When I see artists just getting into the craft or people simply looking to improve their art ask for advice, the most omnipresent answer is “practice”; I don't like that answer. It assumes the person asking the question doesn't realize this is obvious, and hasn't already been practicing. They may even be practicing and see no noticeable improvement. Imagine you are stuck in a rut, with no clear direction, and the answers are all “Stay in the rut, it will get better the further you go!” For the burgeoning artist, this is not the kind of advice they are looking for. Of course everyone improves with time and practice! But let me tell you, it wasn't “practice” that improved my art; it was motivation, focus, it was setting goals, and it was finding a direction to go.
When I first started my comic, I actually backslid artistically as I was entering completely new territory– I was accustomed to drawing cutesy cartoon animals and horrible mutant monsters, but almost never human characters! I have over 600 pages in a folder of really, really bad art that carried over being bad when I began the web version of my comic. Drawing every single day DID help a LOT, but it's when I was starting to make art for more than just a small circle of close friends that I started to make a concerted effort to make something worth looking at. It's when I began to have peers and compare myself against these peers that I started to realize I had a lot of room for improvement! So here's a few practical bits of advice I think we can offer burgeoning artists that's not just “practice makes perfect”.
Observation and reference: Figuring out construction for the things you want to draw is undoubtedly an important part of improving your art. Observe things in real space, or through references collected in image searches. Take it all in. Heck, even trace things you are trying to learn to draw, as long as you draw it on your own for your public posting. People like to act like it's a huge affront to trace, but even professionals trace from time to time. I don't trace anything that's not my own (for instance, I traced some blackberry leaves from a photo I took to make a brush for my art programs) there is a definite advantage to getting the “feel” for something, especially challenging objects like vehicles.
Observe other artist's works also. I'm not encouraging you to copy but to try and see how your peers approach their art. If they do something you wish you could, try and figure out what it is and why you lack it. When you learn to look at art, you may even perform some sort of artistic forensics just through observation. Look at how they do the lines, do they look careful and meticulous, short and rough, or do they look like they were done with a quick swipe?
I have folders and folders of art from my favorite video game artists that I look at for inspiration, and art books too. Try to find tutorials by artists you admire, find out what their process is! You can sometimes find videos of the process online and see how they create their works from the beginning. Don't fall into the trap of putting yourself down when you don't match up to what your favorite artist does– they've already put in years of work (and sometimes have professional tools you lack), and you should tell yourself that with time you will be their equal. Heck, I find myself constantly shocked finding old artists I told myself I'd never be as talented as, only to have found said artists rather stagnated while I improved to their level.
Set Goals: Perhaps you don't want to learn how to draw exactly like someone else, but you may want to find something to artistically conquer. It won't be instant! Be patient with yourself. You will have frustrations, but you have to keep at it. If you want to draw like a Disney animator, look at how a Disney animator constructs characters. Break it down into smaller parts, then learn to assemble those parts. Get the basics down then find your personal style in there somewhere. Figure out what it is you want in your art. Do you want to draw fast? Work towards a style that can be simplified. Do you want to take your time and dedicate yourself to rendering things in detail? Don't overwhelm yourself right out the gate, but take care not to overwhelm your designs with too much clutter. There's a thin line between “That must have taken forever but wow the details are amazing!” and “That looks like it took forever, but I don't know what I'm looking at”.
Focus on your subject: You want to get better at something, you need dedicate yourself to it. When you've learned how to observe art you can discern your own flaws and weak points, and this is when you can start to target that for practice. If you struggle with legs, draw a page of nothing but legs. Look at how other artists draw legs. Look at real legs, look at anatomy drawings of legs, look at stylized cartoon legs. Going back to observation, when I'm trying to study a subject that I need to work on, I will seek out reference for this and fill a folder with it at different angles and different styles. A lot of artists will offer simple breakdowns, even down to the barest lines, to get you on the right track to improving an element of your work.
Try different media: Sometimes you just need to find the process that fits you best, and whether that's digital or traditional media, you might find yourself happy with your art in one where you were struggling with another. Mastering either is a matter of time, though I have seen some people choose a different medium halfway through a project because it was faster or easier for them rather than having looked better. I have also seen the opposite– some people choosing a medium they were not as skilled in and took longer to produce, because it was more fun to work on.
My own lineart looks very different on paper than it does when I do digital pencils. I prefer how my traditional art looks, but have chosen to do everything digital for convenience sake (and because cleaning pencil art is a process that takes forever!) It comes down to what your priorities are in the end– looking the best or being able to meet your schedule?
Learn shortcuts: This will be a huge boon in helping you practice because when the tools are easily accessible, you aren't interrupting precious drawing time to search for things. Most graphics programs come with a customization option in the preferences/keyboard shortcuts you can choose which keys on your keyboard to program them to, and you can put both your hands to work– one on the drawing, the other toggling options. Of course this applies to digital artists– for you traditional media artists, just try to keep your space organized and comfortable for working! Nothing will sabotage your efforts like a cluttered workspace and an uncomfortable chair.
Just do it: What I think people mean when they say to “Just practice!” is that you should be drawing often, drawing a variety of things and drawing a LOT. A lot of my early improvements came from updating my comic everyday. Drawing characters over and over again until they came out (somewhat) consistent.
Just do it….better: But that's only half of it because there are PLENTY of comics that update every day and a strip from 3 years ago looks exactly like what they posted today. Aimless practice is a really great tool to help you build your base skills until you become consistently able to repeat what used to be random happy accidents. Once you've gotten to that place of however, blind aimless practice often isn't enough to better yourself.
So practice is a fine thing to do, one of my favorite quotes is “Every artist has thousands of bad drawings in them and the only way to get rid of them is to draw them out”, and I think there is a lot of truth to that. If, however you don't want drawing 1001 to look exactly like 2001 and 3001 or even 1,000,001….you need to practice with a purpose and you need to keep your eyes open. If you really want to get yourself to the next level, understand just what you are trying to improve with practice.
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Targeted PracticeAmelius at 8:06AM, April 7, 2019
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ShaRose49 at 8:29PM, April 7, 2019
This is both inspiring and daunting. At least if you look at my first comic page and my latest there is a huge difference—but I may be getting stagnant and I certainly will if I don’t consistently try to improve. But I do it one step at a time so it’s not overwhelming and depressing
Avart at 5:12PM, April 7, 2019
Interesting article Amelius! This is one of the main issues I've always read in many art related forums. But the answer as you said isn't always the best answer many can offer. Lately, I've adopting/adapting a "technique" that is making a sketch of a frame/scene I want and then improve that scene changing the perspective or camera angle to offer a more dynamic work. Well, this works better in an action scene, but I think you got the point :)