How to practise like Steve Rude, Master Illustrator

How does someone like Steve Rude learn to draw, paint and illustrate to this standard? What makes his work stand out? We are going to learn directly from the man himself in this video / article.

In the last video / article, we looked at Steve’s process for creating illustrations, selecting colours and for spotting problems in his drawing, so if you’ve not seen it, check it out after this one. In this video, I’m firstly going to explain what I think makes Steve’s work stand out, and then we’ll learn from Steve about how he practises and improves. He gives a lot of really useful insights that we can use for our own practice regimen.

What I love about Steve Rude’s artwork

Comic books started my interest in art and figure drawing. Reading them was pure magic to me. Here are just a few of the reasons that Steve’s artwork stood out for us, and in my opinion will always stand the test of time.

The natural feel of the figures

For whatever reason, when I was a kid, some comic artists would draw figures with a lot of heavily contrasted detail all over the figure. Every little muscle and undulation would get the same heavy contrast, so your eye wasn’t guided anywhere, none of the important shapes or points of force and tension were emphasised. Amid all that contrast, the pose the figure was in lost its meaning, the storytelling was drowned in anatomical detail, and the figures didn’t look natural.

Steve’s approach was way more nuanced, more about the big important shapes, what the figures were doing. His figures were simpler, and that made them more sophisticated and more human.

Colours

Similarly with colour, a lot of comics had a whole range of saturated and heavy colours all over the place. I love Steve’s use of colour. He’s ready to mute some of the colours, and let the important ones, the ones that support the composition, stand out. And again it’s that ability to tell the story, fill the image with emotion and meaning, using a seemingly simple colour scheme that shows true mastery.

Compositions

Steve would create movement in his composition, guiding your eye along important lines and focal points. The selective use of contrast and colour we talked about work to create a impactful composition.

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These things combined helped give both emotion and storytelling clarity to Steve’s art. It felt like he did justice to the characters and the stories, and wrapped everything in this classic feel. It wasn’t about effects, it was just sheer quality. The good news is that, according to Steve, achieving his standard was more a matter of hard work and practise, something we can all do, as opposed to an innate talent which normal people cannot attain.

Practice. Lots and lots of practice

So here’s a quote from Steve that I think is really important for us to understand:

One reason behind the constant and diligent practice, is to see if I can take things that are difficult and work at them until they become more “automatic” or intuitive.  Just like trying to ride our bikes for the first time, I wanted things that were extremely difficult and unnatural for me to become natural and less difficult. I also wanted to become less shackled by all the rules and theories that have cluttered my mind over the years, so I could finally come full circle and “ride the bike no-handed” someday.

I think this really summarises an essential lesson for all of us learning to draw. All these techniques and bits of knowledge need to become intuitive for us, maybe to the extent where we can’t remember what it’s like to not be able to see and do these things. Constructing things from basic forms, anatomy, colour – once you have these skills built in, you are free to express yourself how you please, which is a powerful place to be. So now, lets see how Steve took these technical and complex elements of drawing, and made them intuitive.

Steve has 3 primary ways he learns:

  • studying his favourite artists
  • practicing things in his sketchbooks
  • taking classes with good teachers

But these learning processes are never finished. He said that he starting learning from his favourite artists when he was 16 and continues to study them now at 61. You can see the influence of legendary artists like Andrew Loomis and Jack Kirby in his work.

He continues to fill up sketchbooks with both imagination and reference studies. He has a library with books and folders of references about all sorts of things the world has to offer, and will continually pick out things to copy in his sketchbook – “everything from the human foot to a horse’s nostrils”.

Drawing to warm-up, have fun, relax, learn and create

One thing that struck me was how Steve draws for different purposes. Sometimes drawing is to learn – to overcome some challenge. Everyday, he tries to take things that are “difficult to draw, break them down into basic forms, and see what remains when the complexities are stripped away”.

He also draws things that catch his eye just for the pure fun of it. He explains that

when I take breaks, I’ll just scan the shelves for something to copy in my sketchbook.  This also helps take my mind off what I might be struggling with. Drawing uses a lot of mental energy and this helps recharge me when it starts to run out.

This means that when he’s tired from drawing, he relaxes and recharges by … drawing more! But the crucial thing is that there are different types of drawing depending on your mindset and approach to it. I think it’s a great idea to have different types of drawing practice in your repertoire. If all your drawing is just about hard training and pushing yourself, you may start to see drawing as arduous labour and lose that relaxing side of it. If you only ever draw in a relaxed way without taking on challenges or studying new things, you’ll get stuck in a rut.

The Learning Mindset

Despite being a respected and award-winning artist for decades, Steve has a daily regimen. That implies a lot of discipline and also humility.

Artistic skills can’t be taken for granted. “People can go backwards in life, and I’ve seen this happen to more artists that I can count over the years … one should strive to stay healthily self-monitored”.

He also emphasises the importance of re-learning basics. Just because you are experienced and have grasped things like anatomy, perspective and so on doesn’t mean that you move on from those topics. He explained that each skill needs to be “learned, practiced, re-learned, and practiced some more”. So if you’ve started learning and practising a fundamental topic, and don’t feel like you have totally mastered it yet, don’t worry. You’re doing great – you’re on the same learning cycle as Steve Rude! It’s just that he’s been round it so many times.

Live life drawing

Another thing worth noting about his continued learning is that he continues to find both learning and joy in life drawing sessions:

you can produce a fairly finished work in an afternoon during these classes, you get the instant fulfillment of doing something that looks fresh and unlabored over.  It’s just you and the model, testing yourself with whatever medium you choose to work in.

You can find the full set of answers from Steve about his art and his skills at lovelifedrawing.com/steverude

Don’t forget to check out Steve’s Facebook page and website to see more!

If you haven’t already, check out our free guide ‘Life Drawing Success’ below for one of the most important insights into the figure drawing learning process.

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