Archive for the ‘theory’ Category

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

Art Education: Practice Types

Last time we talked about how to objectively judge a person’s current ability within a discipline using the Dreyfus Model. Today I’ll be giving my personal theory about what types of practice are best for students and professionals of various levels, and how to determine what type of practice is right for you.

I formed this theory by combining my own experiences learning sports, art, music, and mathematics with advice given by notable teachers of animation and art. My litmus test has been that I must be able to apply these practice methods to any subject a person might want to learn, although practicing skills is this system’s focus, not academic memorization.

The five categories I’ve identified are listed below with a short description of each and an example of the type of activity you might engage in if your goal was to learn how to draw. Remember that these are broad categories however, and may be applied to any skill or discipline.

Willy Pogany’s Life Drawing Lessons


When first approaching a subject, the concepts and working methods are all completely new, therefore the first and most basic type of practice is the type which is most widely used in the classroom: Academic practice. This would include all newly introduced or researched information which comes from an authoritative source such as a textbook, tutorial, lecture, or guide.

This type of practice is most helpful right at the beginning of a student’s study. If you find that general knowledge about the way your discipline works is absent, or that parts of the working methods of your skill are hazy or poorly understood, this is the type of practice you should engage in first. However, as soon as a workable understanding of the concepts is obtained Academic practice should be abandoned in favor of a different type to allow the student to internalize what they’ve learned.

In drawing this would be the equivalent of learning body proportions and anatomy. These are very critical and useful areas of study, but if that’s all you practice, your work can only ever look like a textbook illustration.

Public Sketching – Gordon Grant


In order to become a confident and skillful practitioner, a student must commit to hours of practical application. In sports all minute aspects of the game are drilled endlessly until each action becomes as natural as breathing. In music, scales and rhythm exercises are used as warm-ups even by highly accomplished musicians so that they become second nature. Drilling is any task which you already know how to do, and can perform repeatedly in small rapid bursts.

This type of practice is the next most common type of activity employed by students and professionals. In essence, the purpose of drilling is to gain confidence and familiarity with your working methods. A pleasant byproduct of drilling is an increase in speed and a decrease in error making. Many professionals if not most of them continue using drilling throughout their careers as a way to keep sharp.

Drilling in illustration would represent public sketching, thumb-nailing compositions, or plein air painting just to name a few.

William Lee Hankey

Quality Test

At the point where a student believes they have learned enough to become competent, it may be time to put all of their acquired skills into practice by attempting to perform their discipline to the best of their ability. In sports, this would be game day, in music it would be the concert or recital, and in art, this would represent a single piece of artwork meant to  showcase the artist’s talents.

Art made for a quality test should be made carefully, slowly and deliberately. No time limit should be imposed and the artist should be as thorough and careful as they can possibly be in order to push the limits of their ability to the extreme.

Performing work of this type may often have humbling results, revealing exactly what shortcomings the student has yet to overcome. As a diagnostic tool, this type of practice is invaluable, and also provides milestones for the student as they progress so that they can compare their current work to their past work.

Quality illustrations should  make up much of a student’s portfolio along with life drawings.

Gustaf Tenggren Comparison


After mastering the basics through the use of Academic and Drilling practice, it becomes necessary for a student to explore their own preferred methods and to attempt to expand their ability beyond what can be taught to them explicitly. Experimental practice is done to attempt to create a new work method or a unique result which is entirely the student’s own. It is important to note that this type of practice is most useful in the hands of an already skilled practitioner of their craft, but it may be useful to novices as well, as a method of discovery.

In my opinion, this is where many graduate students and professionals fail to expand their abilities. It’s very easy to copy and reproduce from textbooks, instructors, and tutorials, but it’s a very different and altogether more frightening thing to try to create a new method of working, or a new way of seeing the world.

In illustration and art in general, those artist who are synonymous with a particular style or artistic movement likely owe their success at least partially to experimental practice. The need to perform this type of practice need not be that grand however, as even small modifications to an artist’s working methods help to personalize and internalize their craft.

Albert Hurter


The last form of practice is the free and non-structured kind which children indulge in. Although non-academic and not strictly intended to improve a practitioner’s ability, freeform practice serves as a crucial way for the student to enjoy themselves with their chosen craft. Although it may seem unnecessary to list it here, I believe that maintaining a fun and creative attitude toward your work is at least as important as academic study, if not more so.

Work of this type has one goal: to make you happy. After all, why are you putting in all of this time becoming skillful if not to use that skill in a way which pleases you? Very often unfortunately it seems that the mark of a professional artist is that they draw at work but not at home, having long since ceased to enjoy what it is they do for a living. Don’t fall into the trap of slowly choking the life out of your art, have a little fun now and then!

I hope these practice methods are helpful to you or your students. Next time I’ll be talking about motivation and forming a practice habit!

Sunday, January 4th, 2015

Art Education: The Dreyfus Model

Hello everyone I’m Taber, Director of Membership at Animation Resources. I’m going to be making a series of posts focused on the more academic side of artistic instruction and learning in general. This sort of information can be helpful to both teachers and students as you push yourself to improve and practice your discipline.

Preston Blair instruction

As a beginning artist it can often be difficult to objectively judge your own progress or the quality of your own work. Being able to place yourself in an accurate position of skillfulness can help you to recognize your past growth and current deficiencies so you can better target areas for improvement. But what if you can’t tell exactly what the differences are between your work and the work of more highly skilled artists?

The Dreyfus model focuses on work practices and approaches as a measure of skill acquisition. This can be helpful to both students and instructors as it tends to be entirely non-judgmental and easy to identify objectively. The model uses four qualities to determine work habits:

  • Recollection (non-situational or situational)
  • Recognition (decomposed or holistic)
  • Decision (analytical or intuitive)
  • Awareness (monitoring or absorbed)

These attributes stack one at a time to provide a framework for evaluation:


(click image to enlarge)

For an accurate measurement, ask yourself these questions regarding the above attributes. Because some of these attributes can flip between a more advanced and a less advanced state, I recommend relying on the lower state. For an example if you were trying to decide if you are an intuitive decision maker, or a rational decision maker but you do both part of the time, put yourself down as rational as a rule of thumb.

  1. When you recall knowledge about the subject, is it always in a related context with other information, or is it sometimes rote memorization?
  2. While thinking about an aspect of the subject, can you clearly distinguish between relevant and irrelevant aspects of the work, or is it sometimes difficult to tell what’s important?
  3. When planning your own work, do you need to carefully and analytically lay out the steps beforehand or can you see the entire project as a whole task?
  4. When making decisions in your work, do you have to do any problem solving, or do the answers come to you intuitively, without effort most of the time?

Once you’ve answered these four questions, find the lowest tier which corresponds to your answers, even if you choose an attribute from a higher tier. Read the Needs column from the above chart and try to focus your learning on the types of practice listed in that section. Don’t cheat yourself by practicing projects which are too complex or unstructured! That sort of practice is really only for very highly skillful artists.

This system is similar to the surface to core concept illustrated by Scott McCloud in his book Understanding Comics which I highly recommend! In the book, McCloud describes how a person who is initially drawn to be a fan of an art-form must undertake a journey to the core of that medium before being able to master and thus give back to that medium.mccloud_understanding_comics

Additionally, this same artist’s journey from surface to core is echoed in much of the advice and instructional material given to artists throughout time, from Zim to Richard Williams. In essence, this is what an “old masters” approach is. This struggle is ultimately the best way to gain skill in an artistic medium, however it is difficult and it does take time.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” -Ira Glass

I have some personal theories about the types of artistic practice activities which benefit artists the most when trying to improve aspects of their work, and I’ll be talking about that next time!

Friday, January 2nd, 2015

W.C. Fields On The Fickle Nature Of Humor

The other day on Facebook, a few of my friends were discussing the impossibility of breaking down and analyzing humor. The answer to the question, “What is funny?” is a chimeral one. The second you pin it down, it dissolves into not being funny any more. However, one funny man was able to distill humor in words. Here is his article on the subject…

WC Fields

By W.C. Fields

I have spent years working out gags to make people laugh. With the patience of an old mariner making a ship in a bottle, I have been able to build situations that have turned out to be funny. But- to show you what a crazy way this is to make a living- the biggest laugh on the stage I ever got was an almost exact reproduction of an occurrence one evening when I was visiting a friend, and it took no thinking-up whatsoever.

At my friend’s home it didn’t even get a snicker, but in the theater, it caused the audience to yell for a full minute.

On the stage I was a pompous nobody. The telephone rang. I told my wife I would answer it in a manner that showed I doubted she was capable of handling an affair of such importance.

I said, “Hello, Elmer… Yes, Elmer… Is that so, Elmer?… Of course, Elmer… Good-bye, Elmer.”

I hung up the reciever and said to me wife as though I was disclosing a state secret, “That was Elmer.”

WC Fields

It was a roar. It took ten or twelve performances to find that “Elmer” is the funniest name for a man. I tried them all- Charley, Clarence, Oscar, Archibald, Luke, and dozens of others- but Elmer was tops. That was several years ago, Elmer is still funny- unless your name happens to be Elmer. In that case, you probably will vote for Clarence.

I don’t know why the scene turned out to be so terribly funny. The funniest thing about comedy is that you never know why people laugh. I know what makes them laugh, but trying to get your hands on the why of it is like trying to pick an eel out of a tub of water.

WC Fields

“Charley Bogle” spoken slowly and solemnly with a very long “o” is a laugh. “George Beebe” is not funny, but “Doctor Beebe” is. The expression, “You big Swede.” is not good for a laugh, but “You big Polack” goes big. But if you say “You big Polack.” in a show you’ll be visited by indignant delegations of protesting Poles. The Swedes don’t seem to mind.

Usually, towns that have a “ville” on the end of the name- like Jonesville- are not to be taken seriously, while those with “Saint” cannot be joked about. But will you tell me why St. Louis goes well in a gag and Louisville does not?

It’s difficult to put over a joke about any of the Southern states. They go best in sentimental songs. Northern states are different. A fellow from New Jersey, Iowa, Kansas or Minnesota can be funny (except to natives of those states.)

WC Fields

I don’t know the why of all this- any more than I know why a man gets sore if he slips and falls, while if a woman falls, she laughs. Nor why it is harder to put over comedy in Kansas City than in any other city in the United States, and easier in New York.

Flo Ziegfield never thought a comedy act was any good unless there was a beautiful girl in it, and he picked on me when I was doing my golf game in the Follies.

It was a scene in which I came on the golf course with a caddy and had trouble for eighteen minutes without ever hitting the ball. Lionel Barrymore told me it was the funniest gag he ever saw- and you can’t laugh off a testimonial like that!

One day Ziegfeld saw a picture in a paper showing a society girl with a Russian wolfhound. He dropped the paper, ran out, bought a wolfhound, and told me he was going to have Delores, one of his glorified girls, walk across the stage leading the hound, in the middle of my act!

I squawked, but it didn’t do any good, and at the next performance, just as I was building up laughs by stepping in a pie somebody had left on the golf course, out of the wings- for no reason except that Ziegfeld had told her to do it- comes Delores, with slow, stately tread, leading the Russian wolfhound.

I lost my audience instantly. They didn’t know what it was all about. I wasn’t going to give up my scene without a fight, so I looked at Delores in amazement, and then at the audience as if I, too were shocked at this strange sight on the golf course. When she was halfway across the stage, I said, “That’s a very beautiful horse.”

It got a big laugh.

Delores was so indignant because I had spoiled her parade, that she grabbed the hound around the shoulders and ran off the stage with him in her arms- and that was another laugh.

Ziegfeld and Delores raised the very devil. I maintained that I had improved the scene. They said I had ruined it, and finally we compromised. I was to let her have her moment and was not to speak the line until she was one step from her exit. It turned out that the suspense made it all the better.

I experimented night after night to find out what animal was the funniest. I finally settled upon “That’s a very beautiful camel.”

Usually there is nothing funny about horses- except prop horses with two men inside- but one of Ed Wynn’s best gags was where he sat down in a restaurant and said, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” and the waiter went out and led in a live horse.

You usually can’t get a laugh out of damaging anything valuable. When you kick a silk hat, it must be dilapidated, when you wreck a car, bang it up a little before you bring it into the scene.

Yet Harold Lloyd had a great gag when he drove out proudly in a new, expensive car which immediately was commandeered by police, chasing bandits. The car was shot full of holes, and then it stalled on a railroad track. Lloyd jumped out and tried to start it, a train came along and hit it, and all he had left was the starting crank which he held in his hand.

WC Fields

It is funnier to bend things than to break them- bend the fenders on a car in a comedy wreck, don’t tear them off. In my golf game, which I have been doing for years, at first I swung at the ball and broke the club. Now I bend it at a right angle. If one comedian hits another over the head with a crowbar, the crowbar should bend, not break. In legitimate drama, the hero breaks his sword, and it is dramatic. In comedy, the sword bends, and stays bent.

There is something funny about mice and for years, without success, I tried to get a good gag about them. An accident finally gave it to me.

In Poppy, I was a small-time confidence man whose philosophy, you may remember, was “Never give a sucker an even break.” In one scene I was alone in a dark library, hunting on tiptoe for cards that I intended to mark, so that later I could cheat in a poker game. One night, as I was tiptoeing around the stage, being careful not to wake up anybody in the house, somebody, off-stage, accidentally knocked over a pile of boxes with a crash that shook the theater.

My scene was ruined for the moment. I had an inspiration. I stole down to the footlights and whispered across to the audience, “Mice!”

We kept that in the act too.

Professors of humor will tell you that the audienuce must not be allowed to guess what is coming, that humor is always based upon surprise. The theory is often true, but in You’re Telling Me, my most recent moving picture, I have a scene in which the laugh depends upon the fact that the audience knows in advance exactly what is going to happen.

I play a stupid and self-important inventor and I explain the details of my new burglar trap. According to my plan, I shall become friendly with the burglar, invite him in to sit down and talk things over, and, when he sits in a chair, a lever will automatically release an enormous iron ball which will hit him Socko! on the bean and kill him instantly.

From that moment the audience knows what’s coming- that pretty soon I’ll forget about the iron ball and will sit in the chair myself. The laughter begins when I start toward the chair. It reaches its peak before the ball whams me on the bean.

If I sat in a chair and the ball fell on my head, and then it was explained that it was a burglar alarm, the scene would fall flat.

The success of the scene depends upon the absence of surprise.

WC Fields

I know we laugh at the troubles of others, provided those troubles are not too serious. Out of that observation, I have reached a conclusion which may be of some comfort to those accused of “having no sense of humor.” These folks are charming, lovable, philanthropic people, and invariably I like them- as long as they keep out of the theaters where I am playing, which they usually do. If they get in by mistake, they leave early.

The reason they don’t laugh at most gags is that their first emotional reaction is to feel sorry for people instead of to laugh at them.

I like, in an audience, the fellow who roars continually at the troubles of the character I am portraying on the stage, but he probably has a mean streak in him, and, if I needed ten dollars, he’d be the last person I’d call upon. I’d go first to the old lady and old gentleman back in Row S who keep wondering what there is to laugh at.

W.C. Fields
September, 1934

WC Fields

Stephen Worth
Animation Resources


This posting is part of a series of articles comprising an online exhibit entitled Theory.