The Learning Curve
Jul 07 2012

Ever look at your art and realized it stinks? Like “how could I have ever have drawn that” kind of stinkage? I had a moment like that recently. I did this piece last year and tried to enter it in a book. Naturally it didn’t get selected. I totally can see why now. The face is anatomically incorrect, the colors are blah, and I was trying emulate somebody else’s soft style and it just never quite worked.

While studying the work of people you admire is a great way to discover new techniques, in this case I felt hindered the entire time. It just never clicked. As much as I like Ruoxing Zhang’s super soft style, it’s just not me. So I’ve been reworking it slowly in between projects. Here’s a before and after:


Much better. It’s slow going as I am really focusing on the tiny details. I have found that varied brushes have really helped this piece evolve. I have also learned not to be afraid of hard edges and texture. I really think my use of texture is what gives my work it’s realism.

The whole process had taught me four main principles:

1. Don’t Get Cocky

You think it’s hot but really it isn’t. Sometimes it takes an honest buddy to tell you the truth. If you can’t find one I suggest They’ll hand your butt to you but at least you’ll have a fresh pair of eyes. Be humble and accept crit with grace. You’ll get better much faster when you realize you aren’t all that.

2. Step Away

If you are like me this is hard. I tend to get “in the zone” and nothing else matters until it’s done. The problem is your eyes get accustomed to seeing the piece and you lose your ability to detect mistakes. In my case, it took months of leaving the piece alone before I could see what was wrong with it. You don’t have to wait that long but give it a day or two. Flipping the image also helps you to see things in a new light which can point out mistakes you otherwise missed.

3. Sometimes it’s Better When You Don’t Make the Cut

Boy am I glad that image didn’t get selected for publication. The last thing I want is to turn off a client because of a poor image. It also pushes you to do better when you get knocked down once in a while. Some of my most painful art experiences have driven me to new heights. I’ve come to know my own ambitions much better after having them tested.

4. Your Ability to See Mistakes Increases as You Get Better

I was surprised by how much was wrong when I did this piece just last year but that’s a good thing. It means I have improved! For most of us, the process of getting better takes a long time. Stick through it. Sometimes you can see your mistakes but you just don’t know how to fix them. Times like that are the most frustrating of all. I stumbled across this profound quote by Ira Glass which seems to sum it up well:

ira-glass-quoteIf you are an aspiring artist please take it to heart! In the words of Galaxy Quest- “Never give up, never surrender!”

That doesn’t mean it won’t be a difficult process. When I decided to try digital painting at the end of 2009 I knew it was going to be painful. Hours of work got me sub-par results. I’ve come a long way. I still learn new things every time I paint. So keep it up!

What keeps you going when times are tough?

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4 thoughts on “The Learning Curve

  1. I think this is a great blog post :).

    I also think that it's great that you found out that Ruoxing Zhang's style wasn't for you :p. When I first saw the original painting, I thought maybe you were trying to emulate Marta Dahlig or Melanie Delon, because they both have really soft styles too :P.

    I really like that quote. I really haven't been drawing for very long, but it's nice to know that everyone goes through a phase where they think that everything they do sucks. IO really need to do volumes of work, so that I can improve and get out of this phase!

    To be honest…I'm REALLY bad at going when times are tough…I need to get better at that.

    Once again, great post!

  2. Thank you for your comment, Chris. Yes I have tried the whole Melanie Delon thing before a few times and I just can't seem to get it. In the process however, I have found my own style.

    If drawing is what you really love, don't give up! As my dad always says, you get good at what you do. ;)

  3. The styles you wanted to copy are influenced by their culture. There are certain things that they emphasis and hide depending on which country they are from.

    You emulate something unless you understand why it is so.

    In asia, even skin tone, big bright eyes, glow from within blush and so on. You can't just put weird colors here and there.

    You have to learn these things from their beauty magazines and so on. That's where they get their inspiration. Sometimes I look at their work and I think about beauty ads with something added on top.

    Use better reference, stop wasting time trying to work it out. Stop believing those fake tutorials that certain artists made.

  4. Ah but see I don't use makeup ads as reference. The first time around I focused heavily on NOT using any direct reference which resulted in mistakes. The second time around I mocked up a quick figure in DAZ to see more grace in the pose. The lose eyeballed ref still looks almost nothing like the image you see here (except the hand placement). I think I was much more successful and I pride myself in not relying on paint-overs or commercially derived images to copy. Creating something beautiful from nothing is much more fulfilling.

    And actually I do know where to put color and this is not Asian influenced. I spent many hours actually studying in portrait painting class the subtleties of color theory exaggerated in the face. It was not haphazardly applied as you may think. And I don't look at online tutorials by artists like this. I push to discover my own techniques.

    Thanks for your advice all the same but it seems your approach is nothing like my own. Which is fine. We all have our own way of discovering. Copying a photo I find on the net is not my way.

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