Friday, June 08, 2012

You Don't Need Art School! The Art Of Self Criticism and the Self Taught Artist

Why Learn How To Objectively Self Critique and Assess?


The ability to self critique is an under appreciated skill that all artists should carefully cultivate. Self critique and self assessment allow an artist to determine weak areas and enable the development of a self improvement game plan. For the self taught artist, this valuable skill is even more important, as the ability to solicit outside opinions may be extremely limited. While we all have the tendency to be our harshest critic, objectivity is the best way to gain a true bead on your progress. The more you practice self- critique, the sooner you'll be able to spot weak areas in your work, and the faster you'll be able to improve. Even artists attending an art school do well to practice the habit of constant self assessment, and will find that their work will improve quickly with a well trained eye.

Unfortunately, with limited artistic experience, objectivity may be hard to come by for the self taught artist. Many beginning artists make the mistake of comparing themselves to artists with more experience and better developed skills, and become discouraged quickly. Objectivity is necessary for all stages of artistic development, though it may be tempting to play devil's advocate and only focus on weak areas, and not on what's done right. This is the fast track to burnout and discouragement. You need to recognize the good in what you do, as well as the bad. Accurate self assessment is key to improvement. You've done yourself no favors if all you notice are your failures, because you have nothing good to build upon.

To help you in your quest for improvement, I'll share a few things I've picked up, both as a self taught artist and as a student who enjoys the benefits of attending an art school.

Rules For Self Critique


Rule #1: Don't compare yourself to others, only compare your recent work to your past work.

Don't allow your peers to compare you to others either. Utilize the work of other artists to inspire improvement, or study for technique, but don't expect to replicate overnight what others have struggled to develop for years.

A great way to assess your progress is to steal a technique from art school- pin your work to the wall, stand back, and look critically. Don't just put up your best, or your most recent work, put everything up, in chronological order, and really think about the progress you've made and the work you've done. Feel free to pat yourself on the back for trying a new technique or implementing a new method, even if it was not successful. Note the areas you've improved upon, the areas that still need work, and set some immediate goals. Physically taking notes will help you keep everything mind, and can be referred to at a later date. These notes can be turned into goals to meet.

So let's say you've been working hard, making steady improvement, and you're feeling pretty good about your work. Maybe it's time to cut back on your study time and relax a little.

Nope.

Rule #2: Satisfaction is good, complacency is bad.

If you can happily drag yourself to bed after a full day of artistic study, that's fantastic, and you're ahead of the curve. Most of us can't do that. But don't let that satisfaction make you lazy. So what if you can draw really cute anime style girls with their hands and feet hidden from a frontal view? That's nothing! You still can't draw hands or feet! You probably can't draw guys, people of different ethnicity, or people at different stages of life. It should not be good enough to draw the same thing over and over without any variation. It's time for a real challenge. Search for a new skill to master! Begin an in depth understanding of real anatomy, research perspective, go into the field and do some life sketches. Push yourself out of your comfort zone.

Rule #3: Strive for improvement, even if it means drawing things you aren't confident in drawing.

Drawing things you're weak at can be depressing, so gird your loins with inspiration and guidance. A little research beforehand can make this daunting challenge a little easier to tackle. Try to find process work- a finished piece may not tell you much about the artist's thought process, and when you're working on your own, you need all the help you can get. Watching the Livestream of an artist you admire can not only offer process, but sometimes the artist will explain his or her process while working, taking the guesswork out of reverse engineering. Once you feel a little more confident, in your task, it's time to face your weaknesses head on! There are no obstacles, only new challenges to tackle. The first time you try a new thing, chances are the result will be pretty awful, but you have to keep pushing at it. A lot of drawing is building muscle memory, and learning how to see, and it gets easier as you put the time in. While seeking out inspiration, make sure you check out tutorials and guidebooks, they can often make unintelligible techniques transparent. I also recommend watching the Gnomon lectures if you have the opportunity. These workshops are lead by industry professionals and demonstrate techniques taught in many art schools.

An important step in learning to self critique is to learn how to self evaluate fairly. While this is a difficult skill to develop as a self taught artist, it's vital to your development. Basing your evaluation upon your progress is a good start, and setting goals ensures that you'll make progress. Refer back to the notes you took during your self assessment for guidance regarding areas that need improvement.

Areas you may wish to evaluate for self assessment include:


Understanding and application of anatomy, pose, and gesture.
Use and effectiveness in composition.
Understanding and application of background and the utilization of perspective.
Effectiveness of storytelling

When consuming media, analyze how the creator approaches all items in the above list. Look critically, leave the defensive fan zone and analyze what your favorite creators do successfully and not so successfully, and try to determine what works. The more you practice this, the easier it will be to apply to your own work. While reading comics and graphic novels, I often have a pad of Post Its and a pen handy so that I may take notes.

Rule #4 Make small, achievable goals.

One of the best ways to approach any daunting task is to break it down into manageable chunks. Don't just set out to learn anatomy- build up from the basic shapes. A great way to make this daunting task manageable is to break it into weekly goals, or to follow along a great figure structure manual. The manual will have the figure explained in sections, and you can master a new one weekly. I personally recommend the Glen Vilppu Drawing Manual. Glen Vilppu worked at Disney for a number of years, and even taught at SCAD in the Sequential Art department, and his method of teaching anatomy has formed the foundation of how I approach figure drawing. His approach is dynamic, memorable, and accessible. I can personally attest to this book's ability to teach anatomy to an absolute novice- when I picked it up years ago, I was wet behind the ears and my knowledge of the human anatomy was the sum of the song "Hands and Fingers, Knees and Toes". As your knowledge increases so will your ability, which is why it's important to compare your current work only to your past work. So long as there is improvement, you're on the right track.

Once you've hit a stride, its easy for that to become a rut, which is why it's important to break outside your comfort zone and challenge yourself.


Rule #5: Experiment; do unusual things

In order to be proficient in a wide variety of styles and media, its important that you experiment. Mimic the techniques of others. Follow your hunches. Play around with media. Don't become discouraged if you don't immediately achieve the desired results.

Art schools provide many opportunities to leave the comfort zone and often force challenges upon students in the way of assignments. My first semester in Sequential Art was nothing but challenges- learning the ins and outs of the readable comic page, understanding effective storytelling, utilizing perspective. Unfortunately, self taught artists may lack this external stimuli, and it becomes very easy to fall into a comfortable groove where improvement is negligible. To combat this, there are lots of artist exercises designed to push you to think in new ways, a simple Google search of "artist exercises" yields dozens. As kids, many of us played the Exquisite Corpse game, and this game can be modified to push you as an artist as an adult. Earlier in the year, Joseph Coco wrote a post about creativity that I recommend checking out if you're stumped. These exercises can be utilized in a variety of situations, and are as applicable to comic artists as to any other profession. A book that I highly recommend is Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, the exercises and techniques within are taught in several art courses, and the book itself is written for aspiring self-motivated artists.

Rule #6: Cultivate humility

In order to accurately self evaluate, a little humility can go a long way. Art school has a way of forcing humility onto students, by creating an environment where one is surrounded by great work. Frequent class critiques keep swelled egos in check, and provide much needed perspective. Unfortunately, when you're studying art alone, you may not have access to this. In order to develop a sense of humility, you should be realistic about your abilities, don't claim weaknesses are hallmarks of your 'style'. If you can't draw the same subject utilizing a different method, it's not 'style' but weakness. One way to stretch yourself artistically is to practice style exercises, where you draw characters and objects utilizing another artist's style. This keeps you flexible, and if you're open minded in your pursuit, you can learn a lot. There is no shame in adopting techniques utilized by others, and this does not make you a hack. Austin Kleon's How to Steal Like an Artist includes timely advice that is hammered into the heads of art students, but has been under appreciated in online art circles, and so may be easy to miss. Keep in mind that there will always be artists better, faster, and younger than you, and let this keep you hungry for improvement.

Rule #7: Style is secondary to understanding

Many young artists make the mistake of emulating style without understanding the foundations. For example, the number of Sequential Art undergrads with an anime style or with a style strongly influenced by Bryan Lee O'Malley surprised and astounded me this past Editors' Day. Unfortunately, for many of these young artists, this is all they practice, and their abilities are limited by a lack of understanding. This lack of understanding often leads to unintentional physical deformities such as floating eyebrows and eyes sliding off the face. Before you focus on finding your style, make sure you have a basic understanding of the foundations of drawing. A strong understanding of the basics enables you to adopt a variety of styles easily, and increases your hire-ability later on.

Floating eyebrows seem to be unattached to the actual face itself, and can float above bangs, clothing, and even the head. Image via here
The eyes just seem to slide off the face like bacon off a greased plate. Image via here


Rule #8: Don't strive for perfection

This is something artists at all levels of development struggle with, and is particularly prevalent at art schools where students are often compared to one another, and an unfavorable critique can be dreaded. I'm not suggesting you should not strive for improvement, but don't berate yourself for failure of ability. Every failure shows you what not to do, and areas to focus on in the future. We all have ten thousand bad drawings in us, it's best to get them out while we're still practicing. Although I share my good and bad pieces equally, there is no reason you should. If you don't feel comfortable sharing the entire body of your work online, don't.

Eventually, you will hit a wall with self critique and evaluation, and will need to seek outside criticism. Criticism can come from a variety of sources, but you should be careful in where you solicit it.

Look for trusted sources, sources that have a basic understanding of art, and sources that aren't out to sabotage you. Mom and Dad may love you lots, but unless they can be objective, they are probably not good sources for critique. A critique needs to be more constructive than 'sure, that's good' or 'I dunno, I just don't like it', the more specific, the better.

A good beginner critique can be thought of as a compliment sandwich- the critic begins with something you've done well, touches upon something you can improve upon, and ends with something you're executing successfully. A critic should be able to elaborate on their suggestions, and offer explanations as to why they feel the way they do. If they can back it up with established art theory, that's even better, because that's something you can research and apply, and their criticism will hold valid no matter the viewer.

Avoid 'hugbox' critiques from sites like Deviantart or from friends. The goal is to find areas of improvement, if no suggestions can be offered, the goal has not been met. We all need the occasional pick-me up compliment from a source that believes we can do no wrong, so don't completely discount these sources, but keep in mind that just because there are no suggestions for improvement does not mean there isn't room for any.

Get rid of that ego! Even those who don't draw can see flaws. Don't discard a well thought out critique from a non-artist or from a less skilled artist. For many of us, the first organ that's trained are our eyes, even before our hands can execute our visions.

Cultivate artist friendships. Real friendships that go beyond a topical fandom. Consider forming a collective or studio that provides support and critique for members. For many, this relationship begins while in school, but many conventions hold artist meet ups, and if you're particularly outgoing, you can scour the artist alley for critiques.

Consider joining a website to find the art community you desire. Conceptart.org's forums are a fantastic source of critique, advice, and resources, Something Awful's Creative Conventions is a friendly community that offers timely feedback and engaging artist challenges, and Tumblr has many communities based around memes and challenges. Create a sketch blog using Wordpress or Blogger, create a Tumblr, post your sketches to your Twitter, update your Facebook with art often, and ask for input and advice.

Get over the myth of talent, you only become a good artist with hard work, dedication, and time. It's a huge investment. Some people may be predisposed for a job in the arts- they may have superior eyesight, great hand eye coordination, or an acute sense for color. I have none of those advantages, and I manage to do just fine with some hard work and extra effort. Don't expect to become proficient over night, and don't become discouraged easily. If an artist is better than you, determine why. If they're more popular, analyze how they interact with the rest of the internet. Develop a tough skin, and look for opportunities for critique.

Critique may hurt now, but it helps you grow.

The more you practice self critique and the more you solicit outside criticism, the stronger you'll become as an artist. We all make mistakes, but self critique allows you to notice them faster, and correct them sooner. By seeking critique often during the various stages of a single piece, you can make improvements during the process, and will end up with a stronger piece. Avoiding critique allows some artists to fall into ruts that are hard if not impossible to escape from, so while hearing negative things may hurt, they allow you to grow as an artist in the long run.

Would you like a little input or advice about your work? Send me a link to your gallery, and I'll comment with timely, insightful critique! As always, I am open to, and excited about recieving critique on my own work, so please do so.