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Last Updated 1/25/2004 by dickdiamond.com


This Says It All


Eye Opening

I'm learning Flash. Don't ask me why. While on the one hand I would seem to be utterly unqualified to use a tool that is essentially a lever for artistic expression, I also tend to think in terms of images, movement and storyboards. As I begin working with the tutorial book Build Your First Website with Flash MX (ISBN 1904344127, but not available in the United States, so don't bother), I encounter immediately, on page eight, what had been my central fear going into this: that I might have to draw to be able to use the program. In fact, the book begins with exercises in how to draw familiar objects with the tools provided in Flash. The first task: draw a leaf. Here's the thing: I can't draw. At all. I can sketch a relatively good perspectivized plan for a house or a room or a piece of furniture. I can even do a projection or an exploded diagram with back-of-a-napkin proficiency. But I've just never been able to drawn anything organic. I remember in grade school art class being shown that the human figure or face can be thought of as an assemblage of blobs—circles, ovals, squares, triangles. But to tell you the truth, I never figured out what to do with that information.

Fast forward 20 years and I'm being asked to draw leaves. Fortunately the book tells me exactly how to do this, line by line. Now the goal was to show me how to use the tools, but in fact what they accomplished, what 16 years of school plus 20 years of living had failed to, was showing me how you draw something like a leaf. I had always assumed that artists, good ones anyway, were like laser printers, or at least inkjet plotters—that they held a perfect image of something in their heads and rendered it progressively through some instrument onto some medium. Of course I understood there were learned techniques and even tricks like the Happy Little Trees guy on PBS used to use. I supposed that artists eventually learned all of these so that the edge of a knife drawn through some green paint overlaying brown paint automatically became a good-enough tree.

What I had never realized, until yesterday, was that much of art is how you look at something in the first place. To take one example, look at a maple leaf. For me, a maple leaf looks like the thing on the Canadian flag. But of course that's an iconic, stylized, monochrome silhouette of a maple leaf. I'm talking about a real maple leaf. You could, and I probably would have, simply attempt to draw this freehand—basically tracing it without the aid of tracing paper. But since we're talking about using a program like Flash, which has finite tools, it helps to think about a process. Using things like straight and curved lines, freehand drawing, and simple, repeatable rules, how could you describe a maple leaf? Well, let's see, it's symmetrical, but not perfectly so. It seems to have five sub-leaves of similar (possibly fractal) construction, the two nearest the stem slightly smaller. Now let's get a little more detailed. How could you describe the process of drawing one of these sub-leaves? Well, they appear to be an initially inwardly or outwardly curving line followed by a reverse curving line to a point, then another inwardly or outwardly curving line back in toward the center, but shorter. You seem to repeat this pattern until you reach a leaf tip and then work your way back down in reverse order. The pattern is repeated fractally to achieve the desired size and scale. Then there appears to be a skeletal structure in the middle of the leaf which is simply a network of lines radiating to the tips, the thickness of the line roughly proportional to the length of the point. The stem simply a slightly bent line. The overall color and shading of the leaf seems to be a relatively uniform mottled brown with some randomly spaced darker spots.

Now I'm not saying you could draw the leaf given just my text description. But given a mental picture or a real picture of a leaf, you could use this procedure to drawn a non-photorealistic representation of the image in any paint programs, or on paper. The thing is, I had never looked at a leaf like this before. I had never asked myself, what, visually, makes up a leaf. To me a leaf was an atomic, indivisible part of a larger entity like a shrub or tree. In a game of Pictionary, to render the concept of a leaf, many of us would probably resort to drawing a stick-figure tree with a blob at the end of a branch. But to me, that's all a leaf was, ever: a blob at the end of a branch. No wonder I couldn't draw one!

So the lesson here is, first, observe. Then think about your tools, your capabilities. Maybe you can't draw a rooster or a face freehand, but you can probably draw the lines and ovals that make one up. It would seem that any image can be simplified to fit your tools and then recomplicated to the point required to fit the level of expression you desire. For Flash, we really are dealing with a mostly iconic medium, so very simplified renditions will do. Yet by paying attention to construction, by getting the broad strokes right, I think it's possible for even an amateur to avoid having his drawings look like the crayon renderings of a 5-year-old, or worse a clueless adult. At least I hope so.




<-- December 2003


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