Skulls are really good practice, and interesting. Even though I got my MFA a quarter century ago, I regularly learn new things (ex., a sculpting program like Zbrush), or hone my skills. In the last two days I knocked out a couple skulls. They took about 60-90 minutes each.
There are multiple reasons this is good practice for digital drawing/painting (as well as using old school barbaric tools from prior epochs).
- Understanding the underlying structure of the human head. I didn’t realize the cheekbone wrapped around and formed a hollow space…
- It’s a great form for studying lighting and shading, because it has a lot of different planes and slopes, but we know what they are (as opposed to drawing crumpled paper or a sheet, where the planes are there but meaningless). There isn’t too much or too little detail, and you get the range from larger surfaces to intricate details. There are recesses, protuberances, fissures, and cracks. Uuuh, yeah, my drawing teachers made me draw a lot of sheets over the years, and it was always a crushing bore. And so was the stinking bicycle tire and trying to get the spokes right. Seriously, in HS my drawing teacher set up a bunch of branches, a sheet, and a bike tire and gave us a couple weeks to draw it. What a time killer in which nothing primary was grasped. I learned more from drawing one of these skulls in an hour.
- If you don’t trace it (I didn’t) it’s not too difficult of a shape to eyeball by looking at its relationship to the background rectangle and negative space. In the one above I cheated a little by pulling down a few horizontal guides in PS, but I just winged the rest. In the one below I winged it entirely.
- It’s a good way to adjust how you use your tools to replicate or create various effects. I used a couple different brushes in PS (one a rough pastel, and the other like vine charcoal), and I could achieve realism with either one.
- Because all skulls have the same basic characteristics, you can understand how the same shape changes in different angles and lighting situations. Also, there’s wriggle room where you don’t need to be super accurate, such as if you were drawing machinery and needed perfectly straight lines or precise ellipses.
- They are bad-ass.
Of course it’s better if you have access to a model of a skull and set up your own lighting and get out those per-industrial wood and lead or charcoal tools, because then you really are cognizant of the light source, and can pick up the skull to understand the relation of various parts better. But I found just copying photos from the Internet rewarding.
Note: I wouldn’t use a grid system for copying a photo. Lots of artists do this to make large-scale meticulous copies of photographs. Even Chuck Close did this is the beginning. The result looks good, but this doesn’t really teach you to measure shapes and angles with your eyes. There’s an advantage to drawing digitally, which is that you can set it up like I did as a diptych and you just need to copy what is in the other panel. In my case the object is to apply the skills elsewhere, such as drawing from my imagination, as in my last piece, so it’s the skill I’m honing, not the finished product of skulls.
And here’s a hint on how to get the proportions right. I started zoomed out so the skull was very small, and thus I could just block in the general shape without worrying about the details. Also good to squint your eyes to blur your vision. Working this way it’s just a matter of getting more specific as you get more detailed. I never zoomed to where I would be seeing only a portion of the image.