Aaron Rutten is an artist and educator from Seattle, Washington, USA. With a highly successful YouTube channel, he shares his artistic knowledge and delves deep into his process of painting such things as landscapes, as well as specific objects in a "Draw This" series. He also regularly vlogs on art topics and holds interesting artist hangout sessions with other digital artists. His passion for art really shows in his videos and his willingness to share his artistic process for the benefit of others around the world is truly genuine.
This year, Aaron was also chosen as a Corel Painter Master, for his dedication to his craft, his unique style, and his masterful use of Corel Painter. While congratulating him on this achievement, I thought it would be great to get to know more about the artist and his art, and share his story with others.
Renderosity: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your artistic background? When did you realize your passion for art?
Aaron: I've been interested in art ever since I could pick up a crayon. My father is skilled at drawing, so I'd say he's my primary source of inspiration because I wanted to be able to draw as well as he could. Both of my parents encouraged me to be creative and made sure I always had art supplies. As a kid, I enjoyed watching cartoons, reading picture books and collecting comics. I wanted to make things like that when I grew up. Even at a young age, I appreciated and envied the skill it took to create art. More so, I liked that it was a tool to explore my imagination and sometimes, a place to escape to.
I took art classes in grade school and high school. Art was, of course, my favorite subject. I'm sure my old classmates and teachers wouldn't be surprised at my career choice, considering I was usually doodling and making comics rather than doing my assignments. In college, I took Commercial Art, but I dropped out after a year because I decided I wasn't heading in the right direction. At the time, I preferred the idea of selling traditional art in galleries to making art on a computer. Isn't it funny how things change?
After dropping out of college, I decided to try to make it on my own by soliciting galleries and cafes to sell or display my work. I did get a few cafes to display my work and a few people bought my art here and there, but it wasn't enough money to live off of. To be honest, it's because my early work was crude and I didn't know the first thing about selling art. The drawings weren't so bad, but the quality of the materials and presentation were. I would do things like try to sell unframed drawings on computer paper that were pinned down to the sidewalk with rocks at the Pioneer Square ArtWalk in Downtown Seattle. And, occasionally, people did buy my work if they liked the piece. Unfortunately, it wasn't too long before the Pioneer Square gallery owners had all of the street artists thrown out. And selling art off the street during the ArtWalk was no more.
Due to my lack of success, I had to choose between getting a job or floundering as an artist. I chose to postpone my dream of being an artist for a while and worked various jobs that I did not enjoy. The most recent was furniture moving. I would shuffle around people's heavy furniture all day long. Couches, pianos, big screen TVs, pool tables, you name it. After years of working a punishing job and dreaming of what I'd rather be doing, I had a revelation. First, I decided that I didn't want to waste my talent. I spent years developing a skill, so why not at least try to use it to make a living? Second, I knew if I worked as hard at being an artist as I had at furniture moving, I'd be able to make ends meet. And last, I was fed up with being unhappy, so I made a resolution to get my art career back on track.
After work and on my days off, I started tinkering with graphic design on my computer. I learned how to use a little bit of Photoshop and Illustrator in college, so I had a small foundation to build upon. I used books and online tutorials to learn how to design professionally. I was surprised at how much you can learn on your own if you just take the time to look. Eventually, I started placing "Artist For Hire" ads on Craigslist and I would get the occasional gig. The more work I completed, the more I could show as examples on my website. And the more I learned about design, the more skills I could offer as services.
When I discovered drawing tablets, it really opened a lot of doors for me creatively. Digital was the medium I had been missing. It was yet another way to make money as an artist and I enjoyed illustrating a lot more than designing posters and websites. As I became more successful, I began to see that my former preconceptions of how to be a successful artist were quickly crumbling. I was certain that digital art was the way forward. It was a slow uphill climb, but after about 8 years of working a day job and freelancing part-time, I was finally able to tell my employer, "I quit!" It was one of the most satisfying moments of my life because I really despised that guy. From that moment on, I have been making a living from my skills as a freelance artist and designer.
More recently in my career, I have been phasing out graphic design services and focusing more on teaching digital art. I guess I got burned out from doing so many designs. That's the good thing about being freelance, you can go in any direction you want and change directions at any time. I'm certain I wouldn't be happy had I stayed in college because I'd probably be stuck working for a company. I might have never known the joy and freedom of being my own boss and owning my own business.
Thousand Arm Buddha
Do you have a lot of experience in traditional art? If so, when did you cross over into digital art?
Yes, I do. For the first half of my life, I used mostly pencil, crayons, colored pencil, ink, and charcoal. I dabbled with various types of paint but found them to be frustrating and messy. After working with digital media, I revisited acrylic and discovered I was quite good. I believe it helped to practice painting digitally because I learned a lot about painting without having to waste materials. Whether you make digital or traditional art, you get a lot of insight from both experiences. I believe this makes you a better painter, regardless of the medium you use. When I'm not making digital art, I enjoy drawing with ink on paper and woodburning. I've even mixed digital media with traditional media in collages.
My first digital art experience was with a V-Tech tablet that plugged into a TV and allowed me to create rudimentary illustrations on screen. Later, I got Mario Paint for Super Nintendo and I used that to experiment with making digital graphics and animations. In 5th and 6th grade, we had a computer class where I often used KidPix to make digital art. Although at the time, I considered those activities to be entertainment rather than art. I certainly never imagined I'd be using the skills I learned from Mario Paint to make money.
What can you tell us about your creative process?
My process varies from piece to piece, but typically I'll start composing the piece with a sketch and then refine the sketch until I'm happy with the layout. Next, I focus on adding Shape to each object. I create separate layers for overlapping objects in my composition. After establishing Shape, I add Form to the objects. Then I tint, blend, transform, apply effects and add the finishing touches.
If I'm painting something based on a reference image, I take some time beforehand to study one or more reference images. I break the subject down into its basic elements. First, I look at the object as simple primitive shapes. Next, I analyze the form, value, color, texture, composition and so on. This helps to make complex subjects more manageable.
Do you listen to music while creating? If so, what?
Yes. I almost always have music playing while I illustrate. When I'm not painting, I usually shuffle my music, but shuffle can be distracting while working because I feel the need to change the song repeatedly if I don't like what's playing. I find that putting on an album or themed playlist helps to keep the mood consistent and is less distracting. I've recently discovered Spotify which gives me access to all the music I could ever want. I enjoy discovering old and underrated music. I can't stand most modern music.
Genre-wise, I like classic rock, the 60s, 70's, 80's, Motown, R&B, and new jack swing. I'll just throw out some albums and bands I like. 'Nightshift' is a great album by the Commodores, Elton John's 'Tumbleweed Connection' has a unique 1800's aesthetic, 'Soul Alone' by Daryl Hall gives me a nostalgic 90's feeling, 'Animals' by Pink Floyd is a strange eerie trip, 'Blue' by Joni Mitchell has emotional depth and 'Hemispheres' by Rush is an adventure set in Greek mythology. As far as artists, I like Hall & Oates, Elton John, Ray Charles, The Guess Who, David Bowie, Marvin Gaye, The Monkees, The Moody Blues, Player, Nick Drake, Orpheus, Rodriguez, Procol Harum, The Youngbloods, Kyu Sakamoto, Scott McKenzie and Steely Dan, to name a few.
What inspires you? Are there any particular artists that have influenced your work?
I'm inspired by observations I make throughout life and life experiences. My work is also influenced by my interest in nature, animals, science, astronomy, biology and history. A few of the artists who have influenced my work are Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Robert Crumb, Bob Ross, Bill Alexander, Stan Lee, Todd McFarlane & Gary Larson. You'll definitely see homages to some of these guys in my portfolio.
You paint a wide variety of subjects, and your YouTube videos show you painting everything from landscapes to specific objects in your "Draw This" series. What do you prefer to paint, personally? What genre do you most enjoy?
My favorite genre would be surrealism because it's fun to draw things that are familiar to us but do not or could not exist in our reality. It's also more fun to obscure the message in a piece rather than having it right up front. I don't paint a whole lot of surrealism lately, but I'd like to get back into it when I have more time to make self-indulgent art.
As far as subjects, I like variety. It feels more challenging to paint something different rather than the same thing every time. I've learned a lot from painting random subjects and I highly recommend it to anyone seeking an effective form of practice.
Congratulations on achieving the honor of Painter Master from Corel this year! What can you tell us about your experience with Corel Painter over the years? What originally drew you to Painter, and what do you love about it?
I feel honored to be a Painter Master. It's been a dream of mine ever since I began digital painting. Corel Painter 9 was one of the first digital painting applications I discovered after I bought my first drawing tablet. I have tried drawing with Photoshop and lots of other applications, but Painter stands out because of its robust set of features and unrivaled natural media effects. When I try other digital art software, I always feel like a lot of essential features are missing. From organic-looking media and paper textures to perspective guides and symmetry-painting, Painter has everything an artist would expect and then some. In my experience, nothing comes closer to providing a natural painting experience than Painter.
Opening Painter for the first time can be overwhelming with the many brush choices available. What would you tell someone new to Painter?
My best advice is, "Less is more." You don't need a thousand brushes to make a painting. Just take some time to experiment with a few brushes from each category. If there are any you like, hold shift and drag them onto your workspace to make them easily accessible. Regardless of what you're painting, you'll want to choose the right brush for the job. So, if you are painting leaves, find a brush that looks like leaves. Even better, find a brush that can make multiple leaves in a single stroke, like the Impressionist brush. That will save you a lot of time and will spare your hand from cramping up. I have a small set of brushes that I use for nearly every painting. You can check those out on my website: http://www.aaronrutten.com/contribute-2016.html
Also, don't feel like you are limited to using only one category of media. Digital media can be mixed in ways that traditional media cannot.
When I found your YouTube channel, I was so impressed with the variety of subjects and the way you teach. When did you first decide to go out and share your knowledge? What keeps you doing it?
When I first started digital painting, I wasn't able to find many tutorials that taught digital painting in a comprehensive way. Most of the videos I found either gave overviews of the software or were speed paintings with little narration that just explained obvious things like which brushes the artists were using. They also weren't using many layers, which I felt were a major advantage of working digitally. I wanted to know the principles of painting and how it can be applied to digital media more than I wanted to watch someone just demonstrate their technique. I came to realize I was going to have to come up with my own techniques for painting digitally.
With each painting, I developed my own techniques based on practical experience and experimentation. And I adapted traditional painting techniques to digital whenever I could. Once I had refined my techniques to a point where I could describe them to others, I decided to try my hand at creating my own video tutorials. I've always enjoyed Bob Ross and Bill Alexander videos because they show you techniques and art theory while creating a piece of art from beginning to end. I took a lot of inspiration from their work and decided to apply it to my own. I experimented with posting a few tutorials to YouTube in 2012, but I didn't get serious about posting until the Summer of 2013. As my channel began to grow, I could see how valuable my tutorials were to other digital artists. I would (and still do) get emails and comments daily from people who have been helped by my videos. It felt good to know that people in countries around the world were learning how to make digital art with my tutorials. I was beginning to see that teaching art was going to have a more meaningful impact on the world than just selling art. This inspired me to shift my focus towards being an educator and evangelizing digital.
You can check out my free digital art tutorials at: http://www.youtube.com/aaronrutten
Producing all the free video tutorials at the pace you do certainly consumes an awful lot of your time, so I want to mention your Patreon site, so anyone who enjoys and benefits from your videos are able to donate and keep you working. Can you elaborate a bit about your Patreon site and the goals you've set?
I couldn't agree more. Creating videos is a lot of work. It's a full-time job on its own. Patreon is a website that allows my viewers to show their appreciation and support my channel by making a small monthly donation. Donations from my Patrons helps improve the quality of my productions by giving me a budget to buy equipment and pay for expenses.
Patreon also allows me to set goals, which my Patrons can help me achieve. For example, I have a YouTube series called 'Digital Painting Outdoors' where I travel around the Seattle area to make landscape paintings outdoors. One of my goals is to establish a budget that will enable me to travel to places around the US, and possibly around the world, to make painting videos. I have other goals that are slightly less lofty like hosting semi-monthly webinars. Funding from my Patrons would help cover expenses like GoToWebinar which charges a hefty monthly fee. As a reward for helping me unlock that goal, Patrons would get free admission to the webinars. There are lots of other rewards for Patrons like ad-free early-access to my new videos, exclusive behind-the-scenes content and coupons to save 50% to 75% off my online video training courses.
If you enjoy my free tutorials and you'd like to support my work, you can make a donation at http://www.patreon.com/AaronRutten
What are your proudest achievements? Is there anything you would consider career highlights as an artist?
Just being able to thrive as an artist is what I'm the proudest of. It's not an easy feat by any means. To be a successful artist as well is a very special experience. I have had students travel from as far away as Qatar to study with me in-person. That feels almost unreal. I've had the opportunity to meet and work with famous Seattle artists like Gary Larson and Dav Pilke, who I have assisted as they cross over into drawing digitally. I'm proud to call myself a Corel Painter Master and I feel honored to have my artwork featured in the Corel Painter 2015 box and on the welcome screen for Painter 2015 and Painter 2016. It also feels good to reach viewer milestones on YouTube. Currently, I have nearly 20,000 subscribers and over 3.5 Million views on my videos. That's way more exposure than I would have received if I had limited myself to showing my work in local cafes and galleries.
Do you have any favorite works?
Escape Route, Thousand Arm Buddha, Human Eye, Fried Egg
You can see more of my work on my website at: http://www.aaronrutten.com and on facebook at http://www.facebook.com/aaronruttenart
Is there anything you'd like to do that you haven't already?
I'd like to take my YouTube series called 'Digital Painting Outdoors' to the next level and travel around the world to create painting videos at famous landmarks and scenic places. I'd also like to travel to teach digital art workshops and perform live paintings.
Outside of creating art, what are your other hobbies or passions?
I enjoy composing music. I write and play on a keyboard. I once believed that if I wasn't able to make it as a visual-artist, I might be able to have success as a musician. It was more of a pipe dream than a reality. I recorded and played shows with a few bands here and there, but nothing ever took off. Now that I'm more focused on my art career, I've given up on the idea of becoming a successful musician, but I still play and write for fun. If you check out my YouTube series called 'ArtSounds,' you can get a sample of some of the music I have created over the years.
Do you have any final thoughts or words of advice for those getting started in digital painting?
The best advice I can give you is to believe in yourself and don't give up on your dream. Whether you want to make art professionally or just as a hobby, it takes dedication to build talent and have success. I know from personal experience, it's too easy to become your own obstacle by doubting your own abilities. If you don't have any external source of encouragement, you have to encourage yourself. If you believe you will succeed, it will become a reality in time.
Aaron Rutten's website
Aaron Rutten's YouTube Channel
Aaron Rutten's Patreon Page
Corel Painter 2016
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