For this next part of my writing about art I want to talk about basic drawing. This is not about basic drawing lessons but about how a person perceives basic drawing. It’s a bit of an oddball subject for basic drawing and one which I have never seen addressed but it’s important to me because it took me until I was about thirty years old to realize that all the basic drawing methods I had learned were wrong for me. I didn’t see things in the way that the lessons wanted me to see them. I’m talking about the very first lines that I put on paper after I have an idea of what I want to draw.

Lets say I get it in my head to draw a man standing and leaning on a cane. How do I start? If I’m drawing from life I get a model and have him stand there with a cane. Or I could take or find a picture of a man with a cane. I’m ignoring those choices for now. For this thought exercise I am not making a drawing using any reference. I am drawing from my imagination. So how do I start? Usually with proportion. I indicate the top of the head and the bottom of the feet with the crotch usually right in the middle of the body’s height. That’s about what every type of basic drawing starts with. The standard idea of how the body will fit on the paper. Life drawing classes, study, and observation usually come before this stage so you can learn the proportions but once again that’s not what I’m talking about right now.

The basic drawing technique that is usually taught is to think of the body as a series of basic shapes. It makes sense. The arms are tubes, the joints are small spheres, the torso a cylinder, the hands a series of small blocks, and the hips are blocks. The circle, square, and triangle. That’s what basic drawing is made of. Like I said it makes sense but I always struggled with it. It was too complicated for me. A body made up of about a dozen or more parts was too much. I struggled with this method for about a decade and it never helped me as much as it could have. It’s in just about every drawing book too. You can open up any drawing book and see basic shape and skeletal figures running, jumping, dancing, fencing, and doing all sorts of stuff. I could never do any of that and had no idea why.

I remember trying another way of putting down those initial lines. It didn’t work either but at least it wasn’t the same old one. It was the method used by the comic book artist and excellent draftsman John Buscema. I don’t remember where I saw him do it. It might have been an appearance he made or it might have been on video but either way I remember watching and listening. He would start all his drawings with scribbles. I had never seen anyone do that before. Nor have I since. He didn’t draw basic shapes and connect them with tubes. He built the body out of the forms he created from scribbles. It was fascinating to see. The basic type of drawing I’m speaking of here is often called “Structure drawing”. But John Buscema’s structure drawing had structure unlike anything else. He saw things in a different way than everybody else.

I can remember trying this method many times over the years but it didn’t work for me any better than the geometric way. My scribbles always looked like scribbles and I couldn’t build three dimensional form off of them like John Buscema could. I’d always end up drawing some geometric forms inside my scribbles that would make the scribbles superfluous anyway. It didn’t work for me at all but it at least let me know that there are other ways to start a very basic figure drawing other than the geometric shapes way. It didn’t help me find that way though since it still took me another ten years.

I’m not even sure how I stumbled onto my own little way of doing things. It evolved somehow from the geometric method. It turns out that I see things most clearly in terms of triangles. To me the whole human body is made up of triangles. Flat triangles are how I now start out every drawing. If I was going to draw a man standing with a cane the first thing I’d do is draw him as one triangle. The top of the triangle is where his shoulders would be and the bottom his feet. I’d put an oval on top for his head of course. Then his arms and legs I draw as elongated triangles. As I further break the basic gesture down each arm becomes two triangles and so do the legs. The hand is made up of fingers which are a series of triangles. The feet are triangles.

A little robot that I drew out of triangles.

From there I build everything thing out as more realistic body shapes with more dimension but the whole thing comes from triangles. For some reason on the most basic drawing level that’s how I see things. I don’t know why but after I discovered that and started using it as my most basic way of drawing my skills and confidence improved dramatically. A lot of young artists who are trying to draw cartoons of the human figure have a hard time making the drawings look lively and natural. “Your figures are too stiff” is the phrase most often heard in critiques. But no one ever has a way to make them un-stiff. Ever. I think this is because the problem lies in the basic way an artist makes a drawing. What shapes get put down first. My figures were often too stiff when I started with the standard three shape geometric approach but that’s all I knew. I didn’t even know that was the problem. But when that somehow evolved into my triangular approach I learned to avoid the problem with stiff figures that so many of us have.

I don’t know how many other basic ways of drawing are out there since the three shape geometric one is the one that’s in all the books but it’s important to know there are others. From John Buscema’s scribbling to my flattened triangles it’s more important than I ever hear mentioned to figure out how you see the world as you make a very basic drawing. It’s the key to making advanced ones. At least it was my key.