How to Draw

I need some lorem ipsum to set my blog up, so here’s an essay I wrote a year or two back. I was asked how to get started drawing, and I gave this answer:

1. Identify the thing about drawing that interests you – a specific subject matter, telling stories, making art to make friends happy, etc, and start with that. Find the fun, because fun is what keeps you interested, even when it’s hard and nothing you draw looks as good as you want it to and nobody’s paying attention to your work. I think a lot of beginners get discouraged when they approach artists they look up to for advice, who then immediately begin barking about fundamentals, gesture drawings, drawing from life and so on. All of that can wait. 

There’s a lot to be said for just having fun drawing whatever you want, in whatever way that you like, because that initial exploratory scribbling is going to build hand-eye coordination and help you overcome the fear of a blank page. Drawing as a creative habit has a very low barrier to entry – all you need is a paper and a pencil, after all – and the temptation among experienced artists to immediately turn that initial spark of interest into a tedious chore is, I think, a fantastic way to scare people off of it.

2. Once you’ve made a habit of drawing regularly, try to identify the areas you’re weakest in, or the areas you’re most interested in improving, and set some time aside, every day if possible, for focused practice. Only practice one thing at a time – maybe it’s something anatomical like hands or eyes, or maybe it’s hand-eye coordination or color theory, it can be anything, but don’t try to solve too many problems at once. 

Remember when you were in school, how you were assigned 30 math problems to solve every night? Remember how repetitive they were, you were just solving the same type of problem with different numbers, and then every day, every week, new concepts were introduced? Or if you make a habit of going to the gym, you separate your exercise days to focus on specific muscle groups, like abs, arms, chest, back, and legs, rather than trying to do all of them every day? 

It’s the same with any discipline: focusing on one specific area you want to improve with an exercise, and put regular stress on it. Human bodies are fundamentally lazy, we don’t like putting in any more effort than is necessary to carry out a task – in biology, this is called homeostasis, and gosh do we hate having our homeostasis disrupted by stress. The way we preserve our homeostasis is to assign resources to shore up areas suffering from stress, whether it’s physically, by increasing muscle mass, or neurologically, by creating neural pathways to accommodate the solving of problems we’re not used to solving.  

The phrase “getting out of your comfort zone” is sometimes used to describe this idea, but I’ve noticed it’s often used in a misleading way, especially in creative disciplines. If you’re watercoloring and you want to improve your facility with watercolor, getting out of your comfort zone doesn’t mean picking up pastels. Learning to use pastels isn’t going to advance your learning goals as a watercolorist. A more effective way to advance those goals would be to choose an exercise using watercolor that addresses a skill you aren’t comfortable with, whether it’s using a limited palette, plein aire, or focusing on a drybrushing or wet-into-wet techniques. With repetition and focused practice, what was challenging will become rote, and then your comfort zone has become a little larger. Then it’s time to pick the next thing. The key to steady improvement is being willing to say “okay, here’s a thing I’m not great at, here’s what I’m going to do to fix it.” 

In all of this, it’s very important to remember the first principle here, which is to find the fun. When I was in school, art teachers liked to discourage people from drawing fandom indulgences like anime, furries, or video game fan art, I think in part because of cultural assumptions about the relative value of fine art versus commercial art, and in part because I think there is a concern that this kind of art is imitative. Copying from existing drawings rather than drawing from life can cause you to internalize their shortcuts and simplifications, and there’s a real value in actually seeing how things are put together when you’re drawing from life. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take what can be learned in art class and go home and fold it into your personal work. Practice itself isn’t always fun, but it’s a lot of fun to discover that you’re getting good at drawing the things you like. It’s 2018, live your best life.

3. While we’re on the subject of copying, here’s a secret: copying other artists is actually okay. I know saying this out loud will get me hung in the DeviantArt courtroom, but it’s true. I mean, in my life drawing classes, copying from renaissance masters was required as part of the curriculum. I use a reference board application called Pureref when I’m drawing, and usually it’s got several images loaded onto it – if it’s a commission, I have the character reference sheet, some drawings from other artists that I’m trying to learn from, and some photographic references for specific elements of the illustration I don’t want to trust to my memory. You’re always going to be seeing new things you didn’t notice before. 

There’s a few ways to go about copying. The first is an an exercise: I might take a bunch of drawings by some artists I want to learn to draw more like, like Wallace Tripp or Heinrich Kley, throw them all on a refboard, and copy them as best I can, repeatedly. This helps me to see what their approach to problem-solving was, how they might have simplified or exaggerated things, and otherwise gives me the opportunity to try to look through their eyes. I wouldn’t share these copies as my own work, or if I did, the art class way to do it is to call them “Studies after Wallace Tripp” to clearly designate them as copies. Another way to copy is a technique called frankensteining: taking a bunch of different drawings and borrowing elements from each of them. I might look closely at how this artist thought about color, how this one solved a pose, how this one simplified clothing into an illustration, and combine all the three of them in the piece. Instead of trying to figure out how to get away with plagiarizing, treat your influences as a buffet, and incorporate your own ideas into how you make your plate.

4. Believe progress is possible. Talent is a fake idea, and nobody has an upper limit. There’s no such thing as genius, just people who were both fortunate enough to live in an environment that allowed and encouraged them to practice and develop their skills and get meaningful feedback on them, and to start early at it. When you see someone whose skill is way beyond yours, that doesn’t mean they’re gifted or in possession of any special talent, it just means they knew how to study and practice, and had access to resources like time, money, and teachers that allowed them to do so effectively. 

We love the idea of geniuses and prodigies because we love the idea of living in a world with magic in it, but it also lets us off the hook. If some people are just born more talented than others, then it’s really not your fault for not spending any time practicing, because what good would it do you, right? You’ll never be that good, right? But the reality is simultaneously much more banal and much more exciting: all they really did was work at it, and work at it the right way. Maybe it’s disappointing to discover that there’s nothing magic about it, but it also says something great about what you are capable of.

There’s an effect, and I wish I could remember what it was called, in the study of expertise that describes how when someone breaks a record in a field that was previously considered to be impossible, that record is then regularly exceeded. After Tony Hawk landed the first 900, other skaters followed him. When Takeru Kobayashi doubled the previous record held for the Coney Island hot dog eating contest, his record soon became the new low bar. When you see someone perform at a level you haven’t reached, you’re not seeing genius, what you’re seeing is someone expanding the space of human possibility, so take comfort in knowing that it’s a space you live in.

5. Extrinsic motivators like money and attention are great, but they’re empty calories that burn fast and don’t last. Instead, you have to believe that there’s an intrinsic value in what you are doing. You’re going to draw things that you worked very hard on that flop. That doesn’t mean drawing them was a waste of your time. Sometimes you shared them with the wrong audience, sometimes things that are technically rendered very well just don’t read very well at the size of a social media thumbnail. I’ve had drawings that landed with a dull thud when I originally posted them suddenly wind up going viral months later, when someone combing through my old posts discovered it and decided to share it. Knowing how to create something for viral appeal is a skill that exists entirely separate from drawing, and when something goes viral usually what winds up happening is content aggregators strip your signature from it and start selling it as their own. Ask me how I know.

Maybe you built up an audience that’s interested in your work because you got pretty good at one specific type of subject matter, and when you decided to branch out, they didn’t all follow you when your interests took you somewhere else. That’s normal. Nobody is obligated to care about your artistic growth but you, so get comfortable with playing to empty venues whenever you change directions. Any investment in your abilities is time well spent, and as long as you keep showing up and you’re consistently turning in good work, the audience for it will find you. If you’re drawing with sincerity, rather than trying to identify what tracks well right now, that sincerity is going to come through in your work and that sincerity is what resonates with people. Once you’ve become confident in your own artistic voice, you’re probably going to discover that it’s much easier to set trends than it is to follow them.

I know you were probably expecting more of a technical how-to from me, but I hope you find this valuable regardless.

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