Why do some artists learn faster than others? What separates professional artists from amateurs? In this presentation I’ll give you The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Artists – that you can use to apply to your work ethic, to make better work in the future.
I presented this live at the 2016 Blender Conference in Amsterdam. You can watch the video above, or just read the text version below.
Last year I made a bet with my younger cousin, that if I didn’t receive 1,000 likes on ArtStation for 2D drawings within 6 months, I’d give him $1,000. And if I won, I’d get nothing.
I did this because I’d been wanting to learn how to draw properly for years, but could never stay motivated. Then I discovered “Loss Aversion” from the 4-hour chef, which is that you’re much more likely to stick to something when you have something to lose.
And it worked. Previously I’d struggled to practice for more than a few days, but for the next 6 months I spent almost every night, drawing, painting, or consuming tutorials.
And with just 3 days left of the challenge, I disappointed my cousin by reaching the goal of 1,000 likes! :)
But while I learned a lot about drawing and painting, I learned a lot more about how to be a better artist. Because many of practices I had assumed were truth, were in fact ineffective.
So let’s get started, on the 7 Habits I believe will make you a more effective artist…
The best artists practice their craft everyday.
Every. Single. Day.
Not “when they have time” or “feel like it”. They do it even on days when they’re exhausted and want a moment to relax.
“But why must I do it daily? Why can’t I just do more work on the weekend, or when I have a larger block of free time?”
The reason is simple: those large blocks of time we imagine? They very rarely happen.
We always remember the stories of friends that stayed up for 48 hours surviving on red bull and made a winning video game. But these are the exceptions.
The vast majority of great works throughout history were created by consistently working, every day, over a long period of time.
JK Rowling created the world of Harry Potter over 5 years, while raising a child on the side, squeezing in time to write whenever possible. “Sometimes you have to get your writing done in spare moments here and there.”
Jerry Seinfeld writes jokes everyday. Even creating a calendar and making an X for every day he writes a joke. “After a few days you’ll have a chain… Your only job next is to not break the chain.”
Mike Birbiglia wrote the script for Don’t Think Twice, by setting himself an appointment everyday for a “Meeting with his Script” at the local cafe.
On days when I couldn’t stand the thought of practicing drawing, I used a trick taught by Rick Rubin, which is to agree to do the minimal amount of work. In my case, I told myself I could stop drawing once I had drawn one line.
But of course, by the time I had cleared the table, opened my notepad to a clean page, got out my pencils, sharpener, eraser and sat down to draw, I never stopped at just one line. Before long I’d spent 2 hours drawing. Getting started is often the hardest part of any creative endevour.
Daily practice takes a lot of work. It isn’t the sort of habit that usually happens overnight. If you’re seriously interested in implementing this, I recommend The Willpower Instinct and The Power of Habit.
Most artists consider themselves as perfectionists. Some even say it’s their strength.
And while it’s true that you should strive for a high standard of excellence, perfectionism will actually undermine your progress in the long term.
Ira Glass famously said it best:
Think of Picasso’s work. Most people really only remember a handful of his works. But his library actually includes 1,800 paintings, 1,200 sculptures, 2,800 ceramics, 12,000 drawings, and that’s not including prints, rugs and tapestries.
And if you’re wondering whether this contributed to his success, researchers say it does.
A study of more than 15,000 music compositions, showed that the more works a composer created in a 5-year window, the greater chances that one of them would be a hit.
“The odds of producing an influential or successful idea, are a positive function of the total number of ideas generated.” –Simonton, Originals
What’s more, the longer you spend trying to perfect your work, the less you’re learning.
I realized that the perfectionism stage (which for painting was adding closeup detail to everything) accounted for a huge portion of time while having the least amount of learning.
So while perfectionism sounds like a good thing, it’s only harming your progress in the long term.
Acknowledge the flaws. Call it finished. Get on with your next work.
It’s easy to imagine that our idols were born with their great ideas.
That Rembrandt just knew to paint light and shadows the way he did. That Quentin Tarantino is ‘naturally gifted’ to tell stories in unorthodox fun ways.
But ideas are never born in a vacuum. All of our idols are building upon the works of their idols.
This is why you’ll find quotes from David Bowie, Steve Jobs and Banksy advocating stealing.
Why? Well there’s a big difference between the stealing you probably remember from school, the kind of stealing that these artists advocate for.
Bad Stealing is when you rip off one artists work without contributing anything original. Good stealing is when you study the work of many artists and combine them to make something new.
So if you haven’t done it already, start compiling the works that you love the most, then put it in a place you can reference easily.
In my case I browsed ArtStation and copy pasted all the works I loved into a single Evernote page.
This serves as both motivation and reference. On days when you want to give up, looking at your inspiration file will remind you of why you’re doing it. And it will also provide valuable reference when you’re unsure of how the pros do a certain thing.
“Practice makes perfect”. We’ve all heard it a hundred times before.
Or if you want to get good at something it requires 10,000 hours practice.
If you had asked me a year ago, I would have told you this is true. But not anymore.
Practice alone can actually become a source of procrastination.
For example, I love listening to podcasts. After a hard of working alone, listening to podcasts feels like hanging out with friends.
So when I first started drawing, I put on earbuds, loaded up a podcast and started sketching:
I could do it for hours. It was actually fun!
But after several days, I looked back over my drawings and realized that they were weren’t really improving.
(Normally I wouldn’t have cared, but with $1,000 on the line, I was somewhat concerned by this.)
So I realized that practice alone wasn’t enough. I needed to do something else. Something I hate: watching tutorials.
After a long day of work, watching tutorials is painful, because instead of mindlessly doodling it required me to process some rather dry topics. I had to switch my brain on and digest information.
But I’m glad I did! Because I discovered that I had completely misremembered several facial measurements!
Once I fixed this, my drawings improved almost immediately:
Had I held the “Practice makes perfect” mantra, I would have repeated my mistake for months, maybe even years!
It was only by stopping practice, that I was able to improve.
Everything up till this point has been pretty fun to talk about. But this habit is (in my opinion) the hardest to adopt, because it involves going towards pain, which our brains are wired to avoid.
So to stay motivated I recommend doing some hard conscious learning, then some pleasure projects. I do 2 days learning, 3 days fun. But do whatever works for you.
After a certain point, working harder is actually pointless. Because your eyes become blind to the work’s problems.
Think of the times when you’ve been stressed out trying to find a solution to a problem, only to think of the solution while having a shower.
This period of rest is actually extremely beneficial. And so the best artists actually factor this into their schedule.
Stephen King recommends taking a full 6-week break after finishing the first draft of a novel. Because when you return to it you’ll see it with new eyes.
And I noticed this myself while drawing:
I completed the drawing on the left after 2 days, and wasn’t sure where to take it. It was kinda boring.
So instead of continuing to work, I took a 3 day break and started a completely different drawing.
When I returned to it after 3 days I felt less attached to it, and more freedom to experiment. So I grabbed a random brush I’d never seen before and starting drawing over the top of it, which created this cool blue force effect. Then within about 15 minutes I had the final image on the right.
Had I continued drawing, I probably would have stuck with the traditional grayscale style of the left. It was only by physically stopping work, and letting time pass that I was able to see it with fresh eyes.
This is actually the approach we now use when creating art at Blender Guru and Poliigon. If one artist has 3 scenes to create, instead of doing each one to completion one by one, he’ll start them all within a matter of days, then cycle between them and improving them on each iteration.
Once you start doing this, you’ll want to do it for every project. Periods of rest can make an okay render, awesome.
We tend to think of true originals as people that go against the grain. They pay no attention to critics. They plow ahead doing what they know is right.
Except if you look at the habits of great artists, the exact opposite is true.
If Pixar’s success could be distilled down to any one point, feedback would have to it. In the book Creativity Inc, Co-Founder Ed Catmull goes to great lengths to explain how crucial feedback is to improving their movies.
Pixar even has a room called the Brain Trust, where anyone is allowed to speak their mind regardless of their title, and without repercussion.
In terms of artists that you think would be least likely to invite criticism, most people would think of Kanye West.
But his most critically acclaimed album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was actually the work of 38 artists and producers. He rented a studio in Hawaii, then invited people like Jay-Z, Eminem, Rhianna, Drake, to contribute and give feedback on the album.
And when it comes to high achieving 3D artists, the Gnomon School is full of them. They’re the most successful CG school today, with a 97% placement rate – which is unheard of in this industry.
In 2016 they came to Melbourne, where I spoke with the Founder, Alex Alvarez. He said that while all students have high standard of excellence, in every class there’s one or two rockstars that go on to tremendous success in the industry.
I asked him what separates the rockstars from the rest, and without missing a beat he said:
He didn’t talk about composition or lighting. It was solely reliant on their ability to take feedback.
At the same time I attended the event, I actually had just completed a painting I was unhappy with:
I knew it looked off, but I didn’t know why. So I asked Dylan Ekran (character artist at Disney) if he could critique it.
In a matter of seconds he told me exactly what was wrong with it: “There’s no clear lighting direction, and you’re mixing two different realism styles.”
It sounds simple, but he actually saved me months of having to figure this out through trial and error.
My future paintings improved immensely. Feedback is invaluable for improving.
So ask anyone. Even friends and family who have nothing to do with art to point out what’s wrong. You’ll find things you hadn’t even thought of before.
We tend to think that great artists can take any theme and make it gold. But if you listen to interviews with the great artists of today, they’re engaging in topics that interest them.
Christopher Nolan makes movies like Inception because he’s interested in the human mind and how we perceive things.
Elon Musk created Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity because he’s deeply interested in the longevity of the human race.
Or for a more artistic example, Brian Eno creates ambient music because that’s what he himself wants to listen to.
In the first few months of drawing, I started uploading my works to Instagram and Twitter:
And pretty soon people started commenting:
“So you’re only going to draw cute girls then?”
And I got self-conscious. I liked drawing girls because I was drawn to their beauty. But now people think I’m a perve!?
Desperate to prove them wrong, I started drawing some male characters instead:
But my heart just wasn’t in it.
…and that was pretty clear. I gave up without finishing them.
So rather than trying to please the pundits on my social media feed, I decided, screw ’em! I’ll draw what I want!
These works were more successful because I was invested in the subjects.
There’s enough red tape in life, from the government, your boss and your family. Art is one of the areas that you have FULL control. I believe that it’s a mistake when you start doing what others want you to make.
This doesn’t just apply to critics either. It also applies to trends in the industry. Not a fan of low poly art? Then don’t feel like you need to make it!
Create what you love. Your work will be better off for it.
So those are the 7 Habits that discovered are crucial to growing as an artist.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like the 9 Artistic Lessons I Learned the Hard Way.
Are there any others you can think of? Let me know in the comments!