A recent blog post I wrote on my lunchtime sketches and doodles appears to have struck a chord with lots of people, so it seems like a good time to follow up on it. (I’ve had more hits in a week than I’d normally get in a year – so all my new readers and followers have my most profound thanks!)
I only studied art at school until I was about 15, and honestly: it shows.
My technique isn’t as easy and flowing as I’d like – at least, not for the sorts of things I want to draw; it lacks the technique and refinement that a few years at art school would’ve provided. And nobody wants to be reminded of the way they drew when they were in their teens. Nobody.
My knowledge of art styles – and art history – is very piecemeal and not even amateur. Does this matter? Perhaps, if I wanted to quickly and readily mimic certain artistic tropes. Knowing what other people have done – what works, what doesn’t, and how and why certain ‘rules’ can be broken – adds a lot more to your creative arsenal.
(The above is also true of any creative field, whether it’s writing or music.)
Having said that, sometimes people find a style, or specific thing, that works for them, and they make a success out of it (however they define their own successes). Gary Larson’s The Far Side cartoons, Scott Adams’ Dilbert strips, or web-originated comics like Randall Munroe’s XKCD haven’t come from trained artists – they’ve come from people who have just the right sort of observational humour and enough drawing ability to make appealing, recognisable characters for people to latch onto – but more importantly, they brought the enthusiasm for drawing stuff (in Gary Larson’s case, it lasted until 1995 when he abruptly retired and hasn’t put pen to paper since). In each of these cases, however, they all acknowledge spending their childhoods doing lots and lots of drawing because it was fun. That’s the key. You can have artistic instincts and/or artistic technique – but without enthusiasm, you won’t get anything started.
Limiting myself to pen-and-ink artworks, what sort of stuff made me want to draw when I was a kid? The shelves in newsagents had Marvel’s Star Wars comics, and homegrown UK fare like 2000AD, featuring a hard-edged style that emphasised deep shadows and sometimes approaching a gritty, realistic look (spoiled only by outlandishly muscled protagonists and an abundance of shiny lycra – it was the early 80’s after all). But I was never really all that keen on it (I never got into superhero comics either).
I much preferred the simpler, cleaner style of Tintin by Hergé (Georges Remi). Even without shadowing, or stippling or cross-hatching to texture his illustrations, he was able to include a great deal of depth, detail and interest; for the six-year-old me, he covered a huge range of world cultures from every continent, as well as historical eras (the age of sail in Secrets Of The Unicorn) and brushing up against the (then-) future space age (in Destination Moon and Explorers On The Moon); whatever merits or criticisms people might see, there’s no denying that the art style was simple, effective, and flexible. It was something a child with patience might aspire to draw for themselves.
Another artist who blew my mind was MC Escher, whose work I first encountered after watching Labyrinth in 1986 – the end sequence of the film was based on his Relativity, and acted as a gateway drug to his optical illusions and mind-bending transformations, repeating patterns and peculiar perspectives all done in black and white woodcut prints. If you ever get the chance to visit the museum in the Netherlands, it’s well worth the look, and just as inspiring as an adult as it was when I was a kid. It’s art that shows you that even something simple in black and white can push the boundaries of what you think is possible.
Other artists who I got to know of included Quentin Blake (who illustrated Roald Dahl’s stories), but I wasn’t keen on the slightly scratchy, scribbly style – it was too messy for my tastes back then; Gerald Scarfe‘s political caricatures (as a child, the sharp, spiky lines didn’t appeal because I didn’t have the sense of politics to understand why they were so vitriolic); in my teens, Peter Brookes‘ editorial cartoons in The Times were the best commentaries I saw – and his style didn’t rely on huge amounts of detail. Like Hergé, he could get the essence of a personality in far fewer pen strokes, and the style was more gently sarcastic, always witty, and frequently very clever.
Later on, I started seeing more of the works of Moebius (Jean Giraud), who had a similar, clean style to Hergé, but in a science fiction setting. I suppose this means I’m attracted to a style more common among European artists (from France, Belgium, Netherlands) than Anglophone ones (at least, of the Marvel/DC variety), where the colouring is used to indicate shadowing and depth more than heavy black lines. This style is also one which allows for greater speed in getting images out of one’s head and onto the page. Moebius gave a great interview in 1996 about his drawing technique which can be found here.
Currently, one of my favourite artists to follow is JaeCheol Park (also known as PaperBlue), who produces the most astounding concept art in a range of styles. He’s shared a number of videos demonstrating how he builds up each image from scratch, refining and adding detail as he goes. It’s mesmerising.
So everyone has the stuff which inspires them; it’ll be a bunch of things (styles, artists) that when combined make up their ‘taste’ – the sort of things which, if they happen to be creative, they want to start out imitating until they develop their own style.
Software developer Brad Isaac related a story about a conversation he had with comedian and TV star Jerry Seinfeld, in which Seinfeld explained that in order to get good at something, you have to keep practising day in, day out. If you print out a wall planner showing the whole year on a single sheet, you can mark the days you’ve practised that thing with a pen, and you can see when you’ve built up a ‘chain’ over the days and weeks. Quite simply, don’t break the chain. To Seinfeld’s bemusement, this has become known as the ‘Seinfeld Technique’ (he didn’t invent it, it’s just something he used).
I’ve been using it since 2014, and it has come in really handy. It’s like having a record of stuff you’ve accomplished throughout the year – a reminder that you aren’t wasting your time after all – and I’ve adapted mine to cover any of the creative stuff I’ve been doing. Where it’s patchy, I’ve been doing other things: at best, planning some big project like a road trip; at other times, I might be engrossed in a book; at worst, playing computer games because I’m just exhausted and uninspired (I don’t like those times).
By doing lunchtime sketches every day, or bringing a camera on holiday means I get to build up chains of creativity. The more practice I get, the better I become (I hope!).
Apart from “don’t break the chain!”, is there anything else that should keep you going? Well, if you’re creative, you’ll want to get better at what you do. Remember way back at the start I showed a couple of examples of artists who don’t like seeing their early work? The best explanation for this comes from Ira Glass’s short talk on ‘having taste’, which you can find in various places around YouTube (see below).
Essentially, as a creative person, you’ll have developed tastes and interests since childhood. You’ll want to get good enough to create the sorts of things that originally inspired you. But – and here’s the kicker – by the time you do, your tastes will have become even more refined. You’re doomed to keep creating things in the hopes of matching your ever-improving aesthetic tastes.
As soon as you create something you’re proud of, you have to find some way of topping it, because that’s the only way to reach that ‘high’ again (which might explain why so many creative types can be very down on themselves).
Just remember what got you creating things in the first place: because the process of creation is fun!
(You can find more of my arty endeavours on Behance.)