Thursday, August 2, 2012

Challenges to Make Your Art Grow

By Donato

There are many ways to grow and mature as an artist, from studying others artworks to reading dissertations about color and composition, to taking classes at ateliers and universities. I love all of these approaches and partake of them frequently. These studious paths open thresholds and information which may not be gleaned from merely staring at your easel in the studio and struggling with solutions.

One of my favorite and most social ways of breaking through difficult issues in a work of art is outsourcing my troubles to an online group of artists. There is something to be said for a dozen set of professional eyes to help you see solutions to your woes! The communal input can be staggeringly creative and allow you to produce amazing work.

But, and this is a big but, it is during these moments of internal turmoil which we learn the most about ourselves and our art. A personally successfully resolved project builds confidence and can produce significant breakthroughs in your work and career. While I love to tap into my network of highly talented friends for aesthetic advice and resolution checks on my work, I find that I need to shut them out when there are issues coming at me deeper than what appears on the surface.

Only you truly know yourself and what it is that you want out of your art.

When I have come to a stumbling point in my career or art, I have to be my own therapist. What is it that is tripping me up with these assignments? Is it the Art Director? (almost always a 'no') Is it the fees? The deadlines? The subject matter? The inspirational source material? My personal life? Any and all of these can become factors in creating hurdles in our work, and likely they are all so entangled that it is impossible to clarify any real issues. Rather than trying to untie the Gordian Knot, my way of coping is to throw myself a massive challenge, so difficult that the other issues pale in comparison. I make a larger knot! This redirection allows me to focus my internal energies and concentrate on a problem no one could have foreseen.

I call these challenges my 'curveballs'. They are aptly named for their solution is a wavering front, difficult to navigate and a pleasure to 'hit' if everything goes well. Yet, many times I have also missed for all my best intentions! Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

One of my first great curveballs was thrown in 1993, the first year illustrating book covers as a professional. I was at bat against Penguin Books, my fourth professional publishing client and this was to be my first cover illustration for them. I needed to impress the art director and editors.

Half way into the game, after completing a highly detailed preliminary study of a robot made out of watch parts, I sat staring at my drafting table, mounted drawing ready with the oils, and wondered how am I going to paint this metal robot? My initial idea called for a silvery brushed steel finish to his body. Easier to render than chrome, especially since I had little success with highly reflective surfaces in my previous paintings. But then I thought, I want to make them remember this art and remember who created it. In came the chrome curveball - Out went one of the greatest home runs of my career. I still use The Construct of Time as a major piece in my portfolio to this day.

Another curveball was thrown in 1997 after years of producing one and two figure compositions for book cover illustration assignments. I wanted something more for this client, a client for which I had not worked for for a couple of years. I wanted to impress them and regain a 'favored illustrator' status. I also wanted a work of art for my own portfolio which showed what I could do when given the chance. Rather than three of four figures, I asked the pitcher to throw a curveball with a battle scene of 20 or more warriors. Luckily I got a piece of this one. I still remember the comments from the publisher Tom Doherty of Tor Books from whom this image was created, ' Did we ask him to paint all these figures?!' That kind of advertising is priceless and I have worked for Tor ever since.

Numerous curveballs have been thrown through the years, some with the title 'make it a yellow painting', others colored 'white', and through it all I have learned to find a strange bit of pleasure when seeking these difficult challenges. So much so that I have pulled away from those areas I feel comfortable in and seek to find new ways of throwing more difficult curveballs. This need to push my work has become a bit of an obsession, yet I can safely state that nearly everytime it has produced positive results.

To wrap it up, I cannot not tell you what you need to do to grow as an artist, no one really can. But look to challenges to push your art. My curveballs were designed to take something I was good at and build upon it using a twist and a distortion of expectations. I was never trying to completely change up my game. I would recommend you do the same, play to your strengths yet find ways to push your expectations and art into unfamiliar territory.  Hopefully you will have as great of successes as I have had!

Below are a few of the images with which I created internal challenges for myself.  See if you can spot what that particular challenge was for me, and what may be one for yourself...

The Mechanic
Eowyn and the Nazgul
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

The Battle of Agincourt


  1. Very good food for thought here! I've personally felt more challenged at work this last year but making it a personal goal to kick the challenges butt and really blow people's minds is something that I need to take more to heart.
    Thanks for a great inspirational post!

  2. Nice insight! I loved these illustrations and had seen some of them before. The one of the android is my fav. I think all of them are very challenging, because you are a fantastic composer. I think composing (for me) is one of the most difficult things to master on painting... And, there's no way one can grow, if it isn't a personal commitiment. We need to have the "will" to challenge ourselves and grow in order for it to happen, just as you have done. :)

  3. I can attest to this! Not on the same level of course, but own knowledge and skill has improved by doing things that I didn't want to or was scared of/not used to...something I wasn't comfortable with, etc

    Great read! thanks very much for taking the time to share that.

  4. Wonderfull article & beatiful work, thank you very much for sharing your experience :-)

  5. You are pure incentive motivation.

  6. wow. I just had one of the hardest/challenging artistic days of my life....and YOU put everything back into perspective. THANK YOU SO MUCH for the inspiration.

  7. Thank you for the comments everyone. What I failed to mention was that there are varying degrees of challenges which are placed before us as freelancers. In the week to week occurrences a simple curve ball as 'make a blue' painting may suffice to redirect my energies. But on a grander level, as I look back over the years and assess what I want to accomplish, a more introspective challenge is neeeded like the one of taking on a composition with 20 plus figures, or even a larger redirect as to how to make a protagonist a 'hero', but place them in a highly vulnerable and emotionally sensitive narrative. This later is highly challenging and is what has been pushing my work into new realms. This internally motivated curveballs HAVE to come from you, not from critiques or suggestions from your friends and peers, for they are the forks in the road which lead us to who we really wish to become as an artist and person...

    Best of luck with your pathways.


  8. Thanks for the post - it is comforting to know that highly successful artists like yourself struggle the same as the rest of us.

  9. Man, this was a great post. I love your artwork and am so much more inspired to continue pursuing a cover illustration career.

  10. Fantastic advice. I've finally made it to my senior year of art school and at the end of last semester I was feeling really burnt out from school assignments that basically have nothing to do with what I "want" to do. After Spectrum Live and taking the summer to reconnect with what it is that I am interested in and want to do, I feel invigorated to finish out and hit the freelance world with the best portfolio I can create in the next year and a half. Thanks for your advice!

  11. Where do I find online groups of artists who analyze each other's works, especially when the creator is stumped? I have long wanted to have such a resource.