The Cult of Mastery

A few days back Rembert Montald gave a talk at a Discord server I’m in. Rembert works at Riot Games as a Storyboard Artist and shared his methods and techniques for drawing human anatomy.

Rembert is an amazing artist and I don’t want to discredit anything he said or believes. Life is different for everyone and we all take different lessons from it, Who knows, I might change my mind about the following ideas in a few years down the road.

That said, during his talk I recongised an attitude I notice in more artists working at AAA studios in film, games and animation, which I’m going to dub ‘the cult of mastery’ from now on. Rembert told us he didn’t feel ready for the industry yet after graduating from art academy, and wanted to continue his studies before trying for a job. He moved to Croatia because of cheap living, got a part-time job to survive and devoted the rest of his time to study and practise. He even hired a private teacher to improve his anatomy knowledge.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, it’s actually pretty remarkable if you decide to improve your skills on your own: it takes a lot of discipline! A lot is said about the disconnection between art academy courses and the industry, especially the entertainment industry – the vast majority of artists I know have learnt their technical skills online and by themselves instead. Secondly, as anybody in a creative field, perhaps really everyone, should be prepared to keep honing your skills during your professional life. You better like to learn new things!

What irks me though, is that a lot of these artists somewhat promote the idea that the only way to work at these large prestigous studios, or get work in the industry in general, is by devoting all your free time to practise your technical skill. It is often flavored with a “my work is not even that good” attitude, despising any work they made older than a year and praising old masters. Bonus points if John Singer Sargent is their favorite artist. I even encountered some toxic cases online saying you’re not a real artist if you don’t practise all the time.

horse studies
Recent horse studies – for an hour, yes, but all day every day? No thanks!

Now I think I do have some discipline, learning myself C# and things, but no way I could force myself in drawing hands for months, hours per day, with the sole goal to master my anatomy skill. I do practise regularly and try to study new subjects when a commission asks demands it. But art or illustration isn’t technical prowess alone, isn’t it?

I rather split my ‘study time’ between technical skill practise such as anatomy or composition, and trying out new tools, software or techniques. I think these forms of ‘play’ are just as important as the technical stuff for being creative. We are, after all, asked to bring something from ourselves to the table, aren’t we? Rather than providing the client with meticulous rendered anatomy that is perfect, but also universal, we should add something that only we can. I could go even further: if your drawing skill is perfect but you don’t put something from yourself into it, why should I hire you? There’s always someone who will do it better or cheaper.

And this is where I think devoting all your time to technical exactness also hurts you: you need time off to nurture and explore what makes you you. You need those walks outside, fun conversations with friends, games to play, books to read, even those mindless minutes in line before checkout in the supermarket. Art is about life, so how create art if you don’t live life?

crocodile creatures
A page from my sketchbook where I just played around with crocodilian features

If the cult is right and a life devoted to study is the only way to get in AAA, I’m happy to do small indie projects for the rest of my career. It might not be so prestigous, but if it pays ok I’m happy! I’d like to paraphrase C├ęcile Dormeau here: I am being paid for the work I do, so it is appearenly good enough. It’s not good enough for all clients, but that will never be the case anyway.

I also don’t believe you have to study so rigourously all the time to get to the top, really! There are examples of artists who have followed their own path and found succes that way, such as Loish and Iris Compiet. And let’s not forget, knowing the right people is just as important as your portfolio. There are always multiple ways.

What also worries me, is that people who don’t have that immense discipline to practise their skills daily will believe being an artist is not for them. Discipline is a good skill to have, but so are soft skills – which might be even more important in the equation of succes. When starting out you will hear that your work is not good enough a few times. It happenend to me and still happens sometimes – but that doesn’t mean you have to block the next months for rigorous training. Keep making work and learn at your own pace!

So, if I would be in any position to give career advice (which I don’t deem myself to be with only two years of experience), I would say:

  1. Yes, work on your technical skills, as they are foundational for all representive art, stylized or not
  2. But focus too on the things that make you you, be it stylistic choices (the way you draw hands), subjects (horses, fighter jets, anything), or just your opinion on the world!
  3. Have fun! This is the most important as it will lead you to what makes you you. And it keeps you going!