Art School Thoughts

There’s some kinda #artschool discourse going around Twitter again. On the off-chance I can reach anyone before they make their mistake: Art schools aren’t necessary for a career in the arts. If you go to one, you’ll probably start hearing this right around senior year (that’s when I first heard it).
I’m not saying there aren’t good schools out there. By most accounts, mine was a very good one (even if they are at the center of the current kerfuffle), and I think I’m one of the only people from my class and major that hasn’t spent at least a little time working in the industry yet, so that’s something of an endorsement.
I’m saying you don’t NEED to go to one. Where your degree comes from, or even having a degree at all, will have far less impact on your career than being able to demonstrate skills and having a network of people who can convince people to take a chance on you.
No one tells you this until you’re already there and committed to the massive debt.
A cynical part of me blames it on greed and business and such. Student loan servicers need you to be in debt; art schools need your tuition money; your high school needs you to go on to college to make them look good. But I think more of it is probably that it’s just not something your teachers, guidance counselors, college admission staff etc. are thinking about. By default, it’s just not something they consider.
But it’s something you should be thinking about and aggressively looking for answers to. College is expensive, and art school is especially expensive. It may end up being worth that cost; or it may be a ball and chain that follows you around for the rest of your life.
When I look back at my decision to go to art school, it always strikes me just how naive I was, how little research I did, how screwed up my priorities were, but also how little help the people around me were (not that naive past-me would have known he needed the help). Past-me genuinely believed that you just went to college for a thing that you wanted to be your job, and somehow, you learned everything you needed to get that job: How to apply, all the skills you needed etc. and no one knew I thought this, so no one could set me straight.
It’s obvious to me now, but it never occurred to past-me that there’s nothing stopping you from looking up your dream job, seeing what companies are hiring people to do that thing, and what qualifications they’re looking for. (Actually, I tried this ONCE in, like, junior high, in like, the worst possible way, and when it failed, I just decided that meant I would learn all of that in college. Again, don’t be like past-me. He was an idiot.)
There’s nothing stopping you from finding people with that job and asking them how they got the job and what advice they have for someone who wants to do that job when they grow up. (Pros scoff at that, but I think that’s mainly because it’s a common piece of art school homework that has a reputation as something the school is making the kids do in lieu of teaching it to them themselves. I suspect they’d be happy for an independent learner to ask.)
Also, take your time. Past-me hated high school and just wanted to be done and never have to go to school ever again. This isn’t a great way to learn anything in a scholarly environment, and it’s not a great attitude to bring into a very very expensive school. Many of the people I went to art school with who seemed to enjoy the most success right off the bat were people who were older when they went to art school. These people had had jobs or studied other things before jumping into our program, and I believe those experiences helped them to work and study in ways that those of us just out of high school, living on our own for the first time in our lives, just weren’t familiar with.
I can’t give this advice to past-me, but maybe somehow it can find its way to someone similar enough to past-me that they can avoid a whole lot of hurt and a whole lot of debt. I know from experience, no one else is liable to give that person this advice, so if you know someone like past-me, please, give them my advice, or if past-me sounds an awful lot like present-you, maybe consider this advice for yourself:
1. If you have a dream job, research the hell out of it. Find out the qualifications you need, the skills you need. Learn about other people doing that job because they’re your best information about that job, and also your competition for similar jobs.

2. Don’t rush into expensive decisions. Art school can wait, and if you make it wait a bit, you might just be much better suited to make it work for you. Or you might learn enough on your own that you don’t need it.

3. Don’t make your first taste of freedom an expensive one. There’s a lot to learn about living on your own. It may be far better to get a job and your first apartment and learn all about eating cereal for every meal and figuring out how to do laundry and going to parties in a setting where it won’t cost you tens of thousands of dollars per semester to do so.

4. An apartment, a decent computer, a bunch of tutorials, and tickets to industry networking events are way cheaper than art school. It’s not the route for everyone, but even if they don’t work for you on their own, they’re all things that will help you succeed at art school.

5. Student loans are a goddamn nightmare, and they’re not getting fixed anytime soon. They’re a big part of why I might seem to be cautioning you away from college period. They’re not as bad as you’ve heard: they’re worse. Fight for every non-loan dollar that you can get. And if you can’t get scholarships and grants, consider cutting your losses and resuming school at a later date when you can get those non-loan dollars.

May through mid-July 2020

Yep, like I said, twice a month should be manageable. Okay, what have I actually been up to?

Well, let’s see. I did another study from an old issue of Afar magazine. I’ve had some rough artist’s block the last couple of days. Maybe another one of these would be in order.

After that, my timeline gets a little hazy— Point two in favor of not making a blog post cover several months of work, especially at a time where no longer having any remotely identifiable schedule is a pretty popular meme— but I’m pretty sure the next big project that I started was the Siren, one of the two main monsters from a Call of Cthulhu campaign I’ve been jotting down ideas for with no concrete plans to ever actually run. These vaguely mermaid-esque creatures dwell on a massive living island that retreated beneath the sea and was probably the inspiration for stories like that of Atlantis. They have powerful psychic abilities, and a cult has gotten a hold of the mummified remains of one and are using it to try and summon the Island so that they can become gods.

I think next came the skull-deer thingy. I wasn’t quite sure where I was going with this guy, but “a hooved animal like a deer or a horse, but with a human-like skull floating where its head should be” popped into my head one night, and I started exploring to see where the idea went from there. Eventually, it settled out into something with a strong arcane vibe, and now I’m picturing lore like… did anyone else read the Shades of Magic trilogy by V. E. Schwab? So, in the later books in the series, they introduce the concept of a magic spell that somehow outgrew its caster’s control and gained sentience and massive power. I kinda started to picture this guy as that concept, but applied to a spell like Find Familiar.

Once the Skull Deer Thingy was finished, I started sketching out what I thought was going to be another NPC for that Edge of the Empire campaign, but then a funny thing happened, and our previous campaign ended, and I decided that I really wanted to play this merchant-turned-Jedi in the new campaign that we were starting up. Much of this design pays homage to K’kruhk, a Jedi from the old canon who showed up in the Republic and Dark Times comics and Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars animated shorts (I think they somehow managed to make both of the times that General Grievous killed him and it didn’t stick canon) and then stuck around for another century to teach Jedi in my favorite series, Legacy. There are thumbnails for his master’s ghost, but she didn’t make the final cut.

Also, it wouldn’t be Star Wars without a Droid, and since no one was playing one (and we started with bonus money so I could actually afford one), I decided to provide the droid action. I figured he’d provide me with some bonuses to my skill checks, but I didn’t realize he would become the star of the campaign and spend more time whistling and beeping at my fellow players than I would talking to them in character.

Once these were done and we started up the new campaign, a couple of the other players approached me about illustrating their characters. Working on both together over the next couple weeks, I illustrated Jedha, the lightsaber-and-shield-wielding, Gila Monster-patterned Trandoshan, and Vellit Bo, the Togruta duelist. Vellit’s player suggested there would be some feedback and changes to be made to the art, but hasn’t supplied that so she’s temporarily finished until further notice.

April 5th through 15th, 2020

So, I think bi-monthly sounds like a good schedule for right now. It’s a massive step up from maybe once every three or four years, but still seems manageable.

I spent a lot of the time since my last post metaphorically banging my head against a wall (and honestly, some of the time before I just forced myself to make that post. I think I had called it quits on the most recent of those images while it was still March). I’d open up Sketchbook Pro, scratch out a handful of thumbnails for random things— usually spaceships because #StayHomeAndDrawSpaceships was trending on Twitter, and I was still in the Star Wars mood— and just get frustrated and call it quits.

Meanwhile, I was watching the political mess developing and trying to formulate some of my political thoughts into something that could fit in a tweet (because every so often I somehow get it into my head that I can write something on social media like the woman form that Onion article and get everyone to think like me and thus solve all our problems) when it hit me that I could make my overwhelming verbosity into a single Tweet if it was just a picture of my words, made more appealing by being spoken by a funny little creature.

Ultimately, I never showed, or even inked his full speech bubble. Without some serious revisions to the text, I realized it could be misconstrued as making a case for violent vigilantism, which I really didn’t want. But, this random little doodle (who will someday get a catchier name that “Skull-faced Crow Demon Thing”) did remind me of how useful I sometimes find it in my own sketchbooks to write tough advice in speech bubbles coming from horrible little monsters. There’s a freeing detachment that comes from putting a horrid little face to these sorts of things. “Maybe,” I thought, that could be useful to other people.”

Cue my new pie-in-the-sky idea:

It would be a blank journal where each page has one or two weird little monsters with blank speech bubbles emerging from them. Maybe the floating sword is just going to tell you your grocery list for next week, but the giant worm with a mouth full of eyes may have some very salient points about your relationship troubles. I haven’t gone too far on this idea, just sketching out the first page of what will presumably be a lot of monster designs.

As an example, this demon-snake here is advising me to get a handle on painting techniques with copies (“studies” might have been a better word choice there. Oops…). I’ve been reading James Gurney’s Imaginative Realism* lately, and there’s a bit in the early sections about copying the masters, which seemed like a good idea, especially during the pandemic with little opportunity to go hang around in parks or cafes or find open figure drawing sessions for life drawing practice. At least I’ve got a bunch of artbooks and old magazines I can draw from (as well as the entire internet).

I spend this evening on a study of this young lady from the March/April 2016 issue of Afar, photographed by Landon Nordeman for the article “Pay Pal”. After struggling a lot the past couple days with a full-color study of a portrait from a different article, I opted for monochrome with this one and with less of a focus on blending, which has simply never made sense to me in digital painting no matter how many times I watch other people do it. Hard-edged segments of color (well, value) aren’t half-bad though.

I guess I can add “Figure out how colors display differently on different screens and whether I need to adjust settings to better accommodate that” to the list of things I need to learn in my attempts to get better at this whole digital painting thing. The light yellow background to that painting is basically indistinguishable from the white, and half the sketch is just gone. Yeesh.

* My reading list in terms of art re-education has so far included Austin Kleon’s trilogy: Steal Like an Artist, Show Your Work, and Keep Going as well as James Gurney’s instructional books: I started with Imaginative Realism and have Color and Light on deck.


Somewhat ironic that one of my last posts was titled “I’m not dead”, and then I don’t post again until the midst of a global pandemic. I suppose I’ve said it often enough that no one believes it (Hell, I barely believe it at this point), but one of these days, I’m going to actually make some use of this website and blog I started a decade ago. Maybe I’ll really get lucky and figure out how to bury these sad sack posts under mountains of work. This time, though, I have a unique opportunity to actually get some momentum going (so, thanks, I guess, economy-destroying terrible response to a global catastrophe).

At least for the moment, while the restaurant industry has crumbled into basically nothing, and while I have the rare benefits of basically nonexistent cost of living an a little bit of savings, I can use a chunk of this time while we wait to see how or if our civilization emerges from this crisis to finally buckle down on some projects. I’ve got a better opportunity than I’ve had in quite some time to actually learn some of those things that I’ve been telling myself I was going to learn for years:

  • To learn to paint, both traditionally and digitally
  • To figure out what I want this site to look like now as I pursue concept art, illustration, and tabletop game design and make it look like that rather than what I thought looked good in 2011 as I floundered my way through a Computer Animation program.
  • To consistently do the work I keep saying that I want to be doing.
  • To turn my scattered notebooks and index cards full of disjointed ideas into something tangibly on the way to becoming tabletop role-playing games or their accessories.

Now, while it’s tempting to follow this up with a bunch of posts showing work I’ve done since my last post in… 2017?… and just bury this, that’s not going to fool anyone, least of all me. Instead, I’m just going to end this one briefly documenting what I’ve been doing on my Coronavirus Sabbatical and hopefully posting new stuff just as soon as I figure out my way over, around, or through the wall currently in front of me.

Thumbnails, April 2019
Pencil sketch, January 2020 to break in a sketchbook I got for Christmas
Inks, March 2020 after getting laid off in the Coronavirus panic

A Great Old One I’ve been using in various D&D campaigns (all of which seem to end prematurely right when I’m about to start dropping a lot of hints that it exists), the King in Crystal is very heavily inspired by the Shades of Magic trilogy of novels by V. E. Schwab, and in its appearance, I drew heavily from images of Hastur, especially its portrayal in Cthulhu: Death May Die. I wasn’t really sure about finishing this one up until the Coronavirus hit. The thumbnails and sketch happened way earlier, but with my newfound free time, inking just seemed like a good idea.

Gowrrhut, captain of the Golden Skull, and his First Mate and translator, Tras Boden
The leaders of the three New Republic Fighter Squadrons in the Sector

Some NPCs from a Star Wars: Edge of the Empire campaign I couldn’t help plotting after falling in love with Fantasy Flight’s narrative dice system (honestly, that game kind of revitalized my love of Star Wars in general, which had definitely been flagging with the Sequel Trilogy). This was where I decided to put my foot down and finally figure out this whole digital art thing, and, while I’ve got a long way to go, I hate these significantly less than every previous attempt I’ve made at digital painting. For now, I’m working in Sketchbook Pro on a Samsung Galaxy Tab A (the older version that came with an S-Pen). It’s got some hiccups that are definitely making me want to get my laptop running more smoothly and go back to using my old Wacom tablet (or replacing both of those), but it’s a step up over not even trying to learn, so there’s that.

(Okay, looking back at some previous stuff that never made it onto any of my blogs, I may have to share some of it, just because it’s cool. I’ll try to be tasteful about it and not look like I’m just trying to bury the years and years of inactivity, and maybe repost some old stuff from my Tumblr since that site appears to have become a ghost town)

Alternate locations

Hey, so I know I said I was going to get back into this, but I’ve been awful sloppy about posting my stuff since then. Awful sloppy about posting it… here, that is.

While I’m working on posting more often on my main blog, you can keep tabs on me over at my tumblr, which is also where the bulk of everything that I drew or otherwise while I was slacking on figuring out how to tell my “real” blog that I didn’t want to be a 3D artist and instead wanted to be a concept artist.

And one of these days, maybe you’ll see regular updates, simultaneously on this blog, and tumblr… and Twitter… and maybe a DeviantArt and/or ArtStation if I want to get really fancy.

I’m not dead

Okay, I’ve admitted this to myself a million times, but never said it publicly:

I never wanted to be a 3D artist. I never enjoyed it. I never wrapped my head around all the abstractions in 3D art (shaders, any map less straightforward than a diffuse or specular map), never came close to figuring out the right poly-count on the rare occasions when I even got close to getting something into an engine (but hoo boy do I know how to freak out about poly-counts…).

I’ve spent my entire life poring over books of concept art, for pretty much everything I could get my hands on. I’ve always loved seeing that what-if: the wildly different ships we might have seen in Star Wars, the completely un-prawn-like aliens that eventually became the creatures from District 9, the countless designs that eventually got finessed into the weapons of one of the dwarves from The Hobbit, literally any piece of mass entertainment media whose concept art I could find. That’s what I always wanted to do.

And it’s that first point that holds the majority of the key to why I’ve gone two and a half years without using my blog (and why hackers have spent more time here than I have, hence one of my last posts is just gone…), why I improved at a glacial pace and wound up backsliding pretty regularly.

But, at the same time that I knew I wanted to be a concept artist, I also wanted to work in video games. And as a listless teenager, I latched onto the most prestigious school I could find offering a major with the word “game” in its name. This major, in a supremely poor fit for me, was split off from a phenomenal computer animation program and, especially in its infancy, focused overwhelmingly on the 3D side of things. For— I’m pretty sure, last I heard— everyone else graduating from that first class, that wasn’t a problem. They either developed the knack and passion for 3D to get that career, or figured out enough on the side to get into a related position (the folks who went on to become tech artists, game designers etc.). I didn’t. I didn’t get it, didn’t catch that studying on the side, posting my work on forums like Polycount, doing side-projects for the sake of additional learning, tracking down tutorials pretty much constantly, were supposed to be a major part of my education, and I was too caught up in sunk costs and just wanting to be done with school to even consider switching majors or schools to find something that would actually teach me what I wanted to do, or at least not waste so much money that I didn’t have.

(Don’t get me wrong: I’m not calling out my school. The fact that it seemed to have worked for the rest of my class and for every subsequent class that I remain in touch with, suggests that it is indeed a good school and a good program for students who weren’t me.)

And so I graduated, after four years of probably straight C’s, with a mediocre portfolio demonstrating modest skills in something I didn’t actually want to do. Much like the proverbial person who tries to get into QA and work their way into the job they actually want, I had this notion that I would buckle down, build a slightly less crappy portfolio, get my foot in the door as a 3D artist and start learning concept art on the side until I could get the job I actually wanted.

You can guess how many of those steps happened. Oh, I came close. I tried a variety of techniques over the years to cut down procrastination, started a lot of projects aimed at going back to the fundamentals and finally grokking 3D art, did a handful of art tests and sent out my resume and portfolio all over the place.

The one thing that never happened was the one that’s probably closest to the root of my problems, at least where art is concerned: Admitting that 3D wasn’t what I wanted to do, and wasn’t something I enjoyed. As long as those two things were true, I was never going to get better, never going to get employable, never create art, never feel like I’m not lying through my teeth when I call myself an artist.

So there it is: Creating 3D art for games is not my jam. It’s not my passion, it’s not what I want to do with my life. It’s something I haven’t touched for two years and will be okay with never touching again if it comes to that. I don’t see a future for me in creating 3D art.

I’ve always regretted not learning to paint, digitally or otherwise. I’ve always regretted that I didn’t see where Game Art & Design was heading with our first class and say “You know, I think I want to switch to Illustration.” I’ve always regretted that it wasn’t until senior year that I even figured out Gnomon was a thing, much less a resource at Ringling’s library.

And it’s been very hard lately. I let myself be convinced to try being a ski bum, which is a brutally expensive lifestyle. When I get a break from a 60+ hour workweek, the last thing I want to do is bang my head against the wall, creating art that’s nowhere near the standards I hold myself to.

Going forward, I am going to take the first baby steps into learning the skills and pursuing the artistic career I actually want. There will probably, eventually, be some redesigns of this blog to be more “concept art” and more “anything I’ve been doing more recently than 2011”, and I guess more frequent updates, especially once I get into either creating more art digitally or just get better equipped to post sketchbook pages (currently I have to either take a terrible cellphone picture or carve out a chunk of time to scan stuff at the library).

So, yeah, it already feels better to admit what I’m actually after instead of pretending I’m interested in a field I’m not. Now I just gotta keep this motivation going.

Anyone got any resources they’d recommend to the beginning self-taught concept artist?

Way Too Long (Yet Again…)

Yeesh. I look forward to the day when working and documenting said work is such an ingrained habit that it doesn’t take anonymous commenters to shock me into doing it. There’s a vicious cycle that forms when you’ve gotten into a bajillion unproductive habits and feeling like there’s not much point in making a post until you’ve made significant enough progress, progress that you’re not making because of all the little distractions out there.

Anyway. Yeah, after a few months of just about every day saying “I really ought to post what I’ve been working on,” I got an email notification that I had a comment waiting for me that sounded suspiciously unlike spam. “have you given up yet? no updates in a loooooong time.”

And it was an interesting question. Of course I haven’t given up. I just moved on because…

Wait. Why did I move on againg? Seriously, this made a lot of sense to me at the time. Oh that’s right. After sculpting for a bit on Libusa Mk II, I ran into a lot of ugly faceting around the sternocleidomastoids.

20140716_facetingHideous, I know. I thought I was done with that after the ugliness around her jaw in Mk I. God knows I didn’t want to go back and build the base mesh yet again to try and figure that out and go back to square 1 on the sculpt…

Except maybe I did just that. Because when I looked at the overall sculpt file rather than just that screenshot, I apparently wasn’t still having that problem. I distinctly remember not wanting to redo the model, but I remember going back in anyway and experimenting with redrawing those edges and seeing what I could do with various extrudes, but I don’t know anymore whether or not I figured out a way to prevent this. Regardless. Here’s what the sculpt looked like when I decided to move on, determined not to go back and redo everything a third time.

20140805_LibusaMk2SculptThat’s… not bad. Far from finished, and probably still in need of significant changes to the base (what was I thinking recessing the eyes so far?), but when I went back in today to screenshot this from a file that otherwise hasn’t been modified since August 5th, I can’t fathom why I initially threw down my Wacom stylus in frustration a month and a half ago.

This whole post so far has proven to be one long lesson in why it’s a good idea to document your work on a regular basis, not just the work, but what you’re feeling about it and theorizing about the solutions to problems you’re having.

Anyway throw it down I did, and I moved on to one of the other models from the freemium downloads. The filenames for this guy didn’t list his name, so I’ve just been calling him LJG, short for Letter Jacket Guy. I thought he looked more interesting than the other nude model I got in the pack, but I sacrificed having anything more than the head to work from (well, I’ve got a body covered in bulky, baggy clothes, which is far from ideal for learning anatomy).

20140828_LJG_baseBase mesh as of August 28th.

20140918_LJG_Front 20140918_LJG_Side20140918_LJG_RearLJG sculpt as of September 18. Still got a lot of work to do on him, but I figured my silence needed to be broken. Next time, there shouldn’t be such a long wait.

Libusa Mk II Progress


Okay, I have been… intermittently… hard at work on Mk II of the model that I started… back in February? Holy cow, do my work habits need to improve.

So, I started with the head, as that was the part that was giving me the most trouble. I think I’ve managed to give her a decently shaped jaw this time around and get better topology in the region where the cheek connects to the nose. I’m expecting that will make sculpting a bit less painful when I get back to it.

Just started the body tonight. This time around I, eventually, had the brilliant idea to base the breasts on eight-sided polygonal spheres rather than six-sided so that I don’t have to cut them up with weird edge loops. Other than that, I haven’t departed too much from what I had done the first time around, but I haven’t gotten back to any of the major problem areas. When the time comes to make the hands and feet and connect the arms to the torso, then we’ll really see if I’ve learned anything yet!

Libusa: Ready To Restart

Alright, I’m sick of fighting with the geometry while trying to sculpt on Libusa. I managed to build in an awful lot of diamond quads and edge loops that spiral around limbs a bajillion times without going anywhere. Now I’m reaching a point where every stroke I make sculpting in these areas— the feet and hands, the jawline, the areas of detail on the face— just facets hideously and needs to be corrected with a dozen extra strokes. I think I need to go back and rebuild the base model without all the bad geometry before I’ll get any more useful sculpting practice out of it.


So, I figure for Mk. II, among other things, I’ll want to really define the edge of the jawline on the base model. I think I don’t want to separate the head and body the next time around. I’ll need to experiment and see if it’s better to fill in the eye sockets or not. Sculpting on the thin lids was a pain, but I don’t know if filling them in will be better. Other than that, I’ve got a lot of work to do the next time around to make sure that the topology sucks less in the extremities.



It’s Been Too Long…

Man, letting yourself fall behind is a thing that can really come back to bite you. One day you’re not where you think you should be, so you start putting off posting until you catch up, but you haven’t yet broken the bad habits that caused you to fall behind in the first place so you’re never going to “catch up”…

Or maybe that’s just me.

But, of course, I’m not operating on any sort of deadline. There’s no grade or job on the line if I don’t get this done by a set point. Have I made some poor decisions with how to spend my time? Definitely. Am I actually figuring out how to make organic models, not fear sculpting, and get into a personal working flow several effing years after finishing college? Yes, yes, and, I guess I’m kinda on my way to that last one.

So, when last we met, I had started modeling Libusa from, following the 3dTotal “Joan of Arc” tutorial, and I was freaking out about that tutorial’s apathy towards N-gons (or my own lack of experience with translating whatever Max tools make the N-gons that tutorial generates into a Maya environment, one of the two).

Not long after that post, I went back to square one and found a different tutorial, also from 3DTotal, this one by Jahirul Amin (Part 1 in a series). I don’t know that I can say, looking back through this tutorial, that it’s necessarily better than Joan, since I ended up taking it mostly as guidelines (the tutorial was modeling in individual muscle groups with no intent of sculpting and its associated image plane couldn’t possibly be much more different than the one I was using) so much as I just needed a clean start with Libusa.


Finalized base mesh. I’m already seeing a lot of work that needs to be done for the next model. For every n-gon I avoided, I seem to have replaced it with an ugly diamond quad that’s making sculpting in certain spots a nightmare. I look forward to seeing what I manage to make out of the armpit by the time my Wacom pen punctures my monitor in frustration with the topology there…



Sculpting progress as of tonight. By no means close to done, but I was getting real annoyed with myself for not having posted in so long, so I remembered that a WIP is better than nothing.

Maybe someday soon I’ll stop being the boy who cried “I’m going to start posting on a regular schedule!”