How to learn to draw?
Learning to draw involves perfecting many smaller individual skills. Knowing how to draw, then, is a complex skill-set, comprised of knowledge of the elements of drawing and various techniques.
To learn to draw, follow these steps: (1) identify the elements of drawing and study them, (2) create a consistent schedule for learning to draw, and (3) go through the 18 steps to learning to draw.
Let’s get into detail about each of the above, but first, let’s talk about what learning to draw is not:
What learning to draw is not.
Before we talk about what learning to draw is, let’s talk about what learning to draw is not. Learning to draw is not wandering aimlessly, copying everything you possibly can, and eventually stumbling on knowing how to draw.
Learning to draw is not having some sort of magical talent that you were born with. A talent that only the precious few have and that is going to magically and serendipitously bestow upon them the knowledge necessary to become good at drawing.
Can you draw nonstop every day, pretty aimlessly, and eventually arrive at a place where you’re really good at drawing? You can certainly get to it that way. But it’s definitely not a guarantee and most certainly, you’ll be wasting time. How much time? Maybe months but most likely many years.
So what is learning to draw?
So what is learning to draw? Although the path seems to be somewhat different for everyone, learning to draw can be an organized effort. A carefully designed curriculum that is malleable enough to fit each student’s individual needs.
One thing is certain. When each one of us is coping with having to learn to draw, we’re all up against the same things. We’re up against learning how to represent the elements of drawing in well-balanced harmony on a two-dimensional surface.
Given that these are the criteria, I suggest to you a three-part approach to learning to draw. In the first part, we learn about what we should study, namely the elements of drawing – how to recognize them, and what to look for when studying them.
In the second part, we identify a pattern of improvement. A cyclical improvement schedule to learn to draw is called a Sprint. A schedule we can use to learn just about anything and improve, especially at drawing. I’ll give you the details on Sprints and how to create them below. Finally, in learning to draw. The last step that I recommend is to go through the 18 steps of learning to draw from the very first step to the last. In this article. I share with you all the 18 steps below.
Here is a sequence to learning to draw:
- Understand what to study
- learn the cyclical mode of improvement
- take the 18 step path to learning to draw
Part 1. the Elements of Drawing, understanding the big picture of how to learn to draw.
Okay, so let’s start with part one of our journey to learning how to draw. And this stage is all about learning and understanding the elements of drawing.
Why should we study the elements of drawing? The elements of a drawing are fundamental to understanding how a drawing comes together. And every beautiful drawing that has ever been created has combined multiple or all elements of drawing in perfect or near-perfect harmony.
So, by studying the elements of drawing, we are actually studying what it takes to create a beautiful drawing.
Breaking a drawing up into elements is a system and a very important one. It is a system that allows us to digest the complexity that comes from a combination of the elements in a drawing. A complexity that a studying artist cannot easily digest otherwise. More importantly, it’s a system against which we can measure not only the drawings of others but also our own drawings.
Here is Gvaat’s list of 14 elements of drawing:
- Light and Shadow – Rendering, values, rendering texture
- Composition (focus, and space)
- Knowledge of Subject Matter (visual library and observational skills)
- Shape Language (silhouette)
- Rhythm (and flow)
- Technique (craftsmanship, finesse, knowledge of tools, and process)
- Narrative and emotional direction
I wrote an article covering each one, you can find it here.
And here is a disclaimer, various artists have various lists. Some artists call the elements on my list fundamentals. Some of them, call half of the elements fundamentals and the other half the elements of art. But I believe that none of this is relevant to learning to draw. There is a reason I prefer to call them all elements and not fundamentals and you could find that reasoning in this article. You will see that this article also goes into detail about each element.
What is important for us is to note that now we have a list. A list of elements against which we can measure our drawings. We can use the list anytime we need to self-assess a drawing. (Which should be every time we draw to improve). We could put the drawing next to the list. Go through the list and look at which areas, specifically and individually, need improvement. Knowing what we must improve can and will help tremendously.
A big part of learning to draw is learning to understand what our drawings are lacking. This can be done in only two ways (1) someone else, usually with better drawing skills can try to show us, or (2) we self-assess with comparative analysis, measuring our art against the work of those we aspire to – the list of elements gives us a way to conduct that self-assessment comparative analysis.
If we do it element by element, we can identify exact areas of deficiency. Often when we look at the entire drawing that we made, we may know that it is lacking in some area, but it’s very hard to understand in which areas specifically the list of the 14 elements makes that process easier.
It is like breaking up a complex thing, into a series of less complex things. Except that in our case, each element is also plenty complex on its own. The benefit here is that each drawing can be broken down to the same base ingredients and that is what the elements really are.
Part 2. Learning to draw in sprints, understanding the cycle of improvement in learning how to draw.
The elements of drawing provide a framework against which we can judge our drawings on an independent basis. We can take anyone’s drawing, set it aside against the list of 14 Elements, go down the list, and find what to improve with specific elements. With the 14 Elements, we also have a goal, a destination – to arrive at a drawing where elements are blended to perfection to produce a harmonious and beautiful piece of art.
Now that we have a framework against which to judge, we need a day-to-day operations schedule that is grounded in improvement.
Thankfully, there is such a schedule already out in the world, it is has used by large and small teams in technology development and many industries and has been used by such giants of efficiency as Toyota and Google.
This method for cyclical work is called SCRUM. SCRUM is an agile framework for developing, delivering, and sustaining complex products.
For learning to draw, we will be using Sprints which are a part of the SCRUM method of working. So what are Sprints? Sprints are iterative segments of time set to do our improvement work (2 to 4 weeks each). At the end of each segment, we sit back, and review what we did, and reflect on what could have been drawn better. We find one takeaway (just one thing we would like to improve) and take it with us to the next Sprint.
Here is how it works in detail, and why it works for learning to draw:
And note another disclaimer: below is an example modified to drawing grounded in some principles of SCRUM and SPRINTS, I applied it to learning to draw, this is by no means a summary of how SCRUM works)
Before the Sprint, we determine what we want to learn to draw. We set a sprint goal. Here are some examples:
- Learn to draw the back
- Learn to draw garments and folds
- Learn to draw feet
- Learn to draw the muscles of the forearm
It is important not to set the goal too wide. It will be very difficult to nearly impossible to learn to draw all of anatomy in a short period, but setting muscle groups for 2 week period each should be more manageable.
We then plan everything we would like to accomplish in a sprint, write it all out in no specific order.
We then organize a two-week schedule and take items from our tasks list and assign them to each day in an order that makes the most sense to making progress. Follow the schedule for two weeks. At the end of the sprint reflect on what can be improved for the next sprint.
Here is the catch that will accelerate learning to draw even further:
each day, before we start our drawing sessions, we ask the following three questions:
- What did I do yesterday to help achieve the Sprint Goal?
- What will I do today to achieve the Sprint Goal?
- What, if anything is impeding or blocking progress toward the Sprint Goal?
Part 3. Putting the details and the big picture together to learn to draw and the 18 Steps to learning to draw.
The process of learning how to draw goes like this:
When we are drawing, we are in charge of making many, many decisions all at once. How so? We have to make decisions about what pen marks to make and where, how much pressure to apply, how thin or thick should the line be, its direction, origin, and end of each brushstroke, there are decisions about composition, color, shape language and it goes on and on. There is a lot!
In short, there are too many decisions to pay attention to when we are drawing or even learning to draw. So how do we improve? In the process of learning to draw, over time we train our subconscious to take care of some of those decisions for us.
This happens so that we can focus on the most important decisions when we draw. The big decisions that will make the biggest difference.
Having our subconscious take over any decision-making requires repetition and that is where lots and lots of practice comes in. But we want our subconscious to learn things in the right way. And to do that, we need hyper-awareness while we are learning for the first time.
This kind of awareness can be attained by paying attention to the big picture of what drawing is and to the little details that we have to represent on canvas all at the same time.
One of the best ways to get gain an understanding of the big picture of drawing is to step away from your drawing as much as possible. Zoom out, walk back, look at the whole thing all at once. And if you have to work on a small part for detail, zoom out often enough so you can see the entire thing all at once and so that you can see exactly how you are impacting the entire drawing.
Another way to see the big picture of drawing is to have some sort of understanding of the elements of drawing that I discussed above. Viewing your drawing through the 14 elements and being able to spot the weak points goes a long way towards understanding your drawing as a whole. Another way to do this, of course, is to compare our drawings to those of others. This often takes some management of ego and it also takes courage, especially when we are comparing to artists that are much more skilled than we are
Ultimately, it is that awareness of the big picture of drawing and the awareness of details all at the same time that makes a big difference. This ability to see all the little details and to judge the entire drawing can get us to draw better faster. We also develop that ability by going through the 18 Steps to learning to draw.
Learn to Draw in 18 Steps.
I’ve devised a method that slowly incorporates learning the elements of drawing, couples this with rigorous practice, and also adds experiences that heighten your awareness of seeing the big picture of drawing and learning the details as well. This method teaches us how to learn to draw in 18 steps and I’m going to discuss it below.
The 18 steps to learning to draw have come about because I spent years in frustration trying to learn how to draw and when I finally learned how to draw, when I look back at what I did, I realized that there’s a great disparity between what I did and what I should have done to learn to draw.
I then thought about what I should have focused on to try to learn to draw in the fastest time possible. And that is how I came up with the 18 steps to learning to draw. It was clear that I spent an absence amount of time on things that don’t matter at the beginning. Things like:
- obsessing over the right materials to learn to draw, brushes, pens, pencils, paper, canvas etc
- spending enormous amount of time learning digital software to help improve drawing, like tricks in photoshop
- avoiding diving deep into perspective and avoiding trying to understand how to draw rotating objects in perspective
- avoiding drawing basic shapes and instead diving into complexity rigtht away
- believing that there is no need to go back to re-learn the basics
The 18 steps take us from the very beginning of learning how to make marks on paper all the way to completing a complex drawing with a careful multi-stage plan. While these steps start with the fundamentals of drawing, multiple layers of complexity are added on as we progress further.
There are multiple recurring themes in the 18 steps to learning to draw. Here are some of them:
- we work from general to specific, from simple to complex when it comes to shapes
- we must learn perspective because perspective is an underlying current of everything that happens on a two dimensional surface when we’re trying to draw anything in a realistic way or in any kind of meaningful way.
- All form must be divided into the light and dark to be readable by the viewer, this division should not be broken – this means that the halftone should be lighter than reflected light in almost all circumstances.
Here are the 18 steps:
- Get comfort with making marks on paper
- Draw very basic shapes, like the square and the circle
- Learn to draw basic forms like the box and the cylinder
- Begin to understand perspective
- Learn how light lights the form
- Gain vision for positive and negative space and for gauging proportion
- Understand the elements of drawing
- Dive deeper into practicing perspective
- Learn how to draw foreshortening
- Learn how to manage values in a drawing
- Simplify and study shape language
- Study variation in drawing
- Attempt to draw the human head
- Rotate forms in perspective
- Study and practice with the right tools
- Build a visual library
- Draw a complex drawing with a careful plan
- Set up a practice schedule through the use of 2 week sprints.
Steps one through three are about the very essential fundamentals to help us represent 3d objects on a 2d surface. Steps 4 through 12 take us through all the topics we need to gain an understanding of what it takes to create a good drawing and provide lots of practice. Steps 13 and 14 help us dive into the complexity that is necessary to be able to draw anything. Step 15 helps gain better results by focusing on the knowledge of tools necessary to draw. Step 16 teaches us how to learn to draw any specific thing. Step 17 takes us on a long journey of drawing a complex drawing in five predefined stages. Finally, Step 18, teaches us how to continue practicing to draw anything we want to get the best results as fast as possible, by using Sprints. I teach each step in great detail in my course, Learn to Draw in 18 Steps. The course is the ultimate guide on how to learn to draw, that provides a comprehensive, step-by-step approach. Visit the Academy to see the details.
Final words on learning to draw.
Learning to draw is a complex process. When we are learning to draw we are not really learning just one skill, we are learning hundreds of small skills and learning how to execute them all at once into a drawing. But drawing very well has little to do with luck, or even talent.. and a lot to do with bull-headed determination to get better. We can accelerate our timing to getting to where we want in learning to draw by identifying exactly what we are learning: the elements of drawing, and using Sprints to iterate on our improvement. Finally, we can go through a sequence that increases in complexity as we learn, building on itself to get us to a better place of understanding and to ultimately, better drawing skills. To learn more about this approach, visit the Academy.