One thing all artists have in common is that eventually our education will fall into our own hands. It’s tough being one’s own teacher, but we have to find effective means of doing so in order to keep moving forward.
Luckily, most artists have at least one other thing in common: we love images, and we collect them compulsively – whether it’s a folder on our hard drive, a Pinterest board, or just our history of “likes” on Instagram. This is all well and good but it’s inherently an unscientific exercise. How often do you really go back and look at those images? How deeply acquainted with them are you? For the longest time my own answers to these questions were “not very often” and “not very well,” respectively. Then I stumbled on a way to more deeply engage with images – to use them as teachers.
THE BASIC EXERCISE
The concept here is that we’ll create a “living” collection of a set number of images, specifically: work that represents the direction you’d like to take your own art. Creating the folder will be an education unto itself, but once finished the folder will also be able to provide feedback on your images the way a teacher might.
To get started, all you’ll need is some means of image sorting (I prefer Adobe Bridge, but anything that allows you to see all of your images at once, in thumbnail view and side-by-side, will work).
BUILDING THE FOLDER
Carve out some time for this; really sit down with it and give it all of your mind if you want to benefit from it. Go ahead, make a new folder. Name it whatever you like, but I call mine “The Goal Folder.”
The main attributes of any good goal folder are these and only these: limited size & specific scope. Let’s deal with each of them in turn.
1) LIMITED SIZE
There needs to be a firm cap on the number of images you allow into your folder; you can’t learn anything if the exercise doesn’t hurt a bit. You can start with as many as 50 images at the extreme high end, but with enough curating, you should be able to cut it down to 20 or fewer (my current goal folder hovers around 17 images). Think of this folder like a gladiatorial arena, wherein images battle it out to decide the fate of your artistic path. TWO PICS ENTER, ONE PIC LEAVE!! We need to leave a little blood on the ground.
Once your folder size is set, NEVER RAISE IT. You may lower the limit any time you please, but if you want to add new images, old images have to go. This is what makes it a “living” folder. If you find something new and wonderful and want to include it, it has to bump off something else. Some of the most impactful realizations come when a beloved mainstay of the goal folder finally gets the axe.
The goal folder has a way of sharpening your tastes and making your goals much more clear (the whole point), so soon you find that a lot of images – even those you’ve loved – simply need not apply.
2) SPECIFIC SCOPE
You’ll be best served if you have some sort of idea where you’d like to go. Are you trying to make strong book covers or sell your work in galleries? Maybe card game art or comic books? Each type of work has its own needs. Inside of each there are further specific divisions to be found. There are design-heavy book covers and painterly book covers. There are weird, abstract figurative Magic: The Gathering cards and sweeping city scenes, and everything in between.
The goal folder can help you mentally categorize and understand these divisions. Don’t worry, it’s not all boring academic stuff – it becomes intuitive! Furthermore, you only need to explore what is most interesting to YOU. Not sure what that is? No big deal. Start with all the images you love in the folder, and experiment with cutting images. See what you can bear to lose; be fearless! It’s just a jpeg. If you delete it, you can bring it back later.
CURATING THE FOLDER
I sit down at my computer in front of the goal folder and immerse myself in the body of images. I don’t zoom in or analyze the details of images, especially not at first. I’m letting my mind identify patterns and form impressions about the group as a whole; this lets me spot the lame deer in the herd. What can I take out to make this group feel better? What can I cut? Why? I experiment with sliding images in and out of the folder. Your mind knows instantly when the group feels more cohesive. Follow that instinct! This is a science experiment you’re conducting on yourself. Maybe cutting an image hurts, but that doesn’t make it wrong. Growth is painful and awkward. Be brutal.
USING THE FOLDER
At the end of all this you will have crafted for yourself a vision of the artist you are trying to be: a small folder of images that has the right feeling or the right look. This folder is now your coach. When you are making a piece of artwork, drag it into the folder. If your work doesn’t match up favorably, it will be PAINFULLY obvious. Your brain will scream out that the pattern is destroyed. “You have work to do!” Let the other images teach your image and show you how it ought to be done. Make corrections, and compare again. Do this over and over until your work fits in, until it shines. Don’t call an image “done” when you know it could be better. When you start to find that your images always fit in well you have internalized the lesson; your skill will have increased. Although, by now you’ve probably hit some new wall. Time to do it all again…and again and again.
GETTING MORE SPECIFIC
The most beautiful thing about this exercise, and the reason I have been doing it for years, is that it scales and adapts along with you as you grow. Your folder should follow your fancy! As you change, it changes. It can reveal to you that “thing” you’ve been after, and then teach you how to get it.
When I started working on Magic: The Gathering I realized that I couldn’t have the same goal folder for all of my work anymore. Magic: The Gathering cards and book covers are very different types of assignments, with different print and reproduction parameters. For this reason, I now keep individual goal folders for each type of work that I do. Here’s what I’m looking at and comparing myself against when working on Magic: The Gathering:
You’ll notice that when working on Magic I focus a lot on atmospheric depth as a means of grouping silhouettes for legibility. Each silhouette has its own distinct shape and is quickly identifiable. This is because everything prints so small that the quick read is king. Detail is often lost or felt simply as “texture.” For contrast let’s take another look at my general goal folder, the one I use for book covers:
There is still a big focus on values creating high-gravity impact, but here the values and the subjects don’t always align so cleanly. The viewer can see an organized, beautiful picture but maybe they don’t know quite what it’s of. They have to go in for a closer look, maybe pick up the book. Bingo! That’s just what we want. Personally, I also enjoy the contrast of a strong abstract read and a slower specific read as a form of visual playfulness. It makes the images last just that little bit longer.
Separately from work, sometimes you just want to understand a general principle of artwork. What makes a good portrait, for instance? The goal folder exercise can show you that, too:
SHARE & COMPARE!
Sharing your goal folder with other people can be a great way to test it, and to get new feedback and ideas. For anyone who decides to do this: I’d love to take a look. Link your folder in the comments! Remember: keep it as small as you can, be specific with your goals, and try to have some fun.
The beauty of this exercise is that it doesn’t just teach you, it teaches you about your own point of view. Your point of view is the thing you truly bring to the table as an artist. If we could all just understand our own point of view we might make wonderful pictures. Good luck.