Lessons from Successful Self-Taught Creatives | #PlayIsWinning

 

PowerPlay Energy Drink‘s #PlayIsWinning brand message stems from the harnessing of tenacity, heart, desire, determination, courage, belief and commitment to conquer fear and achieve success. They asked us to start a conversation about what it takes to overcome challenges and to identify South Africans who have done so.

 

What could be a better example of this than creatives who – whether through choice or circumstance – taught themselves the skills they needed to succeed in their chosen field? We chatted to six self-taught successes from the worlds of art, photography, film and fashion to find out about their personal creative journeys and how they got started; which is so often a case of doing just that – starting!

 

Mpumelelo Macu | Multimedia Designer and Self-Taught Photographer | Founder of Basement Pixels

 

Mpumelelo Macu

 

When did you start taking photos and when did you decide it was something you wanted to pursue?

 

I started taking photos around August 2010, prior to that I was just taking photos via my phone. I’ve always had a love affair with photography. The more I shot random things, the more I fell deeper in love with her (photography). I could never really pinpoint the time I decided to pursue photography. With all the photos I would take, the practice, everything just worked itself out.

 

How did you go about teaching yourself?

 

I would just carry my camera everywhere. I started learning how the light metering in the camera worked by setting my camera to auto and just observing how the numbers would change with every situation. I promised myself that I would try and shoot with manual settings till I figured it out. I also read a lot of articles online. I still do. I think the fact that I’m also a designer helps a lot. All that visual training helps.

 

Another very important part of my learning was being on 75.co.za, a photography platform for local ‘graphers and a really amazing community. I learnt a lot from the 75ers.

 

What are some of the benefits that come with teaching yourself rather than going to college or university?

 

I think the one most beneficial thing is not really conforming to “rules” and things that college imposes on us. You have a fresh approach to doing things. It’s harder but much better, I think. College can also break you financially.

 

What have been some of the challenges along the way?

 

I remember doing my first ever product shoot. I had no idea what I was doing. I got on skype and called one of my favourite photographers. He was sitting in the States and here comes a call from this dude you know nothing about. Anyway, he sent me a mail and I still didn’t get what he was talking about. The terminology got me all nervous. Shoot day came and I faked it but the photos were OK. With that said, one of the biggest challenges was being able to sell my work and be confident with the work that I was producing using old equipment, with the hope to make enough money to upgrade to a decent camera.

 

What characteristics of yours have helped to overcome these challenges?

 

I’m hard-headed and a sore loser. I hate failure even though it got me here. So I will not stop till I get it right. So you would say, tenacity and perseverance.

 

Mpumelelo Macu Mpumelelo Macu

 

Paul Senyol | Self-Taught Artist

 

Golden Haze Paul Senyol
Golden Haze

 

When did you start making art and when did you decide it was something you wanted to pursue?

 

I have been painting and drawing since I was 16 years old. My choice to become a full-time artist was brought about by circumstance. I had been working odd jobs for a few years after school but nothing really appealed to me as something I could see myself doing for the rest of my life, or building a career/future with. At the time I was working in a surf shop which unfortunately closed and I wasn’t left with much of an option but to start painting full time. At the time it was the only option I could think of as there weren’t any other opportunities presenting themselves, so I just gave it a go and have been doing so ever since. If I remember correctly that was around 2004/5.

 

How did you go about teaching yourself?

 

I was and still am influenced by a lot of skate/surf/music/bicycle culture, and it was the independent forms of those media such as skateboard films and magazines wich gave me my first inspirations and directions as an artist. I was first exposed to low brow creative movements and artists such as Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Ed Templeton, Marc Gonzales, the Mission School Movement etc. These magazines and the artists and creatives I came across in them became my point of reference and ‘art school’.
I remember seeing some of Shepard Fairey’s early work in a skate magazine and was drawn in to ‘obey’ 😉 From there on I spent more time down at the local library, in the art section, getting to know more artists and movements. That was when I became interested in people like Andy Warhol, Jean-michel Basquiat, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg. One of the best things about being a creative is that you can learn a lot through observation, which you can do on your own. You don’t necessarily need to be taught things like colour wheels and correct compositions, you can ‘learn’ them by observation and then experimentation. I am still learning about painting and the arts daily as I work.

 

What are some of the benefits that come with teaching yourself rather than going to college or university?

 

I feel like I have had a freedom to create outside of the boundaries of traditional techniques, thoughts and teaching. In a way I haven’t been boxed in by tradition. I think teaching yourself is also far more rewarding and fun than a set curriculum. You can go your own way, as you feel. Things which have interested me and have grabbed my attention have taught me along the way. Being immersed, passionate and excited about a new discovery is also very helpful, rather than being forced to learn. I think all creatives strive for this elusive grail and inspiration…

 

What have been some of the challenges along the way?

 

The biggest challenge for me initially, having not been formally trained as an artist, was to get into exhibitions and to show my works. At the moment it seems a bit easier and more accessible to show work in group shows and small cafes but 10 years ago I would walk into a space and people just weren’t really interested (maybe my work wasn’t that good?). Haha! I was a bit disappointed at that at the time. So I decided to just start making paintings and installing them on the streets and neighbourhoods I would travel through. This was very exciting for me. By doing that I was ‘exhibiting’ my work, and the great thing was no-one had to go to a gallery to see it; it was free to view any time of day or night and it was also free to take away, which I don’t think many people were used to. There was a great sense of being able to engage with the environment as well as the viewer in a new way.

 

What characteristics of yours have helped to overcome these challenges?

 

I think being a creative – it naturally lends itself to problem-solving and innovation. Thinking outside the box. I can be very focussed if I have a goal or desire to see something happen. I usually make an action plan with detailed steps and then follow those. So being disciplined and combining that with a vision has helped me a lot.

 

Bounty Paul Senyol
Bounty
South West Paul Senyol
South West

 

Samora Chapman | Self-Taught Photographer | Freelance Photojournalist/Artist | Editor of Mahala.co.za

 

Dok & Apple - interpret durban entry 2015
Dok & Apple

 

When did you start taking pictures and when did you decide it was something you wanted to pursue?

 

I got my first lil point and shoot when I was about 12 and my first proper camera, an old Nikon 35mm film camera for my 18th birthday. So I was lucky enough to have one tiny pinky toe in the film era!

 

I am a writer, I studied English and Politics at UKZN, so from the moment I started working as a journalist (during varsity), I always had a camera on me, shooting as best I could. But I only really started taking pictures, creatively and passionately, when I travelled abroad. I had always been able to snap but there was no real magic, or perhaps no drive, nothing in particular I wanted to capture.

 

I moved to London when I was about 23, and started shooting compulsively. Everything was so fresh and exciting, I wanted to record every moment. I was doing a lot of graffiti at the time so I was always photographing that, and doing a bit of street-style photography as well. I then travelled to Morocco, Berlin and India, shooting like a trigger-happy cowboy. All I had was a 5 megapixel Canon Powershot, but the candid, spontaneity of the photos I was able to get on that camera still amazes me.

 

When I returned home I bought my first DSLR, a Canon. I soon started working as a photographer and photojournalist and there was no looking back…

 

How did you go about teaching yourself photography?

 

I assisted Paul Weinberg, a renowned old-school documentary and journalism photographer for about a month and I did a brief night course right after I finished matric with him. But, strangely enough, I wasn’t interested in the theory and I was too inexperienced to learn anything on the job ‘cos it was all too foreign to me and I went on to study a BA at UKZN.

 

But I admired his photos GREATLY. His composition, his ability to capture the perfect moment that told an entire story. His ability to blend into a scene and the empathy and truth that his images communicated. So I went about emulating that. I learnt on the job. I learnt by shooting thousands of frames and just walking the streets looking for stories, interesting characters and views. My friend did a course at Vega and he gave me all his study material, which helped as I finally learned how to expose shots how I wanted.

 

I later got very inspired by Durban photographer, Kevin Goss-Ross who was blending artificial lighting and documentary photography, which I’d never seen before. He balances natural and artificial light so expertly and has an incredibly distinctive style and aesthetic. After following his work I got into strobism, downloading tutorials off the net.

 

But I am still very much a student of the artform. I have much to learn.

 

What are some of the benefits that come with teaching yourself rather than going to college or university?

 

I guess the benefits are that you have actively sought the information and guidance. All that you learnt was not spoon-fed to you. It was discovered, unearthed, learnt out of a desire for knowledge and skill.

 

What have been some of the challenges along the way?

 

Always feeling like an amateur. A lack of confidence because of not having formal training is a challenge. And learning by trial and error! I have literally learnt on the job – every commissioned shoot is a training session. Haha. Thanks yo.

 

What characteristics of yours have helped to overcome these challenges?

 

Determination and passion for what I do I guess. I have a kid to support so there’s no room for flops or laziness! Praise master Eli Jah.

 

the stowaways - Samora Chapman
The stowaways
Samora Chapman
Rubber man and his kid – Durban beachfront

 

Atang Tshikare | Self-Taught Artist and Designer | Founder of Zabalazaa Designs

 

Atang Tshikare

 

When did you start illustrating and when did you decide it was something you wanted to pursue?

 

I’ve always been drawing, like my dad, but in 2006 I met a group of guys drawing for fun and I began to take it seriously. In 2012 my drawing book was stolen and it made me so aargh that I began to draw 1000 times better and that’s why I am here today 😉

 

How did you go about teaching yourself?

 

As a small boy I started to copy my favorite comics and then when I was satisfied I made my own version and took it from there. As an older laaitie I began writing stories and creating various styles of drawing. Each year I learnt about and watched more and more cartoons. I also buy a lot of zines when I’m out of the city or country, every time, everywhere.

 

What are some of the benefits that come with teaching yourself rather than going to college or university?

 

DIY is beneficial because I didn’t follow a specific style. I adapted and amended my style furiously fast, testing and applying my illustrations everywhere using different mediums. If I didn’t understand a technique I looked it up in my books and zines. Now my style is unique and recognizable across all my work.

 

What have been some of the challenges along the way?

 

Time and money are the only challenges. Nothing else gets in the way really.

 

What characteristics of yours have helped to overcome these challenges?

 

Imagination and good logic. Think it and imagine alternatives to paying gazillions. For example, if you can’t pay for it then borrow, trade or beg but make sure the result is worth the mission. Besides that I am a very persistent person, I will work on something until it’s done. But my best trait is my imagination, logic and fun!! Have fun and it will all go best, that’s why I only do what I enjoy.

 

Atang Tshikare electric heard

 

Batandwa Alperstein (Takezito) | Self-Taught Director | Visual Content Gang

 

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XDc93x39j1Q[/youtube]

 

When did you start working with video and when did you decide it was something you wanted to pursue?

 

I worked in advertising as a strategist and copywriter for four years before getting into videomaking. From the beginning I always worked with videos. In my strategy role, I would make videos either to help the creatives come up with ideas or to help sell the ideas to clients. This was mostly interviews and stuff so I used to shoot and edit that myself in a very rudimentary way. When I started copywriting, I got more involved in making the work, and video is almost always an element of any decent sized campaign – whether it’s a big budget TV ad or a case study video for awards. I soon realised that the only thing I cared about was whether our videos got views. Everything else seemed very ethereal but videos, particularly online videos, give live feedback.

 

I ended up spending most of my time either watching music videos or seeing what was doing well on YouTube, which campaigns got viewed and shared the most, and trying to figure out why. I got tired of doing anything other than working on solving this mystery, so I decided that the only way to find some answers was to dedicate my energy in this direction, and that’s when I decided to head down this path. Other than that, I’ve always loved the medium of audio visual communication – how rich, layered and multifaceted it is; how close it can come to real life and how it has the power to investigate, interrogate and reflect life and all its mysteries. I would argue that it is the most culturally influential medium available to us, next to music, and especially when combined with music.

 

How did you go about teaching yourself?

 

First and foremost by speaking to and spending time with people who had the skills I needed to make videos. For example, my business partner Zunaid The Editor was the in-house video editor at the agency that I was working at, and we would talk about video content all the time. I have learnt most of what I know from him and the other videomakers that I have worked with in my advertising career. However, the internet is your friend, especially for anyone who wants to get into videomaking. I’ve watched many tutorials and I’ve read loads of nofilmschool.com articles, and these have helped me learn things as I go along. But mostly it’s through trial and error; I think doing is the best way to learn anything.

 

What are some of the benefits that come with teaching yourself rather than spending years learning at college or university?

 

I think that videomaking in particular is a very practical thing and learning in college helps a lot because you get a period in life to zone out and just focus on practicing the craft. I’m not sure if teaching yourself would be what I would recommend. But I guess the plus side is that you only really learn what you need to know to do what you want to do and you don’t get too caught up in too many theoretical dilemmas. So everything you learn has direct practical applications and you know what value they have in the real world, beyond the marks.

 

What have been some of the challenges along the way?

 

Obviously the learning curve is steep and self-doubt creeps in a lot when you’re teaching yourself, but the doubt also helps to keep you awake and present. By not studying, you aren’t taught what mistakes to watch out for, so it can be frustrating to get to the end of a project and learn a really simple thing that could’ve made the project better. The plus side is that those lessons stick with you forever.

 

What characteristics of yours have helped to overcome these challenges?

 

I guess I thrive on pressure so I live off the challenge. But mostly, I have kept going by keeping people who are stronger where I am weaker close to me and this has helped a lot. Knowing when to take the leap and when to watch someone else jump first is very important. I also believe that my impulses are directing me towards something, and I really want to know what that something is, so I continue to on the journey out of pure curiosity, which is probably the most important characteristic of all – to stay curious.

 

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A0Wl1FJP9Dc[/youtube]

 

Zano Sithetho | Self-Taught Fashion Designer | Creative Director of Skorzch

 

Skorzch

 

When did you start designing and making clothes and when did you decide it was something you wanted to pursue?

 

I started designing back in 2008. I think between then and 2010 it was just a trial and error situation. I was trying to build something for myself but I wasn’t so sure it was going to work out well for me. It was only in May 2011 that I fully decided that this is what I want to do. I had just lost my job then so I had nothing else to do but pursue my career as a tailor.

 

How did you go about teaching yourself?

 

I used to watch a lot of YouTube videos. I bought a domestic sewing machine, learnt how to do a straight stitch. I also used to go down town Jozi, buy old well-tailored suits and tear them up to see how they were constructed inside then try and put them together again. When making a suit from the ground up I would try and implement the same system used.

 

What are some of the benefits that come with teaching yourself rather than going to college or university?

 

I guess you get the practical side of it firsthand before the theory. There’re a lot of short cuts involved. You learn the last things first and the first things last. You also learn how to run a brand as a fully functional business with all business aspects not just the creative side of it.

 

What have been some of the challenges along the way?

 

It’s really difficult to start anything that you’re passionate about but lack the knowledge thereof. So I struggle to get information about suits, how to make them and make them really well. I didn’t have the right equipment for quite a while because it was simply too expensive. I couldn’t get funding also.

 

What characteristics of yours have helped to overcome these challenges?

 

I’m quite ambitious, focused and I’m quite a dreamer. You have to work hard to build a brand.

 

SkorzchSkorzch

 

One Comment

  1. What a massively inspirational article. Thanks to the participants for sharing your pictures and stories.

    …This website rocks!