Ask the Art Professor: What is the best way to practice my drawing skills?

“Ask the Art Professor” is an advice column for visual artists, now featured in the Huffington Post.  This is your chance to ask a professional artist/educator your questions about being an artist, the creative process, career advice, etc. Submit your question by emailing me at clara(at)claralieu.com, or by commenting here on this blog. All questions will be posted anonymously, and you’ll receive notification when your question is online.  Read an archive of past articles here.

“What is the best way to practice my drawing skills in traditional media? I draw with colored pencils and I also paint with acrylics and I am sort of okay at it , but I really want to become better.”

Drawing is a highly complex beast which involves so many different elements at the various skill levels. Rather than get into all of those details, I’m going to boil it down to four fundamental directives that will help improve your drawing skills across all skill levels and media.

1) Draw from direct observation. This sounds so simple, and yet I’m appalled at how many artists don’t work from direct observation when they are looking to improve their drawing skills. Photographs may be convenient and easier to work from, but they’re a cheap shortcut that will lead to the development of all sorts of bad habits.The amount of information that a photograph has pales in comparison to seeing a subject in real life.  This is not to say that one should never ever in their lifetime work from a photograph; I work from photographs all the time now. However, I’m able to do this because I’ve developed skills based on many, many years of working from direct observation.

When you work from life, you experience your subject matter in way that a photograph could never allow you to:  you can touch your subject, smell it, walk around it, and see the subject within the context of its environment. This overall sensory experience is vital towards your understanding of your subject matter and will always translate into your drawing. Drawing is as much about learning how to see as it is about the marks that you put on the page.  Experiencing your subject in real life will teach you how to hone your skills in observation. The skills that you will gain from working from direct observation will tremendously inform and support your ability to work from all sorts of other references.

2) Practice daily.  Drawing is very similar to athletics.  If you were an athlete, you would have a rigid schedule of training set up that you would adhere to. Drawing is the same way: it requires serious focus, rigorous training, and intense physical stamina. Every time you sit down to draw, it’s an opportunity to sharpen your eye, and become more proficient in coordinating your mind and eye with the physical movements of your arm and hand.   Many people get impatient with drawing and expect results right away.    You have to be committed, and be able to recognize that improvement is a slow and gradual process. One would never expect to be an Olympic level skier after one week of training, the same way you can’t expect to be a master of drawing after working for a few days.

3) Practice gesture drawing.  If you can do strong gesture drawings, you’ve already won half the battle. Gesture drawings are the core of any drawing, they capture the essence of what a drawing is trying to say in just a few strokes, in just a few minutes. The first 2 minutes of a drawing are critical in that they lay the foundation for the rest of the drawing. It doesn’t matter how polished your drawing is if the initial gesture isn’t there to begin with.

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Gesture drawing by Rembrandt

Ideally, one should practice gesture drawing from a nude model, but if you don’t have access to a model, there are plenty of other options.  You can go to a local cafe and sketch people sitting in the cafe, or draw a bunch of friends who are sitting around.   One of my friends always liked going to the beach to draw  because people sit still and they’re practically naked anyway.  I had a peer in art school who used to go to college parties and draw all of the drunk people sitting around. Get creative and find as many contexts as possible where you can practice your gesture drawing.

To create a strong gesture gesture, it’s important to keep your arm moving and circulating throughout the page, moving from top to bottom, side to side, very quickly. Start very, very light with marks that barely show on the page.  This allows you to make lots of mistakes that will not show later because they’ll be so light. Develop all of the parts of the drawing together so that you don’t neglect any area.   Try to aim for continuous movements and fluid lines rather than fragmenting your lines into choppy marks. Look at your subject more than you look at your drawing; your subject is where the information is. Keep your gesture drawings about 2-5 minutes in length, any longer than that it’s too easy to get lazy and fall back into bad habits.

4) Look at historical drawings. Go to the library and check out books that feature drawings by historical artists. (avoid the internet, you won’t get nearly the range or selection of drawings) The drawings that you’ll learn the most from are gesture drawings and quick sketches done in sketchbooks.  In these quick sketches you’ll get to see all of the visual evidence: you get to see all of the mistakes, all of the troubleshooting that happens in an artist’s drawing process. This is what is so unique about drawing that you won’t see in other media like painting and sculpture- the opportunity to see traces of an artist’s process in a drawing.   Investigate and analyze what kinds of strategies these artists take in their drawing process and try to use them in your own.

Related articles:
“What is a gesture drawing?”
“Is drawing considered an innate talent or a craft, which can be learned by anyone?”
“How can I learn to shade objects in my drawings?”
“How can I draw what I see in my head?”
“How do you get yourself to practice drawing?”
“What is the most important mindset a student needs to have in order to create a successful drawing?”

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Sketches by Raphael

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5 thoughts on “Ask the Art Professor: What is the best way to practice my drawing skills?

  1. you have been must read 2 weeks in a row for my students, thank you . somehow when i say it , uuhhhah….but when they read it i get ‘that was a great article you sent us to read , so other artists do this too!’………..thank you again. basic building blocks……. cheers

  2. Thank you so much for this brilliant article! These tips will help me a lot, but could I please ask for a favor?!

    I’m an engineering student trying to move into manga illustration and design and starting out with drawing. I have nobody to guide me to learn how to draw. I’m just trying to use different sources on the internet but everyone has a different opinion!

    Could you please give me a kind of road map as to what I should start with, what kind of drawings I should do daily, how and when to move on to the next step, etc? Like a systematic plan for improving drawing skills from basic skills to the sketching level of an RISD fine arts undergrad, so that I could start with real illustration.

    It would be immensely helpful to people like me! God bless you!

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