When it comes to fitness or weight loss, there are numbers you can track to keep yourself motivated and improving at a consistent rate. If you’re an artist, however, it can be hard to gauge how much you’re improving over time. It’s much easier to plateau and get stuck in a artistic rut. You know that if you put in the hours you’ll improve over time, but there’s no tangible goal to work towards other than “better”. How can we fix this?
Earlier this year I made a conscious decision to stop my on-going webcomic Rumbirds to take a step back and focus on bettering my drawing and color skills. The pace of the comic combined with a busy freelance lifestyle made it impossible to take time to improve and I was unhappy with how the pages were turning out. They looked rushed and sloppy. I felt stuck and didn’t know what to do. This wasn’t a matter of “pushing through” or any sort self-disciplining. It was a matter of needing to spend time improving my craft. So I created a new Google document and did what I do best: make lists.
I made a list of all of my strengths and weaknesses as an artist and color-coded them according to how urgently I wanted to improve them. If you’re self-critical like me then this should be no problem. If you think God should part the heavens and bestow a gilded kiss on each and every one of your 5-minute Bic pen sketches, then consider really challenging yourself by tackling hard-to-draw subjects like automobiles or animals.
Then I made a list of artists whose work I strongly resonated with. This created a goal of sorts – “Does my work stand up to this artist’s? What areas are they strong in?”
Then, using the color-coded skills as a reference, I logged each skill that I most urgently wanted to improve and looked up tutorials specific to those skills on Tumblr and DeviantArt. Back to the Google doc, I pasted a few links of tutorials under each skill. I was essentially setting up a course for myself so that I had direction in every area I wanted to improve in.
At this point, you should have a firm idea of which areas you want to work in. Don’t spend more than a few hours setting this document up – it’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of tutorials* and research, but at this point you’re just trying to figure out a starting point.
The next step is to stick to 1-2 areas, read the tutorials you found, and practice for a month. For example, I really wanted to work on my anatomy and color. So every day I would do 10 minutes of gesture drawing using photo references, followed by 30 minutes of speed painting using techniques I read about or watched in a video.
It also helps to remove any physical/mental barriers from working. The easiest way to do this is make your practice the first thing you do in the day. Since I work digitally, I set up a standard letter-sized 300dpi .psd document reserved just for daily sketches. Each day I would hide the previous layer and add a new one. Didn’t have to think of creating a new document/figuring out where to save it/what to call it/any special formatting.
After about 30 days of doing this you should have gotten significantly better (and faster). You’ve also created a habit for yourself** to draw every day, even if it’s for under an hour. On top of that? You’ve created a system for yourself to improve according to your own guidelines. Which means you can apply this to other areas you want to improve, as large or as minute as you want. Revisit your document and see what areas to improve next and check on your self-imposed goals. If you don’t think you’ve achieved the goal you were aiming for, do another 30 days. For me I stop practicing when I’m more or less happy with my level of skill and want to move on to a different area.
Tips and Tricks
- Don’t tackle too many things at once. Pick 1-2 areas of focused improvement.
- For smaller things like body parts (hands, feet, etc), you can forgo the 30-day exercise and instead commit to drawing 50-100 of them using photo references.
- Get comfortable posting your journey online (if that’s your thing). Get used to posting stuff without expecting any sort of validation or feedback. To me this is the folly of a lot of artists – they mix their egos in with their work (totally understandable) and have a meltdown when people don’t give them the response they want. I overcame this by telling myself that the next thing I post will be better.
- Don’t sweat it if you don’t make the 30 days. Even a week of focused practice will significantly boost your skills, which is the point of this whole thing.
*Sometimes I see these giant lists of tutorials passed around on Tumblr and think, who actually reads through these? Who has the time? There are so many different styles and opinions. Just pick a few and move on.
**Want to make something a habit for yourself? Try doing it for 30 days straight with no exceptions. After that it will feel “wrong” if you go a day without doing this practice. I’ve started and stopped yoga numerous times, but it always feels “wrong” to go long periods without doing it thanks to an initial 30-day yoga challenge I participated in.