The Power of Thinking.

I am pretty good at trivia games. I can play Cranium, pick the Data Head category and get the answer right more often than not. My wife usually gives me a look like “WTF…why do you know that?” I usually give her a look like “I have no idea, it just popped into my head and sounded right.” Realistically, it is probably because at some point, I was in a class somewhere, doodling away and barely paying attention, and the fact just stuck in my brain for later trivia use. I wouldn’t say my 2.0 GPA in high school was because I didn’t hear or understand the information. My GPA in high school sucked because I never turned in any homework because it was all crap I didn’t give a f*ck about.

I make a conscious effort to remember this when I see how my oldest kid is doing in school. Am I concerned that he is labeled “behind” in things like reading and writing? Not in the slightest. I know what I was capable of, and when I started to get things. I know he will most likely be just as smart, if not smarter, and he is already doing better in school than I did. I didn’t read a single book until I was out of high school. Is that something to brag about? Maybe not, but the point is that I wasn’t interested in anything being taught in high school.

So what does this have to do with art? I have been trying to tweak some things about my drawing and painting process – namely the fact that I need to think more while working. I have a daily journal that I write in on a regular basis to reflect on my progress as an artist and other things I encounter in life. I think as a result of not paying attention in school and doodling all the time, I developed the bad habit of letting my brain drift to Nowheresville when I draw. It became so natural for me to just pick up a pen and scribble on whatever scratch piece of paper was there while I let my brain drift, that my brain now just automatically does that everytime I start to draw or paint.

I am fairly certain I am not the only one that suffers this affliction. As a new artist, there is this preconceived notion that your pencil or brush should hit the canvas or paper and everything will just work itself out. No thought required – insto presto, image made. Okay, maybe not quite that bad, and hopefully nobody out there thinks that is really how it happens. But I remember being a little surprised about all the things I needed to think about and process while doing a painting because art is supposed to be easy and fun. It makes no sense to me now why that was surprising.

Even now, when I am warming up or drawing, my mind will start to drift and I will just let my hand do what it does. I don’t do this nearly as much as I used to, but I still find myself doing this if I am tired, feeling drained, and no ideas are coming to me. When no ideas are coming is probably the best time to just let your hand do the work, until you see the sparks of inspiration. However, success occurs far more often when I at least have some idea of a direction I want to go with an image.

I have been working pretty hard on the design side of my images lately, which requires quite a bit of brainpower while working. This goes directly against the practice of letting your brain drift, because you need to consciously think ahead of each mark you make. This was something I only started doing in the last few years. Before that, I usually just threw some marks down and responded to them.

Getting a successful image without preplanning before hand is a difficult thing to do as a beginning artist. There are so many fundamental elements that go into being able to consistently produce successful images. It is difficult for the brain to process all that information in a short amount of time without referencing anything or doing any kind of study.

It is very similar to what athletes talk about when they move up a level in a sport. When high school football players transition to college, they talk about how much faster the game is. The same happens when college players progress to the NFL. Eventually, after a few years of experience, the game starts to slow down. The brain is able to process all the information from practice and film study in fractions of seconds. When a player is in the zone, you can see it happening before, during, and after plays.

My First 30 min spit paint.
My First 30 min spit paint. lol It’s hard to look at.

The same thing holds true for artists. When you are new to art and someone asks you to paint a picture of a subject called dino rhino or imaginary wetland in only 30 minutes, odds are that it is going to look like crap. Those 30 minutes are going to fly by, and you are going to look at the canvas afterwards and ask yourself wtf just happened. I know that is exactly how I felt a couple years ago when trying to do 30-minute speed paints on random subjects.

Every painting sucked, there was no edge control and every color was flat. The values were garbage and the light seemed to come from everywhere with god rays flying in from god knows where. I would like to say I stuck with it, but that would be a lie. I gave up on those quickly. However, I have recently started doing them again and the results are much better now. 30 minutes no longer fly by. In fact, I often have about 5 minutes to spare to clean things up a bit.

Brain power, dedication, and time are the keys to becoming a successful artist. Everything about becoming a good artist is earned through thought and never given to you with no effort. Remember that and you should be alright.

Thumbnails done this week during my twitch live stream.
Thumbnails done this week during my twitch live stream.
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Psychology of an Artistic Mind. Part 2

Prior to starting my path to become an artist in the game industry I had this idea that I could just go about my business drawing occasionally and playing video games till 3 in the morning and thought one day I would eventually make it. I am the type of person that for the most part can pick something up and become pretty good at it rather quickly. So why couldn’t I just continue at the same pace of improvement? I mean people would compliment me and tell me how good I was and they liked what they were seeing right?

Illusions, my friends. Illusions my Id was trying desperately for me to believe and hang on to. “Just play games…you are good enough at art, people tell you that all the time, but games that’s the real skill that needs constant attention. We are so f*ckin good at owning newbs, and if you play less, you will start to suck, and then you will just be a forever noob. Don’t you dare let all this gaming talent go to waste.” Sadly that seems pretty close to the argument I would often have in my head. It seems funny now, only because I can almost instantly spot people that have the same problem I did.

For me it took an external force to break my habits. I finally hated my job so much and saw the failure of the company was on the horizon. That made me realize how bad I really was at art and if I seriously wanted to switch careers I had a ton of work to do. I wish I could say I had no problems dropping games, but there were definitely some struggles in there. All three egos have problems when you try and get rid of something they do really well and substitute it for something where there is a lot of failure, with more to come.

I strongly believe the mental battle of becoming an artist is the hardest battle to fight. So much of whether you will overcome the odds and put in the amount of time it requires to become good happens inside your head. It can be a lonely, desolate battlefield at times that can be filled with uncanny beauty or become an inhospitable nightmare.

Think of the mental battle that is required to force yourself to go to the gym after not going for a couple years. When you finally convince yourself to do it and see the results that are happening. There is a mental and physical aspect to that relationship that manifests in a healthier looking body, and often times it could only take a month to see results. That really isn’t that much time in the grand scheme of things. Your superego rewards your brain with dopamine when it notices the success and results. The results reinforce the action because success has been established and is repeatable in a relatively short amount of time.

One of the first digital paintings I did. I can't even remember the amount of time I spent on this thing but it came out decent enough to convince me to go on.
One of the first digital paintings I did back in 2009. I can’t even remember the amount of time I spent on this thing but it was an insane amount and it came out decent enough to convince me that I might be able to do this art thing.

The fight to become a better artist is almost all mental, with the results often taking years to manifest. The only thing that keeps us going is the occasional drawing, painting, or abstraction, capturing something perfectly or at least good enough that our superego rejoices with the success. But in the early stages of becoming an artist, we are unsure of how to replicate our success, and failures come early and often. This results in fear, anxiety, and guilt. This is most likely why most people give up on becoming an artist. They aren’t willing to put up with the amount of time and effort it takes to get results.

The other factor that can drive us early on are the people close to us who will most likely tell you that your art is good. That’s what friends and family are for, right? However, depending on what you want to do with your art, these compliments could be the worst thing you can hear. Falling in love with compliments and being comfortable with where you are often leads to complacency, and complacency is a place where the ego loves to live. Ego will pull his nice winter quilt up over his shoulders and snuggle in for the long haul until you catch on. As an artist striving for improvement, complacency is the worst place you can find yourself. Why? Because the longer you stay complacent, the harder it is to break out of it. It’s like going down to the 7th level of the dream world. Time flies by, and before you know it, years have passed with no real improvement.

Part of this complacency is the refusal to accept that something we love so much requires hard work. “If I love something a ton, it doesn’t require work, right?” This assumption couldn’t be more wrong for a person striving for improvement. The hard part is suplexing all three of your egos to realize that you will never be done improving and committing to the time it takes to improve.

That means you need to put down the sticks, reduce the amount of time spent going out with friends, shut down Facebook, Instagram, or whatever else is consuming your time. You don’t have to completely lose your life and become an art zombie like so many of us. But sadly, that is the level of commitment you are competing with when you enter this industry. You are competing with people who go to work and get paid to do what they love, then they go home and do that some more, go to sleep and do it again.

If you have made it past the time-commitment stage, but you aren’t improving as an artist, or getting the attention/response you want from your art, then you are probably doing something wrong. Either your work is not conveying a message correctly, or it’s boring, lacks design…the list goes on and on. It takes time to identify the problem areas in your own artwork. It’s funny how easy it is to spot the errors in other people’s art. In fact, our egos will jump all over that opportunity. “Look! Haha, I am not the only one that has issues” it shouts. But when it comes to our own art, the blinders are turned on full blast with the AC and max power, “Everything is cool here, nothing to see.” If that’s the case, then you are going to grab your egos again, drag them to the top rope, suplex onto a table, and change things up.

The best way I have learned to combat the blinders is to constantly disconnect from what I am working on. Walk away from it often. I need to constantly figure out a way to look at an image that I am working on with fresh eyes. We can get so caught up with one little shadow not looking right and destroy the whole image just to make that one unimportant shadow look right. Why? Yup, you guessed it – Ego. It’s the need to convince ourselves we can make anything look perfect and bend to our will.

One of the biggest things I have learned while trying to become a better artist is that it is a nonstop battle with my egos. Have you had an ego attack like one of these?

  • Refusing to step away from a painting because you can’t get something right. Then you eventually go to bed at 5 in the morning, pissed off because you couldn’t get it right but you couldn’t keep your eyes open anymore. You get crap sleep because your dreams are mocking you. But then, you wake up to look at the painting and instantly realize the problem and how to fix it in less to 5 minutes.

  • Not using the color picker. Because you should be able to defy the evolution of your eyes and brain with how they perceive color.

  • Not using a reference. Because you should know what a donkey looks like from all angles and every lighting scenario. Of course you should, since there is one sitting in front of this computer right now trying to draw a donkey he thinks he can draw without looking at reference (but really can’t). Or is that a jackass? Punch your ego in the face and use the reference. It will look better and be so much faster.

  • Not using your pencil to measure the model in a figure drawing or life drawing session. Because you know you can eyeball the sh*t out of this pose and nail it. Then, the once beautiful, unsuspecting model turns into Quasimodo on your page.

  • Refusal to use the lasso tool case. Because you can paint that edge just as crisp freehand. Two hours later, you think you’ve nailed it, walk away, and come back a see the hairy, uncrisp edge from the seventh circle of hell.

I could go on for days. What is important is that you know what kind of artist you want to be. For me, speed and accuracy is the name of the game. I need to generate ideas quickly in order to effectively do a job. Maybe some of these things don’t bug you, and maybe you are happy with where you are as an artist, but that is why every single person’s art journey is their own journey. The most important thing is understanding who you are and where you want to go as an artist. Then, don’t be afraid to change directions or walk down a side path if an opportunity arises. And if your egos give you grief about it, slap them in the mouth and tell them you are in charge here.

Feeding the Fire was the topic for this painting. Another 30 min painting for a group on Facebook called spit paint.
Feeding the Fire was the topic for this painting. Another 30 min painting for a group on Facebook called spit paint.
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Psychology of an Artistic Mind. Part 1

This post has turned out to be far more than I intended it to be and due to its complexity and length, and I am going to break it into two parts. I originally started down a path that led me to an epiphany. Ultimately, everything I have been talking about for the last couple weeks about preconceived notions are tied directly to the subject of this post.

As artists and designers, we often find the most simple designs to be the most beautiful, and often try and make that happen in our own work. What we find, however, is that the most simple ideas are often the most difficult to portray or discover. My attempt to explain what is happening in my head day to day is no different.

I see and hear artists talk about skills related to how to paint and draw better – the technical side of being an artist. I feel this or I feel that and that is the result of how I got the image. I don’t know if I have ever heard an artist talk about the mental side of being an artist. I am going to attempt to do that. The closest thing I usually see is, how do you get your ideas, or how do I stop procrastination. Keep in mind that I am not a psychologist, and I have never played one of TV. All of these conclusions are being drawn from personal experience,
reading, and observations.

image from http://www.simplypsychology.org/

According to Sigmund Freud’s Structural Model of the Psyche, the psyche is made up of three parts: the Id, Ego, and Superego. In the first draft of this post, I used the ego to describe all the battles happening in my head, but it didn’t capture what I was trying to communicate.

Egotism vs. Egoism
Egotistic or egotistical is often used to describe a feeling of vast self-importance. It’s a weighty word isn’t it? Being egotistical refers to someone who is excessively conceited or vain, even narcissistic. You hear these terms applied frequently in the art world. There are many artists that have that reputation, and you can instantly tell when you are dealing with one of them. But all the artists I personally know are awesome people, and egotistic is the last word I think of when describing them.

Egoism is a preoccupation with oneself, but not necessarily feeling superior to others. The truth is, you actually have to have a certain degree of egoism to improve as an artist. It doesn’t matter if you are working for the entertainment industry or you are creating art for some lofty ideal or cause. Being an egoist means you always seek to improve as an artist. Improving as an artist is about improving yourself. If you seek to improve at a significant speed as an artist, you will choose to work on your art over doing anything else. But even reaching this point is a challenge in and of itself.

The Id
Let’s take a step backwards for a second. I want to talk about the Id. Freud says that as newborn children, we are completely driven by the id. The id is completely unconscious and is the instinctive part of our personality. To oversimplify, “Id touch oven, oven burns Id’s hand. That hurt! Id not doing that again.” Id can be thought of as your fight or flight instinct, but what the id wants most is to be happy, and Id wants it now. Id will do whatever it can to make that happen. It doesn’t take long of the id running things before the Ego develops as a result of our interactions with the external world.

The Ego
The ego is developed to keep the id in check. Where Id doesn’t care what it has to do to feel pleasure, Ego wants to feel pleasure but will delay gratification in order to achieve it in a realistic manner. Freud says the ego is relatively weak compared to the id, “like a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse” (Freud, 1923, p.15). The ego is responsible for rational and realistic thinking and problem solving but has no concept of right or wrong. Enter into the picture, the Superego.

“like a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse” (Freud, 1923, p.15).

The Superego
The superego is attributed to morals and values and is developed by one’s surroundings and society. The superego is also responsible for your dreams and aspirations or your ideal self, such as becoming a master artist, or mastering some kind of skill or occupational goal. It makes you have expectations that the image will look beautiful and punishes you with guilt and anger when that doesn’t happen. The superego is also the reason you feel guilty when you choose to play games or do some other activity instead of drawing or painting when you are trying to achieve the goal of improvement. Sometimes this is good, sometimes it is not. Just like the id, the superego needs to be held in check.

Generally, I am not a fan of disassociating what is happening in my head into seemingly different identities. When parts of the psyche are given a face and name they achieve an air of being uncontrollable, when in fact the opposite is true. You will need to learn to control these things if you hope to become the best artist you can.

If it helps you could use the cartoon depiction of the id, ego, and superego if you would like. Think of the id as the devil on your shoulder, the ego is you in the middle, and the superego as the angel on your other shoulder. I like to think of the id and the superego as two different dragons I need to beat back into their lairs with a big stick.

Ego: I fight with the Id and superego every day. It is the constant battle that wages in my head, that no one can see and no one knows about. It’s a battle that happens in everyone’s head whether they realize it or not, and it’s an epic battle with so many twists, deaths, and betrayals, it even puts the Game of Thrones to shame.

When I don’t feel like doing work and just want to play games, or binge watch a show on Netflix that is id wanting to just be happy now! When I then feel guilty about playing games instead of working, that is my superego telling me I am not living up to the best person I can be or tell me I am working too much and need to spend time with my family. Which isn’t a bad thing.

The times when the superego becomes a problem is when I am trying to spend time with my family and superego makes me feel guilty for doing so. The mind is a complex place and a lifetime won’t even be enough time to understand what is happening up there.

The superego is responsible for so many people giving up on the arts at such a young age. It is the same superego that caused me to be embarrassed to be seen counting on my fingers doing math in school. Or why you didn’t want to raise your hand, even though you knew the answer. Part of the problem is every portion of our psyche (id, ego, superego) love so much to be right, and will reward us with dopamine for doing so. But more than anything, they hate being wrong. The superego fears help and thinks it can do everything on its own. I have come to realize that so much about becoming a better artist is learning how to punch your superego and id in the mouth, telling them to sit the f*ck down.

Hopefully you will return next week as I continue this topic, discussing a little bit more about the battles with my psyche and self-discoveries that have helped me improve as an artist.

Enviroment Thumbnails from this week.
Enviroment Thumbnails from this week. Click for higher resolution.

references

Simply Psychology Id, Ego and Superego McLeod Saul 2008 http://www.simplypsychology.org/psyche.html

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It’s Not the Brush.

I remember the day I realized digital art was a thing. I was deep into one of my drawing spells, frustrated with how things looked on the paper. I just couldn’t get what was in my head on to the paper. So I did what so many of us do, and went to the Google’s. Google! “How do I draw better?” I came across people drawing things directly in Photoshop. What was this sorcery, and how do I take part in it? Surely this is my answer to be instantly better at art. My brain and all the power of Photoshop…it will be instant improvement. Right?

That was eight years ago, and I was still in the middle of trying to get my degree in business management. Clearly, I had all the intention in the world of using that degree. At any rate, when I finally got my hands on a Wacom Intuos 4, I was sure the answer to all my lack of art powers had arrived. I unwrapped that bad boy, downloaded the drivers and I was in it to win it. Fast forward 10 minutes later. F*** this! How the hell am I supposed to draw when I can’t see my hand? Thus began the cycle of starting, getting extremely frustrated, then stopping, then starting, etc.

I never really did get a handle on using a tablet. I can use one now if I need to, and accomplish the same things, but I still hate the disassociation of not being able to see my hand while I draw or paint. It is just the way I am.

The truth is, having access to powerful tools such as Photoshop, Painter, or Sai don’t make us better at anything. The ugly truth is, we may even take a step backwards. It’s like in the Disney movie Aladdin, Jafar wished he was the most powerful genie in the Universe. He got what he wanted. All the power in the universe that he didn’t understand, and then was confined to a tiny lamp.

After I got my tablet and attempted to use Photoshop, it freaked me out, and I became Jafar trapped in a lamp. The surface of the tablet was too smooth and the way the brush moved on the screen was too hard to control. My brain had really nothing to reference how to get better at this sorcery. So I turned to Illustrator and the pen tool.

At the time, it felt like a cop out, but now I realize it helped me with my confidence in using the tablet. The pen tool allowed me to place lines exactly where I wanted them while I was practicing with the tablet. Sure, the mouse is much faster with the pen tool, but I had a fancy new tablet that needed to be used. The reason I realize this is valuable now is because I was improving my hand-eye coordination with my tablet by doing something that I was already confident doing.

How many of you have a similar story or are still struggling with this issue? The reason for this story is to smash away the preconceived notions that we have when it comes to art. The truth about improvement is that you are going to follow your own path of discovery and there are a million things I can share with you about becoming a better artist, but if you aren’t ready to hear it, it won’t matter.

What brush are you using? What program is she using? I tried that brush and it didn’t do that for me. How do I get better at art? How do I get better at drawing? is coming to town. She is going to share all her secrets to success. Are you doing dude? Did you see that new tutorial? I totally get it now. Nope.

All of these questions and thoughts were running through my mind, until I realized the real secret is there is no secret. There is no hidden world in the wardrobe. Every professional artist practically shouts it out when they give their presentations, and post their tutorials. Hard work and time – that’s it. If you don’t understand, design, shape, contrast, composition, form, value, anatomy, light, perspective, contrast, color theory, or have no muscle memory, the brush the artist is using or program the artist is using means nothing. It is window dressing. Sure, it is inspiring to watch what they are doing, but the focus is in the wrong place. Inspiration is a powerful thing but can only take you so far. I know this because this was how my brain worked before I realized I wasn’t improving. I would watch tutorials and then try to do the same thing. I couldn’t even come close to producing what that artist was doing. I was so focused on what other artists were doing rather than focusing on me and what I needed to do to improve.

Once you start to focus on yourself, improvement will follow. At first, you will have huge canyons that you will have to build bridges to get over to the other side. But as you stick with it, those canyons get smaller and eventually turn into puddles you only need to hop over. Once you get to that point, you’ll know how to solve the deficiencies in your art, because you will have put in the time and hard work to understand how to improve. Now you will understand why that artist is using that brush and understand the struggles they were talking about and the steps they had to take to get where they are.

Here are some tips:

If you are struggling with your tablet. Hide your mouse for a month and only use your tablet to operate your computer.

If Photoshop is overwhelming. It can still overwhelm me at times. Get rid of all the options except the brushes tool, and then get rid of all your brushes except for a simple round brush, an airbrush, and a painterly brush. I will upload a set that can be found here.

Improve your hand-eye coordination. Practice drawing straight lines, ellipses, curved lines, pen pressure by going from thick to thin lines. Do this on paper, do it with your tablet.

Don’t limit yourself to working on the computer. Drawing or painting with no CTRL+Z will do wonders for your confidence and speed over time.

scan1922

scan1934

A few watercolor explorations of some space dudes.
A few watercolor explorations of some space dudes.
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