Many designers stumble into the web industry from a fine arts background. Working commercially is a natural progression for artists – not only does it make for a reliable income, but you have the pleasure of making something useful for a wide audience. Furthermore, both art and design draw on many of the same concepts and we artist/designers are often able to incorporate our art skills into designs and illustrations.
Sometimes, however, the inspiration behind creating original artwork is missing from the design process, especially when cranking out content-managed websites or banner campaigns. A return to artistic roots often becomes an unavoidable want, and for me, such an instinct meant deciding to paint thirty portraits in three weeks during a trip back home. What surprised me was how much I discovered portrait painting could actually make me a better graphic designer.
Robert Henri, an American portrait artist, advised his students:
Work with great speed… Finish as quickly as you can… The most vital things in the look of a face… endure only for a moment.
It is true that a portrait sitting has a limited length of time. Similarly, working quickly on a design to put down the most integral elements first will allow for more meaningful critiques and collaborations throughout the process.
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
Your work doesn’t have to be exactly right. It just has to feel right. Capturing someone’s likeness, like designing a website, will never be absolutely perfect. Getting it out there is often more important in terms of receiving feedback and iterating your way toward a better end-product.
Know Your Tools
Nothing slows a portrait painter down like having unfamiliar or the wrong tools, and there is lots to know; artists must know how to mix skin and hair colors, how their brushes make certain shapes or textures with the paint, and the different results depending on the kinds of paint and surfaces. Similarly, knowing how certain Photoshop or Illustrator tricks can affect an image will certainly influence the integrity of a final design. Try to gain experience with these tools early on and learn your own process intimately. This will result in better work later down the road or during those time-crunch projects.
Tell a Story
While back home I visited the Life Stories exhibit at the Orlando Museum of Art whose curator had written:
“While a portrait can be admired for its skilled rendering of a likeness or an inventive presentation of its subject, it is the underlying life story that often makes the work memorable.”
True! The story behind a portrait is what draws the viewer in. Web designers too should strive to reveal their content in an interesting way.
Tell the Story that Isn’t There
When looking at a portrait, art critics are often interested in what is just outside the frame; what is not explicitly shown can say much about a piece’s historical or stylistic context. This effort to understand is part of the process that makes an experience worthy of sharing.
Web designers can make a user think by leaving something out or only halfway visible. When it comes to content development, question clients and dig deep to discover the hidden or little-known facts about a project so that you are able to reveal something new. Certainly a site should be easy to use, but the content should also remain complex enough to retain intrigue.
Don’t Reinvent the Wheel
Many artistic techniques are tried and true. In art schools when drawing or painting a figure, artists are taught to first draw a body’s general shape and structure to determine the correct proportions. This makes every subsequent action easier and usually prevents having to repaint entire areas of the face or body. In design, teachers advise the use of a grid to determine a layout’s proportions, another taught technique. There is a value in learning from others’ experiences, so ensure that if and when you decide to buck tradition, you aren’t doing it to the detriment of your work, or out of ignorance.
Your Client is the Subject
A good portrait reveals its subject according to their personality. Effective designs, too, will focus on project requirements, established goals, and the clients themselves. Keeping these objectives front and center will make your work more interesting and relevant, and will ultimately provide better solutions for your client.
While portraits have a long history and plethora of influences, an individual portrait should be unique. Why? Because a subject has a unique personality and needs, same as the client for which you are designing. Your work will undoubtedly be influenced by its place in history, but when possible, veer away from trends and other replicable ideas that have little to do with your subject matter. It can be difficult to let go of an attachment to a particular style, but cultivate the nerve to try something different and you will grow as an artist or designer.
Don’t Avoid the Ugly Parts
Avoiding unusual features in portraits (things like moles or bad haircuts or extra weight) is fairly easy to do; you simply act like they aren’t there. You come to find at the end of the sitting, however, that it is those features that make people look like themselves. Designers also see ugly parts of designs or even of clients’ businesses, but ignoring these issues is only putting off the problem for later on or someone else, which is not exactly great work ethic. Instead, deal with problems now. See if you can make those ugly parts more attractive by the way you frame them, or better yet, try to cut them off at the source. You may not be able to fix everything but you can certainly have peace of mind knowing that you tried.
Take a Moment to Reflect
Working quickly on a portrait (or on a design) requires a moment to step away from the canvas (or screen) and self-critique. I cannot stress enough the importance of this pause. Take time to back away and observe the bigger picture. It is during these moments that some of your greatest insights about your work will occur.
The Last Ten Percent
The final throes of a painting or design project are often the hardest, but following through will set your work apart from everyone elses. In painting, an artist that pays attention to the edges of a canvas or to choosing the perfect frame will have a more marketable finished piece. Similarly, completing the last bits of a design project – perhaps the final quality assurance or code cleanup – will make it a better piece for your portfolio and thus more likely to be shared with prospective clients.
Design, like portrait painting, gets easier the more pieces you finish, and practicing good habits along the way simply streamlines the process. But more than this, perhaps the most revelatory thing you can do to improve your design skills is to be open to learning lessons from unexpected endeavors.