The Drawing Lesson

The Drawing Lesson

With The Drawing Lesson, Mark Crilley (Akiko, Mastering Manga, Brody’s Ghost) has created “A Graphic Novel That Teaches You How to Draw”, as the subtitle has it.

One of Crilley’s goals, based on his introduction, is to share what it feels like to have a professional mentor through a story instead of an instructional guide. The series of lessons focus on concepts that set up a strong foundation, beginning with observation and shading.

Crilley’s excellent character work is on clear display. Both Becky and David feel like real people, particularly in how annoying David is in wanting more help immediately, without regard for Becky’s life or patience or need to do other things.

The Drawing Lesson

The book is published in monochrome, giving it both a memory-soothing sepia tone and the feel of a sketchbook instead of an overly polished finished piece. That supports the message, that drawing is a process and everyone works to keep improving at it. Each chapter contains important lessons for making art, reinforced by a suggested activity at the end.

Crilley switches smoothly between exaggeration for emotional impact and more realistic effects. This is best seen in the way he draws eyes. Surprise or shock means egg-like big circles with plenty of white, while quieter moments come with dots. You can see the range in this tier, as David first meets Becky.

Panels from The Drawing Lesson by Mark Crilley

If there’s anything I would criticize about The Drawing Lesson, it’s the unbridled enthusiasm of David. Becky clearly takes pity on him at the beginning, but he quickly takes advantage. Since he’s a blond white boy, there were echoes here to me of the unthinking assumptions of male privilege, that he intrudes on her time and energy without regard to her clear signs that she doesn’t really want to help him whenever he demands it.

I’m concerned that energetic young people, inspired by David’s story, might take the wrong lesson about pestering people selfishly. Particularly when he follows her home (creepy!), but it’s ok because his work is good enough. She says that his actions are “not cool”, but he still gets what he wants through them. She even winds up apologizing to him, later on, but he never says that he’s sorry for assuming he can demand so much from her. It would have been better for me if he’d, at some point, said thank you.

I also liked that Crilley begins by emphasizing seeing and paying attention to detail, but it’s odd that he then makes a mistake. He has Becky start teaching David with a lesson about her wristwatch — but two pages earlier, she’s drawn without one.

Those quibbles aside, the lessons here are useful for anyone interested in learning more about art. The messages — how important it is to be able to see your own mistakes, negative space, the nature of light and shadow, knowing when to stop — are foundational and easily applicable to all kinds of work, and putting them in the context of a story makes for an easy yet educational read. (The publisher provided a review copy.)


  • Glad you like this one. I read it a few months ago and it immediately made my Best of 2016 list. I see your point about male privilege, but if he has some, it’s unconscious (which I’ll grant can be the worst kind). But I suspect it’s not malicious, it’s just something he’s never considered, and Becky kindly but firmly stands up to him. My review, when I do my “best of” series for the year, will emphasize that she taught him more than art, and in a much better way than the older-woman-younger-boy cliche.

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