General Wisdom for artists No. 7

7. Get away from the computer!

I can haz things I should be doing

I’m typing this up on a computer. I ought to admit that straight away, you’re reading this on a computer too, unless you printed it out, which I know you didn’t!

Computers are great, everyone knows that. If it wasn’t for the digital age I wouldn’t be the artist I am today. I’d probably be doing some menial job I hate because I lacked the knowledge and the drive to follow my self-indulgent dreams. The internet told me how to be an illustrator and Photoshop allowed me to undo my mistakes, posting my work online has allowed me to work for people who value what I do.

Our lives would be considerably worse without computers. Obviously there’s the helicopter game, that’s good, there’s twitter supposedly causing the Arab spring uprising and Google maps helping Al Qaeda militants coordinate attacks and there’s lolcats and solitaire and all the other things making everyone’s lives immeasurably better.

So I don’t want to appear hysterical with this- but if you want to get things done you need to get away from the computer.

At least for the planning stages. Anything you can do just fine without a computer, you should. A good old pencil and sketchbook is perfect for getting down and refining ideas before you ever need to do any digital work.

You’ve probably heard this before, it’s not revolutionary information, but I thought I could say the same thing everyone else has been saying and once you’ve read it enough it may just sink it.

It’s precisely the same reasons that computers make us happy that they also hinder our plans and consequently make us unhappy in the long term. There’s just too many possibilities, too many directions we can inadvertently move away from what we started off doing. Because we rely on our computers to do everything from playing music, watching films and chatting with friends it becomes extremely difficult to maintain focus on our work- which is is vital for artist and especially for freelancers.

Facebook is the obvious example of contemporary digital time wasting. It’s a site full of tripe with links to more tripe. You can go on there for just a second with the aim of checking to see if someone has replied to a message and find yourself spirited away to some faraway website you don’t really care about.

In much the same way that if you click on any of the links I included above then you won’t ever finish reading this I imagine, you’ll be too busy giggling at cats. In fact, I expect the majority of people who see this post will never reach the bottom, they might mean to “read it later” but they wont. I wouldn’t.

But Facebook is only the most commonly vilified of time-wasting methods. Facebook is designed to distract so it can generate ad revenue, and conveniently enough we humans actively seek distraction! We don’t even need social media sites to do that.

Just think of all the things your fancy modern computer can do. How many of them are what you actually want to get done today? 

Just be aware that when you’ve been working on something a while, something meaningful and valuable perhaps- your brain will start seeking distraction, just a little break, and all the shiny icons on your screen will start to look oh so tempting!

Maybe not facebook, or twitter or even tumblr this time- maybe you’ll just check the news, that won’t take long right? But just think how even clicking the internet browser opens up all the different possibilities to be distracted. Supposing like mine your browser is covered with links to all your favourite pages- which you can see instantly with a single click- but you ignore them all to just quickly glance at BBC news? You spend ten minutes reading articles you’ll have forgotten about in a day or two, and then you wonder whether people are talking about this news article on facebook? Or maybe you could load up your instant messenger program and talk to a friend instead? Or maybe since you’re having a break and you’ve lost your focus you may as well play a video game?

I could go, but I’m just wasting your time as well really. if you’ve read this far, congratulations! Such focus! You must be over 30 at least.

The long and short of it all is this: use your computer when you need to use it for working, or when you allow yourself dedicated time to relax, but always be aware that because it’s so easy to NOT work- your brain will probably manage it.

Because we can’t afford a computer and a room for every task, here’s a few tips to get the most productivity out of your multi-task distraction-box.

  1. Have web browsers closed whenever possible.
  2. Consider making a new account on that doesn’t have access to games or things you don’t need.
  3. Unplug/disconnect from the internet so it becomes more effort to use it.
  4. Be aware that not all time is equal- If you play first you’ll not have then energy to work later- playing is easier than working.
  5. Get as far as you can with your work using analogue means- trust me, sketch books are the future!

General Wisdom for Artists No. 6

6. Strive to learn stuff outside your own discipline.

Scientists say that new and original ideas are the product of new pathways forming in the brain, like a join the dots picture of sorts, but with an almost infinite number of pictures hidden within. If you have a lot of dots to draw lines between then you can make a lot more pictures!

That’s perhaps a rather simplistic metaphor for cutting-edge cognitive science, but nonetheless it does hold true. If you have a number of different interests and sources of inspiration to draw from, your art will be that much richer and more personal to you. This is really important. There’s lots of artwork out there, and much of it is so similar to other things we’ve seen before that we just skip over it in search of the original stuff.

On top of this, learning principles in one discipline may transfer surprisingly well to another discipline. I’ve recently started trying to teach myself 3d art. It’s quite a steep learning curve, but I’ve found that a lot of knowledge from my 2d digital work transfers exactly into 3d, which has given me a considerable advantage over those starting without any knowledge of digital art at all. This new knowledge of 3d art benefits my 2d artwork as well. Being able to create 3d models and apply different lighting conditions to them gives me a great source of rudimentary reference for anything I want to draw from difficult angles or in unusual lighting.

Another example might be photography. A good understanding of how light reacts through a lens and how to compose a cinematic shot through a camera can only benefit you when composing a picture with a paintbrush. Even if whatever else it is you choose to do doesn’t help your art so directly, it will help if you ever have to draw, paint or write about it!

Having multiple projects or interests in different disciplines also stops you from getting bored doing the same thing all the time. If you’re fed up drawing for the day, you can always go snowboarding and practice some flips. (I’ve got a niggling but baseless certainty that skill in snowboarding benefits skill in drawing. Sadly I’ve never been snowboarding, so have yet to prove it.)

Basically, the more things’ you’ve tried, the more ways of thinking about things are open to you, and the more informed your artwork will be. It’s a no-lose situation right?

Incidentally, here’s some of my first attempts at proper 3d art: (I don’t count google sketchup as proper 3d)

3d1 3d2

These were done in blender, which is an excellent and importantly free program which you can download here:

I’d encourage other artists to get it just for the sculpting features, which allow you to quickly sculpt all sorts of things. I find it’s a very good test of one’s anatomy knowledge. I was doing cheeks wrong.

General Wisdom for Artists No. 5

5. Be informed, be organised, be inspired.

In my experience creativity is fed by new experiences and new ideas. So, for us artists it makes sense that if we want to be more creative, we should open our minds to as many potential sources of inspiration as possible, and when something clicks- we should grab it! Here’s a few methods that have worked for me:

1 Be informed by the work of other artists.

This one is a no-brainer perhaps. For many of us the reason we chose to become artists is because we were inspired by the work of someone we saw when we were younger, and now with the information overload culture of the digital age it’s easier than ever to be swamped with amazing and inspiring artwork. What I would suggest to you is to whenever you see a picture that you feel can teach you something-  you grab a copy of it and put it in a folder on your computer. Once you’ve got a few images have a look through them and study what it is you admire about them so much. What can you learn from them and apply in your own work?

2. Be informed by your own boring life- make notes.

Yes I wrote boring, but I’m of the opinion that great ideas are not delivered from heaven in  golden envelopes accompanied by fanfares and cherubs- more often than not the best ideas are accompanied by showers or bowel movements.  When you’re out and about and some fleeting event or idea makes you smile; record it. It doesn’t matter what it is, every trivial little idea can be mixed up with another one and combined to make something else. Ideas are conducive to more ideas and all these little ideas are the fuel we burn to create artwork! I suggest getting a tiny little notepad or sketchbook and a little pen so you never have to be without a means to record stuff.

3. Be informed by your own boring life- Observe

You can do this almost any time, anywhere, all you have to do is look at something and ask yourself “why does it look like that?” Why did the designer make it that way? if I was going to draw my own version what would I do differently. Or why is the light reacting that way on it’s surface, what am I actually seeing? Internal questions like this encourage you to actually understand something in detail so that when you come to create you have an internal knowledge base to fall back on rather than needing to simply copy something like a camera.

4. Inform your artwork: gather some reference

Similar to point no.1: Have a folder on your computer where you save every potential reference picture that may prove useful later. Have sub-folders within that folder to organise all the different reference photos you’ll end up with, one for animals, one for landscapes, people etc…

I should point out here of course that common sense applies when using other people’s photos. Don’t ever directly copy someone else’s photo and try to pass it off as your own original piece, but don’t be scared to study different photos to inform your own work. Credit those who offer their photos for artists to use and ask only for accreditation in return, it’s not such a big deal.

General wisdom for artists No.3

3. Warm up first

Do you ever forget how to use a tool properly or is that just me? I’m not kidding you know. If you’ve been working in one medium for a long time and you find yourself one day deciding to use another, you may realise too late that you’ve become a little rusty with it. If you happen to have dived into an important piece and realise part way into that it’s rubbish because you’re using the brush like a spanner (so to speak) then you may become disheartened and go off in a sulk to do something else. Worse yet, you can then become scared of using that medium again since your most recent failure is the thing you most strongly remember.

This happened to me recently with oil paints. I hadn’t done any oil painting for a year or so until several days ago when I mangled a canvas by treating the paint like it was digital. This could all have been avoided with some relaxing warm up doodles or paintings where I refreshed my understanding of the strengths and limitations of oil painting.

Whatever it is that you do, its best to do a little warm up session before you attempt your magnum opus. This doesn’t just apply to knowledge of media, it also applies to knowledge of stuff like anatomy and lighting. If you’re in the business of figure drawing, then why not draw a few rough gesture drawings first? On top of the fact that you can refresh your knowledge this way, it also helps you get into the right mood for the important stuff. Just be careful that you don’t spend too long warming up and expend all your creative energy before you get down to the important stuff.

Whatever it is you mean to achieve today, do a few scribbles first!

General wisdom for artists No.2

2. Sit up straight!

Sometimes in our quest to further our artistic ambitions we may find ourselves succumbing (god forbid) to laziness. Sometimes we may find ourselves succumbing to laziness to such a degree that we get nothing done. Therefore it stands to reason that if we want to become the best artists we can be then we need to keep laziness at bay!

So, having your best interests at heart as I do, I’ve listed here a number of things you can do to keep going that little bit longer. After all, finishing before you should only disappoints people.

1. Sit up straight.
This one is hard but important. If you slouch about like a wilting lettuce leaf and get too comfortable you may find yourself getting drowsy and lethargic. This makes it only too tempting to take a break or to “switch off” and not concentrate on what you’re doing. The solution is simple in theory but hard to maintain for those of us with all the poise and posture of a sandbag.

2. Don’t drink caffeine, or too much of it anyway.
Caffeine is all very well when you need a little pep up in the morning, so long as you don’t let it get out of hand! If you get to the stage where every time you feel you need to concentrate then you require a strong cuppa, I fear you may have a bad habit. It’s a common enough habit among creatives and other people who spend most of their time in chairs to have 18 coffees a day, but it’s a bad habit all the same. Reliance upon caffeine means that all the time you aren’t riding that caffeine high you’re probably feeling knackered and craving caffeine instead. Humans already need to stop feeling good when we’re hungry, thirsty or in the thrall of other niggling bodily demands, so why add another thing you need to the list?

3. No booze/drugs before/during working.
I’m worried that this one might be a little too obvious. Continuing in the same vein as the last tip, anything that makes you tired, lazy, stupid or constantly in need of the toilet is probably not in your best interests. This of course is all “in an ideal world”. While I’m here giving lifestyle advice I may as well say eat healthy, exercise regularly, cease staying up all night watching stupid videos on YouTube and all that other stuff I myself should probably be doing.

4. Be aware of the temperature and lighting in your workspace.
You know when you were at school in one of those lessons where it was too warm and the room was lit by a few dull orangey fluorescent tube lights and you couldn’t help but feel incredibly sleepy and not at all interested in William bloody Shakespeare? Well you don’t want your work environment to be like that for obvious reasons.

5. Find your hidden glass of water
Yes I know that I said that having too much water was a bad thing in the last last post, but in moderation it’s a good thing. Also a little sip of some cold clear water will do wonders for helping you feel a bit more awake.

Now, since every post should have a picture or two, here’s something unrelated I made earlier:

General wisdom for artists No.1

Lately I’ve been trying to think of ways that I can improve how I work as an artist. There’s a lot of specific tips and techniques out there for all sorts of different disciplines and media and with the internet to help it’s never too hard to find out how to do some specific technique or learn a new skill, but of late I’ve been more interested in ways to improve at being an artist in a more general sense

You know, ways to get better at actually making yourself sit there all day continually pumping out brilliance like some sort of tireless art robot? My main interest in this stems from the fact that I spend an embarrassing amount of time scratching myself and wondering where all the time went.

So, I’ve decided to create a series of extremely wise wisdom for any artist or creative looking to improve at being an artist in a more general way. I shall add new tips over time as they occur to me.

1. Put your glass of water where you can’t see it.

No really. You may be surprised at just how suggestible you are, but if you’re anything like me (I’ve been told I’m suggestible, so I must be.) you may feel the need to compulsively sip any refreshment or beverage within visual range simply because it’s there. Also, if you’re anything like me you’ll always have a glass of water on hand to sip incessantly.

Being adequately hydrated is of course highly important for optimal brain functionality, but constantly needing a wazz will only ruin your concentration and increase the chances that you’ll wander away from your work and completely forget about it. It essentially comes down to limiting distractions but it’s not quite as obvious as “turn off your email” and “close facebook” though it always helps to do those things too.

Tip No.2 coming soon.

Also, observe this thing I painted recently:

I think it needs no explanation.