After recently getting a lot of requests about ‘how to improve my art’ on instagram and reddit, I decided to make a little guide for self-taught artists. I have received a lot support online in the past, and so I also wanted to give back something to the online community. I hope you find it useful!
1.Make the time.
When you set off on this journey, be sure to dedicate good quality time to it. Everyone’s situation will be different. Some people will be lucky enough to have a very supportive family, others will be stuck in a daily grind at a day job. Some have young kids to attend to. We all have a different poker hand with different strengths and weaknesses. If you are in a position where you have a lot of support, use it. If you don’t though, try and give yourself an edge by allocating yourself enough time to hone your craft. Could you cut expenses and go part time? Could you play less computer games? Sacrifice netflix time? Get up earlier? Do what you can to manoeuvre yourself into a position to have good quality time to learn.
2. Learn to learn.
I feel that an assumption people have is that they should wait for someone to teach them new skills. If we want it, the person with the ultimate responsibility of attaining the skills required to draw and paint is ourselves. That is not to say you shouldn’t get a teacher. But even if you are being taught formally, there will be a time when only you are staring at the canvas (or screen) and have to figure out what went wrong on your own. We are also more in tune with our own goals, so we are in the best position to help ourselves attain them.
3. Embrace failure.
This is a big one. I believe that learning is most effective after realizing a knowledge gap or skill gap exists. This is how failure can speak to us. Sure it sucks to fail, but when you start using it as a tool to learn it can become the gateway to success. How can we make the biggest improvements in our art? By grabbing the bull by the horns and tackling our biggest weaknesses. This is part of the journey. Every successful artist has gone through failure.
4. Try and learn to draw (and paint) from both reference and from imagination.
I believe you have to cultivate both skills. Doing only one will lead to trouble, especially with sci-fi and fantastic illustration. If you paint only from reference, you are a slave to it. If you work only from imagination, your work can lack believably.
5. Study the masters.
Huge challenges exist in creating a 2D illustration that depicts a 3D world. The masters solved these problems for us, all we need to do is study them and steal their secrets.
6. Study nature.
Nature is boundless source of inspiration. Study things you like visually and ask yourself, why does this look cool?
7. Have a workflow.
Try and develop a useful routine when you are creating an image, whether it be in traditional or digital mediums. It’s hard to teach a workflow, because they come in flavours as variable as people's personalities. Have confidence in your workflow if it brings you success. Over time, change it if something is not going well. Adapt it if you learn something new. It’s part of what brings your work a particular style and prevents you from painting yourself into a corner. An example of workflow is starting with a thumbnail to plan out your image. In the beginning you will have to borrow from the way others do things, or you might already have a foundation naturally. As you progress, you can drastically change or skip parts of a workflow and still get good results, usually because you have a good practiced grasp of the fundamentals (for example skipping drawing and going straight to painting with shapes).
8. Study books and manuals.
If you are looking for things to study, get a hold of some decent learning material. The advantage of a good book is that they often are comprehensive on the fundamentals of a subject and go into a lot of detail. A lot of people ask ‘whats the secret to drawing?’, artists reply ’there is no secret it’s just practice!’. I think this is misleading, there are drawing secrets and these are pieces of knowledge that can often be found in books. An example is this: We draw a figure in a landscape with a house, but something just doesn’t look right. If we had just committed time to studying a book on perspective, we would be aware that drawing relative to a horizon line is the secret for believability in this situation. With time, try and study books on the same subject by different authors, you can then keep alternative practices you find useful and reject the things that don’t work for you.
9. Stick to one medium.
If you are trying to increase your skill level quickly, constantly changing medium will have you wrestling not only with the subject at hand, but also the medium. That’s not to say you should never switch medium!
10.Commit to studying.
When you are starting out dedicate at least 50% of your time to study. Getting good at art is like getting good at sports. Tennis players for example don’t improve quickly at tennis by only playing tennis matches. They practice footwork, practice playing from the baseline, practice serve and volley etc. This makes it easier to internalize individual skills, and combine them to improve overall skill level playing competitively. In the same way, artists don’t improve quickly by only working on full blown pieces of art. Weak at drawing hands? Study how the masters drew hands, draw them from reference, draw them without reference. Repetitively. We should never really stop studying at any point in our journeys.
11. Study one skill at a time.
There are hundreds of areas you have to tackle to make successful illustrations, which is an intimidating thought. Drawing heads, drawing hands, perspective, atmospheric perspective, drapery, constructive anatomy, muscle attachments. The list is endless, but some skills are more important than others to create a successful image. Make a list and try and tackle each area separately. Divide and conquer right? It might be preferable to try and master one tough area initially, for example drawing heads. This will give you a confidence boost, it will be easier to mentally take on other areas. As you uncover new skills you can adapt your workflow to take them into account.
12. Take Breaks.
It is possible to work 12- 14 hours a day, but in the long run this often comes at the expense of physical and mental health. Everyone's tolerance for hard work varies. Play the long game and maintain a steady pace of diligent work with regular breaks.
13. Keep healthy.
Look at exercise and a healthy diet as an investment in your art. It will tend to improve your energy levels and productivity.
14. Cultivate a confident students’ mindset.
You will have your victories and these should be celebrated, but getting cocky with improvements in your work will stifle your willingness to learn. Have a students mindset indefinitely.
15. Try to define your goals early.
The earlier you choose what you want to do, the easier it is to define what skills you need to pick up and get there faster.
That’s all for now! I’ll follow this up with a reading list. If you have any feedback please let me know on Instagram or twitter (links bottom of the site). Please sub below if you are interested in an occasional newsletter. Have a good one!