THE ART OF MISSING LINKS
Updated: Jun 30
In classical evolutionary theory, “missing links” are missing gaps in the fossil record. These gaps interrupt the smooth chain of physical evidence (in the form of successively developing and emerging humanoids) which will “prove” the theory of automatic evolution. Ardent explorers hunt for these precious items which will finally fill in the sequence of evolution, making it once and for all a smooth chain.
Since this post is aimed at artists/emerging artists/anyone interested in the subject, I won’t go off-course and digress into a discussion of evolution. But it brings up an idea: to briefly discuss the “missing links”, of which there are many, in the area of modern art instruction.
As a consequence of catering to shorter attention spans, and the related need to truncate everything to fit into the bite-sized format of social media platforms, many crucial concepts - “links” in the progression towards understanding and mastery - are either lightly skipped over or never mentioned at all. Realizing that this is so can help us keep a positive attitude and therefore keep us progressing.
A classic older example, which I’ve heard mentioned several times by pro artists, is the book “How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way” by Stan Lee and John Buscema. They point out the absurdity of some or most of the diagrams: in order, for example, to learn to draw an idealized comic book head, you are shown a ball, then cross-hairs to orient the head; then rough features, then more finished…and presto! You suddenly arrive at a slick comic book drawing in “five easy steps!”.
It’s a wonderful and inspiring book, so these comments are not meant as any kind of denigration, but as instruction for an artist seriously trying to learn, this approach is severely lacking. It has many “missing links”, a defect found in many places today. This particular book was clearly meant to be short, friendly and fun, and suitable for a general consumer or young artist who is just beginning. That’s all fine. But for someone who truly wants to master drawing, and specifically the intricate art of drawing comics, yes, there are many, many MISSING LINKS.
We are shown how to draw a profile head, typically in 4-to-6-step progression diagrams. But in fact, between each step there are many sub-steps; and to complete each of these effectively you need a wealth of knowledge. Also, in the example shown, when discussing drawing the female face in profile, we are told “notice that the forehead is always rounded and never flat.” My problem is with the word “always”, because this is not strictly true: you can walk around and observe many variations of female foreheads in real life. There are round, semi-flat, and flat: every shade of variation. These, coming from nature, could all be used to introduce life and variety into your work.
Another example: we are told to “draw three-dimensionally” and build the figure this way, constructed from solid forms; but without any further explanation of what this actually means and how to do it in practice. It is all assumed. In actuality, to be able to “draw three-dimensionally” one needs a larger base of knowledge which itself is the subject of entire books:
you need to learn the variety of basic 3D forms, far beyond the cube, cone, and sphere.
You need to learn how to train your mind to constantly THINK in 3D forms and visualize them turning in space.
you need to learn what happens when forms collide: knowledge of intersections.
You need a strong knowledge of perspective, which in turn influences the appearance of the forms as you draw them.
And all the while, it’s very helpful to think in terms of structure and design/composition.
And this, as a digression, is why we see so much simplified art in today’s comics. The artists seem to commonly use 3d posing apps, which quickly/easily supply a figure shown in space, along with its lighting. This figure is then traced and turned into line art. But a certain sameness is found in all these artists. I believe it’s because they are mostly tracing what is supplied by the computer without making the adjustments that would come from a knowledge of anatomy, 3D form, perspective, and much more. Since there were no 3D programs to do the initial work for them, older artists had to routinely have this knowledge already present in their minds, informing their work as they created. Without it, and not realizing its absence, modern artists are forced to stick to the narrow pathway provided by the computer, unable to function without it. And since they stay to these standard computer models, usually not adding much personal stylization, the result is a predictable sameness and a certain dead quality to the figures.
Also, regarding intersections, which I mentioned earlier, above is a page from a textbook for engineering students. This is one page from a single chapter, which is in turn from an entire book filled with such knowledge; which in the days before computers the average engineer would have been expected to have absorbed as part of their basic foundation. The diagram shows one instance of the intersection of forms. It’s the knowledge that you must have in order to draw these forms accurately. And earlier generations of comic book artists certainly had some, if not all, of this in their minds as they drew. Yet few modern drawing textbooks deal with this at any depth. These vital links in the chain of knowledge and understanding are missing, and it is not mentioned that they are missing.
What is the effect of all these “missing links”? There are many. One is psychological. A seriously-practicing beginner artist, usually not noticing what has been skipped over, will soon become frustrated in their earnest attempts to follow these overly-simplified diagrams. They might attempt to “draw form” without being aware of intersections, center lines, and many related and vital elements. Becoming frustrated, and feeling that they have failed, or fallen far short of the mark, they will inevitably blame themselves. In reality, they need to know that the method they are following is inadequate and fails to explain the subject properly, just as an erratic speaker might confuse an audience by randomly jumping around a subject and not unveiling it in a logical sequence. Sometimes the fault lies not only in the student but in the teacher and their delivery or method.
Not knowing that there are many missing pieces which need to be present can introduce other errors. For example, it can lead to the habit of “mechanistic drawing”: clinging to, and repeating, exactly-memorized line patterns without variation. Let’s say that you diligently memorize what Stan and John tell you in the book, as shown in these diagrams (or it could just as easily be that you memorize the “Bruce Timm” stylization methods of drawing figures or any currently popular set of symbols.) You cling to them and memorize their literal, surface style. That becomes your approach from then on: you regurgitate the same patterns, over and over, not searching for wider variations. You acquired the habit of mechanistically repeating two-dimensional prefabricated line patterns because these were the only steps supplied, all that you saw, so these became what you internalized. If you had seen all of the real steps you would have acquired a far more in-depth understanding and thus a greater versatility. You would have more options and possibilities and variations that you could introduce into your drawings-and have no need to cling to a limited vocabulary of repetitive line patterns. You would have learned to think in a similar manner to artists such as John Buscema, not just have memorized the surface appearance of their art.
“How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way” is a very useful book as long as we realize clearly that it is vastly oversimplified, as are so many like it. The figures are, of course, purposely idealized to fit a certain style, but are drawn without mentioning all of the steps in their chain of development. To repeat, my selecting this specific book is only for the sake of illustrating the general principle I mentioned at the start, which is that there are missing links in many explanations found in art instruction books.
There is a wider issue, as well: that more generally there are many methods and concepts formerly part of ‘classical art instruction’ that are no longer routinely mentioned in art instruction, concepts that are still relevant and necessary in order to do quality work. I hope to make more posts covering some of these.
If we want to progress as artists and find “our own style" it’s important to be reminded of all this. We should realize that it is crucial to understand all the basic steps in the development or growth of a thing (in this case, our drawing). Once we know this we then also realize that we must always be on the lookout, always hunt for them, and take responsibility for filling them in for ourselves, in our own understanding, as we grow and progress.