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Why are costume designers so mean about drawing?

Picture this. I'm a scrappy know-it-all in his early-mid twenties who up-and-decided one day to become a costume designer. I had a taste of it in undergrad, but no formal training. I was excited by the prospect of making clothes and, after being the primary designer for my niece and nephew's successive childhood Halloween costumes, I became eager to make a leap into a more professional career.


Problem was: "I couldn't draw."


Rendering for "Hedda Gabbler" done in 2007

I put that in quotation marks because not only was that something I felt (and sometimes still feel) but it's something I hear from my students all. the. time. It's never uncommon for me to hear someone wistfully think out loud about taking my costume design class, but refuses to do so because they haven't been blessed by Dumbledore Spaghetti Monster with the magical talent for rendering.


My own drawing "talents" were a pretty major discussion point during grad school, from colleagues to professors. I remember clearly at one point a professor offered to buy me a subscription to Playboy magazine so I could learn about drawing women's breasts. It got so in my head, that at another point a professor flat out told me I had to stop criticizing my drawing so much in presentations (but they did it for me, don't worry). One project toward the end of my second year, a professor took one look at a sketch and said that he refused to even look again because it was so bad (I really had worked hard on that one, I promise it wasn't a last-minute thing). As a result I told myself the story that I was a laughing stock and, whether or not that was true, was my reality.

Figure drawing from art class, 2006 or 2007 hell I can't remember

Here's the bizarre part. Part of my grad training was to go take figure drawing in the art department. And do you know what happened? No one there tried to baptize me by fire. I felt welcome, accepted--like whatever drawing I brought to the table was gonna be ok. Frankly, it made me better at drawing because I was not so goddamn paranoid about it all the time. For me, those classes were when I started "getting better at drawing" not just because of the practice (that was true) but because I felt like I had a voice in drawing and that I was not this terrible artist after all.


Why tell this story now? Because I'm relieving it, at least in part. In drawing class Tuesday, we had this crazy fun exercise to draw a ladder from observation, but only were allowed to draw the negative spaces, no positive space. The professor made it clear the lesson was about observation, not product--in fact she explicitly said to relax and not worry if it looked like a ladder because we hadn't yet talked about proportion. I couldn't believe it, honestly--we could just...draw? It didn't have to look like anything? As she walked around the class for that 40 minute session, the only critique she offered students was to make sure they avoided the positive spaces. She made no comment on quality.


Negative space drawing of intersecting ladders, Tuesday about 3:45 PM and of course I was extra about it.

Everyone was allowed to draw what they saw, how they saw it, with no shame attached. It was really about learning a particular skill and setting aside all of the garbage surrounding "good" drawing.


So this brings me back to the title - what is with the whole "good drawing" thing and costume design? Even almost 20 years in this business and I still don't think I truly understand it. We use drawings to convey an idea, a concept. Our actual products are the clothes seen on a stage for performance. Audiences rarely see a costume sketch, short of a theatre using them for marketing purposes. Our sketches live in this weird, closed ecosystem in which they are judged, harshly, on their excellence. If you see a sketch you think is done well, don't be shocked if another designer appears to whisper in your ear, "You know that was traced, right?" I remember once drooling over a sketch of Gregg Barnes and sure enough, a designer appeared out of nowhere to remind me that he (whispered) *traces his figures* like it was some kind of required disclaimer.


I've also experienced a corollary issue in which I've seen some jaw-dropping costume renderings--like shit that the British Museum would steal--only to see the final product and be completely underwhelmed. A sketch as an illustration can perform miracles of gravity and optics, can suspend the laws of physics; yet the job of the designer is to translate that effect to a live production. If the sketch cannot deliver on its promise then what the hell was the point of the rendering?


So I wonder what we, as costume designers, can learn from my corner of the art world about drawing. This is like 86% why I went back to school for art because I know I've been missing steps in helping the next generation find their voice in line and shape. As you can tell from this post, I think the first step is for us to get the fuck over ourselves and get back to basics. We have to bring drawing down from the mountain of perfection and engage with it as a tool--much like our colleagues in the scene shop have to teach someone how to swing a hammer, we have to be willing to teach someone how to hold a pencil.


In fact, let's go even further. I'd suggest we ban costume renderings at design competitions. You can only show the stage product and force the viewer to look at the work the audience experienced. This would eliminate the bias towards sketching and reorient the experience back to what we *actually* produce. Have a separate contest for illustration if you must.


I love a gorgeous sketch as much as the next person--but my call to action is to examine our values here. If we can do that, then perhaps students will no longer whisper about their lack of god-given talent and instead engage a process of learning and expression and will improve through diligence, not shame.

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