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 ūüôā

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.¬† Vimeo.com 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.