A Look Back at Two Years of SmART School

-By Todd Lockwood

With classes filling up for the coming semester at SmART School, I wanted to give a shout out to some of my past students and show you what they’ve been up to. But first let me tell you how much I enjoy teaching. One of the wonderful things about this school is the small scale of the classes and the closeness of the interaction. It’s a full-on mentorship, with typical class sizes ranging from five to eight people. We all share each other’s critiques and learn from each other as well. Using GoToMeeting, we meet online every Tuesday. The platform allows me to do paintovers and live demonstrations, which is invaluable to everybody. I’ve learned more from teaching than I ever thought possible.

Towards the end of each term, a guest Art Director or professional will visit the class to review special assignments they chose for our students—a sample of working as a professional with real deadlines, and an opportunity to apply what they’ve learned. In the last few semesters I’ve been proud to have Matthew Kalamidas from Bookspan, Jeremy Cranford from Blizzard Entertainment, and Dawn Murin from Wizards of the Coast. This coming semester I’ve invited Jon Schindehette to join us. He was formerly the Creative Director at Wizards; now he’s the Creative Director for ThinkGeek Solutions and founder of ArtOrder.

It’s a wonderful model, and I’m tickled to be a part of it.

I asked my past students to send me their thoughts, along with an image from before they attended SmART School (if they were so brave!) and a picture of something done either in class or since class. I think you’ll be as impressed as I was… and still am.

Catherine Gibson, like many starting artists, was drawing out of her head instead of using reference, and like so many went straight into a drawing with little planning. Her talent is obvious, but her composition is spotty and unfocused.

But look at this astounding (and as yet unfinished) painting from her final assignment:

It’s emotional and subtle. Note the ghostly wolves in the negative space between the angel’s wings.

I love this “Before” and “After” from Jennifer Beasley because it appears to show the same character:

She says, “I absolutely loved learning from Todd at SmArt School. The small group of students, and one-on-one mentoring was perfect for sharpening my abilities and cultivating new ones. Attending SmArt School has been the best decision I’ve made for my career thus far. Take the plunge, make the commitment, and join the SmArt School family, it’s exhilarating what you’ll be able to accomplish!

Andrew Cefalu came into the first class I taught in the spring of 2013 with high ambitions and lots of energy. He says, “My work has grown a lot since I took my first Smart School Mentorships, and I owe a lot of my personal growth as an illustrator to this program. Todd’s class, specifically was great because it taught me how to focus my compositions, by using visual elements and value. If you want to improve as an artist I would strongly urge you to take a Smart School Class!

This is the painting he did for the final assignment, entitled “Orc Warg Rider.”

We worked hard on Focal Points and composition. Andrew went on to study another semester, with Rebecca Guay, who honed his sensibilities further—and differently. Here’s his “Treetop Sniper.”

Look at how similar the values and the sizes of shapes are in this “Before” image from Kirsten Harper:

Again, though her talent is obvious, the eye struggles to find a point of entry into the story. But look at the subtlety and energy in this piece, done after class ended:

This is a creature concept done after the semester ended:

Marko Radulovic brought energy and enthusiasm to every project. His ambition is evident in this image from before his first class, even if the values are muddied and the narrative hard to read:

But look what he did in class. Marko really stepped out of his comfort zone to take on an action scene:

He said, “The class fosters a sort of closeness that is hard to otherwise fathom over digital media with an instructor half a continent away. SmArt School has a good thing going.

Marko will be back this coming semester with some very specific personal goals in mind.

Eva Toker came to class with smarts and skills, but her growth inspired envy in her classmates. This was her in-class assignment, on which we talked about the power of values and movement:

Here’s her final assignment, for guest Art Director Matthew Kalamidas’ assignment: a cover for Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”

Astoundingly good stuff, right?

This is the quality of character concept work she’s doing currently for an employer:

This “Before” and “After” shows an incredible leap in confidence and courage, from Melissa Phifer:

She said, “Being in your class taught me that I have the ability to do realism and to digitally paint.” Melissa has gone on to art direct for a card company and lecture on art at Gen Con and other venues.

Finally, Chris Peuler is another artist whose talent was clear to see:

But Chris felt a bit overwhelmed by narrative illustration. With a new understanding of ways to build movement and focus, Chris created this painting in class:

I saved his comments for last, because they actually touched me. This is why I love teaching.

I was very seriously considering quitting my dream of making art as a profession before I started mentoring under Todd. SmArt School helped me realize my doubts are not the insurmountable walls I initially thought they were, and now I have a completely renewed sense of confidence and optimism in regards to what I am capable of doing as an artist.

“In a few months I went from being afraid of painting a simple story to making something that connects with me on a deep and personal level, as well as something that resonates with my peers. I suppose the greatest asset I attained from SAS is that now I look forward to painting every day… My sense of design, composition, and storytelling have never been better than what they are now, and I know I could not have gotten this far in this amount of time on my own.

Needless to say, I’m proud of all my students and I only want them to do well (I think of them as my “kids”). One of the perks of the small class size is my ability to offer continued advice and interaction beyond SmART School. It’s wonderful to keep up with everybody and see how well they’re doing. And, as you have just seen, they’re doing very well indeed.