I get quite a lot of emails from people who want to learn to draw and paint better, but just don’t know where to start.
It’s a problem I identify with because it’s one I faced too when I returned to art seven years ago. I’ve had to overcome that problem myself, and I know it’s not easy.
The obvious answer is “go and do a course”. But that’s not always the right one.
Truth be told, I think it’s rarely the right one.
I’d like to offer you another option, one that might well be much more useful to you in the long run.
I don’t know where to start
If this is you, then take some heart from the knowledge that it’s a common problem.
You can see where you want to go. If you’ve done some drawing recently, you probably have a pretty good idea where you are now, and at least a vague idea of the distance you need to travel.
But you don’t know how to get there from where you are now. You don’t even know what the first step you need to take is. There’s no roadmap, no framework to follow that can guide you.
You’re stuck! Or are you?
Let’s think about this for a minute.
If we always waited for a the perfect plan to be in place before we took any action, we’d never do anything. Life is filled with uncertainty.
Yes, it makes us uncomfortable. But if we really want to progress, we need to get to the heart of that uncertainty and find a practical way to deal with it.
If you can find a practical way to cope with this uncertainty and move forwards, then you’ll be the stronger for it. You’ll also be better able to deal with uncertainty in other areas of your life.
At this point you might be thinking: “Easily said, Paul!” Believe me, I know it is. I’ve been there too. Still am, actually, and often.
I don’t think you need to have a fully realised structure for your development in place before you start. You don’t need to have the answers to all your questions before you get moving. I strongly believe that the only thing you really need to do is to figure out what your first step is and take it.
Figure out your first step carefully
A good place to start is to reframe the question. Instead of “Where do I start?” try asking, “How do I start?.” It’s a subtle difference, but it focusses your attention on the specific action you need to take. And once you’ve overcome the initial resistance, momentum will build and you’ll find it much easier to keep going.
So here’s how I recommend you start:
Create a single, simple exercise of your own and get into a daily practice habit with it.
Why creating your own exercises is a good idea
It will be tailor made for your needs
It will overcome the initial resistance and get you started
As you start to see progress, you’ll start to feel more positive about your learning. You’ll learn faster
It will build your confidence
So here’s how to do it:
Choose an area you want to improve and identify the core skills it’s based on.
First, pick an area you want to improve. It could be drawing accuracy, values, line quality, composition…whatever you fancy. Don’t get too hung up about exactly which area of your work you want to improve. There will probably be many. But pick one that means something to you, an area you’d like to see progress in.
Now identify the core skill you need to improve to get better at that particular thing. This isn’t always easy to do, so take some time with it. Here are a few examples from my own practice that might help:
Drawing accuracy: The core skill here is reproducing the shape of objects you see on your paper.
To do that, you need to reduce them down to two dimensional shapes in your mind’s eye and copy them. That’s the essence of the ‘picture plane’. It sounds easy, it isn’t. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards has some great exercises for doing this. Sight size practice from a flat copy is great too.
Values: A lot of people want to improve their values. One of the core skills here, the main one to start with, is being able to match the value of a given colour regardless of its hue or intensity. It’s not a simple skill to master and it requires practice, but getting better at it will start to unlock value for you.
A great exercise for this is to take some object from around your house – I’d recommend using one that’s already fairly close to grey to start with, not too bright a colour – and match its value by mixing with black and white paint. Use a simple colour isolator (a small piece of card with a hole in the middle) to isolate a patch of its surface, mix up the value you think it is and paint it onto a little swatch of card. Hold the swatch up against the object and see how close you’ve come to the value. Squint to make the comparison easier. Rinse and repeat.
Line quality: The core skills here are sensitivity and motor control. The most intensive way I’ve found to practice this is with a Chinese brush and ink. Because the brush is so delicate, the slightest variation in the movement of your hand/arm is translated to the brush, and into the line. Start by spending a few minutes a day just drawing straight lines with the brush. You’d be surprised how hard it is. It’s a really intense form of practice that can become quite meditative. It doesn’t have to be a big undertaking, you just need to practice regularly. You can even enjoy it too.
These are just ideas, exercises that have helped me in my own development. The point to take here is that by reducing a particular area of drawing down to it’s core skill, and designing an exercise around it, you can find a good place to start that’s very relevant to you personally.
Try taking one of these exercises – or even better, design your own – and do it every day for thirty days. Not only will you see some real progress in your work, you’ll also gain a sense of achievement and empowerment from taking control of your own learning. I think that’s much more valuable than signing up for a course in the long run.
If you manage to get into a regular practice habit with your exercises, it becomes something rather more than progress in your drawing skills too. It becomes a life change. You start to feel more positive about everything and might even start to take more control of other areas of your life.
Getting into regular habits is not easy though. Here’s some advice on getting into a regular drawing practice habit.
One caveat though: You can’t go in all guns blazing with this. If you try to do too much at once you’ll find it difficult or impossible to keep your practice going. That can easily become a source of negative feelings which work against your development.
Once you’ve decided on your exercise, do it every day for just five minutes or so. As that becomes established as a regular habit, up the time. When you’re satisfied that you’re making some progress, perhaps it’s time to think about some other areas you might want to improve.
Posted: November 18th 2012
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