Browse the wiki

Becoming a Better Artist #1001: Observation. Analysis. Practice.

"There is no secret ingredient"

A comment I hear from students (and professionals alike) goes like this:

“I’ve seen this dude’s work, and oh wow, it is awesome! I wish I was as good as that. And this dude’s work too. And check out this link, and this link, and this link. They’re amazing. I’ll never be that good though.”

Clicking on the links they send, it’s usually true; the work is amazing.

  • The understanding of anatomy in the models; of bone, muscle, tendon and fat – beautiful.
  • The attention to detail in the shaders; the corrosion of the metals, the dirt on the plastics, the micro detail in the skin – incredible.
  • The subtlety of movement in the animation; the timing, the weight, the gesture – inspiring.

For example, this Evil Ryu project by Jonathan Reilly:

They usually follow the above comment with something like this:

“I wish I knew how they did it. They must use some really good software. I bet you can only do that in that software, and I bet it is quite expensive. And I bet they have a really good machine.”

My response to such a conversation can usually be summed up in 3 words:




And I usually follow up with something like this:

“If you want to be as good as those artists, you need to go out and study anatomy, understand materials and light, go to some life drawing classes, shoot some photography, get a magnifying glass and get knee deep in the mud and study the world around you. Looking at images online can be very helpful and sometimes there is no option, but there is no substitute for real-world reference.”

If you want to be that good, go out and observe, analyse and then practice. Because if you do not know and understand something, you will never be able to capture it in your work, and you cannot then push the boundaries to create new, imaginative characters, worlds and stories. Attention to detail is super important. You may not be able to articulate why someone else’s art is so awe-inspiring but I can pretty much guarantee that the artist has taken the time to analyse and understand the subject matter. Heck, Da Vinci was digging up bodies and dissecting them to gain a greater understanding of what lies beneath the skin. By the way – please don’t go out with a shovel and do that!

What I’m trying to say is that if you intend to become a better artist, you need to look beyond a series of images you’ve found online. You need to read books, explore the world, study architecture, engineering, do experiments with light, dance, cook, and more. This is a book I like to flick through: 50 Physics Ideas You Really Need to Know by Joanne Baker.

If you want to get into animation, check out Newton’s law of motion. If you are a fan of rendering, check out Maxwell’s equations or Planck’s law. If you are into FX, check out Huygen’s principle. Not only will you learn a bit of science to complement your art (and the two do go hand-in-hand), you’ll also get a bit of an understanding behind many of the buzzwords in CG.

And here’s the thing:

You may not like what you’re producing right now but stick with it and see what happens. If you stick with it, you will get better. The only person you need to be comparing yourself with is the person you see in the mirror.

And if you observe, analyse and practice consistently and with dedication, you’ll see the progress. But you need to put the work in; nothing comes for free (other than kindness).

No traditional/digital tool or button will ever make you a better artist. The right tool will make things more efficient to get the job done, but there are NO magic buttons, or as Po’s father Mr Ping would say:

“There is no secret ingredient”.

Kung Fu Panda, Dreamworks Animation, 2008

Just good old practice makes you BETTER (not perfect). Through practice, you will get better and better, and better. So get out there, experience the world around you, and then put bring that experience into your work.

We’ve gone from painting on the walls of caves to creating full digital environments in VR. Technology and the tools will always change, but your sternocleidomastoid muscle? That’s been around a while, and I am sure that we are not due a version update any time soon.

Leonardo da Vinci (Vinci 1452-Amboise 1519) The superficial anatomy of the shoulder and neck; The muscles of the shoulder c.1510-11 Pen and ink with wash, over black chalk | 29.2 x 19.8 cm (sheet of paper)

Continue the Conversation

If you have any thoughts or comments on the topic, drop them below or join us on the CAVE Academy Discord to continue the conversation.

Support CAVE Academy

Here at CAVE Academy the beauty of giving and sharing is very close to our hearts. With that spirit, we gladly provide Webinars, Dailies, the Wiki, and many high-quality assets free of charge. To enable the team to create and release more free content, you can support us here: Support CAVE Academy

Leave a Comment

Support the CAVE Academy Wiki

Helping others through learning and sharing