When you’re an artist, you tend to go through cyclical periods of both leveling up and plateauing, and the only way to get out of that plateau phase and grow as an artist is to get outside of your comfort zone. This could mean any number of things, i.e. learning a new medium, studying art theory, etc.
Today, I thought I would share some of my own personal level-up pieces during my career, and some of the reasons why I feel they helped me in the long run.
This illustration was created during my senior year in college. The assignment was to base an illustration off of a song, interpreting it however you want. I chose “The Gardener” by The Tallest Man on Earth, a song that sounds lighthearted but is actually quite macabre. I felt drawn to it for the story-telling and for the juxtaposition between the mood and the lyrics.
Some of the reasons I consider this assignment a level-up piece:
- It was the first time I really learned how to use reference, i.e. the roses and thorns.
- I was given some much-needed critique which helped improve it dramatically, so I learned the value of constructive criticism.
- It was accepted into the American Illustration competition (only submitted it as an assignment, wasn’t expecting to actually get in), as well as a student show at the Society of Illustrators.
- Perhaps the strongest reason – it was really the catalyst into my vision as an artist. Creating this made me realize how much I loved the intersection between beautiful subjects and dark stories. I learned I could make illustrations that could communicate thoughts and ideas and feelings, going beyond portraying a moment in a narrative.
Although my current style has grown and evolved since I created The Gardener almost eight years ago, I will always be grateful for the learning experience I had with this one and how it helped jumpstart my path as an artist.
This was a big level-up piece for me, personally, because it was one of my very first official book covers as a freelancer (it’s for the novella “Shadows For Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson). I had worked with other clients before, doing random assets for games, college courses, apps, etc., so although I had some experience with freelancing, this really jumpstarted my career as a book cover artist.
Some specific reasons why this was a personal level-up illustration:
- It helped me hone my book-cover process, i.e. thumbnails, reference, sketches, final, revisions, etc.
- I experienced, again, the importance of good reference to creating a believable illustration.
- It helped me gain better communication skills as I went back and forth with the AD
- It gave me confidence that I could actually do this as a career
This will forever be an opportunity I was extremely grateful to receive and has since then led to many dream jobs with Brandon and the rest of his team.
Speaking of Brandon Sanderson, this was an interior spread for the Warbreaker leatherbound. I’m including this on my list, not because it’s my most well-known illustration, but because my technical artistic skills had to take a major step outside my comfort zone in order to complete it successfully.
I learned so much while creating this piece, including:
- Creating a horizontal, two-page spread vs. the vertical aspect ratio of a book cover
- Multiple figures and how they scale and interact with each other
- Perspective, something with which I am not proficient
- Interior architecture, which includes the aforementioned perspective problem
For all these reasons, and more, I learned how to improve my skills that needed a lot of work. It also gave me the confidence that I could tackle difficult subject matter when necessary.
A special shout-out goes to Howard Lyon for helping me a lot with the perspective and interior problems I kept running into!
This has been my most recent level-up piece to date – a Blood token card for Magic. The composition is simple, as is the subject matter, so what makes this one so special?
This was actually my first oil painting for Magic, and my first completed oil painting in a while. I primarily work digitally and have been extremely comfortable with digital for many years. This year has been my testing ground for diving into traditional mediums and learning a lot in the process. This painting has also helped boost my confidence with traditional mediums, as well as helping me to transfer my skills as a digital artist to the canvas.
I don’t know what the rest of my career looks like as an artist, but it has been an enlightening and fulfilling process to pick up paintbrushes and create something in the physical world, which is a difficult feeling to replicate in digital mediums, at least for now.
• • •
There are a lot of both wonderful and difficult aspects to being an artist. Sometimes you make a piece that comes straight from your soul – it practically spills out onto the page and feels like the easiest process in the world, with very little resistance along the way. Other times, you feel like you have to fight and struggle through every brushstroke, every layer, and right up until the very end, you have no idea whether it will even be presentable.
Although my heart longs for the effortless, easy paintings (even if they are rare!), I have personally seen more growth as an artist and technician after completing the pieces that are most difficult and challenge my comfort zone.
What are some of the pieces that have allowed you to level up as an artist?
Thanks for reading! Go forth and go level up!
This is such a great idea to end off the year by assessing what pieces helped our growth. Thats funny you mention this becuase I’m plateauing now and in these moments I really don’t know what I should be doing. Theres so many things TO practice that any one of them feels like a good idea, but I don’t have infinite time and space to do all of them and what I should be focusing on is often vague. I try working on illustrations but I run into my own skill blocks and I don’t have anyone I can quickly get help from. what I see in my hero’s art are things I don’t know how to practice on my own . I really struggle with getting outside help, not because I’m afraid of asking but because many pros are busy, don’t have the time or don’t have contacts and to show them a WIP picture from someone they don’t know is hard to give advice to. I can’t tell online if I’m asking too much, being too wordy or not being specific enough and often I only get to hear back from them just once. I think thats whats so hard about artistic growth, some of the best pictures I’ve done effortlessly came out and some of the worst pictures were from me struggling and ended up looking labored because I had to bruteforce it from having no idea what I was doing. IMO You can’t always tell someone’s growth based how good the end result was. Knowing what to focus on was key for me and finding that isn’t always clear.
This is such a great and inspiring post, thank you! I love seeing the increasing complexity and nuance in your trajectory.
I knew I had reached a plateau when I tried to work on some types of compositions that I’d never tried before (perspective more complicated than one-point, multi-figure, etc.) and I hit a wall that felt very frustrating initially. I couldn’t finish those pieces. So I decided to return to some fundamentals (like learning perspective properly from the ground up!) and I’m so glad I did that! It’s a difficult phase for sure, but it will be so great to be able to complete paintings that are not constricted by a lack of particular skills.