Published 2017-06-16Carol E. Leever
When I was a kid I 'drew' -- mostly just doodles that always seemed to consist of very tall buildings with massive amounts of stairwells filled with dozen of stick figures being menaced by a giant Godzilla- like monster. Any actual art work I wanted drawn -- I'd get my father to do it. He can draw just about anything with seemingly little effort (of course there was effort - but I didn't get that as a child).
Eventually I tried my hand at actually drawing real pictures. I went to the library and got a book of fairy-tales filled with images of sprites and magical creatures, and I tried to copy the artwork to the best of my ability. A single drawing (always in pencil) took me days to complete. And eventually I stopped -- not because I didn't enjoy it, but because it took so long. I figured if it took me a week to draw a single decent looking thing, I obviously didn't have any natural ability. I assumed that whatever gift people like my father (and my grandmother) had, I had not inherited it.
Then one day, many years later, I saw an episode of The Joy of Painting by Bob Ross. It looked so easy! And I thought -- I'll try again. I bought canvases, brushes and oil paints. I set it all up in front of my tv where I'd recorded a Bob Ross episode. And then I watched, paused, re-winded and painted.
My first painting looked nothing like his -- but it wasn't horrible either. For the next several years, I went through one episode after another -- to this day I still have a closet full of landscapes filled with happy little clouds and happy little trees.
The problem I had was that I was just painting the same things he painted -- mountains, lakes, trees, the occasional woodland shack. I never really got good enough to paint my own things (I wanted to paint dragons, and flying horses, and magical cats battling monsters). And it never really got easier -- I never got to the point where I could whip out a painting in 30 minutes like Bob Ross could. I figured -- well, it was fun, but I don't have any skill at this. Whatever gift he has, I did not receive it. I stopped painting.
Years later, I discovered the phenomena of speed painting on Youtube. I watched in amazement as brilliant artists whipped out the most extraordinary images in minutes using a simple brush in Photoshop or Corel. Most of them were concept artists for video games and movies, and they were drawing exactly what I wished I could draw -- dragons, and wizards and magical creatures in magical lands.
I bought a cheap Waccom tablet with a stylus, opened my copy of Photoshop (I use it for web design) and tried my hand at digital painting. I tried one of the Bob Ross landscapes of course -- that was what I knew best after all. It was terrible. It looked like something a 5 year old would draw. I quit immediately.
But I kept watching those Youtube videos. I kept marveling. And then an extraordinary thing happened. I read the comments on one of the videos -- someone had asked the artist a simple question --- how long did this painting really take you. (I knew the videos were sped up so that they were only a few minutes long -- but I never thought about how long they actually were). The artist answered the question -- 60 hours. One painting, a 12-minute Youtube 'speed painting', had taken this brilliant professional 60 hours to actually paint.
I started looking around more, and discovered that many of these 'speed painters' occasionally put up 'real-time paintings'. These are hours long -- slow, laborious processes that would bore the majority of Youtube viewers. I thought they were brilliant.
I watched one artist paint for several hours and realized that the unrecognizable image -- a blotchy mismatch of gray paint strokes -- looked exactly like something a 5 year old would draw. That's the point where I always gave up. And that's the point that the professional artist was just getting started.
The artist said he hated the first part of painting -- couldn't wait to get to the 'fun' part. The fun part was the next 50 hours of refinement, going over minute detail, tiny strokes and lines for hour after hour after hour until it all finally came together and looked brilliant.
That's when I realized that painting really wasn't any different than writing or programming. It all just takes time to learn.
I tried again. I painted for hours -- and hours and hours. I deleted paintings, started over, again and again and again. And I watched video after video after video -- trying to make up for my lack of formal education in art, trying to figure out how to actually use a stylus, and what on earth does linear dodge, flow, opacity or clipping mask actually mean.
A week later I managed to produce the little cat you see here. It wasn't great, it wasn't easy, but to me it actually looked like something that wasn't just one of Bob Ross's happy little trees.
And I finally got to the fun part of painting -- and yes, I realize that to anyone who isn't a painter, it sounds mind-numbingly tedious to spend hour after hour painting tiny little details. But that's what it takes.
It's still hard, I'm still horrifically slow at it -- the cover art for Night's Gift took me 68 hours to complete. I'll never be one of those professional concept artist I still watch on Youtube or the next Bob Ross. But I can at least draw magical cats and mythical beasts that make me happy -- and that was the point of starting in the first place.