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 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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November Warm-up Environment Thumbs

Here are some warm-up environment thumbs. I like to do these to get my brain functioning at a normal capacity. Not quite as many as last month, but I was messing around in 3d quite a bit more as November moved along. Counting left to right, sets 1,2,4,and 5 are done in traditional medium. 1 and 4 are with pencil, and 2 and 5 are with an ink wash. 3,6,7, and 8 are all done digitally. I was messing around with abstraction and composition with a lot of these, and set 6 are abstract value comps of master paintings. I would call them the value essense of master studies. Hope you enjoy.

NovEnviroThumbs

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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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