Can I learn how to draw?
September 19, 2004 6:33 PM   Subscribe

What are some good books that teach how to draw? Is it possible to become reasonably good at drawing despite no natural talent? [mi]

I've tried drawing since I was a kid, but have never been very good at. Aside from a bout with autocad, my pictures have always come across as flat and not very lifelike.

I'm interested in creating graphic novels, but, if I'm unable to find an artist, I think it might be worth my while to learn to draw (even if only for fun- or to allow me to communicate with artists better). I realize learning would take a lot of practice, but is it possible to achieve anything through that practice?
posted by drezdn to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I really like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. Unfortunately I don't have the time to dedicate to it but for the few weeks I did there was a very tangible improvement. I've even had two pieces of artwork hung in my folks place. No small feat seeing as my dad is a for real artist :P
posted by substrate at 6:56 PM on September 19, 2004

Of course somebody will post that the book I posted sucks, but as the old saying goes: Your favourite band sucks too.
posted by substrate at 6:57 PM on September 19, 2004 [1 favorite]

Actually, that was the exact book I was going to post. My pal Steve has been a cartoonist for the decade or so that I've known him and has some advice tucked away on his pages about that sort of illustration. This interview is my favorite. Scott McCloud's two books about comics are pretty much the books to read as far as comic art goes, as well as Wil Eisner's book Comics & Sequential Art.
posted by jessamyn at 7:15 PM on September 19, 2004 [1 favorite]

Regarding the question of whether or not you can teach yourself to draw late in life, I'll refer you to Everyday Matters, which is the blog of a guy who pretty much did just that. [Perhaps helpful links: 1, 2]

Regarding books that teach you how to draw, I have never found a good one. Certainly nothing that makes up for practice. I'm personally of the opinion that you cannot become Chris Ware without natural talent and a life of practice, but you may be able to become [artist's name erased on second thought].

If you want to learn how to draw for graphic novels, study graphic novels and how their pencillers have perfected the medium. Most drawing books that I own describe methods of rendering the same representation of reality that a painter or a photographer would try to capture. Graphic novels are much more expressive, so you might be better served by studying the masters of your chosen field rather than some other one.

Fundamentals are important too, I guess.

There's also a part of me that wants to bristle at the notion that there's some minimum requirement of technical ability--rather than creative ability--that is required to do art. But I know what you mean.

Of course, you shouldn't have problem finding an artist to do graphics novels. Let's face it, it's a buyer's market.
posted by Hildago at 7:18 PM on September 19, 2004

Go to comic book shows if you can and talk to the creators. If they'll critique you, show them your work and see what they'll say. Buy sketches from them at the conventions and WATCH as they do them. Talk to them about their craft and why they do certain things.

Some artists are really nice and you might be able to ask "how do you draw a knee in different poses?" or some question like that (if that's what is causing you problems). I was at a comic book convention today and sat all day in artist alley (i'm not an artist by the way, I was volunterring for ACTOR) and I saw a lot of creators talking each other, offering tips and critizing each other (even if it wasn't asked for), etc. They seemed like a cheery bunch.

One thing I did hear though is that you focus on storytelling rather than the look. Jim Lee and Turner and the current "crop" of favorite fan artists aren't very good storytellers and since you want to do graphic novels, a good study of classic story telling will greatly help you. Even if your drawing isn't "perfect", if you're telling the story correctly, that will make your art look so much better.
posted by Stynxno at 7:26 PM on September 19, 2004 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Agreed Stynxno, I'm conflicted because as I writer, I listen to other writers complain about artists who can't write doing their own stories, and think I might be better served by just doing script after script.

But hey, it would be fun to be able to draw.
posted by drezdn at 7:36 PM on September 19, 2004

second for DORSB, in 2 weeks it completely transformed my drawing ability. It really is incredible. The whole trick is that it teaches you to see properly, as an artist. Nothing else comes close ...though Nicolaides' Natural Way to Draw is good if you've got 4 hours a day for a year to spare.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:02 PM on September 19, 2004

I might point out that Scott Adams' utter lack of drawing ability has been barely a speed bump on the road to his commercial success. Of course, he's not doing graphic novels, which tend to have higher standards.
posted by kindall at 8:31 PM on September 19, 2004

Are there any local art schools/community art gatherings at which you could perhaps take a class (likely on successive weekends, except for the holiday weekends in rememberance of war heroes Bligh and Black Jack)? One advantage to these classes is the communal aspect - you're looking around at everyone else's stuff while they are checking out yours. (Make of that what you will.)
How about checking the bulletin boards of your local art supply stores/indie book store where you buy what you like for classes/instructors? I'm not against book learnin', but learning hand intensive skills (cooking is another that comes to mind) are often accelerated by learning techniques from a good instructor. Uh, I should probably rephrase that...
And remember your oranges and lemons to prevent scurvy.
posted by TomSophieIvy at 9:14 PM on September 19, 2004

Great link Hidalgo. Thanks.
posted by callmejay at 9:44 PM on September 19, 2004

As another person who's trying to learn to draw late in life, after spending my formative years with the rock-solid belief that I was not an artist and shouldn't even try, one book that has inspired me is "You Can Sketch" by Jackie Simmonds. It's short and to the point and passes my test: the drawings on the first few pages are actually things I could do. So many books start right out with something that makes me think "impossible."

But practice seems more important than anything, as others have said. Get a sketchbook and try to draw every day. And don't get a GOOD sketchbook, either. The kind with the leather covers and thick papers just make me reluctant to draw at all - either I'm not good enough to draw in something this fancy or I'm wasting this expensive book with my crappy drawings. Get a cheap Strathmore sketchbook and go for it.

I tried reading "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" but it seemed too... well, right-brained for me. It was all silly fluff that went right over my head. Your mileage may vary.
posted by mmoncur at 10:28 PM on September 19, 2004

I realize learning would take a lot of practice, but is it possible to achieve anything through that practice?

Try sketching a picture of your hand, every day in different positions. Experiment with shading, perspective and form. After a few weeks compare your first effort with your latest. That may help to answer your question.
posted by jabo at 11:18 PM on September 19, 2004

i cut my teeth on the nicolaides natural way to draw, so I can second leotrotsky's suggestion of it.
I'm not sure it's all that necessary for a story-heavy graphic novel though. being "flat" never hurt chris ware; the art throughout jimmy corrigan is pretty flat and not very lifelike.
posted by juv3nal at 11:41 PM on September 19, 2004

Try drawing with your non-dominant hand. If you're right-handed, use the left hand and vice-versa. Then draw the same thing with your dominant hand.

I used to have a copy of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain - but seem to have lost it in the plethora of moves I've made in the last 10 years.

At this moment I am mourning that loss. :(
posted by kamylyon at 12:34 AM on September 20, 2004

Drawing well definately comes from practice. I used to go to art college where I used to draw ALL the time, stuck in traffic jams, on the bus, at home, at college, at friends uni lectures when I used to visit them. Since leaving college I do most of my artwork on a computer and I've hardly drawn or painted anything, and when I do it takes a while to get back into it before resembling anything halfway decent.

If you really want to acheive your goals then draw every spare minute you can and you WILL improve. Going to a life model class is a good idea as the tutor will help you how to get a sense of scale, proportion, how to SEE and relate that to your drawings. (Ok, it may take a while to get over the initial embarresment of looking at someone in the nuddy but once you get the artist's eye all you see is shape and form)
posted by floanna at 2:03 AM on September 20, 2004

What floanna said. Life drawing is an excellent way to practice.

I was never so inspired as when I took life drawing - something about just drawing, drawing, drawing the human body - it never got dull.
posted by Blue Stone at 4:01 AM on September 20, 2004

For many years I thought that I could never learn to draw. I then took a figure drawing class (live models) because my friend didn't want to take it alone.

The teacher was wonderful. Soon I was sketching competently, although without anything like artistic flair. It was quite fun.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:22 AM on September 20, 2004

Better than telling a talent to fuck off, ask the talent how much practice he's done. There are some honest to goodness savants, but many of the people who're considered natural talents have put thousands of hours into practicing.
posted by substrate at 8:39 AM on September 20, 2004

anyone can draw, anyone can play guitar--
this doesn't mean everyone can be Jimmy Page or Durer.
as a left handed ex art school etc. person and having taught let me say:
before photos, that was the only way to record your travels, etc. it's not taught the same way any more and everyone's wacky definitions of art have little to do with anything other than how someone wants it to apply to their life.
it's more about observation and basic intellect that any innate "talent" which is something different altogether.
I didn't learn anything from art school skill wise other than growing huge delts from having either arm up for five hours at a stretch, but practice does (such as another thread on martial arts) breed a familiarity and muscle memory.
Talent isn't a myth, but it should be a wall to keep people out.
The books mentioned are all good and commonly mentioned, but as for comics (i'm one of those wacky flockers), it's hard for people who don't draw to find a compatible partner to work with. I'm been asked by people to draw for them, often in the end encouraging them to draw more themselves.
I kind of eliminated traces of style early as, esp. when you're a kid, people really response to realism. That isn't the best thing for comics, as i have gotten comments on being "too real" once upon a time because some people expect a certain amount of cartooniness or stylization.
If you look at frank miller or a host of others, it's not about having enormous technical skill, although i do believe in the school of knowing what you are abstracting from, or stylizing, but comics are different.
if you can't do it on your own, you can try all sorts of classes and teachers that are usually easily available, and don't be discouraged if you aren't "great" right off the bat, because like with most things, you'll have to get use to it.
if for some reason you think your stories need that hyper realism or some specific style, you can collaborate with someone who's style works, but you can always "do the Pekar" and at least try, even if only to block out and clarify the page. I don't personally know many people who want to just be someone's spare hands and be dictated to on every little thing (although I personally will take jobs like this depending on the circumstances), most want a hand in it, esp. if the person doesn't understand the beauty of a fully laid out page a la Winsor McKay or how to set up the flow of the story, etc. but if they don't have a vested interest, it's more of a chore. if the person isn't familiar with comics, that's a different story, again.
Even if you can make rough sketches, someone else can ink or work from your ideas, but if you haven't done it before, i do suggest you contact people who's work you admire or are in the vein of. No one I ever contacted in the early days every blew me off, although many do take their time.

if we are talking mainstream marvel type, the few people i know still doing it don't have their life drawing down so well so much as a style, and fall prey to "the potato effect" as a friend called it, where people and part can end up looking like a sack of potatoes is in there or inhuman bodies. From my own exp. i figured out the underlying muscle structure, etc. but most people don't and people can tell if it's a point but such things don't usually matter in comics unless it's a point of the story. As just another means of storytelling, let it suit the story.
i have and could go on too long, but also have given drawing lessons since kindergarten.
if you need a simple boost of confidence, do the upside down drawing thing (i believe in the right side of the brain book): copy something upside down. just draw what you see. you'll be amazed so close it is and see where the "flaws" are (elongating, shortening, etc). it's about just drawing what you see, the thinking part comes after you have that, to figure out, say, muscles or shadows, lighting, etc. etc.

once again, rather than blather here, you can just contact and i will feel freer to take up type space. Plus, there are comic sites where people ask for writer or artist to work with, a section on a lot of comic message boards (bookmarks i have yet to recover).

personally, i'm fond of the look of naive art. Many people can do realism but choose to use a rawer style, such as chester brown, some old slave labor minis (i ever go the end of), lots--
and some never try to get "better" and refine their style.
besides honing your drawing skill (which everyone should try as mental exercise at least) look at what you can do easily, naturally, and maybe elements of it are worth working will.

your humble index and servant of information
posted by ethylene at 8:58 AM on September 20, 2004 [1 favorite]

*returning to under bridge to confront quiz the clueless and finish paperwork*
posted by ethylene at 8:59 AM on September 20, 2004

Talent is a very harmful myth. It keeps people from learning "creative" skills because of embarassment and a self-defeatist issues.

Definitely. Anytime someone says to me that they "can't draw", I reply that they can't draw for the same reason that they can't play the violin - because they never learned. For some reason there's a mystique to drawing. No one expects to pick up a violin and start playing the Moonlight Sonata, but for some reason people do expect that they should be able to pick up a pencil and do realistic portraiture.
posted by orange swan at 9:31 AM on September 20, 2004

Of course everyone can learn to draw-what is handwriting, after all?

I do think there is such a thing as talent, but that only has to do with how far you can take it. I personally feel that most people can take it a lot farther than they think. Until you really work at it awhile, you don't know...I see talent as more of an inner drive and interest that enables you to take it to the edge.
posted by konolia at 12:43 PM on September 20, 2004

I tried reading "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" but it seemed too... well, right-brained for me. It was all silly fluff that went right over my head. Your mileage may vary.

That's weird: I was actually surprised with how non-fluffy DOTRSOTB was. I went into it with the preconception that "right-brained" referred to emotions and creativity, which, while great, aren't very compatible with my style of learning (upon hearing the title of the book that we were using, I feared tht the class I was taking would feature meditation sessions, or therapy-like group discussion, and I was worried). Really, though, the technique taught in DITRSOTB has little to do with these aspects of the right brain. Rather, it focuses on getting you to short-circuit your left-brained interpretation and contextuallization of visual cues: you stop trying to draw what you think something should look like and start drawing what you actually see. The method worked great for me.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:44 PM on September 20, 2004

my god, what a lot of dropped letters.

backing konolia, potential and "genius" diverge at drive. being a natural anything doesn't matter nearly as much as the will to forge ahead.
make mistakes. lots of mistakes. there are few things that cannot be undone or corrected in two dimensions. and you never know what serendipity doodled in for you.
posted by ethylene at 12:57 PM on September 20, 2004

An off topic comment on DOTRSOTB. The description of how you'd feel and how time would seem to stop as you're drawing was eerily familiar to me. I'm in the same mental state when I'm designing circuits or working on a complicated piece of software.
posted by substrate at 12:57 PM on September 20, 2004

my pal Steve who I mentioend asked me to post this for him.

"Hi. I'm the cartoonist Jessamyn mentioned at the top of the thread. I'll start off with bad news: It can take a long time to develop the chops required to make a living telling comic book stories. But if you are working for your own satisfaction, your only concern is telling your story clearly and effectively, and you may be able to find ways to work around your deficiences.

I think Dr. Edwards' book is terrific, and the exercises she recommends are as valuable to an artist as playing scales is to a musician. Unfortunately, her focus is on training your powers of observation. Drawing from observation isn't always possible when creating a comic. She's a great place to start but you'll need to go further.

The most useful how-to books I've seen for illustrators are:
Figure Drawing For All It's Worth by Andrew Loomis,
Creative Illustration by Loomis
Successful Drawing by Loomis
and The Famous Artists School textbooks by the faculty of the Famous Artists School.

These are aimed at illustrators, not comic book artists, but the skills are almost entirely transferable.

The Famous Artists textbooks turn up on ebay fairly regularly and are usually reasonably priced. Make sure it's the illustration course you're buying. Don't get the painting course.

The Loomis books are wonderful. They're widely regarded by working illustrators as the best "how-to" books ever printed. The bad news is that they're long out of print, and everyone wants a copy, so they tend to cost a fortune. You can try to borrow a copy through inter-library loan. Or you might try a google search on "Andrew Loomis" to see if, perhaps, some over-zealous art students have scanned every single page of Loomis' books and posted them on an East European webserver.

My final recommendation is so self-serving I'm almost too embarassed to mention it, but "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Creating a Graphic Novel," which I co-wrote, is a roadmap to the entire process of creating a GN, from initial idea to creation, publishing and marketing. It is also, I promise, absolutely NOT for idiots. I certainly won't suggest anyone to order my book cold, but if you take it out of the library, I'm sure you'll find it useful.

Here's an abreviated essay I wrote a few years ago on the subject at hand:

It's typical of the writing in the 'Idiot's Guide."

Good luck,
Steve Lieber"
posted by jessamyn at 7:13 AM on September 26, 2004 [3 favorites]

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