I would never forget my first drawing lesson. The teacher arranged a selection of natural objects on the table said: “Draw them”. I was really scared, as I never drew anything from life before. I picked the easiest object to draw — a simple tree branch — and luckily, I soon discovered that most students at the table were of the same ability as I was.
My teacher Mandy Doyle once said that drawing was a mechanical skill and that you could even teach a monkey to draw. A personal interpretation of life in the drawing was far more important. Since then, I began teaching drawing classes myself and then I realised something. The issue that most people experience with drawing has much more to do with their mindset rather than their ability to draw.
The good news is, your drawing can improve dramatically if you just change the way you think about it.
Whatever stage you are at, whether you want to improve your drawing practice professionally, or simply would like to take up drawing as a hobby, these tips will help you reach your highest potential and grow as an artist.
Draw for the fun of it, not the result.
I think that drawing should always be fun. Treat drawing like going for a walk in a park. You don’t go there just to get from point A to point B. You go for the experience and the pleasure of it. With drawing, the same principle applies. Enjoy the process of spending 10, 20, 30 minutes looking at something while making marks on paper. Explore the object by drawing it. Don’t get too impatient to get to the end result. Maybe you can use this time to calm yourself down after a long day at work or to experience something more fully while you are on holiday. Whatever it is, enjoy the journey and don’t judge the outcome.
Here is a fantastic book that I recommend for practical and fun drawing exercises that really work. It is used by tutors of many art colleges in the UK and concentrates on developing creativity rather than academic drawing skills.
Don’t tell your mind what you are drawing.
This tip sounds crazy, yet it really works! Sometimes drawing means re-programming your brain. Next time you draw something, do not tell your brain what you are looking at. Instead of thinking, “I am drawing a …” imagine that you are just looking at areas of light and dark tones, lines and shapes that the object is composed of. When you tell the brain what you are looking at, be it a hand, a face, a building, our brain immediately conjures up a flat and generic image of that object. This can really affect your drawing. Try drawing a face without acknowledging that you are looking at a face. Treat it as a strange collection of lines and shapes, and you will be able to trick your brain and ultimately create a better drawing.
Do not compare yourself with others.
The way in which you draw is unique to you, it is your personal creative DNA and just because it doesn’t fit the accepted norm does not mean that it is wrong. Look at the art of Tracy Emin or David Shrigley — they are not particularly “good” drawers in a conventional sense, yet they are UK’s top fine artists. Just because you can’t draw a perfect photo-realistic leaf does not mean that you are a worse artist than someone who can. Find what you are good at, and don’t be harsh on yourself.
A drawing is never “good” or “bad”.
My favourite question to ask a group of students who just came back from an experimental drawing session would be: “Do you like your drawing?”. Most people always reply that they hate their drawing “because it is ugly”. What they really mean by that is “it is not photorealistic”. For some reason, realistic drawings are perceived as beautiful, and correct, whereas expressive drawings are perceived as ugly, and wrong. Yet, what we see in contemporary art is the opposite — drawings with a strong character are usually much more interesting and rewarding. If you are tempted to judge your art, keep in mind that your view is subjective and doesn’t have anything to do with your real creative abilities. In fact, you have been preconditioned by the society to judge your art in a certain way.
Do it your way.
Not going to a traditional art school turned out to be a blessing for me, as I never had any pre-conceived ideal of what drawing should be. However, working with students I realised that most people were actually terrified of trying more experimental ways of drawing. Although I knew that there was a science and reasoning behind those experimental approaches, many people dismissed them as silly or were scared to be out of their comfort zone. If you are feeling stuck in your ways of drawing and need a change, you should definitely try and become a rebel with your drawing. Don’t like to draw with a pencil? Use twigs dipped into ink. Make collages, play with scale. Make your own tools. You may discover something new about yourself!
And here are my top 3 experimental drawing exercises:
- 1. Continuous line drawing
Continuous line drawing means putting your pencil down on paper and never lifting it up until you finished drawing.
Why? It trains your hand to eye coordination and teaches you to better perceive the space you are looking at.
This is what is called a contour drawing because you are tracing the edges of the objects with your eyes.
Expert tips. Please go slowly with this exercise. Don’t rush it. Really take care to follow your hand everywhere your eye goes.
Variations Want a challenge? Try drawing a continuous line with your left hand.
Or, how about doing a blind drawing? That means simply not looking at paper at all while you draw. Sounds scary? Good, give it a go!
2. Drawing with your left hand
I love seeing students’ facial expressions when I announce this exercise. Drawing with your non-dominant hands seems utterly useless at first. After all, you can be sure that your drawing will not look perfect. And that’s the point!
Why? We are so pressured to create a “good” drawing that we can’t truly relax when drawing with our dominant hand. When we use a non-dominant hand, be it left or right, we don’t hold any expectations and thus can draw freely.
Secondly, it works on your other side of the brain than what you normally use. All-round goodness to train your drawing abilities.
Expert tips. Make sure to approach this with an open mind and a playful spirit. Do not judge yourself… at all!
Variations. For an extra challenge try different drawing tools with your left hand. Or, go for blind left-hand drawing, or combine it with a continuous line.
3. Timed drawing
Nothing gets your drawing juices flowing better than a timer. Set yourself very short timers of 5 minutes, 1 minute and 30 seconds.
Aim to complete your drawing within a given time frame.
Why? Perfectionism is a killer of progress. Spending hours on a drawing can be nice, but doing lightning fast drawings is brilliant for teaching yourself to capture a glimpse of an object quickly and expressively.
Expert tips. This exercise works brilliantly with portrait drawings. Invite a few friends, set a timer and draw each other fast.
Those portraits might not win awards, but they are a fun and challenging drawing exercise.
Variations. For even more fun try combining the above technique with a timer approach.
It took me years to get comfortable with my drawing skills. Yes, I did a lot of practical work, but a mental shift played a huge role as well. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that the way I was drawing was okay. Now I don’t care if my drawing looks good or not because I simply enjoy doing it. I trust myself to make certain decisions and I know that drawing is not a beauty contest, it is a snapshot of who I am in the moment of time.
Thankfully, we had an incredibly creative atmosphere at college. Our teachers were on a mission to make drawing lessons different. They were teaching us how to draw in new ways: with your left hand, with a thread dipped into PVA, with both hands at the same time, and even with your eyes closed. They brought real ducks to the class so that we would draw them in motion and they wrapped models into rolls of kitchen towels creating weird and wonderful body shapes. It made me feel like I was part of an underground art school. I was still nervous about drawing, but I loved this rebellious approach. Those drawing sessions were like acts of performance. They taught me that learning to draw is just as much about a process as a result.
I hope that these ideas will be helpful for you when you are starting out with illustration. If you enjoyed this article, let me know in a comment!