Learning To Learn
As a budding technical artist, I’ve had to steadily pick up skills from across the art-to-tech spectrum: Unity. Maya. Modeling, rigging, animation. C# and Python. On this journey, I’ve come to understand that the real challenge lies not in figuring out what to learn, but rather how to learn.
There’s a wealth of tutorial videos out there laying out every step of modelling a character, recreating Pong in Unity, you name it — but how do we retain that knowledge? How do we grow past relying on tutorials and cook up something great on our own?
The process of learning is foundational to success in anything, and yet most movies gloss over the entire process in a 20-second, rock-music-charged montage. In this article, I’d like to lift the veil and put forward some actual tips on how to learn well.
1. Do It the Hard Way
There’s such a thing as learning something “too easily”. In programming, for example, you may find some extremely spoon-fed tutorials that spell out exactly which words to type where. It’s possible to finish an entire “Python course” in a week this way, but you’ll likely be hard-pressed to remember anything the next day. (Yup, I went through this myself.)
Real learning has to hurt a little. Your first priority is to shed the training wheels of the tutorial itself as your one reference: write flash cards, repeat concepts several times in your head, and, most importantly, practice on your own by deviating from the tutorial, if only a bit at first.
After a coding tutorial for a Celsius-to-Fahrenheit converter, make your own for Inches to Centimetres. Then vice versa. Then maybe try integrating Feet and Metres. As you slowly branch out, your independence will begin to blossom. (For the record, this was how I eventually learned Python for real.)
Here’s another one. In programming and especially art, multi-part tutorials tend to come with work-in-progress files at each stage.
“Welcome to Part 4! This is what your model should look like, but you can also download the completed files for Part 3 here!”
Don’t. Never take up that offer! Not only are you getting a bunch of correctly-done work for free, you’re also missing out entirely on the small steps along the way that help you learn. Start at Part 1 and fight your way through.
It’s for this same reason that copy-pasting code from tutorials is also a no-go. It’s best to figure it out on your own — at the very least copy by typing it out letter by letter. It’s sort of the same principle as handwriting your lecture notes with pen and paper — the muscle memory alone will help with retention.
2. Try Every Button (And Save Right Before!)
Whether it’s Photoshop, Maya, Unity, or another program that presents you with ten thousand buttons on startup, you may have found yourself intimidated by the sheer scope of stuff-you-don’t-know. You’ve watched tutorials, but they only cover so much ground— what’s next?
Try everything! Go nuts. You learn by doing, so there’s nothing quite like doing a bit of everything.
You’re the cartoon kid at the control panel (“What does this button do?”) and software isn’t perfect, so you can expect your probing to cause sudden and irreparable explosions. Maya, for example, is famously prone to crashing from boolean operations, like subtracting one mesh from another.
What this means is that you should practice the following diligently:
SAVE OFTEN. CREATE BACKUPS.
Losing hours of saved work from messing around is a total waste, and building up the habit of hitting Ctrl+S regularly will make your learning process that much smoother.
What you may also discover is that in most modern software, there’s usually more than one way to do the same task. Trying every button is a good way to figure out all your options and develop your own preferred workflow.
In Maya, almost all your tools are buried deep in several layers of menus, which is a pain if you’re carrying out the same operation over and over again. Try different combinations of holding down Shift, the spacebar, and the right mouse button — you’ll end up able get to any of those tools in under a second.
3. Compare Your Results With the Very Best
This seems obvious, but it’s worth elaborating on. When you’ve been staring at your own work for hours, days, even months, it’s easy to lose your sense of how good or bad it is.
This is why it’s important to keep references: A character model with perfectly done eyelids, a game with a similar mechanic to yours, anything that fits the bill.
When developing my own platform game, I looked up videos of other classic platformers with sharp jump controls (Mega Man, Chip ‘N Dale Rescue Rangers) and constantly Alt+Tabbed between my game window and YouTube to get my character’s jump speed exactly right.
It’s also important to make a distinction here— I like comparing results, but not progress. This is where the whole “don’t compare yourself to others” saying comes in. We do all learn at different speeds and through different means, so there’s no sense in stressing out over how far ahead some people are. It’s the end result that counts!
Learning is scary, it’s difficult, but it’s always worth the effort. Right now, I continue to learn at my job every day — and I’m trying my best to apply these same three principles along the way. I hope you find success doing the same!