Phase One: How to Build Your Artist's Skill Set


If this is your first time on our site, we encourage you to check out the full curriculum for building your art career here!

This part of the artist's journey is probably the least sexy. It's the bones of the house: the foundation and the frame. When the house is done, we can't see them. But, if the frame or foundation of a house is off or failing, we can tell very quickly.

When artists start, they focus on the exterior of their skills. That means if we use our house metaphor, beginning artists want to show off the interior design. They want to be able to show how well they can decorate the space in color, furniture, and with all the trendy bells and whistles.

For many artists, this translates into trying to attempt hyperrealism or master-level works of art before they've built their foundation. (Me. I've done this.) How many times did I cry over the fact I couldn't perfectly execute a Rembrant masterpiece?

More times than I'm proud to admit.

I could see the brush strokes. I could understand how he had completed the details. I saw the interior design of his masterpiece, but I had no idea how he had built the framework and foundation of his house. I hadn't learned the foundations of art therefore I couldn't understand the beginning stages Rembrandt's work. This led me to a constant merry-go-round of self-doubt and self-criticism because I thought it was simply because I wasn't a good enough artist.

I was good enough. I just hadn't learned how to build a house yet.

Technical Skills

This is why it is so crucial for artists to master the techne of art. Please reread that sentence. Master, not learn. In education, to master something is to know it by heart or to have it memorized.

When you were younger, you might have learned your multiplication tables by counting out numbers. If your teacher asked you, "What's 3 x 4?" you might have counted by 3's to get the answer. 3, 6, 9, 12. 12. You could find the answer. This level of understanding multiplication is having learned the concept.

However, if your teacher asks you "What's 3x4?" and in your mind you think "12" you have mastered the content. You now have the concept that 3 sets of 4 is 12 embedded so deep into your mind that the recall for it is subconscious. This is mastery.

It's a vastly different experience when you are trying to work a math problem like 135 X 243 if you have mastered your multiplication tables rather than learned them. This is no different when creating art.

When learning concepts of art, to master them is to have learned and practiced them so well that you no longer need to think consciously about them when you are creating a work of art. This is mastery. It's when the muscles in your arm and in your head know the techne or skill better than your consicous mind. This is why so many masters cannot explain how they perform a certain brush stroke or create a certain light in a painting. (Which is infuritating, I know.)They do not consciouly know. They have done it so many hundreds of thousands of times that their body and subconcious mind does it for them.

But, where then do we begin? So many artists begin copying art, which is a wonderful skill to have, but studying and mimicking a finished work is still only studying the interior design of a house. For simple designs, you may can copy it perfectly, maybe even improve it!

However, many artists find themselves stuck once they want to create their own art and not copy any longer. They find their minds go blank and their work comes out nothing like what they see in their head. This is because the foundation has not been created yet.

There's no reason to fret. The answer to this is simple. You must learn the classical techne and foundations of art. I wish someone had told this to me when I had started. I could have saved myself 14 years of greif and self-deprication.

When starting, I've composed a list of art concepts that are critical for building a foundation as an artist regardless of medium that you choose.

Art Concepts

  • Line

  • Form

  • Shape

  • Value/Tone

  • Composition

  • Perspective

  • Rhythym

  • Unity

  • Anatomy

  • Texture

  • Space

  • Color Theory/Color Pallete

These concepts can all be researched and found online for free or for a nominal fee. At this point in your art career, be very wary of falling into the mindset that an expensive art course will teach you all you need to know.

I will repeat this until I'm blue in the face (mostly because I have to remind myself). There is no course, art tool, or amount of money that you can spend that will substitute for time and repetition spent on your art. Amazing artists can create with any tools after enough time practicing.


After you have mastered the fundaments of art, you can then go on to practicing style. Style is the way in which an artist or production company create something.

Here's an example. I've used Ariel from Disney's The Little Mermaid as an example.

Here is Ariel in Disney Animation Studio's traditional design:

©Disney•Pixar. All rights reserved. Disney's Original Ariel Artwork

Here is Ariel fan art drawn in an anime style:

Ariel Fan Art (Click for Artist's Link)

Here is Ariel fan art in a realism style:

These styles are all capturing the same subject. Each artist will develop their own style overtime. However, just like foundation, it comes from time and repetition. Eventually, a mix of your interests, favorite art, and your own specific muscle movements will create a style that is definitively yours. Go ahead and try out various styles that you find interesting.


Mediums tend to be an artist's water wings. An artist will feel adequate at a particular medium, like acrylic painting, trying another medium such as oil and run screaming back to acrylic. This is because each medium has it's own subset of mastery.

For example, a watercolorist (my favorite medium) has to learn how to compensate with wrinkling paper, mixing water and paint, layering (oh the layering), and the time it takes to really bring to life a watercolor piece. With watercolor, once it's there, it's there. Which is why many artists prefer mediums like oil and acrylic that allow the artist to paint over mistakes. However, if an artist is working with acrylics they have to be prepared for fast drying paint! If an artist is working with oils, they have to adapt to paint that may not dry for weeks.

This is why it's vital to save mediums until after you have built your foundations in art. The danger is that if an artist has not spent the time learning the techne of art, they will fall into bad habits that come from the medium they are using. For example, if you learn to create light using oils only, then you will quickly get irritated and put out with colored pencils or watercolor when you don't understand the foundations of light or color theory.

I encourage you at this stage to try all the mediums! If you don't want to invest in a medium (because it can be EXPENSIVE) try a class! Or, spend a day with an artist friend who specializes in the medium your interested in (maybe bring them lunch to trade for supplies!).

It's a shame to be 10 years into your art career and try pastels for the first time and think "This works so well for me, I should have been doing this all along!"

You're not creating inventory yet. You're not posting online yet. Play. Have fun. And, see what mediums blend with your unique talents and style!

Mediums to try:

  • Charcoal

  • Colored Pencil

  • Ink

  • Graphite

  • Watercolor

  • Oils

  • Acrylic

  • Pastel

  • Pen

  • Tempera

  • Mixed Media

  • Fresco painting

  • Markers

  • Sculpture

  • and way more than I can list!

Spend Money on Time, Not Supplies

Here it comes again (I told you), spend money on time not buying supplies. Now, what does this mean exactly? It means you are much better off spending your money on opening up time to create than working more to spend money on better supplies, workshops, and that expesive art seminar in Rome.

Look at your schedule, can you cut back on your expenses and work less? That's the key. Find how much you can shave down your work schedule and put art in its place.

In my experience, I hate having the whole day to create art. My ADHD mind needs a little bit of work to make me feel safe. I need a little bit a schedule to organize my day and I need a little bit of money to go get coffee, buy that new book, or to go on a trip with Alejandro. It's okay to work and be an artist. Let me say that again for the people in the back.


It's knowing the right place to cut work off and create time for art.

This is where budgeting and knowing your financial situation really come into play. We'll spend sometime unpacking that in a future video and podcast, but if you need help understanding how to cut back expenses and hours at work, contact us and we'd love to help you out.

Quantity Over Quality

I feel like I keep heaping boring stuff on you guys, but I promise focusing on building the foundation and repetition of your art will allow you to grow your business much faster than if you skip this step.

Once you have created time to create, it's time to create. This means it's time to start pumping out art. The more you create, the faster your muscles and mind will create the neurological connections in your mind. This step is how you move from learning to mastery.

One of the best illustrations of this, I learned on Tumblr. I have found the original post and put it below:

All silliness aside, this is profound advice. Fill volumes of sketchbooks. Not one, not two. Not five. A dozen at least. Paint hundreds of paintings over the same canvas. Fill it with bad drawing, good drawings, stick figures, classical art. Draw while you're watching TV, draw while you're waiting for the bus, draw while you're watching your kids (draw with your kids!). Just draw.

Now, here's the caviat. Do not take this advice and decide you need to fill 14 sketchbooks by next month. I'm talking to my neurodivergents out there. Do not take this advice and create a mental prison out of it. There is no time limit on developing your art career. The two ingredients to mastering the techne of art are repetition and time. You cannot control that it takes a biological set amount of time for your brain to master something. You have no control over that. You cannot speed it up. All you can do is keep practicing.

Do not practice so much that you burn out. Don't try to draw 20 pictures a day. Don't create so much you lose the love of creation. This step begins to slide into developing your creative process. If you're tired of drawing, try a different location. Go outside and draw, draw at a coffee shop, draw on the floor, draw on an easel, draw standing up, draw while listening to music, draw while eating, draw while talking. Skip a day. Try everything and see what you like!

You're Not Selling Yet!

The most imporant thing I can impart to you while practicing is to remember that none of this is for sale. That's not even an option. None of this is inventory. Don't put the pressure on yourself to create masterpieces at this stage (or any stage really). You are not selling any of your practice materials. This is all for you and doesn't need to be shared to the world.

Consider all of your practice art like sports practice. Your art practice is not any different than LeBron James shooting free throws, Serena Williams practicing her serve, or Tom Brady throwing down the field. You're at practice. The cameras are not on you. No one is going to see these. They are only for you. We don't see the missed baskets and serves, nor do we see the times Tom Brady trips in practice. Don't assume the world will see your work and judge you.

Note for the practicing artist: I know that many non-artists ask to see your sketchbook. I know this is a question we all dread getting from our family, our friends, and strangers. We don't want them to be dissapointed or, worse, to tell us we maybe shouldn't devote our lives to art because we aren't good enough.

You are allowed to tell a person no if they ask to see your sketchbook. It's the same as a diary. It is your private space.

If you feel uncomfortable telling them no, take pictures of your favorite sketches on your phone and say "Oh, let me show you my portfolio, these are just messy doodles."

You don't owe anyone anything. You don't need to prove yourself. Just keep practicing.

Keep building that house. The time to decorate it will come faster than you think.

More Resources



Go to the next blog: Phase One: Developing a Creative Process

10 views0 comments

Ready to connect to other artists? Join our exclusive art business newsletter where you'll receive:

  • A weekly topic of discussion for the group

  • All the art business content Alejandro has created for the week in one email. 

  • Invitations to exclusive webinars hosted by Alejandro. 

  • Notifications about live calls and events that Alejandro will be a part of.

  • Access to The Sustainable Artist Facebook group