This article isn’t about advice that’s obviously wrong and really easy to avoid, like to draw a hand just put your hand down and draw around it. We’ll focus on stuff where it’s more nuanced and difficult to see that it’s not great, because those are the ones that’ll catch you out. These are all things I saw as I was learning, and they delayed my progress.
1. Draw an eye like this (and similar ideas)
You might have seen tutorials that look like these about how to draw one specific thing like an eye, you’ve probably seen many of these. Some of these will help you progress, but many will set you back, but at first glance they pretty much look the same. That depends on what specific things they focus on in the tutorial and what you want to achieve as a student.
Let’s take the most common situation which is you are trying to learn to draw people, draw faces, and as part of that you are learning to draw eyes. You go to one of these tutorials. You follow it faithfully, and at the end you have an impressive looking eye – it feels like you learned something.
Now you are in trouble, because you then go to draw a person, and you end up with a drawing that looks like this:
This is a portrait filled with classic beginner mistakes, which were reinforced by that eye tutorial, because it:
- Reinforces the symbol, the thing you are trying to move on from
- Prioritises the facial feature, not the planes and forms
- Encourages a focus on detail and rendering
What to do instead
Better tutorials focus on underlying principles and forms, so things like:
- Prioritise the underlying head structure and forms, for example with the Asaro head or even by drawing skulls
- Think about the eye as a ball in a socket with lids on. It’s helpful to forget the symbol and see the actual shapes created, which are totally different from the symbol
If the tutorial you found does those things then that’s great! If it’s more just reinforcing the old symbol of what an eye looks like, then best to avoid it. Although, if you just want to do a one-off fancy looking drawing of an eye, then they’re great. That’s an example with eyes, but it’s the same sort of thing for ‘how to draw’ tutorials about all sorts of things. Use learning resources that bring you back to underlying principles and forms rather than reinforcing standardised symbols for what things look like.
2. “Just draw a lot”
Ok so as with many myths, this one has a grain of truth to it. Very often when someone is asking me what they need to do to progress faster, why are they stuck, one part of the answer is quantity, do more practice.
Maybe you are drawing for a hobby, but you are serious about getting really good, and you are only drawing once a week. That’s fine, but don’t get frustrated if it takes you many years to get to the standard you want. Or a person might want to be a professional concept artist within a year or two, and they’re only drawing 1 hour a day. If you draw an hour a day, you might become skilled enough eventually, but it may take a lot more than a year or two.
So ‘draw a lot’ is definitely a big part of getting better BUT you can also draw 6 hours a day for 10 years and not improve, because you need to do the right type of practice. Sometimes, smart practice means doing practice that is not as fun or personal or expressive. I think often people think that what matters, what matters is that you find your personal expression and explore that, and certain types of art school reinforce this idea.
So you feel like sketching an alternative ending to the 3 pigs story where they have a pizza party with the wolf (as I did for my daughter – see below!). But you can’t just sketch whatever you feel like to improve. You might need to do perspective drills, value studies of master artists, anatomy overlay exercises, line quality studies and so on. In other words do that hard exercises designed to work out the different drawing muscles you need so that you can create the pizza party, or portraits or figure drawings or turtle shaped tanks or half mechanical half organic exoskeletons for mutated fox bounty hunters or whatever you like.
Whatever your personal, unique thing is, whatever your style is, 99% of the time, you need the same drills. Doing ‘drills’ might sound boring but trust me, the drawing is 10x more fun when you have the skills in place to make your work look how you envisioned it.
What you should do instead
Draw as much as is enjoyable and sustainable, but make your practice smart with exercises and drills designed to bring up the skills you need to work on most. Don’t tell yourself stories like, ‘oh my brain doesn’t work that way,’ or, ‘oh i just can’t understand that approach.’ There’s no inherent problem with you, you just haven’t done the exercises yet.
3. Start with gesture drawing
For some reason a lot of life drawing teachers start things off with gesture. They might say things like this:
- “Gesture is often the first stage of a figure drawing, so it’s logical to learn it first too”
- “Gesture is really really important, and a lot of student drawings are stiff and lack gesture, and you should do the most important thing first”
- “Gesture is very simplified, and so it seems more basic and simple and therefore can be learned early on”
That’s all wrong.
The reality is that gesture is not a beginner skill. It looks simple but it’s also quite hard, harder than drawing details. To see and capture gesture successfully requires you to have some understanding of the major landmarks and forms of the figure. That helps you to see ideas like squash and stretch. It’s really hard to see these ideas until you have some idea of what’s going on in the figure. So in our sequence of skills, gesture is skill number 7, there are 6 other ones you learn first. I think many teachers have a bit of a blind spot because they see these things without thinking and it’s been a long time since they knew what it was like to not have eyes attuned to those simple ideas that come before gesture.
What to do instead:
So here’s a peek at our guide about what to learn first. Each page asks you questions to determine whether you are ready to move to the next skill or not. You want to learn about the landmarks of the figure and what they tell you about the underlying forms in the figure like the ribcage, pelvis, head.
Gesture is skill 7. The point is you can see that there are 6 skills you learn before you get to gesture. You can download the full guide HERE by the way.
The quickest way to really get good with these ideas, these precursors to gesture, is our Fresh Eyes challenge. It is really good!
We have recently made another big improvement to what we offer. So now, our reference library, our Fresh Eyes challenge and our super friendly community are all in one place. Our reference library, which we add to every week, has cool new features. If you want, you can now choose the time interval to create different figure drawing sessions for yourself. Karina, our new Love Life Drawing team member and instructor, is active in the community with me, and she provides super useful feedback especially for the fresh eyes challenge.
So it’s an amazing place for life drawing enthusiasts like you, everyone’s really supportive, come and check it out. Everything I mentioned is free to come and enjoy so I hope to see you there.