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.

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