The Art Of Arting With Artiness When You Do Art
Or, more accurately, how I go about making pictures of stuff.
Okay, let's start with a nice covering picture shall we. A little something I did recently as part of both my 100 Picture Art Challenge and my recent range of fairy tale based illustrations I've been doing.
I quite like it, I'm still in the honeymoon period. As I've gotten more experienced as an artist, I've notice that that honeymoon period has gotten longer (previously it was about 10 minutes or so, but I have pictures that I love for months or even years now) and for the first time I find myself wondering what exactly has changed.
Okay, I haven't grown hands on my butt or anything (probably) but I'm sure that something has changed in my relationship to my artwork.
Certainly, I have improved.
It's not always comfortable to be aware of your own successes or to discuss them openly, at least for someone like me. Drawing attention to myself is not my first instinct and it was a good long time before I felt comfortable showing my art to anyone outside of friends and family. Even when I was comfortable with my skills in a particular area I wouldn't be inclined to share their results. When I started going to life drawing classes I had already spent years practicing human anatomy and months practicing drawing the human figure from photographs; but I was absolutely petrified when someone came up to have a look in class to see how I was doing. Petrified I would be doing something wrong and petrified that I was doing something right. Anything that might draw attention really.
But that's not it. I have improved, it's true. And I am much more confident when it comes to showing off my artwork (the result of years of forcing myself to post online, though I still rarely show off in person). But most of my artistic development has been a process of improvement and of increasing my confidence in my own skills. The last few years in particular have been an extraordinary period of growth for me, where I have consciously pushed my skills as far as I can with each drawing and learnt just how far I can take things.
Or more specifically, just how far I hadn't been taking things.
I had been lazy and complacent as an artist, trapped in a repeating pattern of practicing the same old skills and making the same old pictures.
That sounds right.
There was a moment that I stumbled on it and I didn't realise it at the time. How I thought about my own artwork fundamentally changed in one single picture, my entire relationship with art and illustration completely transformed and I became horribly susceptible to "I told you so" from my brother for the rest of eternity.
"So, what was the change?" I hear you scream. In my head. Because you're reading this and I'm writing this, but not at the same time and not in the same place and I guess I can't really hear you but we'll overlook that and just accept that you screamed. It's okay, everyone does it. Particularly when they're scared or stub a toe. Or scared of stubbing a toe.
Let me first explain my relationship with art as it was.
So, my first little spark of interest in drawing came, as with most artist, at a young age. Like most young children I already had an interest in art (even in nursery school I loved the activity and loved pictures too) and my slightly obsessive interest had started to spread its tendrils into my head before I could even write. But my second year in infant school (around the age of 6 I believe) was the big one. The big defining moment in my artistic journey that would start everything for me.
On a rainy day a dinner lady drew the face of a ninja turtle.
It's not much, but there were two very important aspects to consider that made it so impactful to my tiny little brain. The first, there was a queue to acquire these drawings from said dinner lady and I hated queuing. The second, I heard the dinner lady say that she had learned to draw the ninja turtle face to keep us little ones quiet during lunch when we couldn't go out to play.
It blew my tiny little child brain.
Not the discovery that dinner ladies just wanted the children to be quiet and not cause trouble; we already suspected their diabolical ways.
It was the discovery that you could actually learn to draw something. Like riding a bike or reading, drawing was something people learned. So I left the queue and went to the front to study. I learned to draw ninja turtles faces by watching her and before long I was adding bodies and experimenting with perspective (not well, I was still only 6 or 7 years old) and lighting and I was on my way to become the artist you all know today.
Because that experience also dictated how I thought about creating art for over 25 years.
Now, that is not to say it was a bad way to think per se, but for most of my life I treated art purely as a skill to be learnt. Every picture I drew was a technical exercise of some sort, sometimes disguised and sometimes not. As a child I copied covers of video games again and again, refining my accuracy at drawing from observation; as a teenager I discovered that learning and understanding anatomy was the key to drawing more realistic people; as a twenty something I discovered body language and proportion were the key to drawing more realistic people and by my thirties I had discovered that I was still missing something and that was how I worked for most of my life.
Art was an ever evolving puzzle I was grinding my way through and I developed a dozen different mechanisms to pull it apart and find it's faults so that I could solve those puzzles.
If I couldn't draw something then there was always just some solution out there, some other piece of information that other better artists had that I didn't and if I could just find it then I could improve.
And that sounds like a really useful way of thinking doesn't it?
Only to a point.
It's a trap.
If drawing is a puzzle and you just need the solution to succeed then without the solution you cannot succeed. Sometimes the solution isn't already out there and you can't create new solutions, you just get trapped in a loop of trying to use the ones you already have. And when you come across a puzzle that doesn't fit what you already know, that your repertoire of skills seems ill fitted to solving, you just get stuck. You limit yourself to creating only the art you already know how to do and you feel the stagnation starting.
And you try and push through, to convince yourself that you are just missing a trick somewhere, applying harsh critiques to your own work and turning every drawing into a technical exercise you'll never be happy with.
The honeymoon period, where your art makes you happy, is ever diminishing and while you still love drawing it becomes so frustrating. I was so frustrated.
The picture I popped up there was something of a moment of realisation for me, just 2 short years ago. My brother (who shall remain smug if he ever reads this) had tried to talk me into drawing more illustrative work for years, not to constantly practice but to use the skills I had to have fun and create something more than just a drawing.
I didn't see the point, I was focused on just learning. Repetition and learning. It never really occurred to me to flex my creative muscles and use those skills to their proper extent. It was all about just getting better, I thought if I had enough skill and enough knowledge everything would just click.
But then I made the dodo picture.
I had just started seeing my girlfriend and after we had somehow come up with a absurdly complicated conspiracy involving secret dodo societies and fairies waging war to decide the future of mankind (look, we all have different ways of flirting. I don't judge you) I decided to try and impress her with some custom artwork.
For the first time in a long time I just threw myself into a picture, pushing every one of my skills to their limit at the time. I didn't know if I could do it; I didn't know if I had all the solutions to the puzzles this picture would represent. The only aim was that the picture at the end of it had to capture all of the agony and sadness and horror and bravery and majesty and madness of what we had spent a good few nights talking about.
The picture had to feel just right.
And everything changed. My obsession of finding technical solutions shifted to a more mature desire to just make the picture the best version of itself. For the drawing to not just create an image of a moment but for it to capture exactly how that moment feels. The chaos of battle, the dread of a monstrous wolf stalking a lone girl, the loneliness of being locked in a tower or just the sheer absurdity of Spider-Man having butt hands.
My relationship to my art changed because what I valued about it changed.
The honeymoon got longer because I became less focused on my own technical skills, less critical of my technical faults, and started caring more about how well my art communicated itself.
How well I can communicate with you.
And I am happier for it.