Friday, 15 September 2017 marks my 11th anniversary of joining deviantart. What an incredible journey this has been, and hopefully will continue to be. According to my stats I have almost 450 watchers and over 75,000 pages views, which may seem low for somebody who has been on this site for over a decade but for which I am thankful. I mean, why not be thankful? I can brag about having hundreds of fans and technically I'd be telling the truth! I don't think of any of you as my fans though, I think of you as friends who share the same passion for art and science fiction that I do. When I first joined deviantart I was 14 years old and a little over a week away from starting my freshman year of high school. I didn't have much interest in posting my own art, and I only made the account so I could follow artists I liked and keep up with their work. I was an awkward kid (depending on who you ask, I still am) without many friends, and as such I spent a lot of time on the internet, much of it here. It was a stressful time in my life, as I had moved school districts and lost all the friends I had known up to that point (back in the day few kids had cell phones and about the only way to stay in touch, outside of actual letters, was using instant messengers like AIM, and almost none of the people I knew had their own computers). My dad had just been deployed to Iraq, which was particularly devastating since he had spent much of the 90's in Kuwait and it seemed to me at the time like he had only just gotten back before being sent right back. I was also just old enough to fully grasp the gravity of what that meant, that my dad might not be coming back (or, perhaps even worse, come back a completely different man). It was during that time in my life I developed a love for space art and science fiction. That period of time, 2006-2010, was arguably the golden era of space art on this site, and it was the greats of that era that inspired me to take up space art myself:
The works of these great artists, and many others, are what drove me to learn and improve. I taught myself to use photoshop, and over the years I honed my skills. Sometimes I became discouraged, while other times I felt my heart swell at the sight of a handful of favorites and comments. From this adventure I learned not just art skills, but important life skills: how to cope with stress, how to express myself, how to motivate myself in the face of a world that didn't seem to notice or care about me or my accomplishments. I graduated high school in 2010 a changed person, and my experiences on this site played no small part in that transformation. I would like to thank the artists here that inspired me, the people who support my artistic endeavors, and the people that made and run this site for helping me through some very tough times in my life. So, how does one celebrate being part of a community for 11 years? I tossed some ideas around in my head, but ultimately I decided that perhaps the best thing to do was look back on my time here and see just how far I've come in that time. Let's start at the beginning, shall we?
My earliest deviations were old drawings I did in middle school art classes and photos I took with my trusty digital camera I got for Christmas in 8th grade (I still have it, it still works, and it's still trusty even though my phone has a much better camera in it nowadays). These things aren't particularly interesting though, so let's skip ahead to my very first piece of space art back in 2007:
Yeesh. Planets are smooth, featureless spheres floating in a completely dark void, right? No? Well, it was my first attempt, so cut me some slack. Back then I worked with Paint.NET, and despite the fact I had no clue what I was doing I enjoyed every minute of making this piece and others like it (which, if I remember correctly, took maybe 5-10 minutes each). Many of my earliest works are like this, but I was never afraid to experiment with new techniques and new ideas, even if they came out looking terrible. These days I'm not sure I still share the same sentiment about how they turn out (for every planet I submit there's probably four or five I finish, cringe at, and then store away in a folder never to be opened again), but experimenting with new techniques and playing around with tools I haven't used before is a skill I've found invaluable for art (remember kids: it's always a good idea to play with powers beyond your comprehension, just to see what they do). For a while I took up terragen in an attempt to emulate a lot of the aforementioned greats, who often used landscapes and spacescapes in conjunction:
Majestic, truly majestic. The way the fog obscures the fact those mountains are just rock-textured cones really blends well with the generic skybox that doesn't even reach all the way down, leaving a large, black bar. Who wouldn't want to visit such a picturesque landscape? Many of these landscapes are part of some long-forgotten mythology I don't even remember developing. I did eventually learn to blend landscape and spacescape:
Look at that gorgeous gas planet. It's a wonder I ever stopped making these, as I clearly could have revolutionized terraspace art forever. Perhaps I didn't want to show up the other space artists and quit doing them for the sake of the greater good. After I made this noble sacrifice I decided to go back to making plain old spacescapes.
I was indeed improving at an alarming rate. The clouds were no longer part of the flat, smooth surface of the planet. The gas planet had more than one color, adding to the realism of the piece. And, as I stated in the description and as you can clearly see, I had mastered making nebulae by this point. I was so confident about it I decided to put it on mugs, even though I never actually did that. With this absolute masterpiece I decided I had reached the limits of what I could accomplish with Paint.NET and decided it was time to invest in photoshop, so I opened my wallet and promptly went to The Pirate Bay to get a copy. While I may have stolen this initial copy of photoshop (CS2 I believe), which was wrong of me, I can't say it wasn't worth it:
While many of the techniques I had developed in PdN were easy enough to translate over to photoshop, others were not and I became somewhat discouraged, as I felt I had simply gone back to square one. I didn't give up though, I doubled down and started looking for tutorials and guides that would help me learn the intricacies of photoshop and its powerful tools.
As my skills developed so did my personality. By this time I was starting my junior year of high school, and things were looking up. My dad had come back safely from Iraq, I had made new friends (who remain my friends to this day), and I had begun to find out who I really was and who I wanted to become--or at least who you think you really are and who you think you want to become when you're 16 years old. I delved head first into the world of science and philosophy, educating myself as much as I could and developing a taste for science fiction beyond simple scifi action thrillers and Star Trek. I started reading the works of Asimov, Heinlein, Vonnegut, and, perhaps most importantly of all, Sagan. I developed new loves for biology and computer science, and became the first member (and later administrator) of the Speculative Evolution forum. I also discovered the joy of cannabis at this time, which, as cliche as it sounds, did give me more of an appreciation for space art (and art in general) and reaffirm my belief that I too could one day be a great space artist. I also unfortunately took up tobacco as well, which I don't recommend.
While minor improvements continued to my technique I began to feel I was stagnating, and at the time a new group focused chiefly on space art developed from deviantart called The Luminarium. I joined their forums and posted some of my work for critique. At the time I was kind of offended at their words, which was stupid considering I literally asked them to do that, and looking back they honestly weren't as harsh on me as they could have been. They were quite encouraging actually, and provided me with some resources to use that would help me improve. I learned to swallow my pride and followed their advice. Although I never did attempt to join The Luminarium again I did rapidly improve thanks to their support:
While these new pieces I began to make were a definite improvement on everything I had made prior, they were part of what I now call my "cookie-cutter art" phase. I wasn't really putting as much thought into my work, and as a result it began to feel less like I was making individual, unique pieces and more like I was decorating cookies: superficially they all look different, but deep down they're all the same uniform shape and size. I began to get more attention on deviantart than I had ever gotten up to this point though, and that gave me a false sense of confidence. I began to think that perhaps I had "figured it out" and was now making space art the "right" way. So I did what any of us would do: I shamelessly stole thematic ideas from my idols.
During this period in my life I was a senior in high school and completely unsure what I wanted to do with my life. It was a source of great stress for me, and quite honestly I blame the American public education system for a lot of that as a lot of time was spent by the school counselors to push us to start choosing a college to go to and a major to study. Honestly, how do you sleep at night when you spend your day going up to 17 year old kids and telling them "you really should know what you want in life by this point and should be focusing on the career path you've surely chosen by now?" It didn't help that my family, already poor, was severely affected by the recession that was in full swing by this point. Although I had been poor my entire life, with portions of my childhood spent in literal poverty (the "living off food stamps in housing projects" kind of poverty) most of my late childhood and teen years hadn't been too bad. Suddenly though I found myself living in the basement of a three bedroom house with five other people: two were retired, two were toddlers, and one lived on tips. It was perhaps the most stressful point in my life, even to this day, and was only made worse by the loss of several friends after graduation. As people I had known for years began to move away for college or simply drift apart from me in their post-school life I began to find myself alone and uncertain about the future. I fell into a depression, something I had already struggled with for a lot of my life, and started isolating myself. I began a daily ritual of waking up some time after noon, smoking a joint in the woods, and wandering around the park until the sun started to set. I lost interest in art for a while, and considered just giving it up altogether. I wish I could tell you some kind of uplifting, amazing story about how I overcame my depression and turned my life around, but the truth is after several months of this I just got sick of feeling sorry for myself all the time and instead turned to silent self-loathing and ignoring my feelings instead of brooding. You know, like an adult.
I started channeling my frustrations into my art, deciding that even if I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life there was at least one thing I had some talent and skill in. Rather than copy my idols and follow tutorials to the letter I started to try to develop new, innovative techniques myself. By this time the golden era of space art on deviantart had begun to wane, and despite making some of the best pieces I had ever attempted the interest in the field was dropping fast among the general DA populace. Even so I decided to press forward, views or no views. My art was no longer so much about trying to become a popular deviantart space artist, now it was about me doing something I wanted to do, enjoyed doing, and was good at. As such I began to develop my own style, focusing on realism and planets rather than the more eye-catching and epic scenes of those that inspired me to take up this hobby in the first place.
I decided to start trying to make one really good planet a week, and during that time I discovered that, while people did see and like my space art, what they really enjoyed about them was the stories and descriptions that accompanied them. I learned that while my art may not be as flashy as the space art that got thousands of views and hundreds of favorites, it had something else. It made people stop and think about things they had never even considered. They would see the thumbnail and click on it out of curiosity, and find not just a picture of some imaginary planet but a world; a place with history and character. I started to get not just comments on the image itself, but questions about the world I had built around that image. I had people telling me I had made them stop and think--really think--about ideas and concepts that they never even knew existed. My art started sparking conversations and arguments, and piquing curiosities. I found that, although I never did become the famous space artist I thought I had always wanted to be, I had become something I never realized I wanted to be: a storyteller.
There isn't much more to the story from there. My technique hasn't really changed all that much, although I have developed a lot of pretty clever ways of getting detail (I have to compete with the 3D rendered planet crowd somehow), and I imagine I'll continue to do so into the future. The past 11 years have been a long--and, at times, painful--journey for me. I never did find out what I wanted to do with my life, although I have learned that it's okay to be uncertain (lately though I have been seriously considering perhaps trying my hand at being a science fiction author). Deviantart has been with me throughout that journey, and hopefully it will continue to be there in the future. I've met some life long friends on this site, and found comfort in the support of total strangers who did nothing more than say a few kind words about my art. Here's to 11 years of deviantart, and hopefully 11 more!