How life funneled me into an art career.
We make our own choices, right? We decide what we do and what we want. Well: Most of the time maybe, but life throws you curve balls all the time. It’s just a fact, nobody can help it. And if you think these curve balls will be history when you do the thing you love most, or because you have your own company: I’m sorry to break the news, but you are wrong. Better to know that earlier than later. Instead of complaining about your boss or colleague, you very well might have to deal with a problematic client or with yourself. Because nobody is perfect. And if you only have yourself to answer to, your little flaws suddenly become very annoying. The journey of an artist and its art career is a tough one, but a very rewarding one as well.
So, how did my journey start?
As mentioned earlier: Feel free to skip to the next chapter from here on. I was 32 by the time I decided to change my tactics regarding my future. This means I had to deal with quite a few curve balls of my own before I got there. But this might be interesting or relatable anyway for many of you.
I was 16 when I had to decide what career I was gonna go for. And really: I had no clue. My father worked in a restaurant/catering/theater. My mother was a housemaid. Both things didn’t really appeal to me, nor did many other things. At is was the year 2001, there was no such thing as an affordable art study.
Yes, I was that annoying kid that would fill her notebooks with illustrations of all kinds, but I never ever considered a career in it at that time, simply because the field was still very small and very elite. These days the market is a lot bigger and better accessible.
Anyhow, not knowing what to do, I started to study SPW, specializing in mentally disabled care. This didn’t click with me because it became way too personal + I didn’t receive any guidance like I should have, being a schoolkid of 17 years old. So when I turned 19, my past caught up with me and I couldn’t graduate and ditched the whole idea of mentally disabled care.
Educational curve balls
You’d think that an ‘educational curve-ball’ would be a positive thing, but in my case, not really. After quitting SPW I started studying animal care, working in a pet-shop and later for a doggy-walk. Curve-balls still coming in, at 21 I had to suddenly live on my own and wasn’t able to pay my study. I only had to attend to school for 2 to 4 hours a week, but the travel was taking 2 to 3 hours one way every time, time I needed to spend at my work, so I shifted to home study on the same subject at a very highly rated online school. But yea, half way in the study disappeared. They never gave me a heads up and I only found out a year after, when I wanted to do a mini course at a specific location, which was part of the study.
By this time, including a little pause, I was 27 and still had no significant career or even finished a study after my 16th. I started working for my parents restaurant years before, enjoying it, but not fulfilling to me. This is when I made my first step to becoming a digital artist: I started to study Graphic Design, a home study by the same company. They were still ranked as the best and their prices were affordable at the time. But again, I was fooled.
Little did i know, at first, that the education was at least 10 years outdated. I started to notice that after a year or so when I reached the chapter about computer hardware. I was surprised to read in 2014 about how windows ’95 worked. But also what the idea was behind floppy disks! When i called the company for an explanation, I was told they were aware of the problem and were working on it. A month later i was told to pay for my exams (which were still two years ahead in my study) as the education would end with that very exam and could not be continued. Suffice to say, that was the end of that journey. I been spending over a year learning outdated things and again, ended up without a diploma.
Thankfully, after a lot of hassle I managed to get a significant discount on the revised version of that same education, which I finished within a year. But knowing the graphic design field is fairly over-saturated, I realized it was a good base to have, but not one with a future. But by that time, drawing tablets became affordable, and I bought my first one in January 2017.
The REAL art-career starts, a skill-journey
You know? There is no such thing as talent. You might have a feel for art, or for an aspect of it, but learning to draw properly is blood sweat and tears. Don’t expect to be able to draw perfectly because people say you’re talented. It just means you have a feel for shapes, forms, color, or any of the things that are needed for art. Which of course it an advantage. But there are so many aspects to art! Don’t be hard on yourself, it takes a lot of time to master, just like any other craft. And probably even more time than the average fact-driven or scientific study. I’ll try to show you my digital journey here:
My first digital drawings
I drew a lot by hand before, never followed a course though. But always wanted to draw digitally. I was heavily inspired by World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings. But owning a drawing tablet was like a new era to me. That’s when I started to take drawing really seriously and started to look up tutorials and courses. In 2021 my art improved significantly. Yes, I still have my weaker and stronger areas, and it will stay like that for many more years, if not forever, but the images below display what I can pull off after a little over four years of training:
To get here you only have to spend roughly 4 to 8 hours a week studying/drawing on average. At least, that’s what I did over the course of 4 years.
In perspective, my first drawing was a horrible drawing of a hill and a church, a child could have drawn it. But I was just testing myself and my tablet. (Which bytheway was a Intuos Draw). If you’re not sure digital art is your thing, you are just fine starting with an Intuos Draw. You can always upgrade to a larger tablet or one with a display if that suits you.
Criticizing my own art of 2017
It’s always good to look back at your own art and criticize yourself. Some weathered artists will tell you: Only compare your art to your own, and that’s very true. Everybody is in another stage of development and everyone has his or her own strengths and weaknesses. You are unique in that, so looking back at your own art is always very good to do, and it will give you an ego-boost as well.
1. Flats and stamps
I lost the file of my first ever drawing, sadly. But the one below followed. Not knowing what to do, I played with stamps and textured brushes, with the illustration below as result. The mountains feel flat, the shadows are way to black, the light source is unclear, the colors are off, the heavy texturing is a no-no (unless that’s a style of course, but that’s not the case here) and so on. No artistic ‘talent’ going on here :p.
Mind you: Although I did draw in the past, I never trained myself in anything. I just scribbled around and learned to copy mostly manga characters. That’s where I started in 2017. So don’t be demoralized with the idea that I drew for decades before starting my career: I did, but not in a constructive way.
2. Color balance, you say what?
But following a tutorial from Evenant Design, I made my next illustration. Not bad, but the colors are waaaay off, and the blacks are too black. Plus, the reflective lines in the water should have been horizontal. Not to mention the strange slope and the still water. Shall I continue? Judge for yourself :p.
3. Layers gone wrong!
You wanna see my 4th too? It’s the first I was actually proud of. Of course, as is usually the case with dragons, reference was used. And one could argue that it doesn’t look realistic: But that was the intention. These days I could do an illustration like this with roughly 15-20 layers. This one however was done with 103. It’s still a nice illustration to this day, but as we’re criticizing here, let me continue on that note:
The texture used on the neck and head of the dragon doesn’t follow the form. The water looks too 0cartoonish compared to the dragon. 103 layers… Really? The gradient that serves as background was an easy shortcut and although I started using reflective lights: The illustration still looks flat. And, yes, my shadows are near-black. Although the water droplets look neat: They are stamps, it’s absolutely fine to use stamps, but let them be the skeleton or the finishing touch to your art. Don’t build your art from them.
The importance of good tutorials
Of course, following a good tutorial is a no-brainer. And I have to add that you don’t necessarily need to pay for good tutorials. Here you can find some great teaching youtubers for all art-stages! But I didn’t know many back then, and instead I turned to skillshare where I found Hardy Fowler. If you can miss a few euro’s a month: He is absolutely amazing and a really good place to start at for landscapes, storytelling, creature, and character design. His mini-courses go from start to finish, step by step. They’re very easy to follow, and I can say that that is where I found my passion for realistic creature design.
Of course this one isn’t perfect either. No illustration ever is. But it was a serious jump forward.
- I learned to appreciate anatomy of living organisms.
- I learned to work with light sources and textures, creating specific effects.
- The importance of shape language and silhouettes became evident. Triangles stand for danger for example, while circles for cute. And the silhouette should be readable right away.
- Composition became a thing, applying it in the pose and playing with the tail.
- The benefits of not using too many layers (If only I knew that before :p).
- How few brushes you actually need to make a good illustration. (These days I on average use 3 to 4 favorite ones, with some exceptions).
- He’s also very good at explaining the mechanics of Photoshop.
All and all, it had a huge impact on my skills and above all: My awareness. If you don’t know something exists, you won’t draw it. Art is really harsh in that sense.
Analysis of the Howler
If I were to change anything on the image above: I would be using blue hues in the shadows, no blacks. And I would pose the Howler a little bit different in an effort to have its right claw be more visible and not in front of that leg. I’m sure that if we were to look at it from the other side, its elbow would be stuck between its ribs and its leg :p. Also, I would decrease the muscle mass on the left shoulder and lower it. Anatomically seen, it doesn’t make sense. And I’m sure that I’d lose myself in redrawing this thing completely, finding more and more errors along the way.
However, the head is very neat, although a bit over-detailed. I went in a bit too deep. And I still love the hind leg and the tail. Beautiful silhouettes there, proper anatomy and shapes, and relying more on these shapes than details, like any illustration should when the focal point is somewhere else.
In-depth info about the process
To give you an idea: This illustration was done in early 2018. Roughly a year after I got my tablet. Before that time I only did 4 illustrations as I wasn’t sure yet what direction to go. I was also hyper-focusing on trivial things like: What size should a canvas be (the answer is: any really, to suit your design). Bigger is better, but only if your computer is strong enough. If you practice: You’re absolutely fine with an A4-sized canvas. More into detail? A3, or any related size will do just fine. You can go wider, and taller, or the exact opposite.
Anyhow, my point is: I research a lot before I do something, but the more important thing is to make sure you put in practice. The rest you will learn overtime. This by following tutorials, or reading like you are doing now!
You’re on a level on which you think you can start selling your art? Start using dimensions companies like Displate use. Or any other company that sells digital art for you. (Think of RedBubble for example). These companies are called drop-shippers, as they print and deliver your art for you.
A quick fact list
I listed some things I thought might be interesting for you to know, especially when you’re a starting artist:
- My first payed digital commission was by a colleague early 2019, so 2 years after I started practicing. It was a dog portrait.
- My first digital art exposition was in early 2019 as well. But I had an exposition before in traditional art in 2017 at both my parents restaurant and a huge local sport center.
- The first (traditional) commission I ever did was for a friend in 2016, it was a trade. I still think that painting is horrific :p.
- My traditional paintings never worked out, all I did were requests of friends. The rest was given away or dumped at a pick up spot for books.
- I started traditional painting in 2015 and never studied any techniques until 2017 when I picked up my first digital drawing tablet.
- If you really put in proper practice (say: at least 4 to 8 hours practice a week, preferably more) you can expect to land your first commissions after a year or two. The more you practice, the quicker it will be.
- Landing your first commission is scary as shit, you will be terrified of showing it to your client and you will very likely get critics and will need to adjust things. You might not even want to ever do commissions again after your first, but that feeling quickly fades away. The critics will happen all the time, you just have to find the confidence in yourself, knowing you can fix whatever is thrown at you. It’s a learning process, and it will be like that until you die. It’s something you get used to.
- For me, being able to discuss my artworks with my art friends, preferably those that will say it when something is off, is the most valuable asset. Make making friends that are on the same wavelength as you priority number one.
- Everything is trivial until you put in the practice required to monetize your work.
- There is no need to know everything beforehand. You will learn on the way and your knowledge will grow significantly with every step you take.
The importance of art-friends
Know that, when I started, I started without any friends in the art-world. I had no guidance in any way, shape or form, and my only go-to was the Evenant Design facebook group, which, at the time, was quite active. In this group I made a lot of friends whom still are after these years. I followed my first payed course at Evenant Design and it was Evenant (or Walid Feghali to be precise) who helped me out to give Life to Legend it’s first breath of life by sharing the LTL Facebook group in the Evenant Design group.
The art community is very tight-knit. It’s hard for any outsider to understand what an artist has to go through. The uncertainty, low self-esteem, art-blocks, the struggles of slow progress, plateauing, you name it. People that don’t do art usually don’t understand it, and it’s very painful to hear things like ‘But, it’s your hobby, what are you complaining about? (You get payed for doing what you like) etc. etc. We cannot expect them to understand us, and that’s okay. Instead we need to stick together as artists. We understand the next artists value and need little words to understand what’s going wrong when something is going wrong.
Find people that are on your wavelength. I’m a very introverted person so I don’t really look for friends or feel the need to find them. But sometimes it clicks with people, and when it does: Value them, stick with them, challenge yourself with them and be there for them, like they will be for you.
I hope this journey of mine inspired and informed you. I did my best to throw in some valuable tips, after all I want you to give it a fair shot and you can only do that by being informed properly. Now, of course this article doesn’t encompass everything about art. but I will dig in deeper in the near future so every subject will get its own screen-time.
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