Art 101, taught by Snoopy and Van Gogh

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If you can draw your name, you can draw anything." I think I heard or read this line somewhere, or maybe it came in a dream, as many insightful inspirations do. Whatever the source, I'm immensely grateful for the idea.

Like most people, I used to be intimidated when I saw an artist deftly sketch lines that turned into faces, flowers, and trees. It seemed a magical process that the artist had brought with him at birth, and the less endowed had to be content only to watch and admire.

But the "draw your name, draw anything" concept made me take a closer look at my signature. Like most, mine has complex arcs and swirls that I make automatically. So it seemed reasonable that with practice I could learn to make other forms, too. And so it has been.

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I began by copying cartoons. This seemed permissible. If art students can go to museums and copy the masters, I could learn by copying "Blondie," "Hagar," and "Peanuts." Charlie Brown's perfect-circle head defied me, though, as it has others, and I wondered how Charles Schulz did it.

So I asked him. Yes, I did! I'm a freelance photojournalist and an assignment sent me to his studio in Santa Rosa, Calif. Mr. Schulz was a warm man, and we fell easily into a conversation that took us from noon to dinnertime. I exposed two rolls of film and thought it was enough, but he said "Take more if you'd like," so I did.

He invited me to watch as he drew, and at one point Schulz dipped his quill pen in India ink and created that famous Charlie Brown head as easily as you and I cross our T's. "It's not hard to do when you've known Charlie as long as I have," Schulz said.

"It wasn't always easy for me, though," he continued. "My first renditions were awkward. I drew the 'Peanuts' characters for several years before coming up with the gang you see today. By the way," he said cheerfully, "call me Sparky. All my friends do. It comes from "Sparkplug," a long-ago cartoon character I used to draw for practice."

"You mean you learned by copying other cartoonists?" I asked.

"Of course," he answered. " 'Barney Google' was one of my great inspirations. I started with him at the age of 6, and I knew then that cartooning was to be my life. Teaching Sunday School and opening an ice rink in Santa Rosa have been my only added interests.

"If you want to be a cartoonist yourself, just begin. For a start, copy Lucy if you want. She's fairly easy to do. Or Snoopy. You have my permission," he smiled.

Inspired, I began copying Snoopy, then turned to "Calvin and Hobbes," "Garfield," and that good-hearted family in "For Better or for Worse." Later, I tried editorial cartoons, which taught me about doing caricatured likenesses of politicians and princes.

Once I spent an entire day in the library studying Van Gogh. Some of his early sketches looked quite amateurish to me, but I didn't mind. It made him more human. I remember thinking "It doesn't appear Vincent was a born artist. He had to learn like the rest of us!"

One of his earliest major works in oil, "The Potato Eaters," is full of murky shadows. It seems closer to a Rembrandt or a Millet than to the Van Gogh paintings of his later years, filled with yellow sunflowers and the windblown grain fields of rural France. I learned that Van Gogh had indeed taught himself by copying works by his fellow Dutchman, Rembrandt. And, revering Jean Francois Millet as he did, Vincent made his own fine versions of this painter's "Man With a Hoe" and "The Sowers."

Later, I branched out from cartoons to try children's book illustrations. I went to libraries and sat on floors with kids to pick out favorites like Maurice Sendak ("I'll Be You and You Be Me"), Robert McCloskey ("One Morning in Maine"), Arnold Lobel ("On the Day Peter Stuyvesant Sailed Into Town"), and Tomi Ungerer ("Snail, Where Are You?").

These books are filled with things artists need to know. I saw, for instance, that eyes are usually about halfway between the tops of heads and the tips of chins. Ears start just about even with eyebrows and go down to be in line with upper lips.

I studied my own hands and saw what I'd never noticed. Have you looked at your own hands? Is your ring finger longer than your index finger, or are they the same length? Do your thumbs arch backward at their tips, or are they straight as fence posts?

Noting such distinctions is basic to drawing practice. But signing up for a life-drawing class isn't essential. You can spend lovely hours just staring at people to help yourself learn. Or, if you were warned as a child not to stare, you could study photographs in the daily paper. They serve quite well as models.

Action figures have made me pause. How can I show people hitting home runs, climbing trees, biting into Jonathan apples? I'm no good yet at capturing moving subjects. So I learned to clip action illustrations from magazines.

With these spread before me, I practiced running my pencil around on paper to seize the essence and spirit of physical action. Such playful scribbling is a spontaneous, unthreatening way to search out the shapes of subjects you're not certain you can draw.

I love Woody Allen's words: "Success in life is mainly a matter of showing up." I think it's this way with learning to draw. You simply show up at your desk and work at it - every day. Or you work at the kitchen table if you don't own a desk. Or try the sidewalk if you don't own a kitchen table. (There's no excuse for not learning to draw!)

Copying cartoons was a help to me in the beginning. Now I look at a Rembrandt and audaciously tell myself, "I could do that!" Well, no. But it's amazing to feel confidence growing as you learn to see through drawing.

I think I could indeed do a little corner of a Rembrandt, because I've spent several years now intensely observing. I can see how the branch of an oak tree connects to its trunk, and how the leaves relate to the twigs, so I do believe that after a week of showing up in a museum and dedicating myself to earnest study of the master, I might at least do a fair representation of a Rembrandtian button on a 17th-century sleeve!

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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