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Things you can do now, to improve your art

“Hot and Cold” 6×8″ oil on Gessobord. Thanks to XNB Creative for the stock photo used as reference!

I’m just sticking a recent painting at the top, to give this blog some sort of picture! LOL. This is a recent painting. I was trying to explore colors and values in this study, as well as warm and cool flesh tones. That’s why the painting is entitled “Hot and Cold” (for the warm and cool colors).

Okay, I thought I’d write a nuts-and-bolts list of advice for any artist who thinks they suck, wishes they were better, but wonders if they ever will get there. (I’m looking at you, Pavina! 😉 )

First, some caveats: I’m still on the journey of trying not to suck myself. Don’t look at my work and assume that I’m implying that I think I’ve ‘arrived.’ I sure haven’t. But I’ve strived to suck a little less each year. That’s all we can do.

Here are some common-sense and oft-agreed-upon tasks you can do to get there. This is assuming that you want to draw and paint realistically and possess more ‘traditional’ skills.

Now, on to the list:

Study figure drawing. Either attend a weekly figure drawing class, or use this page about 30 minutes a day (or an average of at least 2-1/2 hours a week). Even better, attend a figure drawing class (or an uninstructed figure drawing group) each week, AND do some sketches from that site every day! Use cheap newsprint paper and draw, draw, draw!

To those who argue that they don’t want to draw people, so why should they draw figures, the answer is, figure drawing is one of the most challenging forms of drawing. Our eyes are much more critical when viewing the human form. We can see when the proportions on a person are off, much easier than we can see if a drawing of an apple or a mountain is off. If you can learn to draw figures decently, the world is your oyster!

Clothed or nude, it’s still good practice to draw figures, preferably from life.

Get a modest set of paints (oils or acrylics) and some canvas panels, and practice painting with a limited palette. A favorite palette among many artists these days is the Zorn Palette. It’s good discipline to learn how to mix colors using a limited palette like this, plus it saves on buying paint! Only four colors needed! Another interesting limited palette combination is White, Ultramarine Blue, and Burnt Sienna. If you want a challenge, try White, Alizarin Crimson and Sap Green. (Mostly used for portraits.)

Why do traditional painting if you just want to paint digitally? Well, learning to mix colors the old fashioned way is always an asset. Besides, you should never assume you’ll only ever want to make digital art. Can you predict how you’ll feel in the years to come? If you learn how to paint traditionally (with paints like oils or acrylics) you can easily transition later to painting digitally. If you learn to paint digitally first, the transition to doing traditional is a bit more difficult. (You’re not used to the manual mixing, the handling of brushes, the techniques, the inability to erase or remove elements in an instant. Better to get this skill covered sooner rather than later!)

Start a blog to document your progress. You can set it to private for now, if you feel like it. But do it. If you keep working and struggling and then, in a fit of emotion, crying, “This is terrible!” and ruining your work, you won’t have any real measure of where you’re going or how much you’ve improved. You also may discover that something you used to think was bad, wasn’t actually that bad.

In addition, having a blog already in progress can later become your “web presence,” should you at some point want to present your art to the public. I see far too many artists (young and old) who have almost none of their artwork online, at least not in any cohesive manner. Then when some opportunity arrises, they must scramble to put something together for online consumption. Why put yourself through that? Start a blog now, and it can serve as your web site later (or at least part of it) should you need it.

I recommend either wordpress.com or blogspot.com. You don’t have to use the paid features. Choose a simple, arty name. Choose your real name (if you are comfortable with this), first initial and last name, first name only (if it’s a unique first name) and tack on “art” at the end, or “paints” or some variation. You’re going to have to live with this username for a while, so don’t make it cutesy or hard to spell. If later on you decide to buy a domain name (like portrait-art.biz is my domain name) you can set it to “redirect” straight to your blog.

(Optional but inspirational and helpful.) Set up a sketchbook at ConceptArt.org. To understand what Concept Art’s sketchbooks are all about, read this thread, which shows some very inspiring “before and after” sketchbook threads by artists who started as newbies, and ended up pros. Often without any formal (meaning, expensive) education!

When you start your own sketchbook thread, the expectation isn’t the same as it is on other parts of CA (as they call ConceptArt). You can draw terribly. It’s okay. You can have no art experience at all. No problem. As long as you’re willing to learn and to work. Everyone there is extremely encouraging and kind, but if you only expect to be told how awesome you are, regardless, ConceptArt is not for you. You will be “gently nudged” at times to work more, keep going, read this book, that book, and so forth. You’ll be praised and encouraged when you improve. Unless you have an ego as fragile as spun glass, you’ll be fine.

Do it, do it!

The last thing I want to say is, don’t assume that you can never move past a certain point. You can, with work. Art is like anything else—you have to practice and study to get better at it. Don’t fall back on the excuse, “I guess I’m not that talented.” Work hard and see how far you can go. You will undoubtedly show progress. Remember that no matter how far you go, you’ll always be looking ahead, and thinking, “If I could just get a little better!” Expect to never be fully satisfied. Worry if you actually are satisfied!

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