When it comes to animation sketches we often fall into the trap of copying our subjects line for line, shape for shape, and render everything out exactly the way we see them based on our knowledge of light, form, composition and so on. When we’re done, we stand back for a much-awaited “ah-ha” moment… only to realise the piece we’d worked so hard on looks perhaps accurate, but also rather stale and lifeless.
How do we imbue life into these pieces that almost suck the life out of us to get them done in the first place? Even more importantly, how do we make it a unique experience for the viewer in a way that’s representative of our individuality? In this article, I’ve gathered some of the things that have worked for me in tackling this subject. I’d like to invite you on a trip into the unspoken, ambiguous and intangible facet of art-making.
If you'd like to put some of these tips into practice and continue improving your artwork check out our list of the best pencils for colouring, drawing or sketching, as well as our top tutorials on how to draw.
01. Find the soul of the subject
I like to think that art is a meditation, by the end of which you have something to show. The act of drawing is the opportunity to project ourselves on to the subject and practise empathy. The saying “feel the pose” couldn’t be more true. Think of all the times we shudder as we play computer games for instance, where we feel the pain of getting hit on-screen. Become the subject, feel the curves and the straights with your body as you put down the lines or the paint. Being present in the moment and standing back occasionally to view the work from a distance is also an effective way to make sure you’re saying the things you intended to say.
02. Embrace explosive mark-making
Some of my favourite pieces have an unrestricted expression of spontaneity where the artist didn’t hesitate. According to neuroanatomist Dr Jill Bolte Taylor, the average human emotion lasts 90 seconds, after which the chemicals causing the emotions are flushed out of the body. This means we have about 90 seconds to put an idea down in its full vitality before we’re swept away by a different emotion, unless we choose to stay in that emotion. This is why it’s crucial to create an instant impression to capture the emotion we’re after, and then expand on it for the duration of the artwork.
03. Study people in motion
If you wish to bring movement into your work, start by studying moving subjects. Photographs on the internet are fantastic references to research different objects and cultures, but at the same time, most of them are meticulously posed still images. Along with the elements that we’re looking for, quite often that rigidity also gets transferred into our work.
Get a sketchbook, leave your dark corner and go see some living, breathing, moving people in your neighbourhood. They’re all around us waiting to be drawn. Stare at them, make them a little uncomfortable. And when they’re shifting around uneasily, draw them. It’s fun! Regularly studying people and their behaviours helps you build a library of emotions to pull from when you’re back at your desk creating work.
04. Feel the rhythm and flow
Feeling out the rhythms of your subject is key to adding dynamism to the work. Nature is full of rhythms. Playing with fluid lines and shapes to mimic nature will help bring more life and vivacity to your drawings.
05. Know your forms and anatomy
Often we’re so busy focusing on structural accuracy that we miss out on the expression we were trying to convey in our drawings. So it helps if you know the subject inside-out before you start – whether it be a one-inch moth or a 15-foot mammoth. It’s like an actor who needs to know their lines before coming to set, so that they can focus on the performance and experiment with different ways of delivering it, rather than having to look down every now and again to remember what to say. If you know your anatomy lines then the rest will follow.
06. Don't be limited by what you've seen before
Free yourself from conventional wisdom. It’s limiting. Often our desire to bring an image into a finished, desirable house-style significantly affects the heart of the image. Experiment and find things that haven’t been done before in your own unique way that’s both true to the story and your personal experiences. Caricature and exaggeration help immensely in this area, as we all have a different way of seeing things. We wouldn’t have such a variety of stories and styles if artists hadn’t taken that left turn. Explore and strive to bless the world with something fresh!
07. Instil your life experiences into your work
Remember those times when we were frustrated, depressed and disappointed with how things were going in our lives? Or the times we were happy and exuberant? Let it all out on the monkey you’re going to draw the next day! In this example, I wanted to convey how unaware we are to the flood we create in our own lives while being aggravated at the unfairness around us. Our medium gives us a perfect outlet to let our emotions out, and sometimes in the most entertaining way. Let your life experiences come through and then expose yourself to a few more!
08. Let your hand do the designing
Don’t overthink the initial design process. Let the hand do the designing based on the knowledge you’ve already accumulated about the subject. In this stage, I try to forget all rules and think only about the personality of the characters based on the story. This helps me come up with a few original thoughts that aren’t influenced by artworks I’ve seen before.
In the next stage, I can take my initial idea and make it more developed based on references I have gathered. Here, I have the luxury to go slower and use structure and form to bring the design to a more finished look. Once I’m content with how the design turned out, I might play with some poses to see if the design works in different views. Often I might find some poses that might not work for a specific design, as they break character. Always stay aware of the limits of each design.