Ask the Art Prof: How Do You Learn the Basics of Visual Art and Drawing?

Portrait Drawing

“So I, as many other amateur visual artists, did the worst possible thing when I first started drawing. I didn’t realize the need for studying anatomy, so I plunged out in trying to copy a specific artistic style. This was mainly, I think, because of my young age and my ignorance when it came to “real” art, I was eight years old when drawing really started to mean something to me.  I started drawing because I wanted to give a visual image of my imaginary friends. As I had no friends when I was a child, drawing and making art started to mean more to me than other people. In some ways, it still does.

I’ve always imagined my future to have something to do with art as well. My problem is, though, that even though I’ve drawn and made art for almost ten years now, I have made so little progress compared to most other people. The last year I started getting aware of the fact that I really had to step it up before I could even hope to get into one of my dream schools (CalArts, Art Center College of Art & Design, and RISD). I have made progress, especially when it comes to color use. 
Still, I find myself unable to learn the things I should learn. I can’t seem to pick up what I’m seeing in my studies and I can’t seem to be able to use it in my personal pieces. It’s really scaring me, it seems like I’m unable to learn and progress when it comes to the things that I feel matters – anatomy in particular. I was wondering if you had any tips when it comes to concentrating on learning the “basics”? I’ve heard “draw from life” and “study, study, study” a thousand times before, and as I explained, it doesn’t seem to work for me. What do I need to change? My way of thinking of it, my attitude towards it? I’m at a loss, and I really hope you can help.”

To improve as a visual artist, you need to be rigorously disciplined, have a fierce determination to achieve your goals, have infinite patience, and be willing to put in hours and hours of labor to get there. Being a visual artist is a major physical and mental challenge that many people are not prepared for.  Your mindset is everything.  I’ve seen students in my freshman drawing classes at RISD enter with almost no drawing experience absolutely soar with success because of how determined and disciplined they were.  I’ve also had students with tons of drawing experience bomb because they had a lousy attitude and didn’t want to work hard or try anything new.

Pastel Portrait Drawing Assignment

I think that developing patience is a very, very big part of being able to improve your skills. Many people get frustrated very quickly with art, as if it’s a skill that can be learned overnight. Measure your progress in terms of months rather than days.

You have to make bad work if you want to make good work. See the mistakes you make as required parts of the creative process.  Rather than punishing yourself for making mistakes and/or bad work, embrace the opportunity to learn something new. Don’t get too fixated on specific pieces of art that you make.  Create the work, learn from it, and move on. The more prodigious your production level is, the less attached you’ll be to specific works, and the more willing you will be to experiment and try new things.

Set up a daily schedule for yourself so that you are drawing from direct observation at least 2 hours every day, and do this for at least 3 months.  There is no way that you could be on that rigorous of a schedule for that long and not improve.   This may sound blunt, but if you feel you don’t have the time, and can’t manage this schedule, then I have doubts about how serious you really are about being an artist.

If you’re looking for some structure in terms of what to draw, I would recommend purchasing the book “Drawing: Structure and Vision.” There are a lot of really hokey drawing books out there; this book is the real thing. Written by two of my RISD colleagues, Fritz Drury and Joanne Stryker,  the book covers all of the fundamentals of drawing and provides excellent historical and contemporary examples. There are also drawing assignments and examples of student drawings throughout the book.  All in all, a worthwhile investment that will provide you some kind of reference to work from.

Drawing, Structure and Vision
Understand that this task you’re assigning yourself is going to be hard.  Really hard. Expect to be frustrated, and yes, there will some tears. Accept that you are in it for the long haul.  This is where tenacity and perseverance need to kick in.  Develop a thick skin, toughen your mind, and push through the difficult moments.  If you want this badly enough, you can make it happen.

ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

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ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.


2 thoughts on “Ask the Art Prof: How Do You Learn the Basics of Visual Art and Drawing?

  1. For me, art was very much discouraged from my family, so growing up I did have to teach myself everything through either online tutorials or old fashioned experience. Whenever I could get money, it pretty much always went towards buying art supplies. Lots of times I drew and painted in secret, I did plead for art lessons, but looking back I’m sort of relieved I never received them. I don’t think I’d have nearly as much drive as I do now, and most of my friends who did receive lessons were content to keep it as a hobby.

    I remember taking my first drawing class two years ago in the summer at a community college. I loved every second of it, quite ecstatic that I could be taught at long last..

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