see the underlying forms easily.

Most cartoons don't show any important influence from life drawing anyway. Even the ones that are supposed to be "realistic". They suffer from the confusion between detail and form. Form is more important than detail.

I'd put some examples up, but some folks will freak out.

The details need to follow the physics of the forms, and the more detailed your cartoon design is, the harder it is to control - especially if the underlying form is faulty to begin with. Drawing well sculptured toys makes the fundamentals of construction and perspective much easier to grasp, and just as importantly to then be able to instantly apply them to your cartoon drawings.

When you turn a toy around, you can see how the features change shape as they bend around the curved surfaces.If the head tilts up, then the features that stick out (noses) start to obscure the features above. You see more of the underside of the form than the top. This may sound obvious, but try to draw it!

Construction is not something that comes natural to me. I naturally draw "by design", that is to just put shapes that balance well together in 2 dimensions. That's a fault, because it doesn't mean the characters will turn well when animated.

Some folks have a natural eye (or brain) for construction - like Jim Smith, who just somehow sees the structure of something instantly. I see the details first and have to force myself to think about forms. (Squinting your eyes helps blur details and allows you to see the underlying structures better)

When I draw toys, it helps me to get more used to the logic of structures in space. If I did it a lot, it would start to become second nature and I wouldn't have to think about it so much.

Today, when almost everybody draws ridiculously flat, real animation can't even exist. We have to rely on silly tricks to zip characters from one abstract flat pose to the next. This severely limits what we can achieve creatively.

WHEN YOU COPY, DRAW SLOW, CAREFUL AND THINKNote on the 3/4 poses, the feet have no perspective...(except for that pink stumpy thing on the right)

When you copy something, there is a purpose to it: to learn something. If you draw too fast, you will not learn anything.

You want to carefully study your model.

When I am learning something, I tend to draw stiff, because I am thinking about what I am trying to learn. The drawings don't come out all pretty with clean flowing lines and stuff.

When you study, you are trying to be accurate, as opposed to beautiful and flowing.

Once you have done your stiff drawings, you can loosen up a bit and then try again from memory and see if what you learned sunk in.

I did this quick sketch at a pizza joint a couple days after my Top Cat study. It's a little wonky, but some of what I sketched slowly 2 days earlier sunk in.

If you also start to study and you draw slowly and carefully, and critique your own studies honestly, then you will absorb much information that later you can apply to your own work.

If you want to learn construction well, this is a very good exercise. Draw toys. You can draw the same angles that I did above and compare them to mine, then try these new angles below.

If you want me to critique them, put links in the comments to your drawings.You can also take your drawings into Photoshop along with the photos and lay them on top of each other at a % to check how accurate your copies are.

See, Kali is doing it:


Treasure said...

If a person also molded their own characters out of clay(assuming they were fairly good at sculpting), could that also help them to avoid drawing flat characters?

Gabriel said...

I'd put some examples up, but some folks will freak out.

Please show us!! It's good to freak out once in a while anyway!

Andy J. Latham said...

John, from a learner's point of view, it is nice to hear what you find difficult to do. This stuff is difficult to get right and it's comforting to know that it doesn't come easily even to the pros!
Visit Andy's Animation!

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Great post. However, I'd definitly argue that if possible, you should always use toys, not photographs of toys. I recently asked a new drawing teacher/mentor of mine if I should still be taking life drawing classes if I feel I don't get much from the teachers there, while there are plenty of pictures on the internet to draw from. What he answered really hit me as truthful: drawing is really about solving things, so when you're drawing from life, you're trying to accurately represent what you're seeing. Photographs already solve some parts for you. They already offer you certain solutions.

Steve said...


Cool Blog.

Some of the stuff here drives me nuts, but the toy conversation is pretty smart.

How do you design stuff so it feels real and three dimensional when it starts as two dimensional? Practice drawing things that were two dimensional and became three dimensional.

If only I could draw...

JohnK said...

>>However, I'd definitly argue that if possible, you should always use toys, not photographs of toys.<<

I did use a real toy, but for those of you who don't have a good toy, I took pictures, which are better than nothing, and it's good that they do solve some problems for you.

Hardly anybody can draw construction at all today.
I want to help by trying to make tte concept as clear as possible.

Anonymous said...

I've done the exercise, John. My pitiful attempts can be found here.

John Young said...

god damn it! I never wanted to be one of these dorks that has a lot of toys around. What if i ever have a girl over? she's gonna think i'm a man child. Now you're telling me i have to own toys to be a good drawer? oh well, off to walmart i guess.

Pete Emslie said...

It's neat that you've written this up as a well thought out drawing exercise. Altough I don't actually teach this in my Character Design course at Sheridan, I have given this exercise out to individual students who are obviously having difficulty grasping the idea of showing solid structure. Like you, I also show them the process using big vinyl cartoon figurines because of the simplicity of the forms. Sometimes they want to practice using their action figures, which I have to discourage because of the complexity and smaller details that sort of defeats the purpose. My toy of choice is a big vinyl Donald Duck coin bank which was very appealingly designed by one of the artists who used to work in Disney's New York art department. (I believe it might have been Bob McKnight -do you know him, John?) Anyway, great lesson to help your readers get their drawing skills up to speed!

Brandon Ayers said...

This is like the Preston Blair book where you drawn on an egg right? Same principals? Good stuff John, always glad to see you pushing aspiring animator's to do things right.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Oh yeah, John, I know you use actual toys. And the photos are perfect to explain what you're talking about. The "you" of my comment was simply aimed more at people who want to try the exercise.

The problem with pictures solving things for you can be that you're doing things right, but you don't know why. It's similar to your posts on not just copying other artist's drawings, but really going through the whole process they went through.

:: smo :: said...

thanks for this. i'm going to give it a shot. similarly i really think it helps to work with clay and build your character, i was working out a maquette last night for something i'd like to make.

Mitch said...

Hee John,

Great lesson, really usefull. Too bad I don't have such cool toys. So I used the pictures.

I did an attempt, maybe you wanna look at it.

Every time if I see the scan on the computer I see all kinds of mistakes.. I can't stand it that I don't see that sooner.

Mitch said...

Hmmm... maybe I need to take an egg to practise this, like in the preston blair book.

crazyharmke said...

Hi John, your post inspired me to write a post about construction too:

I'll try to draw Top Cat it later today and post that on my blog too.

JohnH said...

So nice! Thank you for this post!

Callum said...

This looks like a really good exercise, I'm gonna give it a shot and upload the pics later.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

A terrific lesson! Thanks much! I like what Benjamin said too!

sarah j. said...

benjamin de schrijver: Yeah, my old art teacher said the same thing. Something about how the photo flattens the figure and freezes the perspective for you. Well, if I want to draw a dang gargoyle, African native, or Venetian street scene, I don't have many options, do I, Mrs. Riley?

So, until I can get ahold of some soakys on ebay (soon, hopefully), these photostudies are going to be a great asset. Thanks for the photos, John! I'll be sketching TC all weekend!

The Butcher said...

"I'd put some examples up, but some folks will freak out."

Let em' freak out anyway. The rest of us shouldn't be deprived because of them.

PCUnfunny said...

John I uploaded my attempts at Top Cat head construction on my blog along with sketching funny faces from THE HONEYMOONERS. Please take a look !

PCUnfunny said...

Oh and if you see the Ren and Stimpy drawings, I am sorry. I didn't mean to insult you but I wanted to try a tutorial I found at a R&S fansite.

BrianMORANTE said...

Great post, John. They had us draw toys in my animation class in high school. I wish I had done more of that because structure still does not come easy to me.

Kelly Toon said...

where the heck do you find all of your cool toys, john (and Kali and anybody else)? Are they thrift-store finds? ebay? conventions? dumpster diving?

I will get right on drawing from our topcat toy, and try to find some appropriate fors to draw from around here. Would you recommend sculpting a simple figure out of clay to study from different angles? Seems like it should work pretty well, if you make one out of cylinders , balls, cones, ala rubberhose.

I have completed a few pages from Preston Blair

Construction 101
Tom and Jerry +1

please take a look, do they look solid and well-constructed? I have also copied several of the sody/raketu frames and the Mr Horse from a few posts ago. Is it alright if I post them on my blog?

Thanks for being so educational!!

Taber said...

Woo, this seems to be pretty difficult, even if it is easier than a life drawing. I'll give this a whirl tomorrow and post up what I got. Thanks John!

Callum said...

Just uploaded my attempt at this, and it's a lot more difficult than I thought.
By the way, an antique bookshop near me has some 1930's mickey mouse annuals and loads of old 19th century punch almanacs- should I get some to study?

Mitch said...

I did a new attempt. But argh its hard to do! It almost drive me nuts :p
my attempt

Matt Greenwood said...

I had a few attempts at it but I'll probably keep updating this link with more:

Thanks for the lesson.

Raff said...

I used to do this. I should have kept it up.

One thing I'll say about life drawing: If you look at drawings of Tom and Jerry and see Tom's limbs, they aren't pipes. There are hints in the curves of deltoids and triceps and such. Body parts change appearance when they change position, so life drawing can help with things like bending or raising an arm, drawing a knee, etc.

Anonymous said...

I did more attempts of drawing the Top Cat toy. Check them out here.

If you didn't notice, I updated the original post.

Kim said...

Here's my first attempt. I'll add to it later.

I used to draw toys all the time as a kid.

Taber said...

Here's my attempt:

q.j.p. said...

Hi John,

I don't know if this post of yours was in response to my comment in your earlier thread, but, regardless, thank you very much for it. Unfortunately, I haven't any good old vinyl toys to draw, but your photographs will make for a good start.

I do have another question, however. In previous posts of yours, you've expressed some fondness for the animation of Glen Keane. Now, I can't find a great deal of information on him, but would you disagree with the possibility that his sort of animation of force, and its influence upon the shapes of gestures, grounded as they are in anatomy -- would you disagree with the possibility that this quality of his work was the result of much practice in the kind of "scribbly" life-drawing that you seem averse to?

I mean, watching videos of the man drawing, that's what his sketches look like: scribbly life-drawings, the kind of gesture sketches that they emphasize at schools like CalArts.

I ask this question with the objective of understanding how I, too, can achieve some of that forceful quality that we see in Keane's early works. Anything that you can instruct on the subject would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you.

Gordon T. said...

There will be further updates soon, please have a look. Thanks.

Stupid Demon said...

Thank you for this.
As a semi-pro sculptor/ animation student I see so many drawings that make me really feel sorry for somebody who have to sculpt this down the road. Look at the fairly odd parents toys. The link there both way people the “illusion of life” shoes use that Disney made sculpts for many of there films. Mass in your drawings will make them look better or at the least not give the toy sculptor down the line sleepless nights.

Peter F. Bernard, Jr. said...

You know that on the liberal blogs, "wonky" is a compliment. It doesn't mean the same thing as when cartoonists use it though, it sort of means "learned in a nerdy way" to liberals. The first cartoonist I ever heard use that word was Jim Woodring, BTW.

Jeremy said...

here's what i tossed together:

crazyharmke said...

Hey John,

I bought a toy! :D
Can you please tell me if it is good enough for training?

This is my blog:



Rocky Sanchez Animation Blog said...

It is kind of weird that most of the people doing these lessons do not own one toy and want to be animators. I can see why John made that age comment. You can really see from everyones blogs on here the differince in working with a 3d model and using the pics from johns top cat design. Most who did a couple of johns top cat failed and moved on to the next lesson. I will be sticking with the toys for a while untill I can really show that Im ready for lesson 2. I think it is a shame no is posting there toy models on here.
The cheapest and simple toy I can think of is Mr. potato head at Right Aid for 8.00. Its pritty simaler to the egg model that most jumped .
Guys worried about what girls think of owning a toy you should be more worried about what they think of a poor , crappy artist.

The Astonishing Adventures of Action Steve said...

Have bought 3 6" vinyl toys. 3 dwarfs from snow white. Will post drawings.

Getting the cartoon party started.

Mabelma said...

Hey John, I tried out the exercise and I plan to do everything I can do become a better artist/cartoonist and it would be great if you could critic it here;

IsaacMcRobers said...
I love this blog. in the 2 days ive seen it, ive learned more than i ever did in art class in 6 grade. I tried doing the top cat drawing. Its done in pencil so it looks kind of crappy, but id really like you to critique it.


TWill said...

Hey John

Here are my top cat constructions that I've been working on for the last couple of months.

Top Cat Toy Construction

Beeper said...

Hi John! Thanks for all of these amazing lessons. They're a big help especially because I'm 12 and I can't get a degree or anything in animation, and as you said, you usually learn nothing that way. I hate to sound like I'm trying to get attention (well, I am trying to get attention) but could you check out my drawings for this lesson? Thanks! I would love to hear your opnion.

David said...

Hi John

Here are my drawings for the Toy Construction Exercise

Comments, advice and feedback appreciated

Tomcil said...

Excuse me John K, what kind of toys should one draw from? Should it be old, based of Cartoon toys or any kind of toys?

lordsifl said...

I assume you are advisinf us to use toys based on simple shapes like spheres and tubes and other primitive shapes and not have to go to toy shows and but top cat toys.

Jono Willis said...

Hi John, here's my Top Cat turnaround drawings x 10. Found here!

Jono Willis said...

Hi John,
I've laid my originals over the top of the photos for comparison -- by the ancients!
Jono Willis' Top Cat comparisons

islandheroes said...

Hey John, I know you collect cool old toys so I thought I'd send you this link to an ebay listing. It is outta my price range otherwise I would buy it but you might be interested:
Flinstones Baby Puss Vinyl Toy
Have a good day,