Wednesday, September 19, 2018

How to Start Drawing: 2 Do's and 2 Don'ts

A lot of people want to learn how to draw. If you Google "learn to draw" you'll find advertisements for schools, online classes, videos, DVDs, books, expensive tablets and materials, all promising to help you learn to draw.

The good news is that you don't need most of those things in order to get started. What you need is time, and a little direction. Here's my bare-bones, super-cheap, anyone-can-do-it guide to getting started with drawing.

  • Just start drawing. As long as you have a pencil and paper, you can start. Here's what to draw:
    • Draw from life. This is the best way to learn to draw. Drawing from life teaches your mind to translate 3D objects in your vision to 2D shapes on paper. Learning to think in 3D will give your drawings a visible confidence and consistency. Draw people at the cafe, on the subway, in church. Draw your pets while they're sleeping, draw your own feet, visit a zoo and draw the animals, set up a still life on a table and draw that. It doesn't really matter what you draw; as long as you're drawing from life, then you're exercising that 3D-to-2D muscle in your mind.
    • Draw from photos. Drawing from photos doesn't help you practice thinking in 3D, because you're translating a shape from one 2D surface (the photo) to another (your sketchbook). However, photos can introduce you to shapes that would be difficult to find in real life - cool stuff like castles, tigers, planets. Sketch any photo that interests you - and it is totally ok to trace things just for practice.
    • Draw from your imagination. This is where you develop your personal voice. When you draw from imagination, you're not just copying what you see, but remembering things you've seen before and interpreting them in your own way. Keep this fun and light; don't try any complex crowd scenes or else you'll get frustrated. The more you draw from life and from photos, the more material your imagination will have to work with, and the easier it will get. All three practices feed into each other.
  • Sign up for inexpensive, local art classes. Start with the basics, such as figure drawing, landscape painting, chiaroscuro (which means "light and shadow"), color theory, etc. You may decide to enroll in a more specialized art school later, but you don't need that private school price tag in order to start learning the fundamentals. The classes at your local community college or community center will do just fine - just as long as they have those horribly uncomfortable bench-easel things. Those are essential!
  • Don't get distracted by the business side of art. If you read online (including blogs like mine) you'll start reading about the importance of developing a style, of putting together a portfolio, of building a fanbase. Don't worry about it. Those are directions that will make sense to you once you're further down the path. Getting distracted by those things at this early point will just stress you out. Focus on drawing for now.
  • Don't post your drawings on social media.  If you're a beginner artist, posting your art on social media will just distract and confuse you. You'll start worrying about why your drawings aren't getting "likes" and comparing your stats to others. Why is everyone ignoring me? Does my art just suck? Why does that other person's drawing have one thousand reblogs and mine only has four??? Why did that one quick sketch get 40 likes but that epic painting I spent weeks on only got 15 likes? For now, consider your artistic voice to be a tender little plant, and protect it from the harsh winds of social media. Seriously, you'll be happier.

Finally, remember that learning to draw takes years. Settle in and don't stress about it.

A lot of people want to learn to draw, but few people actually pursue it. By getting out pencil and paper and drawing, and by taking classes, you're already doing something a lot of people are afraid to do. Whether you choose to pursue it as a career or a hobby, I'm proud of you.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Successful Artists and Their Critics and Doubters, Part II

Back in 2015 I did a very presumptuous thing: I emailed professional illustrators and asked them to tell me sad stories. Specifically, stories about times when people had said mean things about their art, or told them that they would never succeed.

My point wasn't just to dredge up painful memories from my friends and acquaintances. I wanted to show that everyone - even those who seem successful, talented and accomplished - sometimes face discouragement. And that sometimes that discouragement can come from sources who seem very authoritative and knowledgeable.

The resulting blog post, called "Successful Artists and Their Trolls, Critics and Doubters," is one of my most popular posts, with over 11,000 views to date. So I decided to do an encore, and went hunting among friends and acquaintances for more anecdotes. So if you're an artist who's ever been rejected, doubted, or on, and find that you are in very good company.

"I was a few months out of school, and I was trying to get my freelance illustration career going. The only job I could score was at Subway. I was so ashamed. When I finally got an interview with a design firm I was SO excited. I got a portfolio together and took the train to the interview. I waited around in the lobby for what seemed like forever and the interview only lasted like 5 minutes. Here’s basically what he said about my portfolio 'This stuff is cool, but you’re never going to make money on this. You need to try something safer.' I was broken. I called my wife on the way home and told her how crushed I was. And as usual, she pulled me out of the abyss. She told me he had no idea what he was talking about and told me all of the ways that I was kicking butt. My wife has been my consistent pep talker and I would be nowhere without her!"

Andy J. Pizza is the creator of the podcast and book 'Creative Pep Talk'. Clients include Nickelodeon, Google, Converse, Sony, Smart Car, Oreo, The Boston Globe & Nutella.

"I had two professors in college. One told me right before I graduated that I had nice work, but had no idea what I was doing and wasn’t fit for the field. The other told me that my work was 'souless.' (Ouch! That one hurt.)"

Katie Kath is an award-winning illustrator who lectures at colleges and universities. Awards include a 2016 Jr. Library Guild Award, 2014 3x3 Magazine Distinguished Merit Award, 2014 Runner-up for the SCBWI NY Conference Portfolio Showcase, and she won the SCBWI Student Illustrator Scholarship in 2013. Clients include Abrams, Blue Apple Books, Dial Books, Grosset & Dunlap, Penguin-Random House, and more.

"I was rejected from the illustration program the first time I applied at university. At first it was very hard, but ultimately, it was a humbling and beneficial experience. I redid my portfolio, feeling more determined than ever to pursue my goal of becoming an artist. I made it in the second time! It took a lot of hard work and a reassessment of my priorities. I am very grateful for that experience. I don't think I would be the same person now if I hadn't gone through that."

Miranda is a freelance fantasy artist and winner of the 2018 Spectrum Rising Star award. Clients include Abrams Kids,, Subterranean Press, Dragonsteel Entertainment and more.

"I had a teacher who only liked styles that would fit with very traditional American comic books and game design. I had a class with him...and once he found out I was not going to work in his ideal style, he didn't bother critiquing my work. He acted as though it was a waste of his time and also did this to anyone else who fell into that category. Fast forward to about a year later, I was accepted in the Society of Illustrators Student Scholarship. It was also parents weekend. I had class so my parents said they were going to walk around campus. I got a text from them saying they ran into that teacher, who was now giving them a personalized tour of the campus after they said they were my parents. Confused by this, I finally met them in the illustration department. My parents called my name and the teacher turned with a big grin to see me... and his face fell. Then I realized it. He not only thought I wasn't worth critiquing...but also thought my name was not worth remembering! He had no clue who I was and only knew my name from the Society of Illustrators announcement."
Kelly Leigh Miller is an award-winning illustrator whose clients include Dial, Penguin Random House, Cricket Magazine, Working Mother Magazine and more. She is also the author of two upcoming books from Dial in 2019 and 2020.

"The head of the illustration department at my art school once pulled me into his office toward the end of my time there. He was concerned that since my portfolio was mostly sci-fi/fantasy stuff that I needed to do a bunch of editorial paintings and whatnot because there was no way that I could succeed just painting what I was. He said 'Chris, it's like you've really sharpened the hell out of this one axe but I think you're going to need a lot of other tools.' He was very wrong, considering how specialized you need to be these days. I don't blame him as he was coming from an old idea of how the illustration industry works but it really could have sent me in a bad direction if I'd listened."

Chris Rahn is a professional illustrator whose clients include Wizards of the Coast,Valve, Blizzard, Marvel, Discovery Channel Magazine and the Village Voice. He has also displayed his work at the New York Society of Illustrators.


Thanks to everyone who responded to my emails and dredged up painful memories for the sake of my blog.

Did you find this helpful or encouraging? Do you have a story about how someone dismissed your artwork? Leave a comment!

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Ranger in Time: Hurricane Katrina interiors

On Tuesday I talked about the process behind illustrating the cover of Ranger in Time: Hurricane Katrina Rescue, written by Kate Messner and published by Scholastic. The book also contains 15 black-and-white illustrations by me, and today I'm going to talk about how I created those scenes.

If you're a regular reader of my blog, then you probably know what's coming. Silly poses, in messy apartments, wearing llama print pajamas.

Let's get to it then!

For Hurricane Katrina Rescue, I had to draw all sorts of interesting situations and unusual poses. In this picture, the main character Claire is wading through her rapidly flooding house. Here is the initial sketch.

Aaaaaand here's the llama print pajamas.


Unfortunately the llama print pajamas fell apart not long after this, so I guess I'll have to find some new ones. Do you think I could write them off as a buisness expense?

And here's the final illustration:

In the next illustration, Claire's house has flooded up to the attic, and Claire is trying to hack through the roof with an axe. I'm not the sort of person who keeps an axe around, but luckily for me, my Dad had a real axe in his tool shed.

I think this was the first time I'd ever attempted to lift an axe in my life. As you can see I performed magnificently.

Here's the sketch:

And here's the final:

For this last one, I'm going to show you a sketch that I had to completely re-do because, well, it wasn't very good. Normally I don't talk about this stuff (you know, my FAILURES) on the blog, because if any potential clients are reading then I want them to think that I always deliver perfect work every time. But, as far as I can tell, a lot more aspiring artists read this blog than potential clients, and I want to show you guys that everyone kind of messes up sometimes, and it's not the end of the world. Good clients will stick with you through the process.

In this scene, I had to draw Claire on the roof of her house. She sees a life jacket float by, but it's covered in snakes, so she grabs an oar in order to knock the snakes off of the vest. Here are some of the reference photos I took.

And here's the sketch I made:

The art director and author pointed out that it would be impossible to kneel on a sloped roof in this manner, and also Claire's face looked strange. This scene needed a redo, and I needed more accurate reference photos.

I wasn't going to actually pose on a roof, so I made a sloped surface by placing a board on top of some stairs. This made for more authentic poses.

Here's the new sketch:

And here's the final:

I hope you enjoyed this sneak peek into the making of Ranger in Time: Hurricane Katrina Rescue. That's all the time I have tonight. As always, thanks for reading my blog!

Monday, June 25, 2018

Ranger in Time: Hurricane Katrina Rescue

Ranger, everyone's favorite time-traveling golden retriever, has visited the Oregon Trail, the San Francisco Earthquake, even Ancient Rome. Now he's traveling back to the ancient world of...2005?? At first I was surprised that the author of this series, Kate Messner, had chosen such a recent event for Ranger to visit.

But then I realized that most readers of Ranger in Time hadn't even been born when Hurricane Katrina hit. To them, this is nearly ancient history.

Feeling old? Me too.

I have to say that this is my favorite Ranger book so far! I really love Claire, the brave and resourceful main character who works together with Ranger to survive the flood. For the cover, the art director Maeve Norton asked for a scene of Ranger and Claire in a pirogue, rowing through the flooded streets of the lower ninth ward. I looked at lots of references of the aftermath of Katrina as well as photos of other floods. I also took a reference photo of myself "rowing" with a mop:

Wow, that apartment is a mess. Is that a banana on the floor behind me?

Here are the roughs I sent over.

The team at Scholastic liked the first rough best, and asked me to put Ranger's paws on the boat and to add more debris into the water. Next I sent over two options for the color scheme.

We went with the blue sky from the first one and the blue-green water from the second.

This cover was on a very tight schedule. Ranger books are released twice a year, and I had recently taken a few months of maternity leave. Scholastic had been extremely accommodating with my leave, but once I was back there was some catching up to do. Long story short, the art director asked me if I could take this illustration from color rough to final overnight.

I was nervous about this. Sometimes a drawing comes together smoothly and easily; other times it just fights me. It starts veering out of control and slipping further and further away from the drawing I saw in my head. In my experience, the best way to snap out of this is to take a break from a drawing and come back to it the next day with a fresh mind. But in this case, I wasn't going to have that backup.

So I said to the art director "alright, I'll have this for you tomorrow!" but secretly I was thinking I sure hope this works out.

I stayed up late painting on Tuesday night, got up early Wednesday morning to finish it, and managed to send it in at 12:30 pm eastern time. Luckily, this was one of those times when the drawing just came together really naturally and without much struggle. I am eternally grateful to whichever Greek muse chose to give me her blessing that evening/morning. Scholastic's art director was thrilled (and probably a little surprised) that I sent it in time for her big cover meeting.

Here it is with the cover design by Ellen Duda:

Ranger in Time: Hurricane Katrina Rescue comes out June 26th! Even if you're not a young'un who was born before Katrina, I'd still recommend giving this book a read. Even though I was in college at the time of Katrina, I have to admit that I wasn't really paying attention to the news. So I found this book to be not only exciting but also really informative. Hurricane Katrina Rescue also has 15 interior illustrations done by me, which I'll talk about in my next blog post!

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Boston Tea Party

So I don't have the time to write one of my usual in-depth blog posts right now, but I wanted to show you guys this cover I did for Scholastic. This is for their joint non-fiction series with American Girl called Real Stories from My Time.

Here it is with the title treatment!

Yep, that's all you're getting. Sorry blog readers. Life is kind of crazy for me right now but I hope to bring you some more quality posts as soon as I can.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018


Over Christmas break I was absolutely determined to do some personal work.

That...didn't work out.

I started a drawing, but it had been such a long time since I had drawn anything just for fun that it was just overwhelming and I never finished it. I worried that I had my originality had atrophied. How could I call myself a creative if I could only draw what other people told me to draw???


Fast forward a few months, and all my clients have been dragging their feet on their projects for several weeks now. Seriously, what's going on over there in New York?? After having way more time off than I'm used to, I thought maybe I should give a personal drawing another shot. This time, I'd try redrawing one of my oldest digital paintings. I flipped through my old stuff, looking for something that had a good concept but needed better execution. I found it in this drawing from 2011.

This is my interpretation of the Japanese ghost story Hoichi the Earless. In this story, night after night a blind bard named Hoichi is asked to perform the song the Tale of the Heike, which is about the massacre of the Heike clan. Because he's blind, Hoichi thinks he's playing for a royal audience in a palace. He doesn't know that he's actually playing in a graveyard for THE GHOSTS OF THE HEIKE CLAN!!!!!!! (If you're interested in the story, you can either read the book Kwaidan or watch the 1965 film, which is super obscure and only cool people know about it.)

So anyway, about this old drawing. If you want to say that you like it better than the new one, just get that out of your system now, ok?

"Actuallyyyyyyyyyy I liked the old one better."

You good now?


First I'll go over what I like about this drawing.

Now let's go over what doesn't work so well:

Basically I liked the overall concept and some aspects of the color scheme, but the composition is lacking. The directional lines are too horizontal. There are some curves kind of framing the scene but nothing really "points" at the main character. It reminds me of a diorama, with flat layers lying on top of each other.

My goals for the new drawing were:
  1. A more dramatic composition
  2. More historically accurate clothing
  3. Establish depth in the environment
  4. Finish it up with polished rendering.
After some thumbnail sketching, I came up with a composition that was similar to the original drawing, in that Hoichi is sitting in the bottom center, facing straight forward. But this time I arranged the ghosts in a towering pyramid rather than crowded around in a vaguely horizontal line.

This broke up the "diorama" look and give the scene some much-needed oomph.

After doing some research into Heian-era clothing, I started sketching the scene on top of the thumbnail. First I sketched really roughly, and went over it again and again, tightening things up each time.

Once I had everything basically figured out, I blocked in some rough color, keeping everything on separate layers so I could adjust them as needed.

From there I started flattening the layers and painting. I put much more time into the rendering than I'm sure I would have done back in 2011. I've noticed that over time my paintings have become more detailed and polished, and this is mostly because I've become more patient in my old age.

I made a process GIF so you can see how the painting changed and developed as I went along. That's a freedom I don't have with client work. When illustrating a commission, I have to stick closely to the sketch that the client previously approved. They don't want to see any surprises when I turn in the final, so I have to have everything figured out ahead of time. Being in complete control of the drawing and having the freedom to change directions was refreshing.

When I compare the two paintings, I see that the new one has a sense of style that the old one doesn't have. The new one looks like me.

It's a good feeling.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Book Cover: The Third Kind of Magic

Last year I was contacted by author Elizabeth Forest with an offer I couldn't resist: a cover for a middle-grade novel about a girl who can do magic. She has to learn to control her magic and become a wise woman, or else be hunted down as a witch.

The book is called The Third Kind of Magic and I was SO excited to do the cover!

Susan wanted to see the main character, Suli, interacting with her crow mentor, Coalfeather, with the antagonist lurking menacingly in the background. Suli was to be casting magic with her hands, so I took some reference photos in order to try out various poses.

Although I was excited about doing this cover, I was also particularly exhausted the morning I took these photos. When I loaded the pictures on to my computer and flipped through them, I burst out laughing when I saw this:

I look like a Sleep Deprivation Mage or something.

Here are the roughs I sent to the author:

She liked certain elements of the second and third roughs, but mostly the second one. She asked me to move Coalfeather to the other side of Suli, and for the witch in the background to be closer in, looking on the scene. Here is the revised rough that I sent.

After talking with the author some more - including a Skype chat! - we combined the crow and the witch from this rough with the Suli from one of the previous roughs.

With approval, I moved ahead to a color rough. The author wanted a mysterious, misty forest, so I incorporated some nice blue-greens and lavenders in order to give the scene some color.

After a few more tweaks, I was clear to go to final.

Here's the cover with the title text:

The Third Kind of Magic by Elizabeth Forest is available now on Amazon and through IndieBound. I've been reading it over the weekend, and I'm not finished yet but I'm really enjoying it!
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