How do I improve?

Someone recently asked me what I do to get better at art, and I thought I’d share my answer on here.

I’m a self-taught artist, so I’ve never taken any kind of formal schooling or art lessons beyond high school. So how do I learn? What materials and references do I use? To be honest, I don’t use a lot. I should, certainly, but more on that later.

The first thing I do to improve is simply to draw. Or paint, or sketch, or whatever. I am always working on something, and I do some kind of art almost every day. It’s hard to practice something all the time and not improve at it.

That being said, if you’re practicing the same thing over and over again, you’re only going to get better at that thing. So I’m also always trying new things: new media (pastels and coloured pencils are fairly new to me, and I have a ton of markers I have yet to delve into), new styles (I’m currently working on some looser, less realistic paintings), and new subjects (I’m toying with the idea of trying some landscapes soon, which is terrifying, as I’m terrible at them). Participating in Inktober in 2017 gave me a terrific platform to work in a variety of styles on a range of subjects.

Another piece that I feel is very important for me is that I am never quite satisfied with my art. Yes, I feel good (mostly) about each piece I produce, and I’m happy with them, but I always know there are places where I could have done better. In other words, I’m always striving to improve.

I think we all want to get better, but if I ever looked at a work I’d done and thought ‘Wow, that’s perfect!’ — and genuinely believed it — I have a feeling my motivation for continuing to improve would drop quite a lot. Which for me takes a lot of the fun out of art.

Practice and drive isn’t the entire puzzle. I do have some resources that I use to improve my art. Or at the very least, there are some that I know of that I should look at more.

First and foremost is Instagram. I have an account, and follow a lot of other artists on there. There are a number of artists that post amazing work of wildlife and pets, and just looking at the quality of their work has helped me improve my own work. Part of this has to do with striving to get better, and part of it is knowing that getting to that level is possible. Also, many artist share what materials they use, which can be very helpful, especially when I’m starting a new medium and have no clue what to buy or what paper to use.

Secondly, there are various places on the internet that are super helpful, and specifically YouTube. There are lots and lots of amazing tutorial videos on there ranging from something general like ’how to use pastels’ to a bit more specific like ‘how to draw a cat’s eye in coloured pencils’. These are amazing resources, and ones I don’t tend to use as much as I should. Often I’ll watch a video when I’m starting a new medium (especially if I’m struggling) or have a specific question, but otherwise I tend to just try things for myself. Which isn’t a terrible idea, but I think I’d improve a lot faster if I took the time to learn properly.

The various art books I’d like to work through this year

The third resource I use (though not nearly as often as I should) is art books. I’ve bought one or two, and the rest have been given to me as gifts. They are amazing books, and I always plan to go through them one day but… somehow that always gets pushed aside in favour of working on commissions or doing an actual art piece. That’s definitely something I want to change this year though, so look for some posts on that!

Everyone learns differently, and for some people this post might be helpful, and for others not at all. In any case, now you know a bit more about how I progress as an artist, and though I’m closer to where I want to be, I still have a long way to go!

To Grid or not to Grid

Lately I’ve been taking a lot of work-in-progress photos and videos, to try and show how I work and the process I like to use (I’ll be posting some of that on here, but if you want more in depth blogs, follow me on Patreon). What this means is that people see all the little tricks and tools I use to get from a blank page to a finished piece. And one of my favourite tools is a bit of a controversial one: the grid.

Grids are a helpful tool that are used to break the drawing or painting into smaller chunks to improve accuracy. Basically you draw a grid on your page, and then place a grid of the same scale on your reference drawing. Now you know that the dog’s eye goes there, because in both your reference photo and your drawing it sits at the intersection of the third square down and the fourth across.

Photo 2018-01-04, 10 42 35 PM
Here you can see the grid I’ve drawn on this portrait of a cat. 

So what’s the problem with grids? Well, some people consider using grids to be ‘cheating’ (although the concept of cheating when making art is a bit of a strange one). Others think grids are simply a tool an artist can use to improve their accuracy and produce more realistic art. So where do I stand? Obviously I use grids, I’ve already said they’re one of my favourite tools.

But I do feel a little disappointed when I try and draw something freehand and then change to use a grid because I had so much difficulty. Somehow it feels like I’ve failed as an artist, because I had to use one of the tools in my arsenal. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, and it’s a bit silly.

If I tried to draw a straight line and failed, and then grabbed a ruler to draw a perfectly straight line, is that a failure? Is that wrong? I don’t think so. I use grids in the same way, so I don’t think I should feel any shame about it.

That being said, I don’t always use grids. In fact, I was thinking about it the other day and I actually very rarely use them, and I only use them in certain circumstances (though that number is increasing). I use grids for my pet portraits, and generally I only use them when the animal is at a strange angle (looking to the side, for example) or for dogs who have long snouts and big ears (eg. German shepherds). I’ve found in the past that I’ve spent hours on the base sketch in these cases, and have struggle to get the angle right, or to fit the dog into my frame. So now I skip that labour intensive step and just use the grid right off the bat, and it works great.

Houdini Ink with Splatter
This portrait of Houdini was the first time I used a grid – I just couldn’t get that angle right without it. 

I also use grids to proof my sketch — recently I was working on a commission of a chihuahua and the sketch didn’t look quite right, so I drew a grid on top to check it. I was quite thrilled to see I was pretty much spot on, and went on to create quite a nice picture of the little guy.

So I use grids reasonably frequently when drawing people’s pet, but I have never used a grid when drawing wildlife. It took me a little thinking to figure out why. If you took my labrador retriever, who is a very typical yellow lab, and mixed him in with a bunch of other yellow labs, I would be able to pick him out. Very quickly, and probably from a reasonable distance.

The thing is, we know our pets’ faces. We know their bodies, we know their expressions. If you’ve paid me to draw your pet, chances are you treat them as part of your family, and know them well enough that you could look at a portrait and say ‘that’s my Fluffy!’, and not just a typical Yorkie. So accuracy is really important for me when I’m drawing pets. Accuracy matters, because owners can see the difference (or I assume they can).

But when I’m drawing wildlife, it doesn’t matter as much. If I make a lion’s nose a little too big or his ears too narrow, he is still a lion. Unless I make a major mistake, no one is going to question it. A lion is a lion is a lion. So I’ve never used a grid with wildlife portraits. I’ve never even thought about it. Accuracy in wildlife portraits is less important, because unless someone is looking at your reference photo and checking it against your work, no one is going be able to tell the difference. Drawing wildlife is great.

Screenshot 2017-12-18 08.16.20
I painted this sketch of a lion without using a grid, and didn’t feel the need to. I know some of the spots where my accuracy was off, but he still looks like a lion. 

I still have a few things to say about grids, but this ramble has gone on long enough, so I’ll put them in a different post. For now, I have some art to do!

Welcome 2018!

It’s hard to believe it’s already 2018… where did the time go? In any case, happy New Year everyone! 2017 was a great year for art for me — I attended my first craft fair, completed Inktober, and explored a number of new media, including charcoal, pastel, and coloured pencils.

As fun as 2017 was, I have a feeling 2018 is going to be even better!  I have a bunch of projects planned, and am planning on attending lots more craft fairs. I am also hoping to get more serious about studying art; I have a bunch of books that I’ve bought or have been gifted to me and I’ve never really sat down and gone through them with any dedication. Another thing I would like to start this year is a blog about my art — something I sort of did a few years ago but never really kept up.

All the art books I have to study!

I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to write about on here. My finished pieces I post on my website, as well as my Instagram and Patreon pages (you’ll see more in-depth blog posts there too!), so I think this blog will be more about my process, and how I do things as an artist. We’ll see, and if you have any suggestions or things you’d like to hear from me, let me know!

I’ll leave you with this picture of my dog being very patient while I painstakingly set up all my art supplies on his dog bed. Poor Mallow! Happy New Year and I hope 2018 is an awesome year for everyone!