Friday, June 10, 2011

Midtone Magic

We've probably all seen this "illusion" before, or something like it. I've created my own ultra-simplified version of it using only three values and eliminating the alleged shadow caster. You can't get simpler than this:

The "illusion" is that C looks darker than B, when in fact they are the same value:


This is instructive because it demonstrates both the malleability of mid-tones (a single tone can appear as light or shadow) and our inability to accurately gauge them, even in relative terms (which is, in fact, saying the same thing). We have no difficulty identifying the darkest and lightest values in the picture, but when it comes to ranking the "two" in the middle we have trouble - we can't even tell that they're two different values. As a side note, it also shows that as creatures trying to survive, it's more important for us to know that B is a white square and C is a dark square - so we filter out the shadow effect and see B as lighter than C.

The other illusion here is that we perceive this simple arrangement of three values as something else - a checkerboard with a shadowed area, or perhaps an area with some dark translucent material over it (there is a very close relationship between the illusion of light and the illusion of transparency). As representational artists our goal is to be able to create that illusion at will.

This perception of light and shadow occurs (in the real world as well as in this picture) from a form of pattern recognition. We perceive a consistent checkerboard pattern passing under a consistent darker because the relationship between the white square in light and in shadow (A to B) is the same as the black square in light and shadow (C to D) and the relationship between the white square in light and the black square in light (A to C) is the same as the white square in shadow and the black square in shadow (B to D).
 A:B = C:D and A:C = B:D
(this is cumbersome to say in words, but easy to see)
If you think about it you'll realize that if the first statement is true then the second one must also be true, and vice versa. If the relationship between A and B is the same as between C and D, then A to C will also be the same as B to D. However, in practice its easier to spot inconsistency by checking it both ways.

It is this set of relationships, fitting together like a value puzzle, that makes the illusion of light/transparency appear.  This is what makes us see a pattern of light and shade, and also patterns of light and dark objects, from a simple arrangement of value shapes. It is not the fact that B and C are the same value.

Darker shadow
B and C don't have to be the same values:
darker shadow
Here I've made the shadow darker, like turning down the ambient light.  I've made B and D darker, but the value structure outlined above (A is to B, etc...) is still valid. B and C are no longer the same, though.

Whiter white squares, blacker black squares
Here's another example where B and C are not the same value:
whiter white squares, blacker black squares

I've made the "white" squares appear much lighter, and the black squares much darker, by changing all four values. But still the structure (A is to B... etc.) is intact.

Mid-tones are special
The lightest value must necessarily represent the lightest object in full illumination, and the darkest value always has to represent the darkest object in shadow (we're excluding highlights and fully occluded areas here). By definition, anything lighter than the white's shadow must be an illuminated area, and anything darker than the black's lit area must be shadow. But every value in between, that is, the mid-range values, can be either an illuminated area or a shadow area.  Darker mid-tones can be both the lit parts of dark objects and the shaded parts of mid-toned objects, while lighter mid-tones can be both the shaded part of light objects and the lit part of mid-toned objects. Put another way the closer a value is to either end of the range the more limited its role.  That is the magic of mid-tones that, if understood, while make your values (and therefore your colors) pump out light!

This is why it is so important to apply mid-tones skillfully when seeking to create the illusion of light. This is also why the illusion of light does not come from simply increasing contrast, or lightening the picture overall.

Turning up the lights too high
Intuitively it seems like turning up the light in the lit areas will create a stronger sense of light. The problem, though, is the lightest color can become pinned against the maximum whiteness of the medium, and so the lit areas of the black squares move too close to them, and the structure (A is to B, etc.) breakes down. Turning up the lights does not increase the illusion of light if the value structure breaks down - and turning them up too high will cause the structure to break down!!

too much "light" = less light

The only difference between this example and the first illustration introducing the post is that the lit area of the black square is too light, which is, paradoxically, breaking down the illusion of light / transparency. The supposedly shaded rectangle is starting to split off from the checkerboard. We sort of don't know what to make of it. It looks like there's a haze over the lit parts, and then a hole in that haze for the shaded rectangle, or something.  It's ambiguous - and there goes your illusion of light!

What's really interesting here, and even more stunning when you encounter this problem in a real panting is that to fix this image, to add more light we make a lit area darker.  This isn't darkening an area to make another look lighter by contrast it's darkening a lit area to make it appear to have more light. This is a very practical situation that occurs in a lot of paintings. Don't fall into the trap of thinking lighter lit areas = more light.

The wrong way to increase contrast
In the "darker shadow" example above we made the shadow area darker while preserving the basic value relationships. If we make it too dark, what happens is the shaded black squares (D) become pinned (they can't go any darker) but the shaded white squares (C) continue to get darker, and hence become relatively closer to D, breaking down the basic structure.

muddy shadows = less light

Another way to describe this is that cutting off the low (or high) end of the value structure is actually fine, in terms of where the ends are - the problem is this changes the relationship of the middle to the ends.

Overall lightness or "high key"
Sometimes we think making the painting lighter overall will create the illusion of light. It's fine to make paintings light overall, but that alone does not increase or make more likely the illusion of light. In fact, in practical terms, by reducing your available range of values the job of structuring them properly demands more precision. Here is a high key image with broken value structure:
high key misfire

The picture is lighter overall, but the value structure has broken down because the shaded area of the white squares is too light, creating an ambiguous situation. Here's it is adjusted properly:

high key with working value structure

With overall lighter values you need to be a lot more precise in value management, because the range you're working with is smaller (which is fine of course, if that's what you want to do).  So the high key picture is working, but is the illusion of light weaker or stronger than in "whiter white squares, blacker black squares," above? I think the "whiter white squares..." is stronger because it's using a wider value range (still a tiny fraction of the real world). Of course there are many other reasons to restrict your image to only light values or "high key."

Low key
We can even make the entire image very dark, while still preserving the illusion of light better than in the high contrast, but imbalanced examples:

dark image with working value structure

Ultimately you really need to learn to just see these relationships - but often we don't know what we're looking for.  Our inability to accurately rank middle values is not a failure or shortcoming of our visual system. In painting, as in perceiving reality, we don't need to be able to tell what something is in terms of its value - just what it looks like it is. This is a gift - use it!

Look at a given object in your painting (or area of local color, such as the white squares in these examples) and see if it seems to be the same color as it pass into the shadow. Do this with all color areas. Then do it with shadow and light areas, like a cross-reference - see if the shadow seems to be equally dark as it passes over all the different local colors and see if the lit areas appear to be equally lit.  If all those tests are successful, you'll have the illusion of light. 

One easy way to get started is to establish the white object and the black object in your painting, and then in each sub area of the painting.  Later we'll see how we might arrive at a solid value structure in a typical painting.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Dunn One-Liners

Harvey Dunn was a great illustrator from the Golden Age. He was also a teacher, and has some amazing sayings for illustrators. Each of them is worth a fortune.

"When you add “interest” to a picture you take interest from it."

"Paint a little less of the facts, and a little more of the spirit."

"We have trouble because we demand something of the picture - pictures must demand something of us."

"A second thought is always dangerous."

"Action in a picture is the muscular action in the eye of the beholder." 

"Let it be an expression rather than a description."

"Look a little at the model and a lot inside."

 "A picture that is “fixed up” is never fixed. It’s somehow got to be good to start with."

Harvey Dunn in the studio

"The best picture you make you deserve the least credit for."

 "Your good pictures belong to the world. The bad ones are all yours."

Those last two are brutal, but oh so true.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Art and Time

It takes a musician exactly as long to play a piece of music as it takes the audience to hear it.  By contrast, it may take you ten, twenty, fifty, even a hundred hours to create a painting - while it takes the viewer a split second to have his world rocked by it (or not). This fundamental difference is responsible for a delusion that causes much of the discouragement we feel as artists, especially starting out.

We can labor for as long as we want on a painting, and so sometimes we think that if we work really, really hard on a piece we can do something that's way above our current level. We can easily see what wonderful things are going on in some great artist's work, we totally understand it, and we know that making visual art is not about manual dexterity or keeping up with the beat, so we think if we just concentrate and work really hard we can produce a masterpiece. Maybe it'll take us ten times as many hours as the master artist, but we can do it. We can take as long as we need to mix those colors, and we can rework as long as we want. We'd never make that mistake with the violin.  This is our delusion. So we try, and fail, then think something must be wrong.

In all the arts it takes years, even decades to achieve mastery. A decade or two of hard work and practice to masterfully play a three minute piece on the violin, or to produce a masterpiece of visual art. And making a painting is as much a performance as playing a piece on the violin. Sure, more time on a piece may make it more polished, and we all have our good days and our bad days (and we have pictures that seem to come together more easily than others), but the reality is your level of expertise generally advances at a steady pace, and no amount of concentration can change that overnight. What you can produce in a ten minute performance right now is probably about as good as what you can produce in a ten hour performance right now (just less polished, less finished). As artists, the more skills we have under our belts the more we start to realize the performance nature of the work, and do all sorts of things to coax a good performance out of ourselves.

This talk may sound discouraging, like "don't bother trying so hard, you're not going to get any better."  Really the opposite is true! - you try hard, you work hard, and you get better. You still just draw, draw, draw, paint, paint, paint. But what you should feel about your work may be different - you should not worry that you don't have the "talent", or that you'll never get it right, just because you can't make something as good as you think you should be able to right now. You can't make something as good as what you think your current level of understanding is. Again, this is the visual artist's delusion, and it stems from the fact that ours is the medium where we can spend unlimited time creating something that takes the viewer a fraction of a second to take it in. 

Progress in the visual arts is very much about quantity. Some artists say, "I did lots of bad drawings before I ever did a good one." That's a good way to put it, because you learn a lot from the bad ones. But you also learn from the good ones, and even the mediocre ones. The only reason an artist gets good is s/he keeps doing it, and the only reason an artist fails to get good is that s/he stops.

Here's the kicker - that unfounded discouragement is the main thing that makes us stop, or not work as much. How crazy is that?  Try to find joy in your art every step of the way, and, take your time.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Circles in Perspective - Part Three

In Part One and Part Two we saw how in many typical cases ellipses (circles drawn in perspective) do not seem to comply with the rules of perspective, for example, all three of these ellipses are identical, while the perspective squares that bound them are not:

The minor axis of the ellipse does not always remain perfectly vertical, however. Take this simple drawing of a pickup truck - how should the ellipses representing its tires be oriented in perspective?

This looks wrong:

Orienting the ellipses vertically looks better, but still not right:

As suggested before, if you imagine the ellipses (or the circles they represent) as the ends of cylinders, the answer becomes clear - the minor axes of the ellipses point toward the left vanishing point.

No other perspective lines define the orientation of these ellipses - only the center line, which aligns with the ellipse's minor axes matters in terms of orienting the ellipse:

 And if we place more ellipses within these, say, to add wheel covers, they align on these same center lines:
Note how the right vanishing point is not needed at all for orienting the ellipses, even though the circular faces sit on the plane that goes back to the right vanishing point, not the left. The right vanishing point helps determine the relative sizes of the ellipses, but not their orientation:
 That about covers the basics for drawing circles in perspective.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Color Connections - Part One

We can consider color continuity in a picture in three main areas:

1) "local" or object color (e.g. the apple is red, the banana is yellow)
2) light source color (e.g. firelight is reddish, ambient skylight is blue)
3) global colorization (the whole picture is influenced by a single tonal center; there is no direct real world corollary for this, but it's similar to the effect of atmospheric perspective (haze, colored smoke, etc.) but without the reduction in contrast that occurs in those natural phenomena).

Each of these is rooted in real world visual principles, which our eyes and minds have been trained to decode. Our visual apparatus has evolved to automatically adjust for and filter out many of the things artists are most concerned with creating, and it takes a lot of training to be able to see objectively and subjectively at the same time.
Local (object) color connections only

These are not rules to apply when making a painting, but rather principles of perception to understand when assessing your paintings. That is, these are connections the eye naturally looks for, and finds.  If parts of the painting are connected in one way, but other parts are not, the paintings colors can unintentionally become disjointed. This about learning to see these connections and exploit them, and/or correct colors that aren't working.

Light source colors overwhelm local (object) colors

This is not a full exploration of the use of color in a painting or of how light works - light does a lot more than this! These are just the three broadest types of connections we tend to look for in painting. Understanding them can really help you get a handle on your color work and identify problems, especially when you are not working from life or any reference.

All colors strongly influenced by a single color

The diagrams here are just that - diagrams. They are not meant to look "real" as they ignore many important areas of color perception and color in painting (for example, reflected light, variation of light within lit and ambient areas, specular "highlights", occluded areas not reached by any light, etc.).

For discussion, relative to this chart we can think of these as "horizontal" (the horizontal bands of local color on the block), "vertical" (the vertical division between the lit and unlit sides of the block, and the resulting vertical continuity within each side) and "global", respectively.

 Three types of continuity, overlapping

Sometimes artists think "horizontally", that is, local colors dominate, light colors are underplayed or non-existent (light is white, shadows are black), and no overall colorization is considered. This is where most picture makers start off. If colors are not too saturated, they don't clash, and appear to work ok:

Local continuity only, but low saturation

This is where almost everyone starts (and many people stay). The middle stripe is red, the bottom stripe is yellow, etc. The color of the dark, "shaded" side of an object is simply a different "version" of the lit color (or both are different versions of some neutral object color without respect to any light source, as if such a thing could exist...). Usually shadows are thought of as black(er versions of the object color). Some teachers refer to this approach as "chromophobia."

Other times artists think more "vertically", that is, light colors strongly influence the apparent colors of the objects, though each stripe still reads quite clearly as green, red, black, etc.

Light source color is emphasized but doesn't overwhelm local colors

This approach considers the lit and unlit areas of elements as different versions of the main light and ambient light (or shadow color). Pictures like this can look "dichromatic" (made from two colors), especially when there is a single strong main light and a single strong ambient light, as in bright daylight.

Claude Monet

Note that there is no inherent connection in the physical world between the color of a light and the color of "its" shadow (e.g. "warm light, cool shadows"). In fact, by definition a shadow is an area not touched by the light in question. Making paintings with warm light and cool shadows (or vice versa) is of course, just fine, though. Distinguishing light and shadow by temperature variation can be very effective.

Many artists employ strong colorization to tie an image together. The image is overall reddish, but local (object) color distinction is still apparent: 
Global colorization

This is one way in which color can be used for purely expressive or symbolic value, but also to create a limited palette, wherein a given color can appear as another color, which is visually gratifying in a way that is difficult to explain. It's sort of like... the painting truly becomes an alternate, though complete, reality.

There is, however, a big difference between a painting that is truly monochromatic (check out Mark Tansey's work) vs. one that is heavily influenced by a strong tonal center, but still appears to show variation in temperature, saturation and hue.

 A true monochrome image

Strong tonal center but not monochrome

In Part Two we'll see how to identify the different types of connections in your own paintings, and, most importantly, to troubleshoot for disconnected colors. We'll also explore another form of vertical color organization.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Picture This! at Danforth Museum

The Danforth Museum in Framingham, Massachusetts, is showcasing the work of contemporary picture book illustrators living and working in New England. Juried work will be featured in the Children’s Gallery. I've got two pictures in the show, and will be attending the patron's premier this Saturday. Maybe I'll see some of you there.

Follow this link for more information, and to download the exhibition catalog: Picture This!

Saturday, June 4, 2011


I had a teacher in art school named Rob Moore. He was an amazing teacher, a great teacher, but he didn't teach us anything. The only he ever told us was, "I'm going to use the word "form" to refer to three dimensional things, and "shape" for two dimensional things."

Rob was a really nice guy, but also a bit intimidating. We'd all actually signed up for life drawing, but Rob made a mistake and thought it was basic drawing. No one had the guts to correct him so, fortunately for us, we got basic drawing.

Rob started by sticking two gray squares of paper on the white wall. One was lighter than the other. He asked, "which of these is further away and which is closer?" One student answered, "the light one."  "Really?", Rob asked, "what do you think?" he asked another student. "The dark one," was the answer.  "Really?" asked Rob again.  "Hmmm..." he said. A lot of classes went like that.

For the first assignment Rob told us to bring in a drawing the following week that we felt showed form in space.  A few of us brought in these fairly elaborate, tight, pencil drawings - something which would have earned me big applause in the illustration department. All of the drawings went on the wall. Rob paced back and forth, and asked the class, "which of these drawings shows form and space?"  Students pointed to this or that drawing, and Rob went, "really?  hmm..." Then he stopped in front of a very simple (we thought, horrible, lame, stupid) drawing of the corner of a table that looked something like this:

He pointed to it and asked, "what about this one?"

For the next week Rob told us to get a pad of 100 sheets of paper, a green bell pepper and a Sharpie. We were to make drawings of the pepper (at least 100 of them), using a line that did not vary in thickness or color - just a uniform black line.  He'd flip through hundreds and hundreds of drawings, dismissing most of them. Maybe he'd stop at one and say, "what do you think of this one?"

Sometimes I'd try to trick him by bringing in a variety of drawings, each using a very different approach. I'd get to class before everyone else, and stick them on the wall, spread out. By the time the other students put their work up you couldn't tell mine went together. Rob would point at one of my drawings and say something like, "maybe this person thinks a cast shadow says something about the form that cast it - who made this drawing?" I'd have to respond. He did the same thing with another, very different drawing. "You made both of these?", he asked. Then he'd just smile.  He knew I was trying, even though my work was always used as the example of what didn't work.

Then one time I met with Rob to discuss where I was going with my painting. He looked at one of my early acrylic illustrations and said, "well, you're obviously enormously talented."    wha... huh...  As if things weren't already confusing enough. I couldn't tell if I was being insulted or what.

Rob gave me doubt.  Doubt is a really, really good thing.  I was determined to find out what was going on, what I wasn't able to see, no matter how long it took. It took a decade or two, and now at least I can see what Rob was seeing, in some measure. Now I don't believe anything except my own eyes.

I dug out my class notes - stuff I'd written down with exclamation points and question marks, little drawings I'd made of the other students' work and what Rob was saying (or not saying, but implying) about it. It was like finding some ancient text and finally being able to translate it.

We lost Rob midway through classes in December 1992.  Over the years I've flip-flopped in my opinion of his teaching methods. As I have figured some things out, learned to see them myself, I've sometimes thought, "couldn't he at least have told us that?"  Maybe.  But when we're told things really explicitly we may think, "ok, I know this subject now" and that's that.  When a good teacher - I'll call him a master - is able to simply point you in the right direction then you just keep going. You never reach the end, because there isn't one.

Friday, June 3, 2011

What is (your) art?

Sometimes we engage in big philosophical debates about, "what is art?"  For the artist, though, the only practical question is, "what is your art?" Should be an easy question to answer, right?

I recently visited the new Art of the Americas wing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It was amazing.  I particularly responded to the collection of 19th century American paintings.  Stuff like this, today, would be more likely to show up on than in a gallery:

Isabella and the Pot of Basil by John White Alexander

Today when we see stuff like this, we can't help but think, "illustration."  You'd expect to see this in a Golden Age children's book:

The Drummer Boy by William Morris Hunt

The 19th century academic establishment figured out... or decided... what made great art, and everyone got better and better at doing that - and produced some great stuff. Really great stuff. They were trying to achieve perfection more than expression, and some came pretty darn close:

Nymphs and Satyr by William Bouguereau

Then the late 19th and early 20th century saw the dawn of "modern art", where things became largely about bucking the establishment. Artists were supposed to be undisciplined, outcasts, and poor. Some people think that's where fine art stopped being fine. There are entire movements (and accompanying websites) dedicated to the fervent belief that pictures like this are of no artistic value:

No. 3 by Mark Rothko

At the same time, advancements in color printing technology saw a huge rise in illustration, and the so-called "Golden Age":

One of Howard Pyle's many classic pirate pictures

The division between "fine art" and "graphic art" at my art school was distinct. I was on the fine art side, making small sculptures. The fine artists looked down on the "graphic artists" for being so mundane, for being more concerned about getting good at doing something that had already been done than about finding something completely new to do. Real art was not about, for example, telling stories. That kind of stuff was... quaint... it had a place in the world, but was not art.  A Batman figure made out of Sculpey was not "sculpture" - real sculptors work in bronze.  My (wearable) sculptures were sometimes referred to as "science-fiction".
Time - an early sculpture of mine

On the other side, the graphic artists didn't understand what was so "fine" about not being able to draw, or what was so admirable about not developing any hard skills. But many of the graphic artists focused exclusively on skills, and never really found their voice.  And the graphic artist community was visciously (and unkindly) critical of one another - in the fine art community everything was all good. Whatever you wanted to do, that was cool.

It took me a while to find my place with my art, to realize that my art was largely about narrative. That is, I was "meant to" make art with a strong narrative quality, but I wasn't actually doing it, so I was doing nothing. I painted and painted and painted, learning a lot about light, color, form, space, but wasn't saying much. I had some pretty good tools, but wasn't using them to make anything.
A still life by me

Even my "illustration" attempts weren't saying much. I was making pictures that looked like they were telling stories, but weren't telling stories.

Explorers - an early attempt at illustration

Then one day I got an email from artist Daniel Horne - a guy who has created dozens and dozens of classic fantasy images. He said, "your work is really magical, never lose that, but, what are you trying to say with it?" I realized I wasn't trying to say anything. A light dawned. Something that had been right in front of me all along but I was ignoring it.

Now people tell me, "you have such a natural feel for narrative work" (they say that about my figure work as well) - I say, on both counts, tell that to the reams of drawings and paintings I had to do to get here (and I've still got a long way to go, at least I hope so). None of this came naturally - all that came naturally was the desire to do it.

Conspiracy - a recent magazine illustration by yours truly
Some artists are so concerned with doing something that's new or experimenting with different things that they may never achieve a degree of mastery over anything, and so may never produce their best work. In Zen I think this is referred to as "walking around the mountain but never climbing it", or something like that. That's ok by me. The world needs people like that. But I hate to see artists limit themselves because their peers have dismissed certain pursuits as unworthy, or because they think they could never paint like that, or whatever.

Others work really hard to get really good at doing exactly what they do really, really well, and are not afraid to follow other successful artists very closely. That's ok too. It's a good way to stay employed. :)  But sometimes a little more exploration and a little less polish can reap bigger rewards. What's the worst that can happen - you do something stupid? Tell yourself you've earned the right to do something stupid.

So I encourage artists of all kinds to be wide open when considering what might be their (your) art.  Don't be shackled by the irrelevant distinctions of history or your peers.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Anatomy once and for all

We see the human body every day, it's completely familiar, but when it comes to recalling it accurately, we're usually lost. So we spend months and years in anatomy and life drawing classes, making tons of drawings, and still our knowledge and recall is relatively limited. This is because we do not remember things the way we think we do, in fact, we don't even see them the way we think we do.  If you want to really know human anatomy (for artistic purposes) try this - it worked for me.

The program involves working entirely from memory, then correcting your drawings by consulting reference. You draw the different parts of the body in all poses, from all angles. The body is divided into six areas (with some overlap), and we focus on each area for a week (the torso gets two weeks).

Week one: Head and neck, partial shoulder girdle, (no facial muscles or facial expression)
Week two: Shoulder girdle, some head and neck, some chest and back
Week three: Torso (back) including some hips, some shoulder
Week four: Torso (front & back) including some hips, some shoulder & neck
Week five: Arms and hands, some shoulder
Week six: Legs and feet, some hips

You start each week by reviewing some reference material for the current area, then you put the reference material aside and draw from memory. Depending on your experience you might want to dive straight in just drawing from memory. All drawing is done from memory, except when you correct your work.

Your reference material should ideally be 3d - a skeleton and an ecorche type figure, plus a variety of pictures. The ecorche figure is great, it doesn't show you what happens when things move. There are some great books and websites out there for this. You need whatever reference material allows you to understand the forms clearly, especially as things bend and twist. Use a variety of different sources - you don't want to end up drawing forms just like Bridgman, for example - you want your own understanding and your own way of remembering and your own way of drawing these forms. 

During the week the only thing you will draw is the part of the body you are working on, for example, in week one, the neck. Focus, focus, focus. That's all there is in the world - the neck. That's all you're ever going to draw for the rest of your life. That's all you need to know, but you need to know it as if your life depended on it. Forget everything else. All you need to be able to draw is the neck - any pose, any viewpoint. Don't avoid the tough angles or poses. Test yourself, "do I really know what the underside of the chin looks like?" Sniff out your knowledge gaps and hit them head on.
A variety of poses and viewpoints
When you're not actually drawing - study necks wherever you encounter them. Don't think about any other part of the body. Watching videos, eating at a restaurant - necks, necks, necks. As you see figures in life, on TV, in photos, etc., make mental notes of what is happening (try to identify what you are seeing in terms of anatomy), and recreate this later in drawings done from memory. You quickly identify the areas where you have been making the same mistakes for years, or avoiding entirely. In a mere week you will advance to noticing subtleties you were blind to before, as you build on your basic knowledge.
Draw the neck whenever you can - don't wait until you have a solid hour or whatever to dedicate to drawing.  Thirty seconds is enough to test yourself. Think of it like giving yourself a pop-quiz at all hours of the day. Doodle on the napkin at the diner, doodle in your math notebook, do as many drawings as you can.

Avoid simple anterior (front) or posterior (back) views. These are easier to draw, but convey less information about form. Don't strive to create beautiful drawings. Do whatever it takes, using drawing as a tool, to analyze, to test and prove your understanding. It's fine if your drawings look "mechanical."

Cross-contour drawing to understand neck muscles

Try your hardest to get it right. Try, try, try, to remember and draw those bones and muscles, and how they look under the skin. At the end of each day, when you have a few drawings done, compare them to your reference materials to see where you went wrong, or where you can improve, then correct your drawings. Corrections can be made while looking at a reference but this happens only after thoroughly exhausting the attempt to draw and fix from memory. This is critical - once you have tried everything you can think of and still can’t get it to look right, the correct answer, once you look it up, will be seared into your brain forever - oh, that's what it's like! When you simply copy from reference right from the start you barely remember anything.
From week two: movement of the shoulder blades

I started each area/week by drawing the relevant areas of the skeleton. The skeleton is relatively simple, and once you get it, you have a framework on which to add muscles. Start by thinking of each muscle as a line or rubber band - all you need to know is where each end attaches to the skeleton (some facial muscles attach to skin and other muscles, but we're not doing those in this program). Once you know where they belong, work on their forms.

Each week ends with a test, where you draw the part of the body you're working on from memory of course, drawing what it really looks like (i.e. with skin, fat, etc.), in as many angles and poses as necessary to cover every possible consideration. You will probably be blown away by what you can do at the end of the week. Here's one of my final neck tests - I wish I had a "before" version:

The final test

Stay flexible and target your problem areas. I tended to spend a couple of days on the skeleton, a couple on muscles, and a couple on surface stuff (what it really looks like all put together). But I had a lot of trouble with the form of the pelvis, for example, so I spent a day on that by itself. In fact, the torso as a whole was my biggest challenge:

From weeks 3 & 4 - the torso

Stick with it! When you're done you'll be free to employ the figure in whatever angle of view and whatever pose you want with ease and confidence. Six weeks may seem like a long time, but how long have you already spent trying to master anatomy? You can take a 12 week anatomy class, and another, and another, and still be lost in most human body drawing situations - but if you spend one week drawing nothing but the neck you will never forget it. Just do that six times and you're done, once and for all.