There’s no getting around the fact that to get good at drawing, you have to practice your fundamental skills over a few years. But our question for today is, are there any quick little things to make the whole process easier that don’t take too much extra time or too much extra effort? The answer is, yes there are! And I’m going to share them with you in this article.
Tip 1: Check the angle of your drawing surface
This is a pretty easy tip that has a big impact. If you’re still drawing with your sketchbook flat on a desk in front of you, all you need to do is angle that thing up so it’s perpendicular to your eyes. This is going to have a huge impact because your range of motion with your arm when you’re making marks will be much better. It’s not impeded by the corner of the desk and your line quality will improve. Even more important than that, now you’re not drawing on a foreshortened drawing surface.
Dealing with foreshortening is hard in drawing but if you’re trying to draw on a foreshortened surface which is foreshortened to your eyes, it’s almost impossible to get your proportions right. When I ask students in our Study Group whether they drawing flat on the desk, around half still say yes and I can’t believe it. Adjusting the angle of your drawing surface is such an easy way to give yourself a boost.
Tip 2: Check your drawing by flipping it horizontally
This one is pretty easy to do, especially for drawings that take 10 minutes and up. Look at the drawing in a mirror, take a photo of it with your phone and flip it horizontally, or if you’re drawing digitally, just flip the canvas horizontally.
When you’re doing a drawing, you can’t see the things that are wonky or off because you’ve just been staring at it for too long. When you flip it horizontally, you see it with fresh eyes and suddenly you realise that arm is three times too long! And you can fix it. Flipping horizontally regularly during the drawing is a quick and easy boost.
Tip 3: Draw from a variety of sources
This tip is really about the benefits of drawing from life versus drawing from photo references. So, let’s say you only draw from photo references, you like to use our amazing and free reference library for your figure drawing and that’s great! That’s a really good way to practice. But if you take one of those practice sessions each week and just make it an in-person life drawing class, it’s going to have a really nice impact on your drawings.
One reason is that the human figure is a three-dimensional form, but if you’re only ever using photo references, you never get to see that three-dimensional form. So an advanctage of drawing from life is that it’s going to give you that three-dimensional sense of the figure.
Secondly, you don’t get to pick and choose the poses. You have to go with whatever poses the model does, whereas when you’ve got photo references, there might be a temptation to avoid certain poses.
Thirdly, when the time ends on the pose and the model changes pose, you just have to move on. It’s over – you can’t draw it any more because the pose is gone, and there’s something really useful about that.
And a final advantage of in-person drawing is that it’s really nice to have other people around who are also drawing. It’s a nice atmosphere. If you’re nervous about going to life drawing because you don’t think you’re good enough, don’t be! 99.9% of people who go to life drawing are super nice and
friendly. No one’s there to judge you. A lot of people are very judgmental about their own stuff but they’re usually really happy to just see other people drawing.
Now, I’ve met some people who only draw from life and they totally shun drawing from photo references. But in that case you could give yourself a little boost by opening your mind up to drawing from photo references because they have benefits too.
For one thing, you can open your laptop or whatever and start sketching and do a life drawing session whenever you like. It could be 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, any time of the day. You’re probably going to get more drawing in this way versus only ever drawing at life drawing class.
Another advantage is that in a photo, a model can hold a dynamic pose for much longer than they could in real life, so this allows you more time to practice drawing really active and dynamic poses.
Last but not least, you can do the same pose over and over again and learn about it and figure out how to draw it. Going back over something you’ve struggled with and trying again is a vital part of the learning process.
Tip 4: Set realistic short-term expectations
Okay, so this one is going to sound a little bit weird but it’s to lower your short-term standards. Now, I’m not saying that you shoudn’t aim for the stars with your drawing skills! I think actually most people don’t realize how good they could be if they practice consistently over a number of years. You can go further than you can even imagine. However, most people overestimate what they
should be able to do in one practice session or in one week or even in a month.
I used to go into a practice session thinking things like, I‘m going to learn arm anatomy during this
practice session. But the reality is, you can’t learn the anatomy an arm in one single practice
session. A more realistic goal would have been for me to say, right now I don’t know anything about anatomy, so I don’t even know what I don’t know. By the end of this practice session I’d like to have got to the point where I’m really confused about arm anatomy.
And you can see how each practice session would be really successful because it’s very doable to get to a point where you’re just confused about something. That would be the first goal. And then maybe the next practice session you could aim to turn that confusion into a set of specific questions that you don’t yet know all the answers to. So you really reduce what you’re trying to achieve in each practice session.
I used to go into my drawing practice thinking my goal is to do a beautiful drawing and then be disappointed every day because I didn’t get there. To avoid this, it’s good to have a broader learning system. So, you have a big picture of where you want to go and then each step of the journey is mapped out.
Imagine you keep reaching for a star. You can never reach it! You try every day, you’re just really far away from it and it feels like you’re never going to reach it. But if you instead focus on building a step each day, build a step, build a step, one day you’ve built a lot of steps you go up, and guess what? You can reach that star.
To learn more about setting goals, check out our guide on how to make a learning plan HERE
Tip 5: follow the drawing exercise as described
Sometimes l give students a drawing exercise and then they’ll just draw it in their normal way. When I point out to the student that they didn’t follow the exercise as I’d instructed, they might say something like, drawing in the way that you asked me to felt a bit weird, it felt awkward, so I just decided to draw in my normal way and keep those ideas in mind. Now that is not going to have much impact on your drawings and your drawings aren’t going to change that way.
The nature of learning is that you have to do something that feels a little bit awkward and uncomfortable because it’s a skill that you don’t yet have. And then by doing the exercise and you keep practicing you will eventually gain that skill. You kind of have to take one step back to
take two steps forwards. If you’re always just going to draw in the way that you’re used to, the progress is going to be slow or maybe non-existent.
If you let go of the idea that your drawings should look a certain way, they should look ‘good’, it’s going to be so much easier to just do what the exercise is. When we give exercises, they are designed specifically to get you those skills, so do it as described.
Tip 6: Find Your Community
My next piece of advice is to join a community of artists. Now, we have an online community that you can join for free HERE – it’s super friendly and it’s a place I love to hang out. But there’s lots of other online communities and there’s lots of in-person communities and the benefits are huge. It will be a much less lonely process if you have people to share it with. It’s also really nice to be able to see other people’s journeys and see their progress and then that helps you understand your own. So this is just an easy way to make the whole process more fun.
Tip 7: Use the drawing material that works for YOU
I used to have this squirrel syndrome with materials. Every time my dog sees a squirrel, she drops everything and just chases after it. Every time I saw a nice drawing or painting, I’d drop everything and try and figure out how to use the material or digital brush that they used.
Now, if you see a drawing or a painting that you love, instead of trying to chase the material that they used, think about what fundamental skills they used. And then do some exercises around those fundamentals. The thing that makes the piece you love great isn’t the material, it’s the fundamentals underpinning it. I’m talking about things like how the values are grouped, how the shapes are designed or the gesture or how the form was created.
If you’re thinking “what are some good practice materials that you could stick with?” I have some suggestions. Well, for figure drawing, smooth newsprint with a charcoal pencil and a or a pitt pastel pencil or a similar pencil is a pretty proven way to go. There are other materials that you can use as well. Digital is great. You want it to be pretty versatile, you don’t want it to be too expensive, so those are some good options.You can read more about materials HERE.
Tip 8: Develop a low pressure sketching habit
So, a sketching habit means you’re regularly getting out your sketchbook and drawing. The low pressure part is really important. As an example, right now my son isn’t sleeping well and I’ve got some kind of bug so I’m really tired and at the end of the day I just want to relax.
Now if in that moment I flop onto the sofa and all I want to do is relax, and I get my sketchbook out to just do some sketching, that indicates that I’ve successfully created a low pressure sketching habit.
If I’ve got pressure on my sketches, like I want them to look good, I’m not going to want to sketch when I’m super tired. But if I’ve been able to figure out a way to just sketch without any pressure, it’s just super relaxing. So in addition to your proper practice, develop a low pressure sketching habit as well. It is a really quick way to add practice time to your day.
And the final quick tip is create a free account in our community. You’ll get access to references to draw, our mini-course and a chance to share your journey with a lot of wonderful likeminded artists.