How does one "create" something?

If that title sounds nebulous, that's because I don't really know how to pose this question.

I've been subbed to CGCookie for about half a year now, and I've really enjoyed what I've learned so far. There is something very comforting about being in a community of professionals that actually excell at their subject matter. It's a far cry from the days of getting by on low quality youtube tutorials or hackneyed guides.

However, despite learning a great deal here at CGCookie, time and time again I have this gnawing feeling that I have a giant blindspot in my skillset that needs addressing.

In the past, I was very much a reverse engineer. I would cobble together knowledge from youtube videos, examples, and imitation. I've spent a great deal of my life figuring out how to do things via dissection and practice, instead of professional instruction. 

I've went on to create many things, some of which are posted online(outside CGCookie). Games, art, models, animations, videos, etc. I'm a jack of all trades, in that regard.

The method I learned to "create" art or games was always a mixture of old habits and brute force. I would use references heavily and frankensteined my pieces together until it matched my mental picture of what I wanted. I would iterate, over and over, until I finally refined my piece down to something I considered reasonably perfect. I would use rigid logic, falling back to the same patterns of planning and development that I've always followed.

However, the method I developed was extremely toxic, and generated a large amount of anxiety and mental anguish. Many of my old projects were exhausting, and required three times the reasonable amount of time to finish. It wasn't until I talked with other artists that I began to realize that this was not normal. I ended up developing a chronic illness from it, which now plagues me to this day.

I still feel, though, that it's not a matter of a lack of creativity, it's a lack of control over it. I can't structure my creativity properly enough to execute upon it. 

My imagination runs rampant with ideas and concepts, and I can quickly map them in my head. However, when it comes time to put them to stone; to create a plan or concept on paper, something halts me. It's as if there is a collosal void between structuring the idea in my head, and starting work on the first piece of the project. I'm missing a crucial step. I do not know of a healthy way to materialize my ideas.

Once again, CGCookie has done a lot to bust down these false creative walls I've built by exposing me to the fundamental ideas behind the creative process, thus helping me reverse my toxic habits. However, now I'm feeling a bit lost.

This feels like a long rambling post, but it's partly from necessity. I can't adequately pose the question because I don't know what the question really is. Unlike most things, I can't search for a tutorial or guide to answer this question because I don't know how to effectively ask the question to begin with. It looms over me like a cloud, but I can't point to it and identify the issue outright.

Basically, I know what creating art looks like, but I don't know "how" to do it. In a much harsher interpretation, I'm non-literally "tracing" the creative methods of real artists. I walk like an artist, and quack like an artist, but I'm merely an imitation. I'd like to be one, because creativity fuels me, but my current process is terminally flawed.

Sorry if this is extremely long-winded, but I felt it had to be. I'm posting this here because I greatly value the knowledge and expertise of this community. This chronic problem had haunted me for most of my life, and is far too great for me to solve.

Is there any advice people can give on how to proceed? Is there some CGCookie flow I should look at? Is there some obvious process I've missed? It doesn't even have to be a direct answer, I'm just looking for informed perspectives on the issue. Thanks for reading.

  • As far as I understand your problem is that you have all these awesome ideas in your head, but you don't know where to start (please do correct me if I'm wrong!)

    The trick I think is to break it down before you start, at least that's what I would do.

    • Find good references that coincide with what you're trying to create, as many as you kind find! Use them as an inspiration, study what you like from them, what makes them work and what would work for your scene.  How can you use the shapes/colors/etc.

    • Create concept art or block out your scene. It depends on your preference. If you like to sketch out your ideas, check out some of the concept art courses. There are a few about starting with silhouettes and such. Start simple and build upon that. If you are like me you are more 3D focused. Take simple primitives (cubes, spheres, etc) and block out your scene. Create it in the most simplist form until your happy with the shape & composition. Don't forget to look through your camera to see if it looks right!

    • Start modeling your main subject of your scene. If you have multiple objects and such, your main subject should be spot on since that's what everyone's looking at. Again, start with blocking out the main shapes and then start refining that piece by piece. Have you checked out the Mesh Modelong Bootcamp Course? They use that technique there all the time (for example the gun modeling chapter)

    It's like layer upon layer of shapes and detail, starting simple and adding upon that until all the shapes come together. Block out, refining, detailing, adding some color, adding wear and tear, lighting and a final touch of compositing. 

    Focus on one step at the time instead of constantly thinking at what the end result should be. If you can't tune it out it will drive you crazy, because it's so far off still of what you want to achieve. If you take one step at the time and focus on mini goals within the process you will enjoy the process much more, and the end result will probably be better that what you thought it would be!

    Hope this helps 😊

  • crew

    If you feel you're missing lack of control then build a system to better control how you create something. I'm a compulsive list maker. I write down a list of todos every day and have it on my desk. It's a way for me to control what I plan to do that day, but more importantly it gets it out of my head and into a logical set of things to accomplish, usually in the order I plan to complete them. 

    If you keep it all in your head you'll go crazy. It's funny how when you write it down, literally or in some digital format, that these ideas you had in mind really weren't worth fretting over. They just have a habit of buzzing around and bouncing in your head. 

    I don't consider myself a skilled digital artist, but when it comes to modeling something I typically follow a routine. That involves brainstorming what I'm trying to build, finding reference photos online, then doing quick models in Blender to see it come together. I'm not great at it but it's a routine I use.

    For games it's a similar process. Brainstorm what I want in the game, everything from how the UI should look, to player mechanics and music. Concept art is sometimes used to sketch out rough ideas for the game, building a game design document to keep track of it all then proceed forward with prototyping. Then go from there. 

    Having a system doesn't mean everything will go smoothly, especially if you're neurotic about perfection, but it makes it that much easier to organize and move forward.

    To address the other issue of feeling like you need to create something completely unique to become an artist, well that's not really an issue. Everyone gets their creativity from those they admire. The book Steal Like an Artist might be a great book to pick up to alleviate some issues you may have with this. 

  • Hi Grant.

    I do not know if I correctly understand your problem, but here is what I think.

    You already have the creativity, so that's great. You say that something halts you when you try to materialize your ideas. I think that  that is you, who is halting you. Maybe you are afraid to fail. I gather, that you are a perfectionist? Then try not to be one for a moment. If a project doesn't work out, that's okay. Try another idea. The main thing is to start working on something. If it takes longer than you think it should, that is totally fine; you WILL get faster through experience. It seems to me that you put too much pressure on yourself and that is holding you back.

    Also you say that you want to be an artist in stead of just imitating one. There is nothing wrong with imitating; this is how we learn. If you imitate long enough, you will, at a certain point, probably feel that you have become an artist. And if not, than that's not the end of the world, at least you will have had fun. Again, do not pressure yourself.

     There is no "How to become an artist in 10 easy steps", or something like that. In my experience, artists have a different way of thinking and a different way of looking at the world than "normal" mortals. Do not feel inferior, just because you are not one, or at least  you do not feel like you are one. Again, if you imitate artists long enough, you will most likely start to think like an artist and you will start to see the world in a different way.

    This void you are talking about is not as big as you think it is; do not be afraid to cross it, you will not fall into eternal darkness.

    You do not need to properly structure your creativity, just start creating and have fun. After some time you will find ways to organize the process, that works best for you. But for now forget about control, because I think that you are just using it as an excuse to not start; "I do not know how to properly put my ideas into stone, so I can't start..."

    These are just my ideas and I might be completely wrong, but everybody is wrong sometimes, so I'm cool with that;)

    Still,I hope it is helpful in some way or another.

  • Wow, a lot of this is on point. I was dreading checking this because I don't usually get good feedback elsewhere. I need to remember that CGCookie != the rest of the internet. Thanks for the responses!

    Truth be told, this post was a year in the making. I made the decision to switch to CGCookie under the premise that I did not know how to correctly approach my medium. In fact, the bulk of my thinking with this post came from CGCookie. I never learned how to sculpt or do retopology when I started Blender years ago. Upon learning and applying these concepts, I realized how woefully ill-equipped I was. Many of my past projects became so much easier to parse with the new skillset.

    To put it simply, I was climbing a mountain for years, when there was an sky lift on the other side.

    That's basically where this nagging feeling is coming from. Jonathan Williamson's Blender flows about topology exposed to me the importance of good topology. It was a concept that was entirely new, but strangely familiar. It was as if I knew, in the back of my mind, that something was wrong with my previous works, but I simply couldn't place why.

    In that flow, I believe he also says the quote:

    "Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect."

    This quote hits me rather hard. I've spent much of my life using intuition as my guide, but now I'm beginning to question that. I've always felt like I can't quite achieve what I'd like to achieve. Perhaps it's a lack of knowledge? Perhaps it's self-sabotage? Perhaps I'm completely oblivious to something? Perhaps I'm reading too much into it? I can't really know for sure, so why not pose the question?

    Having said all that, there are some good suggestions here. I'll reply individually to posts, so as not to bloat this one.

    ... Oh, and uhh, one other thing...

    Is it best/accepted practice on CGCookie to reply to each person individually? or simply reference them in a regular post?

  • smurfmier1985 

    Concepting is something that I tend to shy away from, because I never developed a real method to go about it. The most I can do is a rough form, but I feel a bit lost because I can't seem to get by without excessive reference. I know references are paramount, but when the reference itself drives the actual piece, I consider that more of a crutch. Jonathan Lampel had a good take on this in one of his head sculpting guides.

    I did a lot of pencil drawing in my youth, and got pretty good at sketching out mechanical or architectural shapes. For some reason, I can't summon that ability now, and I'm not sure where it went...

    The Concepting stuff on CGCookie is quite intimidating. Do you have any suggestions on where to start from the bottom? Despite my past experience, I'd prefer something introductory. Assume that I don't have any prior experience.

  • jgonzalez 

    List-making is definitely a habit of mine as well. Coincidentally, I'm also a programmer by trade. I did a lot of game and engine development in the past, which reinforced the idea that everything needs to be mapped and structured. Maybe I'm applying that logic to my creative works, and my method isn't working here.

    I tend to end up with mountains of lists that I can't seem to execute. That's not entirely the list's fault, but they tend to get away from me. I'm good at making lists for base-line ideas and high concepts, but individal todo lists for larger art projects or games tend to become difficult to manage. If I have an idea, I jot it down in a text file, and then file it into my project folder for later. The breaking point seems to occur somewhere between recording the skeleton of the idea, and then creating the proper project roadmap.

    This isn't specifically an art or game thing, as it seems to plague everything I do. Somehow, at some point, I was able to do it, but once again, those skills have left me.

    I have a folder of projects I'd like to return to, but I decided to pursue CGCookie's flows for a bit longer until I feel more confident in revisiting them.

    I was throwing around the idea of starting on your "Creating a Tower Defense" course. I wonder if that might help me reevalulate my method of approach for my own projects.

    I'm familiar with the phrase, "good artists borrow, great artists steal.", I was not aware of the book though, I'll check it out.

  • spikeyxxx 

    You've got me pegged, I'm a perfectionist at heart. I've been trying to work on relaxing that over the years. It's one of those nasty habits that I'm trying to reevalulate.

    You are right, I am afraid of failure. It's something that is very difficult to work around. A lot of the stuff I've made in the past is openly on display, but actual productive feedback for it is very sparse(i.e., the internet). In that kind of environment, you end up coaching yourself into this corner where you need everything to be impeccable upon release, despite the fact that there is literally nothing at stake the VAST majority of the time.

    On that note, one realization I had the day after I posted this topic was that I used to base a lot of what I made on what other people deemed valuable. Money and noteriety drive a lot of things, but at a certain point they become intoxicating. Essentially, many of my projects(which were entirely for fun, in my free time), would be driven by the expectation they would need to perform as a product or service, despite the fact that I don't actually need any of them to turn a profit. It's a bizarre scenario, in hindsight. It's my hobby, yet I allowed other people to corrupt it by assigning it arbitrary value.

    That false reality would creep in on every project. I'd quit projects constantly because "I" felt like they were a waste of time. What I'm finding out is that it's not my opinion driving that sentiment, it's other peoples'.

    I don't know if the issue I've described is common, but I can certainly say that, in the time I've spent trying to make things "valuable", all I ever did was waste time. I never really completed anything that could be sold, so that mindset turned out to be entirely self-defeating.

    Also, don't worry about being "wrong" or "right", I'm polling people for their experience to help me reevaluate mine. You read what I had to say and responded with helpful advice. You added something valuable to the conversation. If there is a chance that it sparks something in me, or perhaps even some random viewer that stumbles upon this later, then voicing it is all the more worth it.

  • astute Failure is always seen as this horrible, detrimental, self-depreciating thing for a person in society.  Yes, failure happens.  Sometimes someone gets the wrong end of the stick and find themselves in a bad position.  However, failure is never pointless.  You can always learn from failure, from your mistakes, from avenues of though that didn't work out as you intended.  I believe as long as you always learn something from your shortcomings, you're never failing yourself.  Some of the greatest artists out there have experimented and tried weird things that others would classify as "failure," but they take what they learned about those ventures to better enhance their craft.

    It'll take some practice to let go of your fear of failure, but I suggest you just let go and experiment.  You don't have to post what you feel is less than your best work, as long as you learned something in the process.  Grab some paints and just splatter them all over a canvas or grab some clay and make weird shapes.  Do some gestural sculpting in Blender.  Don't worry about making it perfect, just make something interesting.  Then once you have something interesting, you can refine it.

    Use other people's feedback to guide you, not define you.  Everybody has their own style, you just have to find yours.  Pay attention to objective critiques, like anatomy practice or composition techniques.  These critiques will help you to understand where you are in your fundamental understanding.  Listen to the more subjective critiques with a grain of salt.  Since people's experiences are different, it can flavor their perception of your work when they critique.  If a majority of the critiques go against what you're trying to say with your art, then maybe you can take that feedback and reevaluate where that communication in your piece broke down and do better next time.

    I understand your fear and it will be very nerve-wracking to get past that fear.  It may never go away, but don't let it hold you back.  I still get nervous publishing something that isn't in my comfort zone, but I know I need the feedback, so I don't let it stop me.  You can do it, too, just one step at a time.  You got this.

  • crew

    astute Honestly everything you've written is something I've experienced personally. I'm always looking to create new things which at first turn out as fun hobbies then I start saying "how is this valuable to me". Inevitably it comes down to "how can I make money from this" or something along those lines. You then start to only focus on working instead of enjoying the project and learning along the way. 

    I can't say I've done away with that mentality, but I am slowly learning to enjoy things just to enjoy them. I'm also somewhat of a perfectionist at times as well, and always want to polish things up just a little bit longer. The thing is, with art, there is no definite ending point. I use the term "art" loosely, but essentially it's anything creative. When is a 3d model "perfect"? When is that drawing impeccable and ready to go out? It's so highly debatable that it can drive you crazy trying to perfect it. It's much easier to perfect something that specific guidelines that you can accurately measure. 

    That said, learn to live with imperfections. Progress is progress even if it looks ugly. If you're not working on something because it won't be perfect then you're not moving forward. Creating something terrible is better than nothing at all.  I'm not as skilled as I'd like to be in game art, but I'm working on it and sometimes you just need to say something is done and move on. Regardless of what you work on, it'll teach you something new, especially if it was challenging.

    If you're anything like me, you might also be a perfectionist because you want to avoid criticism of your work. It sucks when someone leaves a negative comment, even more so when it hits an insecurity you have. You have to learn to deal with that and see it as a way to improve. That said don't try to please everyone. Create something you enjoy,  put it out there and forget about the comments. Putting anything out there you create for others to see is a brave thing. Take constructive criticism from those you look to learn from and ignore those who leave nothing of value. 

  • It feels odd coming back to this, but I wanted to post an update. I took the advice here, talked with other people about the issue, and then went to work re-examining my workflow. Multiple questions came from this line of inquiry. "Why do I simply stop working on something?", "Why do I not improve past a certain threshold?", "Why do I have so much creative anxiety?", "Why am I stuck in the same patterns?"

    I was able to answer a few of these questions, at least partly. I've been tutoring others recently, which requires explaining ones own methods, and justifying decisions. In doing so, I identified multiple personal failings. However, I also recognized some of my greatest strengths. It was then I began to realize, at least partly, why I was having so much mental anguish.

    It's hard to explain this, as it requires a lot of context. I'll try to keep it brief and concise.

    When I was young, I was very creative and thrived on imagination. I was also very impressionable. I never really planned things beyond a surface level, and I ended up training myself to be adaptive rather than structured. I thrived on that method.

    At some point, I was told that my way was wrong. If you don't plan, you'll never accomplish anything. If you don't structure things, how do you know if what you are doing is right? Being adaptive and freeform is destructive and aimless. Chaotic intuition leads to failure, you need order to succeed.

    So, I took that to heart. With everything I did after that, I would constantly doubt myself. I would chastise myself when I did something unexpected. I became really reactive to imaginary edge cases. I couldn't throw anything away, because I was afraid I wouldn't be able to recreate it. I would look at new projects as insurmountable, because I couldn't evaluate every possible scenario at the outset. I would heavily rely on reference photos or diagrams because I didn't have confidence in my imagination. I would become paralysed by a percieved lack of, essentially, an in-humanly infinite amount of foresight.

    Eventually, I developed a self-defeating mindset, that the reason I couldn't succeed was because I didn't plan well enough. Each project would inevitabely fail, because I would get buried increasingly under oversight. My plans could not keep up with unexpected problems that arose, and the rest of my work would be too rigidly designed to adapt to the required changes. I would then lose hope in my idea, and then shelve the project after a few weeks of inactivity. It was a continous cycle of failure, built upon a cancerous philosophy of rigid structure, a plethora of creative shame, and a suffocating lack of necessary spontaneity.

    Armed with this realization, I can now re-embrace a line of thinking that feels more natural. I can embrace a chaotic side that has always been there, but was heavily suppressed by an flawed set of beliefs. I don't need to structure what I make. I should just make it and see what happens. If I need to change something, I change it. I cannot exhaustively plan for everything.

    I've been reopening many of my shelved projects, and finding that the overwhelming anxiety is greatly reduced. I still have to fight my old habits, but I know what they look like now. I can re-approach my projects without the toxic "foresight" that previously "needed" to be in place. Strangely, the quality of my work has improved quite noticeably as well.

    I'm not saying I've figured it all out. This is merely part of the (re-)learning process. I'm still evaluating my methodology.

    Anyway, thanks for reading. Once again, it'll be weird coming back to this one in a few months.