Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Do artists need to learn non-computer skills?

D. Peters asked: "Ok, random question. A bunch of art teachers are debating whether or not learning how to use a ruler and how to draw things to scale is still a needed skill for today's artists. Some argue that with technology, we no longer have the need to learn how to scale up or down by hand. Others say that even with the technology, there is still a need for artists to learn how to draw and shape to scale by hand. Opinion?"
Jeanette in my basement studio, which I occupied 1985-1991
My answer: I feel nearly all practical skills are worth learning, even if a computer can do them more efficiently. The more skills you master, the stronger you are as a person and as an artist. Consider, by way of example, the skill of mental arithmetic. If you can accurately add a column of numbers in your head, you will use the skill all the time, even though that function is readily mechanized by calculators.

I suppose teachers of art rightly worry about which skills are more worth teaching than others, given the limited time they have to prepare a group of graduates for the real demands of a job marketplace. Most art teachers I've asked about this question have told me that both traditional skills (such as perspective) and computer skills (such as Google Sketchup) are worth learning, but the problem is the limited class time available to teach it all. Many digital animation studios want animators who have some training in hand-drawn or stop motion animation because it gives their digital work more grounding.

The path of learning is different when you are teaching yourself. You will teach yourself whatever skills you need to match the demands of a given project. Project-based self-teaching is fueled entirely by your personal obsessions. It may lead you to a rare mastery of a forgotten art, such as ornamental glass art. 

In this new Internet economy, the people who succeed are those who—lured by the happy demons of curiosity—learn a suite of skills, including both digital and traditional skills, that makes them different from anyone else, and thus indispensable to society. And because we're human, we might wish to learn skills that have no immediate practical value whatsoever, such as juggling, piano playing, wood engraving, or knitting. 

Such learning, I believe, is at the core of Adam Savage's Ten Rules for Success.

23 comments:

Drew said...

For myself, I've found that the practical skills translate over to digital applications but the reverse is rarely true. An example is learning how to sculpt traditionally before I jumped into Zbrush and started to make dinosaurs for fun.

Another thing I've noticed (again, just within my own experience) is that when it comes to learning digital tools it's really just that - learning the tool. I can figure out Sketchup within an afternoon to a competency level where I can meet most of my needs for that program, but the principles and understanding of perspective are definitely not taught to me as well. Same with other programs like Photoshop, 3DSmax, etc.

In the end, I feel it pays to learn the traditional methods first. The biggest hurdle to many digital programs is just learning the workflow and how to do things. After that, there is some digital specific things that you need to be mindful of (document resolution, colorspace, rendering/lighting settings) but ultimately it comes down to having a trained eye and knowing what you're looking for, instead of letting the tool guide you.

David Glenn said...

While advancing in new skills is good I think it would still be good to be able to use old skills as well. If something happens to the computers and we lose the ability to do things other than type with our hands we'd be in big trouble.

Abraham Evensen Tena said...

In measuring for proportions and learning the rules of perspective, I've learned that knowing how to do that for myself allows me to quickly and expressively brake the rules. If, for example, I see someone in the train that's interesting to draw and is 6 heads tall, to say something, I can, on the fly, decided to make him 4 heads tall for characterization. If I see an interesting perspective, but I want to exaggerate and make it a fish-eye view, I can do it on the moment, rather than wait until I upload a photo and manipulate it in Photoshop.

While the results on 3D and 2D programs are impressive and cut production time, traditional skills open a world of possibilities when inspiration strikes, which is rarely sitting in front of the computer: beautiful people, places and objects in the real world move me to draw, and those tend to be outside, away from the computer :)

kravmaga chennai said...

Technology is just a facilitator.
It CAN'T make a non-artist into an artist.
Having said that, it CAN make an artist into a better artist.

Aaron Becker said...

Though I use the computer nearly every day in one form or another to help create my art, I have to say it wasn't until I decided to go back to school to learn basic drawing principles that I was able to use any of these digital tools for the sort of image making I wanted to do. That said, I've seen younger students these days who are learning these fundamentals within the digital realm, so at some point, it becomes a question of generational differences. There will always be amazing talent and artists - the tools are changing, as they have for millenia. After all, it wasn't long ago that oil painters were limited to earthy pigments and I'm sure most of us would cringe at having your rich blue pigments snatched away!

Keith Parker said...

Excellent post for discussion!

I've heard that a lot of digital artists are criticized for not learning traditional skills or using a traditional approach. I think that's honestly rediculous.

Here is why: even if an artist never painted in oils or water color they all have some amount of traditional art background. That may well change in the next twenty years, but I've never met an artist working today that didn't doodle in a paper sketchbook with a physical pencil. And most all of us have used markers and crayons as children. So even if a person is all digital now. I suspect they are still building on a traditional foundation. And even if the medium is different most all the same concepts apply. There is no "make awesome art button" on my computer.

And I can honestly say sometimes rocking the pencil, or busting out the oils is honestly more fun because of its simplicity. Somtimes doing the problem solving on your own can be its own reward.

Matthew Kalamidas said...

I can't believe Mr. Kooks was a cat!

Paul McCall said...

When I taught basic drawing at a local trade school/trying to be a university I had to teach in a computer lab classroom. Every semester one or more student would ask why they have to learn this "crap" (or words tho that effect, usually worse) when there were computers there. What they meant was why learn how to use a pencil and paper to sketch out ideas and particularly scaling with the grid method (which they dearly hated! I gave them a very detailed Jack Kirby Captain America line drawing to scale up).
I gave them these scenarios which I had encountered in my career as an illustrator;
You are in a restaurant with a potential client pitching your solution to their problem. There's no room for a laptop (there were no tablets back then) you only have the napkins and a pen to get your ideas across. Or, you are in a boardroom in the same situation and there is a power failure. The client insists on you continuing your presentation and moves to the large windows for light and you only have your sketchbook and pencils. Get the job!

Matthew Sample II said...

As a digital artist, I find that I use the manual skills of proportion, smoothtoning, color theory, composition, etc. all the time. They are often just subsets of the skills of observation, judgment, and draftsmanship. When we learn completely on the computer, some of these skills-behind-the-skills get lost in the translation. It's easy just to press a button and watch the computer magic. In fact, knowing those skills, I'm often tempted with just pressing a button and watching the computer magic. And I often regret those decisions.

Katana Leigh DuFour said...

DEFINITELY.

If teachers are running out of time - provide the information on a handout and say 'explore on your own time.'

I have plenty of time - it's getting access to the teaching and having a direction that is the most important part of teaching. I've spent HOURS drawing in a drawing class with little to no feedback from teachers. ...

other teachers, such as my prof D Koenker in Emily Carr - would look at my work and go THIS IS WHAT YOUR PROCESS IS MISSING. And even if I didn't clue in right away that is what made the difference.

I agree with Drew - I can figure out Photoshop from online tutorials but learning a good process is vital.

Keith Parker said...

So yes in general. And also yes, to the more specific question of using a ruler. Computers are great for how they allow for easy editing...they are also harder to get it right on to begin with, so that editing is needed more. But being able to change something indefinite times is not that great if you don't know where you are going with the changes.

mdmattin said...

I do think it's valuable for computer artists to learn traditional skills, especially if, as is usually the case, the art work being done is still based on traditional forms.
Beyond that, I think it's even more valuable for computer artists to understand their digital tools, so that instead of thinking in terms of pressing buttons or magic, they have at least a basic understanding of how digital graphics are constructed, what algorithms all those filters are applying to the pixels, etc.
Matthew

John N said...

I do both digital and traditional art. Learning traditional techniques has made me faster at the digital art. I spend less time manipulating things after the fact because, when you paint or draw, you learn to put it down right so you don't have to futz with it. I think it's possible to learn art through digital media, but I think there is something to be gained by working on a single layer with no undos.

hena said...

As a knitter, I cannot agree that knitting has "no immediate practical value"!

James Gurney said...

Hena, yes, of course you're right. I couldn't survive the winter without the hats and sweaters my wife makes me. I guess I meant that most people choose to knit for other than purely pragmatic reasons, given the time involved and the cost of wool compared to the cost of machine-made woolens in the stores. Even in preindustrial societies, where everything was made by hand, people took pride in developing their hand skills beyond what was purely necessary for function, and that's one of the glories of being human.

Jude Jackson said...

I think, in emphasizing the importance of traditional art skills versus digital art skills, you neglected the importance on non-art-specific practical skills, such as programming or carpentry. Any skill you learn in practice will open up new artistic possibilities, whether it's simple batch programming or generating whole procedural landscapes, or it's building a simple camera stand or constructing an elaborate marionette.

Daniel said...

"demons of curiousity" - that's a marvelous turn of phrase, and I'm going to use it as often as possible.

Back to the subject - I think there's just something about the immediacy of pencil and paper that makes them unbeatable for sketching out ideas (they're also the ultimate in portability and reliability; you can leave them in your pocket or bag and they'll be there whenever you need them, which no digital system can match)

Eileen Novy said...

The woman who owns the gallery where my art is shown has so few skills other than being able to paint in a particular hard edged style that doesn't express her talent fully. Because she is clumsy at filling nail holes or even removing sticky back ID cards without destroying them it costs her a lot in card replacements and professional painters and other skilled trades people . I believe every artist should be part handywoman, graphic artist, inventory keeper,etc....and computer skills are essential too ( for making your own business cards if nothing else). They all work together to give you a better chance at being a self-sufficient, and resourceful.

Eileen Novy said...

If one wants to be a self-sufficient resourceful artist then not only are computer skills necessary but so are handiman skills and business management know how. The artist who owns the gallery my art is at didn't even know enough to deduct cheques as she made them out. Instead she waited until they were cashed and there was no longer enough in the account to cover them!

Dustin Wilson said...

When I was in college getting my graphic design degree we were required to take many studio classes, and we awesomely had a few electives we were able to take that could be anything as long as they were art courses. I chose for two of them to take painting classes, and of everything I did those four years those were the most useful. Learning actual oil painting is more than practical when doing digital painting. Computers are indeed just a tool, but considering there's very little difference between holding a Wacom pen and a paintbrush there's benefits to learning analog methods. I don't oil paint anymore because I don't particularly enjoy the mess that comes with it, but I take a sketchbook everywhere with me.

Rivkah said...

There's something to be said about learning to draw or paint without the benefit of an undo button.

Craig Banholzer said...

"Do I need to teach my child to walk, even though sitting behind the wheel of a car is a much more efficent way to get around?'

Karen Bowden said...

An article by Laura Busche was posted recently talking about sketching and how it takes her "designs to the next level." http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2013/10/10/things-you-can-accomplish-with-hand-sketching-doodling/ "Hand-Sketching: Things You Didn’t Know Your Doodles Could Accomplish"