illo talk: Learn, create, repeat: how to better study inspiration and reference

I wasn’t exactly sure what to name this video…

How to study inspiration How to breakdown reference How to learn from your idols How to reverse-engineer composition

Or go with something sensational like, “How pinterest is killing self education” or “the millennials’ guide to consuming everything while never learning anything”

Ultimately, I went with something simple: Learn, create, repeat: how to better study inspiration and reference.

I see a lot of beginners failing to understand the basic idea of deconstructing professional work. In anything that you’re learning to do well, you have to figure out how to close the gap between creative ability and the pros ability. There are two questions that you should ask when comparing your work to professional work

What am I doing that they’re not? What are they doing that I’m not?

While this seems overly simplistic, this type of study is crucial and often overlooked. Now, in no way should you copy other people’s work or try to mimic someone else’s style… BUT, someone who is producing work at a professional competitive level has learned how to solve visual problems and they’ve learned what, when, how and why to do things AND what to avoid.

Most people view art, illustration, photography, etc by speeding past hundreds of examples. People used to go to art galleries and sit and look at a single piece of work for long periods of time. Now, with google images, pinterest, tumblr, instagram, etc, we have access to an infinite number of images to consume.

But you have to understand something extremely important: spending a few minutes browsing hundreds of images is NOT studying. This is merely eye candy, empty calories that make you feel full, but offers absolutely no nutritional value. This type of visual snacking is the educational equivalent of eating ramen noodles every meal of every day… sure, it makes the hunger pains go away, but you’re going to die a ignominious and malnutritioned death and if you want to grow up to be big and strong you need to eat your vegetables (and I don’t mean mixing a can of peas in with your ramen)

By studying their work and looking at their process, you can begin to learn how to do professional work. By doing this often while you are creating work of your own, you will begin to internalize what you’re seeing and eventually you will be able to apply the things you’ve learned without thinking too much about it.

As you begin to dive deeper and deeper into the study of quality work, you’ll begin to see deeper levels and how the elements work together.

Level 1: identifying good work Level 2: recognizing that there is something that makes the composition work Level 3: identifying the elements that make up the composition Level 4: understanding how individual elements of the composition work Level 5: understanding how those elements work together as a system

  • Spend time on a single image at a time
  • Do draw overs
  • Write your observations down by hand
  • Constantly be creating your own work (don’t get into “learning paralysis” where you fool yourself into thinking that you’ll get better solely by study without creating your own work”

Study > create > study > create

And each time you go around this cycle you'll bring greater knowledge and skills from the last time

Illustration: Washington Outgunned

If you haven't listened to the soundtrack to Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton on Broadway, then you need to stop and do that right away. It is so good that I'm now reading Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton.

Hamilton, never a U.S. president, created our financial system, the coast guard, first Secretary of the Treasury and was George Washington's right-hand man during the revolutionary war and his presidency. In this illustration, I incorporated lyrics from "Right Hand Man" as General Washington was introduced in this play.

Watch the speed drawing.

The following video shows the process of creating this illustration, starting in my sketchbook, creating basic shapes in Adobe Illustrator and then finishing it all off with digital inks and color in Adobe Photoshop.

In this episode of illo talk, I tackle the challenge of

Becoming a Working Freelancer

What is the best approach to take to become a freelancer and how do you attract clients?

"I've said it many years and nobody ever takes note of it because it's not the answer they want to so good they can't ignore you... If somebody's thinking 'How can I be really good' then the people will come to you" - Steve Martin

Know it, Do it, Show it, Repeat

The challenge of becoming a working freelancer is two-fold. On the one hand, you need clients willing to pay and on the other hand you need a body of work that proves you are worth being paid. It seems like a catch 22 situation, but it isn't. You don't need clients to build a body of work, you need a personal project.

  • Know what you want to do
    • Be specific
    • Can change over time, but focus and let it evolve
    • Do something good, when that stops working, do something else good
    • Do it
      • Create the type of things that you'd like to create
      • Choose a personal project that will help you create and showcase what you want to do
      • Work for free, but work for yourself
      • Many people wait for clients to do the work that they'd like to do, but a client isn't going to hire you if they haven't seen you make things.
      • Show it
        • Wip, Show your work posts, the story, or narrative of your work should be shared
        • if you are constantly creating and sharing your work, then people will see what you're making and you'll be known for that type of work
        • you'll build a body of work that you can use to promote yourself.
        • Repeat

Other tips mentioned in this episode

  • Seek to make people's lives better
  • Follow people on Twitter and interact in a non-creepy/fanboy way
  • Support other creators on Kickstarter, Patreon, etc (give and take, law of harvest)
  • Be Patient it'll happen
  • Be consistent
  • Have a website (not .wordpress, .blogger, weebly, but a dot com/net/ whatever. Even .ink or .art)
  • Design your site to feature you work. Focus it.
  • Social media

Suggested Reading, Listening and Watching

If you'd like me to talk about something specific or you want to be notified of future episodes, illustrations etc, then jump over to to subscribe to my email newsletter. Hit me up with questions at