The Importance of Cultivating Basic Skills and Nurturing Inspiration

Of Pixels and Pencils – A Traditional Artist Embraces The Digital World

Someone once asked me if I would consider changing careers someday because, as he put it, computers would eventually make artists redundant. I couldn’t help thinking at the time that he didn’t really understand what it was to be an artist. Blacksmiths and cold metal typesetters have disappeared completely because their jobs could be done more efficiently by machine. But  just because the camera could reproduce a likeness of a subject more quickly and faithfully than someone using a charcol pencil artists didn’t disappear in the late 19th century when photography became ubiquitous. There is a certain magic in every line and tone in a drawing done by a truly skilled and passionate artist. I mention skill and passion because I think great art depends upon the marriage of the two. And as in most marriages there is both harmony and conflict. As artists we must learn to strike a balance between the two.

I have good days and not so good days when it comes to my artwork. Sometimes I get bogged down in technical details and nothing seems to look right. I will throw out work that I’ve struggled with for hours, give my head a shake and start fresh. Sometimes the pieces fall into place or I have to keep resetting my approach. One of the great things about working on the computer is that restarting a piece of artwork is so much easier than when working on canvas or paper. The decision to abort something is easier to make. The difficult thing, for me at least, is to remain sensitive and faithful to the overall feeling of the artwork and not to become distracted by the computers’ beguiling multitude of options.

In my last article I sang the praises of the computer and how efficient it made my workflow. It multiplied my native creative potential and gave me marketing and promotional opportunities that never would have occurred to me otherwise. But despite all the bells and whistles it hasn’t made me a better artist. There are no shortcuts to creating good art; no magic buttons to push to make a composition more pleasing or a gesture drawing more dynamic. The computer is simply a tool to help the artist render their work more efficiently. The actual creative process still originates in the artist’s mind and no machine can take the place of that despite the claims of some who believe so-called artificial intelligence someday will.

Pencil drawing by John Fraser of Mark Maclean, pencil study, pencil drawing, drawing skills, graphite study, personal work
Pencil Study of Cousin Mark

What has made me a better artist over the course of my career is the fact that I have continually improved my basic painting and drawing skills by taking night classes, online courses, reading books or watching instructional tutorials. There is no substitute for basic skills. Just as a writer must first learn how to spell words and then how to assemble those words into coherent sentences we as artists must learn how to compose our own visual language using pencil strokes and dashes of paint. Whether they appear on actual paper, canvas or on a computer screen is irrelevant. The skills needed to create them are the same.

But skill and technique alone are not enough to create great art. Passion, the other half of the equation is a more elusive quest and more difficult to cultivate. All I can say is that I am inspired by my peers and when I see a really fabulous painting or drawing I think “I’d love to do something like that” and it gets filed away in my mind and comes back out one way or another in some future work.

I have always believed that knowledge gives you freedom. If that is true then it follows that an artist who makes a consistent effort to develop their basic skills whether it’s on the computer or not and has made a life-long habit of studying other artists and the world in general around them to garner inspiration will more than likely find success in this rewarding profession.

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