Lessons from Drawing I: What is Asian, anyway?

I wanted to draw a universe of humans. But, because I get figure drawing models in Norway and most available learning resources are Western, my drawing techniques were geared towards Caucasian features— the facial features, the skin tones, even the poses (very few people doing “V” signs). Recently I’ve been dabbling a lot on ImprovisAsian Festival, a celebration of Asian improv, and have been drawing exclusively Asian faces.

And it got me wondering,

What is an Asian face, anyway?

It’s not taboo to say that Asians have different features than Caucasian counterparts. Everyone knows that.

Yet it feels improper to lay it out. Because something improper like this stereotypical depiction comes out:

Stereotyping. From dreamstime.com

As someone of Chinese heritage… it does have some truths, but it’s more heavy on mockery. So to play it safe, people pretend to be oblivious to the differences.

The difference between life and drawing, is that drawing encourages me to examine and acknowledge these features objectively. Not in a judgmental way, and certainly not as a mockery. This goes for ALL drawings, by the way. I recommend people to pick up drawing exactly for this. It’s an observation skill with no judgement.

Drawing is an observation skill with no judgement.

Aside. For example that drawing teaches to be not judgmental. I think society often has concepts of beauty, and what is/is not allowed to be presented. Models on billboards. But when you are drawing a live figure, a real person, you do not judge. Anyone is a model. You see societally-labeled ‘beautiful’ people or ‘ugly’ people as equally interesting… the scars and imperfections, the short and the tall, the skinny and the fat, they are all interesting. It’s not that you are oblivious to these features, but it’s that you accept these features in an objective way.

By drawing, I can objectively observe what is Asian, and what is not Asian. What is South Asian, what is Southeast Asian, what is East Asian, and what is West and Central Asian.

Over the past months I have been drawing lots of improvisers, Asians or not. Here is a non-Asian face:

Here is an Asian face:

So, how do you draw an Asian person?

As Uncle Roger would say, Haiya. I don’t know.

When I began the sketches above, I was not specifically looking for Asian facial features. They just came out. I was not sure what made them Asian.

After finishing the drawing sure now I can look back and list: smaller eyes, shorter nose, flatter temples.

But what makes it unmistakably Asian is not the features, but a combination of all of them as a whole. Small subconscious things that add up in unequal parts for each person. If you only focus on the distinguishing features, you don’t see the person.

We want to be able to feel it, without having a specific guidebook.

What I found to work was drawing a ton of Asian improvisers.

Immersion.

Do a volume of work.

There is huge merits to practice. There are no shortcuts.

I could google for tips and shortcuts (“How To Draw Asian Facial Features”), but it’s not the same. I believe if one takes the shortcut, they’d end up overemphasizing the features and pasting them where it does not fit. And it’s unsightly. Haiya.

Instead, when I DO a volume of work, drawing a hundred Asian players, I focus on each person as a person first and foremost. Their Asian features comes out organically. I place the person above the stereotype.

This relates so much to improv! When you play a character of different cultures, especially one whose culture is foreign to you, you might find that the character is nothing but a shell of stereotypes. That’s when you know you need to do the work. You need to immerse in that culture and know the people beyond above the stereotype. A character is more than a stereotype. A character is someone real, tinted with certain features of their culture.

It was not long ago I was interviewed,

What is Asian improv? What are the features of Asian improv?

Haiya. It’s a difficult question. Because there are just so many subconscious features that it is hard to boil down. It cannot do it justice. My own take as an Asian, on what is Asian improv, would be different to another Asian. Moreover, if we boil it down to stereotypes and pass it on to you on a platter, that’s not the right way to learn. You have to immerse and feel it yourself.

Hence: if you want to know what Asians are, spend time there. Hang out at Asian jams. Take classes from the Philippines.

Here is a super fun video at the end of ImprovisAsian Festival. Do watch.

https://www.facebook.com/ImprovisAsianFestival/videos/1061045608038077/

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An Impro Neuf blog. Evolving thoughts on improv from Aree Witoelar, teacher/founder of Impro Neuf International in Oslo, Norway.