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How I got better at art

I recently got better at art and here are some of the reasons.

It might be that one of these makes you go “duh, that’s the one thing, why’d’ya even mention the other ones”. But your mileage may vary on which one it is.

I am such a pessimist by nature that instead of being happy that I’ve improved (a little bit, I still have a long way ahead of me, I’m def no master), I am bitter that it took so long. I’ve been drawing and painting for twenty years but only in these last few months there has been such a rapid improvement. Couldn’t someone have taught me these things years ago?

Practice and exercise

This one isn’t new, but I have kept up with my exercises. I especially like “iterative drawing” and I also have a few books on learning and remembering general principles of perspective and anatomy. I don’t think this is the primary reason because I’ve been doing that all along.

Allowing reference

You know what pretty much every good artist out there does? They look at photos or real life as they draw. The handful of ones that don’t, that can construct these weird anatomies and architecture from principle or just their visual imagination, I idolized. I wanted to learn that instead of using reference! Talk about taking the long way around… well, now I can leverage those years of practice together with the precision and ease of the reference.

I’ve been worried about being accused of “swiping” someone else’s art. Well, get a camera, duh!

I was OK at drawing hands without any reference, just from having studied anatomy so much. But it’s three seconds to take a photo and then use that. And, I can mix and match. I can reference a weird arm angle and then draw a cartoon face to that. Or the other way around, I can reference a weird face angle and then draw a cartoon body. I can draw imaginary hair or clothes or vice versa. Some of these matches are gonna look obvious, ugly and awkward, but that’s just another area where I still have room to improve, and that’s fine.

It’s weird how long this hangup persisted. I have art books that say “get a camera, use reference” and I was like “you mean cheat? No thanks. I thought you’d teach me how these things actually fit together. I want to learn how to draw things that don’t exist.”

Why not both? I use like thirty percent reference now; reference I made, so as to not be a “swiper”, but even that, my old self would’ve seen as cheating, as not learning how to do it properly.

(If you’re coming from the other direction, and you’re drawing from life or reference, on the “right side of the brain” so to speak, I’d guess the opposite lesson would go in here. Learn how to visualize and draw blocks and boxes and cylinders that don’t exist and then other forms, shapes, and creatures. Then combine both ways of drawing.)

Looking at art I like

I opened up a few comics pages I liked just to see what brush sizes I should use I’d I wanted to match that at a given DPI. Way smaller than I thought. This section is brief, and this exercise didn’t take a lot of time, but this was huge. The art looks way cleaner now.

Better gear

Finally started a day job and I thought that would mean a death knell to my artist life. And yeah, I don’t have as much time to draw (weekend, some evenings) but I could finally afford better gear. A new drawing tablet, since my old one was all scratched up. Better resolution, lower latency, tighter lamination. An awful proposition to this retro tech / climate activist community, I know, but hear me out: the point I’m trying to get across that in hindsight, the old setup was worse than paper even. I really made a huge mistake sinking so much time into my old setup. It’s like in The Princess Bride when they fight left handed.

Drawing one line was fine, but then matching up the next line to it required carefully and slowly matching up the cursor. I never minded! It’s only in hindsight that I realize I was drawing with figurative boxing gloves on. I still did some pieces I’m proud of, but they took days and days to make.

Facing my “art fear”

Last month, I wrote about my biggest art fear. To be mistaken as someone who overestimates her ability.

Now, I was just venting, I didn’t mean for the following to be a consequence, but I’m grateful: I now am happy to put some carefulness into a picture instead of pursuing shortcuts and sketchiness and sloppiness to hide behind.

When I wrote that article, there were two things I didn’t realize. One, the art fear is a big obstacle to improving. Two, having friends to cheer you on and give your art compliments can help fight this art fear.

Don’t get mad, get good

There’s this famous editor that has a comics mentoring program and some months ago, before all this improvement, I signed up for a video session with him. Big mistake. Now, I recommend him or something like that if you have story/pacing questions, but he doesn’t know how to draw. Duh. That’s not an editor’s job, I don’t know what I was thinking. I had a ton of questions on how to improve my line quality etc that he just couldn’t answer.

What he could do was tear into my art. Now, I knew I was bad, but I didn’t know I was that bad. My best pieces, he thought were my worst. My most natural pieces, he thought were my most processed. The areas that I had put the most effort into, like anatomy, he was like “you should try looking into anatomy 101 because your figures suck”.

I wanted to hang up my brush for good, and for a few hours there, I almost did. Then I thought: “No way! I’ll dust myself off and try even harder!”

All the stuff he couldn’t answer, I’m gonna have to figure out my own solutions for. This leads into the new gear because a lot of line quality issues, for example, or size issues, both solved in separate ways by the better gear (or, again, caused by the old gear in a way that made it worse than even paper).

Actually enjoying it

I could never understand those artists that liked to draw and paint. I would have this idea for an image or a comic and I would want it to exist, want it enough to motivate me into the teeth-pullingly boring experience of making it.

Now, however, and I don’t really know why… I am actually enjoying the process itself. It’s relaxing and challenging and interesting.

While I’m not sure which is the biggest reason I improved, this one is a clear marker that I improved. In my art-fear–addled brain, I’m still thinking that they’re gonna say “how dare she think she improved, she still absolutely sucks” but I know I improved by the simple fact that I now like doing it. That might not show up in the end result but it’s a huge difference in my happiness.