I original wrote this on a whim but thought I would share it here as well. These are just my thoughts and advice on learning to draw. I’m mainly referring to figure drawing, but it really applies to just drawing in general.
The worst part about having tons of papers and books is having to move those tons of papers and books. I just recently moved into a new place and along with me came a giant stack of figure drawings that I’ve kept in my closet since I started Art Center back in 2005.
(this photo is a little older, so it is actually about a foot taller now!)
Seeing my drawings from first term was nostalgic, terrifying, and encouraging all at the same time!
I’ve had many discussions with people about whether or not they are improving or what they should do to get better and really there is no secret to it. It just takes time, focus, and lots of paper! I see too many people get discouraged because they are not improving fast enough or they get drawn into shortcuts while losing track of the fundamentals. And fundamentals, as simple as they seem, really do take the longest to internalize and master. The rest is just fluff. A box by any other name is still a box!
I thought I would share some things to think about that really helped me improve. They may sound a bit corny but they work! they really do work!:
shoot for the moon!
I still remember those inspirational posters that hung above the chalk board in middle school and one in particular still stands out. It read: “shoot for the moon and if you miss you’ll land amongst the stars.” (hahaha)
At school everyone seemed to be looking over everyone else’s shoulder to see who the biggest threat was. I think some friendly competition is good, but if your only goal is to be better than the person next to you then you will only end up being better than the person next to you. I realized at one point that my only real competition was myself. I didn’t need anyone to tell me when my drawing was bad because I could see that for myself. I stopped comparing my drawings to my peers and started comparing them to the artists that I really looked up to like the old masters: Michelango, Pontormo, Rubens. If you have a lofty goal in mind you will never be satisfied with where you are and in turn you will never stop improving.
be honest with yourself!
A big thing that stops improvement is plateauing. I think a lot of times this happens because we start to get comfortable with where we are at. It feels good to draw things that we are used to or that are easy, and it’s good to indulge once in a while, but if you do the exact same thing over and over you will not improve. One of my teachers emphasized drawing the whole figure and to treat it as a complete statement or idea. I didn’t quite understand why at first, but as I looked around at workshops, everyone was just drawing torsos! torsos upon torsos! They were well drawn torsos, but when it came to drawing hands and feet or finishing a drawing they couldn’t do it. And I was one of them! I then made an effort to draw out the whole figure (even in the two minute poses!) and it forced me to deal with those areas that I was uncomfortable drawing- like the hands and feet. You are also forced to respond to the model and compose your drawing rather than mindlessly going through the motions. The only way to get over areas you have trouble with is to slow down and deal with them rather than glossing over them.
draw/study with a purpose!
It is important to have some sort of goal or idea in mind before you start drawing. And it could really be anything. I would often spend an hour or so before going into workshops doing master copies and then spend the session trying to emulate whoever I was copying. Or on shorter poses I would focus solely on getting the gesture down without worrying about structure. As the poses got longer and I had more time I would incorporate more structure. Also doing master copies sometimes I would try to break their drawings down through a more constructive approach, and other times I would focus more on the techniques they used. If you can identify areas you are having trouble with, then you can spend time focusing on those areas. It doesn’t matter what your goal is as long as you have one in mind you won’t drift around aimlessly when you start drawing. Just like everything else in life!
fear is the mind killer!
Learning to draw takes time. People are impatient. Don’t be impatient! I’ve seen a lot of people stop trying because they weren’t seeing results fast enough. Or people worry so much about improving that they just freeze up and don’t do anything. Don’t worry so much about where your drawing level is. Worry about where that invisible box that everyone talks about is. Or where that crazy sartorius goes. Focus on the task at hand.
buy/borrow some books and research!
Another thing I started doing when I started learning was buying books–lots of books! I tried to surround myself with artists and things that I found inspirational. I would go down to the used book store once a week to see if they had anything new. I also scoured the net for artists and images that I liked. Learning to draw is like learning a new language and the best way to learn a new language is to constantly be surrounded by it and the culture it comes from. Learning about other artists also helps you to identify what you like and what you don’t like aesthetically and it ensures that you will always have new ideas to draw from.
always be cobbling (drawing)!
The only way to get better at drawing is to draw! At one point in school I decided that I wasn’t satisfied with how I was progressing so I decided that I would make time to figure out what this “drawing” business was all about. I moved all my classes to the morning so I could make it to the workshops at night and I even skipped a few classes to go draw. I went so much that it became a habit. I missed many dinners and parties while I was in school. If you really want to get better you have to make time to draw. Carry a sketchbook wherever you go and take every opportunity you can to draw. It will become a habit and then the progress never stops.
There is no magic secret to drawing. To quote Ivor Hele, “Only your own hard work teaches you anything of value in the end.”