This is Part 1 of a 2-part blog piece on my personal experiences with self-taught digital art. The forthcoming Part 2 will compare digital art to traditional art.
In June of 2020, I got myself the XP-Pen Artist 12 drawing tablet and resolved to take art study seriously. Eight months later, I’d like to reflect on the journey so far and memorialize what my approach was to self-study.
First, let’s talk about my tech. Because those interested in such a blog post topic are also going to be curious about the tech.
Originally I worked off the Artist 12 drawing tablet. For software, I was using the free program Krita, the dupe for iPad’s Procreate. Because Krita is so similar to Procreate, you can follow Procreate tutorials and, with a little extra tinkering and searching on your end, learn to do all the things that can be done in Procreate here in Krita. Oh, and I did mention that Krita is free and open-source, right? =)
A few months in, I switched to working directly off my desktop computer, which is a two-monitor setup. Instead of using a digital stylus pen, I opted to work straight with my mouse.
Whether you’re going to prefer a stylus or working straight with a mouse will be a very individualized decision. I realized I work better with the mouse. Plus, I wasn’t doing any line work digitally. I still do all my line work by hand, scan it in, and the digital part is the coloring. And for coloring applications, I worked better with a mouse than with a stylus digital pen. *shrug*
Even though I keep talking about digital art, it’s more factual to call the medium for SKT III a hybrid approach. It is as much traditional art as it is digital. It’s both.
For software, I now use Jasc Paint Shop Pro, which is an older, outdated version of the currently available Corel Paint Shop Pro (I have Corel, too, installed on a different computer in my home).
If you’re patient and proactive, search and wait for coupon code deals. Because that’s what I did (working on Krita until I saw a promo discount for Corel), I managed to snag this amazing software program for under $40.
For digital brushes, I create all of my own brushes. I don’t use any of the default settings (aside from the solid black line pen for drawing lines; I’ll also use white or black airbrushing for highlights and shadows). You can find lots of very cool video tutorials online, for free, on how to create your own digital brushes, so that’s what I did. I now have a personalized set of different digital brush settings, all of which I created on my own.
One of the art instructors I watch on YouTube recommended this, and I thought it was a good idea, so took the recommendation to heart. I’m glad I did! If you’re using your own custom-created brushes, at that fundamental level, your digital art style is going to look a little different from everybody else’s, setting you apart.
For art study, I set my own curriculum based on syllabuses I found online from top art schools. I broke down my studies into subjects:
- Composition, or Disegno, which is further subdivided into Line, Shape & Mass (or Form), Texture, Time & Movement, Color, Focus, Volume & Space, and Story.
- This means isolated, dedicated study of Line, and your linework for two weeks of independent intensive study. Then move on to Texture, or use of Volume & Space, etc.
- Write out a list or go searching for and then make a list of your all-time favorite works of art or illustration. Scrutinize the heck out of the deconstructed elements of composition in each work. Why is that work of art so great? What did that artist do in terms of line work, or conveying shape, or texture, or sense of movement in that composition that moves you?
- Under Color, I focused my study on the different contrasts of color and qualities of color, really trying to familiarize myself with color wheel theory. I printed out a detailed color wheel and taped it to my home office wall, where I couldn’t help but glance over at it while I worked.
- Art History & Genres, or a very, very bare-bones version of this. This is studying realism vs. naturalism, for instance, the principles of portraits vs. landscapes and scenic art vs. religious art, Raphael’s technical approach to lighting, da Vinci’s precision in figure drawings, techniques in Impressionist and post-Impressionist art, etc.
- Studying Leonardo da Vinci’s sketchbooks enhanced my approach to balancing science and humanism in art
- Rembrandt is the guy to practice beginner’s mimicking on for getting a handle on how to play with light and shadow
- There’s quite a bit of sourcing inspiration from surrealism in the Spirit Keeper’s Tarot, so I looked a lot to Salvador Dali to better understand visual storytelling
- Paul Cezanne and Post-Impressionist artists for study of how to approach landscapes and coloring of my backgrounds
- Georges Seurat for approaching pointillism
- Overall, I looked mainly to Florentine painters from the Renaissance for compositional inspiration (Andrea Mantegna, Botticelli, etc.)
- Human Anatomy, learning proportion canons and how to draw different features in various poses. I still have a very tough time with this one. Having never in my amateur cartoony doodling life ever put much focused study on human anatomy (meaning I used to just draw from memory/imagination, like, yah.. I think that’s more or less what a person jumping looks like…), this is the area of craft I struggle the most with.
- One way I trained myself in human anatomy was to start by tracing the anatomical part I was having trouble with. Source a photograph of that body part. Trace it. Maybe you need to trace it a couple of times over and over, until your drawing hand becomes acclimated to how it’s supposed to move across the canvas.
- Then try to draw it freehand. If your freehand version sucks way too much, go back to trace it again. Then try freehand again. Slowly but surely, your freehand versions will suck less. Before long, you’ll be able to freehand it just as well as the very first traced version. The motions for how to draw that body part become muscle memory.
- Science and Philosophy of Life. I consumed a lot of news and documentaries on astronomy, astrophysics, archaeology, biology, world history, anthropology, different social sciences, and travelogues. The best art isn’t about technique, but about tapping straight into the heart of a universal human truth. No, you do not need to be learned to be intelligent or wise, but yes, you need learned knowledge to build the vocabulary for communicating your intelligence and wisdom. That learned knowledge and vocabulary comes from basic habits like being interested in recent NASA discoveries, archaeological and medical findings, and what’s happening in different parts of the world socially and politically.
For all of 2020, I would not let myself go to sleep or take it easy until I had put in a minimum of 5 to 6 hours of art study. Not a single day went by that I did not both sketch something by hand and do something artsy in my digital painting software program.
Remember back in your school days when you’d have to write down in some sort of planner or organizer all of your homework assignments and study?
Yeah. That’s how I did it.
Every single day I’d write down my “homework” and study assignments. (Psst…. as in my 2021 Metaphysician’s Day Planner, hehe.) Yeah that was a self-promo plug, but it’s also the truth.
What had stopped me from learning digital art before was this notion that I had convinced myself of, that I needed some fundamental training first, before starting.
That’s partially true. Which also means it’s partially false. Myth busted.
I got my friend and fellow deck creator Jamie Sawyer to show me a couple of basic functions in Krita, like how to select a section on your image, how to select a paint brush, how to select a color, and then how to color in that selected section. And she also showed me how to create layers.
That was enough to get me started. From there, I just learned on the job.
That’s why I said “partially true.” Gaining proficiency in the digital art medium is less about requiring formal training and more about playing it by ear, one bumbling step at a time.
I think what stops so many people from learning digital art techniques is that the destination seems so, so very far away from where they are now. And they let the distance intimidate them into not even trying. I mean, that was the case for me for the longest time.
It really is all about the baby steps. And being patient with yourself as you work through some god awful first drafts. =)
I stumbled my way through baby steps. I’d open up the un-colored image file, decide something like, okay, I want this dress to be green, but like this tone of green and I want it kinda like that. Or I’d envy how pro artists digitally paint waterfalls or translucent fabric, and then exhaust hours of time trying to paint waterfalls and translucent fabric.
For example, I decided that I wanted to convey color through pointillist techniques. Once I set that intention, I got started on problem-solving, trying to figure out for myself how to achieve what it is I wanted to achieve.
This meant having to hit pause, go to YouTube, and look up video tutorials on how to do the Thing. The great advantage to being a self-taught artist today is there are dozens of free video tutorials from professional artists on just about any Thing you can think of, keyed to any digital painting software program available on the market.
I hit so many walls at first. I wanted to do This and do That but I couldn’t get it to work. So I’d do my best and then just move on to the next card. Eventually, in my progress through the cards, I’d slowly but surely pick up the techniques and skills I needed to do This and That to the earlier card. Then I’d return to that earlier card and break through all previous barriers.
For my “classroom education” part of “art school,” I watched YouTube. Here are a few of my favorite art tutorial channels:
- Art Prof
- e r g o j o s h
- Kazone Art
- Sam Does Art
- Ross Draws
- Sara Tepes
- Bobby Chiu
- Art Department Podcast
I’d also watch videos from the British Museum, The Met, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, National Gallery of Art, Louisiana Channel, etc. for inspiration. Love or hate algorithms, once you’ve watched enough art education videos, the platform will start introducing you to more art education videos, and I’m constantly discovering amazing new fine arts and illustration YouTubers.
Above left is the first card in the deck I attempted digital painting on. This was July of 2020. Above right is the last card in the deck I worked on (after 2 rounds of revisions) in February of 2021. That’s roughly 7 months of intense self-taught education and training.
Between the two illustrations, you can see improvements in the digital pointillist technique, my understanding of color, and a far better handle on how to work with digital brushes.
The above compare-contrast shows 3 months of progress, before and after. Those first few months are critical as your initiation period. What sets apart those who achieve their goals and those who don’t is persistence– are you willing to toil through that initiatory period?
You also can’t compare your rate of progress to anybody else’s, because you aren’t seeing everything. There are, like, let’s say there are 20 components to illustration proficiency. Some of those components are more visible and apparent to the lay viewer than others. So maybe one person’s progress looks amazing, but that’s just because the components of the 20 they’re progressing fast in are more visible. What you might not see is how they’re lagging behind in some of the unseen aspects of illustration proficiency.
Meanwhile, maybe the areas you’re advancing in are less apparent, even to you, so you feel like you’re improving at a slower rate. This is when faith in yourself is important. Have faith and keep going. Be persistent. Show resilience. You’re going to be one of the artists who makes a giant leap in advancements near the tail end of your journey.
It’s tempting to make excuses and just give up near the beginning of your journey, or even mid-stream. “I’m not as talented as _____” is the most loathsome thing you can say about yourself. Yeah, I know I phrased that harshly. But it’s true. There are so many levels of wrong with such a statement.
First of all, it’s an excuse. You’re giving yourself an excuse for not being better, for not doing better. Second, it’s an assessment you’ve made based on either misinformation or insufficient information. Forget how much you know or don’t know about the person you’re comparing yourself to. You don’t even know everything about yourself. There was so much about my own potential and my own capabilities that never even registered in my mind as possibilities… until I tried.
The second part is vision. When you look at a slab of rough marble, you’ve got to be able to already envision the full sculpture. Because if you can’t even imagine it, then you can’t possibly produce it. More often than not, what separates a great artist from a mediocre one isn’t talent or skill; it’s vision.
The key advice I’d give, based on personal growing pains, is going to sound contradictory. You have to be both hard on yourself and easy on yourself, all at the same time. You cannot accept anything less than your personal best. So you need to keep pushing yourself to your own limits and then push more to exceed them. But once you’ve done the very best you can possibly do, you have to sincerely, from the bottom of your heart love yourself and love the art you’ve produced.
When I first started, I would try to color in a fully-formed flattened composition. My technique evolved to where I started to draw the key features of the composition separately, and then scanned them in separately. And then I’d “assemble” the separate features. This way I didn’t need to get my composition right on the first try. Because for every single card– every— my first few attempts at the composition were always off. I had to keep experimenting and move things around before I got it anywhere near right.
Another thing I did in the beginning was click on every single button, icon, and option in my digital art program and play around with it on a pre-existing line drawing (or you can do it on a blank canvas if you’d prefer). Just by doing that, I stumbled on some very cool features.
Take notes on those cool feature you discover. Write instructions to yourself in a notebook and even draw little thumbnail sketches of what the icons and buttons in the program look like, accompanied by pithy notes on what that button does.
In terms of books, I liked The Vilppu Drawing Manual for learning basic figure drawing. From the basic skill set that every illustrator needs, my weakest is human anatomy. I am not that great at drawing people, although I am getting noticeably better, thanks in large part to this book, and practice, practice, practice. =D
In the above “before” drawing, the inexperienced, untrained line work was done out to in, trying to get the outline of the body and then filling in with the details of the features. What you’re supposed to do, or so I’ve learned in the “after” drawing, is to do the line work in to out, to think about how muscles and bones look, then draw the shapes and forms encasing muscles and bones.
The seminal text The Art of Color by Johannes Itten was also really helpful. My biggest breakthrough as an illustrator came after finally taking a more decidedly methodical and theoretical approach to color.
And the third book I’d highly recommend if you’re going to teach yourself art and design illustration is Designa: Technical Secrets of the Traditional Visual Arts published by Bloomsbury (the Wooden Books series).
This one covers important aspects of art composition, like line, shape, movement, volume, space, patterns, and texture. The techniques covered in Designa helped me to compose more dynamic patternwork and improve my use of space.
I’d take lots of notes as I worked through these three books. In the same way a professor would assign you set pages to read within a set amount of time, and then give you homework that walks you through how to apply what you’ve learned, I would block out chapters in each book to read, put it as a checklist item in my day planner, and after learning something cool, attempt to apply it to what I was working on in the SKT card illustrations.
I hope this lengthy synopsis of my self-study curriculum doesn’t come across as overwhelming. In bite-size pieces, one day at a time, one week at a time, it’s doable, no matter what your current skill level is.
The biggest hurdle is mental. It’s getting over your anxious thoughts on how hard it’s going to be and just taking the first plunge. It’s worrying less about how your art sucks compared to so-and-so and worrying more about identifying exactly what your weak point is and doing isolated, focused drills until you eliminate that weakness.
In the above hyperlink to an Introduction page for Spirit Keeper’s Tarot: The Revelation, I get into my concept for the third edition and my personal stylistic approach to the artwork.
The pre-order launch will be announced later this March, 2021 via my newsletter. To subscribe to my newsletter and get the pre-launch announcement when it happens, click on the below link and submit your e-mail address.