Art Advice from an Illustrator #1: Improving Your Art

Updated: Jul 23, 2021

Are you struggling with finding your voice in the world of visual art?

You have the fundamentals down, but now it's time to add your own style to it. You look around and it seems way easier for others to have a unique, distinct style, yet, you find your own art to be lacking in that area.

Well, I'm here to help!

Keep reading to hear about my tips on finding an art style that you can be proud of.

First, a little backstory about me. I attended art college in 2013 and graduated in 2017. At this time, I was a young, budding artist looking to expand her artistic skills. My idea was to major in illustration and minor in fine arts. As my fundamentals got better, I realized my style was changing as I took more illustration classes. I had a change in study when I dropped the fine arts minor and switched to creative writing. I love writing; it's a second passion for me, but not as developed as my art voice. I wanted to be a storyteller, so I finished out my college years by taking in a ton of writing and comics classes.

I had tons of influences and inspirations to look at while in art school; both the artists we studied as well as each other. The friends I made all make fantastic art, and I find myself looking at my peers' art for inspiration.

When I left college, I knew I was going to try and self-publish comics. It's what my heart was into, and my style had this retro manga/anime look that could potentially look good for comics. I was, and still am, developing my style, and I'm really happy with where my art is now.

However it wasn't easy to get here.

There were many nights of wondering why my art didn't look like so-and-so's art; what I could do to improve on what I made, and if my art could ever succeed. It wasn't until I did some of these things in art school that made a huge impact on my art.

6 Tips on how to Improve your Art

Drawing from Life

This is my number one tip for every artist in training. Draw. From. Life. Throughout high school and college, we drew from life. Whether it be a still life setup, a nude model, we drew it all. My favorite class was called Café Sketch. Everyday we would start class with a warm up of quick 30 second and up to 10 minute sketches, then we would go out to places and draw people. We would go to parks, libraries, museums, any place where there were people to draw. I filled up 2 sketchbooks in that class. It forced me to draw constantly, and my handling of gesture drawing and anatomy improved immensely.

Even if you can't take a formal class, I would suggest going to your local park and drawing who you see. These don't have to be extravagant, hour-long drawings. Time yourself and draw a person for 5 minutes, then 2 minutes, then 30 seconds. This is a great exercise for learning the gesture of a subject and interpreting it as much as you can.

If you can't go outside, I suggest setting up a still life in your room, pulling up a mirror and drawing yourself, or even draw your pet!

I highly recommend drawing from life to improve your art.

Learning Your Anatomy

Knowing the fundamentals of human anatomy can help you become a better artist. Have you ever seen a piece of art and gone, "why does this body part look so strange??". It may be from a lack of understanding of anatomy. No worries though!

I'm not asking you to memorize every muscle and bone in the body (unless you're going into Medical Illustration). But knowing the basics of what muscles are what, and how they move can help you understand them when drawing them.

For instance, say you want to draw a character with strong neck muscles and collarbones showing. If you don't know the structure of the neck muscles and how they connect to the collarbone, your drawing might be off.

This goes for every part of the body too! Want to draw a bald character? Study the shape of the head and you'll notice there is a lot of space for your brain to fit in your skull, and that there's a dip going down to your neck.

You may start to find learning all these little things about the body fascinating!

Studying Things Outside Your Comfort Zone

When I was in college, I took mostly Illustration classes, but I did branch out a small bit and took some 3D illustration and animation classes. While there I learned a lot about different aspects of art as well as what my strengths and weaknesses are. For one, I struggled with my 3D class; my mind can't wrap around the concept of 3D sculpting or sculpting in general. I learned that I am very much a 2D artist. In my animation class, I learned a lot about the basics of animation, and I realized that there is a lot of drawing in animation. Like, a LOT. Shout out to any animators out there; I don't know how you do it.

By taking classes outside my comfort zone, I again learn what my strengths are, and what avenues I want to pursue. It may help to practice something you don't know, and you may discover a new found passion. Or you may absolutely hate it! You won't know unless you try.

Keeping a Sketchbook

When you're out and about, you may be struck with an amazing idea that you HAVE to draw. You'll want to keep a sketchbook handy for these moments. Sketchbooks are great places for artists to think, create, and brainstorm ideas. You might see creators with extravagant looking sketchbooks with portfolio-ready pieces inside, but it doesn't have to be this way. Use your sketchbook as a journal to document your thoughts. You may find yourself with a couple great sketches to turn into full fledged pieces!

Try Out Different Art Style Challenges Online

Have you ever stumbled upon those art style challenges online where artists draw characters in different styles? I love seeing artists dip outside their comfort zone and draw in, say, a Disney style, or a Pokémon style. I suggest trying it out for yourself! You may find an art style that speaks to you, like a Ghibli style, and by studying it, you can add some elements of that style to your artwork.

As a big anime/manga fan as a kid, I drew in that style a lot, especially Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura. I've adopted a lot of elements in that style, like the big, sparkly eyes, long legs, and cutesy nature. I also am a huge fan of cartoons like Ed Edd n Eddy, Powerpuff Girls, and other 90's cartoons with thick, black outlines. I've also taken those elements and added them to the mix. The best artists take inspiration from other art!

Gathering All the Feedback You Can

If you went to art school, you know how awkward and uncomfortable critique days can be. Sometimes you'll find yourself standing in front of your piece while 20 eyes stare at you with no comments on your work. It's nerve-racking! One thing that IS good about critique days is when you DO get great feedback from your peers and teachers. I remember receiving great but harsh critique from a teacher that wanted me to succeed on a painting, and I believe that critique changed my mindset about painting style. It was what I needed to hear, and I produced a good piece for the class.

What's great about having art friends is that you can post a piece in the group chat, and receive tons of feedback when you ask. My good friend gave me feedback on my comic Jazz that made it a much better story than what I originally planned, and we work great together on comics. If you find that you need critique on a piece, try and search for online critique groups on Discord or any other social media group. You may find that you receive great advice, and even new friends!

Big tip also: Don't take feedback personally. If you get a lot of negative criticism on a piece, it's not a personal attack on you. People are trying to help you improve at the end of the day. The only way to improve is to listen and understand why that advice was given to you. Also, you don't HAVE to take every critique and apply it. The best thing about art is the idea that your piece can be whatever you want. You have complete control over every decision, and the critiques are there to help you steer in the right direction.

Sometimes it's important to separate yourself from your art. Every piece can feel like "your baby". One thing I learned in art school is to get rid of that concept. With one stroke, I can completely change a piece, and I've had illustrations where I completely start over because it's not working.

These are my tips for improving your art style! I'd like to do more posts with more art advice in the future, so please be on the lookout for that. I can talk more about the fundamentals, taking critique, and going out of your comfort zone of you'd like. I can even talk about how to go through art block, plateauing, and other struggling artist concepts.


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