How to become really good at drawing

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What do you need to do to become REALLY good at drawing?

So you’ve read my previous blog post on how to learn how to draw quickly and you’re amazed at how much your work has improved but you’re still thinking... this is great and everything but I’m still not good. What can I do to become GREAT at drawing? 

You have two options:

1.) You can take common advice which recommends you ‘draw everything’ or ‘draw every day, forever more’ and somewhere along the line you might figure it all out and make stupendous art which will be great…

OR, (and it’s only a suggestion for those of us with lives or jobs or children or other hobbies or aren’t so young anymore and need a quicker way…)

2.) You could plan and tailor your drawing education so you’re learning only what matters to you, in a direct, focused way, setting goals and having some kind of plan to work to. 

And that’s what I do.

I’m in my mid 30s now. I am impatient and spread thinly. I just don’t have the time or even the energy in me to be able to draw everything, every day, in the vague hope something might fall into place. I just want to draw better. NOW. Not win some kind of weird, virtuous, who can draw the most contest. Who even cares??

Don’t forget, nothing is permanent. If I suddenly fancy drawing a completely different style 20 years down the line, fabulous. What I’ve learnt prior to that is still going to be useful. The point is, this method of drawing what we enjoy, in a calculated manner, will keep you enthusiastic and moving forward. Unless you’re particularly dedicated there is a very real risk that by drawing every day or drawing every thing, will eventually bore you, exhaust you, frustrate you or disappoint you when your work doesn’t turn out the way you want it to.

No you really don’t need to keep a travel sketchbook.

No you really don’t have to attend life drawing classes if you don’t want to.

Despite what Angela at your watercolour class INSISTED you had to try to ‘truly understand how to paint landscapes’. Of course Angela isn’t all wrong: experience, and actually making art of any kind is always of value, but if we can hone our focus and skip all the bits we have no interest in, let’s save ourselves the time for art we really want to make, right?

So if you’re in that mode of thinking too, let’s begin to try and distinguish what kind of drawings you want to make so we can figure out what you need to do to become awesome at those things.

What do you want to be drawing?

Grab a pen and notebook and start writing a shopping list of dream skills you have. How do you draw?

It is realistic? Cartoons? Abstract? Do you want to draw from imagination? What subjects are you drawing? Is your artwork the drawing or is it the foundation of a painting or design? Are you doing portraits and will accuracy be vital so your audience can recognise who you’ve drawn? Do you care if they recognise someone or not? Are you currently curious and want to try a little bit of everything? Do you have an art journal with drawings? Is this therapy? Doodles and mandalas? Are you an art teacher and need to demonstrate skills to others?

Put everything down.

Then write a second list of things you have absolutely no interest in drawing. Caricatures? Miniatures? Story boards? Pet portraits? It doesn’t need to be comprehensive, but it’ll give you a really good idea of what is either irrelevant to you, or styles/techniques that needs to be approached in a different way if it’s something that’ll be logically useful to you.

All these different techniques require slightly different paths to achieve and that makes an answer to ‘how do I learn to draw better’ very complicated and personal. One which YOU are the best at answering. Sorry. No book, course or art hero is going to be able to teach you how to draw better. Only YOU can decide what that means and how to get there.

I guess that’s why the standard advice is to ‘draw everything’… it’s not wrong, but it’s just a really simple answer to a very complicated question, and no ones been brave enough to sit down and suggest another method... a curriculum.

How I learnt how to draw better

When I first came to art I was an abstract artist. I loved painting that way, but I also felt like I needed a further education in other styles of art too, something was missing, so I wrote myself a little art course. I taught myself landscapes, knitting, crochet, craft, animal portraits and photorealism. All these things that looked like fun.

During that time I discovered a passion and talent for drawing portraits very realistically so I actually put down my paint brushes and turned to colour pencil and graphite portraits. That became my business. But I didn’t stop teaching myself.

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Knowing that portrait drawing was my new passion I began honing in on other things I could learn within that topic. I studied colour pencil, graphite, human anatomy. I studied what papers and desk setups would help me the most. I was drawing from a photo reference and from life. I tried even digital portraits.

The most important thing I learnt was that I knew what I didn’t need to draw. All the landscapes, still life, fashion illustration and abstract art got put to one side. It wasn’t relevant to me at that time.

To learn how to draw better, that’s what needs to become your way of art. You need to stop being distracted by things that don’t improve he art you want to be making, and do more of the things that make YOUR art better.

Here are some other essential tips that have helped me along the way: 

  • Dissect how other artists do their work until you’re no longer impressed by what they do. By dissect I mean watch and analyse everything, from how they set things up, how their process differs to yours, the initial marks they make, whether they blend, shade and how they do those things. What paper they use. What pencils. What subjects. Do they use a reference or take their own? What are they good at? What flaws can you see? How do they keep accurate? Who are their influences? What do they do when they’re not drawing? Watch their videos, buy their prints or buy/view originals if you can. Copy their work mark for mark and see what you learn. This is the very best way to learn. Steal like an artist, all the masters did it. In fact, it was how they were taught.

  • If you see someone’s better then you at something don’t just get jealous or flatter them with praise. Use the opportunity to ask questions. Ask about materials, technique, whether they do something you do or not. Successful artists are more likely to answer questions posed towards their own work rather then give feedback on your work. It’s actually considered very bad manners to approach an artist after they’ve shared their work and asking them to ‘check out’ yours. To be blunt, they’ll have better things to do and often their time is PAID FOR. So if you really want the feedback from an artist, be prepared to offer payment for their time or ask for it with greatest respect and tact. They’re not a charity. Instead try and get tips from the way they discuss their own work. Most artists love to share their wisdom and experiences.

  • Look out for fakes and people who keep mysteriously vague about their processes. Ugh. I see this all the time. A million comments on a print out that’s been sketched over the top to look like a drawing, or a photo that’s got a filter on it pretending to be sketch. Don’t be fooled. Why? Because they’re setting impossible standards. They’re lying, saying they’ve drawn something when actually all the detail and accuracy of their ‘drawing’ comes from a photograph. I spent way too long trying to emulate some artists work before realising it wasn’t even a drawing. Note; their work is still valid. Whether they use digital techniques or mixed media, the point is, it should be labelled as such. Misleading people into thinking a print out is actually a hand drawn piece is just a stunt. And sadly, it works. Click bait. Know your materials- pencil can only do so much. If you’re suspicious, move on. Have no time for fraudsters.

  • Decide when to stop. What is good enough for you? I recall the moment I decided I didn’t want to do photorealism anymore. I didn’t want to get better at it. I was happy at the level I had attained and then I wanted to try something different. This is listening to your instincts. Pushing yourself to do something you no longer really want to do may be okay for a while, but soon enough it starts to scream in your ear. Learn when to move on.

  • Likewise, know what you dislike. I don’t use charcoal. I HATE putty erasers. All of this is important and valid to my creative journey. Learn what makes yours unique.

  • Break all the rules and experiment. Get the art out- it doesn’t matter if you do it the right way or not. Learn things the classical way or design your own methods. Trace. Draw from life. Draw upside down. There will always, always, ALWAYS be someone saying you’re wrong or ‘not really an artist’ or ‘missing out’. Only you can really decide that. You think Andy Warhol or Picasso gave a damn about Angela and her ‘advice’. Hell no!

  • Learn from other industries that use drawing. Some of the most insightful tips I’ve found have been from other industries that use drawing: design, architecture, lettering… they all have their little nuggets of wisdom which may not be commonly discussed in your niche but make complete sense. So broaden your horizons.

  • Create a subject alphabet and draw your way through that. You don’t need to draw everything but draw a LOT, and a great way to draw a lot of things you care about is to write an alphabet of things that interest you and draw those: Apples, Acid, Abstract, Birds, Buttons, Bulbs, Books, Chains, Cars, Churches… it’s broad but still far more honed and personal then drawing randomly for the rest of your life. Leaving you with far more time for making art you really care about.

Above all, keep it FUN. Nothing kills creativity quicker then boredom or disappointment. If you struggle at something make sure you do something next that’s easy and enjoyable and THEN go back to what challenges you. It’s not meant to be painful. If it is, you’re doing it wrong.