The Right Tools Revelation

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I have the strangest revelations about art when I’m washing dishes.

Looking down at my soap-slicked hands as they held the sponge, slightly red from the just-under-scalding water, I marveled at the dynamic that exists between skill and tools. While I could spend all my life perfecting my dish-washing technique, if I did not have a sponge with which to do the task, I would not be as effective at it. I might develop certain techniques to get the job done well, but it would likely never be as quick or as effective as I’d be with the sponge. For me to attain true dish-washing mastery, both honed skill and the proper tool must be present.

The same is true for art.

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The Artist Lament

There’s a common experienced artist lament that goes something like this:

The experienced artist is approached by a young beginner. Instead of inquiring about the techniques or influences, the youngster bores in on what program the artists uses, or the type of pen. Exasperated, the seasoned artist veteran rails, “Forget about the program or the pen, that’s not going to magically make you a pro! Study anatomy and color theory and composition! Draw every single day! Don’t worry about what you use to do it, just make art!”

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And I get where they’re coming from, because until I was overwhelmed by the majesty of sponges, I subscribed to that school of thought too. I think it stems from a frustration with the “You’ve got so much talent” approach that an outsider has to the process. People seem to think that most artists and writers just magically awakened one day with their skills fully formed. (As an instructor for eight year olds, I can assure you that this is exactly how most of them perceive what I do. I think by the time they reach their teens, they’ll have graduated to the ‘you sold your soul’ school of thought instead.) What few recognize is that most art — whether you’re a writer, painter, dancer — comes from a great deal of dedication, hard work, and study. So when somebody asks “What tools do you use?” it’s easy to hear that question as “What magic wand do I need to buy to join the Hogwarts School of Artistry?”

That can be a particularly discouraging question to hear after you’ve put in your decades of toil. Especially when the world tends to approach artists as lazy and eccentric vagabonds that don’t know how to get a real job because they’re too busy indulging their inexplicably vast talent.

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Hard work is not the whole story

Neglecting the equipment side of the equation does a disservice to both experienced pro and fledgling hopeful. Mainly because it creates the illusion that every artist will respond to every tool and every medium with equal passion. If only the practiced skill matters, then a painter should be a painter of equal skill regardless of watercolor, acrylic, or oil.

I have found that it simply isn’t so.

My understanding of color theory and composition and form will remain the same regardless of the medium, but my enjoyment and ability to apply that skill will not. For example, I enjoy painting with acrylics. Oil, on the other hand, drives me up the wall. And don’t even get me started on watercolors!

Inking is another example. For nearly a decade now, I have inked my own comics. And for the entirety of that time, it was the task I liked the least. In fact, I would go as far to say that I found inking to be a loathsome and tedious experience that, no matter how hard I tried, yielded at best mediocre results. No matter how many extra hours I poured into trying to improve my technique, the response would come back from viewers, “You need to improve your line-work.” Finally, in a fit of pique, I demanded of my artist friends, “FINE! If you think line-work is so great, why don’t you tell me what you use?”

Lo and behold, I was introduced to a special inking brush. Now I look forward to inking with every page. It may even be my favorite part of the process. And overnight my inks have gone from criticized constantly to frequently complimented.

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The tools matter

Having the right tools for the right job can make the difference between a painful and pleasurable experience. If I had only tried oil painting, I might have quite rationally concluded that painting wasn’t for me. (In fact, I did for several years.) If I wasn’t so darn stubborn, I probably would have made the same conclusion about inking. Maybe I would have stopped working on comics all together.

Getting access to the tool and the medium that works best with one’s unique personality and way of viewing the world can connect a person to their passion. It can take a task that seems impossible and frustrating, and turn it into one of wonder and excitement. It can light the spark and make the necessary practice and hard work into something enjoyable. We don’t have to suffer in order to grow. Not all learning must come from pain.

So instead of fussing at a student for inquiring about the tools, the next time I’m asked about the pens and programs, I’m going to discuss the nitty gritty without frustration. Maybe I can direct that aspiring artist to a pen that will make them fall in love with inking. Perhaps I can help them pursue their passion in a way that isn’t quite so painful as the road I had to take. At the very least, I can encourage them to explore lots of different options. Since they have to put in the practice and study and hard work anyway, why not have a little fun experimenting along the way?

Or perhaps I should just tell them to wash more dishes at home, and let the artistic revelations come to them. I’m sure there’s somebody in their household that would appreciate the extra help!

What are your favorite tools of the trade? How did finding the right tools for the job change your process?

Robin Childs is addicted to storytelling, with specialties in world-building, character crafting, and language making. You can find the results of her storytelling pursuits at LeyLinesComic.com! Or drop a line on Twitter at RobinofLeyLines. If you are struggling with your own storytelling troubles, she offers a variety of coaching & reviewing services!

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Posted in Conversations, Drawing, Featured News, Helpful Hints and tagged , , , , .

13 Comments

  1. I’ve kind of experienced something something similar since switching from Photoshop to Manga Studio. I used both programs in basically the same way. My sketch-to-line art process is exactly the same. And during my switch between programs, I wrote my BA thesis so I didn’t draw for like, three months.

    But OH MY GOD MY ART IS SO MUCH BETTER. And there’s no reason why it should be better. If anything, I’d expect it to be worse, considering the massive amount of time I spent not practicing at all. But I’m seeing the kind of artistic improvement that would usually take me a year.

    • I’m with you, Manga Studio helped me improve my art so much. PhotoShop is obviously a great tool, but it’s really not a drawing tool. The right tools do make all the difference.

      I’m a hobbyist carpenter and, trust me, the right tools make all the difference. You still need talent, but even a guy like me can make a really nice looking shelf with the right tools (and patience).

  2. As far as being frustrated at getting asked the question, I think the reason is that a new pen won’t make you good.

    I think back and I can see different stages of my life. When I was a teenager I spent a lot of time asking people whose art I liked what pencil they used, what paper they used, and so I’d go out and try to buy “the right pencil” and “the right paper” but that didn’t work.

    The thing is, the best materials to use when creating art are the ones closest to you. When I was a kid and drawing for the sake of drawing I’d scour the house, starting with the cupboards and draws closest to me, just to find a pencil to draw with. Didn’t matter whether it was a mechanical pencil or not. Didn’t matter if I couldn’t find a grey lead. That’s the attitude you need I think. You just have to create. If you need to create and the only materials you have nearby are a stack of post-its and a red biro, then use red biro on post-its. If you have the luxury of being able to go out and buy your ideal art supplies, then take the time to experiment with them. At one point, I got a super hard, super fine lead and a really light weight paper because one of my artist friends preferred to work that way. It did terrible things to my art. I don’t draw like that. When I was running around trying to get my comic started, I desperately searched for bristol board beause it was the “right” paper to use. In the end, my comic is created using a .7 mm HB lead on standard visual diary paper. Why? It’s what was available.

    And that’s the thing, it’s really hard to constantly say to people “create with what you have” and “the most important thing is practice” because the people asking the questions will almost NEVER listen. Somehow we get into a mind set where we think the way to improve is by using different materials. Because we’ve already come to that conclusion, it’s very difficult to change that.

    The only time it’s really valuable to know what materials, brushes, settings etc an artist uses is when you’re trying to experiment by doing something that they do. But the people asking the questions often aren’t the ones who want to experiment, they’re the ones who want to use the devil’s hands to play the holophoner.

    I’ve been lucky, I don’t often get asked what tools I use, people more often ask how they can get better. That’s a much easier question to answer without saying “Practice Practice Practice” because you can give people specific activities that will make them better. Also, when they ask “How can I get better” they’re being honest about what they want.

    • I agree that picking up the right attitude will get you farther than picking up the right pencil, and I think Robin touches on that by describing the many things she tried, even in the face of believing they didn’t work for her.

      I also have definitely been the kid buying tracing paper/bristol/crowquill ink pens to try to do things the “right” way.

      But once you can (A) foster an attitude of continuous creation and practice and (B) lose the mindset that there’s one “right way to do things”, I have to agree with Robin that (C) is definitely trying as many things as you can, keeping your eyes open for recommendations from fellow artists and seeing what makes you happiest to work with. I wrote a big long post about it myself last summer, if you’d like to see my take on the subject: http://designninjitsu.wordpress.com/2013/07/01/what-belongs-in-your-toolbox/

  3. And don’t even get me started on watercolors! Ok, that made me laugh out loud! Partly in sympathy; partly out of the things I’ve learned about watercolour since I’ve been pouring my heart and soul into learning how to paint with it and learned… (long story short) there are properties to pigments that go beyond the fancy names the manufacturer puts on them that make them interact with each other in some pretty strange ways. Digital painting doesn’t have to worry about those finicky details because then we are painting with one “pigment”, light.

    I’ve tried to work with watercolour off and on all my life (and that’s a hell of a long time!)finally throwing in the towel in self-disgust when no matter how much I practice, the result lacks the glowing vibrancy I see in the W/C painting of others. Having learned finally that we need a chemistry degree to work with watercolours, I think I may over the next few years begin to turn out some reasonable (hopefully vibrant and glowing) works.

    But your main point seems to be that practice alone is not enough, and to a point I have to agree. During a decade or two of my life when I had nothing extra to spend even for a pencil, I’d get those ball point pens with advertising on them that companies gave away for free, and drew on the backs of used envelopes. I had to draw. But I could only draw so well even with years of daily practice, because there were things I couldn’t learn alone. I would try to draw a thing and it just didn’t look quite right even though it was all there. Later I was able to learn about the rules of perspective and that made all the difference.

    Perspective is as much a tool as the right pen or brush. Ordinary colour theory isn’t enough of the right kind of tool for using with watercolour. A synthetic brush will never be able to replicate the loading and pointing capacity of a real sable brush like the Series 7 (though these days they can hardly be found due the US banning their import while they investigate where the sable hair comes from –or something). The sheer joy of creating art, like you day, comes from being able to use the tools that just feel right.Pencil on paper, ink (ballpoint, brushpen, or sable) and Bristol, cintiq or art tablet and digital art programs (and I have to agree with Byron — Manga Studio is rapidly becoming my digital choice). We really do need to have both. Daily practice and the tools you love to use.

    omg tldr: yeah, Robin you’re right on. and Scott makes a good point too. I learned to draw reasonably well very quickly because ball point ink doesn’t erase very well.

    • So true about ball point ink. That was how I taught myself not to keep erasing lines. I forced myself to only draw with pens so that I wouldn’t get fixated on trying to get the lines “Just right.”

  4. Oh, my stars and garters. This is a great article and a great topic for discussion. While it’s true, you shouldn’t spin your wheels looking for that “magic tool,” it’s also true you need tools of a certain level to give you the results you want. Decent pencils, pens, brushes. Paper or board of at least student quality. Software is a whole ‘nother matter. I’ve had some success with Photoshop, but Manga Studio has such proponents, including Lord Byron. 🙂 I HAVE to purchase it.

    But, you DO have to start somewhere. As a wee lad, I was hungry for any and all info I could find on making comic books. This was before the Internet and the metric ton of comic “How-To” books we now have. Budding cartoonists were pretty much on their own. I used to try and ape what I saw in Peanuts in the newspaper. I’d draw what I saw in Popeye and Warner Bros. cartoons on TV. I’d copy what I saw in picture books and Disney comics too. It was all “surface” stuff: outlines and finishes, not knowing what was “underneath.” Not realizing there was structure and design in involved.

    Both DC and Marvel would have little behind the scenes stuff in their annuals and oversized Treasury editions. Segments on how to draw and ink. That’s where I first saw someone use a dip pen. I found a pen and bottle in a blister pack at the local department store. For years I struggled with it, not realizing the pen wasn’t professional and the paper I was using wasn’t made to handle ink. (Hey, I was nine, alright?) It wasn’t until high school I got a real crowquil pen and artist quality ink. Upped my game immediately. The right tools DO make a difference. 🙂

    • Yes, John, I do love Manga Studio (and you need to buy it and learn it) but we also need to have the tried and true tools of our trade handy as well. I’ve progressed a lot with inking just by simply buying the right pen brush (Pentel Pocket Brush… can’t live without it now).

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    • Exactly! Everybody is going to find something that they like more than others. My variation on your recommendation is “Try to find what makes practice joyful.”

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