To get better as an artist you need to establish a practice, and do it right. The core of this practice is the Study Phase.
The Study Phase is meant to be a mental workout. When you push yourself past your comfort zone in a physical workout, you body adapts and becomes stronger. The same is true of a mental workout. When you push past your mental comfort zone, your mind will adapt and become smarter. In short, you will become a better artist.
Be prepared. The experience will be frustrating. You will feel awkward, clumsy and incapable. That’s okay. In fact, that is what you want to feel. That’s the feeling of your brain working hard to learn something new. Embrace that feeling and seek it out when you study.
To make herself stronger, an athlete needs resistance. She puts weight onto a barbell, pushes off the ground with her feet, or pulls through water with her arms. Her muscles, tendons and bones are overwhelmed, and they grow stronger to adapt. The drawing centers of your brain work the same way. They need tools of resistance to adapt and grow. The tools of resistance for an artist are Life and Other Artists.
I ran upon this image recently that summed things up really well:
If I could be so bold as to make a modification on bit of advice from some of best animation artists out there: Study of Life and Study of Other Artists should come before Imagination. For this reason, we’ll save Imagination for the Application Phase . For the Study Phase we need to look outside ourselves.
Now we know what are tools are, this is how we use them:
Create a Library
Start creating a library of art that looks like the stuff you want to do. This can be paintings, design, drawings and photography. You can do this on pinterest or keep a series of folders locally with artists that you like. Whatever inspires you. Take some time and look carefully at what appeals to you about these images and what you would like to incorporate into your own skill set. You can see my collection on pinterest.
List Your Skills
Start to list skills you’ve identified from looking at your library. Getting critiques from other artists will also give some ideas for skills to study. I keep my list on a google drive spreadsheet, but you can put yours anywhere that’s convenient for you. Put down every skill you can think of.
Choose a Focus
Choose one skill you would like to study. This will be the focus of your practice. If you are starting out, I recommend you choose a skill that involves either construction or design. For more experienced artists, you can start drilling skills that expand your visual catalog. My focus on this blog is primarily on draftsmanship, so I’ll constrain most of my commentary to those three areas of emphasis, but more experienced artists can also drill rendering and color.
Make this the only focus of every study session for the time being. Do not plan what comes next. You are not trying to get anywhere. You are not working towards a milestone. You want your focus to be on the work at hand. Not on some future point.
Of course, at some point you will want to move on to a new skill… but that’s a discussion for another time.
Choose a Drill
I’m going to try and provide more drill ideas in the future. For now, here are some ideas to get you started. Remember, you are working on one skill, so just choose one of these drills for now.
(If you have a skill you’d like to focus on, and it’s not covered in the drills below, just leave a comment and I can make a recommendation.)
Reverse Construction: Choose a piece of art you like. Draw simple 3 dimensional shapes over the top of the objects in the image (refer to Phase 1: Warm Up to see what types of shapes). You can use Photoshop to do this or print out the image and use tracing paper. Draw the image again on a separate sheet of paper without tracing. Compare the two. Look at the types of shapes used. How do they compare in their dimensions? Where are the most complex shapes?
Composition Study: Choose a series of images you like from a single artist. This can be a series of illustrations, a comic book, or even stills from a movie. With a large marker, sketch out the layout of the images as simply as possible. Use big, broad strokes – no detail. Just identify the major areas of focus and flow of the image. What does this artist do that is new to you? Identify relationships between images. What are some generalizations you can make about how this artist composes an image? (For more on this approach see Marco Mateu-Mestre’s Framed Ink.)
Gross Anatomy: Choose an area of human anatomy. Find a technical drawing of that area of anatomy. Make a copy of the drawing. Label the names of the muscles and the major landmarks of the bones.
The point of studying life and the work of other artists is to understand the general rules that make a drawing work. Take notes during your study. Ask questions about why things are the way they are.
You could read about these rules in a book, or listen to them in a lecture, but when you come to understand them through your own effort and searching, your wisdom will be far deeper.
This is what makes the Study Phase so powerful
You are determining the course of your artistic journey. You are the one setting the curriculum and writing the rules. In a world that is so flooded with derivative work, you have the opportunity to develop your unique artistic voice, and stand out from the crowd.
It takes work, but once you develop the tools you can really start getting creative.
Like what you just read?
If so, sign up below to receive free tutorials and updates including my Foundations of Dynamic Linework video tutorial.