Smithereens, Post No. 6: Drawing from Life

Smithereens: [smith -uh-reenz] Plural Noun. 1. Small pieces, bits.
Smithereens are tiny pieces, fragments of a larger thing. In this series of blog posts, I share small slivers of my process, thoughts on materials, and insights into the larger world of illustration. 

What's the first thing you do when tasked to draw something new? Google! Me too, me too. But while the magic of a plethora of images at our finger tips is unprecedented and completely beneficial, it does leave a bit to be desired. And this missing bit is...

YOU (and your life and your perspective!) 

What comes to mind when I say drawing from life? Those stuffy still life classes where you're realistically rendering a bowl of dusty fruit, a glass bottle and a wrinkled up sheet? Not quite. (YES those classes are valuable and we should take them seriously and it's monumental to set up basic and skilled foundations in drawing - drawing professors, don't hate me!) While these set ups are important, they can be uninspiring to think about revisiting, so this is not what I'm talking about when I say 'drawing from life'. I'm talking about looking at the world with your own eyes and choosing which way you are going to represent it. 

This all came to mind when I was choosing how to represent fish. 

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Now to be fair, I wasn't only using online images as a starting point. I went to the library to scour books featuring underwater illustrations, photography and painting as I began to draw. (The drawing above is not the first round - remember Post No. 4 about Stylizing realistic images?) The thing I realized after my first drafts though, was that all of my fish were coming out quite two dimensionally. They were all drawn from the side, and not only that - it was hard for me to get a grasp on the scale of some fish since they are often photographed alone and out of context. 

SO I took a trip to the Aquarium and do you know what I learned? It's freaking hard to draw fish from life!! They don't hold still very long, and they're actually quite three dimensional - not too flat at all. 

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I saw them from a whole new perspective - my perspective. And this isn't a narcissistic statement - I mean, they're their own precious selves, but I realized the problem with drawing from photos, is that you're literally drawing through someone else's eyes. There is a whole other human in between you and the object and they decide what you capture - you can't truly find all possible angles of an object or creature unless you see it with your own eyes. 

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Why I hadn't considered it, I'm not sure, but I never even thought about drawing a fish from the backside until I saw them swim away from me. And then the lights starting exploding in my head - all these opportunities I hadn't realized I was missing. Fish butts! But seriously, I was able to draw them in shapes that challenged my brain instead of using muscle memory to draw what I thought a fish should look like. I also saw other details I'd have missed in images - shadows the animals cast over the ocean floor - the way the water reflects the light and the movement which is constant in the water, swaying strands of leaf and coral. It's really just breathtaking. In regards to materials, I just used a green ink pen, which let me make bold intuitive marks, instead of trying to 'sketch'. 

A couple thoughts to follow up - I know we can't all afford to go to Aquariums nor do all of us have access. On the other end of the spectrum, some of us might be able to take a drive right into the ocean and witness what the actual ocean looks like! And what about things we literally can't witness in person? That's where we have to be thankful for the incredible and dedicated photographers who spend their lives recording the majesty of this Earth. It's all relative, but know that when the option does come up for you to see with your own eyes and record the world from your own point of view, it will always, always be worth it. 

Happy Friday, and Happy Drawing from Life!

PS. These fish are part of a large project that will be revealed this Fall in Nashville! I can't wait to share more with you!


Last week I visited the Cleveland Institute of Art during their Spring Show and had a memorable and fantastic time. The faculty, building and the students honestly made me want to go back to school and I was blown away by the level of talent I saw from the illustration and animation students. The morning of my presentation started off with an hour demonstration, where I worked on a personal piece in gouache, colored pencil, and neocolor crayons. Afterwards, I gave an artist talk in their lovely theatre, sharing my journey as an illustrator, from gallery work to editorial work - and eventually how I ended up in the publishing world. My agent, Nicole, was there to introduce me for the presentation, and that along with the wonderful questions the students asked just made it a dream talk. (For me anyway, hope the students enjoyed it! ha)

Photo by Robert Muller/CIA.

Photo by Robert Muller/CIA.

Unfinished Demo Study! (An hour goes by fast!) 

Unfinished Demo Study! (An hour goes by fast!) 

Photo by Greg Wilson at

Photo by Greg Wilson at

If you want to learn more about the visit or my illustration practice, the school did an interview which you can read here! 

Thank you again to the kind folks at CIA for hosting me,  and to the students who are sure to have amazing careers ahead of them.