Learning how to draw/paint when I can't afford classes...
November 20, 2010 11:18 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for recommendations on the best way to sharpen very dull art skills. Anything in the realms of learning, whether they be books, how to discipline self to stick to learning the basics, positive self talk through frustration...you name it. I am not looking to be remotely professional. I like sketching and illustration as well as mixed media (ink/watercolor). Any positive advice appreciated.
posted by snap_dragon to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Are you sure you can't afford classes? Local colleges have all sorts of little programs that allow people without money to get pretty far. I would call a local art department, tell them your financial situation and ask what they'd recommend.
posted by circular at 11:40 AM on November 20, 2010

Best answer: Hm, my wife has a BFA in drawing, spent an additional 8 semesters on top of that taking painting studio classes during another grad program, and still draws regularly. We've accumulated literally hundreds of books on technique and self-motivation, in addition to a pretty decent library of books on favorite artists. And she's certainly gotten stuff out of those things.

But above all else, the best way to sharpen skills is pretty clearly to spend more time making marks on paper. Even now, she still feels frustrated and incompetent every single time she tries something new (new style, new subject matter, new medium, etc.), and she just keeps going through that phase with repetition and variation until things shape up and her previous experience begins to affect the work.

We've also seen plenty of people we know become successful--teach at RISD, publish comics, get notable local shows, etc.--based on what we think of as 'doodle art': things that are very limited, technically, but that they've practiced with enthusiasm until they've achieved a personal doodling style that other people like. And that's perfectly fine.

So my recommendation is just do it more. Either keep doing some kind of doodly/sketchy thing you already like, or try to invent one, or copy something you like, whether it's old masters or manga or Keith Haring thingies, repeating it with small changes until it's your own.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 11:59 AM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

The New York Times had a recent series on drawing, though I don't know if it was any good. Looks cool, though.
posted by you're a kitty! at 12:24 PM on November 20, 2010

Best answer: Practice, practice, practice... I have a friend who is one of the best illustrators I know. He once spent almost 3 years filling 10 pages a day in his sketchbooks, because a teacher told him that despite having all the raw talent and technical skills he'd ever need, he'd never make the leap from good to great without putting in the time. So he did, and he he got phenomenally better. And he still swears by putting in time in on his sketchbooks above all else. I also grew up drawing, and I wouldn't trade those hours and hours of doodling in my school notebooks for anything. To this day, if I have a piece of paper and a spare moment, I'm going to draw something. Don't worry about being original, or clever or even "good" just learn to love doing it for the sake of doing it.

But if you want something fun to guide you, The Famous Artist Cartoon Course is a great resource. Solid fundamentals, and neat old-school styles.
posted by billyfleetwood at 12:41 PM on November 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: If you're talking about life drawing, then I tire only slightly of recommending Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Since you're capable of writing and operating a computer with your hands (presumably) I am willing to say without reservation that if you do what this book says you will be able to draw whatever you like.

Betty Edwards actually conducted research to construct a method of teaching the student to create and specific mental state in which they can draw and then how to access that state at will. It took me directly (in one go-through) from almost entirely inept high school notebook doodles to drawing a bunch of ultra-complicated stuff like chrysanthemums and pinecones by eye. And now this is what I do. Not the pinecones and chrysanthemums, but drawing in general.
posted by cmoj at 1:37 PM on November 20, 2010

I'd like to add that, of course, after that you need to keep drawing. This will teach you a "pure eye" style that's incredibly accurate but very dry. If any qualifications matter to the weight of my recommendation, this was before I became an art student and I went on to get a BFA in painting and after that an acceptance to SAIC.
posted by cmoj at 1:41 PM on November 20, 2010

Building on what circular said, depending on where you live, many city/town recreation departments or community colleges offer alot of continuing adult education classes. They usually start around the beginning of regular semesters (Spring, Summer, and Fall), but they are not for college credit or anything. I always see a myriad of different level art classes being offered for like $50-$100 for 5-8 week long courses.
posted by foxhat10 at 3:38 PM on November 20, 2010

Hey, I used to work for a large art materials manufacturer, and I would not mind if you email me with technical queries. I also recommend a book by Angela Gair called The Artist's Manual. It has lots of great examples of how to use media.

You could also lobby Meta to begin an artist's group ;)
posted by effluvia at 5:32 PM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Enjoy it. I think getting too much into it, or trying to do things the 'right' way can put people off trying to make art, sometimes forever. Don't feel like you have to draw or paint fruit/flower still lifes or learn the shapes of muscles, or paint like the masters, or even draw people from life unless that's what you want to do. Granted these things can be really rewarding but unless there is something inherently interesting in it for you, well, I figure life is too short to spend time doing things that leave you cold. And you can always go in that direction later if you find yourself wanting to draw better people, for instance. But for starting out and getting into the art habit, just focus on doodling or sketching or slopping around some paint every day and see where it takes you.

'How to' books can be informative and a great resource, but don't rely on them overly. You don't have to do all the exercises and read them cover to cover. Personally I find the kind that tell you how to mix the 9 exact colors for a formulaic landscape are almost worthless. Instead find a good guide on color and learn how to mix your own paints and colors for your own pictures.

Also build your art vocabulary by looking at other artists/illustrators that you admire and try to look at the ways they approached choosing colors, setting mood, adding personality and etc.

I wish I could remember who it was that said (here on mefi) that there are two kinds of drawing, observational and constructive. Draw things by looking at them to train your eye, how to look at shapes, edges, and colors. Then draw from memory or just do stuff without looking at anything. This helps you solidify what you learned observationally.

Get a bunch of different kinds of pens, pencils, markers, brushes and try making different kinds of marks. In paint, try out ink washes, pan & tubes watercolors, hog & sable brushes in large and small sizes. Mixed media can be a lot of fun to experiment with. The scrapbooking aisle (as much as my inner artist hates it) can be a good place to get unusual items and papers to try.

Keep your old stuff around so you can look back at it and see your progress. A lot of times it might not seem like you're going anywhere except when you look back at where you used to be.

Learn to have a critical eye, for your own art and for others, but remove judgment about art that's good or sucky and try to see pictures in terms of things inside the pictures that make them that way.

Try to keep your art eyes open, even when you're not creating. Take note of colors, light, shapes when you go about your day.

Don't get too set in any one style. A style is something that emerges over time - after you try tons of different things but find you prefer some of them.

This last one is the most important! Don't worry about being any good - Don't think you have to show your stuff to other people, or frame it, or sell it, or have people praise it for it to be a good piece of art or worth anything. These are fine as eventual goals, but for someone who is just setting out, thinking of doing things 'seriously' in this way will only likely be paralyzing.
posted by everyday_naturalist at 5:53 PM on November 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

This is a good book for inspiration and ideas on how to sketch the things around you: Everyday Matters. Also, another book by the same author: The Creative License: Giving Yourself Permission to Be The Artist You Truly Are.

One thing that has really gotten me to put pen to paper more often is ZenTangles. It seems silly but having that basic structure of dividing my drawing paper into abstract shapes and then figuring out how to fill them in with patterns and doodles has turned out to be just the thing I needed to get me out of that "stuck" place of not drawing because I don't know what to draw. Usually I fill in the first shape with whatever, and then the second with something else, and at some point a theme will come to me and ideas will start to spark off one another and I've wound up with some fun, artsy-looking doodles that I've been pretty pleased with. It's also a good way to practice details like textures, patterns & other effects... like a needlework sampler, only for drawing.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 6:46 PM on November 20, 2010

As everyone else said, practice. One of my drawing professors recommended this to get you drawing every day: Just after waking up, set a timer for 5 minutes and draw your face from a mirror. When the timer goes off, you can stop working no matter how detailed you got. Go for proportions, essence, form, shadow/highlight and style. You never have to show these drawings to anyone else. I just keep a cheap spiral bound sketch book someplace handy. It does make a neat thing to look back on.

Also: see more art. You can learn a lot by careful examination of masters works. Another common drawing class assignment is to re draw a historic artist's drawing.

I would also suggest that you not learn to draw by mimicking photographs. Drawing from photos doesn't teach you how to define three dimensional objects in two dimensions. It teaches you how to copy 2D to 2D. To my mind, this 3D to 2D conversion is what takes lots of time and practice to develop and is a more challenging exercise.

One of the ultimate tests of proportion is the human form. A still life might look slightly wonky if the proportions are off, but our brains are tuned to know exactly what a human should look like. If the proportions are off, even slightly, it shows.
posted by fontophilic at 6:53 PM on November 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'll vote against Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Wrong place for a discussion, but let's just say it doesn't work for everyone. I personally consider it the most frustrating art book I've ever read. But lots of people seem pleased with it.

My current favorite drawing book is How to See, How to Draw by Claudia Nice. I've been lucky enough to attend a few (surprisingly affordable) workshops run by Claudia and she's a great teacher. Since you mentioned ink and watercolor, here's another good one of hers: Creating Textures in Pen and Ink with Watercolor.

Also seconding Danny Gregory's books (The Creative License, Everyday Matters) mentioned above.

Cathy Johnson has some good books too. Example: First Steps: Sketching and Drawing

The forums at Wetcanvas are a great resource and a very supportive community.

But yeah, practice, practice, practice...
posted by mmoncur at 3:20 AM on November 21, 2010

(missed link above: First Steps: Sketching and Drawing.)
posted by mmoncur at 3:22 AM on November 21, 2010

mmoncur, I didn't get much out of Drawing on The Right Side of The Brain either. I actually found it pretty discouraging... thought maybe my failure to "get it" meant that I wasn't cut out to draw. But I did eventually learn and improve my drawing skills through other means so I guess I wasn't completely hopeless. It's just not a miracle method for everyone. But you're right, a lot of people do seem to like it. I see it recommended frequently.

I agree that Wet Canvas is an excellent resource. I haven't been on it in awhile but I spent a lot of time there when I was taking art classes. The weekend drawing events were very helpful as far as giving me some structure and ideas for practice. Having a limited number of reference pics to choose from, forum people to cheer me on and a deadline (even if not strictly enforced) made it really fun and easy to complete several drawings that I might otherwise never have gotten started on.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 4:34 AM on November 21, 2010

Give life drawing a go if you haven't done so already. Its intense, frustrating at times but also quite therapeutic! Going to a tutored drawing course will give you some guidance, and it really helps to start on the right foot. I have found Vilppu's Drawing Manual, and The Natural Way to Draw by Nicolaides really easy to follow.
posted by mushuu at 5:07 PM on November 21, 2010

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