Friday, April 20, 2012

The Lack of a Silver Bullet

A little while back, I got an email that contained the following:

I am curious as to how all of you artists are so insanely fantastic with drawing, sketching, painting, etc.  Although I love art a lot, my art (if anyone would ever call it such), is amateur at best. I was hoping to request one tip if any at all from someone that seems like a profession artist.

This is a question I have been asked many, many times, and when faced with this question without a portfolio of work to examine for a more specific critique, I typically answer with a fairly stock reply.  But I think it's a pretty good one, so I'm going to share my response.  Here goes:

I wish I could tell you that there's a magic bullet.  I wish there was a simple thing you could adjust that would take your work from being okay, to professional quality.  I really wish I could tell you that it's easy.  But it's not.

The quality reached by the many artists who work on Magic: The Gathering tends to come from a combination of two sources: innate talent and hard work.

Innate talent is something no one has any control over.  I knew guys in college who could draw me under the table without making any real effort to do so.  There was something in their brains that clicked naturally, and it was pretty clear that my brain just wasn't wired that way.  I knew I had some raw skills, but not to the level of some of these other folks.  To this day I know a lot of folks who are far better than I am at drawing, painting, what have you.  Some of my betters haven't even picked up a pencil or brush in years but when they do they create things that would give one the impression that they've been at it the whole time.  It's frustrating and awe-inspiring, but the disparity of natural talent from one person to another is something you have to accept.  The sooner you do so, the quicker you can concentrate on the second source, which happens to be the only one you actually have control over: the amount of work you put in.

The old adage that it takes 10,000 hours of doing something to become truly proficient at it is pretty daunting.  While I can't say that it's a universal rule, I think it was true for me.  I had to spend a lot of time doing bad work in order to get to the point where I was doing good work.  I must confess, however, that even after doing this full-time and professionally for eleven years, I'm still putting out the occasional clunker.  Still, I do make a living painting, and I got to where I am by putting in the hours.  Hours doing what?  Everything I could.  I drew during every moment I could spare.  I drew when I sat on the subway, or waited for the bus.  I drew when I watched t.v.  I drew when I hung out with friends.  I went to life drawing to draw the model, but I also drew my fellow train passengers.  I drew the trees outside my window, the washing machine at the laundromat, and even freeze frames from my favorite movies.  On top of this, I spent a lot of time putting my ideas down.  Problems to solve visually, and various ways to address those problems.  Designs for cool machines, weird armor ideas, random mythological critters.  Whenever possible, I put those ideas to use in fully fleshed-out paintings.  Many of my earlier efforts no longer exist as I've destroyed most, but the fact that I painted those paintings at all made a huge difference.

Hard work is truly what defines many professional artists out there.  I have known some who I once thought should consider hanging their brushes up and finding another way to make a living — people who I thought were lost causes and too old to be as bad as they were.  But they kept at it, put in some really hard work and have gone on to do really great things.  Regardless of how much talent they were born with, it's the man hours that made the difference.

The fact is that their success in art came down to staying hungry.  Hungry for better quality, better ideas, better work.  It's all about dedication to a trade, and the willingness to follow through.  Getting into the art field is knowing that you're in it for the long haul.  It's not a job.  It's not even a career.  To those who've been in it all their lives, it's who they are.  It's not a four years of school and you're done kind of scenario.  It's a lifetime of learning and work in order to continue to get better.

Now, I'm totally aware of how this kind of advice sounds.  To some it's inspiring.  To others it's heartbreaking.  To most, it results in a mixed bag.  If it gives you pause, it should.  It's not an easy road, and it sometimes involves quite a bit of sacrifice.  There are days where the decision to get into art feels like a huge mistake, but then you realize that you cannot even conceive of doing anything other than struggling with that piece that has frustrated you to the point of tears and taken you to the verge of quitting.  The hard, chunky bits that grate on you are a dream compared to the office cubicle that might otherwise await you.  If you're one of the ones who can't see yourself living any other life, then you'll find it in yourself to do the hard work.  Mediocre talent can be overcome.  Success can be achieved.  You just have to be willing to break your back a little.

One last bit of advice: while you toil away, remember to be kind to yourself — but not too kind.  Beating yourself up won't make you better.  Conversely, constantly patting yourself on the back and being amazed by your own success won't either.

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