Experimentation isn't always going to be social media ready. It shouldn't be, actually. How does an artist learn through mistakes...while being too afraid to make them?
One of my favorite painting processes is just throwing whatever at the wall -- or canvas -- and seeing what sticks. Even that dynamic foundation can be shaken up a little. While playing around in Photoshop the other night I slapped down some complimentary colors and fooled around with the smudge tool. Didn't have anything in particular in my head. In doing so, I discovered something I've never seen before: an iridescent finish caused by the smudge tool's blurring effect. Frankly? It looks fucking awesome.
The painting itself is...meh. That's fine! I learned a fun new way of creating a foundation in my speedpaintings and discovered some neat tricks to add more depth to my work. All with just a few smudges. That's more than enough success for an hour of fudging.
One or two smudges and bam. Instant depth-of-field. A fuzzy, iridescent aftereffect. It's just lovely. For all the digital brushes that are created to simulate oil paints, this is the closest I've gotten to replicating the look in Photoshop. My mind is already bursting with new possibilities. I may try laying out a basic sketch, setting it to multiply, then creating a separate layer to fill it up with these smudgy, rainbow colors. Maybe do some environment studies by setting down basic silhouettes, then smudging everything together.
I actually like these ones the best. The surreal, almost broken appearance is very...dreamlike, in a way. I love half-finished art (big reason I upload my progress shots so much) because you can follow the artist's logic on a visual level. Video, .gif, progress sheet, doesn't matter! If finished paintings are self-expression, half-finished work have to be the stream-of-consciousness.
Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand it's a merfolk. Why would it be anything else?
Experimentation isn't always pretty. It's not always neatly packaged and ready to be consumed, compressed into a bite-sized video for a thousand strangers' casual browsing experience. Hell, the only reason I remembered to take such consistent screencaps this time is because I'm trying not to break a good habit! The thing with social media is...it's just a tool. It needs to be treated as such. When you start limiting your artistic output not for your growth, but for some nebulous 'clout'...you're missing out on some truly formative moments. Besides. All the messy in-between work? Is honestly some of my favorites.
I'm sick to death of being afraid of 'ugly' sketches or unimpressive speedpaintings. That's the bulk of my work, it's how I get to my impressive art, and I'm going to embrace it all.
Definitely going to be utilizing this technique in future speedpaints. Got plenty more goodness on the way, including some last-second Paintobers. Stay tuned!
It's that time again. The autumn leaves are falling, our fingertips are freezing and the Inktober event is in full swing. ...Ish.
I made a poll at the beginning of the month asking for thoughts on Inktober, the popular October art tradition: the consensus was non-committal, with the majority either being wishy-washy on the idea or outright refusing. Is it any surprise? Making art is already enough of a process without churning out daily pieces, which are disruptive by nature due to being free work sandwiched in-between jobs, school and life obligations. This response is on top of countless counterposts I've seen just browsing my feed. For health-related reasons or not having enough time, I'm really happy to see artists prioritizing other things, to be honest. Burnout is a pretty serious issue without adding FOMO to the mix.
Burnout is so serious, in fact, it can literally make you sick. It's an easy trap to fall into as a freelancer, as well, since you're in the position of having to dictate your own hours and find your own work. Getting said work? Often means creating free work in the hopes of someday being paid for it. More than once I've found myself working ridiculously long days without a full break. I've even come down with illnesses that don't usually affect my age group (which I'll talk about in a later post). Does that mean I'm against the concept of Inktober or any variant thereof? Not at all! Daily art exercises have their time and place:
1. They're a smart way to nip overthinking in the bud (how many pieces lie unfinished because of too much prep work?).
2. They supplement portfolios with smaller pieces (great for blogging and/or Patreons).
3. They're great practice and, with the right mindset, a ton of fun.
If you're feeling guilty for not participating, however...that's when you're deprioritizing artistic growth in favor of FOMO: a fluff goal for shallow social media attention that doesn't amount to anything substantial. Art deserves better than that, right?
So, why am I sort-of-kind-of participating? Well, I figured this month was a good opportunity to push myself back into experimenting. I miss just being...loosey-goosey with my paintings. Scribbling down whatever and seeing where it takes me. I talked about this in my last post, on how old work can sometimes be stronger than new work, and I'm eager to touch base with myself. Rather than dwell, I'm dedicating some (keyword: some) days in October to my own spin: Paintober.
It's been a lot of fun crafting new brushes and playing around. These took a few hours each: unlike my last Paintober, the only overarching theme of this month is to just let my imagination and hand run loose.
Used a reference to create a portrait of an older character of mine (you might recognize him from my portfolio's character art section). Had a fellow ask if they could use this painting as their background wallpaper. I don't know what's sweeter: having my art greet someone every time they turn on their computer or being asked in the first place.
This one was a challenge...and, believe it or not, it wasn't the architecture, but the color scheme that gave me the most trouble! I went in with the goal to push my buildings and sense of space, yet ended up seriously flubbing the colors and having to do a bunch of tweaks. All-in-all, a very illuminating painting. I might just recycle it into something more portfolio-worthy. It's the kind of old-fashioned whimsy I've been craving in my work lately.
I just...love Spyro so much. What else can I even say at this point?
What I love about smaller paintings is how they allow me to get out ideas without committing too much time. I have a lot on my plate and, as much as I'd love to churn out endless fancy illustrations...I just can't! Additionally, this gives me more incentive to step up my speedpaint game. One hour or less! I've already got new custom brush packs I've been working on. Now to take things a step further and go back to studying some of my favorite concept artists. I've always been a fan of Feng Zhu and Jason Chan, among others.
I'll be sharing old Paintober posts later, as well as step-by-step shots of the paintings above. I've also been working on some pencil sketches to beef up my portfolio for 2020. Stay tuned!
You want to be a character designer? Design characters. You want to be a concept artist? Create concepts for a hypothetical product or videogame. You want to be an animator? Animate. This advice may come across as intentionally obtuse, but so much of the narrative surrounding working artists is...convoluted.
There are far too many art schools out there with archaic curriculums that exhaust rather than inspire. The amount of horror stories I hear from working professionals with degrees? It'd make your head spin (if you aren't one of those postgraduates already). Capitalism also has many of us afraid to specialize in one or two paths due to the inherent instability of the job market. Hell, just living your life and juggling time between kids, a part-time job and/or school? Underfed possibility will have you overwhelmed by the time you sit down to work on your art. I'm no stranger to it.
Contrary to what you may hear, specializing is actually a good thing. A major reason I get work in fantasy illustration...is because I draw and paint a lot of fantasy. No attempts to be a jack-of-all-trades doing every last style under the sun, no self-flogging because I'm still weak in some areas (like urban cityscapes). I do what I like and I get hired to do what I like. Just like a gymnast has to do a set of repetitions thousands of times, so too do you need to draw something over and over before you get really good at it. All of this would've been harder if I spent a big chunk of time painting, say, cars (which I could really care less about).
This isn't to say life experiences outside of art are unimportant, nor that variety is a waste of time. Far from it. The best art comes from a wealth of first-hand, lived experiences -- it's a reflection of life, after all, and art that lacks a healthy foundation will show its cracks. Over the past ten years I've gone from being an educational ASL interpreter to several barista positions to B2B writing. I've learned so much about myself and have drawn on these life experiences to improve my craft. All the while? I've drawn and painted what I wanted to. What made my mind, heart and soul sing. I sometimes wavered on this over the years, wondering if I was 'limiting myself' because I leaned toward a certain style and handful of genres.
Whether you are leaning toward human subjects, a shoujo-esque style or wanting to commit to a sequential art major, you are limiting yourself...so you can specialize and become a master of one. Variety is important and specialization is not a curse. I've talked before about how language matters. The art industry is ever in need of nuance.
Here we're going to take a look at another old character of mine, a pheasant-griffon sphinx that embodies so much of what I love to paint:
I'll never lose touch with my eight year-old self filling in a coloring book.
A good, old-fashioned pencil sketch scanned into Photoshop CC. On the right I fill up with a base color, which does the dual work of filling up the space and helping me better see my lineart. Choose a hue that's predominant in the final piece: this'll save you a little time when you finally sit down to paint. It's all about working smarter, not harder in these commercial illustration streets!
I use hard-edged brushes when painting, but prefer soft-edged brushes during preliminary stages or touch-up stages. This gives me a sumptuous base that looks more natural. I also don't prefer to fill in areas manually, but quick mask and brush over my base color. It honestly looks nice when colors very gently 'bleed' into one another (thanks, traditional art!). On the right I then pull everything together with a gradient overlay. I keep it flowing in the direction of the lighting (from the top-right) so that it already looks complete, even before I've started rendering.
It's extremely subtle, but I upped the saturation on the left -- I needed the reds and oranges to pop a little more. On the right I start painting with my usual dark-to-light (very common for acrylic and oil painters). One of my favorite quotes (and I can't remember who said it) was treating light like water: if you were to take a bucket and splash a subject, where would the water hit first? Where would it travel and where would it land? This simplifies key lighting fundamentals like a main light source and reflected lighting.
'Buttery' and 'oily' were the main adjectives running through my head here. Even though I've only toyed with oil paints in the past (since I don't have the studio space for them), I've always adored their glowing results.
It's really satisfying seeing pencil strokes blur and vanish beneath the digital paint. Sometimes I'll let a little show through, depending on just how polished I want the final piece to be. As per my last post, art is a conversation. Embrace surprises.
Borders are something I've been steering away from in recent work, though I may try it again for very classical-type pieces. I'm also thinking of more interesting way to do simple pin-ups.
This piece is from 2017 and remains a shining example of what I love to see in my work: rich colors, fantastic creatures, beautiful black people, countless details and an irresistible sense of mystery or wonder.
If you want to get work doing a certain thing, do the thing. Give yourself the space and time to focus on a certain subject, genre and/or style -- experiment enough to learn what you like, specialize enough to let yourself improve. The Internet has made it easier than ever to put your work up and be seen, as well as learn from others. Promoting yourself, though, is a major hurdle for many working artists (particularly introverted ones), which is something I'll be talking about in future posts.
I have more goodness on the way, including posts about work-life balance and what day-to-day physical therapy looks like. Stay tuned!
Sometimes you don't know how a piece is going to turn out. It's the eternal conundrum: do you keep going with a sketch that's quite not working...or start over?
Then there are the times you don't know what the hell you're doing at all.
I've gotten better at resolving this over the years. At this point I can tell when something isn't going to go where I want it to, no matter how hard I try. One common sign of this is when I rework a certain area of a painting over and over and over. Other times I'll notice something is wrong when there is an abnormally huge gap between the preliminary stages and the final sketch. Art is a conversation. It'll go in places you don't always expect and, just like any dialogue, you should take warning signs at face value.
Sometimes, though...unpredictability is your friend.
Sometimes you're not sure where your art is going...and that's the best part. The pieces are laid before you, the ideas and the mood are there, but you haven't arranged them into anything resembling sense yet. This is, honestly, one of my favorite ways to paint. This illustration below originally started out as a bunch of ovals and circles. No thumbnail. No rough draft or references. Just a mess of blobs I shuffled around until they gradually formed an image in my head. This tends to be what I do when I'm having a hard time creating work and want to push myself. As is my wont, I go for a half-human creature.
What can I say? I know what I like.
This method of laying down shapes and shuffling them around isn't unlike whittling away at a block of clay. I elongated the oval, added a face and neck to the circles, then kept working from there. I tend to vacillate between sketching the old-fashioned way and laying down blocky shapes. The collision of the draftswoman and the fine artist. I wish I had the first few passes screencapped, but, again...I didn't know where I was going with this!
makes a mental note to screencap literally everything
Throughout this sketching and blocking stage I intentionally kept the other harpies in the backdrop and foreground more faded. It's actually a touch I wish I kept in the coloring stage. A little more atmospheric perspective would have gone a long way to tie the whole piece together. Live and learn!
Wings are one of my absolute favorite things to paint. I swear they're my therapy at this point.
It's fascinating thinking about how much of our life bleeds into our art without our knowing it. As I was detailing the wings and feathers I remember thinking about how much calmer I felt. How my normally frazzled mind finally slowed to a crawl. On a conscious level, I prefer complex work because of how easy it is to get lost in all the details. There's always something else to discover with every new viewing! On a subconscious level, however...I've realized I gravitate to details due to how they relaxe my mind and heart. When you're mentally ill? That's not a feature you can take lightly.
Flow is a psychological phenomenon where intense focus and relaxation has us losing sense of time. Painting is a popular way of achieving this, though you can just as easily enjoy flow by crocheting, knitting, playing piano, dancing or cooking. Any activity that gets your hands moving and your mind lost in the sway of your work. You know you've done a good job when you glance at the clock and wonder where the past three hours have run off to.
Once everything started coming together I pulled up a few references of crows over on Google. Even the most whimsical and freeform piece will be better off with a visual aid or two.
Color remains one of my strong points. I had no idea what sort of scheme I wanted to do here and, just like the sketching stage, I went with whatever felt good at the time. It's something I'm going to focus just a little less on going forward, just so I can give my technical drawing and perspective skills time to catch up. This isn't to say I still don't have areas to improve! I just know color theory isn't tripping me up as much compared to, say, urban landscapes.
I will master them one of these days
There's no shame in starting over. There are also times you have to give yourself a chance and push through with what you have, even when you're not sure what the hell you're doing. Especially so. You may just be surprised at what the deepest recesses of your mind spits up.
I've got more goodness on the way. Stay tuned!
This is a piece of character art I did back in 2017, and one I'm still deeply proud of. It's a direction/technique I want to pick up again moving forward. I also figure it's time to talk about traditional and digital art, a juxtaposition that tends to get a lot of ire from gatekeeper blowhards.
In my previous posts I talked about how I like to combine a little traditional art with digital, even though working 100% digital is often faster. There's a certain texture to pencil sketches that translates very well to digital painting. I took a wonderful general painting class back in high school -- alongside mentoring under an acrylic painting professor from a local university -- that helped set a strong foundation for my work today. Contrary to what some say (yes, sometimes to my face), traditional art is not better -- or more real -- than digital art.
There's a pervasive -- and self-serving -- myth that a thing being harder automatically makes it better. Now, you won't get me saying traditional art doesn't have a steeper learning curve than digital. That is absolutely true. There are simply more steps involved. You have to prep the canvas (or wood or cardboard or-), create or transfer the sketch, mix your colors, protect your colors throughout several sessions, clean your brushes, preserve the final work, frame, package...yes. That is absolutely more work. But more work doesn't automatically mean better work. I've seen traditional art that's hardly moved me. I've seen digital art that's captured my imagination.
This purity myth is steeped in gatekeeping attitudes that equate more difficulties with success...usually by those who don't face quite as many of those difficulties (such as having studio space or money for supplies) in the first place. I will not, however, create more myths around digital art. Digital art is easier than traditional. It's still not easy. If you're not familiar with layering, masking, color theory, light and shadow, design, mixing up your references...? Going digital is not suddenly going to fix that, no more than buying a fancy set of Copic markers and Bristol board will transform you into an overnight art master.
In that regard...these two art forms are honestly not all that different. Digital art today is a brilliant tool to create art while saving space and money. It's painting without the mess. It's less costly. It's more flexible, especially if you're like me and constantly come up with new ideas on the fly. Already having a traditional art foundation just gives you a head start, as it makes the transition far smoother and gives your work a look that's not easily replicated.
Doing a traditional sketch filled in with digital colors gives me the best of both worlds: the tight, grainy detail of pencil with the rich, sumptuous colors of a few Photoshop sessions.
I've had this character since I was a teenager. I love him to bits.
My traditional art background includes acrylic, gouache, watercolor, colored pencils and China markers. I've never had the studio space to get down and dirty with oils, but I really want to in the future. ...And before you ask, yes. Acrylic and gouache have both been considered 'lowbrow' paints for decades due to their commercial associations, while oil has remained the highbrow standard in fine art circles. It's no coincidence that oil paints take a lot more money and space than acrylic or gouache. They also have a higher health risk. See what I mean with difficulty being equated with superiority?
I use traditional painting techniques in Photoshop throughout the entire process, including working dark-to-light and adding subtle gradients to make my brush strokes look rich. I'm also a huge fan of overlay layers and am constantly 'glazing' with the soft round to balance out my hard-edged brushes. You won't see me using more than five to ten layers at any given time, though I will regularly create new layers, add an effect, then flatten. It helps Photoshop run smoothly while keeping me organized.
You can see which areas are more defined and which are fuzzier, a balance I work with as I go to keep the eye traveling naturally. Contrast is an essential part of any style or technique, as it gives the eye stopping and starting points. It's like a guitar solo in a rock song or the blank space in a living room. Balancing out hard v.s. soft, textured v.s. smooth, bright v.s. dark is a give and take that's become second nature. Even then? Years of experience doesn't stop me from flubbing my composition or struggling through a pose. I'm still amazed I knocked this sketch out in one go without a rough draft.
Painter tip: you don't need to render every little part of the painting. Even if you go for a more realistic style. Notice how the final piece has areas with little detail and sometimes no detail, like some of the tassles and the edge of the (viewer's) left wing. This does the dual work of saving you unnecessary work and giving your painting more balance. A win-win.
I've touched on this in past posts, but I take a lot of inspiration from the Romantic and Baroque periods. Not just in terms of subject matter, but in technique. Oily. Lavish. Rosy. Evocative. Rich. Bold. Powerful. Luscious. These are all adjectives I strive for.
Be proud of your old work. Don't feel shame in taking a few steps backwards and revisiting a technique or subject you like. Most of all, don't fall for the myth that traditional or digital art is superior to the other. When in doubt? Do both.
For those interested, I also have a few leftover prints of this very piece that I plan on selling soon. I have more WIPs and studies coming up (as well as more art rants), so stay tuned!
I actually uploaded a few of these here back in 2017, but also left a few more buried in my art folders. For brevity's sake I'm going to dump all my studies of Donald's Glover's face (and one Bryan Tyree Henry) here.
I've grown tired of being embarrassed about older work, studies that turned out funny or sketches that were wildly off-base from the original idea. What's the point? Take a look at these, where I go from really knowing how to draw faces to not having a damn clue all in the same session. You can see me studying the same angle several times, because sometimes you're just not getting the hang of the thing. Maybe it's a subtle expression, maybe you're just warming up and can't draw right yet. No matter what, you keep going until you push through that wall.
Not giving up really is 90% of the artistic process.
I watched a few clips from Atlanta (before watching full episodes with one of my Discord groups) to get more candid angles. A good exercise is to let a video play and pause at random. There's nothing wrong with studying your favorite angles, of course, but it can help to understand how the face works when it turns or stretches in ways you don't expect.
Keep an eye on that wonky one in the bottom left...
...because you can see where I started having a little trouble. Donald Glover had such a simple 3/4th angle here, yet I had a tough time capturing the subtleties of his expression. Instead of deeming it a lost cause, though, I warmed up on some different faces, then returned to it. Eventually I got close enough to deem the study a success.
I then wrapped up the session with a color study based off one of his photoshoots. This one ended up looking a lot more 'marker-like' than most of my work, which I found interesting. It's not quite the finish I go for, but, eh. That's part of the process. You learn about what you want to do and what you don't want to do. Like fertilizer, art is never wasted.
There's more behind-the-scenes material coming up. Stay tuned!
Here I post WIPs, sketches, speedpaints, thumbnails and anything else thrown into the veritable stew of artistic process.