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6 Tips on Becoming a Better Artist

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If I had a dollar for every time I received an email from someone asking me for tips on how to improve their work, I’d have almost enough to purchase 3ds Max and be out of here for good! (kidding! sort of)

But as repetitive as this question is, and as much as I hate answering it, I understand why people ask it. As with anything, when you’re learning something new, there are multiple routes to “mastery” and some of them are quicker than others. So it makes sense to choose the quickest route.

Now whilst I don’t consider myself an expert, I do have a few tips that I learned through the last 8 years that may save you some time (and pain).

So here we go, 6 tips on becoming a better artist…

1. Do something that scares you

No I’m not talking about asking a girl out to dinner (although that’s probably not a bad idea), I’m talking about starting a project that you know is beyond your capabilities. Does the thought of modelling a human head fill you with fear? Good, then do it! By challenging yourself with new topics, you’ll force yourself to learn. Because believe it or not, learning won’t happen by itself. So make sure you’re proactive about choosing something that you know is over your head.

This scene still remains as one of my best learning experiences

This scene still remains as one of my best learning experiences

I learned more in the 3 months it took to create this scene than I did in the 4 years of fooling around I did previous to it. When you have an end goal in mind, you always find a way to achieve it.

2. Read books like your career depends on it

…because it does. And not just blender books either. If you’re serious about your career as an artist (and I’d like to assume you are), then you need to expand your knowledge to as many avenues of design theory as possible. This is so that you actually understand the “why” behind what you do, as opposed to just getting some inspiration online and copying it.

Some great books to start with are the Universal Principles of DesignDigital Lighting and Rendering and these 5 videos (yeah it’s not a book, but it still contains invaluable knowledge).

3. Don’t depend on tutorials

I bet you never expected to read that on a tutorial website! It sounds counter-intuitive to my business (and it probably is) but tutorials won’t get you far if you don’t know the “why” behind your actions. If I say to place a lamp at a 45 degree angle from the camera, you won’t know why to do that, you’ll just know how to do that. And that’s why limiting yourself to just tutorials is dangerous.

Donuts don't make themselves

These Donuts don’t make themselves

Why is it dangerous? Well let’s say you land a freelance job in the future creating an advertisement for McFlurrys. If you’d been depending on tutorials all the time, you’d be gutted to find out that there are in fact no McFlurry tutorials and you’d have to figure it out for yourself. If you aren’t used to this, then it will surely come as a shock to you. So lose the training wheels every now and then and throw yourself in the deep end. Further reading: Tutorial Culture vs Two Goldfish.

4. Brick walls are gonna happen

If you haven’t experienced it already, there will come a time during your learning process, where you will become absolutely stumped. You’ll hit a snag in your project that stops all productivity and stops you from moving forward. And despite your best efforts, you just can’t figure it out. You’ll feel like throwing in the towel and abandoning the project for something easier.

...and to this day it still remains a mystery.

…and to this day I still haven’t.

But it’s at this point that the men are separated from the boys (or the artists from the hobbyists). You won’t make it into the choice gallery without pushing through a few “brick walls”. And you certainly won’t get a job at Pixar (which seems to be everyone’s dream) without pulling a few all-nighters to finish what you started. So if you want to be a successful artist, don’t give up so easily. To quote Randy Pausch“The brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough.”

5. Figure out who you really want to be

When I landed my first freelance job I was beyond excited. I couldn’t believe I was going to work on a real TV commercial! But I quickly realized that taking orders from a “boss” sucked all the live and joy out of what I previously loved. It was an awful realisation. “What do I do now?” I thought. I’d worked for years, perfecting my portfolio to an acceptable level for freelancing, and when I finally got there I realized I hated it! Thankfully I was able to sit down and work out how to make business out of doing what I love (this site), without sacrificing my standards.

"Yeah working on Avatar is alright, but my real passion is cleaning toilets"

“Yeah working on Avatar is alright, but my real passion is fixing toilets”

So make sure you’re crystal clear about what is that you love, and then aim for a career that provides that. And how do you know what you’ll love if you’ve never experienced it? Well head over to the General Discussion forum and read stories from industry professionals who’ve worked in the thick of it. A good thread to start with is The Unofficial Truth about Working in the Industry. That’ll give you enough perspective to hone in on your goal and start creating art that will help you get there.

 6. Go easy on the “inspiration”

Ever wonder why so many designers and artists seem to be recycling the same old styles and trends over and over again? The answer may seem obvious, but I’m going to say it anyway: They all copied each other. “Well duh, that’s obvious Andrew”. Yeah? Well if copying is frowned up, then why do so many artists seek inspiration online? You may think that inspiration is just “fueling your own creativity”, but whether you realise it or not, the things you look at will influence your artwork. Don’t believe me? In 2009 I created what I thought was a totally original scene:

So original!

“I’m so original!” says Andrew from the past.

I didn’t copy any existing work and I sketched it by hand first. How could I go wrong ? Well several months after I made it, the movie Up came out. And as anyone who’s seen film can recall, there is a scene where the old guy walks to the top of a hill under a tree. “That’s weird” I thought. “I created my artwork before the movie came out, and yet my image looks nearly the same.” But then it dawned on me… several months prior to creating the artwork I stumbled upon this blog post by the storyboard artist who worked on Up, which included this image:

Sorry Pixar! I can assure it was an accident.

Sorry Pixar! It was an honest mistake I promise.

Oops. I thought I was creating something totally original, and without realizing it, I had drawn upon an image I’d seen long ago and didn’t even realize it. Scary.

Now let me add a small disclaimer: Inspiration is not bad. In fact most of the masterpieces around today were inspired by works before it. But the 3d industry is small, and closely knit. If you accidentally copy the look and feel of someone else’s artwork, you stand a good chance at getting called out for it (I’ve seen it happen multiple times and it isn’t pretty). Having to explain why your art looks familiar to the job interviewer is not something you’ll enjoy.

What tips do you have for becoming a better artist? Leave it in the comments below!

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