I've taught in a big variety of situations, and am self-taught (or at least partially self-taught) in most of what I do artistically. I love teaching, and I love learning. But what I hate is sucking at the things I want to be good at. And as someone who likes to do lots of different things, I'm also pretty familiar with the feeling of sucking at lots of stuff that I want to be good at. But thankfully, I think I've got a handle on this process after sucking at so many things!
This page is about how to get out of that quickly, and hopefully have a good time in the meantime instead of getting consumed by demotivation and feelings of inadequacy.
The fundamentals of a craft are often taught in a 101 course, and depending on the proficiency of your teacher, hopefully revisited over the course of your learning. What some might fail to see is how the fundamentals are, in fact, the entire course. They're the 2 year program. They're the lifelong journey to mastery.
The fundamentals are not just important, they are the only thing that really matters.
But let me clarify: learning the fundamentals in a 2 hour video will not make you a master, and there's two reasons for that (which are sort of actually the same thing but phrased in two different ways).
1. You haven't actually learned the fundamentals. Sure, you've acquired the theoretical knowledge, but you've got to apply those fundamentals to make them a part of your intuitive mind. You know about the fundamentals, but only when they're embedded in your head can you actually fully put them to use.
2. You haven't put in the time. Mastery is attained through a fair amount of practice alongside a deep understanding of the fundamentals. One does not substitute the other.
Why They're All That Matters
If you learn about the fundamentals and keep them in mind, you'll have a more fun time going through that arduous phase of necessary practice. As opposed to suffering slow progress and chaotic workflow each time you try to improve.
Just as importantly, you'll waste a lot less time on the superfluous stuff, which means you'll also get better faster, and have an easier time staying motivated.
"What brush do I use on Photoshop?", "what plugins do I need to make electronic music?", "what lens do I get my camera?", "what library do I use for this programming project?". These are, honestly, not particularly good questions. The fact of the matter is, unless you have a really clear idea of what you want (which you likely don't, as a beginner), those questions are entirely pointless. Use whatever you have at your disposal, and when you've gotten good at something, you'll tend to ask much more specific questions. "How do I achieve this particular brush effect", "how do I create this particular sound?", "how do I produce photography that has these particular qualities?", "what are good libraries for architecting a program with these particular features?", and so on. These are really good questions, but the moment where you start asking them will come later.
And finally, you'll understand your craft really well. Anyone can draw something with some practice, but if you know the fundamentals of a craft, you can apply those fundamentals in a variety of scenarios, illustrations, constraints, while still producing beautiful stuff with less aimless wandering and confusion. It can be a huge source of artistic confidence!
Ok, so we've said the word "fundamentals" a bunch of times, but what exactly are the fundmanetals of a few different disciplines?
In programming, one of the first things you might learn are variables and if() statements. You will realize that it is theoretically possible to build any program given these tools. Even at a lower level, the idea of storing data in memory, and moving it under a certain condition, is the fundamental mechanism upon which operate all machines.
Of course, there are many more technical elements to programming. However these are all abstractions - more complex configurations of variables and simple if() statements. Their purpose is to make your job as a programmer more efficient, modular, and less time-consuming. But at their core, the fundamentals reign king.
In music, there is pitch, duration, and tone. You will realize that it is theoretically possible to build any configurations of sound with these tools. Once again, there exist complex configurations of these - consonance/disonnance in chords, consonance/disonnance in progressions, techniques for producing and mixing tones. But, at their core... Well, you get the idea.
In 3D; vertices, edges, faces, UVs, normals, rendering algorithms. In painting; value, color, perspective. In animation; movement, deformation, and keyframing.
When I learn, and when I teach, I focus with great energy on the base blocks of a skill. Learning and truly understanding the fundamentals is what allows you to more comfortably access the complex structures built on top of them, and to start having fun creating. All the while, the fundamentals will continue to inform your work, and remain ever-present in your practices.
Importantly, not everyone fully agrees on what the fundamentals of a given discipline are. This is fine, it's not always black and white. What's important is to see where there's overlap, where there's a general concensus on what is really fundamental to a craft, and to focus on that.
I want to also add a few tips that, so far, have translated to every discipline I've engaged in. These help learn, improve, and understand the skills required for a craft.
- Find a skilled and articulate crafts-person, and ask them to explain their craft in a simplified manner. Remember their explanation. This is potentially one of the best ways for you to learn about the fundamentals of their craft.
- Genuinely think about what you're going to make before you make it. Aimless practice can be fun, but the progress it brings is smaller than deliberate practice and production.
- Make simple work, and make it well. Many small projects will teach you much more than one big project, at least as a beginner. Not to mention, everything is almost always simpler than you think it is. It looks complex because it is a series of simple things stacked on top of eachother, and you're not yet skilled enough to break it down, so...
- Take the time to break your idea down into simple steps.
- Go from broad to detailed. Focusing too much on details before large sections are set up will likely require reworking or restarting details later anyways.
- Analyze your product critically. Writing a report on what you've produced will separate you from feeling overly attached to your work, and allow you to evaluate it more comfortably. This will help you learn faster, and feel pride in your learning even when the product is a failure.
- Don't shy away from copying. Really, copying is one of the best ways to learn. Don't deny you've copied something, but don't be ashamed either. If you're studying a creative skill, there's pride in coming up with your own ideas. But in the beginning, you're just learning technique. You'd be emotionally comfortable copying someone if they were showing you how to do a specific dance choreography, so why worry about copying their drawings?
It can be terrifying to start learning a new skill. Remember that the ultimate goal is to have fun and enjoy yourself (and if your goal is something else, be careful). Learn the fundamentals, practice them, and the fun will come quicker than you expect!