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If you are on the journey towards learning digital art, you are inevitably also on a journey towards visual storytelling. And visual storytelling is in fact, a universal visual language. But there’s so much to learn, how do you start? What do you learn first? How do you progress? Where is the bridge between theory, practice, and technology?

A beginner learns with excitement and desire to reach the point of creating something visual, a piece of artwork. But very often students focus too much on technical aspects and lose the essence of what they’re trying to achieve. They skip learning the fundamentals because of the impatience of creating more advanced artwork, or because of the flexibility of the digital tools or, the fundamentals may look unappealing somehow.

In this article, I give an overview of the fundamentals of digital art, of any form of visual art, either if it’s drawing, painting, sculpting, photography, animation, film making. Either if it’s 2D or 3D. Because in essence, the artist creates a visual message regardless of the medium and tools. I write based on my experience as a digital art teacher, however, the most significant experience is my self-education, shifting my career from an engineer to an artist, and trying to learn effectively the things that passionate me.

Why getting strong fundamentals? The Reasons.

Did you know that roughly 80% of the info around us comes through our Eyes? through our sense of seeing? Our eyes gather so much information from around us which is then being processed by our brains. What we see creates a great impact on our perceptions.

So when we create art we need to pay attention to the visual message that we sent out to an audience, because art is a Universal Visual Language. It may be an illustration, a poster, a painting, an animated scene, etc … it’s all a visual illusion of “the real” because it gives a “feeling” of our three-dimensional world of perceptions (in terms of form, space, color, light, motion).

So the audience needs to identify with the art, with the emotions generated by the art.

Digital art is vast, it’s a lot of information to assimilate and it cannot be completely separated into learning topics of 2D or just 3D, or divided into specific visual styles.

Things may look independent or singular for an untrained eye, but everything and I mean absolutely everything is interconnected. You just have to identify and learn the fundamentals in order to create diverse and complex results.

Visual art is a balanced ecosystem, things look independent but yet, everything is interconnected.

So here are some good reasons why getting strong fundamentals.

  1. Fundamentals will inspire and motivate you to learn even more.
  2. Fundamentals will make you be in control of your own creative settings.
  3. Fundamentals will give you the determination and confidence to create.
  4. Fundamentals will make you discover the purpose behind your creation.
  5. Fundamentals will give you a great selection of artistic choices.
  6. Fundamentals will not make you feel lost and bored in your craft.

What are the fundamentals? The 6 building blocks.

I believe that the fundamentals must first be learned with a broad and mixed approach. The fundamental rules apply to everything from drawing, painting, sculpting, to animation or photography, etc; and are the same visual storytelling principles with just different tool-sets of manipulation.

Just like trying to learn a new language or learning to play an instrument, in the beginning, you lack the terminology, the concepts and obviously you lack the finesse of the practice. And it’s all-natural! It’s about getting familiar with it.

However, in time and with patience, learning and experimenting with the Basics will really shape your artistic brain. There is a progression and a learning curve like in any other discipline but, with a bit of effort, you should master your fundamentals and take your learning process to the next level.

Here are the 6-needs of knowledge, the fundamentals that apply to the extent of ANY art. I’ll briefly take one by one and explain the key elements.

pyramid in 6 steps showing the fundamentals of making art
  1. Space (Appearance as a 3-dimensional form): shape, volume, proportions
  2. Render (Appearance as emotion and feeling): light, shadow, color, texture
  3. Motion (Action in time and space): time, speed, gravity, inertia
  4. Anatomy (Structure of living forms): muscles, skeleton
  5. Cinematic (Experience is given to an audience): layout, composition, staging
  6. Narrative (Message behind an experience): story plot, characters’ archetype

Fundamentals #1 Space: shape, volume, proportions

Every object or living form is visually defined by its shape, volume, and proportion. It’s all about the feeling of the dimensional space and how we perceive it on a paper or on screen.

  • Understand the feeling of space through the 3 dimensions
  • Understand basic and complex shapes in different perspectives
  • Understand physical construction through the main geometrical figures

Fundamentals #2 Render: light, shadow, color, texture

Color and texture are other visual characteristics that define an object or a living being. But color and light are strongly related to each other and give a whole new purpose to the overall atmosphere. Color plays many roles. It conveys meaning, creates an emotional resonance, and brings unity to the scene or, adds drama.

  • Understand color mixing and color arrangements
  • Understand how color and light work together
  • Understand the contrast given by the play between light and shadow

Fundamentals #3 Motion: time, speed, gravity, inertia

Motion and movement give the feeling of “alive”. It’s all about bringing to life characters or objects in a way that it’s believable, regardless of their appearance or construction. It’s about capturing the mechanics of motion in time and space. Motion is also strongly linked to emotions, the nonlinear motion characteristics of a fast-pace or of slow-paced actions can convey a mix of emotions.

  • Understand the physics involved in a motion
  • Understand the physics involved in human locomotion
  • Understand the relationship between motion and emotion

Fundamentals #4 Anatomy: muscles, skeleton

Anatomy may sound like a hard topic because it implies a totally new terminology. And also the volume of knowledge is quite massive. However, if you deal with character development, it’s important to understand human or animal physical construction. Because construction and motion are depending on each other.

  • Understand the skeleton system and the muscle system
  • Understand the main muscle groups and their role
  • Understand how muscles are attached to the bones

Fundamental #5 Cinematic: layout, composition, staging

Before reaching this point there should be a prerequisite of knowledge because the cinematic scene basically puts everything together. Everything from above blends into one single piece. The main role is to manipulate the viewer’s eyes into looking where you want them to look, so they can follow the story.

  • Understand the overall structure of the image in terms of props’ placement
  • Understand the camera position and camera movement
  • Understand the character’s action in relation to the camera

Fundamentals #6 Narrative: story plot, characters’ archetype

Regardless if it’s one single image, an animated scene or gameplay, there’s always a story behind the visuals. And every story has a character. And the main character is always on a journey of discovering his/her purpose.

  • Understand the plot and how it flows throughout the story
  • Understand the relationship between the characters
  • Understand the message or the resolution of the story

How to learn the fundamentals? The practices.

Fundamentals are learned by practicing the concepts, not necessarily experimenting with a large variety of tools and software. The concepts are hard rooted only by the constant practice of the How.

Therefore, only by focusing on experimenting with the practice you’ll see the best and the rapid results.

“I am always doing what I can not do well, in order to learn how to do it” – Vincent van Gogh (painter, influencer of the modern art)

To give you hands-on exercises on how to practice the fundamentals would be way too large to break them into here. That needs to fit into multiple articles. However, I just briefly recommend “how to” activities:

  • Study the work of other artists, artists that inspires you, understand their “why” and their “how”.
  • Experiment with a variety of activities and mediums such as drawing, painting, photography, sculpting, and modeling.
  • Create variations of the same concept, either if it’s a sketch or a color concept, just explore different possibilities.

Takeaway

To understand and to practice visual arts you need to learn the visual language of communication. And you start doing that by only learning the fundamentals of storytelling. Why? in order to get the momentum of your creation. How? by grasping the same concepts and vocabulary from multiple sources (or fields of creation) such as drawing, painting, sculpting, photography, film making, etc.

This broad understanding of the basics will increase your artistic abilities on high levels. It’s like constructing a high-rise building, you need a structural system, a strong underground-foundation before you start adding up the multiple levels. And after that, it’s just continuous action and exposure.

Strong fundamentals are the secret in transforming a beginner into a confident intermediate artist. Which then with more exposure, the intermediate will become a professional artist.

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Cristina Zoica Dumitru

Cristina Zoica Dumitru

I teach digital art courses online and on-location. My mission is to challenge students to reach their maximum potential for creativity and authenticity.

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