Secrets of Success

I have taught for almost six years now in a wide variety of classes , including being the Portfolio Instructor. This has allowed me to work with students interested in a wide range of subject matter, be it game design, special effects, or film animation. One thing that every teacher will notice is that, while the students all have had the same classes, the skill level is all over the place. Obviously, some of that is based on the previous experience some students have had, but even that won’t dictate eventual outcomes. I personally have seen students who could draw excellently remain static in their skills set and I have also seen people who had never drawn become very proficient. The real issue is really one of mindset and that is what this article is about. While it is mainly aimed at artists, it can easily be related to designers or any other creative role.

Like buildings, greatness starts with a solid foundation

The biggest issue I see daily is that students often want to run before they can walk. It’s understandable, as everyone wants to get to the stuff that stirs their passion. The problem here is that without a solid grasp of the foundational skills, you won’t be able to fully realize your vision.

For Artist’s, it’s all about training your eyes to see what is actually there and the best way to develop that is through drawing. Drawing is the basis for all arts, without it, ideas cannot be conceptualized. This can be very frustrating, especially for 3D Artists who just want to model. They don’t see the value in wielding a pencil when it takes time away from pushing vertices. Unfortunately, for someone with experience, like the people who will be hiring you, they can see all the flaws and missing details. We can see that you are not seeing things that you should be, such as muscle structure, surface materials with believable wear and tear, or a fully realized concept. Take the time to draw and it’s payoff will be huge down the line.

  • Draw daily, even if it is just doodles
  • Expect to fill an entire sketchbook every 3 months
  • Do foundational exercises, such as freehand straight lines, growing circles, drawing from life, gestures, etc
  • Break out of your style, draw photo-real, cartoons and everything in-between

Knowledge of the past is the way to the future

Every artist starts on the same path, and over time, will develop a style which is an amalgamation of all they have experienced. There is no such thing as an original idea, only original combinations of previous concepts. Most people seem to overlook this fact and believe that it will just magically happen. It doesn’t.

Again, I see this problem arise everyday. Sometimes, the lack of research students put into their work is astounding. I have had many discussions with people working on certain subject matter without actually knowing what the source material is. A great example of this is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Every person I see working on Mr. Hyde always builds him as this giant angry beast of a man, like some sort of steroid monkey. When I ask them why they chose this route, they always say that is what the character is. I then ask if they have read the book, and the answer is always no. In the book, Mr. Hyde actually shrinks. The whole story is an allegory to the duality of man and oozes with personality.  This rarely comes out in student work. If you don’t know where stuff has been, how do you expect to know where its going?

  • Watch cartoons, tv, and movies from BEFORE you were born
  • Read the classics of literature, and genres you normally don’t read
  • Find interviews of your favorite artists and discover their influences
  • Go to museums and the library

Those who wait to be served at a buffet end up starving

Another major issue students often encounter is the belief that school should teach you everything you need to know.  This is a bit of a conundrum as, in general, a good curriculum will attempt to do this, but they are limited by the skill level of the class. As an Instructor, we have to teach to the median, which means that we have to follow the lead of the students in the middle. This is compounded by the mistaken idea that a teacher is there to make you learn. They cannot make anyone learn, only the student can learn. A teacher is there to provide a path to learning. It is up to the students to take a hold of their education. So what can one do?

First, never wait to be taught something; go out and learn on your own. The more you know going in, the better questions you can ask. There are so many resources on the internet available, you just have to seek it. That way, the instructor can help push you to that next level, beyond what the syllabus states. Additionally, it is a habit you will need to develop if you are planning on going into the digital arts, as technology is rapid advancing. Remember, an artist should never stop seeking ways to improve themselves. The moment you do is when everyone else passes you.

  • Look in the help menus of software
  • Do as many tutorials as you can find, on the internet and on DVD
  • Take additional classes outside of everything else you do

True friends will always tell you when you suck

No matter how good you are, there is always someone better. The only way to get better is to have a critical eye in seeing why someone else’s work is superior or inferior to yours. This is one of the hardest lessons to learn and abide by. It is natural to want to be supportive of people and to want everyone to get along. However, in the long run, you are not only hurting them, you are hurting yourself. Taking criticism is essential to one’s growth. Sure, it may hurt your ego a bit when some one tells you that your work needs improvement, especially after you poured so much effort into it, but wouldn’t you rather know?

Giving critiques is even more helpful, as it reaffirms what you know. If you can see what is wrong with something, then you can avoid that problem in your own work. That being said, be careful with your critiques. It is no use to anyone to say their work is poor if you cannot describe what that problem is and have some sort solution for it. A good critique is one that points out the good and the bad in a positive manner. As I like to say, a good friend will tell you that you suck, and then list off why that is.

  • Post your work on online message boards and get feedback
  • Critique other peoples work
  • Be polite when critiquing, so that you don’t offend, but be honest


To become the best that you can be, you need to take control of your destiny. Before you start anything, do research. Never rely on what you believe to be fact, often it is only a slice of the whole. Realize that everything is interconnected. The better you learn to draw, the better your modeling. The stories you read will influence your designs. Seek out people who you can trust in their opinion. Share your knowledge with others. Most important of all: Get on with it already!

2 thoughts on “Secrets of Success

  1. Can’t help but notice you could probably drop the “for artists” part of the title. I mean maybe the suggestions for your first two headings don’t all apply, but the headings themselves and their meaning sure do.

  2. Thanks for pointing that out, and I agree. Therefore, I changed the name of the article 🙂

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