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Illustrator Tips: On Teaching Yourself To Draw

Learning to draw and learning to be an illustrator are two different things (that's a different topic for a different time). Today I want to write a little bit about on how I taught myself to draw. This isn't a one size fits all method but it worked well for me and may work for you.  Before I get into what I actually did to teach myself, I think its important to establish 2 points. 

Point 1: Natural vs. Nurtured Talent

There's a lot of debate on whether talent comes naturally or is nurtured. I think its safe to leave that debate behind because whether or not you have natural talent or nurtured talent, you will need to put in a lot of time and practice - and I mean a LOT of time and practice - to get good, reach your potential, or create work people will notice. Some people pick up drawing skills more quickly than others, and some can dive so much deeper into the craft of illustration. But the speed at which we learn or the distance we can travel should have no bearing on the amount of effort we pour into our craft. If its worth doing, its worth doing right. So leave the debate behind and pick up that pencil!

Point 2: Square One

Every illustrator I know started at the same place: square one. We all had to learn to hold a crayon or pencil or some tool to mark on the page. We all had to produce loads of bad drawings before we were able to gain any measure of control over our medium of choice. Rest assured that for every good drawing you see from an illustrator you respect, there are thousands of bad* drawings behind it where they were struggling through the craft just as you are.

*And when I say "bad" I mean early work which serves  artistic internal purposes more than it would serve others. We do these drawings to learn, not to impress.

With those points in mind, here's what I did to teach myself to draw. 

"Perfect Practice Makes Perfect"

This was something my dad always used to say. He was a professional musician who knew what it was to practice.  And I didn't understand his point until recently. The only way to learn how to draw is to draw. If you want to get better, you need to practice at it. Yet, I've seen guys who fill up hundreds of sketchbooks but their work never seems to change. Why was that? They were practicing, they were spending time with pencil to paper - what was going on?

The key is perfect practice - or, perhaps a more precise term, intentional practice.

Instead of just drawing to fill up pages, I spent time drawing things I loved as well as the things I wanted to get better at.  I had a limited amount of time I could spend drawing each day (more on that later) so to maximize my study times, I made sure that every time my pencil hit the page, there was a purpose behind what I was doing.

"Today, I'm going to draw 100 hands."  

"Today, I'm going to draw feet."  

"Today, I'm going to draw objects I see in the room around me."

Every practice session meant something, served some purpose, and worked toward some goal. Intentional practice was what helped me really drive forward in my craft.  Now, this isn't to say I've arrived or I've landed at a final destination. Far from it! I'm still growing, still getting better, and still spending time in intentional practice.

Routine & Regiment

I love a good routine and a solid regiment. I used both to my advantage when it came time to teaching myself to draw. I spent time drawing every day by scheduling it as a part of my routine.  

· Morning: 2 hours of study drawing from books, how-to's, etc.
· Lunch: 1 hour drawing, applying what I learned from the Morning Study time
· Night: 2+ hours drawing whatever I wanted

This sounds like a big time investment - and it is. But its not unrealistic. I was doing this while married and working a full time job. None of this came at the expense of my priorities and responsibilities. It simply meant I had to schedule my days, get up early, and, most of all, stay consistent.  If you can only put in 20 minutes a day, do it! Think of the time that adds up to in a year!

You'll notice I broke up my drawing times with a mix of study and fun. I needed that to keep myself motivated. I had energy in the morning to pour through anatomy, perspective, color theory, and a host of other fundamental books. At lunch time I tried to apply what I learned from my morning studies. This showed me how much I was retaining and also gave me an idea how to get lessons to stick in my mind.

Finally, the reward for my efforts was my night time drawing sessions. These were where I'd put away the books and practice putting lines to what I saw in my imagination. This kept learning to draw from feeling too clinical or boring. It gave me motivation which would then drive my study times the next morning. 

Stay Hungry, Stay Up

The blessing and curse of this craft is it simply takes time. It can be painful.  It will be painful. But it can also be immensely rewarding. I always figured that I would never be able to draw what I saw in my head and the disparity between my imagination and what I was putting down on paper was just something I was going to have to learn to live with. But with enough practice, enough blood, sweat, and tears, the gap between imagination and production slowly vanishes. Soon the two work together in surprising ways and you'll look back and realize it just took time.





If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments!