January 20, 2011


Drawing Fantastic Furries: The Ultimate Guide to Drawing Anthropomorphic Characters. By Christopher Hart. Watson-Guptill. $19.99.

Tastes Like Chicken: An “Argyle Sweater” Treasury. By Scott Hilburn. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

You Can Draw in 30 Days: The Fun, Easy Way to Learn to Draw in One Month or Less. By Mark Kistler. Da Capo. $19.

     Animals with human characteristics – or, if you prefer, human-like characters that are part-animal – are known as “furries” in comic-book and fantasy illustration. Ranging from the adorable to the alluring to the active and warlike, these characters people (if “people” is the right word) graphic novels, movies, manga and anime. They are tremendously varied in appearance, style and purpose – and prolific cartooning-book author Christopher Hart shows the basics of all the types in Drawing Fantastic Furries. Hart’s lessons are excellent, his writing style and sense of self-importance less so: “Most how-to-draw books offer only two poor choices: They either present subjects that are so advanced that you can’t copy them, or conversely, they present drawings that are so simple that even though you can copy them, why would you want to?” Still, get past the stylistic irritants here and you will get a series of very valuable tips on how to draw furries of all types. For example, Hart points out that “most mammal skeletons are basically the same configuration,” then gives examples, showing how the ability to draw one mammal-based furry can be readily translated for drawing many others. When it comes to the specifics of the art, his advice is first-class, as when he explains the importance of counterbalance to create an interesting pose (“one side emphasizes a bent leg, while the other emphasizes a bent arm”), emphasizes the derivation of fantasy outfits (“fantasy costumes are a splashy take on medieval costumes”), and shows excellent comparative drawings of realistic vs. furry legs – although accompanied by irritating prose: “This ought to be taught in every high school biology class, because believe it or not, they don’t offer very much in the way of furry studies. Most of it is about DNA and other useless stuff like that.” Focus on the drawing techniques here and you will gain valuable insight and considerable technique. Hart is at his best in showing just how varied the forms of furries can be, from a pig wearing a zip-up jacket and cargo pants to a cute stuffed-animal-like beaver to a slinky cat-based “tabby furry” to a dramatically posed elk swordfighter (“the trick is to give this gal furry fighting armor but to make it look like [sic] it was manufactured by a high-end Italian clothing designer”). Writing about one particular pose, Hart says, “Never doubt the possibilities in the land of furry fantasies.” That statement could apply to the whole book: it shows just how varied and interesting this particular kind of drawing can be – and helps young artists who want to draw these characters understand what makes them tick (and leap, jump, walk, ride, sashay and bounce).

     It is easy to see what makes Scott Hilburn’s Argyle Sweater single-panel cartoons tick: fairy tales, mad scientists, historical figures, popular culture and pretty much anything else that pops into Hilburn’s rather twisted mind. Tastes Like Chicken is the first oversize “Treasury” book of Hilburn’s cartoons, which means it contains in a single volume the same material that previously appeared in two smaller-format books, The Argyle Sweater and 50% Wool, 50% Asinine. Hilburn fans who already have those books do not really need this one for the panels – but they may want it for the comments, many of them self-deprecating, that Hilburn sprinkles throughout the pages. Next to a panel displaying “The Throw-Like-a-Girl Baseball League Tryouts,” for example, Hilburn mentions receiving a complaint about the cartoon from an offended woman, and he adds, “To read comics, watch sitcoms, or enjoy comedy in any form, you need to, first, have a sense of humor. It’s just a joke.” Next to a cartoon showing Spock giving his famous “live long and prosper” hand sign (which Kirk has discovered, thanks to his computer, really means “die soon and suffer”), Hilburn notes that he originally wanted the translation to be “something like, ‘Stand back. I am flatulent’” – but that his editors decided it was not worth the risk of upsetting people. As for the panels themselves – well, a number of them try too hard to be funny and/or absurdist, but a number of others come across very well indeed. Moses meets the “burning brush,” which warns him about split ends; a crotchety conductor welcomes kids to “the bi-polar express”; g artists who want to draw these characters understand what makes them tick (and leap, jump, walk, ride, sashay and boa panel showing six examples of “majestic mustaches” includes Col. Sanders and Yosemite Sam; Fred and Wilma Flintstone go for marriage counseling (“she wears the same dress every day!”); Hello Kitty develops mood swings and claws an animal psychologist; and so on. Obviously, people who are not familiar with all the pop-culture icons and historical events that Hilburn plays with won’t care for or even understand a number of his cartoons; and some of his jokes are groaners that are scarcely worth figuring out (such as a panel labeled “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” that is a hospital scene in which the white-bearded patient has “passed it”). The Argyle Sweater is something of an acquired taste, but those who have acquired it will likely enjoy acquiring this collection – and those new to Hilburn’s odd sense of humor may acquire an interest in it from this “Treasury” volume.

     How long does it take to learn to draw like Hilburn or Hart? Some people looking at Hilburn’s rather crude pictures will say, “About an hour,” while some viewing Hart’s elaborately designed and very elegantly finished ones will likely say, “Years.” But the basics of drawing can be learned in just a month, according to Mark Kistler, host of Mark Kistler’s Imagination Station on public television. Kistler lays out his upbeat viewpoint at the very start: “Even if you have little or no previous drawing experience, and even if you don’t believe you have natural talent, if you can find a few pencils and twenty minutes a day for thirty days, you can learn to draw amazing pictures.” Kistler lays out the “Nine Fundamental Laws of Drawing” that create the illusion of depth – foreshortening, placement, size, overlapping, shading, shadow, contour lines, horizon line and density – and explains how each works. He gives encouraging before-and-after examples of drawings made by people using his teaching methods. And he then proceeds through 30 separate lessons, from sphere and cube to specific flowers (rose and lily) to pyramids, trees, and eventually the human face. Two chapters are devoted to one-point perspective (“alignment of all objects to a single point in a picture”) and four to two-point perspective (“using two guide dots on a horizon line to draw an object above and below your eye level”). The verbal explanations are not always crystal-clear, but the lessons themselves are generally quite easy to follow, especially if you are careful to go through the book sequentially so you build skills and then build on skills. Again and again, Kistler returns to those “nine fundamental laws.” In discussing advanced-level spheres, for example, he writes, “Draw another circle behind the first. Push it up a bit (placement). Tuck it behind the first (overlapping). Draw it a bit smaller (size).” This focusing and refocusing on drawing basics is what makes You Can Draw in 30 Days especially useful. Within lessons, Kistler presents examples of work done by students, illustrating the lessons themselves as well as his argument that “each student will have his or her own unique approach.” What is missing in the book is, of course, the feedback that students would get from direct interaction with Kistler; but by and large, the illustrations are clear enough without it. Kistler’s over-enthusiasm may be a bit much for some people to take, though: “Draw the two inside ‘peeking’ lines. This is our ‘BAM’ punch-out in 3-D moment; you’ve got to love this!” In terms of people interested in drawing cartoon figures like Hilburn’s or filled-out fantasy ones like Hart’s, Kistler’s book can show the way – even though it does not deal specifically with either type of visualization. The chapter “Constructing with Cubes,” for instance, contains a number of distinctly cartoon-like drawings, while the chapters on the human face, eye and hand show how it is possible to create lifelike characters that you can then turn to whatever purpose you wish. You Can Draw in 30 Days lives up to its title, but not necessarily to the time scheme that Kistler outlines: many would-be artists will find they need a great deal longer than 20 minutes a day to develop the techniques here. Still, for those with enough time and desire, the book offers a set of valuable introductory lessons in putting what you see – in the real world or your mind’s eye – down on paper.

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