What belongs in your toolbox?

1 Jul
Art Snacks sends you random art supplies at regular intervals.

Art Snacks sends you random art supplies at regular intervals.  Cool!

We live a very spoiled artistic life.  There are amazing tools within our reach that artists a generation ago would have died to have such easy access to.  You can purchase any variety of medium you want online, or buy a monthly subscription for random art supplies to just try random stuff.  We don’t have to mix our own pigments to paint a picture, we don’t have to stretch our own canvases.  Heck, we don’t even have to use paint or canvases to paint at all.

And learning resources are not something we have to go to a fancy expensive art school to acquire: scans of textbooks to anatomy tutorials and classes to online communities where you can solicit critique are abundant and sometimes free. Even the great artists before us have something to teach us all through careful analysis of their work.  With so much stuff around and a finite amount of time and money, the fact is clear:  Your artistic toolbox will never ever ever be full of everything you need in your future as an artist. (Unless you meet a time traveler who can help you out.)

Starry Night Tardis art print, by Etsy artist Julie Smith

Starry Night Tardis art print, by Etsy artist Julie Smith

That said, you only have so much money, you can only get to so many places, you learn better some ways than others, and simply you’re going to have other priorities in life than art, like food or relationships.  That’s normal.

But there are artists who have tools within reach that don’t pursue them.   They’ve convinced themselves that they’re as good as they’re going to get, they don’t know where to start, or they’re not talented enough to learn anything anyway.  Furthermore, if they’re surrounded by tools and don’t build anything, they must be just lazy.

These attitudes are pure poison for an artist, and it can lead into a downspiral of self-confidence.  And the problem isn’t necessarily with your artistic skill, but having the right mindset to navigate and find what tools you can use.  So how do you navigate the tools at your disposal when there are so many?

Get a taste of the “tried and true”, then decide what you need.

There’s a recent spate of back-and-forth about the value of art schools, where awesome successful artists like Noelle Stevenson and Noah Bradley opine on what you need and what you don’t.  They’re both right, because you can get something out of anything if it’s the right tool for you.  If you’ve been taking piecemeal classes and know the structure and every-day community of a school is what motivates you, do that.   If online coursework suits your budget and needs, do that.  Both of them make a point of finances, and I’ll do the same.  Don’t cut off your arms and legs financially to get the most awesome art education ever, because it’s not going to pay back a $200K loan no matter what you do.

Venture outside the Academy of Free.

That said, there’s some basic stuff that people avoid, even in the face of decades of recommendations, because they’re convinced they have a free alternative that works just as well.  Denying yourself access to a tool like a figure drawing class with a live model is like hammering in a nail with a spanner.  Can you do the job with a spanner?  Maybe.  Is it necessary to use a hammer?  No.  But the fact is that a hammer is easier and more effective for some jobs.  If it’s right there for the taking and you’re not allergic to hammers, save up and find a way to add it to your toolbox.  Having both a spanner AND a hammer in your toolbox can only help.

Tumblr and Pinterest anatomy references are nice, but not as good as learning from a live model and good instructor.

Tumblr anatomy references are handy (hahaha), but will take on a whole new meaning after hand studies from a live model and good instructor.

Making “trying new things” part of your life.

Keep a keen ear out on the artists you like, and note how they work  what mediums or techniques to use.  Work a “trying new things” day into your life, your schedule, and your mind.  Join a new online community or see what’s local through Meetup.com and ask for recommendations on stuff to work on.  By keeping an open mind (and not giving up until you have a decent understanding of what you can get out of a tool) you always learn something new.  Plus, communities are just fun ways to meet people.

Focus on your priorities.

Every tool within your reach could be a valuable one, so how can we find the ones that will work unless we collect them ALL?  This philosophy might get you a lot of bookmarks in your reference folder or a lot of books, but will quickly overwhelm you into inaction if you don’t have a focused system in place.  One thing you can do is find a medium you want to try (markers) and a technique you want to try (tonal variation) and focus on that for a few weeks/months.  Take in only information about those subjects, and only as much as you can process.  Google the rest later.

A recent project using my characters from Sombulus.  I'm focusing on color techniques with Tombow brush markers.

A recent project using my characters from Sombulus. I’m focusing on color techniques with Tombow brush markers.

It doesn’t stop at art.

While this post focuses on artist tools, there are so many things these techniques will teach you.  With proper navigation, you can cut the clutter and find the tools that make you a better artist, speaker, designer, developer or whatever else you want to do.

Now go forth into the Workshop of the World, my friends, and build something awesome!


2 Responses to “What belongs in your toolbox?”


  1. Making your dream job a reality, pragmatically | Christina Major, Design Ninja - September 3, 2013

    […] Once you’re supporting yourself, you have the mental room you need to experiment. Let’s take the example of comics. Try to figure out how to make a quality comic book that you can crowdfund and/or sell at local conventions. If this is your first time making a comic, practice with small stories and other pieces, put them out for people to read, and get good feedback on what your strengths and weaknesses are as a storyteller and an artist. Use that feedback to find education and new tools to improve your work. […]

  2. Quantity leads to quality | Christina Major, Design Ninja - December 16, 2013

    […] giving us the practice we need to see which tools work for us and which do not. And sometimes, these tools come in the form of classes and other side projects to […]

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