Wanted: art skillz
July 1, 2009 5:08 PM   Subscribe

How can I develop more of an artist's eye?

I have very little artistic sense - I can't draw anything beyond some laughable cartoons, my handwriting looks sloppy and labored, and I don't have any idea where to start when it comes to layout/design.

We've had to make a number of signs lately for work, and it's highlighted my lack of artistic ability on all fronts. Is this something I can improve and learn?

I find drawing genuinely relaxing, but the experience is usually ruined by a crap result. My handwriting can be passable, but it is inconsistent.

Can I learn to be a more artistic person?

PS. I have no money for classes...
posted by pilibeen to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Drawing on the right side of the brain is a classic, and very effective. I totally recommend it.

Otherwise, the non-designer's design book, which I also totally recommend.
posted by b33j at 5:22 PM on July 1, 2009

Try photography. It gets rid of the drawing element, while allowing you to focus on the more artistic and technical elements. Whatever you can draw, you can photograph.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:30 PM on July 1, 2009

Many people like The Artists Way which purports to be "A course in discovering and recovering your creative self."
posted by shothotbot at 5:40 PM on July 1, 2009

Seconding Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain!
posted by teresci at 5:40 PM on July 1, 2009

I'm not sure what kind of free time you have. If you do have a lot, a first step can be to try making collages. Collect magazines, get some pieces of cardboard or thick paper, a good pair of scissors and maybe an exacto knife, and a good old standard glue stick.

Collage lets you play with and begin to understand the elements of meaning, color, composition, line and proportion all without you having to draw a thing. If it progresses and you want to add elements manually, by drawing on top, you can, but simplicity is usually the best method.

Flip through your source material and pick one central element or statement to your collage, and then work from it. If you practice at it, and combine this with reading some of the materials suggested here, and try to really notice the appearance of the things around you, and why you like, dislike, receive meaning from, or don't usually notice the things around you everywhere, you are rapidly on your way to being able to get the visual ideas in your head down onto a surface in a more satisfactory way.

All my years of classes and art school really only gave me two tools. They helped me to see the world around me from a different, more component-based, visual angle, and they gave me the physical precision to translate more successfully between my head and my hands.
posted by Mizu at 6:01 PM on July 1, 2009

I hear this about math often, too. The simple solution is practice.

There are some really basic things in drawing. Super simple things. One is that the paper makes a difference. Another is that pencils have varying hardness. Hard pencils make light lines; soft ones make dark lines, generally.

Another thing is that you can't (usually) look at a scene in front of you and draw it in your lap or on a desk. The angles come out all wrong. You have more success if you put the paper in the same orientation as the scene...at the same level.

See, none of this is complicated; it's just experience.

There are lots of little things like this to learn and they all contribute to getting better. The things that you can't get from a book or any other way are persistence and practice. If you can get someone competent to critique your work, you'll begin to discover what you are doing wrong.

People are no good at drawing because they give it up too easily and too early in life. We are also quickly ashamed of the bad character of our initial attempts and afraid of looking bad. Today's newbie is tomorrow's expert, though. You gotta start somewhere. Just don't stop. In 5 years, one drawing a day will make you professional. One drawing a week will make you quite competent. One drawing a month will make you 100 times better than the average Joe on the street, and one drawing a year will leave you pretty much where you are. Here, math and art intersect. The more you produce, the better you get.

My favorite book is Art and Fear . Completely devoid of technical content, it explores why art gets made and does not.
posted by FauxScot at 6:05 PM on July 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

In addition to reading those books, I would suggest two avenues:

1. Look at things. Really look at things. When you see a sign or package or website or poster or a painting or picture you like, give it a few minutes and figure out what you like about it: maybe the text is beautifully rendered, or you like the different sizes of elements, or you like the way they're placed, or the colors appeal to you. Start creating a folder of things you like, either next to your computer or - if digital - in a folder in your bookmarks. These can help jumpstart your ideas.

2. Practice. Practice. Practice. Everyone (and I mean everyone) has produced a lot of crap on their way to becoming good, great, or even genius. You are learning about how to use the tools and how to match with your hands what you see with your eye. Draw a lot, and try different things (different pens/pencils/charcoal/pastels; methods like grid-based drawing, single line (don't pick up your pencil) drawing, freeform drawing, abstracted shape drawing; different subjects - cartoons, landscapes, portraits, abstracts, still-lifes). If you want to improve digitally, spend a few hours designing signs and trying out every weird idea you have. Try putting text right up next to each other and on top of each other. Play with spacing and justification and fonts. Try to replicate a design you really like (for practice only!) to figure out how it feels to put it together. In meetings, doodle while you take notes.
posted by julen at 6:08 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you can draw the letters of the alphabet, you can draw other things, too! I third getting the book Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain. I also suggest that you just not focus so much on "how good" your creations look...just accept them for what they are, and keep practicing. Eventually your style will develop and your technique will improve. I think people think too much about how good their work looks and then that limits our potential. We have to stop comparing our work with our preconceived notion of what "good art" is. it will come naturally if you shut down your brain and stop thinking. At least, that's been the case with me. I'm by no means an excellent artist, but I notice that I do make my best work when I don't think about it. It's the same thing with the piano. When I think too much about what my fingers are doing, i start making mistakes. If I close my eyes and just shut down my mind, I play sooo much better.

Also, try doing your drawing practice in the mornings, when you are fresh and your mind is clear. Good luck!
posted by starpoint at 6:11 PM on July 1, 2009

Sounds like you need something fast, for work that is! What type of signs are you making as far as topic, size, artistic medium - computer generated, posters with magic markers?
You can do a lot with fonts, even if you are just making posters. You can cut and paste them with stock photos/graphics, so your budding artistic ability won't be overly stressed.

There are several free online tutorials to teach you how to draw, shade, highlight and work with colors and composition. If you have a DVR/TIVO, there are several art classes on TV, usually at odd hours. Bob Ross' "The Joy of Painting", assumes you've never painted or taken a lesson. It airs on public broadcast stations.

Just had my first art lesson a few months ago. Since I didn't consider myself an "artist", I just had fun and wasn't bound by any "rules" which made learning somewhat stressful for the "artists" in the class who had higher expectations and were trying their best to "loosen up". Painting is fun and therapeutic. You will be amazed when you look back and see how you've progressed in a few weeks/months.

Everyone can become more artistic, even if it's just noticing more and more colors in everything you see. By painting, you become increasingly aware of what is involved to create light and shadow and that there are many shades of white, black, greys and endless varieties of every other color. Just remember this is for you and your enjoyment. If your inner critic pipes up, make your own "No Critics Zone" sign - draw a silly picture of your critic, circle him/her, then draw the universal diagonal line through the circle to make your point! Happy painting!!!
posted by wabanada at 6:21 PM on July 1, 2009

Having only read the headline, I came in to recommend Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, but I see I was beaten to it. Do what she says. You will find yourself staring at things, feeling like you're drawing them... assessing compositions and all that.
posted by cmoj at 7:05 PM on July 1, 2009

Drawing what you see is about really observing what's actually front of you, as opposed to the inaccurate mental shorthand you normally use to represent your visual experience. nthing Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain as a good introduction to seeing this way.

If you want help making signs for work (and making all your other documents look better) I'd recommend Stop Stealing Sheep and Find Out How Type Works as a good introduction to typography, as well as The Non-Designer's Design Book
posted by lsemel at 9:10 PM on July 1, 2009

Yep, "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" is the book. (The others are new to me but sound interesting, too.)It will set you up to understand the need to shift to the right side, and give you exercises that force you to make the shift, like drawing a Picasso upside-down.

I think that blind contour drawing is particularly helpful for teaching the eyes and the hands to work together. I don't remember if this technique is in "Drawing on the Right Side" or not, but the jist of it is....this: Imagine your eye and your hand are one and the same and move your pencil only as you move your eyes along the contours (edges) of whatever you are drawing. Your powers of observation will grow hugely, and the pressure is off to make something look just like it is, because you never look at the drawing you are making once you begin it. Hence, "blind" contour. And when you finish one of these, if you've really taken your time to see every curve and slope, and follow each line as if you're holding the pencil with your eyelids (sorry, uncomfortable notion, but really! Be that connected eye to pencil) - you will likely be pleased - and impressed - with the quality of your line. It will be varied, expressive, and interesting. But don't even think about the outcome while you are doing it. Just keep looking and taking your pencil along the path which you are slowly tracing with your eyes. Increse your stamina and concentration with 5 minute drawings, 10 minute-, 20 minute-...

Getting good at anything is work, but this is some fun work!

A tip of the beret to you!
posted by sparrowdance at 9:14 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just wanted to say that FauxScot is right on about practice and materials. In the last several months or so I realized that I haven't drawn in a while. When I was a kid, I was all into it, but at some point I lost the habit, except for the very occasional margin drawing. But I've drawn a little more, when I want to, over these past several months, and sure enough my drawing capability has improved. Something that helps, though, is to be conscious of what you're trying to draw. If it's the human face or body, there are guides to the proportions (for instance the distance between the eyes is about the length of one of those eyes, usually) and you can start there and get a feel for how you draw the human form.

But yeah, practice. And also? Materials definitely do matter. Don't expect to draw like Rembrandt with a Bic ballpoint. I was recently surprised when I used a marker with a really narrow nib (is that the word? lol) and started doodling with it. With this specific marker I had a lot of control over the thickness of a line, and drawing with it was a lot of fun for just that reason. Everything looked awesome when drawn with that marker! :) So go down to your art supply (do they have Michael's where you are?) and get a marker or some nice pens or pencils, and paper. Try drawing something upside down, and try it more than once. Try to really see what you're drawing and get past what your left brain will tell you it looks like. And do it when you're bored at work, in a boring lecture at school, when you're watching TV, when you're on the phone, whatever. Seriously, I have done little more than this and seen my technique improve.

Also, I am never above trying to ape other people's work, whether it's drawing or anything else. Find interesting drawings online, and take a moment when you look at them to see what it really is that draws you to them, and if you can do the same thing in your drawing.

One last thing: Photography, painting, drawing, graphic design, these all share very fundamental elements. You know, like line, form, shape, composition, et cetera. Different mediums have different emphases, but pursuing any of these will reward you indirectly when it comes to the others. It's actually something I've realized recently and that really excites me.

PS: Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is a good book with a lot of information; go ahead and pick it up. But don't you dare wait until you pick it up to start drawing. You don't need the book :) Just... do you have a pencil and paper right now? Yeah, good. Now go, draw!

PPS: As far as computery graphic design goes, it's also practice but I can't really help you there.
posted by malapropist at 11:00 PM on July 1, 2009

> So go down to your art supply (do they have Michael's where you are?) and get a marker or some nice pens or pencils, and paper.

Actually, your best bet is to ask any arty people you know where they stock up. Michael's sells art supplies at craft and hobby prices, though you can get pre-gessoed, mounted & stretched canvases there for super-cheap. If you're a University student, chances are the art department has a store hidden somewhere on campus.
posted by Decimask at 2:48 AM on July 2, 2009

Art and Fear is awesome.

The other majorly important thing is looking at good art (both what you want to do and anything else that interests you) constantly. Books, online, magazines, museums. You are tying your hands if you don't know what good art looks like. Even from day 1 I think this is important.
posted by sully75 at 3:19 AM on July 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Try changing the way you look at stuff. Instead of the inherent 3D map of the world our brains create, try turning that off and just see what's coming into your eyes as a 2D picture. Don't see the train tracks going off into the distance, see how the lines appear to intersect at the horizon. See how they curve inward when they go downhill and how they curve outward going uphill. Basically, turn off the rationality you know about what you see and take it as it is presented.

And learn about balance. If you are drawing a picture, or composing a photograph, or designing a room, figure out the difference between what looks good and what looks awkward. If you are taking a photo, think about your subject versus the background. If you are taking a picture of a cow on a hill, you'd probably want to line the frame up to "square" against the horizon. If you lined it up "square" against the hill, the cow would appear to be standing at an angle. For example.

(The tools of the trade are secondary. You can do almost anything with any pencil by changing your technique. My grandfather was one of those guys with inherent art. One thanksgiving, he took a piece of used tinfoil, flattened it out, and proceeded to draw a wonderful picture with a spoon. Better to learn how to get what you want from the tool in your hand than to be stifled because you only have a #2 pencil and you "can't" draw with anything but a #1.)
posted by gjc at 5:30 AM on July 2, 2009

Drawing on the right side of the Brain nthed. It's exactly what you're looking for. There is even a workbook. Once I got it into my head that drawing was largely about measurement (neg. space vs. pos. space, light vs. dark, etc) and distance and comparing elements to another and recording that difference , then drawing became a lot easier.
posted by The Whelk at 8:32 AM on July 2, 2009

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Nthed.

Also, the advice to just look at things is completely dead-on. The more you carefully observe the world around you while you try to record it with pencil and paper, the more you will begin to see things as collections of shapes, colors and textures. You'll begin to notice light in ways you never did before, and you'll begin yo mentally piece things apart in interesting ways. This change in perception was the most fun thing about learning to paint, to me. You're in for an enlightening time.
posted by Pecinpah at 10:34 AM on July 2, 2009

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