Saturday, February 13, 2010

"How Can I Get Life In My Drawings?" - Tell A Story

If you agree with my dead cartoon style theory and you yourself would like to draw with life rather than death, here's a tip: DRAW STORIES

Write a short simple story and draw your characters performing it. Either in a comic or a storyboard format.

This forces you to draw characters, poses and expressions in context, rather than in the abstract. Your poses have a reason to exist.
This is much better for you than drawing random doodles in a sketchbook. When you do that, your drawings are slaves to luck and the skill of your wrist flicks-but the drawings don't mean anything because they have no other purpose but to exist in an obscure sketchbook. Or on your blog or Deviantart.
There is a huge difference between being able to draw a character that looks sort of like a character - and actually telling a story with pictures. Huge. The second thing is much harder, more important, and infinitely more rewarding.
All these individual Jim Tyer drawings have attitude and life, but they are part of a story and that naturally inspires him to draw certain poses-not random ones, not only poses that he's already memorized, but specific poses that tell the story and are funny.
When you read the actual story in continuity, you can see the characters change attitude, poses and expressions from panel to panel.
Someone in the comments the other day sent me a link of some superhero teenagers from an old Hanna Barbera cartoon series-but drawn in a more modern angular style. His point was to show me that even though the original designs were bland, a talented artist could make them look cool and hip. I looked at the drawing and just saw the same characters standing straight up and down smiling, like they were right off a model sheet. They weren't doing anything. Characters who do things are much more fun than characters who stand around posing as if for a family photo.

That's what is so bad about the modern idea of staying "on-model". Most modern model sheets just show the characters standing, doing nothing. And if that's what staying "on-model" means, who needs it?

The best model sheets are the ones that are made after a cartoon is finished - not before. They used to take poses that the directors and animators drew and paste them onto a sheet so that other animators could see the characters alive, doing things and feeling things.

This doesn't mean you should steal these exact poses and use them in place of poses customized to your story. That's another problem we have in animation today. We use the same poses and expressions that we have seen in other cartoons - instead of treating each character and story as something new.
I worked on stuff like this for years and it was torture to draw such deadness - or trace it, which is what they wanted me to do.

I know when I try to just draw a character for somebody, out of context - not part of a story, I tend to draw stiff. My most lively drawings are done when I'm thinking about what the characters are doing and why, instead of merely what they look like.

That's why "designers" should have less say in the total look of a cartoon than they do today. The designs should be allowed to constantly improve as the actual storytellers put the characters into action, rather than just tracing the model sheets.


I have lots more to say on the subject of getting life into animation again, but I'll wait and see how this goes over.


Jeff M said...

I love this. I've found this to be true in my own artwork. I've learned more about drawing and posing figures from drawing comics than drawing in my sketchbook. It forces you to draw things you would never think of when drawing a single piece of art.

I had to get over the mentality that all my comics had to look perfect when finished. Sometimes you draw something that looks horrible but you learn from it and try not to make the same mistakes with your next project.

Anonymous said...

I love the expressions seen in the MM comic pages you've provided. The only thing irking me is how unclear or unstable some of the stances are. Maybe that's due to some printing issues that were very common back in the day, who knows. However they're more appealing than that Tom design. Geugh... none of his stances even make sense and he looks a bit constipated, haha.

rob mac said...

I find the same thing when i doodle. It can be frustrating when your sitting there with pencil in hand,deciding to draw some character doing noting much in particular.

Its much easier to have a set goal and action thought out before hand & helps you to draw with confidence. Its like i have a confirmed destination in mind by which i can measure if i have been successful or not

thomas said...

I don't really know, but judging from the blog, there's probably not much difference, in the animation industry's eyes, between writing for film and writing for cartoons. But there are some very big differences.

Obviously, in film you have actors; organic entities with their own autonomy, who take a script and bring it to life. Cartoons are two dimensional, and don't have any autonomy of their own. You can't just hand Mighty Mouse a script, and say here, have a go at it.

It might make a good cartoon, perhaps Bobby Bigloaf in the future, as a animation writer working on a cartoon, but the cartoon characters keep going off script, and also going off model; morphing into horrible monsters.

J. Anderson said...

Hi, John.
I would like to hear you about this new "technique" that I'm seeing in all the new shows. It's a kind of a violent move from pose to pose, like a punch, but with the head, the body, everything. Even in 3d animated films. Discovery Kids is flooded with this bad "solution" for cheap animation. Where it came from? Who started it?

Niki said...

I just realized that those dead model sheets look as if a coroner has been examining a body. I actually saw the Deviantart page you were talking about, I liked his work from a distance, and then I got close and was completely disappointed.

talkingtj said...

this is what i aim for when i draw-i had a friend in high school who was into fantasy illustration-vallejo-frazetta and such-he wanted to be a "serious" artist-i often told him(at my young age)that dali and picasso were serious, not vallejo-i used to tell him to try cartooning to some emotion-some fluidity into his work-he didnt get it-hated cartoons-not serious enough for him-i have encountered that attitude ever since-even recently while doing some art therapy-the instructor told me-youve got serious talent but i need to break you of your bad cartoon habits-this really happened-people like stiff art because they have no imagination, its all about their ego-the old "im a serious artist" routine-yet they dont possess the skill or the vision to be a "serious"artist-the least you can do is entertain an audience-reflect lifes little absurdities-whats so demeaning about that? art is in the eye of the beholder-in my eyes kirby is just as relevant as dali-bashki is just as relevant as michealangelo-cartoons are alive-like me-energetic and fun-i wont give it up, i like my bad habit.

Anonymous said...

rob mac:

I agree with you. If you look through my blog or gallery I have a tendency to concentrate more on the visuals such as color and rendering, than I do on the characters themselves.

I think this trend is becoming more prevalent in artists today because, as several people have stated. There are few good shows to be inspired by. So you're bound to restrict yourself to industry standards.

I greatly dislike that when I'm commissioned by companies to illustrate things for kids products they want bland Disney, or bland Highlights.

I've been told numerous times that the characters look too "homely" or that they're showing too much emotion. What the hell does that even mean?
Seriously, one commission I had pictured a child receiving news that his mother had died in childbirth. And all I could do was a slight dejected stance of apathy.... what - WHAT?!

Tangent... sorry. In short, I agree with you, John, and I really need to rework myself.

Carlos said...

I want to ask you about writing a simple story. I read your previous post about writing cartoons. You talk about coming up with a premise and having the no no sessions and putting that stuff together into a cohesive story. Would that be the same process you're talking about here or would you literally just write a paragraph or so, in addition to a premise, and then draw a story around that? I love your blogs and thank you so much for all the time you've invested in it. I will be doing my part as soon as I can. Thanks sir.

Elana Pritchard said...

Ooooooh cool. A challenge!

I will draw a little story out. Give me a couple days....

Elana Pritchard said...

p.s. I went to a Bugs Bunny film festival yesterday and it was brilliant to experience those cartoons on a big screen.

Mike Kevan said...

What an incredibly simple piece of advice which just makes so much sense, you wonder why you haven't heard it before. Wish someone had said this to me a few years ago, would have a made a lot of my older sketchbooks much more interesting.
Cheers John!

HemlockMan said...

The only time I tried to draw sequential art was when I was a kid. And I generally illustrated really stupid superhero comics packed end to end with swipes from Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, and John Buscema.

Yep. Draw a story from life. That's what I'd do if I was going to put away the wordprocessor and take up the pen & ink again.

spøf said...

Every post you make is like a beam of light in the darkness! You should write a textbook on cartooning, the world really needs it. So many bland expressionless comics come out that it's almost become a 'style' of its own. Alarming!

Herman G said...

Glad I learned to draw comics 1st " story " the character in context does make big difference like night and day. Thanks for the post

GoldDarkShadow said...

This is all true, when I try to draw something with out really thinking, I can't get anything done(which takes me an hour to think of something), But, when there is a story involve and when I draw the characters that make up the story, they come to life and they are not lifeless and your force to draw something that you haven't thought possible.

vhpayes said...

Thanks for the great advise. I'm going to start doing that right away. I'm totally guilty of drawing lone floating figures and faces in a sketchbook. That stops now. I think drawing a story will also invigorate me to draw more often and have more fun doing it.

Mykal said...

John: Thanks for the swell advice. Never thought of that, but it sure makes perfect sense and sure feels right. Even for a hobbiest-sketcher like me, I have to give it a try. It does seem harder that just focusing on a panel, though, but no pain no gain, like they say. -- Mykal

RooniMan said...

I can do this! I'll just think of a story. *ponders*

Scorrigan Corrigan said...

Hey, John, I think I might have fond the genesis of this horrible dead-ening. Bauhaus. I went to the MOMA recently, and the Bauhaus school was notable in that it taught pure abstraction to students first while other schools had first years copying master works.

Now, it took some 50 years to drip into the animation world, but that sounds about right for 70s and 80s animation; no knowledge of form.

Also, I have been following a sloppy version of your coursework (copying, but not yet underlighting for comparison) and, MAN are yogi comics ever hard to draw. solid forms overlaid with non logical angles on the feet and arms. I think ill go back to freddy moore model sheets for a bit.

drawingtherightway said...

Maybe coming up with a story for the characters in the Preston Blair book would be helpful. Of course I need a lot more practice with the poses that are already in the book!

sagelights said...

I want to understand the model sheet stuff. In the early days of animation the model sheets were never done as a front, 3/4, and profile, etc? Or did they have these pose model sheets to supplement the bland (front, profile, etc) ones?

Also how do they determine height for characters, was there anything for that? I would like to see any if there are.

Conceit Arturo said...

Hey John, I made that post about "realistic" anime back at the filmation post....did u see the links there?

I can totally agree with you about all the stuff you've pointed to in the eighties...there's just one american comic from that time that I do respect and love, it's Calvin & Hobbes I love the characters, the drawing and the story. Maybe the designs are a little minimalistic but whenever they're called for we see great cartoony expressions. I would love to see what you think about it.

xynphix said...

Thanks John K. This is a great piece of advice that most people wouldn't think of.

How many web comics are what I refer to as "action heads"? That is, just the same headshot cut and pasted with dialogue. Newspaper comics aren't much better. Garfield, now there's a lively comic!!! (I hope nobody takes seriously for that one!!!)

A funny story: I once had to design characters for a highway safety comic, it had to be a group of 5 truckers. Of course, as you may was supposed to be a blonde redneck type, one was black, one was medium toned skin to cover both asian or hispanic and the fourth and 5th ones were, well, you probably guessed it, a white woman and medium to dark toned woman. I came up with 5 totally different designs to represent each race. I must say, I think I had a lot of personality in the way I designed them, can guess what happened when I showed them.... The head of the company only liked the blonde trucker and white woman design (the most generic looking ones), he told me to draw the same exact guy 2 more times, color one brown for the black trucker and color the other one light brown for the Latino/Asian. Same with the girl truckers.

I think the best answer to everything is "SAFETY" Blandness is safe. End of story.

This link is just as inspirational as this blog, well, quite appropriately so, when you see who's giving the panel:

JLG said...

I'm a comicker (my strip is here:, and I find I have the opposite problem---much of the time, my weakest drawings are the ones done in stories/sequences. Somehow, when I have to put drawings in li'l boxes, I tend to cramp up and get ungainly and awkward. Yes, I have a lot of awkwardness to work out of my system anyway (something that following the lessons on this blog would probably help with a lot), but this has been a consistent problem for a long time. Since committing myself to a weekly strip 67 weeks ago, though, it's gotten a little better.
When I sketch poses that are just so, free of any context, I often have a specific scene in mind or a specific piece of action that's being performed in my head, and that's why those drawings don't often fall into the "standing around" trap. They tend to be a lot stronger. But once I put those panels around 'em..... I dunno. Must be a psychological thing.

Brian Godinez said...

hi john
huge revelation
better than ANY advice i got in school
please more
thanks in advance

JLG said...

By the way I don't think that Bernard model sheet is a fair comparison to the TV stuff it's posted with. That one's just a head sheet, seemingly intended only to make sure everyone was one the same page regarding the basic structure of the head. There were probably other models depicting full body poses. Given other Disney model sheets I've seen, they certainly wouldn't have looked anything like the simple turnarounds where the characters aren't doing much of anything.

I don't know how many of ye are familiar with Scott Roberts, but he's one of the funniest comic artists out there. Here's a short story starring his best known character:

Patty Cake was in development at Cinar at one point, but the project was dropped. Here's a model sheet they dummied up:

As you can see, it's a pretty good, if slightly watered down, interpretation of the character. The model sheet is a turnaround, but she's actually DOING things in the different poses, so I would imagine it's a huge improvement over what's posted here.

Nicol3 said...

Crucial advice Papa John. Some of the best stories are enhanced by the mental images we attribute to the text. So it's naturally wise to make your images truly reflect/play out a story.



Anonymous said...

"The designs should be allowed to constantly approve"? Improve?

Dorseytunes said...

Thanks for the great advice John. The other day I was doodling and came up with a quick little story. I found it liberating not to worry about being on model and all that. I just drew quick and tried to get the jist of the feelings. If you want to check it out. Here's the link.

Katy Lloyd said...

I've just had one of those "why didn't I think of this before?!!" moments...
Thanks for the advice! I'm excited to start doing this straight away!
I've always been pretty lousy at thinking of nice complete story arcs, but little moments of drama or mystery are fun to play around with.

K. Nacht said...

Hey Johnny, why doncha talk to poster JLG, below, about (composition) layout.

Organization of space incredibly orients your drawing even in those "little boxes".

Even John's notepaper roughs bely an awkward sense of space, like a Peanuts horizontal ground plane at a tilt. A nearly Cubist sense of perspective reduction! Then Jim comes and shapes it up.

Juz Capes said...

It's the same when you're at an event and someone brings out a camera, people pose and pull faces and hold things up to show what they're doing, or that they're having lots of fun.

It's always better to take snaps when people are not aware of the camera, real situations or actions or facial expressions. People looking bored or counting the change in their hand or eating etc.

Martin Juneau said...

I worked since last year in solo to a comic project and i feel proud that some scenes i can't really executed in a one-shot drawing can turn lively in a comic. I already do one-shot comics in the past but turned it in a story is a other thing.

I was mostly inspired by
Belgium comics-artists like Morris, Roba and Franquin which was my favorites.

Chris R. said...

Hey John,

I love your blog! Carlos Spivey and Rob Burchfield taught me to animate at Loyola Marymount (do you know those guys?).

I am currently working on getting my master's degree in art education so that I can start up a good animation program at a lucky high school.

I know you are a busy guy, but I would love to hear your thoughts on my cartoon: "The Extraterrestrial Emancipation of Ebeneezer Pittsnoggle." It is @

It is my first animation with sound, so it is far from perfect. I made this 7 minute cartoon all by myself and used shortcuts you might hate, but go ahead an be brutally honest with your critique. It won't hurt my feelings. Hopefully you enjoy aspects of it, though. You should be able to tell that I have been influenced by The Simpsons, R. Crumb, and you, among others.

Feel free to post a link to it on your site if it is worthy. Fellow John K. fans, your opinions are valued as well.

-Chris Riazi

P.S. I realize this may not have been the proper place to post this, and will use a different contact method if you have a preference, Sir John.

JoeC said...

When I work on my animatioms, I am thinking about three things. Line of story, camera movement, and expressions. Even the most slight will be noticed. I just started doing animation and I am new to your blog John, I enjoy it very much! Sometime I would like to hear your thoughts on the connection of music to cartoons and the great role it plays. From golden age to now.

JoeC said...

When I work on my animatioms, I am thinking about three things. Line of story, camera movement, and expressions. Even the most slight will be noticed. I just started doing animation and I am new to your blog John, I enjoy it very much! Sometime I would like to hear your thoughts on the connection of music to cartoons and the great role it plays. From golden age to now.

David Nethery said...

"I know when I try to just draw a character for somebody, out of context - not part of a story, I tend to draw stiff. My most lively drawings are done when I'm thinking about what the characters are doing and why, instead of merely what they look like."


This is SO TRUE. A great bit of insight. I never put it into words as you have here, but I know from experience this is true. Random drawings with no context , without specific "acting" in them are often bland or stiff.

I feel the same way about "animation tests" ... I have a hard time getting inspired to animate a character moving around just for the sake of movement that doesn't fit into a real story in a tangible way . Give me an actual production scene where I can look at the storyboard, with the scenes that come before/after my scene and I'll have no problem getting into it , but I find that I've got to have that story context to animate anything decent.

And absolutely the best model sheets come from pasting up key drawings from actual animation , rather than simply drawing "poses" , or the worst thing which is the stiff 5 point turn-around. The turnaround models may be a necessary evil when first constructing and designing a character, but those are usually the stiffest, most unappealing drawings. The turnaround should be adjusted after the first successful animation of a character has been approved , to reflect the discoveries that the animator has made when actually moving the forms around during animation. (unfortunately, as you have pointed out , often times it is the opposite which happens: the first stiff model sheet drawings are used as a straightjacket to prevent the animators from pushing the model and distorting the shapes, so the animation ends up as stiff as the boring 5-point turnaround --- Front - 3/4 - Profile - 3/4 back - Back view. )

martinus said...

Hi John.

Just regarding a previous post on popeye and yogi being pefect in three dimensions,
here's a little short bit of stop frame animation of Fred Flintstone made by Screen Novelties.

Jack G. said...

It sounds so obvious - but I never thought about this. A good tip.

But I tend to draw like a slob when I'm trying to do a story sequence. The drawings become totally indecipherable if I set them aside for too long.

I wish I could do it like Uncle Eddie does - simple and expressive drawings that tell a story.

Zoran Taylor said...

@J. Anderson - John dissects that here.

@Conceit Arturo - I've done a post about thosecartoony drawings. And the desings might be "minimalistic", but don't you DARE say they're easy to draw. You have no idea...

AtomicTiki said...

John, as an artist is it easier to write the narrative first in loose terms (or concepts) and then do rough artwork and script it in detail afterward? Or is the flow more of a mish-mash where some artwork and writing is done up front.

Or is it something that should be left to the individual?


ca60gregory said...

Tom is so brave, always a smile on his face even though he appears to be going through life with wooden legs, inspiring!

Alex said...

This is the same lesson I got from my animation professor back in December - a Disney veteran no less. Thanks for this post.

Also, Tom and Jerry Kids: the face of evil!

Roberto González said...

I think it's a good advice, but it doesn't totally work for me.

Thing is I tend to draw crazier and sometimes more interesting poses when I simply make drawings without thinking about a story.

When I draw a comic I tend to get too serious and less relaxed and I have to think in context too. In context it's easier to use a "normal" expression rather than drawing a really crazy one. Of course the crazy one will be really cool if you use it in the rigth context, but sometimes I can't find the context to use them.

That's another difficult part of the process to me, finding an "excuse" to fit some really fun poses I draw when I don't think about anything.

Though sometimes, when I'm lucky, those crazy drawings give me the actual idea for the story.

Kingfish said...

Great stuff John. I'm gonna try this. I haven't written a comic book-style story since high school but I think you're right, it makes the most sense in terms of finding new poses and expressions for a character.

Would you recommend trying this with established characters like Donald Duck or something to cook up unique poses?

Zoran Taylor said...

@Roberto - You need a crazy story to do crazy drawings. That may be where the problem lies....

Gabriele_Gabba said...

That's a very good point John. I'm always feeling stumped when i'm required to draw single images. Often i have to ask myself, just what is this character gonna be doing?

Thanks for the advice :)

Tanya said...

"The best model sheets are the ones that are made after a cartoon is finished - not before."

That alone explains a lot. I've learned a lot about cartooning/animation in the past year or so, but you've been the best resource for me - because now I appreciate the understanding of what happened between the classic and modern cartoons.

What you say makes so much sense that it's amazing that so many artists/designers continue to make the same mistakes. A writer doesn't write up stand-alone "character descriptions" right off the bat - the characters are allowed to come to life in a story. If that's the case there, then it should be especially true for animation.

I love these sort of posts, I can't read enough of them. :)

richfeet said...

I read this and i can relate. I like drawing cartoons but they looked lifeless and stiff but then I used my pencil and drew a square and a simple picture. Then I drew another square and asked what happens next. That's why I like storyboards a lot. Storytelling really is a building block to cartooning.
Keep on drawing sir.

Marty Fugate said...

Amen, brother.

OK, here's what I know. If you want your stories to live ...

1. Thou shalt draw stories.

I'm echoing John's point, but don't draw abstractions; draw in context; draw stories.

A story doesn't exist in your mind, it exists on paper.

Draw all the time. Draw quickly.

Draw stories.

If you get into the groove, the yucks that will hit the audience will hit you when you're drawing the story for the first time. You're the first audience!

2. Thou shalt draw in character

Character creates stories, not the other way around.

Believe in the scrawls you're putting on paper.

Do character voices. Do sound effects.

Set the mystic eediots on paper FREE to do something in character.

Or not.

3. Thou shalt improv.

What you're doing, if you're doing it right, is basically Second City-style improv on paper.

(Note: This is not the current fad of idiotic Viola Spolin improv games. It's improv within a story structure.)

Basically, you start with a premise, you riff on the premise, then let the story grow to its organic conclusion.

Ben Cohen said...

Every cartoonist should at one point in their life go through the process of writing, laying out, penciling, lettering, inking, coloring and publishing a comic (minimum 8 pages). It was the skill of comics cartoonists that birthed animation. Just as the comics cartoonist owes something to the skills in illustration and illustration owes skills to the painter, and the painter to the drawer. As a comics cartoonist I am constantly humbled with all that can and does go into creating comics. Most of these lessons are clearly applicable to all storytelling mediums. Animation owes much to its often less respected parent (comics) and anyone who has been paying close attention can tell you that comics as a medium has evolved in a way that brings new lessons for animators as it also brings legitimacy to a century long claim to being fine art and literature, as well as fun entertainment.

TWill said...

Here a comic I did for Christmas this year, and ironically it has to do with Mighty Mouse.

Mighty Mouse Saves Christmas

It was my first one, but it was inspired by reading this post when it was first posted. After drawing the Mighty Mouse model sheet, I felt like drawing him in a comic. I feel like it pushed me to draw a lot better.