After having been a (more or less) professional artist for a dozen years now, Ive managed to learn a few things. Things I would have saved quite a bit of time and effort had I known them before. Hopefully, one or two of these could help someone before they take as long as I did to figure it out. . . .
1. It seems to me that the secret to any kind of art is repetition, repetition, repetition! For the longest time I thought (like many folks) that artistic talent was somehow like being born with green eyes or a roman nose, inherent, genetic, somehow a blessing that some folks had and some didn’t. Im sure there must be some amount of inborn talent, but Ive also found that all the talent in the world is useless without practice. When I began to seriously try to do Japanese style tattoos I found that the images in my head simply wouldn’t come out of my hand, this was frustrating because there was always a sense that I knew I could do the art but that disconnect fouled it up every time. I began working on drawing these elements in my spare time, waves, dragons, koi, flowers, I would draw every chance I had! It seems like common sense, but it eventually dawned on my dumb mind that the 100th wave I drew was a substantial improvement over the first.
Of course you never really arrive at a point where you can stop practicing and improving, but these days when i need a Japanese wave my hand knows how to do it without much conscious thought. Its like art kung fu, you need to train your talent into an automatic response. In martial arts you repeat a move to the point where you react without thinking , in art you need to train your hand to do the same. Repetition is the way to do that.
2. Its a sad fact that lots of folks in our business use artistic freedom to do shoddy work. Ive seen (and years ago, did) plenty of tattoos of anime limp penis-looking koi, half-assed jesus portraits, undetailed guns, anatomically laughable skulls, sloppy play-doh looking roses, and tons of other objects as tattoos that a little reference would have saved. Reference will make the difference between something that looks sort of right and something that is dead on. The excuse that by just drawing something out of your head is somehow artistically more pure or OK is simply an excuse to be lazy. When I began using reference the quality and look of my work increased dramatically. It still had all my own ‘touches” that make a piece mine, but the whole had an strong foundation and shape and detail that i would have never been able to pull out of my brain alone. We have this notion in our trade that everything we do must somehow spring forth out of our heads as a totally original unique and fully formed image, the reality is that nothing ever happens that way, the world is our reference, only a dilettante or lazy person wouldn’t use it!
Start collecting books now! The internet is a great resource, but I like to print stuff out and create morgue-books of each subject. Often when drawing Ill have 4 or 5 references in front of me, my piece comes out as my vision dictates, but its given much more strength by the references that influenced it. The more reference you have the better your art will come out.
3. How do you really find out what kind of work you do? Ask your friends? Ask your customer? Unfortunately those people want to believe your work is stellar, and they wont have the technical knowledge to make an informed suggestion. The solution? Peer review (a.k.a critiques) is very important to any kind of artistic growth. Critiques are easy to get these days on internet forums and at conventions most artists not in the middle of work will gladly hand out critiques.
The secret to getting a critique is to keep your mouth shut. Period. Listen to what is suggested, even if you later decide to disregard the critique, when its going on just be a sponge, put the ego away and keep in mind that the critique is someone taking their time to try to help you. Yes it hurts to hear what is wrong with your work, but if you listen you will improve quickly.
The long and short of it is that art is, like most things in life, hard work. Dedication and determination will carry you further than a ton of natural talent hampered by laziness.