Practicing artists train like athletes.
If you’ve ever taken a foundational art class and been dismayed at the bore that is still life drawing or figure painting when you’re feeling like all you need to do is ‘find my style’ to succeed in art, I’ve got news for you: many professional artists revisit those foundational techniques over and over again throughout their creative lifetime.
Pro soccer stars don’t quit practicing their juggling skills after they’ve won a World Cup. A great chef doesn’t stop using knife techniques just because she has a James Beard award under her belt. What makes you grow and learn is practicing those skills. And once you’ve been doing it for a while, it’s amazing to look back at how you’ve grown!
While it’s en vogue to set a challenge for yourself and share it with the world, don’t feel like you have to do so every time you’re working on any of these. Process work is fun to see shared (that’s what Ert Blerg is all about after all!) but it’s okay to do only a little self-study on these practices. 15 minutes a month on any of them will put you in better creative shape than you’re in today.
Make time for more than that and I’m willing to bet you’ll see results in your artwork super quickly. You’ll have art abs. Just watch.
Here’s a list of ways I work out my art muscles:
Hear me out: still life drawings (or paintings) in any medium are a fantastic way to tone up your art muscles. It’s super fun to put your own still life subject matter together (think: quirky stuff you already have around the house), and you can choose items that will challenge what you want to learn. Have trouble drawing plants? Add one to your still life!
While stylized still life’s are super cool, consider trying out a technical style when working on these from time to time. There’s a reason art teachers make us learn annoying details like gradient, perspective and draping (omg I hated draping so much). Mastering these techniques make you better at your own style. And continuing to practice them after you’ve mastered them makes you even stronger.
Figure Drawing (or painting)
Same reasons for studying Still Life apply to Figure Drawing: even if you’ve mastered it, it’s wise to come back to it now and then and do a proper technical study. So much of drawing is seeing, and we always see things more clearly when we leave them and then come back to them. What you’re doing is adding to your toolbox and internal reference log (yes, you have an internal reference log!).
Storytime: I joined an online drawing group last year and was so excited to connect with other artists and share our passion projects with one another. When the instructor suggested we begin studying human anatomy from masters like Bridgeman and Vanderpoel, a bunch of us whined that we hated figure studies.
But every one of us began practicing and you know what? We all grew so much. Many of us had “already” studied the human figure years before. Our instructor smartly told us dummies that we needed to keep coming back to this practice and she was so right.
If you don’t have a figure drawing group near you, or it’s a hardship to get to one, there are several apps and websites that offer timed gesture studies with various degrees of nudity. I also highly recommend what my instructor (Justine Anderson of Sequential Artist Workshop, a legit master of drawing and inking) taught us: trace a master’s work from a textbook, then copy it yourself. Do it over and over again until your hands shrivel and your eyeballs fall out (or 20 minutes/day).
Color can be a polarizing topic. Many believe that it’s something we should use intuitively, throwing the old color wheel out the window completely. Others plan their pallets for a piece of art. Both are fine ways of working, though knowing some basic color theory can be super helpful.
Whatever works for you is a-okay, though it’s helpful to revisit color theory studies from folks that have gone way down the rabbit hole with it. Paul Klee went deep with it, Wes Anderson’s use of color in film has been studied, and there are many other lenses to view color through that go beyond the primary-secondary-tertiary grind: cultural associations of color, spiritual or energetic properties, personal memories you have with color that move you.
Make up some pallets in your sketchbook. Download an app that picks up color pallets from your phone camera (I like Adobe Capture). Pay attention to when a group of colors calls to you at your favorite bakery, a shopping website you frequent, your favorite shirt. What is it about these palettes that move you? How can you channel their super powers into your artwork?
Confession: I used to think that Design = BORING and Art = FUN. Boy was I wrong!
Bad design is pretty easy to spot: we’ve all seen a logo or event poster that just didn’t align with us internally. Good design is difficult to appreciate until you learn the language a bit. Take some time to learn that language and revisit past and current trends now and then: understanding good design can only elevate your work.
You know when I started paying attention to design? When I started studying comics as an art form. Great comics usually come with great design. Take a look at Peanuts by Charles Schulz, or Nancy comics (which have been drawn by several artists over the years).
Just like with music, there are patterns that are aesthetically pleasing to us in visual art. Learning what they are will change how you see the world and help you use art as a communicative tool. Once you learn the basics, you can break the rules intentionally to turn a message up or down in your work.
For design study, I love picking up big stacks of textbooks from used book stores or libraries, and thumbing through them with lots of coffee.
While I’m aware I sound like a liar and a nerd when I say I’m studying while reading comics, I am really only a nerd because it is true that I am studying while reading comics.
Whatever it is you make, take time to study the masters of your medium. Ask yourself lots of questions and do your best to answer them. Why are you drawn to certain artists’ work? What do you love about their art? What are you struggling with in your practice that they have conquered?
Better yet, find other artists to discuss these works with. There is so much to be learned from asking these questions aloud with a group of like-minded makers.
Rip off a master work every now and then to see what you learn from it. Copy a work you love see what it reveals to you about yourself.
And make sure you explore well past the Western giants of art. There is much beauty, science and obsession in the big names we all know and love from Europe, but seek out niche art movements, contemporary artists, art from all continents that is so often overlooked.
Work Outside Your Medium
Do you draw? Sculpting your subject in 3D is a great way to learn the depth and angles of it. Working on comics? Try telling a sequential story with photographs.
Working outside of your comfort zone helps you grow. Everything you learn from working on art in an unfamiliar way can be applied to your normal jam.
Feel like it’s difficult for you to let loose like you want to in your painting? Consider dancing to loud music to remember that you are allowed to take up space. Mess around with stop-motion animation just because there are few things more satisfying in life than putting a little stop-motion film together. You can download an app on your phone for free and do this.
Try and approach unfamiliar mediums as playtime. Tell your critical mind to sit this one out; they’re not needed here. When you’re less precious with materials and outcome, the process becomes rewarding and you trick yourself into growing and learning, while having fun. It’s awesome, go try it!
Work On Something You Suck At Until You’re Good At It
What do you avoid drawing (or sculpting or photographing…)? Do you give all of your human characters mittens because you’re afraid of drawing hands? Are your backgrounds sparse because it’s your style choice, or do you need to spend some time working on drawing landscapes and interiors?
Whatever it is, I promise you don’t suck at it. You just haven’t learned it yet. Make a list of your top 3 pain points and stick it to your wall or sketchbook. Take the time to practice these a little here and there until they’re more comfortable for you.