No one is born good at art.

Welcome to the other side, I hope you all made it through the New Year’s alright.

Over the Holiday break I have immersed myself in fixing the major weaknesses of my art. There are several things I have just been ignoring or putting off. There are still preconceived notions about art and how to work that I am tearing down in my own psyche. It is amazing how many of these preconceived notions there are.

I think I have mentioned how I struggled with the idea that art skills were something people were just gifted with at birth. I struggled with this issue big time early in my art career. It nearly caused me to quit hundreds of times. It is difficult as a new artist to look at good or professional artwork and imagine that artist in their adolescence being frustrated when they were trying to convey an image on a page or tearing pages out of their sketchbook because their anatomy makes no sense.

Let’s get this out of the away: No one is born good at art. Nobody is born good at anything. Even the prodigies weren’t born with the skills they needed to execute their profession. They just had an environment that pushed or nurtured them from a very young age. Just because someone has mastered something by age 12, don’t discredit the amount of hard work that went into that skill.

No one is born good at art.

Often, when I hear professional artists talk about this issue, they compare becoming a great artist to being an athlete that plays professional football or basketball. I think these are probably the two worst sports analogies that can be made. Genetics play a big role in these sports. There is no denying the immense amount of hard work that had to go into becoming a professional football or basketball player. They are elite because they worked harder than anyone else, but the average height of an NBA player is 6’7”. I can’t make myself grow taller than my genetics allow barring new scientific discoveries. However, if I was that tall and never practiced shooting a basketball or dribbling I wouldn’t be in the NBA either.

Example: Kam Chancellor 6’3 231 lb Pro Bowl Strong Safety for the Seattle Seahawks. Go Hawks!

NFL athletes are another breed of human. Again, I am not denying the amount of hard work these guys have to put in to get to the league, but they are essentially your modern day comic book characters. It is insane for a man to be 6’2”, 254 lbs and able to run 40 yards in 4.4 seconds. These athletes have to have a genetic bone structure that can support that amount of muscle mass, and the power generated from those muscles when they are exerted.

Now obviously these guys have to practice the skills needed in order to operate at the professional level for these sports. However, I think comparing what it takes to become a good artist to a sport like golf is more accurate. It may not be as sexy but it is far more accurate. I am not a golfer but I can imagine the amount of time and practice it would take to become a professional golfer. Almost anybody could become a professional golfer if they practiced enough and in the right way.

Based on stories I have heard. Frank Frezetta was born with a Photographic memory. Image from www.frankfrazetta.org
Based on stories I have heard. Frank Frezetta was born with a Photographic memory. Image from www.frankfrazetta.org

Based on what I’ve observed from really good artists, it seems they fall into one of three categories.

Born with a Photographic Memory. This is the one genetic trait I can think of that can give a person an advantage from birth. This is also known as an eidetic memory. I think most of us picture every great artist as having this talent when we are starting out. But this is so rarely the case.

Starting Young . It may seem that some have been good at art their whole life, but this can be because they have been drawing since they can remember. This doesn’t mean they didn’t work hard. They just put in an incredible amount of work early in their life. Eventually, they probably hit a point where they refined their skills with focused study.

Anthony Jones didn't start working to beome an artist till his 20's. www.robotpencil.com
Anthony Jones didn’t start working to beome an artist till his 20’s. www.robotpencil.com

Starting Old. Then you have people who love art and don’t start till their 20’s 30’s 40’s, and become amazing artists. I fall into this category.

Often if you ask an artist who has been creating art from a very young age why they draw some of the things they do, they find it difficult to communicate because it is so natural to them. This leads to the idea of art being a magical talent that someone is born with. Let’s run with this line of thinking a second.

At what point in history has art been such a viable profession? It has probably only been in the last century, maybe even half century that anyone has been able to just pursue the life of an artist without living in abject poverty or having a wealthy patron. Many of the artists in history came from a more privileged background that gave them access to a mentor or to attend a prestigious art school. Now I could be completely wrong about this because I don’t have a whole lot of art history in my education. (Which is why I will be doing some art history posts with more facts and less hypothesis in the future.)

What I do know is that in the past (and present), schools that had credible arts programs tended to be very expensive. Add to that the artists who have started so young they’re unable to articulate how they’ve learned to do certain things and the fact that out of 100 people off the street, only one could probably draw anything better than a stick figure and you get a generation of mystery. This all leads to the preconceived notion that art is a skill reserved for those born with natural skills. It lends itself to have a mystical air about it, when that isn’t true. It is a skill that should be taught like math or science. Unfortunately, art hasn’t been regarded as important as some of the STEM disciplines in the traditional academic model.

Fortunately for us, the internet has completely changed how art education or any education can be consumed. In fact, art education has never been so available to the masses as it is now. Becoming a good artist is not magic, it is not something someone is born with, and it is not a gift. There are no shortcuts, there are no special brushes, or tricks that are going to instantly make you a good artist. Becoming a good artist is just years of extremely hard work, and if you love being an artist that work will extremely fulfilling.

What is something you are currently struggling with in your art journey? Let me know if the comments.

I have been messing around with watercolors lately, and they have been super fun and rewarding.
I have been messing around with watercolors lately, and they have been super fun and rewarding.
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Advice for Students

Yesterday, I finally got around to turning in my graduation paperwork for the AA degree I finished two years ago along with the BA degree I just completed this past quarter (yes, I can procrastinate like a pro.) As I was heading out, I dropped in on a class called “Portfolio Review.” The class was doing a dry run for the students who would be presenting in front of a panel of industry professionals next week. I only saw the last few, but generally, the portfolios reflected nearly every other portfolio review I had ever attended. With the exception of one or two students, the rest just weren’t industry ready. I’ve heard this comment from art directors and industry professionals across the country.

So why does it happen and with such regularity? First of all, this is by no means a criticism of the particular college. In fact, quite a few students accomplish more in two years than a lot of students do in four. However, many other students squander their time at school and then blame the instructors or administration for their own shortcomings. Of course, there are exceptions. I’ve heard horror stories of bad instructors and have even met a few myself. But even then, it’s still your responsibility to the get the most out of your class.

Often, when an instructor is running late, I hear students say, “If he’s not here in 15 minutes, can we leave?” Two things go through my mind when I hear this.

1. You are an adult choosing to attend higher education, so you can leave whenever the hell you’d like.

2. Why are you even here?

I know that sounds judgey I’m not saying that I’ve never had a day when I didn’t want to be at school. I’ve definitely felt frustrated when a class seemed utterly useless to what I wanted to do, yet was still required for my degree. I’ve had plenty of those days, and taken a lot of classes like that. I realized though, that I needed to take control of my own education to get whatever I could from the information presented and find a way to apply it to my life and work. I firmly believe that this type of mindset is what separates students who are able to transition into happy, working professionals from all the other apathetic “artists” who are still blaming someone else for their inability to get a job.

So let’s break down the things you can do to get the most out of your education.

A quick sketch I made for an instructor forced students to really think. Drinking students tears.
A quick sketch I made for an instructor forced students to really think. Drinking students tears.

– Get to know your instructors.
They have a wealth of information they don’t include in their lessons. This can happen because there simply isn’t enough time, or they believe none of the students really care. Remember, they have chosen teaching for a reason, so you will often find them to be more than happy to share their knowledge with people who authentically seek it out.

– View every assignment as a job brief – even the little ones.
When you approach an instructor’s assignment in this manner, you change the project’s meaning. It takes on a different light. The end result will look far less like a school assignment and you will often discover things you never would have had you just regurgitated the instructor’s assignment back to them.

hikertentsketch

– Know your path and walk it.
If you are in a class and a project doesn’t line up with your goals, don’t be afraid to change the project to benefit you. Obviously, you should be prepared to explain your reasons. Since most of your instructors come from your desired industry, they will probably understand and may even be impressed by your out-of-the-box thinking and initiative.

– Create your own assignments.
Don’t be complacent by settling for mediocrity. Always push yourself further than you think you can go. Sometimes, it can be difficult to stay motivated, so if you can find someone as dedicated as you are, buddy up and hold each other accountable.

– Know your competition.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s likely that your competition isn’t the student sitting next to you. Give yourself a pat on the back if you are the top student in your program, but you aren’t just competing with your classmates. You are competing with all the industry professionals currently doing the job you want, not to mention the top students from every other program in the world. The Games and Entertainment field is an international, multibillion-dollar industry, that continues to grow at a ridiculous rate. Research the curriculum of other top programs around the world and extract whatever you can about what they are learning. Incorporate it into your own education. Those programs often post the best work online, so compare your work to what you see there. Start a folder of the industry professionals you most admire and compare the quality of work. Remember, you are striving to be a professional with professional level work. When you compare yourself to other students, you are only striving to have the best student work.

Anatomy Study turned 3d.
Anatomy Study turned 3d. I just wasn’t picturing the Skull properly. So I made my own reference.

– Help others.
The best lessons I have learned and the greatest epiphanies I have ever had come from teaching other people how to do something.

– Don’t put the industry you are striving for on a pedestal.
The pedestal is for things you can’t or aren’t supposed to touch. When you hold your desired industry on a pedestal, you make it something more than it really is. At the end of the day, that thing on that pedestal is still just a job. Obviously, working on games isn’t digging ditches, but it’s definitely something within your grasp.

– Network and Socialize
This goes along with not putting your industry on a pedestal. Don’t view the people in your desired industry as a whole different species of person. We all had to start somewhere. Reach out to them and most will be more than happy to talk with you. In fact, they likely suffer some of the same insecurities you do. Attend industry events and be yourself. By sharing your experience with others, you make it easy for them to do the same.

– Be passionate about what you are doing.
Most importantly, you have to love what you do. Choose projects that you are passionate about because those will ultimately turn out the best, and you will be far more motivated to work on them.

– Never stop learning
If you are passionate about what you are doing, you will never stop learning new things. You will always look for new, better, and faster ways to accomplish what you want to do.

Some character roughs for a personal project.
Some character roughs for a personal project.
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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.

timegraph

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.

blo1

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.

scan171

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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