My cover art for Harrow the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir, for Tor.com Publishing. AD Christine Foltzer.

I’ve talked before about artistic training: specifically the idea that, as artists, we can engage in training exercises outside of “completing finished images” that will make us better much more quickly, or in much more specific ways. Artists who seem to just “have the knack” have often intuitively tapped into training mechanisms as a part of either their process or their sketchbook habits. But for the rest of us, training can be put to work a little more deliberately. Below I’ll give an example of a training exercise I’m engaged in right now to help ground all of this out in reality, but first let’s talk general theory.* How can we train effectively?

1. Have a clear, specific goal. We can’t focus on generalized improvements. We have to go at it bit by bit, and no skill is too small. “I want to make better paintings” is not a goal that can be trained deliberately. “I want to  understand how light hits a cube;” now that we can go after. It may seem a bit arduous, but this is actually the fast way because it creates permanent, cumulative results. The beauty of well-designed training exercises is that they pay off remarkably quickly. Soon you are using the new skills whenever you work, which keeps them with you, and you’re off to something else.

2. Design an exercise that will achieve the goal, as an actionable skill. It isn’t enough merely to “know” something. I’ve met a lot of people who know all about painting, but can’t seem to paint. Good training results in skills, not just knowledge. Is knowledge important? Of Course! But when you focus on skills, knowledge comes along for the ride; it has to. The opposite isn’t true.

 

Harrow the Ninth, Drawing Detail

3. Get feedback. This one is tricky for artists, especially early in their development. It’s easy to say if the ball went through the hoop in basketball; but does this new style look better or worse? And which colors should I use together? This is why I always recommend starting with a solid teacher. Good teachers target your weaknesses with custom-tailored exercises designed to give you the right sorts of understanding. It is this understanding that will enable you to become your own feedback source, and nothing could be more valuable to your long-term development. Still, because many of us must go without teachers from time to time, or because we want to train something that is new or very unique to our own work, we can try to find ways to bake the feedback into the exercise, or to get feedback from existing sources like the internet or books. More on that later. 

4. Repeat, repeat, repeat as necessary. Often the training will be very difficult at first, but through repetition the brain finds ways to understand the material differently, so that it becomes easy. The brain wants things to be easy. Once a skill you’re training becomes easy for you, move on! Don’t linger on exercises you mastered long ago. Get used to the thrill of “Oh my God I suck at this!” That feeling is the real feeling of progress being made. 

 

Harrow the Ninth, Drawing Detail

It sounds so simple. Make a goal, then practice the skill related to the goal; but for a long time I had a tentative grasp of these concepts, yet couldn’t seem to apply them at will. The main challenge was feedback.

Remember that a teacher gives you targeted exercises, designed to share with you an understanding. But you need the understanding in order to design the exercise! And you need to know exactly where you’re going wrong to target those weaknesses. You can see the predicament any beginner is faced with. That’s why it’s worth any amount of money, time, or discomfort to have a good teacher introduce you to the fundamentals. Excellent working concepts of color, value, perspective and drawing have been built up for hundreds of years by other artists; there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, and not enough time in the day. Start with a teacher.

 

 

Still, there are some understandings an artist will need that have been well built-up and that exist in books or on the internet. For example: human anatomy. A while back I “worked through” all of Blandine Calais-Germain’s Anatomy of Movement, but in the end I had a lot of nice drawings and not a lot of understanding, and almost none of the skill I wanted. Hrm.

 

Some early drawings from Anatomy of Movement.

How could I turn working with this book into effective training? Well, let’s go through the list:

1. What was the skill I wanted? I wanted to be able to draw complex human actions from my head, accurately and with a high degree of “realism.” That is an extraordinarily complex skill (and definitely not necessary, by the way – this is just for fun), so I tried to break it down into smaller parts.

I had other exercises in place to deal with “realism,” and “drawing,” so my main focus for this exercise would be the body. To draw the body in motion I would need to understand anatomy not in a static sense, but from a functional point of view. I wanted to think of muscles as the actions they generated, and vice versa. Then when I thought of an action to draw, I’d know which muscles were employed, and how those changes would be reflected on the surface of the body.

But those are later steps. Right now I was trying to build the alphabet of this language, the smallest, most basic components. I needed to know the muscles and bones, and understand how they work together to generate movement. I needed a concept like “the alphabet song” to help me put it all together and remember it. This is what led me to Anatomy of Movement, instead of a more typical atlas of anatomy, where everything is understood only in terms of names and the only positions shown are standard anatomical positions. So far so good.

2. How had I designed my exercise? I had gone through the book once and drawn along with the diagrams, and read everything and tried hard to understand it. Oh wait; crap. First of all that’s not much of a “design.” Also I made the classic mistake of focusing more on the knowledge than on the skills! What skill am I employing to copy the book?

 

More copies.

3. How was I getting feedback? Each day when I turned to a new page of the book I would try to redraw everything I could remember from the previous day’s work, at new angles, and explain what I was drawing to myself. Once finished I’d consult the pages from yesterday and see how I did. That was about it. This in and of itself isn’t too bad because the book contains perfect feedback. Except that…

4. Was I repeating the exercise? Not really. I didn’t have any procedure in place for repeating the drawing until it was perfect in its understanding, and I was never reviewing more than one day into the past. After a few months, how much could I still produce on demand from 60 pages ago? What was even going on 60 pages ago? I couldn’t say.

So, 2 out of 4. Ish.

Eventually I keyed in on the idea of using a flashcard system to generate random, daily “challenges” that would act as the exercise. This would serve as a much better design because a flashcard could demand a drawing from me, or a piece of knowledge, or anything, really. Then, on the back I could have answers (either drawings or writing) that were referenced to the book. Boom; feedback. And in the case of cards that asked for drawings I’d be building real skills.

But how to build this pile of flashcards? The task of turning the entire book into cards seemed pretty daunting, and on top of that it would be a lot of work to get a random grouping of challenges each day. Further, I’d face the difficulty of trying to target my weaknesses the way a teacher could. If a flashcard was difficult, I’d need to see it more often to be training effectively, and doing easy cards over and over would be a waste of time.

 

Harrow the Ninth, Drawing Detail

It was at this point that fellow illustrator Micah Epstein recommended Anki, a free flashcard program that he’d used in studying languages. With a digital program a large deck would be much easier to manage, and became less daunting. Not only that, but the program accepts all sorts of inputs for flashcards. You can make the front or back of a card an image (scanned drawings, bingo), any amount of writing, or even an audio file.

The real kicker is the way Anki handles the “targeting” issue. When you fail a card, Anki makes you repeat it within the current study session, then makes sure you see it again often, until you’re nailing it every time. Each time a card is “passed,” Anki increases the amount of time between now and when you’ll see the card again, and all these things are customizable! Basically, you only see the cards you need to be working on right now, but over a long time span Anki keeps you accountable to all the knowledge and skills in the “deck;” a training MACHINE!

So, using Anki, what does my anatomy training currently look like? Each day I get out Anatomy of Movement and tackle just a single new page. I try to convert every bit of knowledge on that page into flashcards that will tax any skills and all the knowledge I can find on that page. They look like this:

 

For this particular card, the back reads: 1 – Distal, 2 – Proximal, 1B – Superior, 2B – Inferior.

And sometimes, like this:

 

The back for this one: 1- Frontal / Coronal Plane, 2 – Abduction, 3 – Adduction

These are slides I hardly ever see anymore, because they’re basic vocabulary and concepts that are needed for further study. And yep, they’re ugly. But I’ve found it to be a good rule of thumb that if training is pretty, it’s probably either not working, or you don’t need it anymore.

Sometimes now a card will just say:

“Quickly draw the cervical spine in a non-standard anatomical view. Don’t be boring.”

These are the really good cards: the ones that build a skill. When on earth will I need this skill? Actually, all the drawings of skeletons from Harrow the Ninth I’ve been peppering throughout this post were done predominantly from memory.

 

Harrow the Ninth, Drawing Detail

Once I finish the drawings for the cards I photograph them, then convert them into actual flashcards inside of Anki, and add them to my running “Anatomy” deck. Then I do a study session using Anki, which by default includes the new cards, and anything Anki thinks I need to study. The session is capped at 25 cards and I’m done when I’ve gotten every card right. To put it another way: I engage in an exercise repeatedly which tests skills and which includes perfect feedback, and the exercise is targeted to my strengths and weaknesses. It takes only about 30 or 45 minutes per day, and this has proven remarkably more effective at building the actual skills and understandings I’m after.

Of course, I still have a lot of work to do; this is a long-term exercise regimen and only the first step in a much longer training chain. But it’s just one example. Many other types of training I’ve done have taken only a very short time to have their full effect. The key is that this basic 4-step format can be applied to anything YOU want to learn. As artists we have to chase our fancy; we have to do what thrills us. Whatever you’re trying to achieve with your work, hopefully you can find some ideas here that will help you get there. Godspeed!

 

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* For a deeper understanding of this theory, I refer you to Peak, by Anders Ericsson.

 

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For those who enjoyed this: I’m currently sharing a few posts per month on Patreon, centered around the development of the illustrator, and exploring the world of illustration from behind the curtain.