In 1271 when Marco Polo left Venice at the start of his journey to the land of the Kublai Khan, there was another Marco that traveled with the expedition.
Whenever I come across a book on Marco Polo, I read it or at least page through it. The adventures of Marco Polo are of course the basis of my book, ‘The Other Marco’. The other day I found ‘Marco Polo by Richard Humble’, totally misfiled at the local library, so I brought it home as it seemed that I was meant to discover it. This book is well illustrated and when I came across these delightful drawings of an elephant and a giraffe, I felt I should comment on how important it is to use reference when drawing.
Drawing from life is usually the best reference available to an artist, but it can also be the most difficult and frustrating. Animals and birds simply don’t stay in one position long enough to capture accurately. Even models in a life class tend to sag or readjust when pins and needles make a pose untenable.
Artists today have access to photographic reference that the Masters of yesteryear could only dream of. It is interesting to look at these two animals drawn centuries ago to see that the artists had probably never observed their subjects in real life. It is often glaringly obvious that the animals to be drawn were described to the artist by a third or even forth party. The end result is usually somewhat comical but also woefully inaccurate.
Take a closer look at the elephant in this war scene from Le Livre des Merveilles.
The artist draws the horses accurately but has obviously never seen an elephant in real life. Imagine being told that the tusks protrude from the side of a long serpentine nose that makes a trumpeting sound! No wonder that he had some vicious teeth sticking straight up through the trunk and then added a trumpet bell on the end of it. Notice, no one told the artist that there was supposed to be a mouth somewhere under the trunk as well. Needless to say, the artist would have to believe what the reference person tells him and not be too skeptical either!
Perhaps the birth of Modern Art was the result of artists being confused by over-exaggerated verbal reference. One never can tell.
I usually draw from reference, but a few years ago I was illustrating a children’s book and was, as always, in a hurry. I tried to take a short cut and attempted to draw the giraffe in the story from memory. It was going to be slightly stylized anyway, so I thought I could freely interpret the shape. After several hopeless tries I found some reference and was astounded. A giraffe’s outline is more complex than one imagines.
The body of this animal is not an ellipse with a long neck attached to one end. It is far more complex than that. Take a look at this explanatory sketch to see where I went wrong.
Now let us have another look at the giraffe illustration from the book.
As the original picture is a bit dark, I have traced an outline to show it more clearly.
The long angled body is not quite right. The sloping back is fine but the stomach underneath should have been parallel with the ground, making the back legs as long as the fore legs. The neck is long enough but must be higher up on the back and the head could have been a fraction bigger. Well done to the artist of long ago who depended on someone else’s observation.
The sabre-toothed trio in the Monsters 4 Monsters section at the end of this blog, was drawn without reference as they are stylized cartoons and has no reference with reality to compare it with. Almost. As for the brave Leprechaun, my first attempt had him looking like a miniature Father Christmas, since I drew a soft nightcap with a pom-pom at its long tapering end on his head. Again reference , in the shape of an indignant Irishman, helped me to ‘Get it right, Begorrah!’
“Thus endeth Art lesson #1!” Hope you enjoyed it.
Right! That brings us to the Monsters for Monsters corner. Another Aydan creation. Aren’t there any other youngsters out there with fertile imaginations that can suggest a monster for me to draw, or better still, that they can draw themselves and allow me to publish them on this blog? GGGGGrrrrrrrrrrrooooowwwwwLLLLL!!!!!