How To Draw A Tiger

When I took illustration classes in school, we were taught to always, always use a reference. So, we drew from life, taking field trips to retirement homes, drawing and talking with people there, going to the anthropology department to draw bones, going to the zoo, and drawing ourselves. If we drew a malformed tiger paw, our teacher would ask if we were really looking at it or if we made it up in our heads. We were likely to get slapped on our paws if we made that mistake.

It was a surprise to me then, that not everyone is taught to draw using reference. I learned of a different way when I visited a Chinese watercolor painter. The first thing I set eyes on in his classroom was a huge vase of brushes, ranging from one hair thickness to many hairs, each used for a specific purpose. I imagined it would take quite a while to master each one of them, what to use them for, on what paper, and with different proportions of water or paint.

I asked the painter how he decided to start on a painting, and he replied that they all came out of his head.

What?! No reference? No, because in China, he explained, they master drawing individual objects, one by one, until they can eventually draw anything from memory at absolutely any angle.

For one year, he had to draw tigers, the next year, boats, and then the next, bridges, and so on. This was an amazing approach, I thought, as impressive as learning a unique character for each Chinese word. There were also rules and schools of painting to follow, like keeping the proportion of human figures small in relation to the vastness of nature.

In medical illustration, however, the trend has moved away from life-referenced drawing (at least in the U.S.). It is not always time- or cost-effective to get access to a live or preserved body, so illustrators will often use a compilation of other art to create a new drawing. This has resulted, at times, in inaccuracies, just like the original message gets altered in the game of telephone.

For example, an organ may be drawn correctly, but shown at an incorrect angle as it sits in a body on its side. Combatting this trend, though, is the wealth of photography and drawn reference available on line, and most importantly, the experience and training of the illustrator. In addition, medical illustrations are usually reviewed by medical staff before final approval is given.