Being a freelancer is rough. Thing is? It doesn't have to be.
Take it from someone whose instinct is to try and do everything on her own: don't. Not only will you run the risk of burning yourself out prematurely, you can set yourself up for failure by missing important legal details or drastically underpricing. There are free and affordable resources out there that can take the sting out of the freelancing process. Pricing, marketing, state law, copyright, portfolio direction, you name it. You can't create a piece of art without tools, right? The same goes for running a successful business. Below are five resources I use on a weekly -- sometimes daily -- basis, useful for both experienced freelancers and budding professionals starting to dip their toes into the working world.
Without further ado:
Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing And Ethical Guidelines
Screw saving the best for last: this is a book you need on your shelf if you want to make good money on your art.
This is the commercial art Bible to end all commercial art Bibles. I was first introduced to this book a few years ago by an art peer/client (you know who you are!) and was instantly floored by how comprehensive it is. No detail is too small, no topic too specific. Graphic novelists, commercial illustrators, fashion designers, concept artists, animators...I don't have enough room to go into all the working artists that could benefit from this tome. If you're intimidated by its page count, rest easy knowing the Graphic Artists Guild Handbook steers clear from being a stuffy compendium and keeps its language -- whether discussing fair pricing or exploring kill fees in a contract -- very accessible. The whole book feels like a patient teacher sitting by your side and walking you through a hurdle.
It doubles as a self-care book, to boot. You can't turn a page without being reminded of your value as a working artist.
The Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing And Ethical Guidelines is consistent and organized in its layout, providing useful pricing spreadsheets that are separated based on experience, page percentage, geographical sales, etc. With a shelf life that'll last as long as your career does, give or take a few technological advances, there's no reason not to get it. The $45 price point on the home site can be a little steep, but you can find used and new copies on Amazon starting at under $25. Beware of shady sellers, as some reviewers have reported getting copies with missing pages. I got my book in pristine condition, I'm happy to say, and this is now one of my greatest treasures. Hell, I even read it for fun.
To repeat: you can't do everything by yourself. This means both in the quiet of your home office and in your day-to-day interactions with peers or prospects.
Freelancing isn't straightforward, and that's by design. I won't speak for artists in other countries, but the United States is a workaholic culture that wants workers dependent on employers as much as possible. Right down to when you take a shit and when you can recover from a cold. As such, becoming your own business (or even just making a little side-income) can be an uphill battle. Should you do the 1040-ES or the 1090? Do you need a state license to sell physical goods? What about writing out an effective contract? The Freelancers Union gives you knowledge in bite-sized pieces to ensure you're up-to-date on law changes, ethical business practices and health insurance.
I'm a big fan of the Freelancers Union newsletter and have been subscribed for over a year, which uses appealing templates and straightforward copy to give you important information at a glance. They also discuss self-care, share opinion articles written by experienced freelancers and offer much-needed words of encouragement. It's a full package. Sign-up is free and their newsletter crops up several times per month. Check out their blog to get a taste of what you can learn.
Ed Gandia (High-Income Business Writing)
There are a lot of advice coaches out there. How do you sort out the pragmatic teachers from the out-of-touch gurus?
I checked this guy out based on an anecdote of the fourth recommendation on this list and wasn't disappointed: Ed Gandia is a copywriter with years of experience in business writing, with a fantastic site dedicated to helping today's freelance writers make more money. He runs a blog, podcast and newsletter filled with useful advice to help freelancers avoid what he calls the 'feast-or-famine cycle'. He's no snake oil salesman, either, and never promises to get you knocking out six-figures overnight. His demeanor is practical without being cold, and his sense of humor goes a long way in helping absorb new information.
Even if you're not a business writer: you can still learn a lot about self-promotion and smart financial habits for your illustration or design career here.
I always enjoy sitting down to one of his podcasts in the morning. His free newsletter is weekly and is chock full of tips he's gathered over the years, offering practical approaches on everything from daily self-promotion habits to overcoming self-doubt when contacting a prospect for the first time. Just one example: his method of dividing daily tasks into high-priority, medium-priority and low-priority (with estimated timeframes) has done a lot to chip away at my anxiety. I use this method every day (except for days off, of course) and finish 80% of my list on average. That's not bad from someone who used to be a serial procrastinator!
Attention, any and all black freelancers: there's a resource just for you.
Getting specific with your hurdles is how you find answers. The one-size-fits-all approach does nothing but a disservice to your unique challenges and just ends up wasting your time. If you work with a chronic illness, then you need to find resources that tackle the intersection between class and accessibility. If you are trying to find work in a certain country as an expat, then you need to find resources that supplement that experience. Blackfreelance provides a plethora of concise, practical blog posts, resource lists and a newsletter to help you navigate building yourself as a freelance black professional.
Black burnout, maintaining professional boundaries, defining a niche...you name it, it's been discussed. The advice provided here easily applies to several skillsets, since much of it focuses on a groundwork of shifting your mindset toward your work. Another example: I can happily thank Blackfreelance for convincing me to choose a niche, as I went the longest time convinced I had to be a jack-of-all-trades. In fact, the creator of the site was the one to recommend Ed Gandia up above! I'm still part of this community and am endlessly grateful for all I've learned. If I have a frustrating question or need a little feedback on an idea, I know where to turn.
Recent estimates are expecting to see freelancers making up the majority of the workforce in less than a decade, so now's the time to consider some side-income if you haven't already. You can find BlackFreelance over on Twitter or the website here.
Super Condensed Informational Zine: Portfolios, Websites, Pitching And Agents
If all of this is feeling a little overwhelming, particularly for those just starting out, look no further than this short-and-sweet zine by graphic novelist Shannon Wright. This is a nine-page .pdf that hashes out the basics of getting your work together and sending it out to the right people. Nice and easy!
While most of this (very on-point) advice on portfolios and websites is familiar to me, I still got some helpful tips on working with agents (a partnership I'm looking to expand to in either in 2021 or 2022). When it comes to the whirlwind deluge of freelancing, those little nudges in the right direction are everything. You get to choose the price of the zine, as well, so pay it forward and support an artist who wants to support you! Also, her portfolio is gorgeous. Take a gander and get inspired.
There you have it. Five freelance resources that have helped me -- or are helping me -- and could very well be an anchor in your sea of chaos. If you've got any resources that have helped you out, please leave a comment and share the goodness!
Sometimes you need to start over fresh. There's no shame in it. Why waste effort picking away at something you could just re-do in half the time? Other times, though, you'll need to bite the bullet and push through. Knowing which one of these to commit to is part of being a productive artist. I've talked about it before and I'll repeat until I'm blue in the face. It's a gamechanger.
Now that that's out of the way...let me start this by saying I wanted to drop this piece like a cheap vase. Even worse? This was one of my favorite sketches in my sketch batch. Talk about artistic whiplash. It didn't help I was winging the color scheme and many of the supporting details (a habit I've developed since color theory is one of my strongest skills). I had a vague idea I wanted blue and gold, that I wanted everything fancy and dream-like...and that was about it. For once, my guesswork backfired and made me fudge around more than normal. This doesn't happen often -- I've winged crazier pieces than this -- but it cost me several hours that could've been saved if I fleshed out the draft stages better.
This was a good reminder of how badly a piece can backfire if you don't have the basics down. I thought of throwing my hands up in the air and outright moving on to another sketch, but something about this one told me to keep going. 'Make it work' is a phrase made famous from Project Runway and one I've adopted. It's a saying that tells you to work with your mistakes and find a way out of the hedgemaze you've built for yourself. I might just have to do a post on all my personal quotes one of these days.
(If you're curious about other pieces I've done, check out my recent post on the progress of 'Yasar'.)
As you can see, I did the work of thumbnailing out these outlandish outfits. Just, well...didn't actually think about everything else! From now on I think I'll hash out a quick color scheme in Photoshop -- a cluster of dots ordered from most dominant to least -- before committing. A few minutes to save me a few hours. Same with the big block of starry space. Yeeeah, I added that in during the last stages, too.
I was extremely happy with how this sketch turned out. Both the pose and silhouette were the right amount of elegant and playful. I also used a reference of a kid playing the flute to make sure the hands looked right.
This character's fashion is inspired heavily by classic JRPGs, magical girl anime and various architectural designs. While many of my characters have a certain theme, this one is intentionally all over the place. All the colors, all the silhouettes, all the patterns! The only rule is a visual smorgasbord: they're a lion child with a wild imagination that, fittingly, helps my imagination run wild. As such, I don't care too much about logistics when it comes to their outfits (beyond differentiating texture and a reasonable fit).
I've been drawing this character for years and enjoying every fanciful, floofy, extravagant clusterfuck they end up in. It just hit me that gold tends to be a dominant hue or focal point, an entirely subconscious detail. These were done back in 2015, all made up on the spot and something I still don't recommend you doing, ha ha. I can't believe winging it used to be my default. Reconnecting with my youthful spontaneity is a goal I still want to nurture moving forward. It won't replace the reliable structure of thumbnail-draft-sketch, but rather, support it.
In came the first problem: what even the hell color scheme? At the very least, I made sure to adhere to the basics. If you have a lot of cool colors, add a pop of something warm. If a certain color dominates up top, see what can contrast it below. It's like a math equation if math sucked less.
Even though I ended up veering away from the olive backdrop, I still like how it contrasted against everything else. Might have a green-and-gold centered piece later. Speaking of which, check out 'Green And Gold' by Lianne La Havas. Gorgeous song.
There may be a lot of working parts in this piece, but the face has the most pressure to be done well. It's what we tend to gravitate to as human beings, after all, and flubbing the expression/eyes/etc is like ruining the broth in a soup. The science behind the face is a fascinating topic for me and a big reason why I do so many portraits.
Oh, the gold decorations around the scepter ball drove me crazy. I kept fudging with them in the hopes they'd look better and eventually went, "Fuck this." Yes, you can give up and keep pushing in the same illustration.
I was given some very helpful feedback in one of the Discord communities I'm part of, particularly concerning the fish. While outside eyes thought they looked fine, this element just rubbed me the wrong way. They were too cluttered, and yet, not enough. These magical betta didn't provide enough contrast and took up so much space the eye didn't know where to travel. I didn't want to eliminate them entirely, though...
...so I went for the 'less is more' approach. The piece immediately felt more breathable. The eye traveled more naturally, too, from the shooting star down to the fish down to the face. I made sure to keep the shade close to the scepter, too, to tie together the color scheme.
A little .gif for those that missed my Twitter post. I'm loving making these so much I might start playing with simple animations in 2020.
At the last second I decided to go for a light lavender backdrop, mostly because there was already a lot of blue in the piece.
This piece was another lesson in 'just because you can, doesn't mean you should'. Just because I usually am able to wing my designs doesn't mean I should go into a piece flying by the seat of my pants. All in all? I'm glad I stuck with it. I'm going to celebrate what I did well and learn from what could've been better.
It's a New Year, ripe with potential, and I'm going to stick to growing my good habits. I've talked before about how I don't make lofty New Year's declarations, instead preferring to focus on the smaller baby steps that lead up to goals. Now, that's not to say I don't have some idea on what I want. I'm going to continue to test my skills and build my portfolio. I want to create breathtaking illustrations that tell captivating stories, with emphasis on character interaction and complex backgrounds. I want to design all sorts of unforgettable characters and creatures. I want to expand a little and branch out into concept art, 3D modeling and fashion design.
Here are some small goals I'll be doing over the next few months:
Reaching goals, big or small, means lots of thumbnailing, lots of rough drafts and lots of baby steps. Stay tuned!
I have so many characters. Jesus Christ.
It's to the point that even doing art of other characters I don't paint very often feels excessive. Like I'm choosing a favorite child. As it stands, I've only drawn Yasar a few times, despite the fact he's a prominent supporting character in a big (and very old) story of mine. I'd go into greater detail about his personality and history, but I'm viciously protective of my intellectual property. Maybe someday when I actually commit this story to a game or a book.
I like to separate character art into three categories: simple, complex and illustrative. The first is exactly what it says on the tin, with no background or any supporting elements whatsoever. The middle adds a little more, such as an item or animal. The latter is an illustration in all but name, with the focus still heavily on the character themselves. I take a lot of inspiration from fashion magazines for that last one, since they tend to showcase models in all sorts of environments that play second-fiddle to the subject. This character art is somewhere between a simple and complex, as the giant gilded egg fills out the space without any additional interaction.
Funny enough, even after extensive thumbnailing (see below), I still didn't have any idea what I was going to put behind him. Just...something. Something to round out that space! Throwing in a big fancy egg while painting ended up giving me an idea for one of his powers, since he's an illusionist that depends on sleight-of-hand and a jack-of-all-trades approach. ...Don't do what I did, though. Figure everything out in the draft stage. It'll save you so much more trouble.
Thumbnailing my character art was something I did sparingly in the past. Mainly because I internalized some bullshit ideas about how fast my art should be. Thumbnails and rough drafts were for illustrations, right? The complex stuff. The ones with backgrounds and action poses. ...Yeah, that's not true at all. Literally everything can be thumbnailed, from the smallest sliver of concept art to the most elaborate multi-character tapestry. Since my designs tend to be pretty fanciful, this step is extra helpful, allowing me to work out everything before committing to a polished pencil sketch.
also to the middle left you can see my main reference for the pose, particularly for the legs
Sketches take me between three to five hours on average, maybe a little longer. Thumbnails, on the other hand, are whipped up in minutes. Sitting down for an hour and hashing out a dozen thumbnails is peak relaxation. Sometimes I get so addicted to it I don't want to move on to later stages, even though later stages are also my favorite.
I've been working on a sketch buffer these past few weeks: painting is my greatest strength and it saves me time to have a bunch of pencil drawings ready to go. This was my favorite in the pile, so I decided to start off strong. To the right I added a flat to bring out the silhouette -- the key to any good character art -- and move from there.
I've been falling in crazy love all over again with persian and baroque architecture, so you're going to be seeing a lot of inspiration stemming from there, pastels and acanthus and stars galore
the egg begins
The soft brush remains my go-to for creating base colors. I love everything bleeding into each other. It's a very traditionalist approach to digital art and something I want to keep pushing; see just how buttery and iridescent I can get. I've been experimenting quite a bit with color burn, overlay and soft light layers to add more subtlety. I want colors so rich you feel like you could bite into them like a ripe fruit.
Remember: paintings are conversations. You learn as you go. I realized the legs looked kind of stringy, so I used the magic wand tool to thicken them. Also, I'm obsessed with this guy's pants. They are seriously satisfying to look at.
It took a few passes for me to figure out the most appealing color balance between the character and the egg. The teal ended up being a really tasty contrast with the pink backdrop: almost like a sandwich between the equally warm dominant colors of the character's outfit. I also made the head a little smaller and the hands a little bigger. Probably a sign for me to not get too lost in all the extravagance and keep in mind basic proportions.
A little progress .gif for your viewing pleasure.
I need fifteen more hands.
Worked on this on-and-off over four to five days. I need to start tallying up the hours, because I honestly don't remember how long it took me overall. I really wanted to push my painting abilities with this one. Interestingly, I feel more success not in the final result, but the process: of committing to a thumbnailing/rough draft stage, using references and getting back into traditional sketching. I also got to show off all my strengths in one place. Fashion design, color theory, character design, lighting, texture. I plan on getting more playful with my layouts, as well as focusing on dynamic poses.
I've got a pile of great ideas sitting in Photoshop, so this is one challenge I'll be happily meeting head-on. There's nothing quite so intoxicating as having a goal and being like, "Yeah? No fucking problem."
I have more character art on the way, which means more processes, more .gifs, more rambles. I'm also considering making the switch from Photoshop CC to a different digital art program. Stay tuned!
I figure now's a good time to talk about why I've learned not to make New Year's Resolutions.
I understand the appeal. The desire to just...rinse off all the bad, keep the good and glide into the future with a lighter spirit. The socially acceptable ritual of drinking like crazy and waking up with a New Year hangover? I certainly feel the urge in my bones, and it's not even Thanksgiving yet! I won't be doing it, though. I haven't for several years, in fact! I've learned New Year's resolutions tend to be, at best, dramatic declarations with little (if any) long-term payoff. They feel great in the moment, but once it comes down to keeping pace with your ambitions? Resolutions are a recipe for failure that shows in every deadline missed, personal promise delayed and mediocre result gained.
So I skip it...and instead focus on building good habits instead.
This is a subtle, yet hugely life-changing mentality that I've picked up from B2B writing/content marketing spaces. It makes sense, since the nature of that skillset is about crafting progress in bite-sized increments. Whether or not you're a freelancer, I highly recommend checking out Ed Gandia and BlackFreelance. They have several wonderful pieces that explore the benefits of shifting your mentality with smaller gestures, rather than going for a 'cold turkey' approach that has you falling back on old habits.
Good habits are just as hard to break as bad ones. For example, I brush, floss and rinse every single night, and missing just one night? It has me all out of sorts. I extend this same minimalist logic to other things, working backwards from the goal. Instead of just saying I want to lose a certain amount of pounds, I instead signed up at a local gym with my roommate for two sessions per week (as well as fewer sweets). Instead of just saying I want to wake up earlier, I instead push myself to go to bed an hour sooner. When it comes to art? Well, I want to improve my production, quality and outreach. But what do I have to do to get there...and will it be small enough to incorporate into my everyday life without a drastic overhaul?
For now...I'm focusing on traditional sketches. They're the foundation of most of the work I do and take the most effort from me. All those big goals of a shinier portfolio and fleshed-out projects? Those come later.
I'll be delving into my polished sketching process in further posts (which involves some jumping back and forth between Photoshop). For now, here's a peek at some of the character art I'll be painting over the coming weeks. I've also got some illustration sketches (not pictured) and recently started pieces. It's more than I've been doing for a while now and I'm pretty proud of myself, to be honest! I've got so many characters clamoring for attention, too, and it feels so good to get some* of them out onto the page. A few don't have names still, despite having fleshed-out backstories, personalities, powers...I'll have to start cooking some up instead of relying on codenames. Like Lion Head and Goat Girl. Tch!
*some being the key word lmao
I don't like losing my groove when I've got portfolio pieces to upload and commissions to finish. Keeping the ball rolling is one of the easiest ways to produce strong work with little effort. Need a breather? Switch over to another piece. Too tired to sketch? Just scan in a drawing and paint. This sketch buffer kills several birds with one stone. Never underestimate the groove.
I've mentioned before how much I just love to scan in traditional sketches and go to town with digital paint. I'm honestly vibrating with excitement over this sketch buffer, because that means just color color color color color. Oh, it's the best form of therapy! I've been using references for poses and outfits, finding that happy balance between learning as I go and making do with what I know. I recently checked out Noah Bradley's free figure drawing compendium for some ideas, when my full-body mirror ran short.
These are pencil and copy paper: nice and simple to keep my mind from twisting itself into knots (fancier materials can do that). That said, I will sketch on cardstock or bristol board from time-to-time if I want to preserve the drawing in the long-term. It's something I'll be considering when selling original sketches.
I'll likely be touching on this topic again as the holiday season unfolds. For now...I've got sketches to finish. Stay tuned!
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!
I've been rifling through more of my old studies and personal thumbnails, analyzing what I've learned over the years with October right around the corner. These ones are all the way back from 2015, a little scratchier and more middle-of-the-road value-wise than I do now. Nonetheless, it's useful to analyze the areas where you've gotten stronger, as well as understanding where your skill starts to peter out and improve more slowly. Moving backwards is still movement!
I've spoken about Frank Brangwyn before and how he's been a major fine art inspiration of mine. His ability to somehow create chaotic and extremely simple compositions is endlessly fascinating, which is to say nothing of his lighting. Buttery and bold, he's able to craft out a figure's weight, age and personality with just a few deceptively simple strokes. I've done enough traditional and digital studies over the years that I feel comfortable getting a lot down with very little. Silhouettes, in particular, are a very reliable way of carving out what you see.
Moving forward I want to keep polishing up these areas. I want to paint faster, create more stunning compositions and improve my technical perspective. I also want to get comfortable all over again with being sloppy and loose.
I love how just a little white splotch can communicate so much. A spot of sunlight on a roof. A worker's cap. A rock in water. Less really is more.
While my art is a little too tightly polished to be called impressionistic, it's still a movement I take inspiration from in my preliminary work. The vibrant movement and sharp texture does a lot to keep my creative mind churning. Not all of my pieces are planned, after all. A single blob can be interpreted a dozen different ways. It's really fun figuring it all out on the fly. I'll have to upload more .gifs of my process so you can see just how many times I shrink, flip and rotate my work.
These studies were instrumental in giving me a feel for Frank Brangwyn's work. His blobby, squished subjects and lavish detail just can't be confused for anyone else. On the other hand, I was clearly figuring out what was more important: getting all the details in the right place or keeping the study readable for the viewer. More contrast and smoother linework would have helped here. Speaking of which, I'll be getting into my favorite brushes in later posts, most of which include some sort of 'natural' jagged border.
Clearly I learned something of value (ha!) from all these studies, because these personal thumbnails I did around the same time are much more readable. These compositions draw the eye toward a strong focal point, with the background either swooping or angling toward the subject for maximum effect. On top of that, atmospheric perspective is utilized in abundance to create a more believable sense of space. Perspective isn't just intimidating grid lines and boxes, but how objects fade, overlap and contrast each other.
...And, to be entirely honest? There are actually areas in my 2015 and 2016 work that are stronger than my current work. More dynamic. More lively. Looser textures, compositions that almost seem to breathe...it's no coincidence those happened to be easier artmaking years for me, as well. I was so much less wracked with pressure putting tablet to pen, letting anything and everything flow as it came. It's been hard for me to churn out the same amount of work I used to, and it's in studying my earlier pieces can I better get in touch with what's tripping me up.
October is coming up, meaning Inktober...or in my case, Paintober. That means lots of new paintings and lots of new posts. 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.