Avoid the 3 major mistakes I made learning to draw

I made every mistake possible when learning to draw. I ran into every pitfall. I would make the hands too small,  I would straighten out the pose, I’d make the head too big, I’d put the eyes too high on the head – and I’ve made other videos which cover a lot of those technical classic mistakes, such as this article on gesture mistakes and this video on top proportion mistakes

You could actually say a lot of those classis mistakes are not really mistakes at all – they’re just natural steps on the road to learning to draw because everyone has to go through them. Below are some examples from just a few years ago when I was making all those natural mistakes. I’d never be drawing as I am now without doing these drawings first:

four beginner life drawings
Here are a few of my early life drawings from when I was first starting out

In this article I’m going to go over three real mistakes – things that just set me back and didn’t help at all. And then I’ll explain why I think all three of those things actually come back to the same big overarching problem, you might call it the “Lord of the Mistakes”.


Mistake 1: Avoiding Skills

With every skill in drawing that I’ve learned, I started out by avoiding it. That never helped! Things like perspective, learning to draw with simple forms, learning to draw gesture and to draw quicker, learning about simplifying values. I resisted every single one of them! I’d make all kinds of excuses about why I didn’t need to learn it:

“It’ll make my art too stiff,” “that’s not really my style of drawing,” “it’s too boring, it should be fun!”

And every time, I’d eventually realise that I did have to learn that skill, and I could have avoided that whole process of denial and just got stuck in from the start.

on the left is an early life drawing by a beginner, and on the right is a life drawing after years of practice
On the left is one of my early life drawings from when I was a beginner, compared to a more recent life drawing after years of practice

Mistake 2: The Wrong ‘Why’

The second big fundamental error I made while pursuing art was doing it for the wrong reasons. The way that I used to frame my journey was around what I would get back from other people, trying to get popularity, recognition, respect etc. A lot of it basically revolved around fear: I was afraid of not being approved of, afraid of rejection, afraid of being inferior. I lost sight of the fact that, as cheesy as it sounds, I was doing it for the wrong reasons.

Over time I realised that there was a more helpful way to reframe all of this. I needed to go back to the real reason that we want to pursue art, which is to share visual experiences that happen as we go through life, things that we find beautiful or interesting in some way. We want to capture that and get closer to it and then share it with other people and connect with them in that way.

figure drawing reference image on the left, with a person drawing on the right
Like this reference? Access this and more in our free reference library

Mistake 3: Being Horrible to Yourself

A big fundamental error was being horrible to myself through the process. I would say things to myself like, “why are you doing this? You’re a grown man and this drawing is terrible, it looks like a kid’s drawing. Ugh you made that same mistake again. What are you doing?.…”

Just imagine imagine if  an actual art teacher was talking to a student that way. You’d be thinking, “should I call the police? This is verbal abuse!” That is how I would often talk to myself while learning to draw – and sometimes still do! Keep an eye out for that kind of unhelpful self-talk.

figure drawing reference image on the left, with a person drawing on the right

The Lord of the Mistakes

What is this overarching mistake I think we make when we’re learning to draw and paint? I think it is confusing the process of learning art skills with the creation of art.

When we’re talking about art skills, they can actually be compared. For example, perspective is a technical exercise. Your perspective can be right or wrong. Anatomy is another example. We can ask questions like, who has a better understanding of anatomy? Who knows which muscles attach to this bone and go to what bone?

Because we can quantify these skills, it’s therefore possible to compete on these things too. It leads straight into that pitfall of comparing yourself to other people or feeling inadequate about it or even avoiding skills entirely, afraid that you might be bad at them.

It’s so tempting to put lots of pressure and lots of value and importance on the skill building aspect of learning art, forgetting that that’s actually not the ultimate point of this whole thing. The ultimate point here is to create artwork. And I know it might sound cheesy, but the truth is that the only person who can create your artwork is going to be you. The whole point of your artwork is to see what you see. I’m far less likely to be interested in someone who is super skilled and can do really really cool technical drawings that mean absolutely nothing to them.

The point of skill building is just that you can more accurately express these things that you saw, that your mind showed you, and I’m seeing these things and I want to get closer to them. That’s why skills are cool. But the difficulty with skills is that it is  really easy to just get into a pure problem-solving mindset. You can think, “the problem is that  I lack skill and therefore need to develop skills that can take me from from Level -20 to Level 0″. In other words, this mindset can be quite a negative experience!

But when we reframe that mindset and focus instead on your visual interest in the world, there’s so much more emphasis on appreciating beautiful things or interesting things or having things in your imagination and so that’s a positive place to be. In that sense, your starting point is already at Level +20 as soon as you decide you want to be an artist because you appreciate these things. And then as you build skills, you’re building off that positive baseline, starting from +20 and building from there to get to +1000! Of course this is just a silly made-up scoring system – but I hope it helps to give you a different way of thinking about it. It’s not that you are lacking and need to solve that problem, it’s that you have a sense of visual wonder and want to build on it even further.

Like this reference? Access this and more in our free reference library

It can be important to dial down that skill-based pressure. We can relegate art skills to their proper place which is as a means to an end, and the real thing that matters is the creation of art. And
you’re the only person, as cheesy as it sounds, who’s going to make the artwork that you’re supposed to make. So there is no comparison there.

What I really appreciate most in art is its sincerity. That is what I love to see and that’s why I love hanging out in our community on Love Life Drawing. Whatever the skill level, I really enjoy seeing people’s drawings and paintings because it’s so genuine and sincere and we’re on that journey together. When what’s driving you is this obsession with just having lots of skills and and being jealous of other people’s skill and trying to beat them and stuff like that, it can be quite powerful in the short term but it’s just not a sustainable fuel that’s going to drive you along for the full journey that you need to go on. If you have that much clearer picture of why you’re doing it, with the skills as a means to that end, it’s a way more sustainable fuel source for you. It’s going to keep you going for long enough that you actually get the skills that you want.

If you enjoyed this article you might also like to check out our other learning & mindset articles here.


How to Draw Any Pose from IMAGINATION

https://youtu.be/5T99JiMZ59c During your journey of learning to draw the figure, you’ll probably have pivotal, memorable moments. Maybe it’s a drawing that felt like a turning