Category: fear and the artist

Confessions of an Artist: Embracing Defeat

This post needed some humor so here it is!
This post needed some humor so here it is!

It’s been a long time since I wrote a personal/art career post here.  The main reason for that has been the absolutely disastrous year I’ve been having.  Rather than continue putting on a happy face, I thought an entry of candidness might be more helpful.  After all, I started this journal because I wanted to talk about my journey as an artist and I want to stay true to that instead of let this place devolve purely into WIP’s and self-promotion.

This year started with my partner nearly dying from heart complications from bronchitis.  Nearly dying being terrible enough on its own, the ensuing mentally draining recovery topped with an icing of medical bills made a perfect cake of disaster.  The funny thing is, we were more prepared for this than most and those savings got us through a difficult time, including the time immediately after his recovery where my partner was let go from his job.

I’ve said in the past we’re a single income household, with my art bringing in some income, but not a lot.  There followed another extremely stressful and depressing period where we both weren’t sure what was going to happen next.  Even still, my partner reassured me that it was okay to continue trying to do art as my living (because he’s awesome and so, so loving).  We had enough to live off of and emergency measures in place.

But I had something to prove.  I didn’t want to be a money sinkhole when we were in such a period of turmoil.  Here I was in my own little dream world trying to squeeze every penny out of my art, which only made it harder to create anything with that pressure to make everything I made worthwhile and profitable.  I spent more days tied up in a lack of motivation and depression than producing anything at all.

As this year wore on and other medical catastrophes and setbacks happened, I hit a low point.  I gave up for the briefest milliseconds on the notion that any of this struggling to be a professional was worth the suffering it was putting me (us) through.  It felt like everywhere I went, people I respect were bombarding me with the fact I was especially failing this year, that I should be farther than I am.  I needed to be stronger!  My insistence that I could never show weakness and should react by working harder and beyond my limits only worked against me because I turned all of that stress inwards, causing my own physical and mental health to decline.

In a strange way, finally accepting defeat this year has been freeing.  I have become increasingly aware of the long game and the shortness of life here on this earth.  Entering the IP Development Mentorship with Robot Pencil earlier this year was a game changer for me.  I have a lot of ideas I’ve always discredited because they weren’t producing results RIGHT now, but here were several professionals telling me my ideas are “F**king awesome”.  I’m not sure I would have entered this mentorship otherwise if I hadn’t been in the place where I was just so tired of struggling and really wanted to give those unacknowledged passions a chance they would not have gotten otherwise while I was obsessing over proving myself.

It’s funny how we need permission to just do the thing we always wanted to do…

Luckily, we’re doing much better now.  Kev has been making leaps and bounds with his recovery and has also found employment.  We continue our game plan to let me build my art career.  And while I feel guilty for having this privilege when so many other artists don’t, I’m not going to squander this opportunity with guilt anymore because I’m trying to impress those who quantify success as merely money, when success in life is so much more than that.  That path leads to elitism and becoming the kind of person and artist I don’t want to be.  With our income stable for now, I have also started saying no to a lot of jobs that I feel aren’t going to advance me as far as my personal projects might.

I’m still terrified of the unknown and of waiting for another bad thing to happen, but I’m hoping that surviving one terrible year means we’re better equipped the next time.

I suppose if there’s any advice for other artists to take away from this, it’s that sometimes you have to embrace failure because it’s one of the best ways to learn how to do anything right, that other artists who you admire more often than not are projecting a self-image of success (even when it’s not true), and that doing so doesn’t make them any less of an artist.  Also, try to save up backup funds for those rough times because they are waiting to sucker punch you in the gut when you least expect it!

Meanwhile, I’m still here…a little older and a little wiser.

7 Things About Digital Painting from a Traditional Artist’s Perspective

My master copy of a traditional painting with digital paint.

It’s been a frustrating and gratifying experience for me as a watercolor and color pencil artist to switch to painting digitally.  There are so many glorious things about digital just as there are so many things that can make it really difficult to master.

Here are some of my random observations on the digital painting experience as someone with a background in traditional painting.

1.  Digital is NOT Faster

No, digital is not faster.  Perhaps it is if you aren’t trying to replicate the look of traditional paint.  But in my experience, particularly when replicating a painterly look in digital, you’re going to spend a lot of time layering and layering just to get rid of the pure plastic colors that digital brushes apply by default.

There are some ways around this mechanical computer generated look, such as scanning in your own textures from traditionally painted swatches and programming them into your brushes.

Corel Painter and Photoshop have brushes you can program to emulate this randomness, but it’s not as good as the real thing just yet.  There are still too many patterns that are predictable that the eye recognizes, like computerized paper texture, which contributes to that sameness that so many digital pieces have that I mentioned earlier.

Plus, if you’re a control freak like me, you’ll spend many an hour trying to paint everything at the same level of detail until you realize that zooming out makes all that work for naught.

2.  Addiction to Layers

It is so tempting when you first start painting digitally to just have everything on multiple layers.  Why wouldn’t you?  You can control all the things ever and make everything PERFECT!  Don’t fall into the trap!  Merge your layers when you can.  For one, merging layers is easier on your computer if you don’t have a lot of processing power to spare and makes your files less humongous.

Another advantage of merging your layers is that you can retain those ‘mistakes’ that make traditional paintings have that lovely painterly feel to them.  Painting over your mistakes instead of deleting them creates a ghost or haze that makes your edges feel more organic, while merely selecting and deleting leaves a perfect edge.  Our human eyes are very keen to patterns and perfection, which can make an image seem harsh and plastic, a very common occurrence that makes many digital paintings have a certain sameness to them.

A suggestion if you’d like to change your image later is to save your selections as Channels, that way you can still retain the advantages of painting on one layer.

3.  Addiction to Undo Button 

Now that I’ve had the ability to Undo every tiny mistake, Step Backwards, Step Forewards, and change every little pixel, a weird thing has happened when I sit down with a traditional pencil and drawing pad.  I am downright afraid that I’m going to mess it up!  My ultimate power of control is gone and I’ve lost my confidence with dealing with traditional media.  If I pick the wrong color, that’s it, game over, man. GAME OVER!

It’s going to take some re-training to get my confidence back that it’s okay to make mistakes.  Digital has made me the ultimate control freak, whereas traditional media is all about letting go of that control and accepting the somewhat randomized results of how the media works, especially with something like watercolor.  For me being the control freak that I am, traditional media helps to balance my propensity for spending too long trying to make everything perfect.

4.  Mark-Making Still Matters

At least if you want to achieve a painterly quality in your digital work.  A lot of folks assume you can just drop a fill into a digital canvas and you’re done.  While you can achieve certain kinds of highly stylized effect like this, if you’re aiming for a more realistic painterly organic effect, your lines still matter.  Blending takes time and care and usually the same awareness of your marks and how you’re using them to define contour as you would have as a traditional painter.  

Also, things that might happen more naturally with traditional media, such as the pooling and blending of colors that form that wonderful randomness in your skyline take dedicated effort to achieve in digital.  In digital, randomness is carefully constructed.  You have to add the randomness to your skin pores to make that surface convincing. It doesn’t just happen thanks to the properties of your paper, glazing, and pigments.  Filters and Brushes with custom effects can help.  They get better with every version of Photoshop, but they still have a ways to go.   I haven’t used Painter much, but I hear it’s getting better at this as well.

5.  Shiny Plastic People

I don’t know why, but when I first got into digital, I assumed it’d be easier to paint skin.  There were all these nifty tools and pore brushes and amazing things that seemed to do all the work for me!

Nope.  All I got for about a year of painting people digitally was shiny plastic grey people or shiny plastic pink people.  It took master copies, many failed practice paintings trying different techniques, and brushing up on my color theory to really start bringing life to my skintones.

I still think every time I paint a person digitally that I try a different technique each time.  The more I paint digitally, the more I realize it isn’t about how you do it and any one right way, it’s about doing whatever it takes to get a good looking end result!

6.  Missing that Good Ol’ Tactile Feeling

For as amazing as digital is, I’ve found I still can’t get the same finesse with my lines, especially with inking.  Cintiqs are amazing things made of unicorn dust and the tears of artists, but you still have to rotate the canvas with Rotate View, which takes that many seconds longer than just turning your canvas in real life.  I am personally just faster at working with sketching and inking on paper, which I hope to integrate in my upcoming digital pieces.

Here’s just one example of Wylie’s
amazing combination of graphite
and digital.

I used to think I shouldn’t mix media like that because I wouldn’t know how to categorize it online or that the purists would hate me (leftovers from my own snooty traditional art program brainwashing), but now I realize I just don’t care as long as I get a cool image in the end that tells the story I want to tell.

See the work of Wylie Beckert as a great example of what you can do when you free your mind to the potential of combining traditional and digital.

7. Layer Masks are Your Friends

Learn them. Love them!  I used to paint everything the hard way and then curse myself when I’ve made a mistake I can’t take back because I’ve overpainted or deleted my original layer.  Layer masks allow you to retain your original work and visually change it without having to commit to those changes.  I’m probably speaking voodoo moon language right now to those who have no clue what layer masks are.  To you, I say start here.  Learn, my grasshoppers. You will not be sorry!

And yeah sure it may lead to the ‘Undo Addiction’ I was previously talking about, but that’s okay!  As long as you have the useful potential of layer masks available to you, you might as well use it and face your Undo addiction later like I’m doing.  You’ll get over it…eventually.

So why do I keep painting digitally if it seems like it drives me crazy?

– I don’t have to keep the paintings under my bed. I am seriously out of space for storing them in our apartment (and parents’ basement).  No, I don’t want to pay for environmentally controlled storage because I am cheap/broke and that type of storage is friggin expensive.

– Being able to change an image indefinitely comes in handy!  When a traditional painting is done, I usually can’t change it much. However, if something ever bothers me about a digital piece or a client requests a change, I can most likely go back and fix it after it’s done.  This is also a double-edged sword which sometimes makes me feel like my work is never done with any particular digital piece, leading to obsessive necromancing of my older pieces.
Also, if I mess up in the middle of a piece, I don’t have to start it from scratch as I would if it were traditionally painted. I can simply alter what segment of the image I need to.
– Solvents are dangerous and I don’t want them near me. I would try oil painting if I could, which is really the effect I’m trying to achieve in digital, but there is no ventilation in this apartment. Experimenting with water-based oils and non-ventilation friendly solvents is going to take time I don’t want to commit at current (and again that storage issue).
– Because I can play with color schemes in a fun way that lends itself to discovery (IE. love me some Hue slider!)
– Digital images are great for clients who need their images easily scaled to different products and sizes without having to go through the process of having to scan/photograph a large traditionally painted piece.
– On the occasion I want to animate parts of an image, digital is SOOOooo much easier to do this with!

    For me, digital is an extremely useful and versatile tool.  While I understand why someone would find a traditional piece to have more sentimental value because an artist was able to touch it and pour their soul into every stroke, I’m the kind of artist who doesn’t paint for the process (at least on most occasions).  
    I paint for the final image and the story it tells.  
    Digital expands my vocabulary for visual storytelling in unexpected ways that I have learned to love and that have made my journey so much more efficient in many ways!

    So I ask you, purely digital artists, what are the challenges you face trying to learn traditional media?  It’d be fascinating to hear from the other side of the learning divide!

    Stuck in “The Gap”

    DragonCon jury time is upon us and it’s around this time of year where I have that yearly freak out about whether I have enough new stuff, why I’m not producing more, the paralyzing fear of rejection and inevitable downfall into self-loathing, etc.  I want all the masterpieces I’ve been attempting to be done now!  I want all of the studies I’ve been doing to pay off now!

    I know the most logical, sensible advice is “Just wait. Everything comes in time after due diligence.”

    But I’ve honestly just been impatient and anxious this past month. I don’t want to wait for that magical moment where it all just clicks together and makes sense!  I want it all, and I want it now!

    My portfolio reviewers keep telling me that my stuff is “Good…but…”.  There is always the ‘but’.  My current development as an artist is that I am just one small hop between being good and being great.  My portfolio reviewers also echo the same impression of my work.  There’s just the slightest gap between my story-telling abilities and just the slightest bit of funkiness to my anatomy.

    In fact, I feel I am in the very definition of “The Gap”, as Ira Glass calls it.
    I know this quote is geared towards writers, but it’s applicable to artists just as well.

    I wholeheartedly recognize this and I’ve been asking myself some tough questions of late:

    Q:  Am I producing enough work to improve in a timely manner?

    A:  No.  I need to be producing way more, at least one fully fleshed out painting a month is my goal and I haven’t met that.

    Q:  Am I studying enough?

    A:  No.  I want to warm up every day with studies, but I’ve only managed to do studies every other day or so.  I hate that feeling that I have nothing to show people that’s polished, other than my notebook scribbles. Makes me feel unproductive!

    Q:  Moreover, am I studying the right things instead of drawing the same thing wrong over and over?  

    A: For once, I feel like this is the only thing I have managed to get right, lately!  It took me a long time to find teachers whose methods made sense to me, particularly where anatomy is concerned.

    I found Bridgman’s methods to be more scientific while Hampton and Proko‘s emphasis on emotion and mannequenization make more sense to the way I learn things.  Chris Oatley’s Painting Drama course has also opened my eyes about narrative considerations in composition far more than any Art History course I’ve taken has.  Finding a teacher who speaks your learning language is so important!  What works for one person may not work for another.

    I tend to agree with what Jon Schindehette described in his Intention of Mastery post.  If you’re practicing something wrong over and over again, you’re only going to learn the wrong way to do things.  Going beyond this, if I can have a specific goal in mind before I pick up the pencil, rather than just mechanically drawing more, I will learn more and be more inspired!

    I feel like I will only be out of this ‘gap’ when I reach the point that Jon mentions.

    At some point, the pencil will stop being a mechanical device that I use to make marks on paper, and will start to become the extension of myself that expresses itself on paper through marks.

    I am realizing that my expectation of a ‘magic moment’ of understanding is also a false and debilitating one. There isn’t going to be one click, but many small clicks over time.  I also have to realize that knowledge is impermanent.  My mind is not a computer and can only retain things if I am actively studying them and refreshing my knowledge.  Anatomy, lighting, narrative, value, etc. etc. There’s just too much information for my mind to retain everything without losing others!

    But I’ve clung to that notion that there will be that Big Moment of realization and suddenly my paintings are better and that’s just not how this works.

    I may not have too many answers by the end of this entry, but I am hopeful that at least I’m asking myself the right questions!  How about you guys?  Are you stuck in ‘The Gap’ with me?  What are the questions (and answers) you’re struggling with?

    My Portfolio Building Homework – Part 4

    I’m feeling hyped after my last assignment where I formulated a strategy to take on the mighty portfolio beast.  But like anyone at the mouth of the dragon’s cave, I’m acknowledging a few of the fears that have kept me from realizing my action plans in the past.  Fortunately for me, that’s exactly what this week’s homework is all about!

    (Don’t forget to read Jon’s exercise before reading my homework so you aren’t missing any of the great advice on facing our fears.)


    Home Work Assignment:
    • Look back over your strategy and plan and see in which ways you can improve them, and use them to set you up for success.
    • Look at the roadblocks that you have put in your way in the past, or are currently putting in your way, and share them with the community so that we can all learn from them.


    Improvements to the Plan

    I realize after looking at my portfolio action plan that the dates I set were a bit hazy, as far as providing me with specific goals to focus on.  So I chose to break each image down to two dates, one for the sketch draft deadline and the second for the final draft.  This way I have until the sketch deadline to get all my ideation, thumbnailing, and studies done for each piece.  Then I have until the final deadline to refine till my heart’s content.  I find breaking the plan into time phases like this keeps me from dwelling too long in the idea and research part, which is a really bad habit of mine.  I tend to get very caught up in having the perfect idea before I ever put pencil to paper.
    I’m also debating adding more paintings to the list. I thought better of it, however, because I notice one of my bad habits is to overload myself with projects until I get overwhelmed and just give up on them, especially before a big event.  More than once I’ve stressed myself out before big selling events like DragonCon by trying to go above and beyond for my gallery, which turned into many frustrated nights of staying up late to meet the incredibly unrealistic goals I set for myself.

    My Roadblocks

    Some mentioned in my improvements above, but here’s a quick rundown of my most common roadblocks.  Let’s face it, guys. I’ve made portfolio lists in the past here in my journal and haven’t exactly realized all of them.  Apparently I am my own worst enemy, as most artists are!
    Overloading myself with projects and artistic distractions. 
    (Solution:  Start simple, stupid! Don’t try to do too much at once. Focus on one painting at a time.  Minimize other projects that are just for fun.  Start with less paintings and add more if it feels I have more time.  I had originally planned eight paintings and shaved that down to four.)

    Being unable to keep focus due to outside forces, like deadlines for my other job, distracting people, unorganized creative work area, etc. 
    (Solution:  Stop trying to outdo every turnaround time at work, learn how to minimize distractions by speaking up about them and setting boundaries, keep my art desk clean of the piles of junk from other job that keep me from being exciting about working there when I sit down.)

    Feeling overwhelmed and rushed by the fact that I am practically starting over for this portfolio. None of my past work fits and I feel like I am back at square one with my body of work and that nothing will be good enough from this point on. Worse, I simply don’t have enough time to catch up with the rest of the industry and younger artists who are already ahead of me!
    (Solution: Realize that life isn’t over. I’m still young enough to realize my goals.  Slow down and take this one painting at a time.  Realize that even though I’m starting over with relevant pieces, I still have many skills under my belt from my past body of work.  Everything worth doing takes time and other artists who have ‘made it’ also put in their dues as far as practicing, creating great work, and meeting rejection along the way before finding their path.)

    Feeling too intimidated by technical aspects to feel confident about painting the pieces.  For example, the idea of doing a piece with multiple figures is intimidating because I don’t do them often and I can’t afford to pay models to pose for me so I can draw them as accurately as possible.  
    (Solution:  Do the best I can and try to come up with alternate solutions, like taking photos of a single model separately and photomanip them together. Maybe find images on stock searches.  Do studies in the areas that I need work on before each piece so that I can build some confidence with the skills I feel I don’t have.)
    I’m hopeful that now that I’ve sat down and put a face to my fears that they become less scary.  All that’s left now is ACTION!  I am ready for this dragon, baby!