A no-bullshit “how to improve at drawing” post.
I did a class on this recently through Laneway Learning and I promised I’d post the hand-out I gave at the end of it, so here it is. Thank you to Karithina for being my editor! This is for new artists and experienced artists alike, because drawing a lot does not mean you’re necessarily good at it. You are never above going back to the basics, ever. Complacency is your enemy.
I want to point out, first and foremost, that the “artists are born artists” or “only right brained people can be artists” beliefs are absolute bullshit. The brain is intricately linked to both sides, and the idea that all people are more dominant on one side than the other has been scientifically proven to be incorrect.
This is good news for you! Because it means literally anyone can be a master artist, all it takes is a lot of practice and research, like literally every other skill in life. I hope you find this helpful!
The methodological order of learning the basics:
- Forms and shapes
- They make up literally everything. You can be good at anatomy and perspective but still draw things very flat looking because you lack understanding of how forms and shapes work.
- Drawing forms and shapes in different perspectives helps you understand perspective in a more simple way. Start with them, then move onto more complicated shapes.
- Draw the forms and shapes in different arrangements, orders, etc. Research different compositional arrangements and their effects.
- Colour theory
- Learn it and learn it well; then apply on all the above basics. Colour theory also includes lighting.
- Anatomy of all forms are comprised of a series of forms and shapes, so it’s imperative you understand them first before moving on to anatomy.
- Anatomy doesn’t need to be done last; it can be done between forms and shapes and perspective, but it can be daunting for new artists so I usually leave it until last since it is a rather complex subject.
Life drawing is imperative to the improvement of every artist. It is best to start by using lines and no shading for objects that are simple shapes such as mugs, jars, candles, etc. Once you’re comfortable with this, start drawing the same objects but shade them. Despite being simple shapes, these objects contain complex reflections and they will help you understand how light and reflections work with different surfaces.
Play with composition. Draw the same objects in a different arrangement, or in different perspectives - otherwise you’ll rely too heavily on muscle memory, which will restrict the diversity of your technique. You need to understand how objects work in 3D space, not just how it looks from specific angles. Once you’re comfortable with this, add colour. Rinse and repeat with this method for more complex scenes and objects.
Remember: when drawing from life, try to visualize the negative space around the objects and draw the “lines” using that; drawing from silhouettes, once you learn how to do it, is a very effective way to ensure proportions and shapes stay correct.
Reference, reference, reference
Draw from your imagination but always use references. It is not cheating. Every professional artist uses references. You cannot rely on remembering exactly how things look; your mind erroneously fills in the blanks for you.
Make sure you research the copyright restrictions on the images you use for reference if submitted anywhere. Give credit where credit is required, and when in doubt always ask the artist first. Master studies should always have credit given, even if the artist died hundreds of years ago. For quick reference checks like seeing what way a belt buckle goes, google image does the trick and no need to give credit there for something so small.
Influences and originality
Be influenced by a large number of things and artists. Being original isn’t the most important thing, as long as you’re happy with what you create. But to ensure you’re not merely copying what other people do, mix it up. Experiment. Try a large variety of styles. You’ll find that all of them will eventually find a place in yours. Style is one of the things that comes naturally. If you wish to do commercial art - for games, movies, etc. - it’s important to be able to be stylistically diverse, too.
One of my favourite stylistic exercises is drawing something a few times from life, then condensing what makes up that object’s primary feature’s and exaggerating them, like a caricature. E.g:
Your style is very unique to you, and I would suggest that if you are unhappy with it, perhaps instead look where your art is lacking on a technical level. That is usually where the problem lies.
Be wary of the “how to draw [insert object here]” tutorials, only use them for inspiration once you understand how lighting and perspective works. They only teach you how to draw like somebody else. Instead, I suggest you find photos of said object, or the object itself, and draw it from different angles, and in different lighting. It takes a thousand attempts at drawing something to master it, and that’s the same with any skill in life.
Warm up before diving in
Before diving into drawing, do warm-up exercises: draw 30 circles on a page really quickly, sketch some quick figures (such as http://www.posemaniacs.com/thirtysecond), or draw some squiggles, shapes, flashes from your imagination, so on so forth. You use muscles when you draw and they need warming up like any other muscle in your body, otherwise lines will come out more stiff than what they could be. Also, always remember to take breaks!
Lastly, remember: everyone learns differently. I learn very well from following things in exactly one order, but that doesn’t work for everyone, and that’s okay. Don’t feel guilty about switching the order up a bit. Experiment and find what works for you, whether that is video, live models, books, livestreams or physical mentors.
Personal improvements after following this advice
I’ve been drawing my whole life; I’m 26. But I stubbornly insisted I was good just because I drew a lot. in 2014, I decided to actually learn the basics- some 22 years into my drawing experience- because I was unhappy with where my art was at. Here are the results.
10 months apart
1 year apart
(higher res image here)
(higher res image here)
Best thing? The new versions took less time by at least 2x, because I knew what I was doing. Not only that, but I planned my artworks- did texture studies and compositional thumbnails. This is very important to do for large artworks. It will save you HOURS.
Personal preference is not technically technical improvement. Learn to differentiate between the two. I deliberately chose to differ some aspects from their originals because the originals did not get across the feeling that I, personally, was aiming for.
A free digital painting tool for Linux and Windows. It’s my go-to for all my digital art.
A free digital sketching tool for Linux and Windows. I use it for all my line-art. It has no transform tools and some beautiful pencil brushes, imitating real media.
For really in-depth tutorials on all the art basics.
Incredibly useful videos by Feng Zhu, a hugely successful concept artist who’s been working in the field for decades, and who also runs his own concept art school.
Resources for finding free images you can use for references:
Book: Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards.
Despite the title being scientifically inaccurate, the exercises are helpful.
Some useful exercises, step-by-step breakdowns, and resources lie here.