“Oh, Duh” Moments for a Fledgling Artist


So, this time last week I wrote a post called Art is a Lie, Nothing is Real, about how I struggle with whether or not I count as an “artist,” specifically in regard to my painting and drawing.

I’ve been working for the last several months with watercolor. Despite its reputation for being difficult, I tried it because the transparency of the paint allows me to draw and ink things first, and then simply add color over those lines, which felt safer to me than trying to start with blobs of acrylic and hopefully turning that into a recognizable thing. (Acrylics have never really agreed with me.)

Watercolor is difficult, though. It’s delicate and frustrating and to be perfectly honest, doesn’t turn out well (in my experience) unless you’ve got patience, serenity, and good materials.

Not a day after my post about whether I’m competent enough to call myself an artist, I got sucked into a “I suck, why do I even bother” spiral. I felt like despite all the paintings I’d done over the last few weeks, I hadn’t gotten any better, watercolor still surprised and confounded me, and I was never going to figure it out on my own so I should probably just give up.

I wasn’t entirely wrong. Aside from a few small techniques I picked up from other watercolorists, I haven’t been improving as an artist, and every step forward is met by two frustrating steps back.

In a moment of desperation, I turned to a watercolorist named Kelly Eddington, who posts tutorials on her YouTube channel. Needless to say, some lightbulbs clicked.

Use references.

This may seem obvious, but for some reason I’d built up this fear in my head of relying too heavily on references, and only being able to draw or paint things I could find a direct reference for. So, I didn’t use references at all. And unfortunately, I tend to lean toward realism, at least in terms of proportions, when I illustrate characters. Using references is kind of necessary for me at this stage.

Part of my am-I-an-artist struggle is that I don’t envision a lot. I don’t get struck by inspiration very often (though like I said last week, this happens more and more), but I really, really want to be. I’d love to be a great illustrator. I’d love to be the kind of artist who paints the kind of beautiful, emotive things I love to see in museums.

That might not ever happen for me–but the point of this section is that I try so hard to sketch out of my head, and it all comes out stupid. Sometimes, it works out, true. I can draw Guerline with very little problem these days…because I’ve drawn her about a million times. But even her face didn’t gel with me until I used references to help me shape it, and practiced with those references. Just trying to constantly draw out of my head, without reminding myself what those forms are supposed to look like, was like banging my head against a brick wall.

It goes like this:

Me: Why are female bodies so weird???
Me: When was the last time you drew from a picture of an actual female body though?
Me: …
Me: *pulls up photo and sketches it*

Later–

Me: Why doesn’t this face look like a face???
Me: When was the last time you paid attention to a real face though?
Me: …

You get the idea.

Use good materials.

The point at which you choose to upgrade will be different for everyone. I bought a cheap set of student watercolors when I decided to try it out, and those got me pretty far. But as I try to do more and create what I consider proper artwork, I’ve been frustrated by the poor blending, thin color, and too easy lift-ability of those paints.

I first bought two tubes of nicer watercolors (Van Gogh) several months ago, and was promptly frightened by how much richer the pigment was and how it much more mobile it was on the paper. But now it’s time for me to get over this. I just bought myself a six-tube Utrecht mixing set, and though I’m still getting used to them, I can already see how they make a difference in the work.

Brushes and paper make a difference too. It’s worth it to do some research and upgrade a little bit over time.

Use your resources.

My art education is limited to drawing classes in high school. I’ve never taken a painting class, especially not a watercolor class. One of my early hangups was trying to blend watercolors like I would blend graphite, which, let me tell you, is not a thing. Adding and blending shadows with watercolor requires a gentle hand, otherwise you’re just poking at it too long with your brush, lifting all the color, and ruining the paper to boot.

For a long time, I forgot that tutorials are a thing.

But there are so many artists out there who very generously put time and effort into creating video workshops discussing technique and showing examples. Kelly Eddington, the artist I mentioned earlier, did a four-part portrait workshop that opened my eyes to a different approach than I’d been taking. Things are clicking for now, but the important part is that I know if I get stuck again, there’s probably a pro artist out there with a video that can help me.

Practice!

But the right kind of practice. Meaning, references. Sketching stock photos. Going to public places and doing quick sketches of people. Painting a photograph. My theory is that practicing from real forms increases your familiarity with those shapes and values, which makes it easier to form them with fewer references when you go to sketch an original character.

I make a point to try and write at least a thousand words a day. In the same vein, if I want to keep getting better, I need to do some art every day.

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