How I've Improved My Drawing Skills- by NOT drawing every day!

January 09, 2021 maddoctorartist 0 Comments


So, I'm sure everyone has heard of this common piece of art advice, often told to beginners. And while there is some merit to it, taking it literally is not helpful and can in fact by harmful, as it can reinforce bad habits. This has certainly been my experience, and so I decided to try something else after months of poor progress. Knowing these additional tricks have helped me improve more in a a year that I have in the last five years, so I think it's worth sharing to see if they may help you too.

One of my first Inktober drawings from 2019

One of my drawings from Birdtober 2020

 As you can see there's quite a difference in just one year, but I certainly haven't been drawing daily since 2019, so what made such a big difference?

Well, I will try to share what's worked for me, but of course there is no set-in-stone rule to learn how to draw, and different things work for different people- it also depends on what style you're trying to achieve. However, the following have definitely levelled up the quality of my drawings, which tend to a more realistic slant. Such tips I have gleaned from other art resources online and I am by no means taking credit for them- I will try to link to resources where I can if you want to go more in-depth.

Drawing every day sounds like a reasonable type of study- the more you draw, the more familiar you get making lines and strokes, and this builds the muscle memory in your hand as well as co-ordination with your eyes. However, if you're just drawing without any prior knowledge or thought, you'll start to remember the wrong things, and this can be hard to undo!

A red-tailed kite drawing from 2018- see how shaky and uneven the lines are? This is because I was guessing at what I was seeing, rather than understanding what I was looking at!
This red kite I drew at the end of 2020- doesn't it look so much more clean and in proportion? A lot of this comes from having learned to understand what I was seeing!

So before diving in, it's best to train your eye first to understand what you are looking at. Some of this will come from the particular subject, so in my case anatomy of birds is important, but this applies to landscape/ figure drawing/ mechanical drawing!

The whole foundation of drawing is built on the idea that you are creating a 3D image on a 2D plane, so you need to know how forms look to give the illusion of 3D. This is accomplished by using 3D building blocks such as cubes, cones, pyramids and spheres to create complex forms.

There are various ways to practice accurate observation- drawing from life, where you can study an actual 3D object with different lighting, and learning how to break structures down into 3D pieces. You can do this via tracing photos, not for simple outlines but trying to break them down into 3D shapes.

Tracing over photos can be very helpful to identify planes, like with this robin (photograph is my own)

My problem was that I would look at a reference and 'free draw'- try to make flat shapes based on assumptions. You can see this very clearly in my first red kite drawing. Then I moved on to measuring, which helped with proportions but still made me have to look at the reference constantly and I was still making errors. What I now do is 'construct'- more on this below.

Tutorials that help with observation:
Istebrak's critique videos
Drawing from life (take any simple object at home or a model, get a lamp to cast a light on it and draw it!)

Having got a bit more of a foundation as to how forms are structured, you can now construct forms without being too reference reliant. For me, I estimate the length and width of the subject, then use blocky shapes/ planes to fill in the main forms. Everything at this stage is a straight line, no curves, and this really helps identify angles and lengths much more accurately.

A study on 'constructing' an eagle form. This is explained in excellent detail on (the link will take you to Lesson 2 which has a more detailed explanation)

It also makes shading much easier, as you can see contours and plan where light and shadow will fall. I find this most difficult to 'see', which makes shading one of my bigger weaknesses, but using 'blocks' simplifies things and lets me judge lighting a lot more accurately. This way a form can be depicted using shadows rather than outlines, which is more realistic.

Tutorials that help with doing this:
John Muir Laws birds
Proko human anatomy
Ethan Becker

The last thing I've found that really helps is knowing how to reflect after each drawing- it's great to go over old drawings and see how much improvement's been made. It also helps to revisit and see what you could have done differently, and it can be fun to redraw old art.

The first bird drawing I did, redrawn- quite an improvement in only 2 years!

A macaw parrot from Inktober 2019
A macaw parrot from Birdtober 2020- quite a difference to the first attempt!

It is also helpful to look at what worked- often when trying new things you can get good results on accident which are then hard to replicate. Identifying what made a drawing better than another can help with this.

A bee hummingbird painting fro May 2020- I found a way to get a nice feather texture, and I replicated this with the next drawing, an American Robin that I drew in December 2020:

I also found that analysing other art that I enjoy or want to emulate is also a great thing to do. There is no harm in copying a drawing to see how the outcome was achieved (but you should of course never plagerise, and while I would avoid posting at all on social media, making very clear that the work is a study and not your own is super important).

Of course this can be difficult to do on your own, so getting into one of the many art communities can also help with getting feedback!

Resources to help with this:
Proko Draftsmen podcast
Mohammed Agbadi- as well as general tutorials he also breaks down individual artists' styles

So, having established these basics, when you draw you'll know what errors to look for. With this awareness, frequency and mileage now become important, as this will reinforce good habits and you'll be much better equipped to spot mistakes.

Have you ever been told to 'draw every day'? Did this work for you, or did you try other approaches? I'd love to know!

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