Keeping the line alive.

Using words to describe a piece of art or the emotions it brings forth when experiencing it is often not up to scratch. In my videos, I often use the word “loose” to describe the style of painting and drawing that I’m aiming for, with the opposite being art that I can only describe as “stiff” and “lifeless.” I guess these two adjectives are as mortifying and ominous for describing art as they are for humans. Being lifeless and stiff usually does not bode well.

But as I sometimes get asked about what I exactly mean by this “loose style,” I started to think about a way of explaining this slightly better.

I always hated drawing using a ruler. It’s awfully fussy and bothersome. If I can, I always avoid it (even for things like comic panel frames). I didn’t exactly know why but I preferred lines that were drawn freehand even though the things I drew the most, apart from landscapes, were buildings and human-made objects, like furniture or various machines.

A frame from Puella Magi Madoka Magica.

Seeing especially backgrounds of interiors and city scenes that are drawn using surgically straight lines always frustrates me — the world around us is not perfectly straight! A chair or a table doesn’t look like this at all! They are not some perfect objects — they have joints, and screws, use different materials for different parts, get beaten up … aaand I need to calm down.

If we pay closer attention to how things are made and how they are finished (looking especially at edges and corners), we can see that they rarely are just straight and sharp. Even metal parts of, for example, an aluminum window frame are chamfered or rounded at the edges, so they are nicer to the touch. Where two parts are joined together, we often get roundness from the welding process or because of a layer of paint. Ends of metal elements will often have plastic plugs to cover the sharp metal. There will be some bolts or rivets, or hinges.

What’s more, over time, things will get bent and dented. They will get rusty and fall apart at the edges. Various materials have completely different textures and weather in different ways. The human-made objects around us have more curves and details in them than we suspect at first glance. 

But it’s these aspects that give things character, make them unique, alive, and authentic.

When drawing in even the most simplified style, I’m always trying to capture all this information, the texture, warmth, wear, touch of an object in just a few lines. This is very involving and requires full attention and concentration when making each stroke. When left to their own devices, the hand and pencil will usually make only the most basic strokes, so a constant, conscious effort is required to put as much of the information into each line as possible.

Let me give you an example. Let’s try to draw a wooden stool with only straight lines and also with a more “loose” style.

I drew both of the above stools with more-or-less the same complexity of line. I also added a similar amount of details and weathering. But the right picture, through its “looseness,” conveys a lot more information about how the stool feels, its age, its wear, etc. These strokes are all the effect of my conscious effort to put this information in!

This might seem counterintuitive — aren’t the marks that are made in free, inspired strokes, done without a single thought, guided by the muse, so to speak, the most “alive?” Won’t focus and concentration make them slow and ugly?

I don’t think they will. Confusing “gesture” or “flow” with just a lack of control and thought is an easy mistake to make. Who wouldn’t like to be able to “just draw” something? You take a pencil in your hand, and “the art just happens.” Until a few years ago, I also had this dream — I waited for the moment to come when I could finally “just draw” and be pleased with the result. What eventually convinced me that I had this thing completely wrong and confirmed my faith in the “loose” style was a scene from Hayao Miyazaki’s documentary about “Ponyo” — an absolute goldmine of art education.

In the fragment I’m talking about, Miyazaki explains about consciously controlling the line. As an example, he draws a simple Japanese letter “た,” saying that if he is not conscious of what he is doing, his hand draws “automatically.” The letter ends up looking ordinary, dull, and expressionless. Next, he draws a second “た” where, as he says, he tries to consciously “fight” with his hand to make a more exciting and varied shape. The second letter ends up more on the loose side but undeniably has more character!

What Miyazaki said next was even more eye-opening: he and the animators who work on his movies have to work at this control constantly. Even for them, it’s easy to get sloppy, and the information gets lost. As an example, he showed a character from Princess Mononoke that was designed to have a weird head shape. When drawn without paying attention, the head would gradually lose its shape, becoming smoother and smoother, and in the end, it would lose its unique features. 

Well, if Miyazaki and his staff of excellent animators have to put effort into each line, they make to keep the information in, and they believe that this is the right approach, who am I to disagree? I don’t think anyone can say that their work is “stiff” and “lifeless.”

So, in the end, I became content with the thought that from now on, no matter how proficient I might become in drawing, I always will have to concentrate on each and every line to wring out of it as much character, expression, and information as possible. I think only freehand lines allow me to do this, thus even drawing machines, furniture, or buildings, I don’t use rulers or straight-line tools in painting applications.

There is, of course, one more aspect to this story — the thing about how our eyes don’t see everything straight, even if it is. But that’s a topic for Part 2, I guess.

2 thoughts on “Keeping the line alive.”

  1. Just discovered your blog, and I’m so glad you’re keeping one! I really admire your work and I’m very fortunate to be able to see your thought process.

    Liked by 1 person

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