Thoughts on Art Studies
This is going to be a long and wordy piece, but please bear with me.
I’ve been doing a lot art studies lately. After completing the Folklore & Fairytales challenge, I felt a little exhausted from all the brain work that the challenge of creating a unique character every day entailed. I very much needed a little mental rest artistically. Furthermore, I also felt that the challenge had made me reach a maximum capacity of what my drawing technique and understanding of how things look could give me. This happens from time to time and the best way I can explain it is that sometimes I draw a piece where I feel that I’ve really implemented all the skills I currently possess. This is, of course, very satisfactory when it happens, but what usually follows is a process of me critiquing my own work enough to see the flaws of the work in question and identify what my weaknesses are in order to improve and develop as an artist. I’m sure you’re familiar with this feeling, more or less, so I think you understand what I’m talking about.
I guess that you can call this phenomenon a plateau. It’s a fairly good metaphor, as you are now as good as your technical skills allow you to be. In order to reach new heights, you have to work on improving your technique as well as the way you see the world around you. This is why art studies are fundamental to any artist who wishes to improve. I know art studies are tedious work. They leave little room for creativity, forcing you to actually sit down and study the thing you’re drawing and forcing your brain to adapt accordingly. But despite studies being boring and dreary, they also hold the key to development and progress, and that is why I want to talk to you a little bit about them today.
To identify what type of art studies you should do, you first have to learn to critique your work enough to identify areas where you’re weak. I’m going to use myself as the example here to make you understand what I mean. Looking over the pieces of the project and my notes that I’d written as reflections during the challenge, I identified a couple of things that I wanted to work on. I’m going to go through a few of them here:
Firstly, I want to understand light better. I have a fair understanding of how light works and how a shadow would fall on a particular character of object, but I still feel that I could create much richer pieces if relied on light more than I do on outlines. Secondly, I want to turn up the volume on realism a little. I have taken several steps in that direction since beginning of the journey with my art style, but I still feel that I can do better. I want to be able to balance on the border between complete realism and surrealism. By doing that, I could create more interesting drawings and tell more interesting stories to go with it.
Thirdly, I want to scale up my drawings. I tend to work on A4 or A3 size papers, but I haven’t really done anything bigger in a long time. I think scaling up to 50x70cm or 70x100cm would benefit my art style a lot, since I tend to work with a lot of details. It would also allow me the opportunity to create more of a context to the piece (background, settings, more objects etc).
Lastly, I again felt the need to improve my inking technique to represent a wider range of skin tones. Not only is representation important, I feel that it limits me as a story teller to default most of my characters to being white. Most often, they have all kinds of skin tones in my head, but I’m not skilled enough to convey that by drawing with black ink pen on white paper.
This is good and all, but how am I supposed to do this, really? The answer is as easy as it is hard: you sit down, pick up the tools of your choice and you do the homework, e.i you find references of the things you want to improve on and you draw them as they look. This might sound fundamental up to the point of being silly, but it’s not always easy because we tend to not look at things too closely on an every-day basis. Our brains function on two levels: there is a bottom-up process and a top-down process. When we look at something, for example a tree, our eyes take in the shape and form of the tree and out brains fill in the information that the thing we’re looking at is, in fact, a tree. If we know a lot about trees, we might identify it as a birch tree. This is something we can do even if the tree doesn’t have any leaves, is covered in snow or is lying on the ground covered in moss. We know it’s a birch tree because our brains have a symbolic birch tree filed in a mental folder named ”birch tree”. I’m fairly sure that if I asked you to picture a birch tree, you would be able to draw up a mental picture of one. Isn’t is amazing?
On a basic human survival level, this is a pretty awesome function, but for artists, this particular brain feature is not all good. Of course, it helps us to draw a birch tree from memory if we want to and it aids us in our every-day work. But the problem with this feature is that we tend to favor our mental picture of a birch tree over actually seeing what a birch tree looks like. We fall back on our mental image, which is an iconic image that stores certain information about birch trees but can never fully represent an actual birch tree.
This is where art studies make a world of difference. Art studies force you to actually look at a birch tree; to study the bark of birch trees of different sizes and ages, to see how they grow, how the branches are built up, colour variations between individual trees etc etc. As you do this, you add information to your mental ”birch tree” folder so that next time someone asks you to draw a birch tree forest, you can put all this information into creating a varied and rich forest of trees that all look like birch trees but that don’t necessarily look like each other.
This is also the reason why you would benefit from not sticking to your art style, if it’s a stylised one, while you do studies. It is, of course, important to practice drawing in your own art style too, but if your work is very stylised ,it can tend to exclude information that is needed to improve your skills. This is also a reason why copying other artists’ work can be beneficial in some ways, but not necessarily in others. When you copy other people’s art, you are also copying their interpretation and stylistic choices. If this is your intention, copying can be really good (but please don’t use that copy for commercial purposes or claim as your own. Give credit and pay your dues please). But if your intention is to improve on anatomy, birch trees or whatever, it’s always better to go directly to the source material so that you can use that source reference to make your own design choices.
In, my experience, the fastest way to improve by doing studies is to draw directly from life whenever you can, because this allows you to study the object from different angles and see how everything fits together, but as this isn’t always possible I do recommend you to find several pictures of the thing you want to draw so that you can understand it better. To see multiple representations of the same type of object help you understand the texture, how light works on the surface of it and things like that. This is why you can almost always see if a drawing is drawn using one single photo as reference regardless of how well rendered it is. I’m not saying that it’s bad to draw from a single photo for a pose or something like that, but it’s important to use several photos to understand how that pose is created; what foreshortenings are being made, what it obscures etc.
To somewhat sum up all the points I’ve been trying to make in all of this, I want you to understand how much a difference a little old-fashioned art study does in terms of your technique and view of the objects around you. It’s important to take a step back from your work to regard it from a distance to see what can be improved upon and not be afraid to explore those weaknesses. We cannot always create masterpieces. We have to create really ugly drawings in order to build up the skill set enough to eventually create a masterpiece before we start the cycle over again. Draw ugly drawings. Draw mediocre drawings. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself. With enough hard work you’ll end up where you want to be anyways. It takes time, but it is worth it. Learn to see the world your own way and draw inspiration from that. Magical things might happen.