Anatomy of an artist
“A lot of students want to draw but they don’t realize what drawing is. In eye, you learn to see. In hand, your hand has to be trained. In head, you need to know the anatomy and the design. In heart, you need to have passion because it’s a damn hard profession. A story is not just inventing or recording. You have to create feelings. The artist has to express, not depict.”
Feb. 21, 2019
The windows inside a corner classroom at Seneca@York Campus were covered with drapes. Spotlights on, a nude model posed for students sketching away at a gesture of an arm, a line of a muscle. In the back of the room, Professor Werner Zimmermann picked up a piece of charcoal and began to draw, his hand nearly dancing off the paper as he surveyed the model in quick successions of poses.
“It’s the mechanics of body language,” he explained. “Amateurs draw from the outside, but we teach our students to have a deep sense of movement from within. Leonardo da Vinci did it. It was frozen animation, which means giving life.”
Zimmermann teaches life drawing in the Animation program and children’s illustration in the Independent Illustration program. A lifelong artist, he knew he wanted to draw when he was in Grade 2. By Grade 8, he was painting and drawing day and night. He was so good at it that by Grade 9, he passed Latin by painting a picture. That same year, he was thrown out of French class after a cartoon of a monster he’d drawn ended up on the teacher’s desk with her name on it. Zimmermann didn’t write the name, the other kids did.
Seneca Professor Werner Zimmermann teaches life drawing in the Animation program and children’s illustration in the Independent Illustration program.
To say Zimmermann is a successful artist would be an understatement. As a landscape artist, he has been selling his paintings since high school and has exhibited his works in galleries. As a bestselling and award-winning children’s book illustrator, he has written and/or illustrated close to 20 books combined, published in Chinese, English, French, German, Korean, Norwegian and Spanish.
His book, At the Pond, was nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Awards last year in the Young People’s Literature — Illustrated Books category. This was his third Governor General’s nomination, after Brave Highland Heart in 1999 and Whatever You Do, Don’t Go Near That Canoe! in 1996.
“It was a shock, true shock,” Zimmermann said of his most recent nomination. “The book was so different from anything I’ve done before. I was surprised the publisher took it.”
While Zimmermann didn’t grow up reading children’s books, he is keenly aware of the world children live in. At the Pond, for example, was born out of an afternoon he spent with his granddaughter counting fish in a pond.
“You never leave it — a child’s world,” he said. “Once you work on a book, there’s a story. Pictures tell the story and kids need visuals. If the story engages the brain then it goes past the image. You are presenting a visual door for people to open it and go deeper.”
Professor Werner Zimmermann’s book, At the Pond, was recently nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Awards.
Whether it’s drawing a camel, a rabbit, a shoe or a tree, Zimmermann said it’s about eye, hand, head and heart.
“A lot of students want to draw but they don’t realize what drawing is,” he said. “In eye, you learn to see. In hand, your hand has to be trained. In head, you need to know the anatomy and the design. In heart, you need to have passion because it’s a damn hard profession. A story is not just inventing or recording. You have to create feelings. The artist has to express, not depict.”
And while the medical world looks at anatomy as “plumbing and biology,” Zimmermann said artists see it as storytelling and movement. “You can’t understand how to move unless you study anatomy,” he said.
At Seneca, Zimmermann said students are trained not only to be skilful, but also to be creative people who express something. Over the years, many of his students have gone on to work for Pixar, Blue Sky and Ubisoft.
“It’s true you can’t teach imagination, but there’s no one without imagination. Tell me a person who doesn’t dream!” he said. “We are good at locking up imagination. Kids are imaginative and they are told to grow up. Imagination is about play and God doesn’t sit on our shoulder and say, ‘I’ve got an idea.’”
Having been at Seneca since 2003, Zimmermann now teaches alongside some of his former students.
“Teaching is enriching. Contact with younger people and the younger minds makes me feel that I’m still connected,” he said. “I love the program at Seneca. I love teaching in a zone of strength.”
As for life after the coveted Governor General’s nominations, “nothing changes,” Zimmermann said. “I still have to wait in line for the washroom and pay for groceries. There are still days that I ask myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ But that’s part of the artistic process.”