Do you remember how it felt when you first learned to draw? You might have spent hours trying to copy an image of your favorite cartoon character, only to end up with a result that looks decidedly off-model. How do the pros do?
Professional artists start from the ground and progress. The solid drawing, also known as the construction drawing, emphasizes that the base of the character must be established before we tackle all the fun things. Let’s see what solid drawing is and how you can try it out for yourself.
What is solid drawing in animation?
We barely drew anything and already the character below is instantly recognizable as Mickey Mouse. While Walt Disney was not the first to design his characters around the principles of solid drawing, he is certainly credited with perfecting the approach. It’s Mickey in his most basic form.
Essentially, solid drawing breaks down a character or object into very simple shapes, made up of ellipses and simple geometric shapes, like cubes resembling bars of soap. The integrity of these simple shapes is emphasized first and foremost when you begin to draw each pose.
After you’ve successfully traced each keyframe and split using only the shapes you chose as a base, you can go back and decorate the generic bodies with detail. This multi-layered process results in an animation full of feelings and rich in character.
This feeling of wholeness can certainly be achieved in a digital and paperless context – it takes a little patience, however, just like an artist working with paper and pencil.
The great thing about digital animation software is that it is generally non-destructive. Most 2D animation software systems offer a lot of support for a hand-drawn digital workflow. In most cases, we are able to draw in layers without disturbing anything underneath. This makes solid drawing easy.
How to get started with the construction drawing
Below you’ll find Charlie from the feature films All Dogs Go to Heaven and All Dogs Go to Heaven 2 – at least that’s what this cube is about to be.
Charlie’s gnarled body is a great model for practicing solid drawing for animation. The official studio model sheet actually includes a rough rib cage in its build purlin. It’s really useful, so we’re going to roll with their original design.
Before you start with the rib cage, add another box. Draw the aforementioned chest cube and another for her hindquarters.
Connect the two with a simple spine.
Along the spine add a few large hoops, representing the ribs.
Create a new layer above the construction. From there, you can start working the rest of the body: neck, head, legs, and tail to begin with. I am using a different color at this point; it makes it easier to see what I’m doing.
Once you get the general idea, you can add the rest of the details in a third color. Already, it’s starting to look a lot more like Charlie.
Is solid drawing useful for digital animation?
Many digital animators do very well without formally using construction animation. As long as their roughs communicate well and attractively the desired action, why waste time playing with shapes? Additionally, digital animation software tends to lighten up mediocre tasks, thus avoiding the need to do everything by hand.
However, construction drawing is great for many reasons, especially when using a digital animation workflow. It also tends to give your work a higher artistic quality, although there is certainly a time and place for all types of digital animation.
Either way, we strongly believe in what solid drawing can do for animation. Here are some reasons why construction drawing may be the right choice for you:
A digital animation workflow makes it very easy to plot these geometric values using layers or onion skins. You can even keep a copy of the character’s measurements for reference. When drawing from a “library” of correct primitives is practical, why not use the luxury to your advantage?
When it comes to your principles as an artist, building characters and objects from simple shapes makes it easy to maintain the quality of every drawing from frame to frame. It’s easy to draw four circles of the same diameter over and over again. These perfect circles then provide a perfect setting for the rest of the character details. Excellence is more likely to follow; a whole sequence of really well-designed frames sells.
Drawing in this manner leads to an attractive and memorable character design. This is the case even when building complex characters from simple, solid shapes. If you intend to animate the character, the planning should start here. Restraint at this point in the game will keep the base character design from getting lost in awkward detail.
Simple shapes are easy and fun to draw. It really doesn’t get much more complicated than that – when something is fun to indulge in, you’re more likely to dive into it. It is a cycle that continues.
Ultimately, the best thing about construction drawing is the freedom it gives you in a creative way. It makes articulating your true vision and translating it on stage a logical process.
In 3D animation, you have a model that exists; you can pose without thinking too much about it. In 2D animation, this is not really the case. Many of us start by drawing flat poses. We default to this way of drawing before learning that overlapping different parts of the body is one way to create a sense of depth.
Drawing Charlie lying like this without “knowing” the dimensions of each limb would be much more difficult. Animating it in this position using sight alone is almost impossible to do competently.
The breakdown of a character’s build provides all the answers. Once you have the blueprint all you need to do is mix up each component until you start to see the character do whatever you want.
This technique facilitates the dynamic pose of 2D characters. If you notice one of them always ends up in a boring pose, seeing the build helps you turn things around without playing the guessing game.
Go further with solid drawing
Once you can draw a dog with its eyes closed, try breaking down other characters and animals into simple building shapes. Many model sheets will show you how the characters are officially built. They are a great resource to start with if you are interested in designing your own characters.
You can experiment with different ways of visualizing each underlying shape. Instead of cubes, for example, you can simplify the orientation of the body into spheres with their axes drawn on them. Ultimately, it’s best to try new things until you find what works best.
Solid drawing: a necessity for all animators
Once you master solid drawing, your brain will start breaking down everyday things into their simplest forms. Your favorite coffee cup can become your new object of eternal fascination. Suddenly, you are able to draw absolutely anything.
Channeling this new skill into your work will make each animation more realistic and exciting; the difference in quality may shock you.
Disney’s 12 Principles of Animation bring cartoons to life. Find out what they are and how they can improve your animations.
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