An Interview of Marshall Vandruff

An Interview of Marshall Vandruff by Travis Bourbeau

Marshall Vandruff’s brand new “Introduction to Animal Anatomy” title was released this week at the Gnomon Workshop. While he was here recording I had a chance to inquire about his background and how he found himself working as an illustrator and teaching anatomy.

MV: I’ve lived all my life in Orange County, California, and when I was a kid watching 1960′s television shows that were produced just up the 5 freeway, I idealized Los Angeles as the Shining City. After a thousand visits to LA I’ve lost that feeling, but coming up to Gnomon to work on my DVD in the shadow of the HOLLYWOOD sign reminded me that I was realizing a childhood dream – working in a vintage television studio on a project that will be seen beyond a classroom and can live beyond my lifetime. I’ve been drawing and teaching most of my adult life, and as far back as I can remember, I’ve loved stories, songs, and pictures – the arts. If I had no talent to create, I’d serve those who do create… which is what I do as a teacher, helping my students master classic skills. Also, like a DJ who plays music beyond his ability to perform, I introduce my students to great art beyond my ability to create. Even teaching anatomy is that way – I didn’t invent it, but I host the show.

GW: What got you into teaching anatomy, and more specifically, animal anatomy?

MV: I wanted to make monsters. As a kid I liked Big Daddy Ed Roth’s hot-rod monsters and wanted to draw my own someday. In my twenties, when I was trying and failing at it, I noticed that Roth’s crudely drawn, gnarly-armed creatures looked more real than my belabored renderings because I didn’t know basic anatomical structure or muscles like deltoids and supinators. I had a shelf of books on artistic anatomy but they were hard to read and I couldn’t see how to apply the knowledge. Then in 1988, Larry Friedrich, my department chair at Fullerton College, let me develop a course on anatomy and I poured myself into it, taught it for fifteen semesters, then segued into teaching animal anatomy at CSF and Laguna College of Art & Design, and now I’m teaching human and animal anatomy all over creation. All this was because I wanted to make monsters. But I hardly ever make monsters because I spend all my time training the next generation to make monsters.

GW: Do you learn as an artist from teaching others?

MV: It’s the main way I’ve learned. Teachers usually learn more than students, in the same way that musicians know their music more thoroughly than their listeners. But there’s an important ramification. Music is meant to be enjoyed, and the listener may enjoy the music more than the performer. Knowledge is meant to be used, and the talented student may use the knowledge better than the teacher. Many of my students who know the subject less thoroughly than I do are creating better work than I am. A little knowledge may be just enough. Having a full tank of gas doesn’t make the car run better. But a car needs gas and an artist needs knowledge. My main use of the knowledge now is to explain it, simply and clearly, to students eager to master it.

GW: You’ve been teaching anatomy for 23 years. Do you still enjoy it?

MV: I can’t get bored with it. A lifetime isn’t long enough to appreciate the human body, let alone the varieties of animal life. It takes a year or two to learn the bones and muscles in a way that’s useful for modeling, sculpting, drawing or painting – and it takes more than just knowing the bones and muscles – it takes knowing how they pivot, how they squash and stretch, how they change shape when they move, and how light affects their planes. But even when we master all that, the quest never ends to refine forms, get past clichés and make it personal. That’s why I stay interested – there are always new challenges. Plus, it’s an awesome subject. What a privilege to make a living teaching the mechanics of this miracle.

GW: Do you think of yourself as a teacher, or an artist?

MV: Both. For over twenty years I made my living as an illustrator but I always taught part-time. It was a balance between studio and classroom. Now teaching has grown into my primary art form. It’s fitting me well. I’m an old magician finding his role as a mentor, but still working on his magic, hoping to do his best work in his last act.

GW: What do you find to be the differences between making art for a client and teaching?

MV: First a similarity. When I prepare lectures, I spend a great deal of time composing the train-of-thought like an artist composes a picture, and I love that part of the process. But there are many differences – I’ve had more freedom to create as a teacher, but it has paid less. The deadlines for teaching are nothing compared to the deadlines for industry. Teaching requires framing thought in words, whereas making pictures can be done brilliantly by artists who can barely put thought into words. But to me the biggest difference is that picture-making is solo, teaching is social. It’s communal. It’s hosting a party, serving a meal, sparking a discussion.

GW: You have several great workshops you perform at studios. What are the studios typically looking for to train their artists?

MV: When they have luxury time, they hire me for creative disciplines like Composition and Visual Storytelling. When they must prepare a bunch of warriors or monsters for a project, they bring me in for human and animal anatomy. And since they’re pros, their time is limited, so the courses are extremely concentrated – a semester’s worth of material boiled down into a few sessions.

GW: Can you tell us a bit about your new Gnomon Workshop release: Introduction to Animal Anatomy?

MV: It began as six articles I wrote and illustrated for ImagineFX magazine, designed to help artists, modelers, riggers, and animators understand the mechanics of how animal bodies work and how to create their forms, with an emphasis on classic drawing skills. Travis suggested that we do a DVD on the subject and it sounded so simple since I’d already done the drawings, but it took six months to finish because it’s packed with images and information and I could hardly ever call it finished because each little addition sparked an idea for another one and it kept evolving. The sequence flows quickly in less than 90 minutes, but there’s enough on that DVD to warrant a month of study. I wanted to make this video a concentrated little package of education, and I feel like we did that. I wish I’d had this DVD when I was trying to learn animal anatomy. I hope it sells well so I can do more.

GW: What are you doing next?

MV: I’m teaching my ANIMAL ANATOMY CRASH-COURSE at LA Academy of Figurative Art this weekend, Aug 13-15. The info is at my website at where you can subscribe to my e-mail list if you want to know about coming workshops. And if you do subscribe – tell me that you linked from this interview – I’m a fan of many Gnomon DVD’s and I’d like to know that we have Gnomon in common!