I've heard a lot of references to this supposed journey over the years. One piece of perspective I really would have appreciated as a young artist was an explanation of what the hell that entailed
. What were the steps of said journey? Why was it so crucial that I not skip ahead to another step, or take a step out of order?
I'm not sure that I've followed the perfect path on my own "journey" (god, even saying that sounds pretentious. It's a career path like any other. Let's stop patting ourselves on the back now), but here's sort of a breakdown of the steps as I saw them. I mainly observed these in retrospect.
This is long, and it's really for my own posterity so I don't expect anyone to read it. Kudos if you do though.
1) Spark of Interest.
I first became aware of art as something separate from a hobby because of my father. He was an artist both for his job (architecture; he did a lot of detailed drawings of buildings and built kickass cardboard models that I definitely did not appreciate fully at the time) and as a side interest. He spoiled me rotten as only an artist can do; I had a real easel at age three
and was using fairly decent watercolors to do abstract paintings before you could say "mary had a little palette".
2) Ridiculously Overblown Exggeration of my Talents.
Of course, as a middle-class child at a private school where I was one of about eleven kids in my grade, I got an inordinate amount of attention for my paltry abilities; mob thinking led to the theory that I had inherited my father's art genes
(ignoring the fact that my young sister had no interest in art). I ended up being asked to do some kind of illustration for the program of our Spring Sing, a task that inflated my sense of superiority about a million times
and probably had something to do with my general failings in the popularity department for the years to come.
3) Disillusionment in Art.
This continued for many years until I just got sick and tired of art in general. My art classes were basically just "crafts and construction paper". We did abstract tempera paint monstrosities and made about a million God's Eyes (those things with popsicle sticks and yarn), and never came close to even a molecule of freedom or anything approaching an original thought. I rapidly lost interest; whereas I was interested in improving myself by doodling the same thing over and over again, most of my class thought of art as a free period with the added bonus of macaroni and glitter.
3.5) Short-lived Revival.
Something about having a studio space to practice can really spur you on. We had a cottage out behind our house that we used to rent as a bed and breakfast; I started using it to paint, and boy, did I know how to rock the tiny tubes of acrylic paint. Well, not really, but I did get marginally better by watching Bob Ross and painting myself in the mirror. To the parents of my friends, I was an Art God at the age of 13. In reality, I blew chunks.
4) Teenage Rebellion, or Hey, I Have Deep Thoughts To Express Now.
For some reason I still can't fully remember, I ended up in a Christian boarding school for girls - yes, internet, you heard right - where I took several art classes. Now these classes weren't just glorified playtime...we actually did learn a few things, and we even had to do a still life or two when we weren't busy expressing our little hearts out. I drew everything, filling up sketchbooks with "deep" things like pictures of suspiciously similar waiflike women, Chinese writing copied from a textbook, and embarrassing attempts at drawing my own feet and hands. For my first year I was laboring under the impression that I could draw worth a damn, and then abruptly gave up on all things art-related for a year while I became interested in boys.
5) Artless Period.
Two years go by.
6) Anime. O, Cursed Anime.
I emerged from my boy-crazy years with a sudden and utterly superficial interest in art. Around my 16th year I attempted to draw a cartoon, and, in horror, realized that I had somehow forgotten what little I had known about how to draw. Suddenly I wasn't just farting rainbows anymore. Panicked, I turned to the only consistent source of reference I had around me (short of, you know, actual life) - you guessed it. Anime.
Someone in my dorm was crazy about it. I had never really cared, but she managed to hook me into a couple series, mostly because we had nothing else to watch
apart from one much-abused copy of the Birdcage on VHS. I began to copy the style, with predictable results. Even my dearest friends had trouble not cracking up when I showed them my crappy pencil-scribble faces with gigantic eyes and subtly rendered upper lips. I doggedly stuck to this style even when it became abundantly clear that nothing of my personal message was getting through, and my stuff probably would have lost in a beauty contest with a booger stuck to a dog's...you get the picture.
And then I got kicked out of school. (unrelated.)
7) Let Me Show You My Etchings.
At my new highschool, with everything happy, bubbling and Wapanese stripped from my life, I began to re-establish my identity, for a lack of a less annoying way to say that. This was made easier because my new environment was decidedly healthier and more supportive than my last. For one, I had an art teacher who was actually an artist
, and he probably influenced me more than anyone despite only teaching me twice. I realized that life isn't all sparkly eyes and impossible hairdos; I started drawing from reality, first doing still lifes and then moving to portraits of my friends. I honed my medium skills (mainly consisting of that most unprofessional of tools, the colored pencil, which is really just one step above the crayon).
I also started painting in acrylics again, and it was pretty awesome, I have to admit. For the first time I was actually caring about art. In the end, however, I still thought I was the best thing since sliced bread, and I didn't accept a single word of critique.
7.5. The Digital Revolution.
I registered thundercake.com when I was 16. It was a personal blog for a long time, but eventually I started getting interested in something called vexel art (a coin termed by a guy on a forum I posted at, incidentally). It was pretty easy, at the basic level involving nothing more than tracing someone else's professional photographs with the pen tool and color-picking; it looked flashy, and it made me feel good about myself. I stuffed my blog full of that crap, and even joined deviantART in 2004 to show off some of my talent(lessness).
My mother, wonderful kind woman that she is, decided to support my newly discovered interest in art and buy me my first tablet.
Oh. My. God.
It was like a whole world had just opened up under my feet and I had tumbled into this vast cavern of possibilities. I loved it. I could not get enough.
But as much fun as I had pumping out idiotic cartoons with my one pixel brush
(still can't believe I used that!), the actual decision to pursue art as a career really didn't happen until the absolute last moment. I was 17, applying to colleges, and all of a sudden it struck me that I could essentially goof off for the rest of my life
by deciding to go to art school.
I pulled together a crapsack portfolio and somehow squeaked in to VCU.
8) Realizing You Suck Is Half The Battle.
Art Foundation (the first year of VCU arts) hit me like a ton of bricks. Actually it hit me like a ton of bricks suspended from the ceiling, wrapped in toilet paper, sprayed with gold glitter and titled "Quietude."
You see, AFO was all about conceptual art
. They wanted me to release my inner child, express myself, and feel good. They wanted me to explore ALL areas of art, whether I thought they were complete bull (like performance art - no offense, performance artists) or not. They forced me into every single pidgeonhole available to see which one fit the best. The only class I might have found worthwhile was my digital illustration class, and sadly, I was one of the only people who had ever used Photoshop
before, let alone the pen tool (which is what we used, since no one had developed any tablet skills either). The rest of my time was spent making puppets, creating "installations" in my locker, and smoking like a chimney.
Luckily, I ignored all of that in favor of spending a lot of time on deviantART, looking at new art and slowly but surely improving myself. My figure drawing classes, easygoing as they were, taught me a lot; it was just being legally allowed
to look at a naked body that finally got me to understand how proportions worked.
The second most crucial part of this period was criticism. For some reason (perhaps because I'm not overly emotional about what I do) I was able to take criticism like a champ, and this is probably the only time in this journal that I'm going to give myself a pat on the back. I saw a lot
of people fall to pieces over a bad critique, but it just never affected me much. I knew by then that I sucked. It was that wonderful revelation that freed me from the mire of suck
I had gotten trapped in.
Slowly I was deconstructing the idea that I knew anything
about art, the human body, composition, color, any of it. I would have to start from scratch, forgetting anything I had taught myself. And if you knew how hard it is for me to start even a drawing
over again from scratch, you'd know how very difficult this was for me.
9) Realizing Fine Art Is Not For Me.
The main struggle I was dealing with at this time is the debate of fine art vs. "low art".
Realizing I was on the decidedly less glamorous and exciting side of this equation was...painful. For one, AFO went out of its way
to decry "low art" and push us towards the more respectable departments, like Painting and Printmaking (not that there's anything wrong with that). They made it sound like commercial was the worst thing you could ever be, that no one who made money from their work had anything worthwhile to say, and that illustration was a field where your own personal viewpoint got drowned out in a ravenous ocean of corporate whore-waves.
But I just liked
it more. I liked the purely aesthetic stuff I saw on deviantART. God help me, I liked
Norman Rockwell; his cheesy saccharine mass-produced crap was still expertly made, painted with a mastery I could only dream of. I wasn't concerned with message and MY VISION, I didn't feel the need to angst all over in order to produce art. And I kind of hate to say this about the school I've grown to love so much, but...they did kind of make me feel like a shill and a tool because of it.
Undeterred, I applied to Communication Arts and was accepted. For the first time in my LIFE, I had actually earned something on my own merit. This time it wasn't just people feeling sorry for me or expecting me to do well; a team of professional strangers thought I was good enough to be in the Illustration department. It did WONDERS for my self-esteem, let me tell you.
10) Starting From Almost Scratch, Trying and Failing.
Shedding my "style" was the most unnatural and difficult part of this process. My style had been hindering me in ways I couldn't even see or understand; I was resistant to change, and anyone who suggested I just, maybe, you know, try to draw an actual human body instead of making it up in my head
felt the brunt of my displeasure.
But I eventually did it, dragging my heels and grumbling and...hey, you know, actually this isn't so bad. I found myself improving at a ridiculous rate once I stopped trying to force a style of my very own into existence. For one, my style had actually been affecting the way I saw things. I was obsessed with it, and the real world had to change to fit MY perceptions, not the other way around! But once I let it go, it was much, much easier.
I probably didn't focus enough on my medium skills during this stage; I had become "a digital artist" by that point and did most of my work on the computer. This had its advantages. For one, being part of a brand-spanking-new generation meant I was better at digital art than the majority of my teachers, even though they kicked my little upstart ass in every other respect. I also got to know Photoshop like the back of my hand. The disconnect between my tablet an my computer screen was practically nonexistent; I LIVED in that screen.
It's important for me to note that I produced very little actual full illustrations during this time. Most of the important ground work was sketches, unfinished pieces, little exploratory steps into a strange, unfamiliar territory. It felt incredibly exhilarating and frightening to start all over again, with no ego whatsoever. Luckily I had a lot of support at home and from my teachers and friends. I was especially lucky to have a lot of young teachers who were sympathetic about digital art and agreed with me that the stigma was unfair.
11) Establishing Motifs and Themes.
While I didn't exactly begin to settle in on a single style, I did begin exploring several key themes in my work, including a few recurring characters.
I can't stress enough how beneficial it was for me to have my own recurring characters to draw. Even though they were never part of anything concrete, simply having a little design experience and some familiar faces to draw made me feel comfortable and in charge. I actually felt like I was CREATING (whereas, when I did fan art, I felt a little dirty). A lot of people make fun of "OCs" as a strictly deviantART phenomenon with no bearing on the art world. I disagree. I think this is a burgeoning method of self-expression, the likes of which the art world...well, I don't really expect it to care, but it sure seems artistic and subversive to me
. In the past, OCs were the domain of professionals and writers; now, anyone can have one, or five, or a hundred.
I began to recognize what I was interested in the most. Like many artists I liked the "pretty girl" thing for a while, but I realized I wanted to branch out with features and play around with proportions to beat the look of generic cuteness; for a while I was very interested in quirky colors and offbeat cyberpunk settings, stuffed animals, winter clothing, clockwork, etc.
Meanwhile, my work was improving, and I started to do something that I consider fairly important to my own "journey" (ecchhh) - I started to work in public.
I would go to Moes (the restaurant where Nick used to work) and sit there all night, drawing on my computer. It was weird, but being in a public place meant I was less likely to succumb to temptation, like tracing a picture, copying a pose or ripping off a design. It made me conscious of how I was working; although the people who would watch me (mostly kids) probably had no idea what the undo keys did, I certainly did, and I developed a habit of making more careful lines rather than just undoing over and over again. Basically, working in public kept me on the straight and narrow, so that I only improved legitimately rather than artificially.
12) Dealing with My Ego.
There's a lot of temptation to trade dedication for quick fixes, especially due to sites like this, which blur the line between social networking and creativity. Art becomes a sort of social currency to the point where the most popular artists are envied and admired by throngs of millions, and not always because of the quality of their art but because of how much they pander to their fanbase.
It's actually incredibly easy to become popular on this site. Draw something for a niche fandom, or a not-so-niche fandom. Draw a young hot badass girl with a schoolgirl uniform and pink hair. Use special effects to make sparklies. Take a big photo of an eye and add a rainbow overlay. Draw the same thing over, and over, and over, and over again. Add everyone in sight to your friends list. And in the end, it doesn't actually mean anything. I feel like such a shill whenever I see someone with 5,000 pageviews who's MILES ahead of me in the talent department.
It was this realization that saved me from trying too hard. I was sorely tempted, because getting patted on the back is actually pretty nice, no matter how much I whine about it. And the annoyance of answering so many comments
...well, 5 years ago I probably would have slapped future me for complaining about that.
This time period (around sophomore/junior year) is when my pageviews on deviantART started to climb, and I'm not going to tip-toe around the fact that this did have something to do with my artistic development. For one, I was more motivated. Popularity, sad as it is to admit, is a good incentive for working hard. But the temptation to take the easy way out and just draw anime sparklies was getting really bad, and the motivation was for entirely the wrong reasons. It took a really smart person to point it out to me that in the real world, no one gives a crap about online popularity, and that the only way to forge your own identity was to stop caring about artificial crap like that.
13) Understanding Images Beneath the Surface.
So much of what held me back was an obsession with the "surface" level of art - for a lack of a better term, "sparklies". It didn't matter to me for a LONG time if something was actually a good image (well composed, well thought-out, good color palette, etc). It was all about the time when I could stop planning the image and start "coloring it in".
The word "coloring" is an abomination. It is exactly the reason that it took me SO LONG to get back to basics. Coloring is what little children do when they have a coloring book; they focus on the colors, the pretties, the sparklies, and they're not responsible for what lies beneath. This same exact philosophy is why people with FANTASTIC surface skills in digital art can still draw such utterly wretched things; they're only concerned with presentation, not structure.
I'm mainly frustrated at myself for not noticing this sooner about my own art, and if you look back through my gallery you'll probably find a myriad of examples. I just wasn't concerned. Cropping? Psh. That's for peasants. Anatomy? Gah, that's homework crap, not for fun. Composition? WHAT'S THAT?
So in my junior year I think I FINALLY reached the stage where I thought deeply about these things. My motifs and themes gave me plenty of material to work from, and I actually started making images for myself again, fully realized illustrations.
I had a few breakthroughs during this time. My first was my first true "digital painting" in that I did absolutely no sketch work beforehand and simply painted the whole thing with paint; it was also my first self-portrait. I did it the hard way, with a mirror, and I thought it was the best thing ever. [link]
(It wasn't good at ALL, but it gave me confidence.)
My second breakthrough was a picture called Welcome to the Jungle [link]
. (I promise this is not going to be a linkfest.) I'm not sure why, but this was me, SNAPPING OUT OF IT. It's not realistic and it's oversaturated and overcontrasty, but my god, this was IT for me at the time. I planned every aspect of this picture, even though it kind of turned out like green goo. It's probably the first thing I can actually call an Illustration with a straight face.
I did not discover these things on my own. Hell no. If not for my teachers and peers, deviantART and conceptart, I would have been lost. But finally, I had stopped feeling guilty about being a digital artist and had embraced what it had to offer; the self-loathing was gone and I felt like I was flying. This was probably my most prolific time period, and it's around this time that the big T was born.
Yep, I'm including this as an actual stage of my development. Well, actually this stage was about trial and error, discovering new methods for doing things and refining my technique, but mainly it's about Thorns and how having a whole WORLD to play around with gave me enough inspiration to improve.
Looking back, ALL my decent artwork from that period was Thorns-related. I was in love, and this is another ego thing popping back in, but I think it's a positive thing, really; it's ok to be happy with your own work. That's not egotistic. Egotistic is thinking everyone ELSE should love your work.
This is also an important stage because for the first time, I actually felt
good. I didn't hide my artwork from my friends anymore. I didn't constantly compare myself unfavorably to others. Instead, I began noticing that some of the people I had admired...actually weren't that great to begin with. It was surreal and a little discouraging, but at the same time I felt like I was flying. 2007-2008 is probably the school year I improved most rapidly and I owe it all to having something consistent to dive into and devote myself to. If you're ever in a slump, try becoming an obsessed, reclusive fanatic about something...worked for me.
15) Messages and meanings.
In the present day, I still haven't found a style I like consistently. Some small memetic aspects creep from picture to picture, although I tend to weed these out and replace them with new ones from time to time (my latest obsession is fingernails). Nowadays I'm more focused than ever on form, composition and value over color and style. I have my fantastic teacher Sterling Hundley to thank for that, as he kind of whacked me over the head and made me realize "the value of value"!
Overall, I have no real knowledge of where I will be in the future. It might be that this process has to start all over again. I'm not actually sure if art is truly my life's calling or not; I'm sure a lot of people have that certainty and feel they were ordained and chosen to be a career artist. For me it's always been something I AM, not something I necessarily DO. Right now it's impossible for me to see doing anything else...but heck, when I was a kid I was convinced I would grow up to be a dragon ballerina or something.
Still, I think I might finally be finding my voice. Another breakthrough that happened more recently is Fear of Love, which was a very personal piece to me (you can always tell which ones those are because I don't write much in the description, usually too shell-shocked after the project's completion to bother). I let go of my stranglehold on color. It was a Moment for me
Anyway, it's something I haven't thought about in a while, and I think it's important to remember your life, even the embarrassing bits.. I have this great fear of losing my memories, or forgetting these tiny precious things that have become so much more significant over time. I don't want to forget what a complete ass I was because I want to avoid being an ass in future times. I don't want to gloss over the past and pretend that at one point I wasn't longing to be universally loved. Much as it sucks to admit it, that's who I am.. a desperate, ignorant and wandering person.
Um, on that note...stay in school, kids.