Regarding tools, techniques and cheating
When I work with inexperienced artists, I find the key is always to discover and correct certain learned behaviors and mindsets that can impede learning and the study of art.
The problem stems from this idea that artists are talented. We have created this puritan view of artistic skill: there are those who have talent and those who don’t. In fact, the things that separate one artist from another are much more complex-having much more to do with experience, type of training, work habits, and ways of thinking. So if you’re worried you don’t have the talent, or if you’re envious of someone who appears to have oodles of it, instead try analyzing the things that might have helped another become so skilled. Try asking them questions! Lots of artists love talking about their work and experiences.
Want to become a more skilled artist? Commit yourself to the concentrated study of your art.
For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to focus on basic drawing.
I’ve been drawing for several years now, with a variety of mediums, and can achieve a pretty high level of realism as well as purposeful distortion. Most of my drawing skill applies to the depiction of people, as I am primarily a figurative/portrait artist, but the same general skill-set can be applied to pretty much any subject matter.
Here are the base level struggles for students learning to draw:
not knowing the proper tools for a task
not knowing the proper technique for a task
a lack of basic knowledge and theory
ingrained behaviors, patterns
Overcoming these struggles involves a process of both learning and un-learning (that is, letting go of certain unhelpful practices or attitudes). Learning theory, tools, and techniques is pretty easy- it’s a matter of studying the industry standards and practicing until our hands bleed. (It does help to have a good teacher-this is why Ye Olde artists would always apprentice with a master before striking out on their own.)
But before we can start to really study our art – we need to find a way past our major roadblocks.
So, what’s a “roadblock mentality”?
It’s a particular notion that a person picks up and takes to heart which later serves as an obstacle in the learning process. It’s a line of cones in the road that the construction guys forgot to pick up when they were done.
The most common “roadblock mentality” I have encountered?
“Using _______is cheating!”
I’ve most often heard this in regards to using reference images, but it also applies to tracing, lightboxes, gridding out drawings, scanning/photocopies, and the use of technology, just to name a few.
Here’s a little secret: Picasso once said all artists are liars… well, they’re also cheaters.
The thing is, all of these things listed above are *tools*. And if using tools is cheating, then we are all cheating. All the time. If you think tracing an image is cheating, so is drawing something by hand from scratch. If you think copying off a reference image is cheating, so is drawing something directly from your imagination.
Every single thing you do in order to create a drawing on paper is part of a vocabulary of tools and techniques.
A line is a tool.
Let’s say you have a beautiful image of an apple in your head. You want to express this apple, to share it with the world. You could speak or write the word “apple” and people would understand. You could also describe the apple further: “big fat juicy red snow-white-gonna-bite-that-shit-and-die apple”-a more detailed picture of that apple in words. In doing this, you are using a vocabulary of tools-in this case, words – which make up a whole language of expression. You have that entire vocabulary at your disposal in order to express your “brain creation”: the apple.
Drawing is also a language, and thus also has a vocabulary of tools for you to use. The simplest tool is a line (or any kind of mark really). But drawing tools can be far more complex than this. Our “brain creation” determines the types of tools we will need to express it. If all of drawing involves the use of tools, then the only way to NOT cheat would be to literally barf an apple straight out of your brain. As soon as you start to draw the outline of your apple, you are employing a tool.
To further this idea, a technique is the way in which you use a tool (e.g. the way you draw a line to depict the outline of your apple). Theory involves the fundamental, underlying rules that determine what tools and techniques are appropriate at which times. (Compare this to the basic rules that govern written language, like grammar).
We get this idea in our heads that using a reference image will somehow destroy the purity of our “brain creations”. It’s actually the opposite. Reference images are actually some of the best tools for expressing those “brain creations” to their fullest potential. Think of Salvador Dali’s paintings. He used incredible realism and detail (through the use of references and concentrated study) in order to depict amazing and surreal images. Without this realism the very conceptual, non-sequitur nature of his work, simply wouldn’t come across.
Which do you find more convincing?
“Okay, but if a person just copies or traces another picture, how is that art?”
Well, if someone just straight copies someone else’s picture, then I suppose you could call that plagiarism, and could quite easily argue that it has very little artistic value. But the truth is, everything that we see, hear, feel, touch and experience goes through our brains – so trying to distinguish a “brain creation” from something that isn’t is quite difficult. The way I like to think about it is “what are you adding?”, or “what’s your personal contribution to the image”?
Sometimes we start with an external inspiration. Sometimes we simply start with an idea, and find the images (tools) that will best help us represent that idea. Either way works just fine.
A few points about learning:
1) If you want to get better at something, the best thing you can do is figure out how best to learn and then commit yourself to it.
2) Replication is great for studying. One of the best ways to learn is actually just to copy. Now if you go around drawing other people’s drawings, trying to sell them, and claiming them as your own – obviously that’s considered pretty bad form. Attempting to replicate something for the purposes of learning however is called doing a “study”. The fact that there’s a term for it should tell you that this is a pretty standard practice in the study of art. Personally, I think it’s a great shame that this is not taught more as it’s a fantastic learning tool.
3) Don’t worry about losing your creativity. Trust me, you won’t. In fact, you’re more likely to foster it.
4) Don’t worry about developing your own “style”. Personal style comes naturally as we develop our skills. Do you look at a 5 year old learning to write the alphabet, and say “oh, that’s just his style”? Just don’t sweat it- you probably already have your own expressive voice-you just can’t see it yet. Refine your skill, and your style will grow and blossom.
5) If you are learning, let yourself learn. Use the tools at your disposal, but focus on basics first and work your way up like building blocks. Start with your fundamental theory, basic tools, and techniques. As you progress- you will learn the proper application of these tools and techniques in different situations. Never try to run before you can walk.
6) I also suggest using less technology when you are starting out- this is what many teachers and artists are actually referring to when they create this notion of “cheating”. Rather than using a projector to help you transfer an image, teach yourself how to do it by hand first. This will make things easier later on- it gives you crucial practice and understanding of theory. Tracing an image can teach you some mark-making and shape techniques, but if all you ever do is trace- you won’t learn other crucial drawing fundamentals. In other words, it’s all part of the learning process. Once you know how to do things the manual way, then you can move up to the big boy tools which help to streamline your creative process. A huge part of learning a skill is understanding when and where it’s appropriate to use different techniques.
7) Above all, be patient and kind with yourself. Learning is a concentrated and difficult process. It can be very frustrating but also very rewarding, especially if we let ourselves enjoy the journey rather than focusing only on that elusive finish line.
Be a forever learner and you will always have more to discover.
-Love, P.B. (proficient becca)
*If you’re interested in drawing:
One of the best resources I can suggest is the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. It is quite well known and respected within art communities, and for good reason. Check it out http://www.drawright.com/
Let me know if you are working on your drawing or painting skills – I’ve got plenty of resources and personal experience to help you out if you need it