The Modern Artist

September 28, 2008

I’ve been getting a lot of positive and encouraging feedback on my recent Processing animations, which is opening all sorts of doors, both expected and very unexpected types of doors, with some quite exciting projects on the horizon 🙂

But what has occurred to me of late is the means by which an artist can find work these days, how an artist finds the tools to create work, and how they can educate and train themselves with skills in the first place.  I am of course talking about digital artists, in a digital age.

A long time ago, I was in school, and I failed art.  The thing I loved the most in school, I ‘failed’ at, not because I wasn’t any good, but because I couldn’t conform to the curriculum and examination process.  To me art was starting on a blank page with spontaneity, passion and an unfettered imagination.  However, apparently if I wanted to be ‘good’ at art, I had to do lots of preparation work, with nice and neat storyboards with helpful, clearly written comments on my thought process, then I could begin doing art.  Fuck that.

Thankfully by that time, I had fallen in love with my zx spectrum home computer, I could play games, program, create graphics, learn.  From then all my drawing and painting skills migrated into the computer, and my pencil/brush skills faded into redundancy, with no regrets. I can honestly say that the whole of my secondary education (from age 11 to 17) was a complete waste of time, every single day.  In primary/nursery school I learned how to read and write, play and paint without judgement, make friends and chase girls, from then on, to quote Mark Twain, I didn’t let schooling get in the way of my education.

I then went to college, to simply keep myself of the streets, and enrolled in Computer/IT courses, as it was the only thing left to me that I was still interested in and which required no entry qualifications.  Perhaps if I was good enough to get into university, I would be telling a different story, but then again, it would probably have been another 5 wasted years.

College proved much the same for 3 years, but I didn’t know what other options there were, so I made my own.  In 1994, me and a friend from college, both with Atari STs, both avid gamers and geeks, decided to start putting some demos together, he was good at programming, I was good at graphics.  Before long we realised that being in college we were going nowhere.  We dropped out and started our video games company, motivated by raw enthusiasm and self belief, we scrapped and battled for every available bit of government funding, and got some, just enough, to get a small office and get things going.

We had big ideas, and a lot of fun, but alas, to get a games publisher to invest in 2 guys with no track record became impossible.  But along the way, I had trained myself up in 3d graphics and animation, had a 3d showreel, and a load of experience points.

In this business, showreels mean everything, degrees and diplomas mean nothing.   If only I wasn’t forced by law to attend secondary school and instead allowed to start building my showreel at age 11…..

I sent my reel of to various people, and got my first big break at The Nerve Centre , a multimedia/animation centre who had just got funding for a 2d animated feature.  I convinced them I could produce all the environments in 3d, combine it seamlessly with the 2d character animation, add lots of CGI effects, and for good measure, compose the soundtrack.  2 Years later the film was finished, it won awards, and became a major showreel addition for me.  I also ended up training other animators there in a Softimage 3d course.

I got my first taste of cinematic animation and film making, and inspired me to take the next natural step, to conceive and direct my own films, the first of which was ‘Butterfly’, the mini story behind this is here.

This won me awards and acclaim world wide, and brought me to the attention of some of the best commercials agencies and animation studios in London, with whom I worked with for a couple of years, before starting up my own company.

All the money I had earned from my commercial work I put into the film company, we hired a big office space, bought fancy furniture, and had a lot of ambitious ideas to establish a cutting edge film, animation and creative studio.  All we needed was local funding and support to make it work. 

And this is where it goes tits up.  I live in a small backward country called ‘Northern Ireland’,  the renaissance hasn’t reached here yet.

As an example, I had radical, ambitious ideas for feature films combining 70mm motion controlled time lapse and state of the art computer graphics, inspired by non narrative films Koyaanisqatsi and Baraka.  But it just became a long and suffering process to get investment in these sorts of projects.  And after several years I gave up.  We wrapped up the company, I ended up broke, and had since cut all my commercial ties with London.  So I was back to square zero.

To attract commercial work again, I had to rejuvenate myself and my showreel, but over the next few years, limited by proprietry 2d/3d software, I slowly succumbed to a creative drought.  My work is best described as experimental and semi-abstract.  With Butterfly I was fascinated with complex moving patterns, holistic and organic,  self generating procedural animation, in motion and visuals.  But I really had to push the likes of Lightwave 3d and After Effects to the wall to get the results I wanted.  It seemed I couldn’t go any further with even the best 3d/2d animation tools available.  I began loosing interest and inspiration, my showreel become more pedestrian with conventional animated commercial work. 

As the work dried up, I just gave up, found a day job as 3d modeller in an office, and was content to live a ‘normal’ life in the normal world until the end.  As long as the rent was paid, I had no other aspirations.

But then this year I discovered Processing.

After this monumental development in new ways to create my computer art, and with my subsequent animations doing the rounds at the minute, I’m now back to where I was, with some very exciting projects about to happen, which will take things up a notch all together, watch this space.

To get back to the point of this journal entry, I’ve realised how anyone who wants to be a digital artist in the modern age can be created, have their work exposed and ultimately find a career in the industry.  It goes something like this.

(1) Train yourself in the skills you need, get the software you need by hook or crook, there are endless video tutorials and books for just about every piece of software there is.  Can’t afford the software or afraid to use cracked software? Then use open source, it’s free, it’s more powerful than ever, with large user bases and friendly communities to get all the help and advice you need.

(2) Make the time and effort and produce something, set yourself a goal, to create something that will knock people out, anything less is a waste of time.  Don’t just do some tests, go the whole way, punish yourself to create a piece of art, you’ve got a heart, use it, conceive a project and make it the most important thing in life, get inspired, quit college, quit your day job, have the courage, believe in yourself. 

(3) Get it online.  If it’s good, you wont have to do anything more, the viral wildfire of the blogging and linking community will eventually get it front of the eyes of someone with whom you’re ‘destined’ to work with, i.e. producers, film makers, agents, commissioners, entrepreneurs. is a great example of where you should place your creative work to get noticed. 

(4) Sit back and wait.  If nothing happens, go back to step one.  You’ll always get better.

That’s it.  No need for universities, schools, diplomas, certificates, teachers or lecturers, no need for bureaucratic, incompetent film commission bodies, no need to beg at the steps of arts funders,  no need to dumb down your ideas for film financers.

All you need is a cheap affordable computer, open source software, self training, motivation, hard work, and with some faith in the organic, viral principle of the Internet, success will find you.

All of the above are not opinions.  They are simply the facts of how I’ve found success from being brought up in a crappy council estate in east Belfast with only a basic education, in a small backward country blighted with conflict, and where ‘art’ is something that happens in other countries.

Don’t complain about the dark, light a candle instead.

16 Responses to “The Modern Artist”

  1. Glenn, I have to preface this by acknowledging my blatant and open gushing at your inspirational work. I think that you have tapped into a vein that resonates deeply within myself that also might be present in more people than I expected.

    I too had similar experiences with schooling and University, although I instead succumbed to the pressures to succeed. So while instead of dropping out, I muddled through and learned to to excel in an overly rigid and confining academic environment all the while feeling like I was missing something and that the whole system was flawed in some fundamental way. I don’t feel like I learned a lot “academically” at University – but for me it did help bridge the gap into adulthood and provided a lot of non-academic and inter-personal learning experiences.

    When I went to pursue my MFA and a career in Art I took a year to apprentice with an established sculptor in the New England area. Watching him struggle through the politics and “business” of fine art was a enough for me to realize I was not cut out to be an artist in the sense of a “gallery showing” patron of the arts type.

    Your work though has re-inspired me to pursue my art, but to do it on my own terms and under my own definition – not others. Thank you for that gift.

    You have also raised the bar, and your comment “something that will knock people out, anything less is a waste of time” is so spot on. Your work shines head and shoulders above the rest of what is out there, and I have to attribute a large portion of that purely to the time you have invested. There are many talented people in the world, but very few who truly have the courage and determination to really tap that talent. I think you are one of them.


    – Tom

  2. […] autor, en su blog, introduce este vídeo, pero en su última entrada a día de hoy, «The Modern Artist», da unos consejos con los que me he quedado afectado, por su fuerza y honestidad: I’ve realised […]

  3. synthhead said


    Thanks for sharing this – I’ve been very impressed with your videos and I think there’s a lot to be said for your jump in and do it approach.

    It reminds me of what Google has been doing with its software. It jumps in and tries something and then shares it, knowing that it may not be perfect but that just doing it is an important step.

    We also seem to be moving into a new stage of creative software – where anyone can have the technology to make state of the art multimedia. That’s incredibly exciting, and it’s sure to change how we look at art.

    Looking forward to your new projects.


  4. Thanks Tom and Jim.
    I tried to write that objectively, I’m not saying I’m right or wrong about things, I’m just relaying my experience.

    I guess I’m hoping that if someone else in a similar situation reads it, they might get the courage to do the same, against what society tells us is ‘right’ – i.e. you need to go to art college, you need qualifications, you need to be trained by other experts, you need to obtain funding to begin a work of art, you need to harrass every production company/client to give you a commission.

    Technology and the internet has completely inverted this whole notion, it’s empowered us as self learning, self producing, self promoting individuals.

    No matter who you are, whatever walk of life, whatever kind of background, 99% of the time there’s nothing to stop you only yourself.

    On a slight tangent, to give you an example of the kind of nonsense I was up against living in this wee country – when Butterfly was trail-blazing around the world, showing at dozens of the biggest film and animation festivals, winning multiple awards and getting international critical acclaim – it was REJECTED by the all the film festivals here in Northern Ireland, both in Derry and in my own city, Belfast!

    It was at this point I detached myself from ‘being’ part of this country. I was getting success and recogniton world wide, so borders became irrelevant. I’ve since adopted the view of being in a global community, truly. Nationalism is an ugly ego-centric mindset, especially in this place.

  5. davy said

    “All you need is a cheap affordable computer, open source software, self training, motivation, hard work, and with some faith in the organic, viral principle of the Internet, success will find you.”

    >> a bit of talent can be helpful too 😉

  6. I would argue talent is a side effect, caused by the need to express ourselves, caused by the need to understand the world around us.

    Anyone can develop talent, they just need a burning reason for it.

  7. davy said

    a side effect… that’s a very interesting idea

  8. Max said

    Hey Glenn,

    I just want to thank you very very much for this your story of your creative endeavours ;), it resonated for sure.

    I stumbled upon vimeo and there I stumbled upon Metamorphosis and there I stumbled upon this blog post — I love the Internet :D.

    It’s so … relieving in a sense to see that what I kinda always knew somewhere inside myself is experienced by more and more people, like you: That when you step by step can overcome your inner bloackages and parents/society programming just enough to have a more realistic perspective on your abilities and how reality works you can really find someone to pay you (or let them find you, even better now with the Internet :)) to do what you love to do :).

    And everyone has the potential to be creative, because expressing ourselves is such a vital need, I know it is for me and I’m still finding out which way/form of art suits me most, but I know there are literally worlds of creativity ready to be expressed in me, I might need some extra time and trial and error due to social entrainments and psychological blockages, but I’m on it :).

    I like the no-script-ness or however you’D call that proper in english ;D of your shorts and there other-than-ness, quite intrigueing to the mind …

    Anyway, thanks again for sharing your experiences, for me it’s very helpful to have others remind us of certain aspects of reality we’ve learned to negate :):):):):).


  9. Thanks Max,
    You’re so right about ‘parents/society’ conditioning. My parents freaked out when I told them I was dropping out of college. But I think they saw how focused and ambitious I was, and after while relaxed and started to support everything I done.

  10. Nik Rowell said

    Very inspiring Glenn – both your work and this post itself.

  11. Glen,

    That was the best text I ever read, about new artists and new art!
    I am, more or less, in the condition you mentioned, upset and bored, with daily routine boring job, just to get paid… 😛
    I meet graphic programming quite recently, and I got shocked with all possibilities I can do, and get rid of that proprietary tools which “controls”, or at least standardize, my work, and do not give me chance to make my creativity come true.
    Couples of weeks ago, I quit my previous job. Today, after reading your post, I see that I did the right thing. 🙂
    I hope I can make so good job like the ones you’ve been doing.

  12. Eric said

    Hi sir,
    Your post (and the replies) could not affect me more. I’m facing huge decisions right now, one concerning (if / in what) I should continue my studies. One thing is for sure, I’m unhappy with my current math program (for multiple reasons) and things have to change. I need to find enthusiasm in projects which really interest me and drive me to learn (instead of being dragged into studying “only for exams” – which I have been doing exceptionally well until very recently).

    My aspirations are clear, but for some reason I do not seem to listen to myself! Anyhow, thanks again & love your work,


  13. […] Generative Art Application – Zio have a read about glens story here, we seem to have a similar begin on the path to […]

  14. roshanratnayake said

    i only read this now after i stared on step one! thanks so much.. not sure about giving up my day job yet..

    here is my research blog

  15. […] Link: The Modern Artist « Butterfly. […]

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