How Do You Do That?
The Question I Get Asked Most Often
I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve been asked, “How do you do that?” in regards to my animal portraits. Most of the time I just smile and shrug and try not to blush. Honestly, I never really knew what to say. It’s just something I do. I never really thought about HOW I do that. So I was asked again recently and this time, I really thought about it. How do you do that?
First of all, it’s not a super power. I’ve just always drawn. Not always very well, but always, nonetheless. Trust me. My mom has some drawings I did back in elementary school. The dog I drew looked like a frog. Seriously. But as time went on and my coordination improved, my drawings got worlds better. It seemed I had what some would call natural talent. I’ll admit that it comes pretty easy for me. I had a knack for seeing, which artists do a bit differently than most unless they’re taught. I covered this topic in my Skillshare class, How to Draw: The Very Basics. Basically, when I look at something, my mind breaks the total object up into much simpler shapes and analyzes how they relate to each other. It’s natural for me to see perspective, color, shade, etc. and translate all of that onto paper. How though?
I remember a long, long time ago, back when people actually bought TV Guides, that there was an ad for a drawing contest. Some of you may recognize it. I think I drew Tiny and Tippy, but I don’t recall ever sending it in. I believe it was this same ad that had at one time been published with a grid drawing lesson. This is probably the biggest part of the answer to the how do you do that question. Generally, I can just eyeball it. But grid drawing is a method that I still use today if I want something to be ultra-precise.
So, what’s a grid drawing? In a nutshell, you take your original reference and draw a grid over it. Then you take your drawing paper and lightly draw another grid on that. It can be the same size as the one on your reference, or bigger if you plan to enlarge it. Then instead of focusing on the entire drawing at once, you focus on your drawing square by square. It’s actually a great tool for enlarging from the original. I’ve seen mural artists use this method. They have a grid over their original, smaller image and another larger wall size grid on the side of a building. The size doesn’t matter, you’re still focusing on individual squares.
The grid is an excellent tool for beginners in that it helps you map things out easier. And it really trains your eyes how to see. Take the image below. We have a grid over our original image of Tippy. We create another grid on a blank paper and begin drawing, square by square. First we decide to start at the beak. We find the same square space on the empty grid as in the original and start there. We can see in the original that Tippy’s beak is right on the bottom line of that square with the tip just poking beneath it. It also starts ever so slightly to the left of the center point of that line. From there it goes up pretty straight about half way up before curving towards the right. It crosses that top line just to the right of the center of that line. If you do this square by square, you’ll get a line drawing that’s pretty close to the original. With a little practice your drawings will look more and more polished.
But how do I go from a line drawing to one that’s fully rendered? That’s usually when I get the how do you do that question. It really is the same process. If I want my animal portrait to be super precise, I start off with a very light grid and very lightly sketch out the animal of choice. The lines must be dark enough to see but more importantly, light enough to be erased completely or covered over by the drawing. This is where I stop drawing lines and start working on shading, or value. There are no lines in my drawings. Only tiny little squiggles or circles, slowly building up the graphite until I get the value that I want. But the entire time, I’m still mapping things out against the original. Where does this tiger stripe start and end in this square? That whisker starts here in this square but ends up two squares over and one row down. Am I making sure that it crosses each square in the same spot as the original? The image below is an in-progress tiger portrait that I’m currently working on. There might be some very slight variations where I’ve taken artistic license, but overall it’s pretty precise. You might have to really look closely to see the grid lines on the drawing. I make them pretty light so that I have no issue covering them up as I go along.
Use this method often enough and pretty soon you won’t have to rely on it as heavily. You’ll notice that your eye will naturally start to pick things apart and analyze them more accurately that before. The problem with most people who are not artists is that they try to see all things at once. And being able to draw is a process. Part of that is noticing the finer details. Another part is being able to break down complex objects into simpler shapes first and adding the details later. Everybody wants to get to the details first and that’s not how it works. You have to have the tiger’s body down before you draw the stripes! The rest is just practice. Nobody is born an expert!
If you’re interested in learning how to draw and have other people ask you, “How do you do that?”, check out my Skillshare class, How To Draw: The Very Basics. It really is the very basics because you have to start somewhere. And like everything in life, there is a foundation. This class covers the basic elements of art. The class is free and if you upgrade to a premium membership, it’s only .99 for three months!