How to actually improve your art

Last week I tried to convince you why copying from other artists is not only not bad, but is the best way to improve your skills. In this issue, we will see in detail how to go about putting all that good will into practice (not like there is a single way, but I found this to be very useful).


Before starting, I have to mention I (obviously) did not invent this method. As I said last week, it’s been around forever, but the guy that sparked my attention on it again after years of aimless wandering was Naoki Saito (check out his youtube).

So, how do we use other artist’s art to improve our own? I broke it down into a method I call
I SEE!”:


The very first thing you want to do is know where you’re going. “I want to improve” is too generic, and pointless. Do you know exactly what your finished pieces have to look like? At the very least, I am assuming there are a few artists you admire and would like to draw like. 
If not, do some introspection: what do you like? Anime? Comics? TCG Art? Realistic movie concept art? Search the industry that makes your heart beat for skilled people who deliver the finished piece you’d like to make. Chances are, there will be many.
You can either pick artists or companies/products (Hearthstone has a fairly uniform style, for example, and so does Granblue Fantasy).

Choose one. Why? Because it’s simpler to stick to one style at a time.
Trying to merge different ideas from the get go only adds to the confusion. Instead, you want to narrow your focus.
How do you choose the artist to reference? It depends. You can just go by gut feeling, if you like. Or, you can see which one has a more extensive body of work published on the internet, or the one that makes videos on youtube or has actual tutorials available.
You want to be able to understand his or her process, so the more resources are available (bonus if it’s over a long period of time, so you can see their growth) the better. You want to be sure of your choice, because you will stick to this one artist for at least 2 months.

This is the best part: try to make a piece inspired by the artist/company/product you picked.
It doesn’t have to be a copy. Actually, it must not be a copy. Imagine you are the artist, and are making a new artwork. Imagine the process they use and make your own piece. Try to muster your inner Kim Jung Gi, or Norman Rockwell, or Katsuya Terada.
If you are lucky, you can watch videos of their process before or while you work, but do not compare your work to theirs yet.
If you are not lucky, you only have finished images to work off of. Do your best to imagine how they got there. Don’t stress about perfection, just make your best guess.
Take this piece to a finish, whatever that means to you now. You know what finished looks like, as you have the artist of reference, so get as close to that as you possibly can (of course, if it is a sketch, then finish the sketch to the level of detail of your reference).

Now comes the pain. Put your work next to those of the artist you were referencing. Yes, it hurts.
You will probably think “Oh man… I suck”, but try to go deeper with your analysis. How are your reference pieces better? Is it the line quality? The color?
It’s likely to be a combination of these, but here is the trick: point out the worst offender. What’s the thing that is farthest from your reference? Perspective? Anatomy?
If you are struggling, again, go with your best guess.

At this point, you have to rinse and repeat steps 2 to 4 for the next 2 months, basically the SEE part, but with a difference: you choose weaknesses, not artists.

Select(Stage 2)
You pick the worst offender in your picture, aka your weakest weakness. Again, choose wisely. I recommend working on it at least one week, but ideally two.

Execute(Stage 2)
Do exercises to strengthen your weakness. You can keep the artist of reference as a guide, of course. For example, if you notice your perspective is pretty bad, use the artist’s decisions to inform your training. What kind of angles are they using? Draw something simple in that perspective.
Do they draw a lot of hard surfaces? Focus on that.
Again, the key here is not to copy the result of the artist, but to inform your decisions, basically to copy their good choices so as to improve yours.

Evaluate(Stage 2)
After one or two weeks, make another finished piece. Do something that highlights the work you have done on the weakness, and compare again.
Did you improve upon that? If not, it might be worth putting in some more work and trying again in 2 weeks. It’s likely, though, that you did improve ever so slightly, so you can pat yourself on the back, choose the next offender, and work on that.
You don’t need to match the reference’s quality, for the weakness you worked on, so as long as you see an improvement in the area and you are satisfied, move on!

And that is the process! You repeat this over and over until you get tired and need a break from that particular style. Ideally, this is a minimum of two months, after which you go back to point 2 of the first part, and start over with another artist!

Making inspiration from other artists a core part of your training can be extremely powerful. By systematically addressing your weaknesses one at a time, you remove the stress of “not knowing what to work on”, and narrow your focus on turning those same weaknesses into strengths.

Want more? Here are some ideas to get you started

Character Design Prompts

– Runic Sentinel
– Holy Enchanter
– Slithery Bard

Creature Design Prompts

– Fae Fox
– Thunder Behemot
– Moonlight Serpent

Environment Design Prompts

– Forgotten Catacombs
– Treetop Haven
– Frost Plateau

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Artist of the week

Brian Sum

Brian Sum is a concept artist working in the film and games industry. He has worked on notable games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Anthem, and Star Wars Squadrons.

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