Learning Art Fundamentals on a Budget

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Christian Bunyan joins us to share his eccentric path in getting an art education on a budget. Plus, the unexpected benefits of mastering these basics—from developing your visual thinking skills, design abilities, and plenty more.

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After coming to terms with the fact that there will always be a near infinite number of artists better than you, the desire for status and praise fades. The work itself becomes enough.

First off, why should you learn art fundamentals?

I ask because plenty of people don’t see the need. I spent years at creative agencies where the preference was for simple, graphic illustration. More complex styles were dismissed as “boring.”

And platforms like Dribbble are full of excellent non-traditional work, so maybe you don’t see the need to learn art fundamentals. That’s okay—I won’t call the Art Police.

Here’s why I wanted to learn them.

Partly because I got tired of claiming that sausage fingers were a “stylistic choice.” Partly because the art I loved displayed a mastery of the basics.

I wanted to be Kim Jung Gi. Moebius and Mignola. So after many years of making images, I studied image-making.

The rest of this post is about how to learn those basics thoroughly and (sort of) cheaply. It’s also about the unexpected benefits of art fundamentals, even if realist inflected work doesn’t interest you.

Years later, and I’m not even close to Kim Jung Gi. And never will be. But maybe my experiences can help clarify your own thinking.

Some obstacles to my goal:

  1. Limited money. I’d just quit my job to go independent
  2. Limited time. My four-year-old son required eight million avocado sandwiches per day.

Both of these points meant a three-year degree at a brick and mortar school wasn’t feasible.

I love you, YouTube, but you aren’t enough.

I’d spent years assembling a DIY art education. Large parts of my childhood were spent copying Judge Dredd comics. At advertising college, we drew all day. Same with my first job as an ad creative—my desk overflowed with ex-trees and N50 markers. While none of this was optimal, I did have some muscle memory built up.

Later, I curated an art exhibition for illustrators from all over the world, and commissioned a contribution from myself (which seems like the ultimate act of nepotism). For this, I bought a bunch of random pens and brushes and turned to YouTube.

I can’t remember what I watched exactly (this is ten years ago), but here’s who I’d recommend today:

Note: For the most part, these channels focus on concept art. However, the advice is universal, whether you’re drawing a half-naked barbarian on a dragon, or a hipster on Zoom.

  • Ethan Becker: Ethan works in animation which means he has to draw quickly. His tips are therefore simple and practical. He also waves knives around and threatens people, which is a lot funnier than it sounds.
  • Marco Bucci: Marco is one of my teachers; his YouTube channel is an excellent place to get started with more complex art theories. Like the man himself, Marco’s videos are friendly and in-depth.
  • Proko: Stan Prokopenko teaches anatomy. If you hear “brachialis” and imagine an obscure dinosaur, this is the place to enlighten yourself.

The University of YouTube got me through the exhibition, plus other personal projects: a blog of “shitty cartoons every Friday,” and a comic called “The Ink Abyss” (which coincidentally featured a half-naked barbarian, but no dragons.)

But there came a point when I wanted more. A merciless white-bearded master to bury me alive and demand I escape using the power of Kung Fu. But with art, not Kung Fu. And also—no getting buried alive.

Wax on, wax off

There are lots of impressive online art schools. Learn Squared, Schoolism, CG Spectrum—the list goes on. At the time, my preference was for the most structured environment: live classes, deadlines, personal feedback, and a semester-based system. The distributed version of a real-world school.

I also wanted a practical form of art education. No fluff. Just a toolbox with which to approach the problem of transferring my brain to paper (or screen). I picked concept art because it’s as efficient as art gets: the mills of Hollywood demand a streamlined workflow.

Concept art fundamentals are art fundamentals. Despite its emphasis on technology, concept art traces its lineage way back. Rodin, Rembrandt, the Golden Age of Illustration, Disney’s Nine Old Men, and—most often—John Singer Sargent. Who’d have thought an Edwardian painter would have such an effect on the designers of busty space ninjas?

It took a week to get over my initial prejudice that online schools aren’t an inferior form of education.

I spent a year and a quarter at CGMA, which stands for Computer Graphics Master Academy. Two courses per semester. In retrospect, that was one too many. CGMA was wonderful. It was also one of the tougher learning environments I’ve experienced, perhaps the toughest. As hard as advertising college, and certainly harder than university.

It took a week to get over my initial prejudice that online schools aren’t an inferior form of education. It’s true that you don’t get the same networking opportunities, but rigor and personal attention are provided at a fraction of the usual cost.

Brief examples of stuff we learned:

  • Perspective. Yes, like High School—one point, two point. But also, how do you set up a curvilinear grid in order to create a vertical pan like at the start of Akira?
  • Painting is not drawing. Is that obvious? It wasn’t for me. I figured paintings were drawings with colors filled in. The essential difference is that drawing means thinking in lines (a whole subject unto itself), and painting requires thinking in shapes.
  • Ellipses. And boxes. And cones. And circles. And more ellipses. I have a meter-high stack of paper next to my desk, mostly covered with third-grade geometry. Primitives are the fundamental art fundamental, the foundation on which all else is built.

Unexpected Benefits

Studying concept art hasn’t made me a concept artist. Yet. But it brought other benefits:

  • I’m a better creative. Concept art developed my design abilities as much as my year of Graphic Design training. That’s because concept art is designing things that don’t exist, but look like they might. Once you’ve planned and rendered a character in 3D, layouts become less daunting.
  • Communication. I’m able to offer more constructive feedback. For instance, I can analyze a shot and explain why it works, or not, beyond “Yeah, great,” or “It just doesn’t feel right.”

There are other, less practical benefits too:

  • Concept art is a way of studying everything. Architecture, fashion, zoological anatomy, engineering, cinematography. How a gun works. How a mammoth worked. Every project depends on reference and research (written as well as visual).
  • Seeing. You acquire X-Ray vision. Or, at least, Super Detailed Vision. Some shadows really do contain purple, just as my teachers claimed. A tree trunk’s texture is clearest in the half-tones. Bony landmarks define how clothes rest on the body. It was all true; I just had to learn to see.

Does that sound trippy? Or New Age? Probably. But it happens to everyone willing to put in the hours.

Mentorships

I’m all in on art education. However, while online art schools are cheaper than brick and mortar schools, they’re still expensive. Each CGMA course cost an average of 699 dollars. Yeah. Ouch.

This meant I had to start acting like a grown-up again. At the same time, I wanted to keep studying so my solution was to seek mentors offering open-ended critiques.

Currently, this means harassing the very talented Marco Bucci (see above). For a couple of hundred dollars, Marco offers hours of paintovers and personalized advice. It’s my ultimate luxury: Avatar-length videos about how to make my art suck less.

Once you’ve gained a familiarity with the basics, a mentor is the way to go.

So, why should you learn art fundamentals? Because all of the above. And also, they’re hard. Really hard. And really hard things are often the most rewarding.

Stepping beyond that cliche, studying art fundamentals had the oddest effect (on me, anyway). They led to an increased capacity for intrinsic motivation. After coming to terms with the fact that there will always be a near infinite number of artists better than you, the desire for status and praise fades. The work itself becomes enough.

One half-naked barbarian at a time.

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About the Author: My name’s Christian Bunyan. Hello. I’ve been in communications since 2001, both with international ad agencies and as an indie. I combine Digital Marketing with design and copywriting. I also spend shocking amounts of money learning stuff only tangentially related to my day job. More me at couldyouchangetheending.com


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