The Importance of Being Simple

37b4036ce8f20716694c5691c51096b40a5957b9.jpgI just came across a letter from 1998 that made my day. Here’s the backstory: Amir, a 14-year-old aspiring cartoonist, sends some of his drawings to John Kricfalusi, creator of Ren and Stimpy. Here’s Kricfalusi’s response (edited for space).

Dear Amir,

Thanks for your letter and all your cartoons to look at. Your comics are pretty good, especially your staging and continuity. You might have the makings of a good storyboard artist. I’m sending you a very good how to draw animation book by Preston Blair. Preston was one of Tex Avery’s animators. He animated ‘Red Hot Riding Hood’ and many other characters. His book shows you very important fundamentals of good cartoon drawing.

Construction. Learn how to construct your drawings out of 3-dimensional objects. Learn how to draw hands so they look solid. I want you to copy the drawings in his book. Start on the first page, draw slow. Look very closely. Measure the proportions. Draw the drawings step-by-step, just the way Preston does.

After you finish each drawing check it carefully against the drawing in the book. (if you do your drawings on tracing paper, you can lay the paper on top of the book to see where you made mistakes. On your drawing write the mistakes. Then do the drawing again, this time correcting the mistakes.

Here’s another important piece of information for you: Good drawing is more important than anything else in animation. More than ideas, style, stories. Everything starts with good drawing. Learn to draw construction, perspective.

Ok, now it’s up to you.

Allright Bastard, let’s get to work. Draw! and slow now.

Your pal,

John K.

Good teaching is wrapped in mystery. We tend to think of the great teacher as possessing a higher level of knowledge, and so we sometimes expect their knowledge to arrive in cryptic, complicated forms. After all, they’re smarter than we are. We’re not supposed to understand.

Kricfalusi’s letter shows us the falseness of this thinking by delivering a virtual clinic on the powerful simplicity of master teaching. First he establishes a connection. Then he gives a series of straightforward signals — do X, do Y, do Z. Do them slowly. Mark your mistakes. Look very closely. And best of all, Kricfalusi doesn’t just tell – he shows, by drawing examples. (Check out the original document.) Then he re-establishes the connection.

I think this letter is a useful reminder about what good teaching really is: simple, clear signals delivered at the right time, with love.

Amir apparently listened. He’s now in his fourth year at the animation program at Sheridan College — here’s some of his work.