How Artists Work Out Their “Process”

If you’re new to making art or are curious about making art, it can sometimes be strange to read about how artists make their work look like their own work. Often, artists will do very specific things, follow their own rules, use very specific types of materials etc… and you might be wondering “how did they work that out?“.

The simple answer is, of course, “trial, error, circumstances and research“.

For example, most of the techniques that I use in my own art were either the product of experimentation, gradual research and/or looking at other works of art. They are also a product of circumstances too. They make my art look a bit like this preview of a digitally-edited painting that I’ve prepared for next month:

This is a reduced-size preview. The full-size painting will be posted here on the 15th June.

For starters, my rule that “30-50% of the total surface area of each painting should be covered with black paint” wasn’t something that I worked out instantly. I mean, if you look at some of my older art (from back when I made pencil drawings rather than paintings), you’ll see that I don’t always follow this rule.

This is a drawing of mine from 2012. As you can see, less than 30% of the total surface area of the drawing is covered with black pencil. (“Attic Lab” By C. A. Brown
[10th June 2012])

No, I learnt this rule through lots of gradual experimentation, through careful observation of anything that I thought was “cool” (eg: computer games, heavy metal album covers, films/TV shows from the 1980s and 1990s etc…), from needing to make paintings in a hurry sometimes and through just making art that I liked (and then realising that it tended to include a lot of black paint).

Once I’d worked out that there was a rule, I was able to use this technique in a much more thorough and conscious way. Like this:

“Death Takes A Holiday” By C. A. Brown

“Coast Road” By C. A. Brown

Likewise, the current 18x18cm size for most of my paintings has a rather long story behind it. When I started making daily art back in 2012, most of my daily drawings were just under a quarter of an A4 page in size. This was a small area that I felt I could comfortably fill with art every day. When I got a bit more confident, I expanded to half an A4 page and then I’d often make A4-sized pieces. I didn’t really go any larger than A4 both for time reasons and because I worried that I wouldn’t be able to fit my art into the scanner that I use to digitise it.

When I switched over to using watercolour pencils in very late 2013/early 2014, also I switched back to only using half (or less) of an A4 page for a while. This was mostly to conserve the limited amount of watercolour paper, waterproof ink pens and watercolour pencils I had at the time. Of course, once I’d amassed a decent amount of low-mid range art supplies, I could make my paintings a bit larger.

After a bit of trial and error, I think that I eventually settled on the 18 x18 cm size for several reasons. It was small enough for me to make daily paintings and it had the advantages of both portrait and landscape formats, not to mention that the square format meant that the picture still looked fairly clear when automatically resized on the internet. After a while, I started adding 1.5cm black “letterboxing” bars to the top and bottom of most of my paintings. Initially, this was to make my art look more “cinematic”, but it also saved a bit of time and helped me to stick to my “30-50% black paint” rule more easily too.

These are the “standard” guidelines that I draw before making most of my paintings. And, yes, that little square in the bottom corner is for the title graphics for these articles too.

Likewise, most of the digital editing techniques that I used on my paintings after I’ve scanned them were things that I learnt from gradual experimentation and research. Initially, the only thing I really knew how to do was to crop pictures to the correct size. Then I learnt how to adjust the brightness/contrast levels in images. Then I went through a phase of using “blur” effects in all of my drawings (since it disguised the pencil lines slightly) etc…

And, gradually, I learnt how to do more and more. Sometimes, I’d learn by just messing around with the programs that I use and, sometimes, I’d learn through reading about what other artists did.

For example, I worked out how to add realistic skin tones to my art digitally after reading this “making of” article by Winston Rowntree. Initially, I selected each area manually, but then I eventually realised that most image editing programs have tools for selecting larger areas quickly.

Likewise, as I’ve mentioned before, my current palette was mostly inspired by the use of colours in these fan-made “Doom II” levels. But, even this followed several months of occasional experimentation with limited complementary colour-based palettes.

So, yes, an artist’s “process” is usually the result of things like trial and error, practical concerns, artistic research and experimentation. This is why, when you read about how an artist makes their art, it can sometimes sound a bit strange. There’s no standard “one size fits all” process for all artists. We usually have to work it out for ourselves.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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