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.
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.
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.