Learning Skills: Art and Design

I have always felt that there are three sides to improving art skills or design skills. The first objective, the “Creative” side, seems to be inherited to some extent, but there are many techniques and exercises to improve creative thinking. Keep in mind, even the most creative minds hit blocks now and then. They must overcome their “blocks” as everyone does. Exercises in creative thinking are varied and sometimes kind of crazy, but usually fun!

Secondly there is “Technical Expertise”. Whether you are painting with traditional watercolors, painting digitally in Photoshop, or laying out a website in Dreamweaver, there are skills that must be learned in order to create your vision effectively. By mastering the needed skills, you can concentrate more on realizing your creative vision, and less time figuring out how to accomplish the task. Many tutorials and learning materials seem to concentrate on technical expertise. They are usually fun, but often are oversimplified. Paint this here, and draw this here, now run a curves layer and set opacity to 20%… This will help you create the particular assignment, but a huge ingredient is missing. That ingredient is: Why do you do this?

Which brings up the third objective, and to me the most important one. That would be “Theory”. Theory is the underlying knowledge of art and design. Why does glass look the way it does? Why do shadows fall the way they do? Why do colors contrast differently when placed side by side? What effects do grids have on composition? How could Seurat paint detailed paintings with nothing but strategically placed colored dots? Why is that building proportionally challenged? What color is a cloud? How does light reflect when it hits water?

My mind is racing with these questions constantly. Many can just be answered by observing the world around you. Learn to not only look at the world, but actually see it. You will get some strange looks from people when they see you staring at a rock, but I guarantee they will not understand it’s texture, color, specular highlights, shadow intensities, or it’s complexity of shape. But how can you represent one, if you do not know these details?

Another great place to look for insights into theory would be the work of other artists. Look at famous artists, of course, but also look at the work of contemporary artists. The exercise I generally employ is to observe as much art as possible from many sources. When a piece of work jumps out at me, and makes me say “Wow!” as soon as I see it, I stop and analyze the piece to see what impresses me about the work. Is it composition? Is it color? Is it texture? Why do I like it? Why, why, why?

Only by exposing ourselves to new experiences and learning from them can we grow as artists. Look at the details and try to understand the theories that make them all work. With theory and technique in your grasp, your creativity can run wild.

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