Question: What’s the best way to improve my drawing skills?
First, let’s touch on why drawing matters, then cover simple ideas on how to improve our drawing skills.
The better you draw, the better you will paint. When you touch paintbrush to paper or canvas, you are in fact drawing (putting lines and marks in the correct places to replicate the shapes and forms in a subject matter, or in your mind’s eye).
Drawing is to a painter what rhythm is to a musician. Imagine a drummer with poor rhythm. Or worse, does not notice that he has poor rhythm. This is similar to a plein air or studio painter who not does not draw proficiently, and does not notice the discrepancies between a subject matter and her drawing of that subject matter. In both examples, fundamental skills must first be developed so that these artists can better express themselves.
In my experience as an artist and teacher, I have learned that drawing is really a two-pronged skill set: (1) the skill of putting lines and marks in the correct places; and, (2) the awareness to step back and notice when lines and marks are not in the correct places.
The good news is that this skill and awareness is not the outcome of natural-born talent, but of practice. Proper practice alone will result in the skills and awareness needed to draw anything you desire with confidence.
So, what constitutes proper practice? Take some time each day to pick up a pencil and concentrate solely on the act of drawing. As you draw, keep the following seven ideas in mind:
- Fifteen Minutes Per Day, No Matter What
The key to improvement is doing it daily. Not every other day, or every week, but every day, no matter what. Commit to doing this for the next 30 days. You’ll be surprised at how much you can improve by making this one commitment. Set the timer on your phone for 15 minutes, and do nothing but draw. Uninterrupted, focused time is what is needed to gain the benefits.
- You Don’t Need to Finish
Use this time to work on accuracy. Don’t worry about completing a picture. Even if you draw only three shapes in 15 minutes, if those shapes have been correctly drawn, then your time has been used wisely.
- Take It Easy
Draw simple subjects as you practice. Crawl, walk, and then run (it doesn’t work the other way around). Forget about drawing architecture in three-point perspective. Draw a coffee mug in front of you. Or, a lemon slice. The salt shaker on the table. A leaf. Your big toe. Anything that’s simple. By drawing simple subjects, you clear away unnecessary difficulties so that you can focus solely on proportions, angles, and the relationships between different shapes horizontally and vertically.
- Check Your Work
Use your smart phone. Snap a photograph of your subject and your drawing of the subject. Then, scroll back and forth (on your phone) between the two photographs. Notice the discrepancies, of which there might be many. Don’t criticize. Learn. What are your tendencies? Do you draw objects too thin? Too short? Are your angles off? All of the above? (If so, next time choose a simpler subject.) Take a minute or two with each drawing to check your efforts. You can only improve your results when you know where you’re off.
- Red Flags
Within a week or two, pulling out your sketchbook should get easier. If it doesn’t, or the thought of drawing doesn’t generate a feeling of enthusiasm within you, take notice. It’s at this moment in the practice that many people drop the ball and stop drawing.
The problem for many of us is that we feel the need to produce a master artwork each time. This is not a good strategy (it leads to feelings of pressure when you pick up a pencil). Instead, approach drawing practice the way a pianist plays the scales on a piano. Simply lose yourself in the moment as you see, draw, make errors, and learn from them. Accept that improving your drawing skills is a learning process that should take time. Trust that your skills (as well as your enjoyment of the craft) will improve with consistent effort.
And, do not share your drawings with anyone. This daily practice is for your eyes only.
- What Doesn’t Matter
How quickly you draw doesn’t matter. Expect to work slowly as you practice. Speed comes after proficiency. How “loose” your drawings look doesn’t matter either. When a beginner aims for “looseness” in his or her drawings, the results are often not loose, but sloppy in appearance. Focus on accuracy only.
- What Does Matter
Notice what’s happening inside your own mind as you draw. Notice that with consistent practice, your eye becomes ever more sensitive. You’re developing a sensitivity to proportions, to angles, to how different shapes relate to one another vertically and horizontally, and so on. With daily drawing, you become more skilled at making these observations and accurately recording them in the pages of your sketchbook. And eventually, you can apply this skill and awareness when you pick up a paint brush.
Mastery of drawing will not occur in 30 days. But, the habit of drawing, that is necessary for mastery, can be developed applying these ideas. With each passing month, drawing will become more comfortable, and more fun. After the first month, you may decide to increase your daily drawing time. The more time you put in, the better you will get.
When you develop a skill for accurate drawing, painting becomes much easier. Like a skilled musician, you will find yourself with a solid foundation, from which you can more easily compose, play, improvise, and get lost in the flow of making beautiful, expressive art.
Richard E. Scott is an artist, architectural illustrator, and author of “Sketching – from Square One to Trafalgar Square” (a user-friendly guide to the very best lessons Richard has learned over a lifetime of daily drawing). Available at www.amazon.com and www.sketchingfromsquareone.com (go here for the best rates on international shipping).