Venture forth, young artists – Part 1: Theory

Reflecting on teaching at this year’s Animation Summer Camp in the City of Guelph, I wanted to compile my thoughts on attending art school, or more appropriately, how to study as an artist today. The ‘today’ is critical, as there are plenty of options for learning, but there are also plenty of options for distraction. With some incredible triumphs in technology that allow digital artists to create work even faster, the demand has risen as well. Deadlines are sooner than they’ve ever been, and it can force artists to try to find shortcuts, that are often to the detriment of the end result. So it’s really hard to say whether our modern times really provide an optimal learning environment for today’s youth. I’ve made this list of advice as I feel many other similar lists are too simple and lack the reality of how life actually is. This will be explained by the end.

1) Working Hard Is One Side of the Coin

Don’t just work hard. Anyone can work hard on completely the wrong thing. Work hard in the right places. Real learning is the result of applying pressure to the right places, not about mindlessly pouring hours into something. Spend a little time planning how and when you’ll work.

By the time you finish high school, you probably have plenty of ideas of how it could have been improved. Great! Here’s your chance to build your own system of study. Take all of the weaknesses of your previous education experiences, and think about how you’d fix them, then apply those fixes to your art practice.

There is no one practice that will fit everyone. In fact, the belief that there is one ultimate objective way to work, is part of what has pushed so many out of the arts. One size fits all is fundamentally flawed. Find a learning path that works best for you, but until then, the rest of this list will give you some starting places.

2) Be Passively Interested in the World

Be a passive researcher. Don’t just research when you suddenly need photo reference for a specific painting. Don’t try to scramble together ideas for a story your writing overnight. You don’t need a deadline to do prompt research.

Keep your nose in your specific art world (and their accompanying fields, such as fashion, photography, film) and begin collecting visuals in some kind of folder, whether analog with magazine cut-outs, or digital with apps like Pinterest and Evernote. The minute something inspires you, even if you have no immediate use for it, save it somewhere. This is will be your creative file cabinet that you can always pull open when you can’t think of ideas.

3) Alternate Between Being Open and Closed Minded

Practice being open and inquisitive in times when you’re curious and feeling that itchy sense of wonder, and then being closed and concentrated in times when you’re ready to make art.

Despite the modern cultural preference for being open-minded at all times, I’ve found it best not to be as open when you’re ready to paint and draw. Those are the times when you’re ready to apply all of the things when you were open before. If you stay open to all possibilities, you may feel ‘paralysis by analysis’ but not knowing what direction to take your art. The more you draw and paint, the more you’ll probably begin trusting that strange part of your brain that has already worked out the composition, without your conscious brain knowing about it.

Another way to interpret this: notice when socializing with friends or strangers takes extra effort, or when you find you’re a little more ‘prickly’ than others times. There’s a good chance you just need to retreat to your artwork and express something on paper. When you’ve run your creativity dry, reach out and engage with people again, read books, and open yourself back up to new influences. Become a sponge of information.

4) Cultivate Individuality

Consider what it means to have a unique perspective. What does this mean to you?

To me, it means to have found a way to make connections between seemingly different areas of thought, or to have organized existing information in a new and interesting way. To do this, listen to a broad range of content. From within the industry of animation, it can be common to have a narrow scope of influences if you are only making connections from within the existing realm of animation, rather than going beyond your field of study to find inspiration.

An easy way to make new connections? Read a book on a subject you’re not very familiar with, but that still peaks your interest. Or go to a workshop on something you know nothing about. Regularly immerse yourself in new points of view so that you hold less preconceived notions about how to draw, and what to draw. You might be surprised where it takes you.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Practice! Coming next month.