Saturday, September 1, 2012

An Update about DIY Art School

Hey all,
There haven't been updates in a while, and I figured there would likely be a few new views because of the mention in ImagineFX (October issue, number 87), so I'd make a quick post. The posts have stopped in part because I've been crazy busy with jobs (which is always nice), but also because I've run through the material I initially had in mind for the topic.

I honestly believe that it is entirely possible to give yourself a great art education, and that anyone with the drive and commitment can go really far without a standard art school. There is so much information out there s available for free, so many resources to take advantage of. I often think, "If I knew then (when I was a student) what I know now, it would all have gone so much smoother and easier," but it's been a while since I was at that point in my art education and I can't always remember where the big stumbling blocks were, or which pieces of the big picture I was missing back then. 

So, I'm throwing things over to you guys. Shoot me any questions you have and I'll do my best to help you out and point you in the right direction. I'm sure there are plenty of potential article ideas based around the questions and comments you guys have.

Drop me a comment here, or find me on Facebook at

Monday, April 30, 2012

There Are No Shortcuts

Fellow illustrator and friend Marc Scheff created this great infographic titled "There Are No Shortcuts." It beautifully illustrates that in order to make great art, you need to do lots and lots of art making. Not just the big beautiful crazy works you dream of, but also lots of studies, practice, doodles, and sketches, and as much of it from life as possible. Every good artist I know continues to do these sorts of things long past the point of being called professional. In fact most artists would agree, you never stop learning, and so there is no reason to ever stop doing these sorts of things.

Marc has called this infographic "part 1", so check out his blog for the sure to follow up "part 2" and beyond :)  Marc's original post with this graphic

Friday, March 16, 2012

Everything is Relative

A few articles ago I talked about the concept of “the general to the specific”, which is sort of a big concept that is useful across a wide variety of problems. Today I want to talk about another big concept, “everything is relative.” This is one of those concepts that isn’t immediately obvious to a lot of beginners, but once you understand it, it can really change everything.

First, what do we mean by “relative”? Relative in this context means that how we perceive one thing, is dependant on other things around it or related to it. In art, everything in the image you create are viewed against the other elements in the image, and shape how we perceive them. Let’s look at some of the various ways we can use this relative perception.

Relative size
I think one of the easiest ways to illustrate that everything is relative is to consider size. I want you to imagine the biggest spider you’ve ever seen. I remember once finding an orb spider that had made a web over my porch. He was at least 2 inches long. Relative to almost any other spider I had personally seen, this spider was HUGE. However, if a hungry raven had flown down with the intent to eat that spider, well that tiny spider wouldn’t have stood a chance. The spider is only “huge” relative to other spiders I’ve seen. Relative to a raven, it’s tiny.

Relative color and value
Relative color is where things start getting interesting. We all understand the concept of warm colors (yellow, orange, red) versus cool colors (blue, green, purple). They are warm or cool relative to the other colors on the color wheel. However, we can take the colors individually and talk about a warm yellow (for example cadmium yellow) versus a cool yellow (like lemon yellow). How we think about color is relative to the other colors in consideration. This is especially true in your art, and realizing this helps you to look at color more objectively, and to make more interesting color choices.

Credit Edward H. Adelson, Professor of Vision Science at MIT

Consider the above image. If I ask you which color, A or B, is lighter you'd most likely answer B. In fact the answer might be so obviously true that you'd immediately suspect, correctly, that there is a trick.

Credit Edward H. Adelson, Professor of Vision Science at MIT

With a little help, we can see they are actually the same exact color. There are two factors at play making this work. Part of it is the perceptual illusion based on our expectations developed from a life time of seeing shadows. The other part is the relative color based on those near the colors in question. In one, the color is surrounded by darker colors, making it appear light in comparison, in the other the opposite is true.

whether the grey square seems light or dark depends on what color surrounds it.

French artist Eugene Delacroix said, "I can paint you the skin of Venus with mud, provided you let me surround it as I will." He understood that how we perceive a color is based entirely on what is around it.  

Knowing this, you can more easily understand that to make something appear blue, does not always require that you use blue right out of the tube. In fact, sometimes you don't use blue at all. Grey, brown, purple, or green can all pass for blue in the right circumstances. To make something appear black, you will most often avoid actual black, but it will appear black relative to the other colors around it.

As you learn to paint, you will often find yourself mixing what you think will be the perfect color, only to find that when you dab it onto the canvas that it appears entirely different when surrounded by the other colors. You have to constantly be ready to reexamine and question the color and value choices you have made.

You can also use the concept to enhance other qualities. You can help make a human being seem strong and resilient, or soft and vulnerable by changing what surrounds them. 

Imagine a World War 2 fighter plane, flying out to take on an alien invasion. It's going to appear to be primitive technology. Now imagine it flying over a battlefield filled with Roman soldiers with swords and horses. Now that same plane is practically magic! 

There are endless ways in which the phrase "everything is relative" can be applied. You have to remember to establish the base line in such a way that it sets the stage for the qualities you want to highlight.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Overcoming Artist's Block

Every artist encounters Artist Block, that familiar feeling of wanting to produce but having NO good ideas or inspiration. You feel like everything you start to put down is something you’ve done a million times already. When you are a beginning artist, it’s a killer. You think it’s your fault, that if you “were really an artist” you would have a constant wellspring of inspiration and drive. Artist Block feels like a wall, and many people let that wall stop them not knowing that there are ways around that wall, if you know where to look.

Many people start with seeking inspiration in places that have made them excited about creating their own art in the past. Maybe it’s watching some cool movies, or flipping through art books, magazines, or websites. This can indeed work, but there is a very real danger that seeking inspiration instead turns into simply watching a movie or reading a book. In other words, the danger is you just decided to do something else instead of working on your art. Oops. It’s a bit of a trap, and I know I’ve fallen into it, and I’ve heard plenty of other artists say much the same. For this reason, I don’t recommend this, and I think we can find some better options.

One of the most immediate ways to deal with artist block is to simply work through the feeling. Sometimes just the act of starting the brain working on those visual problems can get it jump started and back on the right track. A good place to start is to do some warm up studies. Studies aren’t meant to be great artistic achievements, and thus don’t take as much “inspiration” as they do observation and thinking. By getting your brain thinking and active, you may find that sluggish feeling of artist block slip away, and creativity taking it’s place. This isn’t always the right solution, but it seems to work well when the problem isn’t a deep artist rut, so much as it’s just not being in the right mental space for being productive. It’s easy to get distracted by other things in life, and this solution works well to help you gain back your focus.

More fundamental artistic ruts, I believe, are caused by needing to stoke the artistic fires in more fundamental ways. You need to get out and DO some stuff, gain some experiences that are worthy of wanting to express creatively.  It’s my personal opinion that the best Artist Block busting experiences are things you haven’t seen or done before, or at least things you rarely do. Going to a zoo might be great, but if you go once a week, it’s probably not going to be the shake up you need to really jolt your inner muse. If you are a city kid, maybe you need to go camping, or spend a day riding a horse. If you have always lived in the country, maybe you can go to a big city and visit some huge natural history museum.

There are thousands of things you have never done before, that are likely within your reach. If your dream is to one day draw fantasy characters, have you ever actually held and swung a sword or an axe? If you want to design characters for first person shooters, have you ever spent a day playing paintball, or gone to a gun range to fire real guns? These are all great examples of things that would directly enrich your understanding and excitement for a topic. The more you can back up your art, not just with visuals, but with actual experiences and emotions, the more you have to draw on when you are creating.

That isn’t to say that you should stick to activities that directly relate to the type of art you like to do. Even better sometimes are other things that are interesting to you, but unrelated. Some of the most interesting artistic ideas are combining unrelated things in unexpected ways. Don’t limit yourself, explore everything.

Fighting an artistic rut isn’t something to only worry about when you are having the problem. You can take preventative measures by remembering to get out and do something new and exciting every now and then. Everything you see and do becomes material for your future expression.

Below are some photos from one of my "Rut Buster" excursions. This one wasn't the most thrilling, as it was simply taking some photos around the city I live in, New Haven, Connecticut. These amazing relief sculptures are found on many of the buildings around Yale. Hundreds of people walk past them every day and rarely look up and appreciate their beauty. In fact I'd go so far as to say that many probably don't notice them at all and never realize they are there.

Wait, is that the Burger King?

Outside one of the Yale libraries, paying tribute to the early materials for making paper.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Art of Observation

There is more to art than what you do with pencils, brushes, and computers, or any art material. Good art takes place in the mind as a mental exercise as well as a physical one, and as such, it’s a skill that can be honed even when you don’t have anything to draw or paint with.

If I had to list the most important attributes to make up a successful artist, I’d most likely start with Observation. Observation is different than merely seeing. Seeing is mechanical, the input from your eyes to your brain. Observation is more complex and is the result of seeing combined with thinking, analyzing, and making an effort to notice some of the elements that often go unnoticed.

Some beginning artists merely rely on their eyes. They see something, and they attempt to recreate it in their art. You have far more power if you not only see something, but also understand it. So how do you go about improving this skill? It’s as easy as using your eyes and brain wherever you are. Ask yourself questions that you’d likely consider if you were actually painting a scene from life, and maybe a few that you might forget to ask yourself if you were caught in the art making process.
One of my favorite exercises is to spot reflected light and color, and pick out the source. Rather than being content to merely see the highlight and to recreate it, by understanding it more fully you have the ability to alter and control it. Take for example a bit of shiny metal on some object on your table top. It has some nice bright highlights, but you haven’t considered where that light comes from. With careful observation you can pick out that some of them are coming from the window behind you, giving those highlights a subtle cool color. Others are coming from the lights in the room, which are warmer. Having taken the time to understand what is going on more closely, you’ve been able to notice subtle color differences that you might not have noticed before, and that complexity will make your image more interesting. It also gives you the power to make artistic changes with more confidence. For example if you decided to change the time of day the light from the window would be different and thus would it’s reflections on the object.

The more you know, the better your observation skills potentially get as well. Knowledge of anatomy means that you can combine what you see with what you know, to give you clues on how to spot difficult plane or color changes. Your eyes can sometimes fool you, or give you misleading clues. Making some observations from another angle will help you understand what is going on in front of you.

There are hundreds of questions and observations that you can make on a daily basis that will help hone your observation skills, and in the process widen your understanding of how to portray the world accurately. The stronger your observation skills, the better decisions you’ll be able to make at the drawing board or easel.
Like with everything else, practice helps greatly, along with knowledge.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Working from the General to the Specific

Example is recreated, and does not reflect what these stages actually looked like for this image. Sadly I did not save the stages I went through creating this image.

A "top-down" approach
I’ve mentioned in past articles the phrase “ general to the specific” and I thought I’d go into greater depth in what that means, and the variety of ways thinking this way comes in handy and helps you solve difficult problems.

Working from the general to the specific is what is known in other fields as a “top-down” approach. You start with the big picture elements, and then refine in stages, eventually reaching the smallest details. This approach works particularly well in art, and every successful artist I know works this way (although I have no doubt that there are some artists who work differently). It’s particularly well suited for art because it allows you to form a plan, to solve basic structural problems first, and then to refine to the desired level secure that the foundation of the image is in good shape.

Using it in your art
As an example, let’s plan an illustration. The first problem to tackle would probably be composition. My first question is simply, “What size do I have to work with?” If my goal was a nice pencil drawing on paper, the size is the sheet of paper. For a paid illustration, the size needed is given to me by my client. Once I know my physical constraints for the image, I need to plan for where the various elements I’m going to include fit within the image. This stage is often known as “thumbnails”, as the artist will do a lot of small rough/general sketches to work out composition of the various elements (the term “thumbnail” originates from the idea that the images would be very small, the size of your thumbnail, although most people don’t work anywhere near that small in reality). The various parts of the image may be so abstract at this stage as to simply be flat colors or values, rough shapes that don’t look like much at all. They are simply place holders to suggest their eventual placement.

Once a composition is decided, a rough sketch is drawn, using basic shapes and forms. Finally the image looks like something, but it lacks all but the most basic details. We have already planned to make sure the over all image works, here is where we make sure the individual elements work too. This is the easiest time to adjust a figure’s pose or to adjust proportions, when it is nothing more than a few lines. From there you refine the drawing in stages until you feel like you can move to color, where you again work from general problems down to more specific details.

Using it in your study
Working from the general problems down to the specific problems works elsewhere as well. For example, using the approach to guide your art education would mean to first conquer fundamentals (covered here) and then solve more complex issues. For example, to draw superheros, first you’d want to know how to draw (fundamentals), then how to draw regular people (proportions, anatomy, drawing from life), then finally how to draw the idealized super heroic versions of people (exaggerated proportions, anatomy, etc). Drawing a superhero comic book would be even more complex, moving past superheros to include composition, perspective, story telling, and more. For every thing you may want to learn, try to break it down into more basic problems.

Using it elsewhere
You can even use the process to help work through other problems. For example, if you are floundering in your art development, try looking at the problem closely. Look at the biggest potential problems, and solve each one in turn. Have you made time to study? Actual regular planned time, set aside for nothing else? Do you have the proper environment and materials to work? Do you have a plan of study? Have you been doing studies and actively working on those areas? Have you been seeking peer/pro review to give you feedback on where you might be falling short? Have you actually listened closely to the feedback and made attempts to try different approaches?

Friday, February 17, 2012

Your Report Card: Reviews from Professionals

Reviews from Professionals
The good news is, it’s probably never been easier to talk to a professional in the field you want to enter, and even to talk to your absolute art heroes. The great thing I’ve found about artists, is they are generally some of the nicest, most giving of their time and knowledge, people you will ever meet.

The first and probably easiest way to try to make contact with a professional is through their website or social media. A quick web search should turn up their website fairly easily, assuming they have one (and most do), and that will in turn lead you to their contact email. Also, many of artists keep a profile on Facebook. You can also find artists in your field active on the same sorts of web forums that you might find peers of your own level. I’ll make a list of a few of the popular web forums I’m aware of at the end of the article.

You can also meet artists at appropriate conventions and events. A face to face meeting is great, and it often times allows you the opportunity to talk to several artists in one event. If the artist doesn’t appear too busy, or his table too crowded, many will happily give you a brief portfolio review, and offer tips, advice, and that precious feedback you need to keep improving.

There are a few ground rules though to get the most of your interaction with professional artists:

  • Be polite. This should go without saying, but sadly it does need saying sometimes. Remember, you are asking a favor to have them look at your work and comment on it. Sometimes they may simply not have time, or have more pressing things to do. You can try again later, or try for another artist.
  • Don’t monopolize their time. You may have a million questions, but try to limit yourself to a few. If you talk to the artist online, their online time competes with working. If you talk to them at a convention, there are likely other people hoping to talk with the artist, or they may have other activities to attend.
  • Be prepared. If you want a portfolio review, have it handy, and have it edited down in size to probably not much more than a dozen pieces. Those huge artist portfolios are honestly too big to work well with a convention table, stick to the sizes easy to hold open in your hands. If you are asking for advice via the internet, do not send them large image files. Send a link to where they can see your work online.
  • Listen. Actually listen to the advice. This isn’t the time to make excuses for the work, it’s the time to listen to what they have to say so you can improve. If some of the comments are blunt or are hard to hear, remember, this isn’t a judgement about you or your potential, just about where your skills are currently.
  • Thank them. Mostly that’s part of being polite. It’s always best to leave a good impression, and remember, you will likely want to be able to ask questions again some time.

That wraps up this article on "report cards", which is really all about finding out how you are doing, and getting the feedback you need to keep improving. It's difficult to improve in a bubble, you need experienced eyes, or sometimes just fresh eyes, to help you see how your work is coming along.

BONUS: Online communities that are good places to meet peers and professionals
  • The Artorder, a community managed by Wizards of the Coast art director Jon Schindehette. This often revolves around structured challenges which are open to all to participate in.
  • CGHub, which has a lot of pro and semi pro work. You can brose lots of artist's works, and post your own.
  • CGtalk, the official forum for the CGSociety. It’s prime focus is digital art, and you can make posts to share your work and get feedback. Also, lots of good information hidden in the various sub-forums.
  • ImagineFX, forum for the arts magazine. You can create a profile and share your art in their Galleries sub-section.
  • and DeviantArt, another place to share your work, which has a wide range of artists from beginners to professionals

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Your Report Card: Reviews from Peers

If you’ve been following along with my suggestions on creating a DIY Art School experience, there’s one thing noticeably absent- Grades. You know, that little report card that tells you how you are doing? I hope you didn’t think you’d be getting off easy, and that there would be no grades to worry about. Haha, no such luck.

In fact, these grades are the only ones that matter, and they are in fact, scarier than “real” grades. You see, in art school, you can tunnel vision a bit  and trick yourself into believing that grades are the goal. They aren’t of course. Progress and reaching a professional level is the goal, and THAT’S the only meaningful measure, and it’s the one we’ll be using.

Ok, so we’re not talking about actual letter grades, or actual report cards here, but we are talking about intent behind report cards. Getting that feedback on where you have been successful, where you need more work, and some insight into the places you didn’t even know you had a problem. In art circles this is called a critique, or a portfolio review.

Reviews from Peers
Your peers are others at a similar level as you. In art school these would be your classmates. Home study doesn’t leave you much in the way of classmates, so we’ll have to get a little creative.

Locally, you can find peers “out in the field” in a few ways. We’ve already talked about one of them in the article Field Trips, going to life drawing sessions. A regular life drawing class (either with instruction or without) throws you in with other artists. Some may be much more advanced than you, and others may be complete novices giving art a try for the first time. Either way, these may be great people to get to know. When the model takes a break, many artists take the opportunity to stretch their own legs, and see how others are doing with their efforts. This is a natural time to see how others are doing and strike up conversations. Over time, once you’ve gotten to know a few people, you can start asking for a little feedback. Seek out help from those more experienced if they seem open to it. Most artists I know are very happy to help others and pass on what they’ve learned. Try not to take up too much of their time, they are there to draw just like you are, but a little quick feedback can go a long way.

Another possible avenue to find peers is to join a local artist group. If you have a local arts paper you’ll often see listings for all sorts of activities that might be of interest. Your local art store, or possibly a coffee shop, may have a bulletin board where people post things of this nature as well.

The next best thing to finding local people that you can talk to directly, is peer support from online communities. One of my favorites has been There, you can post up work you’ve been doing, or even your entire portfolio, and ask for feedback. It may take time, and you may need to spend some time building relationships and “getting your name out there” to start getting more people interested in giving feedback, but the more regularly you post work, and the more you make progress, the more interested others will be in checking in on your progress and commenting and offering advice. Be a good peer yourself, and offer help and advice where you can, or even simple encouragement. Tomorrow I continue this article with advice on getting reviews from professionals!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Carrying a Camera

I’ve talked about taking regular “field trips” out of the studio to help keep things fresh and interesting. While writing that previous article, I wanted to touch on using photography to supplement your drawing and sketching, but I felt like the topic deserved an article all it’s own. More than just a way to quickly record what you saw, photography can also help you think about composition, light, color, and a whole host of other things. I find that as I strive to improve my photography, my observation, painting, and drawing improves as well.
It’s not always easy to find the time, or the space to draw directly from nature. Some things happen to quickly, or in areas where you can’t reasonably draw or paint. Stopping and really observing closely, and taking some photos to remind you back in the studio is the next best thing. Even if you don’t like to work directly from photos, and there are good arguments that support that view, having them as a way to refer back to certain details is still extremely valuable.

What kind of camera should I be using?
For simple recording of what you see, a lot of times the smallest and most convenient camera is the best one. Let’s face it, an expensive and fancy camera is useless if you don’t have it with you. On the other hand, a small pocket camera that is simple and easy to keep with you is the one you’ll have when that amazing image opportunity comes up unexpectedly. Driving home and see some amazing clouds? That phone camera is suddenly much more useful to you than anything you left at home.

Which isn’t to say that that a phone camera is all that good, only that it’s better than not getting a shot at all. A better option is a dedicated pocket sized point and click digital camera. The specs on these are getting better and better each year, and the prices on them are pretty darn reasonable these days. For right around the $100 mark (a little more or less depending on the brand and model), a small camera is an excellent investment. There are downsides of course, mainly in that options to control the final result are limited compared to higher end cameras. Still, as mentioned above, the convenience factor is an important one.

What if I want something even better?
With some practice and knowledge, a better camera does potentially take better pictures. Beyond simple camera specs, the biggest thing better cameras offer is more control. Moving up to a Digital SLR (Single Lens Reflex) means you have  variety of controls to play with how light enters the camera, and thus the final image. They also give you many options by means of using different lenses, which gives you yet more options. An entry level DSLR kit right now goes for around $500. It’s an investment, and in my opinion a good one, IF you will take advantage of it and really learn how to use it.

That $500 entry may be just the beginning though. It’s easy to start “needing” more. A good tripod would be a big help. Another lens or two (most kits start you with one general purpose lens). Maybe a few lens filters, some additional memory cards, maybe a flash you can move off camera... like art itself it’s a hobby that can quickly start adding up.

So, what will this camera do for me in the grand scheme of things?
Admittedly, suggesting photography to improve your art seems a little like suggesting that you learn french in order to cook french food. It’s learning a whole other skill to improve your main goal. Still, it’s not as silly as it may seem.

The DSLR is the camera that really helped me start thinking more closely about control of light for the sake of taking better photos. It didn’t take long for the lessons I learned in photography to start influencing decisions in my painting as well. It made me start considering the role of light more carefully. It helped to show me that it was ok to lose detail in areas that were not the focus -literally. Looking through the view finder of the camera, and then walking around the scene to find the most interesting angles made me realize that I wasn’t doing that enough in my illustrations. I played more with both high and low vantage points, or playing with foreground/background elements. These are all things you can learn on your own in art of course, and some will probably come naturally to you. Others however, might be learned more easily by experimentation in photography, and you still gain the very nice additional benefit of really good photos to work or learn from.

And now, a few words of caution
Photographs are not to be trusted. Oooh, sounds dire and ominous doesn’t it? Well, it actually is true. Photographs are made with lenses, and a lens does distort the image. It may not be readily apparent, but that is because there is a bit of psychology involved. We believe photographs in ways we wouldn’t believe a piece of artwork that was drawn the exact same way. Shoot too close to a model, for example, and the lens will distort the proportions. Shoot a cityscape and try tracing the perspective lines. Don’t be surprised when you find they don’t line up well, and lines you assumed were straight are actually curved due to the lens.

Camera’s also shoot a narrow range of the visible light. Depending on your camera settings details may get “blown out” due to a light source, or you may lose all detail in shadows. The human eye is much more adaptable on the fly, and thus sees a far better range than a camera can capture. When you paint from a photo, you will find many of the decisions about relative light and color are made for you, and it’s tempting to use what the camera gave you. When you paint from life, you need to do that work on your own, and you will probably make better choices.

Friday, February 10, 2012

So... What Do I Study?

So, I’ve talked a lot thus far about how to organize your time, and how to approach home study in a way that I think leads to the most learning and success. There has been though one glaring omission... what to study.

Part of the reason why I’ve waited to discuss this is that the honest answer is “it depends”. Advancement in art is continual, a lifetime journey. To a degree which things you tackle first depends a lot on your interests and goals. Anatomy isn’t a high priority for someone looking to get into environment concept art. Advanced perspective isn’t as important to someone who focuses on portraits or character design. If you want to pencil or ink comics, color won’t matter much to you. I could go on.

Still even with that in mind, there are some fundamental areas that are very useful to start with, and no matter what your eventual goals, your over all artistic ability is greatly enhanced by learning as much about making images as possible. You ideally SHOULD eventually learn a bit about almost every aspect of art, as it's all ammunition in your artistic arsenal. Knowledge is power. It removes limitations, and the fewer limitations you have, the more free you are to explore the ideas in your imagination rather than stifling it because of a weakness in your knowledge

To get you started I’m going to make some suggestions for ways to at least get some good foundation skills under your belt.

In traditional art schools, the first year is often called Foundation Year. This is the time when they make sure that everyone is on the same page with at least the basics that they will need to branch out into other areas. This is the foundation that everything else is built on, and if it’s weak, then everything that comes after it will be weak as well.

  • Basic Drawing. In my opinion, this is the absolute first step. Practice drawing basic shapes. Rectangles, circles, triangles, etc. This may sound like boring stuff. Kid stuff even, but these are shapes you probably haven’t thought serious about since you were really little, and without a little practice, odds are you actually draw them pretty sloppy. Make an effort to draw really clean smooth shapes by hand (no ruler or compass). Also, work on creating toned areas (shading). Practice laying down an even patch of grey pencil tone. Not patchy or scratchy, and with little to no smudging if possible. Learn how to control your pencil to get everything from very light tones, to deep dark tones, and everything in between.

  • Drawing basic forms. This is drawing 3 dimensional shapes. The cube, cylinder, cone, and sphere are the basic building blocks of being able to draw much more complex forms and objects. Being able to visualize and draw these basic shapes in a variety of angles, and knowing how light and shadow apply to these shapes, will give you the ability to eventually work out far more complex shapes. When I talked in a prior article about drawing from the general to the specific, these basic shapes will often be the “general” shapes that get refined. Find an example of each shape, carefully cover them in white paper (or paint them white with a flat paint), and draw and paint them over and over again. Change the lighting, turn them on their sides, draw them from different angles, hang them from string, etc. Every possible way you can think of to draw and paint them differently, do so.  Do it until you can draw and paint them from memory. When you start seeing every day items all around you made up of those basic shapes, and you know you can draw any of them well with that knowledge you’ve ingrained, then the lesson has started to fully sink in.

  • Basic color skills. One great lesson is to go to the paint isle of a hardware store, and pick up a dozen or so different paint color cards. You know the ones that help you pick out the exact color you want. Get a large variety of colors. Take them home, cut out the color swatches, and glue them down to a board. Now take a piece of canvas board (or card board, or whatever works for you) and draw equally sized squares, enough for each color you have on your color chip board. Now with acrylic or oil paint (I personally think oil paint is better for this), mix your colors and try your best to duplicate each colored chip as closely as you can. It likely won’t be possible to match every color exactly. This partly depends on the colors you have available to you, and partly is just the limitations of paint, but you should be able to get close, and many you should be able to get an almost exact match. This project is very much about observation and getting to know how your paint mixes to make other colors.

  • Basic painting. Here is where you need to start seeing color for what it actually IS, rather than what you EXPECT it to be. Certain things are ingrained and are hard to rewire at first. Take those white blocks from your drawing lessons and start painting them. You know they are “white” right? You’ll be tempted to paint them white. Look closely, are they REALLY white? Or are they grey compared to the much brighter highlights? If you add a red piece of paper nearby, are the white blocks still white, or are they colored by that red paper reflecting on them? You want to learn to see how the color of almost everything is in reality influenced by almost everything around it. You don’t need to stick to the basic shapes, feel free to set up still life studies with almost anything sitting around once you are ready for a bigger challenge. Creating a shadow box will give you more control over the lighting for the objects, and help simplify the scene.

Well, those are the basics. With a solid foundation of those skills you should be able to start branching out into the areas that most interest you. Plan your areas of study to suit your specific needs, and don’t be afraid to continually come back and refine those foundation skills any time you need to. While these are “basics”, none of it is kids stuff, and I can say with absolute honesty that each of these are skills I draw on every day I work. You will too.

BONUS: "Text book" recommendations
If you are looking for a little instruction to go with your foundation drawing, I can't recommend Andrew Loomis enough. A good place to start is his book Successful Drawing to get a lot of great instruction on basic drawing. For painting, James Gurney's book Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter is also excellent.

Both books give you a lot to think about, so don't feel bad if you can't absorb it all right away. Think of them as text books you'll return to often, each time taking away something new that you weren't quite ready for before. Both cover some great basics, but then move on to more advanced ideas. I'd consider both to be must have books.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Field Trips

Today, I want to talk a bit about planning “Field Trips” into your DIY Art School study. Field trips, when you are learning largely at home, are even more important than they are during a regular schooling environment. Why? Well during a regular art school experience you’d be heading out each day for classes and seeing a variety of people, and you'd have classes on topics that don't translate well into subjects studied at home alone. Studies from home can get very lonesome, or at the very least can quickly drive you into a mental rut because you just aren’t getting enough variety in stimuli. You need to engage your brain in a multitude of ways, not just to make good art, but to keep emotionally healthy.

Fortunately there are a variety of useful activities you can plan outside the home to alleviate the problem. Where field trips would likely be a very once-in-a-while activity in art school, for the diy art student it should be a once or twice a week activity to make up for the parts of a traditional art education that you are otherwise missing. It’s a great idea to plan a specific day(s) where you will force yourself out into one of the activities below. At times an outting can also take the place of a normal day of at home study and practice, to help recharge your artist batteries. A spur of the moment field trip is a very useful cure for artist block or stagnation!

Field Trip ideas

Museums are a time honored and important art outing. Just walking around and enjoying the artwork can be inspirational, but there is more you can take away from a museum experience. Take a pad of paper and a pencil with you on your museum trips, and record your thoughts as you go. Take note of artists whose work you enjoy so you can find out more about them later on the internet. Take notes about techniques they use that you find interesting, or ones you would like to learn how to produce for your own work. If you can do so without getting in the way of other museum goers, stop and make some sketches. You don’t have to do a full master copy to learn a lot. Sometimes making a quick sketch of powerful compositions, or capturing a particularly effective area of a painting can be very informative. Supplement your sketches with notes about what you can observe. The important thing is do not be a passive viewer of the art, you want to actually use your artist observation skills to really look deeply.

Other types of museums can also be excellent. I love a good natural history museum, with bones, dioramas, stuffed specimens, etc. There are museums dedicated to all sorts of topics, and they can all be a great visit.

A gallery outing will be much like a museum outing, but with more living and working artists most likely. Going in on a quiet afternoon you can treat the experience very much like a museum outing. If you can make out to an art opening, you have some other powerful opportunities such as the ability to meet the artists, and ask them questions about their work. Now when you use those art observation skills, you won’t have to guess about an artist’s technique or intentions, you can actually ask! Additionally don’t neglect talking to others there enjoying the show. Learning how to talk intelligently about art with other people is an important artist skill.

Life drawing sessions
Most people do not have a variety of able and willing artist models at home. A weekly life drawing night is a perfect scheduled art outing. This will take some research on your part to find one available near you. Check local art schools. Many will have an evening life drawing class that is available to the public even if you are not enrolled at the school. If you don’t see one available, ask. Maybe there is one you can sit in on, and if not it at least lets them know there is an interest for possible future classes. These classes or open drawing nights will often have a fee at an art school, but it one that is very worthwhile.

You can also look for local artist groups that may organize a model for themselves. Check the bulletin board of local art stores and coffee shops. Some may require membership, and others may be welcoming to all serious artists. There will often be a fee collected each night to pay to the model, and an additional tip for the model will help insure that good models are likely to return.

You can also look for a local chapter of Dr Sketchy (warning: full and partial nudity within the link). Dr Sketchy was started by New York artist Molly Crabapple as a fun alternative to regular life drawing classes. While it started in NY, there are independent branches all over, and more cropping up regularly. There is a handy search option on the website to find one closest to you. Dr Sketchy events are one part life drawing, one part burlesque show, and one part party. They often take place at a bar and you can easily have a drink or two while drawing (although you don’t have to). Despite the party atmosphere you’d be mistaken if you thought there was little real art going on. On the contrary, Dr Sketchy offers very solid life drawing, and the atmosphere can attract very talented artists. This is not only a great drawing opportunity, but a great networking and socializing opportunity.

One last option for life drawing is going “in the wild.” Find a spot with decent foot traffic, and draw the people around you. Some people like the slow pace of a coffee shop. One of my favorite places used to be the food court at my local mall, because it pulled a wider selection of interesting people, and they were often so distracted by their shopping and finding lunch that an artist quietly sketching drew little attention. No matter where you go, you’ll need to draw quickly and you’ll rarely get someone still long enough to get a super refined drawing. Focus on drawing body language, or capturing whatever unique qualities make them stand out most.

Find a scenic spot and draw or paint what you see. Combining this kind of outing with a little hiking will let you find some spots not everyone sees, and gets you some valuable exercise (something many of us who spend so much time at desks needs dearly). Make sure to plan appropriately for being outside for a length of time. Dress for the weather, and don’t neglect hats and sunscreen. A good hat with a brim will help cover your eyes so you can see well without being blinded by the sun. Morning and evening gives great light, but it changes rapidly and won’t last long. The noon day sun can be too bright to see well, unless you find some shade/cover.

The goal here is obviously to draw animals. Like in a museum or gallery, be sure not to obstruct other visitors. Like in landscape painting, plan for the weather and lighting. Like in life drawing “in the wild” the moving targets will usually mean quick drawing focusing on body language, but you will sometimes get lucky and find animals relatively still sleeping or resting.

These field trips are a little more involved, and offer opportunities you won’t get close to home. Plan ahead for hitting museums that have works that you can’t see locally, and galleries that have local artists that you have not been exposed to. You may not have as much time as you’d like for these things, but at least stopping in quickly can be very nice. If you have the time to take in the local landscape, supplement your drawing and observation with plenty of good photos. Talk to locals and ask about any “must see” spots. You may get suggestions that don’t interest you, as their idea of “must see” and yours may differ, but you also may get some really amazing suggestions you wouldn’t have known about otherwise.

These can all be incorporated into any trip you take if you plan ahead, but if you can plan a trip (even a day trip just a few hours away from home) with the intention to focus on art you can really have an amazing experience. Seeing and experiencing new things will refresh the artist batteries like no other way.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Classes Part 4

Today I’m going to talk about the importance of breaking down difficult lessons into bite sized chunks, and using variety in planning your daily practice and study.

Breaking things down
If you were attending a traditional art school you would be taking a variety of different classes, each one focusing on an area of study. You might have classes on figure drawing, or still life painting, color theory, or perspective.

Why? What if instead you had only one class all day, every day, called “Art”, and the only goal was to just create paintings of a variety of topics? By necessity you’d eventually encounter all of the same topics that are often studied in classes: drawing, painting, color, anatomy, perspective, design, etc, but how over whelming would it be? So many possible areas of difficulty, all thrown at you at once. Yet, this is exactly what many people try to do when developing their artistic skill. No wonder so many new artists get intimidated! They dive in and try to figure it all out at once, or more commonly, they limit themselves and content themselves to a narrow range of skills with which they already have some ability.

Like art schools though, we can break down those difficult concepts into manageable bites. The time to learn anatomy isn’t in the middle of a complex painting with a thousand other difficult problems swirling around it. Instead, you want to study these concepts on their own, eliminating distractions so you can focus on them until they make sense and become second nature.

We have all of these topics of study, and we know we want to isolate them and tackle them on their own, however, there is a danger of TOO much focus on one thing. Let’s face it, the brain has a certain saturation point where too much is too much, and you won’t learn much more about a topic until the brain has time to digest, or at least rest. It won’t do much good to study a single area to the point of boredom and monotony. So we need to introduce some variety back into the mix, to keep learning at a good rate.

My suggestion is to adapt the same thing art schools do, and plan for variety in the form of assigned “classes”. Set a time period that is good for you, and when your time is up, swap to the next topic of study. This will allow you to study one area at a time with focus, yet still mix things up and get crucial variety to keep things from getting stale.

There are all sorts of other ways to mix things up. Move from drawing to painting. Move from precise and careful areas of study like anatomy and perspective, to looser and more conceptual ones like color theory, composition, and design. The important thing is keeping your study interesting.

So break down your study into bite sized areas, but remember to mix it up!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Classes Part 3

In “Classes” Part 2 I talked about practicing “Fast and Cheap”. Friend and fellow artist Anna Christenson asked

I have noticed that with some atelier methods, they will spend days on cast studies. This means meticulously mapping out the cast, and then usually spending days to weeks shading. From people I have talked to about this, they say it really forces them to internalize how light hits form. I'd be curious to see how you feel this fits into speed v. doing a really slow study.

Great question! Let me clarify the idea of working fast and cheap, and get into where I believe those more careful studies fit in.

For me, the idea of working fast and cheap is an important part of some serious study, but it is still only one part. When you are tackling a new subject, or an area that you have difficulty with, I think you can gain a lot of experience at a faster rate by doing more studies rather than fewer more elaborate ones. This is all about nailing down some of those basics and fundamentals, focusing on the lesson you need to learn at that moment. I think it is most helpful to focus on a single problem, or a host of simpler problems.

So what about the plaster cast study, or a master copy, or any other more careful examination? Well, to me those are more advanced studies where you are learning a different skill set. Those are about honing observation, looking for the subtle nuance, and developing finer control in your rendering abilities. They are valuable lessons, and they will teach you things the fast and cheap lessons maybe won’t teach you as easily. There will likely come a time in most artists development that these sorts of more intensive studies start taking over the fast and cheap studies, but by that point the artist is focusing on a new set of lessons that are more about that level of refinement.

This is maybe a good time to bring up another concept which I think is very fundamental to art at all stages of development. Working from the general to the specific.

Working from the general to the specific.

This is a core concept that I will touch on repeatedly in these articles. What this means is that it is best to work out larger problems without getting bogged down with too many details, and refine  and polish the work at later stages. In the context of the above discussion, working fast and cheap is working the general concepts. In an over all art education it is important to get these early lessons in to provide the basis more detailed and specific study later on, like the plaster cast study.

The concept of the general to the specific comes up over and over again. Many of you who have already started your art lessons have likely already heard about starting a drawing by working with basic shapes. These general forms provide the basic structure to eventually develop and refine into your final image. If you are talking about a whole composition, thumbnails sketches solve the placement of entire components of an image quickly and easily without wasting a lot of time on details that don’t help solve the more immediate problems. I find that 90% of the time, if I get stuck or am having problems, it’s because I didn’t solve a problem well enough at a more general stage.

I'll get back to this concept more in other articles, but in the meantime, if you have any questions, drop them in the comments below!