Learn to love questions and helping others find more!
Creating equine realism definitely isn't easy and the learned skillsets take years to develop—and sometimes we need help. Happily for that, help can come from anywhere, even in genres not related to ours! I can't tell you how much I've learned from monster design to special effects make up to prosthetics to collage to graphic design, for example.
To that end, becoming and staying a pro-active learner is a great thing because it keeps us hungry and our work evolving. Wonderfully, all we have to do is reach for that new information enthusiastically, translating into research, attending classes, workshops and seminars, reading peer-reviewed papers, lots of comparative study, artistic exercises, watching videos, amassing references and analyzing them, blog reading, forum discussion, and on and on—always asking questions, staying curious. Luckily, too, the Internet is a wealth of information from how-tos to presentations to analysis on color genetics, anatomy, conformation, and biomechanics, artistic technique and creative philosophy. It's all out there at our fingertips just waiting to be mined!
Being so, it's a good idea to indulge these avenues first before vetting assistance, especially from a working artist. Doing our homework first is critical because remember who you're sourcing and their limitations—a working artist. And all a working artist has is time—that's it, their most critical and limited resource. It's the single factor that lets them refine their art, do their own research, produce their art, and make their art in the first place to earn a living. Yet assisting someone who hasn't done any homework at all can be inordinately time consuming, and that can be a serious time sink.
Now this isn't to say that helping someone shouldn't be done. Absolutely not! It's also not to say that seeking assistance is inherently inappropriate. Definitely not! And it's not to say that helping rote beginners isn't a good idea either. Nope! Sometimes, helping them can be some of the most satisfying ways to spend one's time, especially when they're earnest and invested. I also believe that helping others is our obligation, that we should "pay it forward" when we can. The more artists who reach their potential elevates all our efforts since the more brains that work a problem means more solutions.
But it does suggest that there's a necessity to come to the assistance with a better idea of what's involved than absolutely, utterly nothing. Why? Well, "a damp sponge absorbs more than a dry one." In other words, if we don't know some degree of what's involved, whether through study or observation, most of what's going to be shared may not be fully understandable, if at all. It can go right over our head! And the more advanced the lesson, the more this is the case. Additionally, much of our help can only come online and that has its own limitations. Also, talking at a beginner level can be tricky for a seasoned artist since so much can be inadvertently taken for granted. However, to be fair, it can be a good lesson for them to do just that from time to time to clarify ideas and processes and, perhaps in doing so, refine these things further. The best way to learn how to perfect something is to teach it! Plus, beginners often come to the problem with totally fresh ideas, making learning symbiotic. What a wonderful thing!
Keep in mind, however, that each potential teacher is different as is each learner. Everyone comes to the table with different artistic styles, personality traits, motivations, and expectations—and sometimes we may not be a good match. Yet it's important that each party be simpatico in order to foster a good working relationship. So if that match isn't suitable, it's okay to give thanks and move onto someone else who may be a better fit. Put another way, forcing a bad fit can antagonize both parties, making the likelihood of help less forthcoming.
Put all this altogether and in congeals into a pretty good rule of thumb: Try not to present uniformed questions to working artists and try not to force the situation. Truly, a basic working knowledge of the issues at hand will gain the most out of the experience and make the most of everyone's time. Also, be highly specific, and the more advanced the issue, the more specific the question. For example, don’t ask something like, “How do I sculpt a head?” That's far too general and big an issue, often an enormous undertaking to even address. Sure, the teacher can dole out a few simple, starter suggestions which can work great, but that has its limitations, too. So often the better tactic is to take what you already know from your homework, and just do it in order to figure out what specifications you need the most guidance on. Because it's usually better to ask questions that beg quicker, more concise, more helpful answers. For instance, “What are some alignments of the head I can use as guides?” Or, "what tools are best for sculpting the head?" "What shapes are best visualized for sculpting an eye or nostril?" "I'm having this x-problem with my heads...do you recommend some trouble shooting?" Or, "what clay and solvent to you recommend for x-kind of work?" Or "How do you achieve more symmetry?" The more specific the question, the more practical the answer, and the more likely we'll get an answer and quickly.
On that note, it's not a good idea to impose too much on a working artist's time and energy. They're usually very busy running their studios and have done their own hard work to earn their skills—and it’s important we do the same. Really, only when we truly get stuck or confused or overwhelmed is their advice best applied. That means continual questions that eat up more and more of their clock is a surefire way to create friction. But this isn't due to vindictiveness, it's out of necessity. A working artist simply cannot afford to help so often. This is usually the reason why some artists, being so busy, tend to be rather succinct in their help, simply offering useful links, books, lists, or articles for our own edification. It's just a reality with their limited time resources. Yet this is also why many artists have already compiled lists, articles, books, or blog posts on common subjects that would answer many of our questions. To tell the truth as well, it's important for learners to struggle and work things out on their own. It encourages pro-active learning, experimentation, and valuable lessons on arting. There's value in having knowledge earned rather than just handed out. This isn't to say we should let learners struggle needlessly though. It's to acknowledge it can be worthwhile to wrestle with our skills every so often, and that goes for seasoned artists, too.
Above all though, try to avoid assuming a seasoned artist is being unfair, hostile, secretive, or mean if they opt out of helping. The reality of that working artist may mean their resources are already stretched quite thin so offering help simply isn't in the cards. Everyone has their reason and assuming the worst isn't only unfair, it can poison the well.
Again, let me repeat that I believe we're obligated to help others in their arts. It's good for them, good for us, and good for the community by advancing our arts and building cohesion and commonality between us. It's just that we need to approach it with a bit of investment on our part in a way that works with the limitations of the situation. That being so, helping others and seeking help can also be a terrific way to build relationships, personal and professional, which can be immensely rewarding all 'round on many levels. And in this rebirth of the DIYer, helping others is even more critical than ever! The next generation of artists are our future and we cannot let them wither on the vine if we hope for all this to flourish. In this spirit then, it's all the more reason to better understand what's involved when seeking that help so that more beginners are less intimidated asking for it and more seasoned artists are prone to providing it.
One of the great things about this genre is its propensity to share information. Truly, it would be wonderful to see this even formalized into annual artist retreats or workshop events to balance out the competitive-heavy theme of our social gatherings. I dream of a day when such things will happen in equal measure as shows. Not saying competition is a bad thing! But it would be nice to have another facet of participation, and one that coincidentally happens to facilitate participation in that competition at the same time.
That said, a mentor program is a completely different situation to all this, one which I'm not speaking to. Mentorship is a wonderful avenue for helping others that's often much more time-rich than cold-calling a working artist. For that, Mares In Black has a terrific mentorship program that may be of interest to you.
Anyway, there you have it. Hopefully some useful advice for getting advice. My best advice in all this? Stay curious. It encourages enthusiasm, fun in learning, exploration, and fresh thinking —always positive things. Seek, stretch, ponder, and rethink. And apply what's learned from others and make it your own. Don't be afraid to put your own spin on things! And pay it forward whenever possible. Consider this too—one of the best ways to learn is to teach! Want to know where your knowledge gaps are? Teach. Want to know where you can improve your process and Eye? Teach. Want to learn current theory and new hypothesis? Teach. Want to bump your work to the next level? Teach. Want to truly fathom a subject on deeper levels? Teach. So whoever said "those who can, does; he who cannot, teaches" was so very very very horribly wrong! Instead, I prefer Aristotle's wiser take, who said, "those who know do, those who understand, teach." So beginners, don't be afraid to seek help! Just frame it in a way that'll best cultivate the situation. And seasoned artists? Do what you can to further the efforts of others. It's rewarding in its own right as well as for you. Collective learning is what people do best and fostering it enriches our community in countless ways, planting seeds that will grow and spread deep roots that will blossom a nicer garden for us all.
"True teachers are those who use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross; then, having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging them to create their own." ~Nikos Kazantzakis