Hey! Long time no post. It's been a weird month mentally, and that usually ends up meaning that secondary hobbies like writing end up by the wayside. Still, writing is a hobby I'd like to maintain, since it's fun, so here I am again, pushing myself past the hurdle that is "anxiety before starting work on a project" by writing out an intro paragraph.
I want to say I'm bad at maintaining a routine, but I'm currently flipping through and digitizing a sketchbook full of anatomy drawings i did over the course of a month and a half - roughly 12 poses a day, which seems to indicate I can't be that bad at it. Maybe I'm just bad at turning the dots of individual days into a line. This'll probably be a recurring theme through the post. To further cement the "weird month mentally", this is the second rewrite of this post, because my first draft ended up coming off way too doom-n-gloom negative and navel-gazing about my own art, and that's not interesting or constructive in the slightest. So here we are!
I've been having a bunch of thoughts on art and my own place in it. Some of them are easier to relate to one another, some aren't. When I play a video game and decide to write about it, it feels much more like I'm tackling a singular, defined object (and also video games tend to give my brain a lot more breathing room for writing-thoughts, compared to when I'm making art, which usually occupies 70 to 90 percent of my brain in the moment). For now, I'm letting myself write scattered thoughts. Maybe I'll edit them into something coherent, maybe the finished version of this blog post looks like a bullet point list. You tell me!
It's been what feels like a pretty long period of artistic improvement for me. I'm comparing myself to last year, where I focused on a fairly narrow technical area (ink drawing with a nib pen) and had a nice growth period that unfortunately sizzled out after 5-ish months and ended with me barely making any art for another 9 (aside from maybe a dozen pieces total, which is barely anything compared to the "active" period).
I think from march to may 2019 I did full ink illustrations nearly daily. It wasn't exactly a new medium for me - studying graphics at the Vilnius Art Academy I had calligraphy classes, which I was really excited about initially but then ended up sucking really bad at. Rediscovering how to draw with ink was really exciting, and that excitement translated into energetic learning and output. Then I started hitting a wall where the road to improvement got increasingly trickier to see and follow. Instead of adjusting my expectations, I kind of just crashed...
I did end up with some heaters before that happened, though. Most of my art from that period can be found here and here.
Trying to get a better sense of my progress over the last 9 months, I ended up scrolling through my twitter. I found this drawing, which I remember making as a sort of statement of intent for the following year (I'm starting to realise here that I make a lot of "statements of intent"). In late 2019 I decided to get over myself a little and started making fanart. There's some pieces from that period that I still really like, which is kind of surprising, especially if you're familiar with the roughly 3 month turnaround of liking/disliking your own art. I'm choosing to take it as a small victory.
Part of what's helping me maintain this period of learning better than last year is I think I have set better goals for myself. I'm starting to consider myself as a character artist (though in a fairly wide sense, as in I think an object can be a character too), and there's a pretty large set of skills for me to improve on to get better at being one of those. A big breakthrough for me has been finally learning how to do lineart digitally in a way that doesn't feel inferior to what I can do with traditional media. I still prefer the level of line control afforded by manipulating a physical object, but at least these days I can make a fully digital drawing and feel like it turned out at least okay (shoutouts to the geniuses that make brushes for the Clip Studio asset store).
Ultimately I'm still sort of a "lineart and flats" guy, but I feel more and more that that's mostly just due to a lack of confidence in my painting ability. I've been doing the odd rendering study here and there, but despite liking how they turn out, I'm wondering if it isn't a sort of backwards way of improving my colouring skills. Like jumping right into the "polishing really nice looking metal" part of things kinda skips what I assume should be fundamentals to that kind of skill. I've recently picked up gouache painting, but in a more roundabout reasoning1. I'm just trying to make my choices look cleaner and more thought-out here.
1: The step by step play here is kind of funny. In August I impulse bought a Pilot Parallel pen because I saw some cool drawings someone made with them. While trying to do a half-tone wash over a drawing I found out that the ink they put in those capsules is not waterproof, and in fact washes out into a nice indigo tone. Unfortunately this made the illustration a little too dark, so I tried to lighten the tone with the first thing I had on hand - a pot of white gouache that I don't remember buying but have had for the last 3-ish years. Then I ended up figuring out that the pen doesn't work so hot on top of a gouache layer, so I tried water-soluble pencil, and so on. About a half-dozen leapfrogging medium choices later I'm at the local art supply store buying four more pots of gouache (burnt sienna, red, yellow and ultramarine).
There's that sort-of popular way of looking at art progress as a cycle where your skills of making and analyzing evolve in a stutter-stepped rhythm, so you end up with uneven peaks and valleys where you think your art is great or shit, while from another point of view the progress is a lot more steady. By its nature it's definitely an oversimplification of things at play, but it has been useful to me in the past. By now I'm better at recognising that sort of disconnect, so barring outside factors such as mental health, the oscillation between highs and lows is a lot less severe for me. And in that same bubble that is purely "making and analyzing images", I feel much more confident in directing myself in these two aspects.
Months ago - maybe years at this point? I don't know - a friend of mine on twitter relayed a quote that's been rattling in my brain ever since. I don't remember the full quote, nor who said it, but like a rock in a tumbling river it's been sanded down to "what do you want to convey with your art, other than that you're good at it?". The reason it's been in my head for so long is because I honestly don't know if I have a good answer to that. On a good day, I can understand what kind of thought that question is trying to provoke, but more often it feels like a brain trap designed specifically for me. As is probably plain from the first half of this post, "being good at it" feels like an important thing to me. The things I am trying to communicate with my art feel like they require a certain standard of technical skill - one I'm still trying to chase. So sometimes it ends up feeling indulgent to draw a piece of armour just with the intent of making it look nice. "Well? What are you trying to say?," goes the self-crit part of my brain, and then I'm left wondering if "I think Savoyard-style helmets look cool" is a worthwhile enough message to convey.
Years ago - probably in my second year of art school? - one of my teachers called me an item fetishist. I think it was because I had a cool pencil holder that I liked fidgeting with? I also think it was meant as a compliment or at least as an acknowledgement of like-mindedness, considering his own creative output. One of my earliest memories of feeling truly sad was when I saw a neighbour's kid throwing a toy car through his window and it smashing into the asphalt below. I've been trying to spin this (what feels like an evil/alien brain fixation on objects to maybe the detriment of being a normal human) into some sort of positive focus. Conveying the properties of "Objects" feels important to me in art, and it's a complicated skill that demands a lot of technical prowess and subtle sensitivity. My friends sometimes say I'm good at it, so I must be on the right path, but it still feels like a massive work in progress.
I'm getting to the 'what's the point' (non-nihilistic) part of my art thoughts, and the one I've had to rewrite the most to minimize the amount of accidental despairing I do.
I realise "what's the point?" is an infinitely goalpost-able question that, in the end, will never have a satisfying answer, but my brain is a tumultuous little thing, and I can't get rid of it in the long term. Making my images (usually) feels good and satisfying to me, but isn't art supposed to be about communicating something? Who am I trying to reach? Who can I reach? What am I trying to tell them? I have no idea how to answer these questions either.
It might be "grass is greener on the other side" type thinking, but I can't help but wonder if these questions would be easier if I got to work on group projects more. Working for Massif Press on a couple mech illustrations for LANCER was an absolute blast. I love trying to solve issues of how to convey storytelling through visual design, but I think I'm not too hot on coming up with stories to tell myself. Most of my comics are either about weirdos with specific computer-damaged fixations or autobiographical (so, the same). I've never really been a big writer myself, so I find it hard to answer "why am I drawing this?" with "to tell a story I want to tell".
On the other hand, I'm growing more aware of the fact that my art doesn't really have mass appeal to people who a) organise group projects and b) don't already know me. I've been collecting a little pile of feedback that says my art is too "book illustration" for things that aren't book illustration, too "comics" for things that aren't comics, and so on. Maybe my next round of getting over myself will be to finally admit that I have to lean more into genre art specifics to get genre work. I don't know. Maybe I can skip over this problem by simply becoming incredibly skilled and famous.
There's an even vaguer set of problems to think about if I try to take an even wider look at illustration. I can't claim to be able to parse the entire illustration world at a glance, but I catch glimpses of it here and there on the internet. I think about if I would get bigger numbers on twitter if I took photos of my illustrations next to tidily arranged pens and brushes instead of scanning them in at a high quality. I wonder about if I had a really photogenic studio with a bunch of ghibli artbooks and potted monsteras. "Illustrator who's really popular on social media" seems to be its own genre of career. I truly do not have a consistent enough mental state to pull off the content creation schedule that that kind of job would demand, and I'm almost certain it isn't really worth it. Ultimately, numbers on twitter or whatever don't directly translate into numbers on your bank account. But still, I can't help but think about it every now and then, probably because social media platforms are designed to encourage me thinking about it.
I've also got some half-formed thought about technical skill, but, being half-formed, it's tricky to nail down in words. I feel like I'm constantly running not only into artists who feel like they're in a completely different league than me, but also more and more artists who do the things I want to do but much better, more frequently, or at a younger age. That last one is a huge brain worm for me. I've been kind of "doing art" for most of my life, so sometimes it really feels like I should be much better than where I am right now. More generously, more or less everything I did before I got into art school (6? years ago?) was really amateurish, with very little impetus for improvement. Still, I end up seeing someone who's doing backgrounds at disney at the age of 23 and wondering what my problem is that I can't do that. I fully realise that me feeling like I'm "past my prime" at 29 is extremely a thing that is encouraged by capitalism, but sometimes it gets hard to stave that thought off. On bad days, it feels like I'm constantly playing catch-up to a level that I can never really reach. Thankfully, though, that's only on a bad day!
Speaking of "levels", I just remembered back in like 2018 when I first got my ipad and wanted to get more comfortable with it, I started doing 1-minute gesture drawings on it. Trying to figure out which of my brain fixations to use to turn it into a daily routine, I decided to count one pose as ten experience points. I would do up to a hundred of them each day and map them against Diablo 2's experience per level table. I don't remember how far into this I got, but I phased out of the habit at around 2000 poses, so I don't think I got out of Act I.
I feel like I laid out where my brain's been art-wise recently, so I think it's time to wrap things up. I know this is not the tidiest read ever, nor is it probably all that interesting, but I'd like to write about more varied topics on here, so I figured why not do a little state of the author summary. Originally I wanted to write this around the 19th, the day after I finished my most recent croquis sketchbook, but I kept putting things off and now here we are. I think the initial impetus for the post was more focused on the technical improvement aspect of my 2020, but along the way insecurities snuck in. It's okay. Despite everything, I'm not too down on the negative things I wrote out, they're just a source of confusion and insecurity, and thankfully one that I can kind of filter out by keeping my nose to the paper (or ipad, I suppose).
I've been trying to widen my horizons for blogs recently, and coming to the conclusion that it's actually pretty fun to read about art from other artists. I'd like to stop negating myself so much here - maybe I'm the most boring person on the planet for myself only because I get to see my brain 24/7. In the future, maybe once I've gotten a better handle on my process, I'd maybe like to write some stuff about how I work, and the materials I work with. It might be interesting! It'd certainly help me with writing a post that doesn't have the pronouns "I" and "me" in every single sentence. Anyway, that's for later. I'm daydreaming about getting good enough at painting by the next time it's warm outside that I can go on little plein-airs with a sketchbook easel and not feel deeply embarrassed about it. I can probably do it. All it takes, in the end, is hard work and guts.