The Proof is in the Pudding: How to Improve Your Art Skills Today

Before I jump into a discussion on the craft of art, I wanted to first say that I studied at a very applied art program (emphasis on the applied!).  This means that it wasn’t as interested in art theory or critical thinking skills, just of making the highest quality (objectively, aesthetically speaking) art that we could, in order to be groomed for working in the entertainment industry (TV, movies, games).  So everything you read from me is going to have this bias attached to it and it by no means covers the whole picture! However, this article is about my picture, so here it is:

As a continuation from my previous blog post, A Message for Students Submitting Art Portfolios, where I discussed what it was like to apply to a very competitive, difficult animation program at Sheridan college, I want to discuss what I’ve learned since I’ve graduated from College, and have set off as a freelancing lone wolf artist into the wild of the job market.  This post is mostly about how to access to skills of higher education without going there.

In the last article I discussed how, occasionally, I’ll work with clients who can’t tell the difference between art that has been “cared-for” versus art that is “uncared-for” and I want to clarify what I mean by this.  Almost all of the time, the difference is passion and craft, and these two are like inseparable best buds. One without the other is almost like having neither at all. Having passion without any craft, or skill with your art, will be endlessly frustrating because you might have the desire to create so much art, but your audience might not respond very well to what you’re making.  

On the other hand, craft without passion, which I’d guess tends to happen more often after graduation from an art program, will make the artwork you create unsatisfying and unfulfilling.  You might be able to get jobs, because your skill-level is high, but your attitude while doing so will make your end products seem lackluster, or not very well thought out. Eventually, your clients will likely get the whiff of this, and stop working with you even though you can make great artwork.

You want both the skills, and the care for applying the skills to the right ends to drive your passion forward.  Sometimes, you may even work with clients, or middlemen/women who don’t care that much about the end-product. In these cases, your boiling passion is what will get you forward - your desire to make the best possible art for its own sake, or for the fulfillment it provides you.  With this attitude, regardless of whether your clients are nice or mean, you will continually bring the same level of care and skill towards everything that you do.

Now, since this article is about skill or craft, let’s discuss that specifically.  How does one get this? Do you simply show up at the “skill” truck parked outside your local city hall and inject several doses of high-level skill into your arms?  No, this isn’t a science-fiction novel, nor has Elon Musk invented this yet. Until that day, and perhaps even after, the best ways to become a wielder of art skills are actually incredibly numerous, and becoming more varied every day.  Things were radically different in my days in high-school, when the internet was still a caterpillar, but now it definitely seems more like a butterfly, at least as far as learning goes.

The days of absolutely needing an art institution are over.  There are still a lot of merits of doing so, beyond just the direction acquisition of craft.  If you’re after the craft alone though, there is plenty more that I would recommend that I never had access to when I was just applying to Sheridan College.  To ease the impatient reader’s angst, I’ve compiled my recommendations into a list with plenty of details (that I’ll be adding to regularly). The rest of this article will discuss how to use each of these powerful tools and lessons.

Garth’s Shameless Self Promotion List

Portprep’s Art Camp!  

Well, I don’t own Portprep, but I’m a teacher with them, and I’m recommending their yearly summer Art Camp for some good reasons.  First, it’s far cheaper and more compressed than taking a whole semester of Art Fundamentals at Sheridan. Also, there is more one-on-one feedback because we only teach small groups of students, usually from 6-15 in a class.  Logistical aspects aside, it’s always a blast; we create the entire pre-production phase of an animated film, which means we make the character designs, backgrounds, props, storyboards, even some concept art. It’s a great holistic process that encourages students to be imaginative and hard-working.  

My online or in-person courses

I’m increasingly teaching courses in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, and also online for students who don’t live local to me.  Some of these courses include gouache painting, digital painting, worldbuilding for stories, and character design. I’m trying to distill everything important that I know into these courses, and so I know that students will find them valuable.

My other recommendations for self-study:

Watts Atelier of the Arts

These traditional art courses are extremely high-quality.  One thing you learn very early on in your career as an artist is that you never actually finish with the fundamental practices of art, such as figure drawing, landscape drawing, or still lifes.  You never graduate beyond these important studies, you just continually get better at them. It is the hubris of the over-inflated, over-confident artist that treats these practices like they’re below them.  I’m still an avid practicer of the work that the Watts Atelier prescribes.

The is a great school online and in-person school (if you’re local to Toronto) that has some great courses with mentor feedback. If you’d prefer to just take a look at the video lectures themselves, you can dive in for a Netflix-like subscription very affordably. A great option if you are disciplined enough to do the work. More specifically, I’ve heard good things about Craig Mullins’ Digital Painting course, and anything by Nathan Fowkes.

This is a great site filled with different tutorials made people (beyond just art alone).  There are plenty of professional artists that post tutorial videos they’ve made on there, usually for a pretty low price too.  Watching and listening to how other artists work is a really great habit to get into. Consider it like your modernized, digital apprenticeship.  However less romantic it may be to remove the part of being able to look over a professional’s shoulder as they work, this is the next best thing.  The advantage to this method of learning is that you have the video or audio saved to your account to rewatch whenever you like. Some great people I’d recommend are:

  • Ty Carter - Visual development artist at blue sky, and has a ton of Gumroad tutorials for digital painting.  Especially useful for those who want to learn more about colour and composition.

  • Jama Jurabaev - A great guy to check out if you’re interested in what the future of concept art for film and games might look like.  Really on the forefront of pushing our art technology to its limits.

Smarter Art School

These are fully fledged online art mentorships that work in the semester-like fashion of being in College.  I haven’t taken any, but I’ve heard good things about them.

Art of Aaron Blaise

Specifically geared towards animation, but there are some painting tutorials too.  They are quite thorough and very passionate about their craft. I especially liked the tutorials on storyboarding, which you can always find easily.

The Society of Visual Storytellers

A lot of great courses on here, and broader than just the entertainment industry.  Also very suitable for aspiring illustrators of kids books / editorial.

  • Sterling Hundley’s Ideation Lab on SVS: I took this course and really enjoyed hearing about his method of brainstorming ideas for an illustration.  This entire course focuses on the problems of coming up with ideas. Sometimes as artists, we’re stuck before we even get pencil to page.  If you resonate with this problem, as most likely will, you might want to look into this course.

The Gnomon Workshop

There are a ton of courses on the Gnomon Workshop, however a lot are geared towards 3d-art and design, so if this is what you’re interested to learn more about, this is a great resource. It can get very technical, but there are also very painterly courses as well, such as Jana Schirmer’s 2D Fantasy Illustration course.

To practice figure drawing on your own, the best way is to attend a local figure drawing session, like the ones I host in Guelph on Tuesday evenings, but if this isn’t available to you because you live out in the boonies, or if this isn’t a common practice where you live in the world, there are some pretty good online options, such as the website Line of Action, and the Youtube channel Croquis Cafe (just keep in mind, the models are often nude, so account for this!).


Another Youtube channel that has a lot of art lessons that are worth having a look at. He is a very thorough, and often a very funny, teacher.  A former students of the Watts Atelier I linked above.

This is a gradually growing list, and is by no means complete.  I will also post a book list in the future, but I think this list already has enough to occupy you for years and years.  Like any tool or lesson, whether it’s digitally received or from speaking to someone in person, it’s all in how it’s applied.  Unfortunately, the dropout rate of online courses is staggering, at around 90%.  However, there are ways you can counteract this.  The first would be to put intentional time every week aside to devote to your study of art.  The more specific you are with this the better, so actually make a calendar of when and what you’re going to be studying.  I’ve found this helps me a lot.

However, what has helped me by far the most is getting a few friends together, and working on the projects together.  For example, you could sign up for the online Watts Atelier, and then gather together as a group, and devote a few hours one night a week to improving your skills.  You could even use Meetup to see if there are any others beyond your initial friend group who might like to join.

As the title of this article states, the proof is in the pudding, and whatever you put in, in time and effort, is what you get out of it.  If you can’t attend an art school, for any of the numerous legitimate reasons, such as cost or location, thanks to the internet there are plenty of other ways.  You just have to make sure you have a good system to ensure that you follow through with your independent study. Accountability is incredibly important!

Don’t feel bad if your effort occasionally wavers, as most of my students’ effort does.  If you have a supportive community, which is what I hope to cultivate in my online classes, then you’re bound to be improving very quickly.