Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Artist's Journey

I want you to imagine you are on a road.

This metaphor is a bit hackneyed, but I promise we're going to make some sense out of it. Bear with me. 

You are on a road, and your destination is uncertain. You only know you must go a direction, and the logical direction to go is forward. The road is winding, full of switch-backs, but it is a relatively easy walk even if it can feel a bit aimless. All around the road are steep cliffs, hills, and mountains. There are detours that cut through these mountains, but they're not always shortcuts. They are harder, a real challenge. Depending on your pace and morale, these paths can be faster than the road sometimes. Others, they might not. But these harder trails offer a refreshing change of pace before they lead back to road anyway, where you can carry on.

I mentioned in my last post that everything you do in art is mileage, that there is no real right or wrong way to improve at art. The road is the artists' journey, and every step you take is one of many you will need to take to make progress.

The Winding Road

If the road were straight, art would be a simple choice—always forward, always toward the horizon. But nobody who has made art would say it was as simple. Like any trade, it requires years to develop technique and skill. Art has its tentacles wrapped around our psyches, emotions, memories. Sitting down in front of a blank canvas is a struggle, especially in the beginning. So the road is winding and seemingly endless, and all you can do is trust you're going the right direction. There is no end in sight, just glimpses of horizon.

Every step on the road is a small fragment you learn and retain from making art. Every drawing, doodle, sketch is positive momentum. But because your path has so many twists and turns, forward progress sometimes involves going backwards or laterally for great lengths of time. The good news is if you can learn to embrace uncertainty and failure, the road is a very comfortable walk. The path is more or less laid out for you, and demands only that you keep making art.

My sketchbooks are filled with brain vomit like this.

The Hard Path

Sometimes making art isn't enough. We spend so long on the road making lateral or backward progress it feels like it'll never end—hopeless. This is when the mountain path, the hard climb up the steep walls around us, is most appealing. The hard path is studying from life. It is much easier to sit down and vomit your brain onto a piece of paper than it is to set up a still life and paint it. It is much easier to make excuses why not to study from life than to admit you might need to. It's usually only when you feel defeated that studying seems a sane alternative. Life studies are the surest way to reorient yourself to your destination, but they are much harder than working from imagination all the time. They require you to learn how to observe, how to translate those observations, and to repeat those translations and observations so many times you'll forget how many steps you've taken.

And then suddenly you're at the peak. The peak is not the apex of studying, it is merely the point where you have maximized your learning at the moment. From the peak you gain clarity, the ability to apply new information to your work, and to see the direction you need to head to reach your destination, your view unimpeded by mountain walls. You orient yourself, and set back down the easier trail down until you get back on the road. The hard path is not by definition faster than the road, but many times it is. Ultimately the clarity and change of pace are what matter most, and they provide you with renewed purpose and direction.

One of many plein air paintings I've been doing over the last year and a half. For me, plein air is the hard path, but I learn so much from each one it is always worthwhile.


Along the road are other travelers. Sometimes you meet people who, like you, have never seen this bit of road before. Other times you might see somebody retreading a length of road they've walked before, either because they want to be reminded why they first walked it or because they are helping to guide someone else through the same paths they found most helpful. Other times still, you come across congregations of people who have stopped moving and have settled down.

The biggest town is before the first road. Most people never embark on the journey, or only take a few steps. The further out you go, the fewer people you will find settled, but they are there along the whole path. They tend to congregate at the same key points, the points in art where it is easiest to stop progressing or settle into routine. Settling down is not wrong. Not everybody wants to keep walking, and it doesn't make them weaker for stopping. Some people need a break to refresh themselves and rebuild their stamina, and some may lose interest in the journey and only make a few new steps a year. You should never look down on people who have stopped because it is a deeply personal choice that doesn't come easily. The point is to keep moving as long as you yearn to. Taking a break or settling down is sometimes entirely necessary to nurse our wounds, frustrations, fears, and doubts. But if you want to excel in art, you'll need to keep taking steps at some point. You need to keep moving forward.

(c) S2 Games

(C) Riot Games
Icons were a town I stopped in while figuring out the kind of artist I wanted to be. I learned a lot from doing do many of them, and still dip my toe in once in a while.

The Destination

Excellence is where you are going. This means different things for each of us, and it is up to every individual to decide in what ways they want most to excel. But as long as we walk the road together and keep helping each other forward, your distinct voice and the success that comes with it become much easier to achieve.

Keep walking, every day.


  1. Yeah. I think for me, one thing that adds to the struggle of this road is pressure from other sources. The inner turmoil makes it hard- "Are the things I'm doing going to get me enough understanding to find work before I graduate?" "Will I ever get an internship at the rate I'm going?" I think our paths would be easier to deal with if we could ensure that our tired footsteps were truly adding up to something.

    But I guess that's the thing about life- we just can't really know that, and we just do our best while keeping an eye ahead on our distant goals.

    1. My canned response to this is often "don't worry!" but lately I know that doesn't help a lot.

      Everybody sets out on their road at different times, at different paces, with different morale levels. Some people begin at a sprint and slow down later, others take a little longer to get to the same place, but their endurance ultimately means they catch up. If you feel left in the dust by those around you, just remember there are no guaranteed shortcuts. Keep moving, and move along the path that makes the most sense to you. I always recommend studies because I have personally found them faster and more enriching/rewarding, but I know just as many people who manage to excel working almost exclusively from their rich imaginations. Find the path that works best and don't be afraid if it differs from the paths of others, but try to keep in mind that "best" isn't always the same as "most comfortable." If you feel like you've lost sight of your distant goals, go back to life for a bit until you find them. It is the only sure way I know of to discover those elements that attracted you to art in the first place.

      Peer pressure is only valuable if it motivates you positively, but a lot of people (especially these days more-so than at any time I can think of) want to push and pull and scramble over one another to get ahead. Trust me when I say people catch on to this behavior, and that it is never rewarding long-term. People are much more eager to work alongside kind, helpful people than assholes, and are willing to pass over a person of higher skill for someone who is much easier to work with. Obviously being both highly skilled and easy to work with makes you most desirable of all.

      On a final note, I have rarely met an artist who was not employable. I'll be making a video soon on the subject of building a freelance career, but believe me when I say that there is freelance work for people of all skill levels. Most people have to freelance before they ever find a studio that works for them. Don't force your style (a little fudging is okay, though) to get to a place where you like. It is always better to do your own thing and find a client who fits perfectly. Freelance work is relatively easy to get, but takes time to drum up. You will probably have to take a day job at some point just to get by, but don't worry! This is entirely normal. I worked in coffee a handful of years. Finding the first work is the hardest, but I have a list with something like 400 companies complete with contact info for them. Collecting the same info only requires patience and diligence, and a working internet browser. ;)

  2. I appreciate the lengthy response, Mitch. Right now I'm trying to figure out how to balance school with art. I'm not sure if school was a thing that you went through as you worked on becoming an artist, but currently, some of my classes feel really "Fillery" and take up precious time for me to be doing studies and learning 3D. This should become less of an issue as I get involved in more upper-division courses (as my degree will be focused on animation and games), but now time management has never been so key. For me, I see work that others do (Sometimes people younger than me) and compare myself to them (despite totally different sets of circumstances in their life leading up to where they are). I'm glad they're good (maybe a bit jealous), and find myself frequently inspired by the amazing work churned out by my peers, but sometimes it crosses into the "What's wrong with me, why am I not them" territory. It's really not productive to let the peer pressure get that far, like you were saying.

    I also like your last comment about finding someone who's not employable. I, like many others, suffer from the "I'm just not ready!" mentality. Maybe I need to evaluate if I can do some freelance for somebody with my current skill level. I'm looking forward to your video.

    Thanks again for the thoughts.