It’s important for you to know the principles of design so you’re aware of all the components you have control over when you’re designing your composition. Having this knowledge will help you make intelligent decisions to create the effect you want.
Before I went to art school, I used to start a project by stressing out about it and thinking of how great I wanted it to be. Then I would gather the courage to start drawing and jump right in, sketching without even having a clear idea of what I wanted the drawing to be. Once I realized using references isn't a bad thing, I began all my projects by doing research and found it much easier to ease into a project knowing I had something to start with.
We can all agree that art is subjective. However, there are some things that are universally acknowledged to be detrimental to a composition and having a good composition directly affects the quality of an art piece. Of course you are always free to take full advantage of your creative license as an artist and it’s up to you to decide whether you want to break the rules or not. Regardless, it’s always smart to take design principles seriously and to take on a thoughtful approach to your work, especially when you’re still learning.
The most valuable truth I learned in art school is that you will only ever be as good or as mediocre as your own efforts. Once I started school, it didn’t take me long to learn exactly the type of work I needed to create to get a good grade in my studio classes. All I had to do was make work that would stick to the rubric we were given in every class and satisfy the taste of my instructors. I already knew how to create work that they would consider “great”. I realized then that I had nothing left to learn from doing the same kind of work over and over...
"I know what I like when I see it". Have you ever said this or thought it? I’m betting you have. We can all look at something and pass judgment on it. "That’s pretty, that’s ugly, that’s okay but it could be better." What separates an artist/designer from people who "know what they like when they see it" is the artist/designer knows why they like something when they see it. While art is subjective, there are established rules or basics of design that help artists/designers understand what makes artwork look good, bad, and everything in between.
Picture yourself sitting in your desk, working on a drawing. How do you feel? Are you confident in what you’re doing? Or do you feel helpless? What kind of marks are you making? Are they confident deliberate marks? Or do you use lots of tiny little marks because you’re afraid of making a mistake? Do you find yourself having to erase and fix mistakes over and over? Is this how it goes every time you work on something? If it is, you could use a healthy dose of confidence.
As a kid I remember being very impressed by my grandfather’s large and varied collection of books. He had books on everything, from atlases to drug encyclopedias to romance novels. I was impressed by his books because they represented the extent of his curiosity and his love of knowledge. Having a curious mind and a love of knowledge myself, I’ve always wanted to have a great collection of books of my own. I started building my library a few years back. In the process of doing this, I’ve found that the more I collect, the more I grow as a person and as an artist.
I used to think setting up a still life or taking reference pictures required some kind of unknown skill or sorcery that only professionals and wizards had access to. Once I went to college, though, I found it only takes a blanket, some interesting objects/ model, and some lights. It’s not mysterious or complicated and it doesn’t take more than a bit of effort on your part (and maybe also the help of a friend).
One of the most challenging exercises I had to do for my first painting class was a series of 20 self-portraits. We had to do one every night for 20 days in a row. It was challenging because I didn’t know what I was doing, it took at least twenty minutes to set up all my oil painting stuff every night, and I went on vacation for a few days in the middle of these 20 days. It’s a good thing I went to Mexico on a bus and not a plane. The airport would not have appreciated my jar of gunky turpenoid very much (because it’s toxic and flammable).
When I started getting serious about drawing, I would look at my favorite artists’ work on Deviantart and think to myself “Man, I wish I had a cool style like them.” I would do my best to emulate their style and hope that it would look different enough from theirs so that nobody would catch my bluff. The trouble was that while I could fool others into thinking I was being original, I couldn’t fool myself. I knew what I was doing wasn’t right and it made me feel ashamed and unfulfilled as an artist. I was so focused on having a style that I put all my energy into that instead of focusing on bettering my basic drawing skills.
I did my first mastercopy for the first oil painting class I took in college. I decided to copy a painting by Milt Kobayashi because it looked simple enough. Once I started working on it, though, I realized it wouldn’t be as easy as I’d thought. Kobayashi has an amazing ability to mix just the right color and place it just right to create the effect he wants. I had to fix things over and over just to get them to look deliberate, which had the opposite effect, of course. My mastercopy looks pretty similar to the original, but it looks overworked and uncertain. It doesn’t have the *magic* of the original. I learned not to underestimate something just because it looks simple and I learned the power of working with confidence.
Sometime in 2011 I posted a tweet that said “Too broke to afford a light box so I’m tracing my work on the window”. While that’s something we can laugh at, it’s also a real issue for many young artists. I wasn’t always able to go to my school’s library to use their nice light table. Not everyone has the money to get a light box and not everyone is a student with access to a light box. That's why the world invented tracing paper.
My process before going to art school consisted of two steps: draw it then color it. I’d start with the idea I had in my head, draw it as best as I could, then color it. But when it came to drawing things with backgrounds and other elements in them, it was overwhelmingly difficult to get a good drawing out. Then, when I got to art school, I was told to start with thumbnails.