The Truth About Drawing
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
So you want to learn how to draw? Bravo. That is the first and most important step in tackling drawing. The want and desire to be good at any craft requires the initial want and desire to do it. We all want to do certain things. We all wish we were good at things and excelled at them to the point of daily satisfaction. When I was a small child and I picked up my first pencil, something clicked in my brain. Of course, memory at that young of an age is sparing but what I could remember was a desire to draw. I immediately started sketching on any paper that I could find. Luckily, my cousin had a plentiful supply of copy paper. I went to town. This fascination with drawing quickly turned into my life-long passion of being an artist.
A question I get asked frequently is “Do you have to start at a young age in order to be good at drawing?” There are a couple ways I can answer this. First of all, when we pick up a hobby or any activity at a young age and stick with it, we tend to be very good by our teenage years. Being a teenager and being good at something allows us to dream of becoming professionals when we reach our twenties. Our twenties are supposed to be our golden years. The years where we graduate college, become socially dynamic, and feel like we have our whole lives ahead of us before hitting that dreaded mid-life crisis that everyone talks about. There is no specific age you have to be to start drawing. Sure, things we pick up when we're young tend to stick with us forever and it gives us that much more time to perfect our craft. But there are fundamentals of drawing that can be learned through dedication and hard work. A desire to want it badly enough is a great start.
In this introduction to drawing, I hope to clarify a lot of questions we all have about sketching and the fears, doubts, and frustrations that come with it.
Why do people sketch?
Why do we sing? Why do we run even when it is raining outside? Why do we still dance even when nobody shows up to practice? Deep down, we all have a desire to do that one thing that makes us feel good. It is that certain thing that gets our imagination going, our bodies going, it is that certain thing that frees us from the everyday craziness of schedules and annoyances. Whenever I sketch, there is a great sense of calm that rushes over me. It doesn't matter where I am or what I'm sketching. It is just the physical and mental act of looking at paper, gripping the pen or pencil, and applying any kind of line I want.
Many people who draw choose to do it for many different reasons. They want to get better, it helps them calm down, it offers a great outlet from a stressful day or they're excited about a new idea they came up with but weren't around any paper to jot it down earlier. Bringing a sketchbook with you at all times is very helpful for that matter! We sketch because we love it.
When is it used?
There are many different creative fields in the world today that require some form of artistic flair. Even engineers need the basics of drawing down to help show their ideas. Many times, designers and engineers will butt heads over what is drawn and what can be built but that is a whole different and fun issue I won't get into right now. There are instances when a business plan is made on a napkin during lunch with top executives. You're sitting in-between two potential investors and executives of a major name brand product. All you have is your red pen you never get to use and a napkin. The investor asks you “Hey can you sketch out really quickly how this device works so we can get a better understanding of its selling point?” You're suddenly put on the spot and you know you can't draw well. Who cares? In today's world it’s not always about how well you can draw but how well you can communicate your ideas.
Drawing is used in so many different scenarios and in so many different professions. Some of those professions pay people a lot of money to draw and others don't require drawing at all. Then there are times when drawings help you speak. There are those certain conversations we're in where we say “This would be so much easier if I could draw this out so you can understand what I'm talking about.” Suddenly the fear of being a horrible artist sets in and you apologize ahead of time for your soon-to-be stick figure masterpiece. The bottom line is that drawing is used in so many different situations that we sometimes don't even realize it.
Who typically sketches?
The beauty about drawing is that anyone can do it if they feel the need to. A common belief is that only the artsy fartsy people choose to draw. You know, the tattoo covered, color haired, pierced electro house ravers that paint their nails and watch cult horror flicks. The reality is that we can walk down the street, look at someone and will have no idea if they sketch self-portraits on a daily basis. We would have no idea that the group of people walking past us are hard core graphic novel sequential artists. We just don’t know. But one of the coolest things is being surprised by someone whipping out a sketchbook at a café. Personally, I’ve always been viewed as a jock. So when I sketch demonic and twisted creatures that should be from the mind of someone doing five hits of acid while drinking Red Bull, it strikes people as odd. I’ve never done acid and I drink two cans of Red Bull a year. My creatures are horrifically just fine.
Where can we draw?
When I was a sophomore in college, my area of concentration was transportation design within the industrial design program. One of the coolest assignments we were ever given was to go to the Cincinnati Zoo and sketch our favorite animals. Once we had a group of animals that we really liked, we took our absolute favorite and began designing a vehicle with that animal’s characteristics. I obviously spent most of my time in the insect house. I laid eyes on the Emperor Scorpion and I already had my vehicle designed in my head. It was time to sketch it out.
This goes to show that we don’t have to remain a hermit and draw in our homes all of the time. Going outside is one of the most freeing and exhilarating ways to stimulate our minds for drawing. There are so many things happening around us when we’re outside that it often becomes overwhelming. This is when we need to stay focused, pick a subject matter, and start drawing those thumbnails. A busy park is perfect or a bench in a bustling downtown. There’s constant movement and constant stillness. There is no time limit to sketching either. Too many people become obsessed with details. I am definitely guilty of that! One of the greatest skills I ever learned from industrial design was quick sketching. When we are sketching in a public place whether it is a library or a classroom before class starts, becoming faster will help you draw wherever you want under time constraints.
How much does it cost?
Let’s face it. Being an artist can be expensive. The one thing I tell my students before the foundation semester begins is that the supply list they’re given and the cost that goes with it might make them cringe. For the most part it is true when they say you get what you pay for. When it comes to art supplies however, that’s not always the case.
We want the best paper to draw on because we think that will make better drawings. Yes it is true that the smoothness and vibrancy of Letraset is pretty amazing. But spending over forty dollars for a pad isn’t always necessary. You can achieve amazing lines on basic printer paper with a basic #2 pencil. Treat buying drawing supplies like you would jumping into digital painting. You can buy the expensive stuff all you want, but if you can’t do the basics then the pretty stuff just shows off your mistakes at higher quality. There are certain drawing tools that I love using. For instance, the combination of a cheap Bic ballpoint pen on Moleskine paper is amazing. Moleskine is expensive, yes, but the pen I’m using you can buy as a twelve pack in your local CVS. There is no need to rush out and buy a $200 Montblanc Starwalker Midnight Black Resin Ballpoint Pen thinking your creatures will come to life on paper and start hissing at you. You can make those creatures hiss with a cruddy pencil you found on the floor while drawing on the back of a brochure. A common supply list for incoming freshman at a design school may look as follows:
· Drafting board with meta edge 23” x 31”
· 30” meta T-square
· Drawing board 24” x 26” (Masonite with metal clip)
· Meta ruler, 18” cork-backed Acrylic triangles 10” pair 45/60”
· #1 knife with safety cap
· Blades for #1 knife (100 pk)
· Push pins ¾” (100 pk)
· Drafting tape
· Strathmore Recycled Sketch Pad 14” x 17”
· Newsprint pad 14” x 17”
· Bristol vellum pad or individual sheets 19” x 24”
· Sketchbook, Cachet or equivalent, hard-bound artist’s notebook 9” x 12”
· Graphite (“lead”) Pencils: wood-encased: a range of at least four similar to Ebony 6B-3B-HB-2H
· Standard Prismacolor or Verithin pencils (basic pack of 12 or more colors)
· Prismacolor grayscale markers (at least 20%, 50% and 70% values)
· Itoya 14” x 17” portfolio book with 24 clear pages (48 views)
· Inexpensive portfolio or folder to keep drawings in
The list above gives you a good indication of what you can eventually own at once if you’re serious about drawing and using the materials. But that list is for students that need to have the majority of the supplies readily available. If you’re a beginner and not in school for design work, you can concentrate on one sketchbook and a few pencils and you will be just fine. If you feel compelled to rush out and buy several hundred dollars-worth of material, and you can afford it at once, by all means go for it. But just remember it is not what you buy but how you use the tools.
The intimidation factor
Intimidation is probably the most difficult thing to deal with when it comes to drawing. In today’s society, social media has become a gateway for exploring art and getting your own art seen by millions. It is a great advertising tool and it usually doesn’t cost a dime. So what is the problem? The problem is we get intimidated by all sorts of factors. One of the main factors is knowing there are other artists out there better than you and they will view your work. It is intimidating putting your work out for so many people to see. We clam up. We can’t quite hit the post button yet because we aren’t sure about what we just drew. You have to remember that everyone starts on a clean slate. You don’t just pick up a pencil one day and sketch a human figure in perfect proportions. It will most likely look like a constipated alien. Having been through the emotions of fear when it comes to drawing, I’ve broken the fear down into three categories and hopefully this can shed some light on how to overcome them. They are:
- Fear of rejection
- Fear of not making everything perfect
- Fear of critique
The first category I’d like to talk about is the fear of rejection. Nobody wants to be rejected. It is a horrible feeling and most of the time we don’t know how to deal with it. When we draw something and are about to show someone or post it online, there is a strange sense of anxiety. We think we did a good job on it but at the same time, we might not have a good piece. We simply aren’t sure. Facebook has become a habitual place of posting work because of the excellent exposure it brings. In a way, receiving likes is a nice way of communicating with people whom we might not ever see in the flesh. I’ve posted drawings online before and barely got any likes for them. It made me question what I just drew and then it hit me that I was drawing for other people and not myself. How could I be so backward about the situation? I was stressing over something incredibly stupid and counterproductive. The bottom line is don’t worry about pleasing everyone who might see your work. You should be producing work that satisfies you and makes you happy.
The fear of not making everything perfect is something we all struggle with. We’re perfectionists. What we create becomes our obsession until we get angry with it or bored. There is something to be said about giving it your all. But there is also something to be said about reserve. Think about a horror movie with a scary creature. The creature movies that are most affective are the ones that don’t show the creature right away. Alien and An American Werewolf in London are two examples. I have loved those movies since my childhood. The creatures aren’t shown too quickly. Now think about your art. Only put necessary details in areas where you want the viewer to focus the most, leaving the rest to the imagination. A lot of the time we become shy or think our work is inadequate because it’s not “finished” We need to trust what we’ve drawn.
The fear of critique is monumental. Being critiqued, especially online after posting an image you’ve slaved over for several hours or days, is tough. You need to learn how to take critique well otherwise you will never grow as an artist. You will become trapped in your own stubborn road block of artistic progression.
I will use another example from my own experience. When I was a sophomore and just learning how to sketch cars, they were pretty awful looking with perspective and proportion issues. During one of my class critiques, I had to stand up in front of not only my class but three visiting designers from General Motors. It was common to have industry professionals come in to critique us. My chosen GM product was the Maybach. I loved the Exelero concept and wanted to develop my own take. I nervously hung up my sketches not knowing what their reaction was going to be. I was pretty confident about my sketching ability but my confidence stopped there. One of the designers looked at the incredibly long wheel base of my concepts and said “You might want to watch the banana shape. Especially that one because it looks like a Baleen Whale.” I realized that all my cars were bowing. But I remained mentally tough and took the critique as a way of help and not personally like so many do. There is no way I could have improved as a designer unless I took those kinds of critiques well. You have to understand that critiques are not personal attacks and that is the problem with a lot of young artists.
How often should I draw?
This is a question I get asked quite often and to be honest, there is no right answer to it. Every artist has a different way of drawing and a different attention span. For me, the longest I can go in one sitting is no more than three hours. I have to get up and do stuff. Most of the time I spit sketch here and there until a complete image happens. Even within the three hour sketch sessions, I get up. But drawing is something I do every single day of the week. It is essential to my well-being. An hour or two each day is a good amount of time to dedicate to drawing. Obviously if you're working in house, the hours are longer. For me, a solid hour is good for my brain if I'm drawing leisurely. An hour makes me feel like I’ve accomplished a good amount to it. But here’s the fun part; if you really enjoy drawing, time will fly by! Don’t time yourselves. Just go with it and see where it takes you.
What should you draw?
The beauty about drawing is that the subject matter is infinite. Animals, people, vehicles, the list can go on. Certain subjects intrigue us in different ways. To give a broad answer to this question, I’ll say that drawing from both life and your imagination is essential. The combination can do amazing things for your skill level and portfolio. In my experience, the most difficult subject to draw is the human body. We as humans are amazing machines and to have the ability to accurately draw our anatomy is a skillset that is hard to come by. At the same time, it is very rewarding. You need to draw what interests you the most. Draw it over and over again until you have mastered it. Once you have a certain subject matter (or more) nailed down, then you have a fantastic opportunity to sell yourself on that ability.
If you’re having trouble finding things to draw, take a sketchbook and sketch quick thirty second thumbnails of things around you. They can be plants, products, or even people. Gestural sketches are a great way to loosen you up and get your mind used to expressing your ideas on paper. If you can write your ideas down, you can draw them. It is just a different way to write.
Let yourself be bad before you get good
Being bad at anything sucks. It isn’t fun and there is no quick fix to it. It is something you have to work at until progress can be made. This is when frustration sets in and the wanting to give up, even for a little while, begins to take hold of you. The problem is that when we give up and then tell ourselves we’ll have a new start date, we never really commit to that start date. Days turn into weeks, weeks into months. Eventually, we have to tell ourselves that there’s always next year. It’s a vicious cycle. This can happen with drawing. We are not born good at drawing. Nobody is. We all have sketched crap infested messes on paper and tried to call it art. We all must fail at this before we realize what it is we need to work on. This is why so many of our sketchbooks have one thing on a page and then nothing surrounding it. It’s because we hated that one thing and through some crazy way of thinking, it just ruined the entire page. We must prepare ourselves to fail and use a lot of paper. It is perfectly okay! Keep failing. By failing, you’re allowing yourselves to experiment until a breakthrough happens.
We also have to curb our stubbornness. A lot of artists think that what they know is all they have to know, but then freak out once a critique is given of their work. Jumping into defense mode does not help you. You have to admit to yourselves that you’re not good at a certain thing. Being able to accept the possibility of needing practice is the first step to becoming great. It is also the first step into having a professional level portfolio. We must remain humble and be ready to adapt. Jump out of your comfort zone and you will find yourself improving. It’s tough at first, but keep at it!
- Whatever subject matter we feel most uncomfortable with in drawing is usually the very thing we need to be drawing!
- Try not to jump straight into digital until you experience drawing on actual paper first. Your ability to form smooth lines in rough format will give you a good foundation for when you move into digital with the Cintiq or tablet.
- We all get a strange sense of anxiety right before we start drawing, whether it’s a large project or we're staring at the first page of a brand new sketch book. Trust yourself and don't worry about an end result too quickly. Take a deep breath and put that first line down. It gets easier from there.
- If you're wondering why your line quality is not up to par, don't worry. Take a step back from your work and look at several things. First off, is the surface you're working on too small? Are you sketching too much with the wrist and elbow instead of getting flowing lines from drawing with the shoulder? Stand up! Too many times we sit and draw while slouching.
- A lot of people worry about how to start drawing if they've never attempted it before. The truth is, get paper and a pencil and start scribbling. Literally scribble. Don't worry about who sees it and if the public views it. Don't worry about comparing your work to others. This should be done freely. Let your pencil do the work.
Drawing might seem overwhelming at first especially if you’re just starting out. It takes time. But with that time comes a certain kind of commitment that you will need in order to make the necessary progress. The points that I’ve touched on throughout this post are hopefully going to help you approach drawing with a sense of wonder rather than fear and dread. A pencil is only a tool. A keyboard is only a tool. All of the instruments we use on a daily basis to get our ideas out are just tools and these tools are made possible because we want them to. It’s really that simple. The results aren’t always pretty or what we initially wanted but that shouldn’t deter you from achieving your goals. One thing I’d like to mention is the fact that every person can draw if they practice. The belief that only certain people are born with artistic talent is not true. We are all born the same.
I appreciate all of you taking the time to read through this post. I wrote this because drawing is my passion and I want to help as many aspiring artists as I can. So with that said, get your paper and pencils and see what you can create!