Alright, I feel the need to make this post because a lot of artists get this question, myself included, and the response is ALWAYS the same thing. Now I’m not the best writer, nor am I the best artist but, what I do have is understanding and experience with the subject at hand and the question is:
“How do you get better at drawing?”
That’s that magical question all artists, beginner to professional, seek and strive to answer their entire lives.
“How do you get better at drawing?” is probably the most frequently asked question artists receive and is probably the most difficult to answer simply because everyone learns differently, so when pressed to answer this life changing question, our default response is either “practice” or “draw A LOT”.
I think I fell into this category many times. I remember when I was growing up I would ask the artists I looked up to the very same question and when I heard those words uttered, “just draw a lot” my enthusiastic smile would flicker and burn out and I’d be sitting there, left with a depressed thought that if that’s all there was to it, then “why am I not good enough?” I worked hard, drew everyday, and practiced all the time, yet I wasn’t achieving the results I wanted and was left with this overwhelming sense that, maybe, I just didn’t have what it takes. If it were as simple as “just draw a lot” then I have been doing that to a T for years and years and… nothing.
Flash forward a few years, you are no longer the plucky freshman in high school. The years you’ve endured that followed weathered you down and broke your soul, your passion for art has dried out due to failed attempts at getting better, and you’re on your way to college.
In college, you find yourself with like-minded people. You feel young again because you’re a freshman, ready to start over. Your passion for art is rejuvenated because you notice that there are actual classes catered to teaching you how to draw and you excitedly sign up with a new sense of purpose thinking “This is it, I’m going to be the best artist ever!”
But then you actually attend the class.
It’s not what you expected at all. The students are at mixed levels, some are already really good and you’re sitting there learning to draw boring squares and spheres while your dreams of drawing seem to be slowly slipping away from you and TO MAKE THINGS WORSE your art teacher hates your favorite art style. Let’s say anime. WHAT HAVE YOU GOTTEN YOURSELF INTO? YOU JUST WANTED TO BE GOOD AT ART AND YOUR TEACHER KEEPS PUTTING YOUR DREAMS OF DRAWING LIKE YOUR FAVORITE ANIME ARTIST IN THE HOLE. WHY DOES NO ONE UNDERSTAND YOU?
And this is where all this backstory comes into play. This is the one KEY element that took years and years for me to finally understand and make sense of those words “just draw a lot”.
Your teachers don’t hate you and they don’t hate anime!… Well, maybe they do, but not because they hate things you like, rather it’s because after years and years and years of teaching students like you with the same dream and goals in life, they have become hardened and skeptical of anime because from their experience students who want to draw anime are STUBBORN and usually can’t draw anything other than anime.
Look at it from the teacher’s perspective. Their goal is to teach you how to get better at art and they have one semester to do it. They usually tend to grade you on how much better you’ve gotten over the course of the year. You may not be Picasso but you put your heart into learning and you came out stronger because of it and from personal experience. But all too often, the students who draw anime and like anime only want to draw anime. Nothing else. They hate realism, they hate rendering, they hate anatomy, they think drawing squares is boring, they don’t understand why they need to know about lighting and shadows because anime isn’t rendered like that and all they are concerned with is anime. Anime. Anime. Anime. Anime!
Now back to the first question: “How do I get better at drawing?”
Now think back. Think about how you got where you are today and how your friends got where they are and so on and so forth. Think about all the masters before us, all the amazing animated films we’ve seen. Think back to what exactly we did and I think you’ll find that it wasn’t just “draw a lot.” It was much more than that. Either subconsciously or intentionally we all did the same thing that helped us improve. At some point in our lives we started using references. That’s it! Hallelujah! That’s the golden ticket! All the years worth of suffering as a kid lead to when we finally caved in to the pressures of getting a good grade in college art class by drawing from life. That’s the secret. That’s why some artists are not good at art until they are in their late twenties, or even later! They didn’t realize that drawing from life was the key until much, much later in the game. That’s why some kids are masters at the age of fifteen. The difference between a good artist and a bad artist is this one simple thing. Some kids learned from an early age that the key to learning to draw is by drawing a lot WITH REFERENCES. And I don’t mean your favorite anime, I mean actually drawing what you see in real life and being able to UNDERSTAND it.
Think about it, if all you’re drawing over and over and over again is what you know from memory (your favorite anime, artist, etc), then you’re only going to get really good at drawing what you already know. You can draw your favorite anime character or draw like your favorite artist over and over again and wonder why you’re not getting better even though you are trying so hard, but in reality, the reason you’re not getting better is because you’re not learning anything new. Problem solved. This is what you’re teachers have been REALLY trying to tell you all along. It’s not that they hate you or your anime or whatever your favorite art style is, it’s because in order to get better at art you have to DRAW FROM REAL LIFE FIRST in order to understand how things work.
You can always learn to draw the way you want later down the line. If you LOVE anime, good for you! Go for it! But if you don’t want to draw your like favorite 90’s anime series for the rest of your life, you’re going to have to learn to draw realistically at some point. Every artist does eventually out of necessity and pressure to get better, whether they knew it or not.
So as an artist just setting out or an artist that frequently gets asked “how do you get better at drawing?” it is our duty to spread the correct information. Instead of saying “just draw a lot” what we should all be saying is “just draw a lot– WITH REFERENCES FROM REAL LIFE.” After all, they only way you get better at anything is by learning and imitating, not repeatedly doing the same thing incorrectly. You can’t learn a new language if all you’re doing is saying “Hola! Como estas?” over and over again and just because you know one or two phrases doesn’t mean you know Spanish. You need to learn more than just a phrase in order to understand a language and speak it correctly. That same thing applies with art, you may know how to draw like your favorite artist or anime, but in order to get your own style you need to learn the basics of drawing and what makes up the anatomy in order to apply it to your work.
And it’s never too late to learn. heck, this realization didn’t hit me until early this year and I’ve been drawing for yeeeeeaaars and am only now seeing a vast improvement in my work. I’m also in my mid twenties. Yeah, there are people that are nineteen and know how to draw, but that’s because they learned this stuff from the get go. Now that you know it… USE IT! And if you do this one simple thing. I don’t even care if you dislike realism. If you are serious about getting better and you do this one little thing called drawing from real life and drawing from references, I promise you that you will inevitably get better.
Don’t get mad at your teachers for not letting you draw the way you want, just do what you’re being told. College is boring. You have to be boring in order to learn. They are there to help you learn how to draw, not how to be the unique butterfly you want to be.
You will get to draw however your heart desires once you learn how to draw from life first and learn basic art skills. That’s what that commercial we always saw was all about! You need a “good structural foundation”. So don’t just draw a lot, draw a lot with the power of knowledge!
Now go learn!