10 questions with Joe Wilson of DIY Art School

I recently posted about resources for the aspiring illustrator. On top of my list was the DIY Art School blog and I thought it would be nice to have more insight about it.  Joe Wilson is the author and I’ve known about Joe from Conceptart.org for years but I only met him at Illuxcon 2 years ago. Despite being a very busy guy, he graciously accepted to answer 10 questions for me.

So Joe, I thought I would start with a few questions about your academic background just to see where your views in DIY Art School are coming from.

-Did you go to a school with diverse programs alongside art or to a dedicated art school?

I went to a dedicated art school. There were some additional basic classes you could take, but I actually felt like my high school education was pretty strong (I took a lot of college level classes), so I skipped all of the non art courses that I could. I don’t regret skipping them. They didn’t offer the kinds of additional classes that I really would have found useful, like some kind of finance class, or marketing for example.

-What did you learn in art school that you think would be the hardest thing to learn for someone being self-taught?

Perhaps how to give and take artistic critique. I think one nice things about art school is that you are constantly putting your work up in front of your instructors and peers. Learning how to talk about it. How to take the criticism constructively without falling into the trap of being defensive about your work. Learning how to really listen to feedback about your work is so very important.

Of course I believe you can still develop those skills without art school, but you do have to work a little harder to find a good replacement.

-What did you do in art school that you wish you hadn’t done or you wish you had done on your own?

I’m going to alter this question slightly to “What do you wish you had done differently?” I really wish I had spoken up more about the classes that just weren’t teaching me something valuable, because now I look back at those classes and think “what the hell? I was paying a lot of money for those classes, and some of them were complete bullshit.” Of course I didn’t know that at the time, because how could I know any better? You have to already know a lot about art to know that the teacher sucks. When you don’t know any better, you think the failing must be on your end, or that there is some lesson being taught that you just haven’t grasped yet, so you try to keep an open mind and follow along. It’s only years later when you know better (and are maybe still paying those student loans) that you look back and say “Man, that class was a fraud. I was almost literally robbed.” If I had it to do again, I’d either have learned it all on my own, or I would have at least been loud and vocal about the classes that weren’t teaching me something I found valuable.

Joe with his banner at the Illuxcon 2011 showcase.

-You mention on the blog that you made some very good friends in art school. Are there things you learned that you wouldn’t have without them?

There were a lot of things that I probably learned from my friends. It was a great creative soup of different people, with so many finding their own areas to excel, and you learn a bit from everyone just from seeing what they did that worked (or didn’t work). A little friendly competition was great too. There would be times when someone would have a breakthrough of understanding. Sort of graduate to the next level, and if you have a little competitive nature in your personality, it makes you push harder to catch back up, or to nudge ahead of them if you can.

All of that was great, but in an absolute sense, was there anything that I just wouldn’t have learned on my own? Probably not in artistic sense. There were maybe a few life lessons, or lessons about getting by in the art field. There were artists in my classes who were as good as I was, some easily better, that in the end never really attempted a serious art career. It helps you realize that a successful artist isn’t just the guy with great skills, but the people who really WANT it, and for who something else really won’t ever make them happy. It keeps you on your toes, knowing that no matter what your skills are, no one is going to come knocking down your door to discover you, YOU have to make it happen.

-If someone is going to pick and chose the classes they want in a school instead of doing the whole program, do you have tips on how they can tell which classes are the best?

If you are talking about it from a DIY art school stand point, I’d say focus on classes that are things you can’t easily do on your own. You can sit at home and do a still life, but it’s a lot harder and less practical to get a model to regularly come by and pose for you. Life drawing would be a great choice to take a class, and would easily be the first I recommend.

Otherwise, take classes for things you have made a good honest effort in, but still have trouble with. If you are having trouble moving beyond drawing and into painting, maybe you need that extra feedback on where you are going wrong. Remember though, if you decide to take a class, make sure you get what you came for! If the instructor expects you to just show up and paint and isn’t actually helping you where you want help, make sure you ask. Don’t sit back and assume they’ll know where you are struggling and need more help. Corner them and ask a few extra questions.

Lastly, look for classes taught by artist’s you admire. A lot of well known professionals are doing intensive seminars or classes, and they will pass along some information that you just won’t get in most art schools.

-What was the biggest shock you got when you finished school and you tried to get work “in the real world”?

Before art school I think I would have shocked to know that very very few people who graduate art school are anywhere near ready to be employed. By the time I graduated I think I knew I wasn’t ready. I didn’t even try to get work because I knew I still needed to build a better portfolio. Maybe I would have been shocked to learn I still needed years of maturing and improving my skills, but I don’t think even completely occurred to me. I kind of just thought I needed to keep doing portfolio pieces, not realizing that I should have continued working on fundamental skills with most of my time and effort.

-Is there one thing you do in your art career that gets you thinking:”if everything was as easy as this, my job would be a piece of cake?”

Haha nope! No, in reality, art is hard work! It’s fun as hell and incredibly rewarding, but none of it is a “piece of cake.” Not if you are constantly trying to improve. Maybe the closest to that is when, at the painting stage about mid way through, everything is more or less in place and your biggest problems are solved, and you just need to put in the hours to finish it. At that stage things are almost reflexive. Your brain is still solving smaller problems, but it’s only taking a small percentage of your brain power so you can easily divide your focus. I like to stream Netflix on my other computer at this stage. I’ll watch a lot of documentaries. I’ll also watch horror movies- good or bad it doesn’t even matter. Actually I take that back, bad is probably better, as a GOOD one I’ll save until I can focus on it. I’ll rewatch something while working though. Anyways, that’s probably the easiest part of the job, when the big problems are solved and I’m just relaxing watching something interesting and putting in the hours to get it where it needs to be.

-Is there something you have to do in your art career that you wish you could just give away to an assistant and never hear of again?

Paper work. Contracts, tax forms, invoices… bleh. On the art side, I find pretty much every stage fun and interesting. I guess you have to love the process to do well in this career. Actually, if I had an assistant, I’d make a bigger effort to get back into working traditionally, at least some of the time. Then I could have someone do the board priming, transfer my drawing, clean brushes etc. That might actually be pretty nice.

Joe's War Angel piece.

-You mentioned getting portfolio reviews from professionals as being critical to an artist’s development. Can you recall a review you have received that changed how you look at your art?

Sure. Probably every review helped change how I saw my work. My first professional portfolio review was from Dan Dos Santos. It’s an interesting story. I knew Dan’s work because, well you can’t love this genre without having seen his work. He has done so many book covers and his work is so visually striking that’s it’s probably impossible to NOT know his work if you’ve been in a bookstore down the fantasy isle. Anyways, my friend Cynthia Sheppard was contacted by him to do some modeling, since he had found her profile on Myspace. Cynthia wasn’t yet an illustrator, just a very multi talented young lady I was good friends with. She gave me a call and told me all about what a very outgoing and nice guy he was (I’m pretty sure Dan’s influence cemented her interest in taking her art more seriously, and well, you can see where she is now!). I didn’t even know Dan lived just a few towns away. It turned out that a couple of my friends actually went to high school with him. So, having a couple of names to drop, I contacted him and asked if there were any upcoming events where I could meet him and talk with him. He suggested we just meet at a local bar for a couple of drinks. He was nice enough to not only look at my portfolio and give me a very good review, but he brought his laptop and a small Wacom and gave me a couple of quickie paint overs to show what he was talking about. He really helped me hone in on some areas where my work was lacking. Before his review I was flying pretty blind actually with no idea how to improve. There are things he brought up that I still think about every time I do a new piece.

I could list a lot of other portfolio reviews that have helped. Different artists see different things. Some will see things I never even thought about, while flaws I really struggled with seemed to be of no concern to them. As special shout outs I’d say that a review with Jon Schindehette at NY Comic Con early in my career, and a couple of extremely valuable reviews from Jeremy Cranford at Illuxcon, were both very transformative reviews for me.

-Last question, what is your favourite thing to paint?

Monsters I think my childhood love of “monsters” started with Star Wars, Scooby Doo (and a ton of other cartoons), various movies, Dungeons and Dragons, and an early love of reading. I couldn’t get enough of that kind of thing, especially if it included fantastic monsters. Actually, I don’t think I’ve yet properly established my love of monsters. I haven’t been good about defining myself “as a brand”, but if I did, I’m very sure “Monsters” would be part of that defining.

-Thank you very much for your time Joe, where can readers see your work?

My portfolio can be seen at www.joewilson-illustration.com/

Also, it’s not a fully created site or portfolio yet, but I’ve been putting together something to target concept art specifically. If people are interested in seeing that portfolio as I build it, it can be found at joewilson-conceptart.blogspot.com

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