Saturday, August 21, 2010

11 tips on drawing and becoming an Illustrator

I got asked quite a few times about some advice on drawing in general and becoming an illustrator. Right now I got this question again at Formspring and decided to put a longer answer here, as it turned out to be a wall of text, but it pretty much answers most things I've been asked about lately. I don't know if I'm the right person to answer these, there are many better artists out there (I'm not being humble, it's just my opinion), but since I've been asked a lot and have some experience in this field, here are my thoughts on the topic. So for those of you who are bored or curious, grab a coffee and have a long read. Sorry for being sarcastic at some points :)

11 Tips on drawing and becoming an Illustrator.

Basically the only answer is "practice". I know it's the most boring answer ever, but this is the only real one, even though people always expect me to give some magic tricks.
Also it's all about lots of passion and self-educating all the time. These are not empty words, just facts.

I never took any art classes before I started working as an Illustrator. But I got Internet and I read lots of tutorials, basically anything I could find on the topic, when I discovered CG back in 2003. I watched tons of other artists (both contemporary and old ones), tried to use same techniques they are using. I'm still very unhappy with where my skills are, but I did progress a lot and I know I'd be much better if I had more time to study anatomy and draw from nature.

Here are few tips I can give. I assume you want to become an illustrator capable of drawing varied things and earn money doing it. If you want to focus only on drawing Twilight fanarts, manga fanarts, plain looking, goth and boring ladies in long gowns or such (very romantic), then this is not for you.

1. Sketch a lot in pencil, things based on real life. From nature or photos, just don't trace it (you really don't learn this way). And no, you don't need to post all of it everywhere, don't spam. It's for you to practice, not for everyone to laugh at (you'd laugh if you'd see some of my sketches).

Even if you want to become a cartoon / manga artist realism will teach you more at first. It's easy to stylise a realistic thing when you've mastered it, while it's very hard to keep drawing only stylised things and make it look believable with no foundation. My big mistake is that at one point I was drawing cartoon, stylised stuff only. When I started sketching more realistic things again I made a bigger progress in one year than I did in 3 or more of drawing mostly manga girls, which basically is copying same thing over and over again (because all that you draw is stylised in the same way).

Practice with some traditional media too. Carry a sketchbook with you everywhere (I always do that). No matter how many CG tricks you'll learn, it's always your skills that really makes a picture good or bad.

2. Collect treasures! There's NO such thing as "art block". Save pictures you like on your disk to have a folder full of inspirations. Print pictures you like best. Buy artbooks you like.

Don't say you can't, 'cause you don't have money. Honestly, I can't say how many times I saw people saying "I'd buy your artbook, but I have no money" who later publish journals how they just got their ball-jointed doll, went to some gig or something (no, I didn't publish an artbook, I'm just quoting what I see often at other artists' websites). There are great artbooks, for example on Amazon, which cost around 10-20$. Surely you can afford one in few months if drawing and learning is that important to you, right? Or buy magazines like ImagineFX when they cover some topics you're interested in? I remember when I was still a teenager and didn't earn anything, I was saving for many books or CDs I really wanted (and one dress I really liked, which later got a huge hole in it in a silly accident), even when that meant that for some time I was living mostly on coffee, not food (especially when living in London on my own). But I was stubborn. I really hate it how people have so many possibilities right now with Internet being everywhere (free online tutorials, books, reproductions) and still expect other people to do all the work for them ("Where can I find this or that?" - use Google!,  "Where are good tutorials?" - use Google!, "When will I start getting money for my work?" - use Google! Err, or just maybe start sending your portfolio to people who look for artists? But you can use Google for that too). Stick to art sites -,,,, etc. - you'll find all links and resources I could give you there and much, much more.

Really, with so many places to get inspired from - there's no such thing as a real art block. Maybe after 50 years of practice or something, when you're burn out, but none of us have so many years of experience, feeling that we've done everything. Far from it. Whenever I feel like I can't draw anything proper (and everybody, I mean it, have such days that every single line looks just wrong), I just browse through my folders or artbooks and try to doodle something random or write down some ideas. I'll get back to them eventually.

3. There are no magic tricks or tips I can give you and no other artist can (I get such questions a lot). Learn how to look up for things you need yourself.

Everything is out there and mostly for free, you just have to spend some time looking for it, not asking anyone to give you any hidden secrets. There are none! All materials I learned (and still learn) from are on the Internet. For example download Loomis books, they are still legally available to get for free (as far as I know) and probably the best "course" on drawing you'll ever get.

You need to learn how to look for what you're interested in. This is very important. People ask me about really silly things when usually they'd get a reply much quicker if they'd just search for it. It's stupid. I don't believe anyone with such "give me all" attitude will make any progress at all, because most of such kids can just never learn anything on their own. I don't know why I even bother writing this, 'cause those people won't read it anyway and it should be pretty obvious for everyone else, which brings me to next point:

4. Learn on your own.

I never, ever met an artist who is good just because somebody taught him this. And I met a lot of fellow artists. Most of them, though, know lots of art and still search for new inspirations. Take history of art for example. Except the highlights like renaissance painters, most of whom I find terribly boring after all this time, there is a whole universe you probably never heard of. Give XIXth Century illustrators a try. Learn about Symbolists. Pre-Raphaelites. See the XVIIth Century chiaroscuro artists. Art Nouveau. Start with one artist and look for other. For example Mucha's art is great, it's a spirit of Art Nouveau. But there were many more out there just as good. Check their work. Learn about what you're interested in - art. I was just naming few of my favourites, but my specialty is XIXth Century. The art back then was so varied! Even after I'm done with my studies I still discover many great artists from this Century (and the beginning of XXth Century) I never heard of before.

It's all about self-educating and getting inspired all the time. Don't draw all the time - you'll just get bored. Read a book, look for other artists, play a game, watch a movie, take a walk. It will all give you something.
Go visit an art museum. Or just a book store. Look for things that interest you and just try to learn from it.

5. Learn to actually see what you draw.

All that I mentioned in points 3 and 4 should give you one idea - train your eye, so you can see better the quality of what you draw. The more I drew and the more I watched other artists' work I was able to see better what's wrong in what I'm doing. And this skill is, I'd say, what matters most to improve. Except, of course, practice.

6. Don't cheat. The only person you're really fooling is yourself.

And by that I mean - don't try to impress people with your CG art painted on photos. Believe it or not, but most people will see the difference, but just be nice enough to not leave any comment at all. There are many photo-manipulators I like, but it's a different genre. Usually people who draw on other people's work are pretty weak when it comes to colouring, drawing lines and all, so everyone with some semi-decent skills can see how it was done. Who cares the proportions are perfect if you can see all the rest isn't or is just photo-manipulated and pasted in? I see so many of these everyday, labelled as drawings, and none of it is really good. There are no good shortcuts. Not to mention usually the photo or art you used is pretty much known by everybody else, it's the Internet, right? It will come back to you, sooner or later. Being original is a better choice.

I actually think there's nothing wrong with using bits of photos in CG, you work in a different medium than traditional after all. But I mean using it in textures, for some little bits and repainting it completely, just using small parts of photos as a base for some elements - I learned that's what many professional artists do anyway, mostly just because it's quicker. But this won't change the fact that you need to learn how to paint first. And this is much different than pasting an overpainted body on an overpainted photo of some background. Really.

7. Be original. Duh.

I never saw an overpaint that looks original. It's completely not creative, because if you just overpaint other people's work you're not really adding there anything yours (and no - adding butterflies, wings, vampire teeth, blood, graves and such does NOT count as creative and original).

Usually when I see a gallery full of photorealistic portraits of girls looking like celebrities and nothing else at all - I just ignore it completely. And so will the person looking for illustrators to hire. After all how many illustrations of pretty woman wearing one dress do you need (girls speciality)? Or half naked chicks with no taste at all (boys speciality)? Guys, really, just because the girl has no shirt on it doesn't make her pretty and the drawing interesting, it needs something more, unless it's done just to serve one purpose and I don't mean art. Not to mention everyone would prefer to hire somebody who has more than just this in his or her portfolio, because it promises a more original result, even if the commission itself would be indeed a lady in a long dress or semi-naked barbarian with huge, err, sword.

How many artists do you watch out of hundreds doing such things (usually overpaints anyway)? If you do, how many of their names do you remember or can tell which lady is done by who? It all just seems the same.

People are usually looking for artists who show interesting illustrations or distinctive style. Try to design your own characters. Give them interesting clothes. Try to create an actual lore for your paintings. Tell a story. Watch portfolios of professional illustrators, see what they show.

Don't post fanarts only. It might give you lots of exposure on Deviantart (which will be teens only in this case), but in general it just screams "I'm so uncreative I can't paint anything else". Honestly, if you can't come up with anything more original than a random looking knight with a dragon or a sad lady in plain evening gown, most probably with vampire teeth - this is not the job for you.

8. Make a varied portfolio.

Well, this is a thing I'm trying to do at the moment, I just can't show some of the pieces for it yet. My own consists of too many boring portraits right now. Try to have there varied things: illustrations, concept designs of characters, props, backgrounds, portraits, unfinished pieces, loose sketches. Sometimes a quick, pencil sketch can tell more about your skills than a finished, realistic portrait. It just shows your style, the way you think when drawing.

Choose your best pieces. I often see galleries swarmed with hundreds (literally) of same looking, boring art. Show 10 good pieces and some sketches and you'll get more recognition than if you'd show 100 boring drawings no one will bother to look at. Just see for yourself, what kind of galleries attract your attention? Those smaller, easier to see as a whole, or those where artist is uploading 2-3 new pieces a day? There's no artist in the world who can create 2-3 masterpieces a day. A strict selection is needed.

9. Loose your dignity. Loose your ego.

Well, only at first ;) I see many people, bad at drawing, expecting they'll get very good commissions right at the very beginning, just because their Mom or Uncle told them how talented they are. Bullshit. In this industry most other artists WILL be better than you and capable of things you can't do or will just do the commission cheaper or they'll be crap, but still popular. It's not always fair. Usually it isn't fair at all. You need to earn your name a meaning. So don't be afraid to send hundreds of emails to companies looking for illustrators, keep checking forums for serious commissions offers. You won't get an answer in most cases at first, especially from bigger companies, but being stubborn is what will eventually bring you some offers. The laws of statistics say so, I even saw the worst artists ever get commissions, just because they were advertising themselves everywhere. One of them, not the worst, but pretty much a mediocre artist (I won't say who or give any clues, so don't bother asking) is actually getting lots of money per piece and is fully booked, so even though it's a little inside joke between some of my friends, it just proves everything is possible. And after you start, more will come with time and you'll learn more with practice. But some people need to learn in this job it's always about being rejected first. You can be the best, but still your style might just not be what the commissioner is looking for.

And remember - the more interesting, but clean and easy to browse through, your portfolio is, the bigger chances are someone will notice you.

10. Don't pity yourself (in public).

God, that is awful. I do have lots of bad moments and honestly I don't really like most of my pieces. But what keeps me going is that I want to become better and I won't get there with whining, but with painting more. Everybody is often unhappy with their work, but keep it private. Torture your friends with it (mine are tortured already, but hey, that's what friends are for), not the rest of the world. What kind of an impression do you make as a potential employee if you just keep whining about yourself all the time in every single thing you post? Not really a stable type who can take on any challenge, right?

11. Make a good impression yourself.

Yes, it actually means a lot. Be nice. Write in understandable English (or any language you use). Check your spelling. It makes a difference. English is not my first language and I'm not great at it, but I always make sure that I sound at least understandable and didn't do any stupid typos. Most people won't care if you made some mistakes, but if your whole e-mail is written in a messy way, especially in your own language, you just make a really bad impression.

Don't show off your ego, but don't be an idiot either and learn to ignore some people. If you get a commission offer that sounds like it's been written by a dumb teenager who can't learn how to spell, but offers you 1000$ - well, ignore it, okay? I never got an email written like this with any offer that could be treated seriously. And I get a lot.

Okay, I think that's kind of enough. Hope it was fun for those who survived up to this point :D