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Due Diligence: How To Be A Better Artist
November 23, 2015
Some of you have asked me for advice or even lessons on how to draw. For a short time I even tried teaching art classes. It's not easy to take random bits of knowledge and years of being tied to your drawing table in seclusion and just lay it out in a perfect curriculum that every one will understand. The hardest thing to teach anyone is how to be diligent and put in the time and effort into drawing better every single day. That is truly the only way to be a better artist. A great example will be the number of people that open this blog, scroll down and see that there's a lot of words, and not read it because they don't want to invest THAT much time in something that may or may not help them. For those of you that stick around I will try to give you a few tips to help you draw anything you've ever wanted to draw, and draw it well.
Since I was just a child I had a love of sitting quietly and focusing on whatever had my attention. My brother and sister woulld draw on any scrap of paper that happened to be lying around and I would find my own scrap and try to copy what they drew. I remember having a coloring book that had Warner Bros. cartoons in it and instead of coloring it I copied all of the designs over and over again. My brother would show me how he drew certain things and I would spend all day just drawing them over and over again until I had something good to show him. This is how a lot of artists start, and I must emphasize START to get a handle on drawing. Unfortunatley some get stuck in the copying phase and start to claim the work as their own. They try to draw something that is their own but it doesn't compare to the works they've copied. So they keep copying because the praise they get from friends and family is like an addictive drug! Once you get used to the act of drawing and you've trained your eye to copy what you see it's time to move on to finding out how those artists created the pieces you've copied. Even professional painters will copy other paintings, but only to learn about particular styles and incorporate those styles in to their own original art. They never show those copies to anyone as they are just excersises in getting better.
Somewhere in my very early teens I got to the point where I wanted to draw the things that I wanted to see. I could copy just about anything and ended up as the kid in school that would decorate your book covers with any band art or logo you wanted. In hindsight I should've charged money for that! Art class in school wasn't very helpful as the teacher basically had us do projects in different mediums, but never gave us the basic skills to draw. I began to try and draw my own characters and scenes without the help of any visual references. I forced myself to start and finish every single thing that I drew. That (if you're an aspiring artist you'll know what I mean) is not an easy tihng to do. But I focused on my goal of being a good artist and set the standard that I would at least finish everything I started. After many frustrating failures I began to see an improvement and it became much easier to start and finish a piece.
Throughout high school I continued to draw but kept most of my art to myself. I am very solitary and untrusting by nature so I didn't feel the need to share my work, not yet anyway. Along the way I found others that were drawing and I was amazed at how their art looked, and they were amazed at mine. The amazement came from seeing someone else's approach to let's say a skull. I remember seeing skulls drrawn by my friend Mike and I loved how he drew the jaw bones. So I filed this away in my head and started to implement it in my own art. I wasn't copying him, just taking an inspiration and using it to get my work cloer to my ideal. The lesson I learned was to look at as much art as possible to find inspiration for your own. I do this more and more every day. My Instagram feed is nothing but artists from many different mediums. I get inspiration and ideas every single day just by scrolling through.
Let's recap real quick before I get to more tips. Because I think you might have the impression that this so far is just an autobiography. So far we learned that you need to be diligent and focused. You start by copying over and over again to build muscle memory in your hands, eyes, and brain. You should have a clear idea of what you want to draw regularly whether it's scenery, cartoons, cars, etc, so that you can find inspiring art to learn from. These took me years to figure out, but that's only because I didn't have it laid out for me like this. You can achieve these things in a relatively short time.
Now we'll fast forward in to my early twenties. I had been drawing for a long time but still feel like my work was amateurish. I found a comic store nearby and went in to peruse the books. Up to this point I had only seen a comic book once or twice in my life and that was when I was a child. I was blown away by the art I saw being created currently and walked out with about 20 comics in my hands. I consumed them every chance I had and studied every line drawn. For months I copied and copied, burnung through several sketch books and boxes upon boxes of pencils. Still, I felt I needed more. I went to a book store and found a book that changed my life and my art forever. It was How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way. My friends didn't see me for about a year. I was hooked!
Now don't be put off by this! Even if you don't want to draw comics this book is invaluable for how easy it teaches you draw in perspective, the human form, and creating a scene. It teaches you about using primitives (the basic forms that make up anything that has shape) and shading them to create just about anything you can imagine. It covers good composition skills that will really turn our work around. The important thing to remember when you start learning from books is that you must be diligent and have patience with each chapter. Read the lesson that they're teaching you and then practice the excercises. If you just go through and draw the examples you will miss so much information that can get you drawing well in a very short time! If you don't get a particular lesson the first time do it again until you succeed. You must be the teacher that grades your performance as well as the student. Do the work!
What I learned mostly from this book and what has stayed with me every single day since I learned it is the importance of shapes. This is how you make a thing look real. You CANNOT spend enough time practicing this! To get really good at drawing you need to invest countless hours to just drawing and shading primitive shapes. They are spheres, wedges (or cubes, but wedges are more practical), cylinders, and torus' (those are rings, basically donuts). If you are not willing to spend time mastering primitives then you might as well just find another thing to be intersted in besides art. They are the foundation of every painting and drawing that you have ever seen. The good ones anyway. From the great masters to modern day masters this is the key to making an eye catching design. Again, do the work!
Once I found my new legs in art and started running with it I found that I really enjoyed drawing the human figure. I felt that I had learned all that I could from this book and it was time to learn more. I went back to the book store and found Dynamic Figure Drawing by Burne Hogarth. Now shit started to get real! Burne teaches us how to draw realistic human forms just from your imagination and without the use of a model or reference. He points out very easy to remember patterns that occur in the human form that allow you to draw them in any pose and in perspective. The book goes in depth on every part of the body, both male and female. The one thing that irks me sometimes is some artists inability to recognize the major differences in the two genders. It's like they just stick boobs on a figue and think it's a girl! These two books that I've mentioned will give you greater insight in to how to make your women more feminine and your males more masculine. After that you can blur the gender lines all you want as you see fit.
One of the things I've learned over the years is the value of repetition. I have stacks of old sketch books that are filled with pages of nothing but arms, legs, heads, etc. I would fit as many as I could on each page just to get better at it. And I did. Now when I sit down to draw a figure it comes easy and naturally to me. My hand moves across the page as if with a mind of its own. Using a light sketch technique to lay out my art is the one of best things I've ever learned as well. It's like having Google Maps for your art. With a light overall sketch you never lose your way to your destination. If you lay out all of your basic elements lightly you can build everything up at the same time. A big mistake that I see with young artists is that they try to draw the deatails of a face and then attach a body to it later. And even worse is when they finally get that done and now have to add in a background! If you lightly lay thiings out you will find that your finished pieces look more natural and not forced.
I found that after a time I was focused so much on human figures that I was neglecting other important aspects of art. I spent little or no time drawing scenery, animals, or buildings. So I began to dedicate some time to those and of course I went back to the book store for help. I found two great books by Jack Hamm that I still use to this day.
Once again I must emphasize that you should use these books as text books to learn from and NOT as just visual references. Jack teaches us about understanding the fundamentals of composition and how to create scenery and animals just from your mind. But you must practice the lessons as he has laid them out. You will only be hurting yourself if you just copy the pictures. You will learn nothing. Do the work!
One of the main tips that I'm trying to impress upon you is that you need to find your weak points and find a way to make them stronger. I've seen too many drawings where the hands and feet of the character are hidden by hair or clothing because the artist has a hard time drawing them. Well, I guess they need to fill a sketch book with hands and feet for the next few months. You will not get better if you don't put in the time! Noses are another common one. I can't imagine how these warrior angels can fight the good fight with all that hair flowing across their faces!
Over the years I have sought out ways to improve the areas of my art and I'm still doing it. Every couple of weeks you'll find me looking for books to learn new skills. Sometimes they're very speific like Dynamic Light and Shade, or more broad like basics in photography which I needed to help me stage my own photo references. Whatever you want is out there to be learned. But you must pay your due diliegence and buckle down for the long haul. There is no secret magic that will make you a good artist overnight. There is only your hard work and dedication, even when you're tired and just don't feel like it...do the work!
Recently I have been looking hard at my art and realized that I have slipped for many years on staying sharp. I was finding it harder and harder to draw. I had stopped "training". Imagine an athlete that gets really good at baseball and goes pro. Do you think he stops training? No. He hit's the gym and practices the fundamentals every day! So I created a regiment for myself that I force myself to stick to. I gave myself different tasks for each day of the week that I must spend at least an hour practicing. They are:
Monday- Oil painting (I usually spend the entire day doing this)
Sunday- oil painting again, but with theory study as the main aspect
Finding one hour to practice per day is really not as hard as you think. I use a cheap notebook to do my sketching in and it can go anywhere with me. I found that at first I was watching the clock to see when an hour was up so I could get on with my life, but soon found that I got absorbed in just sketching to find that two or more hours had passed. I made a blank calendar so that I can check off the days that I completed my tasks. It's an easy way to see instantly just how diligent you are in your goal to become a better artist. And now all of my skills will improve together. It's never too late to train in art, you just need to apply yourself. I let too many years slip past me, but now I'm back in training and seeing the benefits of a regular work out.
I hope that you got some good tips and advice from this article. Feel free to comment with any questions or you can email me through the email form on the Home page. In the future I will write about some specific areas of art and how to train yourself to be better at them. For now I hope you take this advice and apply yourself to a strict regiment of learning. Thank for reading. Here's a couple of books that also helped me along.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!