It’s quite common to find yourself stuck at a certain level and feel like there has been no improvement for a while. It’s also easy to get caught up in your freelance jobs and forget to spend some time on your personal work.
While drawing or painting for clients does count as practice, it might not contribute that much to your evolvement as an artist. You might also feel like the jobs you are getting right now are not as well paid as you would like or aren’t the kind of projects you really want to be working on.
Reserving a few hours per week on your personal improvement may get you a long way and help you overcome the stagnation.
1. Invest in online art courses
In order to level up, an artist must spend many hours practicing skills required to succeed in their field of expertise. Luckily, now there is a much easier access to knowledge and the experience of professional artists around the world, without the need to ever leave your house. All you need is a connection to the internet and willingness to learn.
Not everybody can afford to pay for an art school to get a college degree but many will be able to afford a few online courses that offer much value and information to guide them through the learning process.
One thing to remember is that in the end no school or online course will do the work for you – it is up to you how much you will take away from these learning experiences.
Since more and more people decide to skip a college degree and learn their skill online, there has been a great increase in websites that offer subscription based courses. Currently, there are so many options to choose from, you might be wondering which one to pick, what is a reliable source that will be worth your money and really help you improve.
In this article you will find reviews of my favorite online courses to learn digital as well as traditional art.
2. Go to live drawing sessions
While the internet offers unlimited amounts of images you can use as reference, the best way to really understand how a human body is build and to be able to express its 3-dimensionality, is drawing a figure from life. Doing this will also help you develop a good eye for the proportions.
Most likely, if you don’t live in a very rural area, there should be at least one place which hosts live drawing sessions near you. Check out MeetUp to find if there are any in your area. You can even take part in events like these while traveling – it’s a great opportunity to meet new people and immerse yourself in the new surroundings.
If there are no sessions in your area, you might want to consider creating one yourself or just hiring a model to pose for you. You may even be able to persuade one of your friends or family members to help you out.
3. Study on your own
Take advantage of all resources you have available. There are numerous things you can do by yourself to get better at art.
Practice from reference
Probably, the quickest way to improve is regular practice. Schedule an hour or two each day to sketch or paint just for the purpose of improving. You can draw from photo references or even copy other artists that you admire.
Below are some great websites with references that you can use for learning:
Quickposes – A library of pose references divided into categories. You can even do challenges – a series of random references will pop up for a set period of time (from 30 to 120 seconds) and you will have to quickly draw the poses before the pictures switch.
I am Chicago – A collection of professional full body portraits of different people living in the Chicago area. It’s a great source of reference as well as inspiration for character design. I highly recommend this website!
Earthsworld – Shots of people taken during various public events and festivals around the United States. A great place to find reference for drawing different expressions, heads from different angles or just get some character inspiration.
Les Vertugadins – This is actually a french costume rental shop but they have a collection of beautiful photographs featuring models dressed in costumes from different periods in history. Some of them are fantasy themed. A great site to reference from if you want to practice drawing different fabrics and clothing or just find inspiration for an outfit design.
DeviantArt stock images – many people on DeviantArt made their accounts into stock libraries which they share with the community to support artists. Some of my favorites are faestock, PhelanDavion and AdorkaStock but there are many more.
Anatomy 360 – A paid resource of 3D models aimed for artists who need a customizable reference for drawing or painting. The models come with a viewer in which you can rotate them, light and shade them as you like, see in grayscale and more. I find it a very helpful resource which you can use for your professional work as well.
ArtStation Marketplace – Offers countless of pose packs at attractive prices, often available at a discount.
A great idea is to focus on exploring one area at a time. Maybe you feel like you need to work on your anatomy skill – dedicate a session to drawing only hands or heads from different angles. If you want to improve your understanding of color and light – paint quick sketches of various objects around you (like an apple or a cup) in different light settings. Use objects with different surfaces, i. e. matte, reflective, transparent, to see how light and color reflects on and around them.
Learn from books
There’s nothing like the magic of a real book. With books on art, you get valuable knowledge and a collection of beautiful illustrations to go with it. There are some great titles out there that have been used to teach artists the fundamentals, principles of art, human anatomy and drawing. Some of them were written decades ago but are still very much relevant and useful today.
For detailed reviews of some of the best books for artists, visit this article.
Must-have books to improve your drawing and painting skills
Watch YouTube tutorials
There are many professionals out there who run their own YouTube channels where they share tutorials, speed painting videos, interviews or just free advice on how to succeed as an artist. If you are looking for some good channels, here are my picks:
Aaron Blaise is a Disney animator who worked on movies such as Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast or Lion King. On his channel you will find lots of content to learn from, mostly related to animal and creature drawing, painting and animating.
Bobby Chiu is a creature concept artist and the founder of Schoolism, an online website which offers various courses on digital art. On his channel you will find many interviews with professional artists as well as podcasts in which he and his co-hosts share their experience and some valuable advice for anybody pursuing an art career.
Master painter and the author of a popular series Dinotopia shares his techniques and process of painting with watercolors and gouache from life.
A great channel to learn human anatomy. It’s a huge library of short and humorous videos meant to teach in the easiest and least painful way possible.
Maybe not the best source of practical information on painting but definitely an entertaining channel run by a very energetic and positive artist Ross Tran (and his cute dog). A great way to spend a break from work and get some positive vibes.
A background artist for animated movies who worked on a popular Japanese feature animation Your Name shares his process of creating with watercolors and digitally (also using an Ipad).
I absolutely love his series of videos People sketching. Not only you see his process of creating characters based on real people he saw, he also talks about his struggles as an artist and explains how he deals with them. I think it’s very easy to relate to the stuff he talks about and also, his laugh is contagious!
Go to art exhibitions
Studying the original works of great masters is another way to improve your skills, as long as you purposefully try to analyze and understand what it is that made their art appealing. Seeing the real painting is also much better than looking at a digital reproduction because you are able to see detail of the brushwork and the colors accurately. It also has much more impact in its original form than as a digital or printed version.
Going to a museum or an exhibition is a great way to get inspired, learn something new and just get out to experience the world outside your house.
Traveling is one of the most unique experiences you can have that will give you new ideas and opportunities to draw. You don’t need to travel very far, sometimes it’s enough to just go for a one or two day trip to explore a new and interesting area.
Be sure to take a sketchbook with you, so that you can draw from life or just sketch down some ideas if you get inspired along the way.
Even when you are not drawing, try to really see the world around you as if you were painting a picture in your head. What colors would you use to paint the shadows? How does the light reflect on this object? What does the perspective look like from this angle? Focus on learning from the world around you and you will improve much faster than just drawing from reference at home.
Study other artists
With websites like Artstation or social media like Instagram, you can find hundreds of great artists posting their work regularly. Don’t compare your work to theirs and feel like you will never be as good. Instead, learn from it, get inspired and know that you can become as good or even better. Remember that each one of those artists was once struggling and they spent hours and hours working hard to get to their current level. If you can do the same, you will improve as well.
You can also check out online galleries with reproductions of the work of old masters. I recommend Google Arts & Culture which has a huge collection of artwork that you can view in high resolution. You can also create a collection of your favorite works to be able to view later.
There is also the British Library collection on Flickr which has over a million scans of illustrations from 19th century books and magazines.
4. Complete a personal project
Whether it’s a children’s book, a game concept or an animated short, a personal project will give you the opportunity to practice drawing or painting while also creating a product which can be pitched or sold once finished. It will also contribute to your portfolio of work and create new job opportunities.
Not everyone has the passion and determination to complete a personal project which is why it is such a great addition to your work experience. It tells your clients or your future employer that you have the ability to build something from start to finish without giving up mid-way. It’s a proof that you are not only able to follow instructions but are also a creative individual with your own ideas.
5. Learn a new software
A great way to get more job opportunities and motivation is to learn a new software. You will find yourself wanting to test all those new tools and features to see what you can create with them. Moreover, it will widen the scope of work you can perform giving you more chances to get hired. Below are some programs widely used in the industry, which can help you develop your skills as a digital artist:
If you are a digital artist you are probably familiar with at least one of Adobe’s Creative Suite programs. Most likely it is Photoshop or Illustrator. Still, you might only be using one of them and be much less familiar with the other one. It is definitely a great idea to know both and be able to utilize their unique possibilities.
Adobe Photoshop is a photo editing program but also widely used for digital painting. It is a complex tool that you can use to make adjustments to your photographs, create photo-manipulations, combine photographs with painting, create graphic design elements such as logos and finally paint a work from scratch using a variety of brushes (even create your own). Photoshop is versatile, powerful and used worldwide – which is why any digital artist or graphic designer should learn how to use it.
Adobe Illustrator is a vector-based software, which means that every element you create in it is an object defined mathematically. Vector objects can be modified or resized without any quality loss, which means you can edit them any time you want and however you want, separately from all other objects you have on your canvas. Adobe illustrator is used to create complex illustrations, logos, UI elements, fonts, website assets and any other graphic design work you need done. It works in CMYK color mode, so you can see more accurately what the result will look like when printed. It might take a while to get used to Illustrator but it’s worth learning. Definitely a must if you work with vector graphics!
Corel Painter is a software a bit similar to Adobe Photoshop but focused solely on digital painting. It aims to provide a similar experience to working with traditional media, with its huge variety of brushes and blending tools. You can make your artwork look like it was painted with real oils, acrylics or watercolors and the textures look very rich and vibrant.
Corel Draw is a vector-based software very similar to Adobe Illustrator. It is a great tool for creating illustration as well as graphic design elements such as logos, web assets, pamphlets and many more. Some people find Corel Draw easier to learn and use than Illustrator and it’s available both as a one-time purchase or subscription based. You can only use it on Windows.
3D software like Zbrush, Blender or SketchUp
It’s hard to deny – the era of 3D art has begun. To keep up with the rapidly changing entertainment industry standards (especially for movies and games) it makes a lot of sense to invest in a 3D software and learn how to create 3D models and scenes. For a 2D artist, it serves many purposes as well:
You can create highly realistic illustrations and concept art with complex architecture or perspective by incorporating 3D into your workflow.
Model a character in 3D, light it and pose the way you want and then paint over it in Photoshop to create a digital painting.
Avoid having to guess lights and shadows on your own or spending many hours on finding the right reference. Once you create a 3D model you can render it from any angle you want and get exactly the result you want.
Unless your skill level is very high and you are capable of rendering in high detail with accurate values and lighting, there is no way you can achieve the same level of realism when painting from scratch as you would using 3D in your work. It is a solution to overcome your weaknesses and get the best result possible, fast.
Of course it’s not easy to learn 3D but once you do, it will definitely pay off.
Zbrush is a 3D sculpting program most often used to create character models. It feels like creating a sculpture in clay, only digitally. It is not very difficult to use (though it may seem so when you are first starting out) and quite intuitive after some practice. You can create very realistic and detailed models to showcase as 3D renders or use them to paint over and create beautiful and realistic 2D illustrations.
Blender is a free 3D software you can use to create 3D scenes and animation. Since it’s an open-source program, it is perfect for beginners who wish to learn to use 3D without having to invest a lot of money in an expensive, professional software. Blender has many features and you can achieve great results with it – it has been used in production of TV commercials and series. It’s definitely worth trying out.
SketchUp is a 3D modeling program used mainly for architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, mechanical engineering and video game design. It has three versions, SketchUp Free which is a web-based application available at no cost, SketchUp Shop, also web-based but with some advanced features and SketchUp Pro, which includes a desktop version aimed for professional use with more functionality.
Animation software, such as Toon Boom Harmony, Moho Debut 13.5, OpenToonz or Pencil2D
Have you ever drawn a silly post-it note flip book animation, with the main character a stick figure, during a particularly boring class in high school?
Maybe you have a hidden passion for animating!
Most animation software is quite expensive but there are some free programs available, such as Pencil2D, OpenToonz or Synfig Studio and they are perfect for beginners. Once you familiarize yourself with the animating process and feel like you want to pursue developing your skills further, you might consider buying one of the paid software, such as Toon Boom Harmony or Moho.
Being able to create animation is a valuable skill, much less common than illustrating or digital painting. You can be sure you will get more job opportunities if you add animating to your skillset as a freelance artist.