Please don’t take my extended absence personally: I barely wrote anything in 2017. Let’s change that this year.
But this post, as the title says, wasn’t planned. It started out as an answer to a Reddit post asking what you should study if you want to go pro, but as I kept writing, I realized it was turning into a blog post.
So here you go: a list, from memory, of what I think an artist with career hopes should be reading up on.
Before anything else
Your first priority should be learning to think in 3D. When you look at a reference, think of it as a rotating 3-dimensional object, not what it looks like from that exact angle, in that exact lighting, taken with that exact lens. You should never let a reference photo dictate what you’ll draw. And the first key to that is learning how to break everything you draw down to five basic shapes: Cube, sphere, pyramid, cone, and cylinder. Everything else is just stretching and combining them.
You should know how to draw people from two heads—super cartoony—to eight heads—superhero—tall, how to build a body from a stick figure, and the differences between male and female body structures. Learn the relationships between different parts of the body and how to use the bony landmarks (the parts where bone is right below the skin, e.g. elbows and knees, since those don’t change with the amounts of fat or muscle) to measure proportions.
You should know classical portrait proportions, the Loomis method of building a head, how to do it from any angle, and how all the features look from those angles, even the ones you can’t see. Read up on ethnic features so trying to draw other races doesn’t get you, to quote Yahtzee, “a white woman dunked in tea.”
Even if you don’t know the Latin, you should know by sight the bones and where they go, the joints and their ranges of motion in all directions, the surface muscles, the muscle groups, and how the shapes of body parts change when they’re squashed and stretched. Learn how muscle and fat are distributed and how to draw all body types. Learn animal anatomy too, but since it varies so much, you can study that for each animal you draw as you go.
Have a basic knowledge of how clothes work. More important than learning the individual styles is knowing what holds a strapless dress on, where the stitch lines on jeans are, what makes for a nice suit, things like that. Learn how different types of cloth flow over objects, drape, and fold, both at rest and in motion.
First study vanishing points, then learn how to break away from the standard “one point, two point, three point” rote techniques they teach you (long story) so you can accurately draw diagonal or tilted objects into a scene as well. Learn to measure in perspective and deduce sizes and vanishing points from a photo. Know how to create perspective grids – even if just digitally – and eventually, how to do curvilinear and five-point. Learn how to foreshorten objects and people from a subtle to an extreme degree.
Know how light falls across the five basic shapes from different angles. Know how light direction, light intensity, and shadow lengths change depending on the time of day. Know how light hits unusual textures like brick and glass. Once you start getting into painting or digital art, know how to portray a subject lit in a certain color.
Study architecture to the point where you at least know the terms for the various building elements and where they go. Learn how to render rocks and mountains. Learn how to portray distance. Learn about plant structures and how to simplify them for a drawing.
Know how to both sketch and do precision work: I’d suggest practicing them with wood and mechanical pencils respectively. Know how to do rough gesture drawings, semi-rough figure drawings, and refined and fully-shaded studies. Learn to do both hard and gradual shading transitions, blend, use a tortillon, and draw using only value instead of lines.
Know how to ink with markers, brushes, and maybe even dip pens. Know how to hatch and crosshatch in all directions, create textures, and spot blacks.
I was a pen boi until just last year, so this is my weak point. I wish I’d worked on it earlier. Learn how to develop good taste in color, and study how other people use it. Learn about color theory, harmonies, and symbolism. Learn how to turn a value drawing into a colored one. Learn how ambient lighting affects the color of objects, how color is relative and subjective, and how to use different intensities and saturations to achieve different effects.
This is what I’m struggling with now, since I got started with tablets much later than most artists. You can start with a simple cel-shading style to introduce yourself to the tools, learn to blend colors, then move on to fully-rendered digital paintings, photobashing, and concept art-style environments. Know what programs are best for what purposes, and maybe dip a bit into 3d modeling, even if it’s just using posable figures and Sketchup.
Even if you want to have a defined art style, study as many others as possible so you can do them if you want. And study caricature: knowing how to exaggerate features without breaking the likeness will prove invaluable, as will the speed drawing aspect.
If you’re a weeb dumpster like me, put a decent amount of time into studying various anime and manga styles, not just generic moeface and “Atlus ripoff,” so you’ll have a solid idea of how the medium evolved and the basics behind it. If you want to draw in that style, it’ll mainly be for fun (or to make side money from low-level commissions), but there’s nothing wrong with that, since having fun is what keeps you interested.
Study visual storytelling. This is a super-important step a lot of artists skip. Study both other comics and film so you can get a sense of how composition and motion aid the plot. Study color symbolism, and symbolism in general. Learn how to come up with clever visual gags, jokes, and metaphors. I’d suggest reading some scripts and screenplays too.
Study graphic design. It’s a mandatory side skill for digital artists nowadays. Learn to scan traditional art and print digital art, as well as making—and designing for—different types of prints, merch, video, and other digital media. You should have a thorough knowledge of how to work across design programs, DPI requirements, and all the basics of putting pictures on stuff as quickly and cheaply as possible. Study branding. Learn to build a website.
Start building a reference library now. Back it up on an external hard drive or in the cloud. Keep it for the rest of your life. Make sure to add “inspiration” from artists you particularly like too.
Finally, read up on how to network and put yourself out there, both online and IRL. That’s how you get work in the first place.
It’s a lot. I’m going into my 9th year studying art, and I still don’t have a firm grasp on some of this shit. But no matter what level you’re at, good luck!