Dear Valerie Chua,
First, I hope you're doing great!
I would like to introduce myself, I'm R--- from Saudi Arabia, I'm a big fan of yours! I'm a self-taught artist and have been practicing drawing since I was little. I feel now trapped in a situation, I'm kind of disappointed, frustrated and feeling down. I feel I'm not going any further in sketching and drawing, and sometimes some of my portrait drawing looks ugly, it's like my drawings lately has been below my usual standards. I need your advice since I don't have any proper educational background in fine arts.
What should I do to get better? I recently been learning watercolor, is there any advice you can give me? or is there any great resources to learn from?
That's awesome and thanks for appreciating my work! I'm a self-taught artist as well. I'd like to share a little backstory for reference:
I taught myself how to draw by copying anime and manga styled illustrations when I was in high school. Later on I started getting into Vertigo DC graphic novels. I dreamed of becoming a cover artist that I started drawing in the styles of the artists that I like.
Later in high school and early college, I totally stopped drawing because I felt that I wasn't getting anywhere while my peers seem to improve at a more rapid pace. At this time I was only drawing using pencils and ink. I would sometimes digitally color them on Photoshop. Because of constantly using Photoshop, I ended up doing more graphic design and html instead of actual drawing.
What led me into drawing and painting again was around Sophomore College. I started doodling on my handouts. This gradually transitioned into bringing watercolor paints to school and painting on the handouts at the far end of the library. It's my favorite spot to study and I can draw freely without anyone looking at me. I was sort of the only "artist" in my school. There were theatre and music groups but there was none for visual art. I was in a business school and no one around me seemed to have as much pleasure in doing visual art as I did. The nice thing about this is that there was no competition and no basis of comparison. Everyone thought I was good because they didn't practice art themselves. It was very encouraging but I also felt alone.
“When you fail a “Talent Test,” you can easily tell yourself: looks like I have no talent.”
I got into drawing and painting so much that I tried to apply for a local art school in my Junior year. I didn't pass the talent test. When you fail a "Talent Test," you can easily tell yourself "looks like I have no talent." Thankfully I had friends from art school who reassured me that they have friends who can't even draw well but passed the test.
I tried for a school in the US instead. This became my motivational force to learn about anatomy, perspective, and general drawing. I practiced everyday to build a portfolio and I became proficient with life drawing. The only goal I had was to pass the test. I then applied for schools in the US, passed them and got a 60% scholarship grant from one of the schools. But my family isn't financially well enough to pay even half the tuition and they felt that it was such an unnecessary expense, so I just said: OK, I'll try to make this on my own without art school. 7 years later, here I am... Still not quite sure if I'm good enough but definitely better than before.
I believe all creatives, even athletes, felt that way once or more in their lifetime. You can feel it in your early years. You can feel it mid-career. Anything that deals with continued practice can bring feelings of stagnation. I definitely feel this way once every few years, to the point of quitting art for another profession, but I got better at it several years into it.
BEFORE ANYTHING ELSE, LET'S ESTABLISH A FEW FACTS:
You get better with practice.
Your improvement will depend on how mindful and engaged you are during practice.
Improvement has moments of STAGNANCY. I will focus on this and how to get past it.
HERE ARE A FEW THINGS THAT I FOUND HELPFUL:
Scale your goals and create diversions
Quantify and record your goals
Create small successes
Acknowledge "growing pains" and learn to verbalize visual problems
Be in it for the long haul
Do it for yourself, not for anyone else
SCALE YOUR GOALS AND CREATE DIVERSIONS
I feel that I developed the most when I was practicing to attain very simple goals. These past few years with age, I always felt the pressure of a time limit. I keep telling myself that I need to be this wonderful artist in 3 years or I'll be a failure, I need to have this client or I'll be failure, I need to exhibit at location x or I'll be a failure. I've come to realize that the more I see it this way, the more anxious I become and the more I immobilize my entire working process. These goals are too abstract and seemingly unattainable but I sometimes can't help but feel this way.
Writing this today, I'm learning from my 17 year old self: I just wanted to pass a test because this can open me to bigger opportunities like being a graphic novel artist in the US. But at that point, the test was more important. In trying to pass the test, I devoted smaller goals per week like completing a number of life drawings and personal works. A few days before submission, I picked the best ones to submit. That's it.
By trying to pass a test, I learned and developed drawing skills without the primary intention of studying. Sometimes if you go in to "study," it feels like hard work and struggle. This feeling of responsibility and suffering doesn't work for everyone so you have to trick your mind by creating diversions for practice. One way to do it is by creating fun challenges like creating a narrative, a list of things to draw, or being your own client without the pressures of passing judgment or hard criticism after completing the work.
Back then, my anatomy was bad but I liked drawing pictures of girls in ornate dresses and patterns. There is some effort in executing figure drawing well but at the same time, I was developing composition, design sense and style without the intention of studying it. Even if you're not good technically, creating things that excite you shouldn't be taken for granted. Ask yourself, what's my guilty pleasure? Robots? Tigers? Faces? Keep drawing that for fun and create challenges around it. Robots with dinosaurs. Robots dancing ballet. Robots made of water.
In terms of scaling your goals, saying "I want to be a graphic novel artist in the US" or "I want to be really good" can easily turn into, "I suck. It's over. This is stupid." These are very abstract, broad, goals. As much as it helps you, it causes anxiety because it's not concrete enough. What does becoming a Good Artist mean? Good in anatomy? Good in landscape drawing? Good in color? Even these are very broad things. It contains too many parameters that fall under the great big umbrella of Good Art. The best way for me is to break it down into small, quantifiable tasks that help build the bigger goal.
QUANTIFY AND RECORD YOUR GOALS
Taking the example of an aspiring graphic novel artist that requires a lot of figure drawing: By quantifying, I will commit the following:
From June 1-10, I will draw 10 gestures a day and 5 fully rendered bodies in pencil. I will devote 3 hours doing this because I only have 3 hours to spare in a day.
From June 11-20, I will draw 5 gestures a day, 3 fully rendered bodies, and I will just study the muscles of the face by drawing 3 heads in different angles. And so on...
This is a concrete goal that's easily attainable and easily recordable. Everyday I can take pictures of my work and revisit them several months from now and say, "hey, my drawing in June 1 is so funny-looking compared to my December 31 drawing!" No matter how small, I have witnessed improvement. This witnessing is important and keeps you motivated to do more. This method is often used for people doing weight loss or body building. Weight loss is incredibly hard for people defeated by their own hopelessness and demotivation. Seeing pictures of minor change gives a boost of confidence to pursue further.
This is what I liked about Kimon Nicolaides' book, The Natural Way to Draw. He gives you routines to follow on a weekly basis. All you need to do is follow this and not worry about the next step yet. If I remember correctly, he tells you not to do the next task without finishing the current week's task.
Recording is an amazing tool. Sometimes I would realize that I did something 6 months before that made my style look good. I can't seem to do it now. What is it? Then I revisit that work and study it. Don't beat yourself up for not having that "magic" anymore. It's still your magic, you have the power to conjure it.
Try your best to forget the big picture while working on the task at hand. Drawing heads and thinking about "Oh shit! What about the arms! I don't even know how to draw feet yet! What about background?" will cause anxiety. Think about the bigger picture while setting your goals for the week or month but forget about them during execution. Focus on the head first then focus on connecting the head to the body later on. If you're in a good mood, try squeezing in easy things to learn in between. And as I mentioned before, don't forget the fun parts.
CREATE SMALL SUCCESSES
The reason why people feel depressed and demotivated while doing their work is because they fail to see success in their work OR they fail to create low-commitment work that can bring personal successes or milestones. Personally, I'm the type who never sees success in my own work so I have to force myself to do the latter.
If you're aiming to finish a 6x4 feet painting in 1 month, a long-term project, or long-term studying, and you're not used to this, be ready for some agony and self-doubt. What should you do?
While doing difficult, arduous tasks and projects that require long-term focus: Create low-commitment and easy drawings on the side. These small, easy results can give you a boost of endorphins. Do a doodle, a quick painting sketch, or even something completely different from what you do. If you often draw figures, why not do an abstract painting for fun? You work with oil 24/7? Let's try watercolor this time. You like drawing robots? Let's draw more robots. Make it brainless and easy. Make a drawing with your little niece who thinks EVERYTHING you make is totally AMAZING. These small bursts of happiness can fuel you through the long haul.
Going back to quantifying and recording, working on a large painting doesn't seem to go anywhere but you can set small goals like, I will finish 1/5 of this painting in 7 days. Take photographs of your work. The more visible your progress is, the happier you become. Don't stop.
Pro-tip: Avoid setting unrealistic goals. Telling yourself to finish 1/2 of a life-size painting in a few days when this is clearly beyond your physical capacity, is not a good idea.
ACKNOWLEDGE "GROWING PAINS" AND LEARN TO VERBALIZE VISUAL PROBLEMS
I often think about difficult transitions as "growing pains." The reason why it's difficult is because you are questioning yourself a lot and you're trying multiple ways to make your work click. Don't take this purely as an agonizing roadblock. Be excited at the prospect of becoming a better artist once you've found a solution to your problem.
Write down your problems and talk to people about it. Drawing and painting is visual but the moment you convert visual problems into daily language, the easier it is to process and solve. I learned this by constantly talking to people about problems with my work, and also from writing exhibition notes. Don't forget to always ask why.
"I feel bad because I'm not improving." WHY? Verbalize the lack of improvement. Example: I lack improvement because my work doesn't look 3-dimensional. What makes a work 3-dimensional? It's 3-dimensional because it uses tones to make lighter areas surface. Therefore, I should study tone and value more. I will look at paintings with good tone and value. I will study books and videos that cover this topic well. Tackle 1-2 areas at a time, at least the ones that's most noticeable for you. There's no need to study everything at the same time if you can't. You'll go crazy.
"My portraits are ugly." WHY? Verbalize what makes it ugly for you. Example: The nose seems flat. What makes it flat? Maybe I am overdrawing the lines and holes like a cartoon. Maybe I should study just the nose today. Maybe I can make faces less detailed and then just emphasize the nose today.
Once you verbalized what's missing, it's easier to address the problem. Language is kind of useless if you only talk to yourself. Talk to people about your work and ask for opinions on how to improve. You don't need a professor to help you. Anyone with good design sense can help you out even by just a little bit. No matter how much of an expert you are in something, there's always someone better than you who can help you. Acknowledge this and ask for help.
On relation to growing pains, the moment you see discomfort as part of the process, the easier it is to course through your work.
BE IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL
In the age of the internet and cheap plane fares, you get exposed to a LOT of art. Some of these works are from people who are younger than you, some are half your age. When I started consciously drawing at 17, I had friends with unbelievable talent but today, they're not drawing anymore. I had some friends who stopped at 20, worked in a different profession, and only started again when they're 30. Some people like Lisa Congdon launched her professional career at nearly 40 years old and continues to be one of the most successful people in art. Do people respect her less for staring late? Definitely no!
I also came to understand that some goals are never met. In the process of attaining that goal, you get derailed and you suddenly find yourself in a better situation that you never thought was viable in the 1st place. You sometimes have to allow life to happen to steer you to the direction you never thought you would love. What's important is that (I paused but) I never stopped. Maybe in a few years I'll be doing something different, who knows?
A lot of frustration comes from comparing yourself to others. When you see other people's work, it creates unrealistic standards in your head. You tell yourself, "I should be this good" because the work you see around you gets recognition and success. You think that "This is the kind of work that gets hired but mine looks nothing like it."
The problem with a result-oriented approach such as this is that you forget to see practice as a learning process. The thing that people forget is that learning the rubrics of academic painting and drawing is usually just a stepping stone for better expressive work in the future. It's not the end result. Drawing a perfect human figure doesn't mean you are a better artist. Enjoy the process of learning how to build the figure rather than focusing on perfecting the figure. It will never be perfect. If it looks unsatisfying, learn to laugh and ask yourself what changes you want to do next, rather than agonizing over the mistakes.
The most successful artists aren't the ones who made it big at 20. They're the ones who are still earning the respect of institutions and the world at 85. You have a long life ahead of you, you don't have to suffer through it. If you tried your best and it didn't work out, don't beat yourself up but use this as an opportunity to craft your next step. If you keep trying and strategizing, there will come a time when things will work.
Enjoy your mistakes today, because in a few years time you won't be making the same ones anymore and it will be a thing of the past. Knowing that this is a lifetime cruise and not a race to success, and acknowledging my differences from another person my age in a different country, makes me relax a bit and makes me take things 1 step at a time.
I've listen to perhaps 30 interviews on Design Matters by Debbie Millman and it makes me happy that her guests are mid-career or long-term professionals. You get to hear their failures and where they came from. It's very humanizing and inspiring because they're not overnight successes and they come from different backgrounds and ethnicities.
DO IT FOR YOURSELF, BEFORE ANYONE ELSE
I have a quote that I wrote on my studio wall almost 2 years ago and it helped frame my mind immensely:
Show up everyday for two years
Don't expect any results
Earn some HUSTLE credits
I went to the US to learn very basic oil painting for 12 sessions. When I went back to the Philippines I didn't know how to build pictures with it. I was so confused and I still went back to watercolor because I didn't know what to do with my oil painting knowledge and everything I painted looked awkward and didn't connect. It didn't sell as well. I came across the above quote and it helped alleviate the pressure to always do good.
All I did was paint for a year. I didn't show any of these works to other people. I just painted for myself. Some of them didn't look good based on my standards, but my mentor signed me up for an exhibition and a deadline. I just had to finish paintings by the date and it didn't matter what they looked like. If I don't finish anything, I won't be able to exhibit anything, and I'll starve to death because it was my only source of income at that time. On the exhibition date, I was already sure that I won't be able to sell a painting so I was telling myself, "I'll be OK with just 2 paintings sold." I posted a few works on Instagram and it barely got attention. But in the end, everything sold out at the exhibition on the 1st night. This was very strange for me, almost a feeling of cognitive dissonance. I absolutely felt I would bomb because my primary audience on Instagram didn't like it as much, and I often used social media to gauge my capacity as an artist. But overall, I think this is the best weird feeling in the world: that there are people who liked you for you, not because you tried to please them.
This experience taught me a lot. It made me accept myself. It goes back to the feeling of my time in my school library drawing for myself, with no competition and no basis of comparison.
Every time I have an intense pressure to sell or satisfy another person, I lose myself. It also made me realize that there is no one type of art buyer. There is a buyer for everyone. And the internet is not the only place to sell and appreciate art, as vast as it already is. As long as you craft your work with the very best of your skills, beliefs, and principles, it will connect to someone else in this world and it will build a life of its own. Art is a communicative tool. If there is a visual message that is loud and unwavering, and it is thrown out, someone will respond to it.
I also use this as a reminder to be kind to myself, trust my own ideas and process. No matter how underdeveloped my technique is, I value the work I create because it's a testament to the moment I'm living today. It's a testament of my existence and my flaws today, and the possibilities I can create with my work tomorrow. 10 years from now I will not be creating the same work anymore.
"If you don't like me for who I am today, maybe you'll like me tomorrow.
If you like me for who I am today, maybe you won't tomorrow.
But I will not bend myself for you."
You have to be comfortable in saying this to yourself, despite how uncomfortable it is. If you can, you're in a very good place.
One thing I keep repeating in all sections is to be comfortable with yourself and the uncomfortable mistakes that you make. The more focused you are in trying the be perfect, the more frustrated you become. Learn to relax and stop beating yourself up for not getting it right. Just keep drawing and don't expect anything from yourself. You will get better naturally just by drawing everyday. Good luck with the journey and see you at the finish line.
RECOMMENDATIONS AND RESOURCES:
HOW-TO BOOKS FOR ILLUSTRATION BEGINNERS
- Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards - particularly the part on contouring, which I feel was very pivotal in creating "conscious but relaxed practice" in the early years.
- The Natural Way to Draw by Kimon Nicolaides
- Figure Drawing for All Its Worth by Andrew Loomis - A less scientific, less tedious approach to figure drawing.
- Atlas of Human Anatomy for the Artist by Stephen Rogers Peck - This is a great secondary reference book. It's very scientific and breaks down each body part.
- Alla Prima by Richard Schmid - For oil painting
- Light and Color by James Gurney - One of my favorite books, especially on understanding how to choose colors without a reference and for design.
- Imaginative Realism by James Gurney
- Atmospheric Watercolors by Jean Haines
- Watercolor tutorials in YouTube
FOR THE MIND
- Finished not Perfect by Jake Parker
- Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland - Converts fear into words and logic but doesn't necessarily present concrete solutions. But like they said in G.I. Joe, knowing is half the battle.
- The Art Spirit by Robert Henri - Slow and grueling read but contains some valuable gems.
- Design Matter by Debbie Millman
- How to Build a Habit of Sketching Daily
- Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson
- Beautiful Anonymous' episode "Quiet Rage" - The artist being spoken to is a Comedian. But this is applicable to any artist. When you're at that part of you career that you're not sure if you should get your work out there or if you're not unleashing your full potential into the wild, get schooled by Chris Gethard.
- Show Up Everyday by Sean McCabe
- Just Do It by Shia LeBeouf - For obvious reasons.