Self Teaching for the Modern Digital Artist

Amazing 3D scene by the self taught digital master  fvckrender

Amazing 3D scene by the self taught digital master fvckrender

Higher education is culturally viewed as a universal standard. In many circumstances, it can be very difficult to get a job without a degree. But depending on career field, the usefulness of that degree in the workforce beyond its credibility is up for debate.  


Art school specifically is a unique environment, with the presence of so many creative disciplines providing a plethora of learning opportunities.  But what’s important to enabling this disciplinary crossover is having a solid system of advising for students. It can be overwhelming and difficult for young artists to navigate with so many resources and differing schools of thought. A little expert guidance from counselors and advisors can be very useful for students who are trying channel their creativity but may not have the foresight to envision how their paths might evolve. 


In the instance that art school is too expensive or if you emerge with questions unanswered, there are many options for constructing your own kind of learning experience. All you need is time and internet access. The internet grants a portal to an endless supply of resources, many of them free. The key is knowing where to look for them, and also knowing yourself. This is critical to determining which of these resources will be the most useful to you. You have the power to create your own structures and systems of learning that are tailored best to suit your lifestyle.


This post specifically relates to multimedia, video, and interactive arts. If you are trying to add some sort of dimension to your art through technology, there are tons of programs out there that could help you do so!


An important part of this process is exploring social media. For visual media sites like instagram, youtube/vimeo, and instagram are great places to get inspired. Algorithms that follow your browsing patterns help you discover new artists relevant to your interests. A lot of artists are very open about sharing their work and the processes that occur behind the scenes, which can point you in the direction of some valuable learning resources. 

Pier Paolo

Pier Paolo



If motion is your thing (like me!!) there are a couple resources that are especially important, not only for their content but also the community they draw. Learning through others, whether through online forums, youtube comments, or Facebook groups, will help you fill in the gaps when questions arise. 


One of my favorite places to look for guidance is motionographer. This is sort of a creative hotbed for all who have interests in motion. There are so many different kinds of styles and projects represented here! Staff chosen videos, artist interviews, tutorials, and job postings are only a few of the awesome resources featured on motionographer. This is also a great place to get a sense of whats going on in the industry- which companies are using motion in their marketing campaigns and how they’re going about it. You also have the option to submit your own work! I also really like thesystemis blog created by Zach Lieberman, one of the cofounders of the creative coding library openFrameworks. 

Absorbing and gaining inspiration from what you consume online is a good way to figure out what you want to learn if you don't already have an idea. If you’re really inspired by animated TV shows and narrative storylines, Toonboom is a great animation program to learn. If you’re into video games or designing environments, game design platforms like Unity are pretty user friendly. If you’re inspired by visual effects in music videos and movies, try experimenting with After effects, Cinema4d, and Premiere pro. If you like data visualization, infographics, and interactive arts, processing is a programming platform that is a great entry point to coding. And if you want to experiment with audio-visual and projected media, video mixing software like Resolume is an amazing place to start! Projection-mapping software like MadMapper can really elevate your visuals and you can also play with electronics like Arduino and midi controllers to streamline your creative process (this will be discussed further in future posts).  


Literary resources can be very helpful in teaching yourself skills, although if you’re a visual person (as most artists tend to be) this may not be as easy to focus on as an instructional tutorial. However, if you’re really interested in interactives and coding, “Programming Interactivity” by Joshua Noble is a great resource to have on hand.  


Speaking of tutorials, this can be one of the most useful and constructive means of learning. The way I look at it, there are two different kinds of tutorials- instructional versus interactive. The former is good for beginners, while the latter can be useful for implementing what you’ve learned into your own projects. If you prefer tutorials that are structured like a school curriculum, you can actually audit classes from a wide variety of universities online at Kadenze, many of which are free! Courses such as introduction to programming for the visual arts do a great job of breaking down subjects that can seem overwhelming at first glance. 


For a more freeform approach, youtube is the way to go. Tutorials there can range from beginning to very advanced. When it comes to learning coding my absolute favorite channel is The Coding Train by Dan Shiffman. A professor at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications program, Dan makes learning to program user friendly and actually very fun! I love his videos because he’s so enthusiastic and breaks down complex content into very manageable chunks. Many different topics are represented on his channel, all of which begin at a base level and then go very in depth. Dan’s channel also features user submitted coding challenges, which still provides the knowledge of an instructional as well as examples for how to apply that knowledge to solve problems. 


For working with programs like cinema4d and after effects, channels like Greyscalegorilla and Daniel Danielsson provide both instructional and interactive approaches. Some videos feature instructional how to’s, while some feature user submitted challenges or a behind the scenes look at a completed project. This is super awesome and helpful for people interested in VFX who want to learn about particles, fluid dynamics, and simulating physical systems. 

The benefits of learning through video tutorials or auditing online courses is that you can do it on your own time. Unlike school where you have to show up when class is in session, you can watch one 20 minute tutorial a day for a week. Or if you don’t want to commit that heavily, you can just dabble. You can explore many different topics in one sitting or focus on one at a time; it’s up to you. However, sometimes this amount of freedom can be unnerving. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, or suffer from a lack of guidance. If your program isn’t behaving the way your video instructors is, you can’t ask them a question directly. Sometimes if you google it or look on a forum, you’re getting a lot more information than you might want or need. (Forum’s are a whole other topic that I will likely dive into in a later post).


Now when it comes to actually getting the software, some is more accessible than others. Some programs are totally free and open source, like Processing, Blender, and openFrameworks. For those that aren’t, there are usually free demos with limited features that allow you to try products out before actually investing in them. Cinema 4D has a great free demo, only problem is you can’t save or render. Programs like Toonboom and Final Cut Pro have a free demo as well, but usually are only available for a span of 30 days. Madmapper and Resolume each have a free demo, but their watermarks tend to pop up on your screen every couple minutes. Not exactly great for live visuals, but awesome for practicing! This is the case with many of these free demos. They aren’t the best for professional use, but they help you learn to navigate the interface and get your hands dirty.  Also a nice hack for some of these programs with the save feature disabled is screen-shotting your images in the render view, or doing a screen recording for videos. The quality isn’t the best, but its a good way to record your work and track your creative growth. 


One great way to provide a little structure to your learning process is to try a daily challenge, where you create some form of output from a specific program on a (semi) daily basis. This doesn’t work for everybody, as a lot of time and patience are required. However, this is a great way to use programs regularly and become comfortable with them. Especially if you only have a free demo for a limited time period, take advantage of it and use it as often as possible! 


Some of my favorite daily render artists are @fvckrender, @bryanplust, and @theniente. What I love about their projects is you can see such a wide range of experimentation and playfulness. fvckrender, who is a self taught 3D artist and VJ from Montreal, has over 900 days of consecutive renders available for viewing online. The hours dedicated to crafting nearly a thousand projects has yielded an immense body of work in which a high degree of mastery is evident. The daily renders have also contributed to a large online following and many professional opportunities. theniente has also amassed a large body of work by designing Virtual Reality game environments in Unity, and producing music to be played alongside them. At over 100 projects, her collection is still growing and shows a wonderful variety of different environments. Some other artists I’ve been loving lately are @paul_plastic, @hiradsab, and @extraweg

 fvckrender, theniente, and bryanplust

 fvckrender, theniente, and bryanplust

I’ve been super inspired by daily render artists. Being able to see how much someones work can grow through practice is what reassured me that self-teaching was a viable path. I studied illustration in college, but I didn’t feel fulfilled within the confines of 2D media. I knew there were vehicles out there that could aid my self expression but felt so threatened by the technicalities. The computer is an amazing tool for creating art but the possibilities are definitely overwhelming. Luckily, every day that goes by provides me with a little more knowledge and a little more insight to where I want to go, and how to get there.