Self-Improvement

First off…Happy late Thanksgiving if you are from the Americas, and Happy start of the holiday season for everyone else.

This week I want to talk about self-improvement and how it relates to becoming a better artist/designer. The topic came to me this week as I was trying to help my son with his Math homework. Helping my son was like staring straight into the past and looking at myself at his age. Man, I hated everything about math. (I know exactly why now, and no longer suffer such afflictions these days.) Like younger me, my son fights tooth and nail when I make him go back and redo the math problems he gets incorrect. He gets frustrated and exclaims how bad he is at math.

I was always lazy and rushed through math work, it took far longer to do and understand because I never took the time to understand what I was solving. My son is the same way.The math problems he really suffers with are story problems. The truth of the matter is my son is quite good at math, but he lacks the patience it takes to extract information and then organize that information in a way that simplifies the problem.

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He doesn’t understand that story problems are hard, not because of the math, but because of the skills and processes that go into getting the information to solve the math problem in the first place. He just assumes that because it is math homework, he is bad at it. It is my goal to try and help him understand that there are different skills involved in completing math problems and the same goes for every other subject.

He also needs to understand how his mind works in order to get the best results and enjoyment from each subject. Sadly, this is not something the American public school system seems to understand, much less do anything about it. They teach the students facts and concepts, but they don’t teach them how to think.

Like many of us, my son also suffers from the affliction of caring what others think about how he arrives at an answer. In his eyes, (and younger me was the same way) someone isn’t as good at math if they need to keep track of numbers on their fingers, or if they have to use extra paper. I told him, “Who cares as long as you got the answers correct and didn’t cheat by copying someone else?”

Proof of horrible figures.
Proof of said horrible figures.

I use this example because I never understood the different skills involved in math, and I gave up on the subject when I was a sophomore in high school. I think this is how people often feel with art. Too frequently, people give up on becoming an artist before they give themselves a chance to even scratch the surface of what takes to be an artist. The comment is usually, “I drew a stick figure, it looked like poop, and therefore I can never be an artist.” I draw some shitty looking stick figures all the time and I have been arting for quite some time. If you want to improve yourself, you have to give yourself time to improve.

This idea is also relevant because I don’t think we are a society that takes time to reflect on ourselves. Social media keeps us too busy in other people’s lives to really understand ourselves. If you don’t understand your deficiencies, or how you think, operate, or learn, how can you ever hope to improve to your great potential?

There is a saying, “you have to help yourself before you can help others.” Social media has made it so easy to offer our solutions and criticism to others that we don’t take the time to think of solutions for our own problems or give ourselves constructive criticism. On the other hand, when we do criticize ourselves, we can be so hard on ourselves that we may fail to take the steps to improve.

Art skills take time.
Improvement takes patience.

“That drawing sucked…welp…I guess I’ll move on.” No. If you want to improve, ask yourself, “what worked in that drawing? What didn’t work in that drawing?” Identify what made that drawing suck and fix it by studying the areas you don’t understand. Redo the drawing. Then do do it again to ensure that the knowledge sticks. That is learning and drawing with intent to improve.

Self-improvement should be followed by self-assessment. If you can’t identify your strengths and weaknesses, you will never make the gradual improvements necessary to reach your fullest potential. The difference between a person who self-assesses and a person that doesn’t, is self-awareness. By being self-aware and reflecting on your weakest areas, you’ll be able to pinpoint which ones are most important to your happiness and goals. Those who don’t go through this crucial step may feel overwhelmed by trying to address all of their weaknesses without any idea where to start.

Self-improvement is followed by self-assessment, if you can’t identify your strengths and weaknesses you will never improve to your fullest potential.

Remember, we don’t have to fix every weakness at once, and we don’t want to kill our motivation. Take an honest look at your abilities, embrace your strengths, and pinpoint the most important areas. Better yet, find someone whose strength is your weakness and recruit them to help you.

I often talk to my son about these kind of things on our drive home from football practice and when I am helping him with homework. Ultimately, I know he will never understand what I am talking about until he discovers these concepts for himself. I am confident that one day my son will figure all this out on his own, because his old man was able to put two and two together to make art.

Do you know what your best strengths are and what are some of the weaknesses you wish to improve? Furthermore, do you know which weaknesses are not as important to improve because they don’t fit your goals? Let me know in the comments.

Some vehicle sketches from a warm up session.
Some vehicle sketches from a warm up session.
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The Separation is in the Preparation

“Fake it till you make it.”  I am not really a fan of this saying.  I especially don’t like it when you apply it to art.  I prefer the motto of Russell Wilson.(Seattle Seahawks QB) The separation is in the preparation.(Go Hawks!) This week, we’re going to discuss the importance of learning the fundamentals.  What we’ll talk about holds true not only for art, but any major undertaking in life.  I’m not saying that you need to know the fundamentals of every single thing you try to do, but if you have no knowledge of the subject, you might be sabotaging your future success by skipping the hard work, practice and time it takes to understand the fundamentals first.

My focus on fundamentals started when I was seven years old and began playing football. I had to learn how to tackle, block, hold a football, throw a football, run, all before playing in the first game. Every year I played I added new elements to my skill base, while continuing to practice the fundamentals every day. Eventually, it led to reading what the offense or defensive formation was right before the play started, and my body moving into the places it need to be without much thought.

Every year the coach would talk to us about how important fundamentals were. Did I really have any idea what the coach was talking about at the time?  Not really.  But as I got older and started pursuing other passions, I realized how valuable understanding core fundamentals was.  I realized how much easier it was to learn and succeed when I had a solid foundation of basic skills.  It’s something I continually try to instill in the kids that I now coach.

In today’s fast-moving world, people give up far too quickly on learning the basics.  They see someone else doing the same thing and getting better, faster results, and they get impatient to see the same from themselves. This is where people sabotage their success.  They don’t realize that this actually results in less overall improvement and slower progress.  If you stick with learning and practicing the fundamentals, the progress might feel slow in the beginning, but the rate of improvement afterwards will be immense.  Before you know it, the person you saw getting better and faster results will be the one asking how you got so good.

There is no trick.  It takes practice, hard work, and time.

We can also be victims of our own ego.  I know it’s hard for me to admit when I don’t understand something I’m trying to learn, and I assume it’s the same for others.  In my experience, it’s usually because we’re trying to take shortcuts to get a desired result.  Unfortunately, this often leads to little understanding and a lot of frustration.  So take a deep breath, swallow that big lump in your throat called pride, and figure out the fundamentals.

A good example of how learning fundamentals can really help you out is the interview for my first job in gaming. A recruiter contacted me about a car research position at Turn 10 Studios because he saw the VR racing game that was listed on my resume. I told him it had nothing to do with cars and that I really wasn’t much of a car nut.  I thought that would be the end of it, but he called me back a couple days later to tell me he got me an interview.

I thought, “Well shit.  I know jack about cars so how am I going to pull this off?”  I wish I still had the job brief, because it went something like, “Are you a car nut?  Do you live and breathe racing?  Do you know how a VTec engine operates, and what the Corkscrew is?  Do you know the fastest way around a race track?”  My answers to those questions were No, No, No, No, and kind of.

But here’s what I did know.  Working on a video game researching cars is far better than digging ditches, and I had two days to become a knowledgeable car nut.  It was also clear that the guys who wrote that job brief were serious about cars.  Luckily, I’m incredibly good at researching and I spent the next two days living and breathing cars, knowing that even if I didn’t get the job, I’d at least gain some knowledge that I could apply when working on my own car.

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I started with the questions posed in the job brief and quickly realized I wasn’t getting anywhere.  I asked myself, “what do I really know about cars?” It was just about nothing. What I did know was that I stick the key in the ignition and that turns on the engine. The engine transfers power to the transmission, which transfers power to the wheels. So I wrote down what I knew, and what I thought I needed to know, and formulated a plan to research.

I started with the engine, and broke down everything about its operation.  This yielded a page of important terms, and then I researched formulas for how these things are calculated. I got deeper into the details as I continued my research which I wouldn’t have been able to understand if I hadn’t first gotten down the basic concepts of how a car works.

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After getting a good grasp on cars, I had a little bit of time to research race tracks. I took a fundamental approach to this topic as well. I researched all the different turns and filled my head with racetrack details. Finally, it was time for my interview.

The guys walked out and introduced themselves, letting me know they had done some research on me as well. They knew I wasn’t a car guy, that I was an artist, and they had no idea why I was interviewing with them.  They said they would set me up with the art guys, because my stuff did look pretty good to them. They asked if I still wanted to do the interview. At this point my confidence was nearly destroyed, but I was going to give it a go because they were going to set me up with the art guys anyway, so what the hell.

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The interview was everything I had prepared for.  Nearly every question they asked me was something I had researched and wrote extensive notes on in the past couple days. The few questions I didn’t know, I felt okay admitting that I wasn’t sure, because I knew I could figure it out pretty quickly.  By the end of the interview, we were talking like old friends. I showed them the notebook that had all my notes and gave them an idea of my preparation strategy. After a week of interviewing car nuts, it was an artist that answered all the questions the “car nuts” should have known.

The separation is in the preparation.

The point of the story is to reinforce the notion that understanding the core fundamentals will take you so much farther than guessing and picking at the surface of the subject. Moreover, the information you gain from understanding the fundamentals can stay with you for the rest of your life as useful knowledge. Not to mention you will look smarter than you really are, which in my case, led to a design job rather than a research job, and a bunch of great friends.

Fundamentals are the key. Do you have a story about how learning the fundamentals of a subject has saved your bacon, or got you far better results than you expected?

A little bit of 3D to switch it up this week.
A little bit of 3D to switch it up this week.
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Getting Serious about Starting

Last week was just about creating something, it didn’t matter what. It was about getting the creative juices flowing. Likely, if you have been away from creating for a while or just getting into it, that worked for you. This week’s post is for those of you who have been creating (drawing, painting, sculpting, modeling, etc.) for a while, or maybe you just started and are ready to get serious about your passion. Where do you start? Starting to create is easy: pencil… paper… move hand around page, and done.

Inktober Drawing
Ballpoint Pen Inktober Drawing

The real improvement comes from focused study and practice. This is how I approached prepping for my career and this is just my observation from the best artists I’ve seen. I have spent a lot of time stalking…I mean studying their work habits. The good news is if I can do it, you can do it. I am married with three kids and didn’t start my art study habits until after I was married and had two kids.

So roll your sleeves up, because this is where the hard part starts. Truthfully, it never gets any easier. It will require a lot of work, time, and frustration. But the knowledge, rewards, and self-fulfilment will change the way you view the world. A word of advice though; proceed with caution and don’t let this undertaking consume you, because it will if you let it.

I am guilty of many 18 hour days, and quite a few beyond that. You will hear this from a lot of artists, but as your mom always asked, “If everyone else jumped off the bridge would you do it too?” These are not healthy habits. The simple fact is, your brain can only take so much in a day. If you focus your time, you can accomplish the same amount as you would have if you told yourself you had 18 hours. Turn off all the distractions and get to work. Take a break when you get frustrated or hung up, and let your subconscious turn the problem over for a while. You need to allow your brain to process and chew on all the information you are ramming into it. I know there is research and science behind this, and Google can lead to all that stuff in case you want to call B.S.

Enough of the preaching, let’s get to the nitty gritty. It starts with knowing yourself. What are you most passionate about when you create? There are three main categories: characters, environments, and vehicles. If you are like me, you love them all. If that is the case, well, I’m sorry. You have a long road ahead of you. What about animals, creatures, and props you ask? I lump animals in with characters, and creatures tend to be animals, so you saw what I did with them. Props I lump in with environments because they use the same knowledge.

Pro tip: go outside and draw from life.

Male Jaguar at the Woodland Park Zoo
Male Jaguar at the Woodland Park Zoo

All the answers you need are out in the world. If you love drawing characters, go draw people (they are everywhere) or join a life drawing class. If you love drawing creatures, go to the zoo, a local farm, or anywhere there are animals. If you are the type that loves to create environments and vehicles, those are outdoors and everywhere also. Keep in mind you should also draw people and animals because they should be living in the environments you create.

Fundamental
: forming or relating to the most important part of something → (That something being your art education.)
: of or relating to the basic structure or function of something

Fundamentals. You will hear this word time and time again and with good reason. Take this word and ingrain it into your soul. If something doesn’t make sense or doesn’t look right, you most likely to be lfailed to understand or execute a fundamental element. This applies to everything you undertake in life, not just being a good artist. (I will link a story of my first job in the game industry as an example)(Here is the link).

Value Study of Ceasar Statue
Value Study of Augustus Ceasar Statue

So what are the fundamentals of art, or more specifically, concept design? First and foremost: arm control. Then comes composition, shape, perspective, anatomy, value, color, and understanding how to use your reference. The great wide internet is filled with knowledge of how to become a better artist. Some of it is utter crap, but there are a lot of great people to learn from out there. I will link to the books, websites, and videos that I found the most helpful learning the fundamentals.

In a later series, I will break each one of these elements down from my vantage point, and likely the resources I link to at the bottom will do a far better job than me. Most importantly, don’t burn yourself out. Enjoy the journey and value the lessons you learn along the way, because those are the things you will take with you through the rest of your life. The images you make just sit on a wall, in a book, or in a file somewhere.

If you like what you read let me know in the comments.

John Singer Sarget Master Study.
John Singer Sarget Master Study.

How to Draw – Scott Robertson

How to Render – Scott Robertson

Scott Robertson’s YouTube Channel

Framed Ink – Marcos Mateu-Mestre

Color and Light – James Gurney

The Gnomon Workshop

Feng Zhu’s YouTube Channel

James Paick Gumroad

The Collective Podcast

Muddy Colors

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Getting Started: Motivation for starting your Art Journey

What better way to start a blog off than by talking about getting started? I see this question posed to talented artists time and time again. How do I start? Where do I start?

I still have problems getting started all the time. It is a recurring issue, and I can’t speak for any other artist, but I am fairly sure I am not alone. It is a issue you will face many times throughout your art journey. However, the simple answer is: anywhere. Just start. Emulate Jackson Pollock and spit on the page. Give yourself something to respond to.

Just start to write, scribble, or paint, your brain will start working to solve a problem. Over the next couple of weeks, I am going to attempt to beat this topic to death, and then step on its grave.

You might be saying, “but that still doesn’t answer my question.”  But it really does. If you are early in your art journey just start somewhere, anywhere. Process will come later. “But that’s not how (artist name here) does it.” How long has (artist name here) been working as an artist? 5, 10, 20 years? That’s why, they have started so many projects and they know how to get through the starting phase. You need to discover this too.

How often do we talk ourselves out of doing something we should do for reasons like: “that’s not how (artist name) does it.”,“I don’t know the right people.”, “School is expensive.”, “Art supplies are expensive.”, “I don’t have the right markers.”, “I don’t have a Cintiq, Photoshop, or a tablet.”, “I don’t have any ideas.” The list goes on and on.

Could these just be excuses we make to avoid inner turmoil and confrontation? Avoidance of those deep, dark questions: am I good enough? Was I born with the right talent? If I invest all this time will I be that good?

If these are the things holding you back, I can tell you that all you need is a pen and a piece of paper to practice. Start with the fundamentals if you need a place to start. One day, you’ll see that these will be the foundation for every image you create. The difference between the really good artists and not so good artists is time, and not letting nagging questions and problems hold them back.The only thing holding you back is you.

Here is another way to look at it. How many times have you seen someone’s collection of art books and said, “Man, I wish I had that? I will never have a collection like that.” And then done nothing to start your own? Keep in mind, you are seeing several years’ worth of items and books.  When the person started the collection, I bet they bought a book once every few months. Every artist has a couple terrible books in their collection that were bought only because they had no idea what to look for. Every time they see that book, they smile inwardly, knowing their collection had to start somewhere. Without a starting point we have nowhere to go, so just start.

“The only thing holding you back is you.”

Onward, Copic markers are amazing, but expensive. Better wait till Christmas or your birthday so someone else can foot the bill and buy that sweet collection, right? No. Why not? Because if you’re like me, that 36 or 72 marker collection is going to overwhelm you. What pen do I start with? How do I blend these? This looks like shit, I’ll just use a pencil.

The better option is to buy two markers for $5 each. (C1 & C5, T1 & T5, W1 & W5, or N1 & N5 would be my suggestions) Copic Markers and Refills for a good price. That’s two cups of coffee, or four energy drinks. (For how many times this example has been used, coffee stands should be out of business.)

Buy one pen every week for a full year, and you’ll have a nice collection of 42 pens. Give or take a few, because you need to buy some refill ink. If you aren’t refilling that pen, you’re just throwing it in the trash, along with your money.

Incoming Tangent: For $8 you can refill a pen about 15 times. Think of every refill as buying one new pen. That brings the total cost of that pen down to 86 cents per refill.  Buy one more refill and you are down to 67 cents per refill. That’s almost Bic ballpoint pen cheap.

The point being, instead of waiting for someone to foot the bill, you can take matters into your own hands, buy two markers, and practice everyday. By the end of the year, you will have a badass collection of markers and be far better at using them than had you waited for someone else to buy them for you.

“By the end of the year, you will have a badass collection of markers and be far better at using them than had you waited for someone else to buy them for you.”

Let’s bring this thing home. If you are like me you see all these awesome paintings, designs, and images in museums, books, and Google.  You wish so badly that you could be that good. You might often have the thought, “How will I ever be that good?” Relax and take a deep breath, you are looking at skills that took years, or even a lifetime to achieve. They started just like you need to start. They took it one hour, one day, one painting, or one drawing at a time. Eventually, all those ones add up eventually you will hit that magic 10,000.

Just start, who cares where or how. Just grab the nearest thing you can draw on and draw on it. Now! Your mind will do amazing things, if you let it. You just have to give it a push and turn the engine.

Last months enviroment thumbnail warm ups.
October’s enviroment thumbnail warm ups.They is a mix of pencil, Copic markers, and inkwash.
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