How to improve as an artist pt1: Process

process example

You want to improve as an artist. You probably wouldn’t have visited this article if you didn’t have at least a nominal interest in improving your skill as an artist. You have to be ready for the reality that you’re going to be at this for a while if you have a marked interest in becoming accomplished as an artist.

There is a shortcut, however, and it just requires a little bit of thought.

Bear in mind, when I discuss how to improve as an artist, I’m making the assumption that you have already grasped some understanding of fundamental skills like form, perspective, anatomy, composition, color, and lighting. I’m not saying that you need to master all of these skills before you start doing big drawings, I’m just indicating that I’m discussing improvement in this post, not fundamentals.

Basically, you need to build yourself a dojo so you’re not thrashing about in the void.

The idea behind the dojo process is basically to give yourself a controlled space that allows you to monitor your progress and correct your training as you create. If you have a clear space with clear procedures, you can watch more carefully for errors and have an easier time teaching yourself.

Now, some people aren’t well-suited to self-teaching, and everyone on earth can benefit from the guide and counsel of the right teachers. And, for my own part, I need to admit that there is a part of my spirit that is very arrogant. I am always willing to be wrong and I am always willing to learn. But I also hate the rote component of the learning process.

Because I prefer to do my artistic learning in an environment where I am mostly making stuff that I like, I have to pay much closer attention to my errors and be absolutely strict about seeking them and correcting them as I find them.

This in mind, that is why I generally create according to a clear process.

If you want to improve as an artist, you need to have a clear process.

There’s some back and forth as to whether an artist ought to have a formulaic approach to their art, but my own conviction is that for most people starting out, it’s good to have a specific set of steps you go through when you create art, and that you don’t move on to the next step until you have reached a sufficient level of finish and quality with each step. My conviction on this is backed by the kind of people hired to make artistically rich AAA games, so I think the idea is reasonably sound.

When I create art, I have a clear set of steps that I proceed through.

  1. Thumbnail sketch
  2. Rough full sketch (in red)
  3. Clean full sketch (in blue)
  4. Lineart
  5. Flats
  6. Basic shadows
  7. Deep shadows
  8. Highlights
  9. Light effects
  10. Final touches

Because in my process I functionally draw the same thing at least three times, there are ample opportunities to check for errors in my drawing.

I fully believe that it is critical in any discipline for a person to make sure they do something right before they move on to the next thing, or else you will have to clean up after yourself and do your job back over.

We perform all kinds of tasks in our daily lives according to a set of processes that are designed ahead of time for us. With a little mindfulness, many people become very good at these systematized processes. Therefore it only makes sense that we should apply a little mindfulness to our creative pursuits if we want to achieve excellence.

A clear process reduces errors

If you have a checklist that you go through on a project, you will make fewer errors as long as you are checking your work as you go.

If your thumbnail doesn’t look good, do more of them until you find a good idea.

Once you have a good thumbnail, do a sketch. While you’re sketching, you’re designing the framework of your whole picture. If your sketch doesn’t look right, figure out why and fix it before you do anything else with the picture.

When you’re happy with your sketch, do another one of the same drawing so you can make sure that you make a full set of design decisions that you’re happy with.

Once you’ve gone through the process of a thumbnail and two sketches, you should have a clear framework that allows you to finish your drawing however you plan to finish it (whether that involves lines, colors, painting, cel shading, or whatever).

The most important thing in this case is just making sure that you give yourself enough space to work out a drawing that you’re really happy with and that is really solid before you try to dress it up.

If you go too far in your process without getting the initial steps correct, your failure to design a good foundation will show up in your finished product.

When you work through a clear checklist, you give yourself a wealth of opportunities to check your work and make sure that you have made the best use of your skill at each step of your creative process. Work on one thing at a time until you get it right, and then move on to the next thing.

Within the context of a single painting, you improve as an artist by making sure that you get each individual step right before you move on to the next one. Just in the same way that you don’t build a house without making sure you have a solid foundation, you do not proceed in your act of drawing until you have made sure that what you’re doing right now is satisfactory.

The act of drawing is the act of thinking. A clear process allows you to improve as an artist by spending your time completely thinking through a single concept before you approach the next one.

If you look at any of my illustrations and check out the timelapses, you will see a clear through line of thorough attention with each step I take in my art. I do not think myself a stupid man, but I also know that I can only manage one deep thought at a time. If I’m not happy with the way something looks. I do not proceed forward in my creative process until I have become satisfied.

All good illustrations are the final product of a set of really good ideas that are refined, assembled, and correctly organized. I won’t say that every picture I draw comes out perfectly, as there are a number of pictures I’ve put out that still have mistakes I wish I didn’t let get past me. But because I have a process, I can make fewer mistakes, make more art more quickly, and be happier with the pieces that I have put out.

You don’t have to stick with your process forever. As you improve as an artist, you can improve your process.

My bold claim that everyone needs a process is a statement that I’ll stand behind. But everyone does not need to have the same process. Every artist has a different way of thinking so it follows perfectly logically that every artist needs to have a process that is suited to their method of thought and their specific technique.

A painter and a sculptor will have different rules they have to follow, and even within the same discipline, everyone who does a certain kind of work will have their own way that they need to approach a task. One may approach colors first, or lighting, or the drawing itself, and pin the rest of the work down on the way they do their first step.

The order of your process is infinitely negotiable, but you still ought to have one single order that you practice your art in until you improve enough that you find a need to revise or trim down your order.

I am no master of the craft of visual arts. I’m good enough to impress people, however, and I would like you to be able to impress the right people also.

You have a gift if you have any kind of ability to communicate visually. You owe it to yourself to find a way to convert your gift into concrete skill that you can be proud of.


That’s it for now. I hope this article has been helpful. If you want to get to the next level, check out pt 2 right here.

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