Ask the Art Prof: What is the Mindset an Art Student Needs to Draw Successfully?

Portrait Drawing

“What is the most important mindset an art student needs to have in order to create a successful drawing?”

Mindset is everything when it comes to drawing. People tend to think that drawing is only about what your hands and arms are physically engaged in.  While the physical aspect of drawing certainly is important, how you approach your drawing mentally is much more critical. I’ve seen students in my freshman drawing classes at RISD make incredible leaps and improvements in their drawings in a matter of 15 minutes. This isn’t because their hands magically gained the ability to physically draw something over the course of those 15 minutes, rather it’s because they made some kind of shift or change in their mindset that allowed them to make a major stride in their work.


“Ready position” in volleyball

When I was in high school, I was a hardcore volleyball player.  I did it all: the varsity team at school, Jr. Olympics, tournaments, even volleyball camp. I remember clearly something my coach described as being “ready position”. “Ready position” is the position you’re in when you’re waiting for the other team’s serve to come across the net. You simply have to be ready for anything to happen, really alert, focused, and yet flexible enough that your body could move in any direction at any given moment. Physically speaking, when you’re in “ready position”, you’re a little hunched over, your arms are out to the side, you’re on the balls of your feet, loose, and slightly moving.

What happens in drawing is very similar to the ball coming across the net; you never know what’s going to happen, and yet you have to deal with it as it’s happening. Drawing is a series of reactions, to the marks that you’ve already made and the marks that you anticipate. The process is unpredictable and wild, which is exactly what makes drawing so amazing and infuriating at the same time.

Composition Project

It sounds very cheesy, but when I sit down to work on a drawing I have to pump myself up mentally to get going. Regardless of how I actually feel in real life, I tell myself in my head that I KICK ASS and that I am capable of anything I want. I have to build up a very strong foundation of confidence and belief in myself and that I’m doing. If I don’t, self-doubt will completely take over and prevent me from working altogether. Any shred of doubt always manifests itself into a huge distraction that makes it impossible for me to function. For me, the time for questioning is after I’m out of the trenches of working.  When I’m drawing, I don’t judge myself or the work.  I reserve that part of the process for after I’m done working for the day.

This is why the moment before my hand physically touches the blank paper is so scary.  In those moments, I’m mentally preparing myself to get started. I’m always nervous just before I get started drawing.  I think it’s very similar to jumping into a pool. Just yesterday I was at the pool, feeling a slight tinge of fear before I jumped in.  Will the water be cold?  Will I be freezing the whole time that I’m in the pool? Yes, all silly concerns, but that’s what goes through my head.  Jumping into a pool is a major commitment, you either do it or you don’t. When I take the plunge, I’m drenched in water, and there’s no going back to being dry. The process of drawing is very similar, once your hand starts moving across the surface of the page, there is simply no going back to that blank page. You have to be ready to make bold commitments when you draw, being fussy and flaky about your marks only results in timid, boring results. Those commitments can only happen if you back them up with confidence and a strong mindset.

This charcoal drawing tutorial I did on the Art Prof Youtube channel shows the entire process of creating a portrait drawing in charcoal from direct observation. (see below) In the tutorial, I speak about the mindset you need in order to make a drawing. I wrote this article which provides detailed explanations of the numerous tools needed to make charcoal drawings.

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.

Related Videos
Ask the Art Prof Live: Personal Themes, Never Too Late to Start Drawing
Ask the Art Prof Live: Aches While Drawing, Professional Artwork vs. Student Artwork
Youtube Playlist: Video Critiques on Art School Admissions Portfolios
Youtube Playlist:  How to Draw a Portrait with Charcoal and Cross-Hatching
Youtube Playlist:  Crit Quickies, 1 min. critiques on artworks

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?”
“What is the best way to practice my drawing skills?”
“How do you get yourself to practice drawing?”


4 thoughts on “Ask the Art Prof: What is the Mindset an Art Student Needs to Draw Successfully?

  1. Good advice! Funny though that you didn’t talk about being able to see. When I have taught kids to draw I tried to have them see and not think. I would suggest that the remarkable process your students experienced may have been their learning to trust what they see.

  2. “Drawing is a series of reactions, to the marks that you’ve already made and the marks that you anticipate. The process is unpredictable and wild, which is exactly what makes drawing so amazing and infuriating at the same time.” Absolutely!

    Learning how to cope with this through a post college life as artist is the real challenge, hubris gets you only so far and can blur your critical faculties, eventually being up beat all the time doesn’t work either it just muddies your emotions. My confidence building pep talks in the shower eventually played havoc with the water and electricity bill. But in the end when you get a chance to just work everyday for weeks, maybe months, (and if your really fortunate years), the drawing process takes over and propels and compels you to sync seeing with drawing, its like the sense of the flesh in Rembrandt’s elephant drawing at the Albertina, there is this mass of daily visual and emotional experience and the knowledge about the history of drawing, but then sometimes the feeling that your inside it feeling every neurone in your body, and finally you walk in this new skin.

    Thanks for your fantastic blog!

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