(NOTE: There are sketches of nude human figures in this post, with their anatomy intact.)
If you ask any great AAA game artist about the single-most important thing you can do to get better at art, they'll probably start mumbling about "foundation." Photoshop, Maya -- these are just newfangled versions of pencils or paintbrushes or clay. They won't really teach you how to paint, or how to sculpt, or how to look at things and represent them. In this way, a bit of traditional, non-digital fine arts education can be an extremely useful tool sometimes.
In the pretty casual 12 week, 2 hours a week drawing class I took, the teacher presented two ways of thinking about drawing:
Drawing as gesture
We used ink washes and a watercolor pencil to scribble rough forms of the nude models. We spent 2-3 minutes, at most. First we used a really light wash to "block-out" the rough shape, then sketched over the wash, then did another pass with darker washes to add values and shadows. Given the very short timeframe and the messiness of using ink washes, there's no point in being too meticulous or accurate: the goal is to establish some rough human-ish shapes and move on.
I ended up throwing away most of my gesture drawings, and kept only a few that I liked. The messiness and speed really gave these a sort of "life" or "vitality", an immediacy that's pretty striking. I imagine the equivalent in game development would probably be a Ludum Dare or equivalent 2-3 day game jam, or maybe even a game jam that spans only a few hours.
Drawing as construction
The other workflow we learned involved conscious construction and iteration of shapes. For this, we did more detailed, "accurate" sketches for about 20-30 minutes at a time.
First you start with some rough blobs, moving around the entire paper, making sure you draw *everything* really lightly and roughly. This is called an "intuitive gesture" to mess up the piece of paper so you're not just paralyzed with indecision. Next, you erase everything you just drew, and do another intuitive gesture sketch, except maybe with a little more accuracy and moving stuff around. Erase everything again. Repeat 2-3 more times (spending about 1-2 minutes each time) before starting to draw contours and shapes more properly.
When drawing stuff in more detail, we were told not to "finish" one part ahead of another. We were supposed to keep moving, to iterate around the entire page evenly, drawing lines and taking mental measurements constantly and making corrections or changes in composition as we worked.
I think this workflow of beginning with simple shapes and then slowly building-up these shapes resembles today's common notion of game development: as an engineering process that takes a long time and countless revisions. In design, we call this process "iteration."
Gesture vs. iteration?
Fine arts training holds that both forms are important. It's important to stay loose, but sometimes it's also important to edit and measure. Practice both workflows. Maybe making one game as a quick "sketch" or "study" will improve your work on another game?
Drawing as practice
Of course, you could read about "intuitive gesture" or whatever bullshit in any drawing book, or watch a YouTube video of someone explaining it, etc. I think my main takeaway from the class involved just watching the teacher work and demonstrate a lot of nuances -- different ways of holding the pencil in certain contexts, subtle cues as to when he looked at the models and when he looked at his paper, the way he would erase certain lines but darken others, the way he'd hold the paper, the way he would measure with a ruler...
It took me a while to notice what I was actually learning, and then a while longer to verbalize it into words. I guess I still can't really explain it.
In these kinds of classes, your school fees and tuition and "value" don't go toward memorizing stuff in a book or what a teacher says -- instead, you pay for witnessing the presence of a skilled practitioner simply just being there, demonstrating their attitude towards art and work. I felt like it was more about learning how to feel confident about drawing, than the actual formal techniques themselves. I think that's what "practice" is about: a state of mind.
Next semester: I'm taking sculpting. Or maybe Chinese.