Learning art skills?
January 4, 2009 4:29 PM   Subscribe

I have no visual arts skills and want to change that this year. Where do I start?

I'm starting from the basics. I didn't even take art in high school. I'm the guy who "can't draw". I do think I have an eye for graphic design, at least, but that's about it.

I bought a set of Sharpies tonight to decorate recipe cards and even then I don't really know what to do with them. I look through Flickr results for sharpie drawing and I don't know how I'd start being able to do ANY of that. Even short sketches, I don't know what to put in and leave out.

I remember reading the introduction of a "how to draw" thingy somewhere on the web that talked about the difference between grade-school drawing, where you draw a symbol for a house, a symbol for a window, a symbol for a hand, and so on, and "fine art" drawing, where you see the lines and draw what you see. I get that idea, but I have no idea how to accomplish it.

If I want to give myself the equivalent of a high-school education in visual arts -- learning to draw, learning to paint, sort of learning the techniques and the visual vocabulary and so on, without taking a course -- where should I start?
posted by mendel to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
I've been trying to gird myself to start the exercises in The Natural Way to Draw, which many people have said is the best book on drawing.
posted by jayder at 4:38 PM on January 4, 2009

I know you said you want to teach yourself, but I want to let you know how helpful it was to have a teacher and fellow students in a classroom environment, especially for the feedback. It's the best way to know you are doing well and improving. I'd recommend a community college Foundations of Art course.
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 4:45 PM on January 4, 2009

It's difficult because there are a ton of tips on drawing. Probably the best thing you can do to improve your drawing is disassociate your knowledge of an object with what you are actually seeing. You shouldn't be drawing a face, a building, four apples on a plate, you should see lines that are certain distances from each other and all relate to each other within a confined space. You can practice this fairly successfully by copying from photographs that are turned upside down. "Squaring up" from a drawing or a photograph will also teach you to draw lines that may not look right, but in context are part of a realistic drawing. Faces aren't oval, eyes aren't round, buildings aren't rectangular. There is no magic formula other than serious practice and repeated scrutiny of subject matter.
posted by fire&wings at 4:49 PM on January 4, 2009

Keeping a daily or weekly visual diary is a good start. This is usually a thick bound book of cartridge paper in which you record any kind of creative ideas, no matter how uninspired they seem at first. When my actual drawing skills seem to have atrophied, even creating a page of colour ink wash or a collage of old magazine pictures can be quite satisfying. I think "learning to draw" is only one foundational aspect of the art skills you refer to, and while it's great to be technically proficient, there are many other aspects of art practice you can work on while still learning the basics of representational drawing. One good exercise is to buy a paint set (watercolour or gouache) and reproduce a colour wheel. Or to tear a photo in half, paste it in and try to recreate the other half. Or sketching your own face in the mirror, quite close-up - the familiarity with your subject might help create a better likeness than you might have thought.
posted by Weng at 4:51 PM on January 4, 2009

Paint-by-numbers. I got a kit for Christmas and I can't wait to start it!
posted by rhizome at 4:51 PM on January 4, 2009

Similar questions have been raised in AskMe before, so while you're waiting for all the responses here, also check out:

- Looking for successful lessons from art class when you were a teenager
- My stick figures have to wear bags over their head
- Where do I start to learn to draw? (My answer here, which includes links to cheap life drawing classes here in Toronto)
- Can I learn how to draw?
- You have been looking at that painting a bit too long and it's making me feel like a nube
- He makes it look so easy
- Mere color ...
- Color theory and beyond

The structured approach of The Natural Way to Draw may work very well for you in conjunction with life drawing classes whenever you can fit those in. It also gets you started on colour. But also spend a lot of time looking at other art and even (gasp!) copying art. Musicians learn a lot from playing other people's compositions, and copying used to be part of every art apprentice's training.

But look, look, look at things. What do you love to look at? Do you respond to colour, to line, to balance, to rhythm? As you're learning the mechanics of drawing and painting, you can also learn what you respond to and get on the path to developing your own style.
posted by maudlin at 5:12 PM on January 4, 2009 [4 favorites]

Also, start with pencils, not sharpies.
posted by delmoi at 5:14 PM on January 4, 2009

Sorry! The correct Mere color ... link.
posted by maudlin at 5:24 PM on January 4, 2009


"the difference between grade-school drawing, where you draw a symbol for a house, a symbol for a window, a symbol for a hand, and so on, and "fine art" drawing, where you see the lines and draw what you see"

is described in the excellent Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. Going through that book will help you learn how to do the latter - draw what you see. The early exercises are awesome, and convinced me that I was not Someone Who Can't Draw - I was Someone Who Can Learn to Draw.

I highly recommend it.

The other thing people always say is: practice, practice, practice. Even if you don't pick up any books, simply drawing more often and gently assessing your work to see how you can make it better will give you improvement.

Have fun!
posted by kristi at 5:30 PM on January 4, 2009

I'd also like to suggest that once you get going, you should draw from life rather than a photograph. When you draw an apple, you need to show that an apple is round. You know an apple is round. Everyone knows an apple is round. But every apple has its own shape, contour and particular roundness that you can only see from having an actual, 3D object in front of you. Same goes for a face!

This is why artists spend so much time working with models instead of hiding away in their studios with pictures of models. It's subtle, but you can usually tell when someone has been drawing from a photograph rather than life.
posted by bristolcat at 6:02 PM on January 4, 2009

Drawing On the Right Side of the Brain

This is the workbook, there is also a text. Best book for "non artists" ever, and not so bad for artists either. I'm continually amazed at parents who look at absolutely marvelous work that their kids have done (I do crafts with a sports camp), and tell me "oh she's terrible at art."

No such thing as people with no artistic ability. You just haven't tapped into it yet. Have a great time finding it!
posted by nax at 7:18 PM on January 4, 2009

Two books that I recommend (though never read) are already mentioned: Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and The Natural Way to Draw.

But seconding nax. I just think the phrase "can't draw" is complete BS. Anyone can "draw", you just need to define for yourself what "draw" means.

Also, this article, while more inclined towards established illustrators and artists, can work for anyone. Just doodle anything. Who knows, your stick figures might make you famous.
posted by curagea at 7:31 PM on January 4, 2009

I learned from this at Instructables:
also on that site, search for "learn to draw" without the quotes and lots of stuff comes up.
posted by atm at 8:51 PM on January 4, 2009

Sorry, my link didn't show (I don't know why) but here it is. You'll have to copy and paste it into your browser:
posted by atm at 8:52 PM on January 4, 2009

The reason you can't draw, and others can, is practise. Some people like drawing, and they tend to be good at it. You probably thought they liked it because they had talent, but they have talent because, it being an enjoyable activity to them, drawing was something they did a lot of. You didn't do a lot of it, consequently, you have some catch-up to do. But catch up you can.
So, tips and techniques aside, draw something every day. It can be a doodle done in ball-point pen in the margin of a book while on the bus, doesn't matter. Buy a pocket sketch pad, and use it to produce quick, bad, drawings.

Learning-wise, high-school art was largely a waste of time for me, other than it being time doing (some form of) art. It wasn't about teaching the kind of things that you're seeking to learn, so don't feel you're at a huge disadvantage. For what you're trying to learn, you might get more out of a single well-chosen book than years of high-school art class.

Books will tell you what you need to know. Drawing every day will do the rest.

When you see art that you like, take a look at the techniques, and save a copy of it in a folder. As well as looking at how they used the media, look at how they depict light and shadow, and how they delineate shape and form, and how they depict or suggest texture. There are so many ways of doing each of these things that your drawing style will be unique to you, but ideally it should end up as a mix of the best things you like about the styles of your favourite artists or artworks.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:07 PM on January 4, 2009

Another vote for Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. fire&wings is exactly right that the most important thing is learn to draw what you see -- not what you THINK you see. Betty Edwards does a nice job of giving exercises that help break your perceptions and think the right way about what you see.

And practice, practice, practice. Buy a sketchbook and draw something in it every day -- even if it is just a page full of circles (but if you do this, have a purpose... try to make those circles perfect).

Pencils versus Sharpies... doesn't matter. The nice thing about pencils is that you can fix your mistakes. Sharpies, on the other hand, force you to get the line right the first time; so you learn techniques to minimize those mistakes in the first place. Regardless, this stuff is just going in your sketchbook. Nobody else gets to see it unless you decide they do.

Remember that it's OK to suck. Even the masters had to start somewhere. Picasso (I think?) sent his brother a letter to the effect of... "when you told me I should pursue painting, the thought of it was beyond me. But today I painted a picture of my kitchen and it wasn't terrible."

Most of all... have fun.
posted by jknecht at 9:08 PM on January 4, 2009

I went through a similar quandry a few years ago, I was also "the guy who can't draw" for a long time. A couple of years ago I put a detailed pen-and-ink drawing on our Christmas card and had lots of people tell me they are amazed by my talent, saying they wish they were born with a talent like that. Considering I didn't pick up a pen until I was 35, I think that's hogwash. Anyone can draw, it just takes interest and time.

I'll vote AGAINST "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain". I tried to read it and found that it was too fluffy and artsy, and spent too much time telling me to "feel" and "see" and "visualize". I found it ultimately frustrating. But lots of people like it so you should certainly give it a chance.

Here are a few books I found DID inspire me:

"You can Sketch" by Jackie Simmonds
"Drawing for the Absolute and Utter Beginner" by Claire Watson Garcia
"First Steps: Sketching and Drawing" by Cathy Johnson
"First Steps: Drawing in Pen and Ink" by Claudia Nice

In particular, I was captivated by the Pen and Ink drawing style in that last book. Pen and Ink drawing is very LEFT brained, as it turns out - You draw a series of tiny lines, or dots, all nearly identical, and gradually build a very realistic-looking drawing.

Somehow, as a very left-brained person (IT, web programming, technical writing, etc.) I found it easier to start with detailed drawings than to just do "simple" sketches. Now I've finished a few very detailed drawings and I'm trying to teach myself to simplify things and do 5-minute sketches instead of 30-hour detailed drawings.

I also found it easier to draw from photographs than from real life. In particular, take a photo, desaturate it, and reduce the number of colors in Photoshop - you'll see the most important lights, darks, and shapes. I like to start with that and then switch to the real photo to try to add details.

I also recommend finding a good teacher - I've been lucky enough to attend a few workshops by Claudia Nice (author of the Pen & Ink book mentioned above) and they've been more helpful than any book or website.

Even short sketches, I don't know what to put in and leave out.

That's a good summary of what frustrates me about quick sketching... That's why I started with the detailed stuff. I'll just put EVERYTHING in. It takes a long time, though.

Finally, I looked at your bird and face sketches and I think you're well on your way. The bird isn't 100% realistic but you captured some life and expression, which can be really hard, and the face doesn't have the proportional problems I see in 90% of attempts to draw faces. Do a couple of those a day for a month and you'll be way ahead of me...
posted by mmoncur at 9:49 PM on January 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

One thing that made a difference was making sure that I am drawing from a model (either the real object or a photo). My memory is not very visual - I just don't remember things in a enough detail to draw realisticly.

The thing that made the biggest difference for me was an adult ed class based on Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Taking the class helped first, because it committed me to show up and draw and second because I could get input from the teacher when I couldn't figure out why things didn't look right. (I can see that it isn't quite right but I'm not very good at seeing why it is wrong.) In a 16 hour class (2 hours for 8 weeks) I went from drawing stick figures to drawing things that looked like what they were. Even got compliments from parents on my drawings (although they are certainly a biased audience).

The big lesson of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is to draw what you really see, not what you think you see or expect to see. The book has a number of exercises that help you figure out how to do that. You might want to get a copy of from the library and skim through it to see if it is useful. Obviously the key to getting better is actually draw but I found it very helpful to have some idea of what I was trying to do first.
posted by metahawk at 11:27 PM on January 4, 2009

Lots of good tips upthread. I always told my kids "draw what you see, not what you know." I always liked that phrase, so I thought I'd share it here.
posted by nax at 8:33 AM on January 6, 2009

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