Seven Ways Not to Draw a Great White Shark

The past week has been FULL of awesome news and exciting work, but most of it is top secret (so I can’t talk about it here! Ack!). But what I’ve been up to lately that I can discuss is more white shark drawing at all hours in my studio. And after many trials and a great many errors I am proud to announce a triumphant discovery: the Seven Ways Not to Draw a Great White Shark, or SWNDGWS (for short). In sharing these failed attempts I hope to shed a little light on my process, and demonstrate the kinds of questions I ask myself when making images for book illustration. So, without further ado: let the Ways begin!


Digital and pencil rough draft for the final image of the hunt.

First, to make a final drawing I have to know what it is I want to draw. That sounds easy but it really isn’t; as any writer knows, arriving at a working rough draft is by far the most challenging part of a book. But at least for this spread I already knew that I needed a scene of a white shark hunting a seal. I scanned in a small drawing and played with value and color in my computer, and came up with a composition I was fairly happy with. And so the question surfaced: how do I want to complete this drawing? The only way to find out would be to fail again and again and again until I got something that felt right. I started where I usually start: pencil line as a separate layer from the color.


SWNDGWS #1: Too much detail.

Seven Ways Not to Draw a Great White Shark #1

But right away I knew this wouldn’t work. See all that detail in this first pencil drawing? Yikes. Talk about flattening out the space behind the shark! Though it’s true that the reefs are home to millions of creatures, I saw right away that by putting so much detail in the background I had eliminated depth. So for something completely different… I did it all over again almost exactly the same.


SWNDGWS #2: Too much detail with cute animal friends.

Seven Ways Not to Draw a Great White Shark #2

So much for not learning from my first attempt. And this time, what are all of those cute little animal friends doing in a reef where a shark is hunting a seal? If I wanted a spooky mood this approach achieved exactly the opposite. I also noticed that the shark’s tail was wrong: on a white shark the upper caudal lobe is larger, not the lower lobe. Of course the tail looks all sorts of sizes while a shark is swimming, but the detail and flatness of the drawing seemed to eliminate all movement. Still clinging to hope, I grasped at color to save me, which leads us to #3…


SWNDGWS #3: Too much detail with cute animal friends and digital color.

Seven Ways Not to Draw a Great White Shark #3

Well at least I fixed the upper caudal lobe thanks to the warp tool in Photoshop. Here the value and contrast are doing their job, but I felt that the details were blocking a sense of movement, and the digital color quickly felt much too sober. I abandoned the digital color (which, if you remember, still wasn’t the main problem!) in favor of watercolor to see if that worked any better.


SWNDGWS #4: Too much detail with cute animal friends and watercolor.

Seven Ways Not to Draw a Great White Shark #4

After printing out the line art on two pieces of watercolor paper I loaded up a brush and began filling in colors. The non-digital color instantly felt better, but my fundamental problem from SWNDGWS #1 was still unresolved. It occurred to me that perhaps the pencil plus watercolor approach was all wrong, so I pulled out some pastels and drew directly on the watercolor paper, covering up the #4 attempt as I went. I didn’t get very far.


SWNDGWS #5: Too much detail with cute animal friends and pastel.

Seven Ways Not to Draw a Great White Shark #5

Having never worked as a story board artist for Pixar, I knew right away that this just wasn’t going to work. In my hands pastels are stubborn, angry things that decide to break and crumble and play with all the wrong colors. With mild desperation and not a little panic, I started over with charcoal, which brings us up to #6…


SWNDGWS #6: Charcoal.

Seven Ways Not to Draw a Great White Shark #6

Look! Look! I finally dropped the detail! At last I was on to something, though I quickly saw that charcoal would be nearly as difficult to control as the pastel. The values were working, but the smudge factor was dicey. What if I tried the same idea but in pencil shading instead?


SWNDGWS #7: Pencil Shading.

Seven Ways Not to Draw a Great White Shark #7

For the most part I was very pleased with how this drawing turned out. There’s just a tiny bit of charcoal in the blacks and the rest is entirely with 2B and 4B woodless pencil. But as I worked I slowly realized that I would not be able to consistently sustain this approach, for two reasons: 1) for any above water scenes this approach would feel much too dark, and 2) this would put me right back in the chair of using digital color. Frustrated with (at this point) several days of failed attempts, I pulled out a scrap of paper and did an angry two minute drawing of a seal swimming. And… POOF! Something that worked:


OWDS (One Way to Draw a Seal) #1: Pencil and watercolor.

One Way to Draw a Seal

Simple, full of motion, and with natural hand-drawn color. Through all those other attempts of trying to figure out how to draw the scene, all I had to do was to just draw the way I usually draw (hey! what a concept!). Stay tuned for the final art sample. Happy March everyone!

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