Practice, Realism, and the "Right" direction.

  • Hello Everyone!

    I have a question about practicing and what I could/should be doing. I love drawing animals, characters, and most recently landscapes, but I find I have struggled with human facial features (eyes, nose, ears, mouth).

    I have been practicing realistic features, but wondered how important it really is? My goal is to be a childrens book illustrator, so a lot of the features will be more abstract/symbolic. With this in mind, do I really need to study every detail of the human face, or should I work more towards symplifying these features?

    Looking into the works of Loish, Jake Parker, Will Terry, Lee White, Anthony Coffey, etc, I wondered if they had to first draw the perfect realistic head before symplifying.

    I feel like I'm making it difficult for myself to move onto something else before I nail it down (realism), but do I really need to?

  • I would say that you don't NEED to do anything in particular. I'm sure there's any number of artists out there who couldn't draw the face and head realistically. I do think however that it's a good artistic discipline to dabble with these sorts of things if for no other reason than to train your perception.

    What I would advise against is treating them like gate keepers who prevent you from moving forward. Training in anything is inevitably a bit arduous if you're putting some real energy into it, but if it's discouraging you overly much, I would happily recommend that you move on and orbit back around to it in 3 months, 6 months, a year. Whatever makes sense to you. What you learn in the meanwhile will have a positive effect on your abilities when you choose to revisit it.

  • SVS Team SVS Instructor Pro SVS OG

    Hi Adam,

    This is a good question. I did learn to draw very realistically using a tonal approach to figure drawing. It's funny because when I go to a figure drawing session, I still draw that way which shocks a lot of people who know my simplified style in illustration. I also love drawing environments and made that a big focus of my education. My first jobs out of school was doing environments for the entertainment industry and also for architecture firms. In doing that I had to draw very believable scenes using accurate measurements (for example, a table of specific length would have to look the way it really would in a room setting, etc.).

    If you know you are going to be doing books, I would say that you don't need to learn to draw realistically per se, but you do need to know how to construct well. That means understanding how forms turn in space, etc. I use a LOT of construction information to inform how I stylize. In other words, my shapes aren't accidents, but choices. And that is the main thing I want to stress. Whatever style you land on, make sure it's a choice and not because you can't draw anything else.

    Lastly, I am coming to believe that design is equal too or more important than drawing well. Having a pleasing group of shapes and lights/darks can look great, even in a primitive style. While drawing "realistically" but with no design rarely equals a pleasing image.

  • Hi Adam. Interesting question! It's something I've wondered about before too. @Lee-White beat me to it- I was going to mention that I think all of these artists have strong construction skills. In relation to facial features, they all at least know where to place facial features on a form and be able to turn it in space so that it looks "right".

    I would also say that the artists you mention fall on a wide range of styles in terms of relating to realism. If we had a scale of realism vs stylized/simplified, relatively speaking, I would put Loish on the realism side then Anthony Coffey/ Jake Parker would come next, then Will Terry, with Lee White being on the stylized/simplified end. They are of course all stylizing and simplifying, but some are drawing more from realism than others. Decide where you fall on the scale. If you are falling towards a very simplified approach, work more on construction, proportion, and design. If you are falling more toward the Loish side, spend more time with realism as well as the other skills mentioned.

    I also concur with @Renduin Don't think you need to master something before you move forward. Anything you study, you can take a break from, and you can come back to it time and time again if you so choose. One thing I've noticed is that sometimes I won't really grasp a subject I'm studying, but it will suddenly seem to make sense after I've given myself a good long break from it.

    Anyway, hope that helped. Good luck!

  • As others have said, the artists you mention definitely understand the underlying structure!

    Speaking personally, taking figure drawing classes helped me figure out my own style a bit more. Previously, I just "stole" from the manga I read, which meant I was simplifying someone else's simplification, without knowing the structure. Understanding the human figure helped me figure out my own tricks and shortcuts (aka my style!)

  • You might not be drawing realistic figures/faces but going life drawing and sketching from life will only improve what you do. As has already been mentioned your decisions will become more informed because of what you've learnt. I could do with following my own advice and sketch from life more!

    PS. This site is quite useful for learning anatomy.

  • I would also like to add that there is perhaps a difference between learning through drawing realistically and learning through studying reality. Again it depends on where you want to go with your style. If you look at Loish for example, you can see that she has the ability to draw pretty realistically (looking at her self portraits) From her social media accounts, you also see that she studies from a lot of realistic reference and skews it to her style. When you look at her portraits you can see a lot of subtlety in the forms on her faces. You can tell she is understanding what's going on there. That is definitely based on careful observation of real faces and anatomy.


    If you've taken any of Jake Parker's SVS classes, you'd know that he really knows his stuff, based on reality. He can break down animals and people to their skeletal structures and build up muscles from there. You can tell from his drawings that he has an understanding of forms based on reality, even if he simplifies quite a bit. Do I think that he does a lot of realistic looking studies? I don't know for sure, but I would guess not. Do I think that he really analyzes and seeks to understand the forms he sees in real life? I would guess yes.

    Now again, if you are going for an even more simplified representation, you might be able to get away with just understanding simple shape construction. There's a lot of illustrators for example that just base their faces off of circles or bean shapes, and their features are simple lines and circles/spheres.

  • I just want to say thank you so much for all of these replies! It's really helped me see that its something I can always come back to. There are some great thoughts and I really appreciate that there is a forum where I can get this kind of help.

    I was stuck in a place where I felt as if I couldn't progress unless I'd really focuses on realistic face, but after these comments and the information in 'How To Discover Your Style', I think I can finally move on and try something new.

    Design, tone, and an underlying understanding of composition really sounds like parts of the puzzle when it comes to putting together an illustration. By studying these and trying out different subjects, this should hopefully bring me back in full circle where I understand realism a lot better, and I can apply my new found skills to create something great.

    Thank you all again! Time to work on discovering my style before Inktober!

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