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Dilettante 010: A Cartoonist's Library

Steve Lieber

I get a lot of questions about whether or not it's necessary to go to art school. The short answer is this: No. In more than 20 years as a working artist, none of my clients have shown the slightest interest in whether I had a diploma. Your portfolio is all publishers and art directors care about, and your work is all that readers and fans will ever see. So why go to school? In my case, I needed a structured environment with teachers to help me rearrange my priorities and classmates to call me on my B.S.

That said, art school isn't for everyone. It can cost anywhere between a lot and a fortune, the quality of instruction can vary wildly, and not everyone learns well in a classroom. But teaching yourself is hard. Making comics is a demanding craft, and there's a lot you'll need to know, particularly if you're interested in a traditional style rooted in academic illustration. Fortunately, there are a lot of books to get an aspiring artist over the hump.

For decades the core of any traditional comics artists library was formed by two sets of books:

The Andrew Loomis books and The Famous Artists School manuals.

Loomis' books are back in print after years of being unavailable outside of eBay, digital bootlegs and 7th generation photocopies. Among Loomis' many books are 3 must-haves:

Figure Drawing for All It's Worth

This book is all about drawing people—construction, anatomy, proportion, lighting, gesture, rhythm, etc.

Creative Illustration

This textbook emphasizes the principles of composition, and how to arrange the elements in your picture to communicate clearly. It largely assumes you already know how to draw.

Successful Drawing

This is a sort of a problem-solving manual, with lots of wonderful diagrams explaining how to accurately describe forms in space and how to light them.

Loomis' aesthetic and his techniques are rooted firmly in early 20th Century American illustration, but the principles he teaches are rock-solid and will be valuable to any artist.

The Famous Artists School lesson books were correspondence courses from the 1950s and ‘60s. There were separate ones for illustrators and cartoonists, both contained in multiple oversized binders. There's some overlap between the two courses, but both contain ridiculously valuable lessons in telling stories with pictures, written and illustrated by the undisputed masters of the craft: Norman Rockwell, Albert Dorne, Robert Fawcett, and many more.

The Famous Artists School lesson books are, alas, out of print. Copies frequently turn up on eBay and at used bookstores, but they aren't cheap. Illegal scans show up on pirate sites now and then, too. I wouldn't feel right steering my readers to those sites, but if you go to one, you'll have a chance to do some quick life-drawing from all the pop-up windows full of nudes.

One thing in the FAS books that was particularly helpful was their lesson on drapery- the clothed figure. This remains a big gap in the world of how-to books. Burne Hogarth wrote a book on the subject, but I don't think it's particularly useful. I like Drawing People: How to Portray the Clothed Figure by Barbara Bradley. And there's a short but very good section of Jack Hamm's Drawing the Head and Figure that was quite helpful to me. 

I recommend several of Jack Hamm's “How To” books. They're ostensibly written for younger readers, but advanced students and working professionals will still find plenty of useful information in them. Along with Drawing the Head and Figure, you'd do well to get your hands on these:

  • How to Draw Animals
  • Drawing Scenery: Landscapes and Seascapes
  • Cartooning the Head and Figure

These books are absolutely crammed with info. White-space is at a premium throughout. If there's anywhere on the page Hamm can squeeze in another helpful drawing, he'll do it!

Hamm's book on animals is helpful, and a great start on the subject. But for more in-depth lessons, I'd recommend The Weatherly Guide to Drawing Animals by Joe Weatherly. Weatherly doesn't offer step-by-step guides, and he's light on text. He assumes his reader already knows how to draw. But his drawings are immensely knowledgeable statements that can teach volumes to any artist who knows how to read a picture.

Mastering the human figure is a crucial step for many comics artists, particularly those working in adventure genres. I mentioned Loomis' Figure Drawing for All It's Worth earlier. The anatomy lessons in there are good, but not particularly thorough. There are lots of books that cover anatomy in far greater detail:

Atlas of Human Anatomy for the Artist by Stephen Rogers Peck

Peck's book has been a classic in the field for decades.

Constructive Anatomy by George Bridgman

Bridgman's elaborately stylized, diagramatic approach to anatomy has been a traditional resource for artists seeking to understand the figure.

Figure Drawing: Design and Invention by Michael Hampton

My current favorite, this book combines mechanical analysis similar to Bridgman's, with much clearer, more detailed illustrations and text, and makes wonderful use of color to clarify things even further.

In comics, though, it's not enough just to draw the figure. You have to give it a sense of movement—of life. For lessons on that, I often steer students towards books by animators. Character Mentor: Learn by Example to Use Expressions, Poses, and Staging to Bring Your Characters to Life by Tom Bancroft is excellent and has lessons from the world of comics as well as animation. And there are hundreds of pages of important information in The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston.

Finally, a recent book that's impressed me immensely is Framed Ink: Drawing and Composition for Visual Storytellers by Marcos Mateu-Mestre. His drawing is superb, but more importantly, I've never seen any book do a better job of explaining the principles of illustration as they apply across all visual media.

That’s a start. Your bookshelf can and will go a lot deeper over time. Most comics artists I know accumulate dozens of books like these, constantly re-enforcing their body of knowledge.

What are some of your favorites? Share your suggestions with me on Twitter @steve_lieber, or on Facebook.

Steve Lieber’s Dilettante appears the second Tuesday of each month here on Toucan!