Cover image for blog title on how to become a better self-taught artist

What is self-taught, exactly?

– want to be better at it?

In this article, we’ll look at how to customize a learning plan to reach your aspirations whether you are a beginner, hobbyist, or striving to grow as an artist full-time.

Thoughts on the term “self-taught”

Some say to be self-taught means to teach yourself without the aid of educational or instructional resources.

I think of self-taught as someone who has honed skills and grown knowledge by managing their own learning.

Using the expression “self-taught” can raise an emotional debate. The term is interpreted in a wide range of nuances holding different meanings for some and others.

Most will agree that it means “figuring things out for ourselves” however HOW we go about figuring things out is where the friction starts.

How to customize a learning plan to reach art goals

For this reason, I prefer to use the term “self-directed learning”. From my viewpoint it holds the same meaning as self-taught, however for clarity let’s define it as an approach where we:

  1. make the effort to identify our own learning needs,
  2. set learning goals,
  3. find appropriate resources; and
  4. a reliable way to:
    • assess our knowledge and skills, and;
    • to gauge progress towards goals.
Approach to self directed learning

Limitations to self-directed learning

Without a prescriptive structure or external guidance to rely upon, managing our own learning requires discipline coupled with a good dose of motivation in order to sustain our progress in a positive direction.

As well, it can be daunting to discern:

  • what to learn
  • how to learn it
  • how to gauge our progress 

So how do we get past these limitations?

It may seem like obvious common sense but before we can identify our learning needs, the first step is to define the desired outcomes.

First determine your desired outcomes

Step 01 – Your vision for the future

Start with the end in mind because knowing where you want to go with your art will help determine the path to get there.

Hobbyist or professional? Are you exploring potential revenue streams for your art as a business? Or want to grow for personal development as a hobby?

For the purpose of this example let’s say that we’re aiming for somewhere in the middle because that’s where I was.

In the summer of 2020, I started doodling and people said “Hey, you’re pretty good”. Encouraged, I signed up for random online drawing tutorials and practiced two-to-four hours a week.

A year later while completely disengaged in a Zoom meeting for work, I noticed that my notebook was covered in (even better) doodles. I got curious … How far could I take this?

I started daydreaming about having the freedom to spend more time doing art. To get there maybe I could:

  1. sell my drawings online or illustrate a book?
  2. table at artist alley on weekends at Comic-cons?
  3. accept commission work on the side?

These ideas lingered in my head for another year until I decided to write them down as concrete outcomes to strive for.

Mind mapping a vision for becoming a professional artist illustrator

Take a few minutes to reflect on your top-of-mind desires.

What have you been wanting to do? What would doing art accomplish for you and others, what would be the purpose?

Visualize a clear picture in your mind of what you aspire to strive for. Imagine, if there were no obstacles to realizing your outcomes … what kind of artist would you be?

Next, write down two-to-four concrete outcomes.

Using those ideas as the framework of where you want to go, we now have a vision for the future.

Step 02 – Current state

Where are we now, what is the gap? What skills and knowledge are required to:

  1. act on that vision 
  2. achieve our outcomes

That’s when I assessed my work with a critical eye. I didn’t have a portfolio. I, therefore, flipped through my doodles, sketchbooks, and projects, and took note of:

  1. what I did well and
  2. what needs improvement

Then specifically, looking at my best artworks, on a scale of 1 to 5 (1-beginner – 5-expert)

  1. how does my current level of skill in this drawing compare to the level in my vision?
  2. how does my level of knowledge compare to the works of my Art Heroes?
  3. how well do I execute each of the art fundamentals?
    • example: shape language, composition, visual story-telling, perspective, lighting and shading, mark-making techniques… etc.
Assess current state to determine future outcomes towards vision

Review your most recent artworks or the top three that you are most proud of. Aim to select projects that each took about the same amount of time to execute – meaning compare sketches to sketches and finished art to finished art.

Go through the list of questions. Once you have noted the specific things that you desire to improve, these then become your learning needs.

Since my aspirations were beyond a hobby, I also looked at my process.

Was my workflow effective, how consistently did I practice, did I do warmups? What about my setup? Are the supplies I use of adequate quality? Would upgrading the lighting in my space have a significant impact?

If looking to become a self-employed artist – what other gaps in skills or knowledge need to be addressed in order to earn a sustainable income with your art?

The learning needs will differ depending on your desired outcomes. You may opt to focus primarily on growing your art skills. Or decide to align your efforts into turning that hobby into a career.

Your answers to these questions will then provide direction for setting specific learning goals.

🎨 Feel like shopping for art supplies? Visit my Tool page to see what I use in my studio.

Step 03 – Learning goals

It’s best to refine our learning goal, using the SMART method

Specific: To grow my art skills & knowledge to the level where I can:

  1. sell my drawings (originals, prints, merch)
  2. illustrate a book
  3. exhibit at conventions, art fairs, galleries
  4. earn a consistent income with my art ($X amount/per year)
  5. measurable: in terms of the tasks to achieve those outcomes:
    • complete one 200-page sketchbook within one year
    • produce two finished projects of 20 hours each per month
    • self-assess my work against the Fundamentals, bi-monthly
    • optimize my workflow to gain 30 mins back per day
    • read 5 relevant books or/and complete an art-business course program this year
    • find a mentor

Achievable: ensure that you have influence over the outcomes. For example, to reach a set number of original drawings sold or to be accepted into conventions are things I don’t have full control of – but I do have control over how many hours of practice I can invest.

Relevant: double-check that your measures of success are directly related to bridging the gap from your current state to the desired outcomes. Otherwise, they are either irrelevant or relevant but not a priority to succeed in your vision.

For example, completing a 200-page sketchbook is only relevant as a measure if it is filled with drawings that help me advance toward my vision. I’m not saying that mindless doodling has no purpose, only that it has a lower priority compared to a task that brings me closer to realizing my desired outcomes.

Time-bound: Set a schedule and milestone dates for completing each task. This helps track progress and also serves as an opportunity to revisit goals should they no longer be relevant due to changing circumstances, a misjudgment of your learning pace, or personal capacity.

Using the smart method to set goals made managing my own learning a lot easier. I found that having concrete, time-bound, well-defined tasks, helped keep me disciplined and motivated.

Setting SMART goals to achieve desired outcomes towards vision to become a full time artist

Step 04 – Learning resources

When I assessed my art, some of the needed improvements were:

  • anatomy/proportions
  • lighting and shading techniques
  • composition
  • cleaner mark-making, linework   

From there I looked for learning resources in those content areas.

Starting with a web search on “learning proportions in human anatomy” to see what came up, I then clicked on the top results to view their course curriculum.

Also, when searching for books online, if you’re able to peek inside at the table of contents – the listed topics are ideal for learning activities. Otherwise, there is always the local library if peeking inside eBooks or samples are unavailable without a purchase.

Here is a sample Table of Contents from Arthur L. Guptill’s classic Rendering in Pen and Ink, which has long been regarded as one of the most comprehensive books published on the subject of ink drawing.

This is how I built my curriculum and at the same time gathered relevant resources. However, be wary of rabbit holes. I got sidetracked by enticing tutorials and bargain sales but was saved by my SMART goals. Fun but unrelated topics got filed into a low-priority folder.

I mentioned finding a mentor. In my long-time corporate career, I regularly had mentors and benefited greatly as a result. The organizations I worked for had formal mentorship programs which made the process more accessible. Now, as a self-employed artist matching my needs to the right (and affordable/available) mentor has been more challenging. Admittedly I’m still searching.

Sometimes, we just need a quick tip. To validate my search efforts, I conducted information interviews. I reached out to professional artists (whom I found on LinkedIn or follow on Instagram) asking for their advice on the resources I was considering, and if they could recommend anything else they found worthwhile. As well, when I was accepted at a Comic-con for the first time, I reached out to the same artists for their advice for my table setup.

📚 BTW: want to know more about how to sell your art at Comiccon? Read that article NOW.

Now that we have all the pieces, let’s assemble our learning plan.

Determining learning needs to create a learning plan for artists

05 – Learning plan

Below is my learning plan and HERE is the PDF version that includes a blank template.

At the top is the vision of the future, where I want to go. Underneath is the current state, where I’m starting from.

Learning plan for artists

My learning needs become “lesson topics” for my custom learning curriculum. From the results of my search on those lesson topics, I then created areas of study that become modules. I created three modules however you can have as many as is manageable. Also noted are the hours of study/practice to aim for.

Curriculum for Artist Learning Plan SAMPLE

For each module are learning activities. Some of these are the measurable and achievable tasks that we established from our SMART goals exercise. Anticipate that you will modify these tasks as you progress.

For example, if as part of your learning resources, you opted to take online courses or purchased a workbook with exercises, there likely will be assignments or projects. These can be integrated into your curriculum as learning activities and outcomes.

Learning Activities for Artists Development

With this approach, the triage of information becomes pretty straightforward. Once you’ve achieved all the tasks in your learning plan, you can go through the cycle again and increase the challenge essentially learning anything you set your mind to, which I found really motivating.

Watch the companion video for more examples.

NOTE: The examples used in the learning plan template discussed in this article (HERE) differ slightly from the examples discussed for the template used in my YouTube video on the same topic. The principles and steps remain the same.

Best of luck customizing your learning plan using this five-step approach. I hope that it will be helpful for reaching your aspirations – whether you are a beginner, hobbyist, or striving to grow as an artist full-time.

Want more?

Visit the DOWNLOADS category to browse learning resources.

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6 thoughts on “Five steps to becoming a better self-taught artist”

  1. This is just terrific! I am thrilled for you, you must be very proud of what you’ve achieved! (What you’ve achieved SO FAR, that is!)

    Here’s my favorite part…”In the summer of 2020, I started doodling and people said “Hey, you’re pretty good”.”
    I agree.

  2. I am totally “gobsmacked” by your art and the wealth of tips you have been kind enough to leave for us. I’ve been visiting you for quite a while … Your NEW – Awesome Sauce Website totally rocks. I just wanted to THANK YOU!

    1. I’m so happy that you like the new website and the blog. I’ll be publishing pen and ink content here regularly, so be sure to visit again. All the best with your art projects, Georgy!

  3. I absolutely love your artwork. I start with pen and ink two months ago and was totally lost and did not really know how to start. I also want to do birds. Thank you for all your amazing YouTube videos and for taking the time to do that. I am learning a lot through them.

    1. That makes me really happy to hear Aurelia! Glad that the videos and the posts are helpful in your new pen and ink adventures!

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