Line Weight is Everything
IT’S THE LINE WEIGHT THAT BRINGS THE WORK TO LIFE
There’s a serious heaviness to drawing, and you, as the artist control it. Line weight, in my opinion, trumps any other disciplined element that you can throw at a piece. Once the basics like perspective and proportion are in place, that is. With proper line weight, you don’t even need shading to make a drawing “work.”
Today, we’re going to explore this phenomenon in depth.
One of the greatest perks of my job is having fun. I get to have a blast when I’m drawing. Even during the late-night thrashes, and times when it stops being “car drawing time” and becomes “let’s see this doodle pay a bill”. I hadn’t realized, or consciously thought about the fun part of the equation before. It just never really occurred to me to consider it. It was simply sit and draw, erase, draw again, keep drawing until cross-eyed, rest, draw more…
And then it hit me.
When drawing, rendering a project, or sketching a few thumbnails to feel out a logo or whatever, it’s not all about the final product. I’m having a blast in each line I’m placing on paper. Every last one of them, in fact.
…and I know them ALL by the time I’ve set pen, pencil, stylus or brush down.
WHEN YOU OBSESS OVER THE LITTLE THINGS, THE BIG THINGS JUST FALL INTO PLACE
Continuing our discussion from last time, I received a number of great comments and emails regarding the obsessive detailing that seems prevalent among we car-drawing folk. It just seems to be a natural part of it all, and it’s logical indeed. Consider just how complex the machines themselves are. Then imagine having to convey that complexity in some lines and pigment. A daunting task indeed!
Yet… somewhere between those strokes of a pencil and color work, we have this absolutely enormous area to play in! We can take any number of roads to reach the finished product. Will it be a straightforward portrait? Do we need to portray each and every line in a rigid, photo-real way? Or go minimalist, and work from that one body line that offers so much energy? Do we find an area in-between? Man, this is where the fun meets panic on some pieces!
I was asked more than once to describe my technique, and I’ll try over the next few installments, and use this as a primer for the upcoming tutorials, if that’s OK.
I try to convey some sense of the vehicle’s personality. Not to humanize things too much, but I look for what makes a particular car or truck jump out at me. Of course, in the case of design renderings (for custom car and hot rod projects), I need to work with what’s existing in some cases. In others, I play creator, and select what stays, what goes, what gets modified, or even what exists in the first place. And on those projects, it’s all about giving the thing a personality!
Now we’re talking fun.
And having fun in the original sketch, and experimenting with composition and layout will pay off big time in the final piece. I tend to play a lot with varying line weights in the sketch phase, as it will provide the guidance I’ll need later on. While some elements need to be presented as they would appear in the real world, others allow you some latitude or artistic license. It’s best in these cases not to force things. Simply find your flow.
I’ve found that the best way to do this is often the simplest, most direct route. Let the drawing speak for the car.
One element that seems lost with today’s crop of computer-driven artists is the one thing that “drew” me (sorry) to drawing in the first place:
EVERYTHING HAS WEIGHT. SO SHOULD YOUR DRAWING.
Consider just how expressive a line can be when you drop some character into it:
Have a look at the fun that a few lines can have on paper… The way you can describe depth, add some heaviness to an area, even whittle a surface as it rounds or blends into another. Simply altering pressure or lifting or rolling the pencil or marker away from the surface can create an almost unlimited number of effects. And you can do this on the fly! New to drawing? Check out the pulley on the sewing machine. Compare how thick or heavy the line that makes it up is along the bottom. It’s describing gravity. Compare it to our rabid ram’s tongue. You immediately feel that one is going to weigh more than another…
I do this on purpose with each piece. When starting, I grab some reference material, and study the lines of the vehicle I’ll be drawing (especially so if we’re leaving some original panels, doubly-so when really cutting one up). From there, I look over any notes, and collect my thoughts on the project in heavy detail. I try to get a bit of the owner’s personality involved, as, after all, the car tends to be an extension of that. This part of the process can really alter my approach. Are they mellow? Does the owner project an aggressive vibe? Should the car be low and slow, or angry and loud and always at full-bore? My sketch will often go along with my feelings on that (and, on occasion, the music that’s playing).
As the sketching starts, I use the box method to place each major component, and figure-out the space I have to work in. As I begin to rough-in the panel shapes, I start to make a few lines heavier, some lighter, and some more lively than others, varying in width and cleanliness. My goal, at this stage, is to have a visual cue for later on. I want to remember where my head was at when I put each line in there. After all, keeping the mood and personality consistent will make a more cohesive design in the end. And keeping that initial energy alive, whether it’s going full analog or digital is what makes the work unique. My style always builds from this starting point.
When I have the basic line work down, I begin inking, most of the time. I say this because there are times when the pencils are close enough to what I want, and I know that the final piece was at a size that will not change. When I know (or fear) that I’ll be enlarging or separating a piece for tees or whatnot, I’ll skip inks, and just re-draw my pencils in vector. Look closely at some of my work, and you can pick out the vector lines versus ink lines…
ONE COLOR, TWO MEDIUMS
Here’s one that saw ink AND vector (as it was to become a t-shirt):
What’s interesting about this piece, at least with reference to our current topic, is that I was limited to one color, and thus had to really make every line count… to ensure that I conveyed depth, spatial relation, and shading. I love working like this, as it really stretches your abilities, making you think in two and three dimension. Not to mention always having to think ahead, and in terms of how multi-subject objects (in this case, two bikes, a rider and a van, plus logos and text and an endless-line design) will interact. And more importantly how we’ll describe that relationship with shadows, hot spots and more.
What’s even more fun is using line weight to describe motion! Putting some action into a drawing can be that little thing which puts your rendering so far over the top. Dig the amount of stuff that’s going on, and then stop to consider how few lines there are, overall, to describe it all.
Rather than clutter-up the space with motion lines and streaks, I opted for a more unconventional approach. I hinted at a light blur on the spokes for the bikes in motion, and imitated a strobe-like effect, doubling a few lines, and then streaking a few knobs on the tire. But what I’m most proud of here are the chain and sprocket. Simply varying the line a bit and letting it get just a bit loose. I tried to create a feeling that the pedals were being pumped, and that we froze the moment. With the front wheel closer to us, we’d see the strobe of the spokes, and moving back through space, we’d lose detail in the cranks and sprocket, but still see somewhat defined shapes as they were captured.
They key here, as always, is employing your observational skills. And then putting your own artistic spin on what you see as it hits paper. Understand the physics of what’s going on, but have fun in there!
Let’s move onto another quick point:
When painting, we have aerial perspective working for us, allowing the artist to show distance by blurring and shifting colors to blues, helping distant objects to recede. In a one-color t-shirt, by golly, we could forget all of that, and just draw, right?
This goes right back to the last episode, and my obsessive need to detail everything. It doesn’t stop at things like trim parts and reflections and bolts… I have this need to have some sense of space… distance… an interaction of the forms with the plane they’re drawn on, and with one another. We can, fortunately, take a page from our painter’s handbook, and create a sense of aerial perspective, simply by detailing and defining objects closer to us, and letting things get looser as they recede on the plane.
DEPTH IN A LINE
Another BMX-themed example illustrates this point pretty well. Here, I detailed the seat heavily, and got a little looser on the handlebars (and those Mushroom grips!). I simply hinted at the shape of the bubble port window, and going further back, the rear bumper just trails off… Showing just a hint of light bouncing off of the top. Doing this reinforces the effect of the van being back in the distance, as well as emphasizing that it’s parked at an angle, with the rear deeper in space.
Take this a step further, and pay attention to how you taper a line off, and you begin to create a visual guide for the eye. You create direction, and can move someone through your art, or direct them to an important object.
By simply placing a few lines closer together, you can bring an object forward, imply space, and craft a relationship between objects. Think of things in terms of scale, but on a two-dimensional plane. The fatter lines would obviously be closer to you. If there were an atmosphere present on our two-dimensional space, we’d see less and less as things recede. Make that happen with thinner lines.
And less of them.
Anything that can show more detail should be up front, so we’ll tickle the viewer’s eye with a selection of thick and thin lines, giving the impression of detail. And we’ll let they eye relax a bit as it moves back in space by foregoing detail in favor of using blocked areas of color to balance the negative space created up front.
ALWAYS KEEP THIS IN MIND, ESPECIALLY IF YOU WORK WITH BOTH ANALOG AND DIGITAL TOOLS:
No brush or filter or plug-in can do what the team of your hand and eye can do together. None. Ever. Make the most of this, then, and put a truly unique spin on your art. Create a style, and build on that style, piece after piece.
Pay close attention to the lines you draw, and your ability to react to what you see through those lines.
We’ve discussed the many ways to use a line to convey shapes, spatial distance and relationships, and even to describe motion and shading. We can also use a line with consistent width or stroke weight to provide a foundation, or to ground an element or composition. I used this technique in this design, as well, to draw the eye through the image in a set pattern. To make a sort of visual timeline for the action and still-life happening within the art, giving an illusion that many things are going on, no matter where you look. The endless-line running through the design looks groovy and retro, certainly. That’s why I chose it… But it also serves to anchor the outlined “BMX Challenge” logo and the “3rd Annual” text. More importantly, it frames a select few elements, allowing them to pop and recede in the space of the design.
You can even go against logic and use a thicker line (or a combo of thick and thin) to make the ear-most part pf your drawing “pop” from the background, while also making appear to still recede. The trick is in tapering those lines BY HAND. Again, no preset or pre-packaged brush will ever be as intuitive as your eye. Trust it, and your hand will follow.
ALL OF THAT BY PLAYING WITH LINES
Keep in mind just how powerful a single line can be. It doesn’t simply create your art or define a piece or look pretty. The lines you draw are an extension of you. You are the only person capable of drawing a line in your own precise manner. It’s like your fingerprints or signature… Unique to you, and the basis for your style, and how you draw or paint. Refine it, work with your natural stroke. I found that once I stopped fighting the way I drew naturally, and dropped the methods so pressed on me in school, that I had something enjoyable in drawing. My own style became evident. Do likewise, and you’ll find your work taking you in all sorts of new directions. Whether it’s a rendering, a t-shirt design or a logo.
It goes without saying, then, that your digital work will only be as inviting as the analog preparation that goes into it. This is why, for the most part (I’m discussing mechanical objects, as there are many gifted digital artists who can make creatures and humans and organic things look incredibly real and, well, warm… but more on that temperature thing in a second), pure digital – meaning vector and photo-edited (i.e. “Photoshopped” or “photo-chopped”) or 3D model-based car artwork looks colder. It has a definite visual temperature change when compared to a hand-drawn piece.
It lacks, I think, the tactile, the hands-on touch of art media to the paper, canvas, board, whatever to bridge the realistic surface with the warmth of art that we seem to seek.
A MELDING OF MAN AND MACHINE
In my opinion (again, an opinion… I’m not knocking 3D models or vector or Photoshop-based work at all), I think that ALL ART is outstanding, and requires a TON of discipline and skill. I use Photoshop and vector tools as part of my production, so I’m right here with you. Just clearing that up before someone sends me an email telling me how they misread this and that I called anyone who build or uses Illustrator 3D models or Painter a hack, and I have to send them a link to listen to Carly Simon belt out Carole King’s You’re So Vain, and then re-explain that I was simply trying to describe the significant visual difference between pure analog and pure digital work. Hopefully they can dig what I have to add here.
What makes that work look so cold is that it’s not created by the human hand, but rather by math and machine.
Math doesn’t observe an object like we do, and can’t put a personal spin on what’s being drawn or represented. Sure, you can program a filter or action to try and simulate the human action, but it can’t change it all up on the fly. In my humble opinion, again, for whatever that’s worth, what makes a work of art so interesting is the conflict and the way someone deciphers and then presents what they’ve taken from experiencing some object or event, using a pen, pencil, brush, whatever. That’s not to say that any one medium or technique is better than another, far from it.
Each has its place, and each requires a ton of work to learn the tools to create with, and I’m simply seeking to express my perceived temperature of one medium’s result versus that of another. It’s a perceptual thing, really. You may see it differently, and again, therein lies the fun and experience of all art.
That said, consider just how powerful your initial lines and strokes of the pencil can be. Everything you build from that will still have that first line carrying its weight or direction. The first lines convey action, energy. Or they can be lifeless and flat. You decide!
MAKE YOUR LINES WORK A FEW JOBS IN TANDEM
Check out the design at left. I relied heavily on line weight to capture the illusion of space, forcing a bit of warped perspective on the entire composition. My goal was to give the feeling of the trucks sitting on an incline, yet have the viewer feel as though they were slowly lifting off of the ground, as if viewing the whole thing from a drone.
What’s fun here is that the lines in the whole piece are all attached via creative use of the negative space (see below for more on that little trick). Adding to that, I opted to use a variety of line weight in unexpected places to not only give each of the trucks a feeling of occupying space on the plane, but to delineate each from the next. In some places, you’d expect a slimmer line as the rear-most areas recede; yet I opted for a thicker line to imply some shadow behind it.
In the t-shirt art to the right, I relied heavily on negative space again, but in an entirely different manner. The line weight, both actual and suggested, help to give the illusion of the geometric shapes in the background floating in front of as well as behind one another. This helps to reinforce the illusion of space. At the same time provide a concrete background to hold all of the imagery together in space. The drop shadow effect is pure negative space, and utilizes some thick and thin line weights to imply where one geometric panel is closer to the logo, and others further away.
This is where all of those days spent in life drawing classes, and all of that “boring” theory stuff in lectures comes in handy! Knowing the rules and being able to apply them on-the-fly, especially when drawing something for which there is no reference material available makes your life in the studio so much easier.
CUTTING IT DOWN TO THE FUNDAMENTALS
On the flip-side, look at this cutaway piece:
A very mild, yet contrasting color scheme keeps things energetic, yet doesn’t draw too much attention away from the point of this whole illustration. Here, I’m relying on the viewer’s mind to fill in the areas between the lines. I’m doubling-down on the use of color to help certain elements recede, and others come forward. Contrasting colors can add instant drama. And here they utilize the line weight implied by the negative space to create the forms of the individual panels and parts. And once you start looking between the lines you’re laying down, some really neat things happen.
You can begin to create the illusion of not only three-dimensional space on your two-dimensional plane. But give some volume by using the background color for shadow, as shown here. Draw this on a white background, and that base can become the highlights. Opt for gray, and well, you get the idea.
A last point for this installment (we’ll pick this up next time with a discussion of composition, and the elements to master therein) is working in a rhythm for your drawing. Much like the Beatles made a killing using a simple rhythm in their songs, the way those songs were written also showed a set rhythm. Your line work and color application should be no different.
From the first lines you drop in, get thinking about how the eye will move through the image. Make a mental list of the cool details in your ride that demand some extra attention, and build toward them. Vary your line weight and direction to hit a crescendo at those particular features. Give a little action to your highlights. Allow them to “dance” across the paint, flowing toward each perpendicular line (i.e. across the fender to the door gaps). This adds visual interest, and even hints at the setting of your rendering playing into the vehicle.
THE BEARABLE HEAVINESS OF DRAWING
Having a pretty good idea of how line weight can affect your work is one thing; putting it into practice is another animal altogether. From here, it’s just a matter of sitting down and working at it. Arrange items on your desk or drawing table, and sketch them. Use only lines to create the illusion of them having a place on your plane. Experiment. Be fearless. After all, there are no rights or wrongs or mistakes that cannot be undone or fixed. Just a journey to discover what looks right or cool. Line weight is your friend.
If you’ve enjoyed this installment, let me know in the comments below. Have questions? Hit me with them! Discovered something new in your drawings or experiments, share ’em up!
Thanks, as always for your time and interest. Catch you on the flip side.
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