The 10 Stages of Learning Any Art Skill
Even though learning to draw and paint is one of life’s great joys, you’ll notice that most of the stages described below include some form of painful feeling, like you’re doing badly. As you’re learning any art skill, rather than thinking, ‘oh, there’s something wrong with me’, it might be more porductive to think instead, ‘oh, I’m in stage 6, it’s supposed to feel like this.’
In this example, let’s say I’m comfortable with proportions, some basic anatomy, and even gesture, but I’m really not good at drawing figures with simplified 3D forms. That’s the example we’ll use in this article but these 10 stages are the same for any art skill.
Stage 1 – Denial
“I don’t need to learn that skill. It’s just not how I roll. I’m happy refining these skills I already have…”
It’s really common to avoid the skills we need to practise most, and come up with justifications for avoiding it. And just to clarify, there are skills you actually don’t need to practise. I think often as artists there’s this idea that you need to be amazing at everything. Someone like Nathan Fowkes can kind of do it all. Landscapes, figures, portraits, charcoal, gouache, digital I mean what can’t he do to the very highest standard.
But I think it’s a good idea instead to look at the artwork you want to do most in the world. I mean, we all want to do everything, but what’s that one thing your heart really goes to? Now, draw a straight line from where you are to that. What skills do you need to pick up on that line so that you can create that type work? Landscape painting in oil might not be on that line, so even if you like that, you might leave it out for now. But there are probably still quite a few skills on that line that you do need and some of those you have probably been avoiding.
Stage 2 – Despair
“I’m gonna give it a go, I have to. But it just makes zero sense how on earth do you go from this organic form to these boxes and crap? I just can’t see that at all. Aw man, I’m lost already.”
The despair comes as you realise you need to learn it but it feels so unfamiliar, like words in a foreign language. The experts talk about the examples as if they are obvious, but they don’t seem obvious.
Stage 3 – I get it!
‘Ok I kind of get this now. It’s pretty straight forward actually. You have to cut through a lot of the detail and organic curves and all that, and just find the basic planes underneath. What was I worried about?’
Most art skills aren’t that complicated. As you keep studying, it’ll make more sense (especially after you watch a Love Life Drawing video about it!) Your brain took a leap forward quickly. Then your eyes progressed because they can see what’s happening in the example. When you try to do it yourself, you’re still completely lost. Understanding it seemed to make no difference to your skills yet.
Stage 4 – Step by step
“Ok so they put a circular shape here, and then another here. Connect with straight lines. Ok wow that actually worked. I did it! My mum was right about me, I’m a special talent.”
So now when you watch someone doing it and follow the exact same steps, you can pretty much get it done successfully. It’s a bit rougher and doesn’t look as pretty, but things are looking hopeful right now. You feel like you’ve cracked it already, but notice that this is just step 4 of 10!
Stage 5 – Can’t do it at all?
“So now I’m gonna do it myself. I’ll take this reference, and now I’m just going to find a box… wait what the hell?? I’m just as lost as before I even watched the tutorial. My brother was right about me. I’m a total idiot.”
All those hopes get dashed at this stage. You know what you’re supposed to do, and the steps to do it, what your eyes are supposed to see, what your arm is supposed to do, and you’ve actually done it well while following the tutorial. But when doing it yourself, it just doesn’t happen at all. Your ability to do it doesn’t seem to have changed even though your understanding dramatically improved. It’s mind boggling. This is a risky stage because you start to think there’s something wrong with you.
Stage 6 – Just a fluke?
“Alright let’s go attempt number 67. Wait a minute. Whoa, that’s it. That’s actually it! I can do it myself now. Ok attempt 68. Fail? Why? Attempt 69. Fail?! 67 was a total fluke”
So here you do it yourself, without following a demo. You chose a reference that was very similar to the tutorial you had followed, you needed many tries to get it right. But hey, you did it. But can’t repeat it. It feels like it was just a fluke, but trust me when this happens it is not a fluke. There is more success to come.
Stage 7 – Dangerous Plateau
So this is another dangerous stage. You’re able to do it when all the conditions are just right. When it’s a particular pose or a particular lighting setup or whatever. I find often at this stage, as soon I change one of those variables, I really can’t do it still, at all. And I can only do it in quite a laboured way which feels like I’m forcing it. So I keep just doing the same thing that kind of works over and over again, because it got me this far.
Sometimes, you might get genuinely stuck at this stage, or at any of these stages up until here. You’re spinning your wheels. In that case, find a new exercise from another book, a different tutorial, do studies from more artists, take a different approach to it and you’ll find a way to get over that hurdle. Sometimes, another teacher just says it in a way that really makes sense to you. Come to our super friendly and supportive community (join here) and ask people how they got through this. Very often, it’s going to be about you changing what you’re doing. Maybe you’ve been working on gesture doing 2 minute poses the same way over and over again for weeks and months and you feel like you’re making no progress. So try a different approach. Try 30 second poses. Or try studying some Normand Lemay drawings, or Milt Kahl – just take another angle on it.
Stage 8 – Breakthrough
“How did that happen? I just did it intuitively, and some of the variables were different. It feels like some sort of muscle memory took over. I wasn’t analysing everything about it, my brain, eye and arm just worked together”
At this stage, you had a moment where it just came to you like magic. It wasn’t laboured or forced, it felt natural and intuitive. It’s very inconsistent, but something is happening. It’s exciting. You feel like if you keep pushing on this door, it’s going to open.
Stage 9 – Consistency
This is a very positive moment. A breakthrough has clearly occurred. You sit down to do this thing and it just happens. The consistency is increasing. It’s fun. It’s so fun to be able to do this thing that you couldn’t do before. You’ve learned this skill, but also, you’ve confirmed a number of things to yourself. There’s nothing wrong with you, you just needed to keep practising this skill. This means that you can learn all the skills the same way. And that means that the artwork you are dreaming of doing is possible for you, if you keep on gaining each of these various skills through this difficult but doable process.
Stage 10 – Never satisfied
“Ok I can do that now. Oh man look at that artist. Her paintings are amazing. I need to get those skills”
Often once I’ve learned something, I almost instantly take it for granted and wish I had more skills. If you can, it’s a great skill to give yourself that credit for having come so far, for having developed so much. It wasn’t that long ago you couldn’t do this thing, and now you can, you’ve grown, and that’s worth celebrating and enjoying.
Of course you want more skill and you want it fast. But that’s just not how this thing is going to go. It’s going to be this ongoing process. You know you’re going to go through these stages, so it’s great if you expect them, you know they’re normal, but even better is if you can learn to enjoy that whole process, even the frustrating bits, as part of this incredible learning journey and give yourself a ton of credit for how far you’ve already come.
A Final Note:
If you can relate to these stages of learning to draw and you’re keen to develop your skills, I’d highly rcommend checking out our free PDF guide that helps you assess your skills to see what you need to work on next. We also have a free reference library and a free figure drawing challenge that is designed to help take your skills to the next level.