Why artists, no matter how skilled or experienced, should never feel like they can’t become better.
I reblogged a quote earlier about the hard work and perseverance that are necessary in developing a creative craft. It got me thinking about my own creative journey. I’ve been drawing since I was a kid, but I began pursuing it as something more than just random doodling when I was about 15. I mean, I had taken an art class in 6th grade, and I always knew I enjoyed drawing, but I was about 15 when I said to myself, “Okay, I want to really learn how this works, and I want to get better at it.”
I get a lot of compliments on my work, and one of the things I hear a lot is, “I wish I could draw like that,” or “I tried drawing once, but I was never any good at it.” Another frequent comment I get is, “You make it look so easy! How did you draw that so fast!” or other comments along those lines.
I want to respond to those comments a few different ways. I think this is the logical place to start:
As you can see, I drew these in 1996. I was 15. They’re not bad, but they definitely show a lack of…
…knowledge, practice, and discipline.
I drew a lot of animals back then because I thought drawing people was too hard. Once I started exploring the anthropomorphic animal genre, however, I quickly learned that anthros are just as difficult to draw well. You can just disguise your entry level skill a little more easily behind a stylized critter than a stylized person. I think the reason for this is the fact that even in comic form, our brains subconsciously recognize suitable proportions and perspective when it comes to the human face. We don’t always recognize why something is wrong, but we can tell it’s not right. With little anthro creatures, the entire structure of the figure changes, making it easier to conceal mistakes.
I decided I was just going to draw animals, because people were “too hard”. And I did make progress. Here’s an early work of mine that my sister commissioned, done in watercolor. I think I was maybe 23 or something like that.
Finally I reached a point where I really wasn’t that interested in drawing animals anymore. I wanted a new challenge. So, despite the fact that I was terrified, I decided to try to learn how to draw people.
I had joined an art community online (which sadly no longer exists), and started doing the most important, most beneficial, and most terrifying thing I had ever done. I started submitting my drawings for real critique and redlining. There were tons of artists far more experienced and knowledgeable than me who generously gave of their time to help me learn. Here’s a picture from 2009. I was getting better at faces, but the figures still look flat and stiff and unnatural.
I learned how to do gesture work to help loosen up my figures and develop more natural poses. These are gestures I did while watching movies (I was in a Charles Boyer phase at the time, LOL!):
At this time, I also started to explore perspective, which is something I still struggle with quite a lot. Partly because I find it boring. You can see in this one that there are perspective issues with the figure. He doesn’t match the perspective of the furniture, and as a result he looks like he’s sitting at the kid’s table:
Sometimes honing your craft feels like a total slog, and it seems like you’re getting nowhere. I literally did not understand how perspective worked for years. I could not grasp the concept mentally, and therefore couldn’t apply the knowledge in my work. I actually started to feel like I would never understand it, and that it was just something I would never be able to do. That I had hit my wall and wasn’t going to move forward. That was it. I was as good as I was gonna get, and I’d just have to be satisfied with that. I really felt that way. For years! Then the breakthrough finally came, and I just finally understood. It was a total lightbulb moment. It just clicked. I’m still not great at it, but that’s because I don’t practice as much as I should. But the understanding is there.
I remember telling someone a few years ago that I wouldn’t be able to take on a commission they inquired about because it involved realism. I had only ever pursued drawing in more of a comicbook fashion, and never felt like I’d be able to take on realism at all. I mean even when I started drawing celebrity portraits, they were pretty sketchy looking, such as this one from last year:
I decided portraits are crazy good fun, so I started practicing those, and trying to improve on my methods. I took the terrifying plunge and started attempting more painterly styles. This is my first real digital painting, referenced from a Mad To Be Normal still. You can definitely see my weak areas when it comes to inanimate objects and textures. I had fun with this immensely challenging painting, but it was a total trainwreck when it comes to the way I organized (or rather, failed to organize) the layers. It became a nightmare to keep track of. I was so afraid to ruin a layer, I just kept creating new layers. In the end it actually created more problems than it solved because of complications with blending. It was a learning experience. I rely less heavily on layers now, so that blending is more organic and effective. I save separate layers for things that are clearly defined separately from other elements of the painting (like hair or clothing).
I’m still reluctant to completely let go of my drawing habits and rely on implied lines, as you can see in my Ninth Doctor painting:
Here’s my point:
All the pictures I posted above were drawn between the years 1996 and 2016.
That’s 20 freaking years of hard work, determination, perseverance, and passion.
I’m not the fastest learner out there. Some artists make huge strides at a rapid pace, it’s unimaginable to me. I don’t think taking your time makes your abilities less valuable or your potential less real. How fast you learn is irrelevant. What matters is your willingness to stick with it, even when you feel stuck for years, like my thing with perspective.
You guys, drawing is hard. It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done (aside from parenting LOL!). But even when you feel like you’ll never grow and get better, just know that sometimes it’s like that. Just stick with it. Ask for help. Put on a thick skin and be willing to let people pull apart your work and show you how to make it better. One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given was to not think of my drawings as precious. That sounds weird, but what he meant was there is always something to learn from a drawing project. Don’t let your attachment to your art make you blind to mistakes and unwilling to recognize weak areas in your techniques.
My biggest challenge right now is color. I really struggle with it. It’s something that requires book knowledge, and it’s a real slog. But I’m trying to make myself learn. I want to get better. It’s one of the reasons I’m making myself color this painting of Touchstone. The skin tone is driving me bonkers, but it’s better than all my previous attempts, and that’s what matters. It’s not perfect, but it shows improvement. Which means the next time I paint color, maybe I’ll improve a little more.
Where I am is never enough.
I always feel like there are areas I could improve. Honing your craft is like that. You’ll find comfort zones, and you’ll stay in them–sometimes for years–and eventually, you’ll find it isn’t fulfilling anymore, and you’ll feel the need to stretch.
I just wanted to encourage you that if you feel stuck, if you feel like you’ll never improve–don’t give up! Sometimes it takes years. It’s taken me 20 so far. And there is nothing more satisfying than looking at that 1996 picture to remind myself just how far I’ve come.