When will I graduate from beginning artist to something slightly better?
June 24, 2012 6:12 AM   Subscribe

I've been sketching and drawing for about six years now. When I look at the stuff I've done recently compared to stuff I did five years ago, I really am hard-pressed to see any improvement whatsoever. How can I improve my drawing ability?

I'd say that my drawing resembles that of a moderately talented seventh grader. Sometimes I'm accurately able to capture proportions, many times not. Things like composition, shading, and creating a unified picture completely elude me.

I've read and done exercises from just about every drawing book out there, including but not limited to Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, The Natural Way to Draw, Keys to Drawing, Drawing by Seeing, Drawing in Your Sleep (jk). I've also copied endless number of drawings, including "old master" drawings, stuff from comic books, children's books, etc.

I've taken several adult education drawing classes, but have found them largely unhelpful. The teacher would see I already had a basic grasp of how to represent things on paper, would say "good job" and then go help someone who hadn't picked up a pencil to draw since they were in elementary school. I once had a teacher who actually gave me some very helpful feedback, but he was only a substitute teacher for the regular one. :(

I've done a very, very limited amount of life drawing--human figures, that is. I've done about a bazillion drawings of my cats. Despite this, I remain unable to draw a realistic-looking cat without having one in front of me (and most of the time it's a challenge even then).

I draw using either pencils or ballpoint pens. I thought at some point I'd like to move on to painting or sculpture, but wanted to get the basics of drawing down first. I'm starting to wonder if maybe trying something new would help the drawing.

Oh, and I have seen this AskMe, about advanced drawing for the intermediate artist, but I don't think I'm there yet.

posted by indognito to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Suggestion: head over to conceptart.org, specifically the sketchbook forums. Keep posting your work in progress over time, and the more experienced people tend to explain what works and what not, and how to improve. Good luck!
posted by TrinsicWS at 6:17 AM on June 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

The best book:
Hale-Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters

Cats are difficult because their anatomy is deeply buried under fur and floppy skin (and often under fat). To draw a cat, you must first disregard appearance and suss out the underlying anatomy.
posted by hexatron at 6:28 AM on June 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

...and an example: This is what a blocked-out poses should look like, not the skeletons or boxes-and-lines that 'how to draw' books push.
posted by hexatron at 6:49 AM on June 24, 2012

You need to do life drawing, and you need to drop the fluffy woo-woo art books for books on art anatomy. I like Bridgman, but there might be something more modern out there that would help you. Many cities offer open life drawing sessions. But you really need to pair any drawing of life with an understanding of the underlying anatomy. Also, how gravity works, light and shadow, that sort of thing.

I'd also recommend that you try working larger and in a medium that is a bit looser--charcoal is good. I like crayon, too. And when you sketch with your pencil, especially living things like cats and people, it's good to hold your pencil like this, which encourages looser strokes (you can turn it around and hold it normally when you go in for detail). All of this is about moving from large, correctly proportioned and connected shapes into details.

Honestly, I'd work on nailing this stuff down before you start thinking about compositions of finished pieces.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:09 AM on June 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

There are plenty of things left for you to try to see if they help you achieve what you want. Different things work for different people, and you probably know best what sort of things you'll respond to.

I think that switching mediums is almost always helpful, because it forces you to relearn how to visualize something. There's a lot of weird art tradition sort of stuff that leads to people thinking draw first, then paint, then possibly add a third dimension, but really, nobody is the same and there's nothing that says you wouldn't be better served by learning to paint and draw concurrently, or maybe make 3d models first and draw from them, or some combination. So yes, try paint (acrylic on canvas board is probably the easiest) or sculpture or mixed media collage or anything that interests you. Maybe even as simple as using charcoal on grey toned paper instead of pencil on white would give you the right jolt.

It depends on where you live, but is there an actual art school you could attend classes at? There is a vast difference between an adult education beginner's class and an actual serious art class that also happens to be for beginners. Since you said you benefited from that one-off substitute, it sounds like you would do well in a more focused class. Or maybe you could find private lessons with a working artist?

Something that can help you with composition and creating a complete picture is photography. By thinking critically about the pictures you take, you can get ideas about composition and balance and what makes a strong image in your drawings, too. There are tons of books and websites on composition in photography, and it might be easier for you to start there because you will be able to go out, snap some shots, and view the results much more immediately instead of spending all day drawing a study of negative space or whatever. You can also incorporate your photos into your drawings, either by using them as source images to draw from, or by literally printing them out, cutting them up, and using them as a material to make new images. Cutting up your photos can also help you learn about contour shapes of real objects, which is a big deal for things like foreshortening and proportion.

Basically, you have to start experimenting more until you find something that works for you. It's great that you're drawing regularly and for such a long period of time. But that persistence can be applied in a different way.
posted by Mizu at 7:11 AM on June 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

Life drawing classes. They're the primary thing that took me from this to this in nine years of not particularly consistent art, as in cycles of spending a few weeks drawing nearly every day, then a few months not touching pencil/stylus. I could have improved significantly faster if I'd been able to skip the not-drawing times.

And yeah, I've taken the beginner's classes on occasion, but when you're past a certain stage of learning basics, they're only good if you had specific aims that you want to get out of them. The last time I took such a class, my goal was to force myself to draw objects and environments, since given a choice I tend to doodle characters and ignore their backgrounds, and I didn't need to learn how, I just needed to sit down and do it.
posted by telophase at 7:52 AM on June 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've found trying to only draw shadows, an interesting break when I get into a funk.
posted by Packed Lunch at 8:01 AM on June 24, 2012

I drew naked people and faces from pictures. People look really *wrong* if you get the proportions wrong, and you know far more intimately what people should look like.
That definitely helped.
But I did manage to get to, quite good sketches from pictures or life, without being able to freehand for the life of me. It was still a good skill.
posted by Elysum at 8:17 AM on June 24, 2012

nthing life drawing classes. I have always been a so-so illustrator and improved greatly in college when I took a life drawing class. A good teacher will teach you how to draw the muscle system and the skeletal system and with that knowledge, you can learn how to draw proportional humans. It takes a lot of practice though! I was drawing for an hour or so each day in my hey-day. Nowadays it has dropped off to zero and my abilities have disappeared as a result. So remember, practice practice practice!
posted by ruhroh at 8:41 AM on June 24, 2012

I definitely do not think that you need to wait to start painting or sculpting. Sometimes trying a different medium and thinking about art in a different way can get you out of your head and improve your technical abilities (and it can be a lot more fun.) Also, are you committed to doing only realistic drawing/painting/sculpture? If not, all the more reason to experiment with different mediums. I went to art school for four years, and I have to say that I can't draw very well at all, but painting, printmaking, collage, making masks...that I can do. Once I got out of the beginners art classes, I got to really figure out where my talents were, and that made art a lot more enjoyable, and the results were waaaay better too!
posted by dysh at 8:57 AM on June 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you everyone. Things I'm going to try:
-posting my stuff online for feedback
-more life-drawing classes
-painting and sculpting
Now if only had the time to try them all at once!
Thanks again.
posted by indognito at 10:08 AM on June 24, 2012

Get a bunch of large ( 18 x 24 ) cheap tablets. Do 2 minute drawings of real subjects for an hour every day, 30 drawings. Keep flipping the pages, draw, draw, draw. You can vary the view angle on the subject by rotating the table or tray it sits on.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:47 AM on June 24, 2012

I help run a small art academy in Philadelphia. We teach very realistic life drawing and painting, with an emphasis on proportion, seeing shapes correctly, self-assessment of the accuracy of your work, and correctly capturing the effect of light on form. The students that progress the most rapidly are those that use a system when they draw. Everyone's checklists differ slightly, but they each hit the major points below.

1. Get something on the paper. Two to five basic, emphatic, easy to see shapes. Try to capture the gesture and proportion as well as you can with just a few shapes, and position the drawing in your format. Points on the shapes will correspond with easily seen points on the subject, but the shapes themselves need not relate to particular masses or body parts, they are merely the most obvious major shapes that you can see. One shape might include an arm, the head, and most of the chest, because those things would blur together and become a large mass when you squint down.

2. Major proportions. Whatever the largest dimension is, either height or width, set the extremes of your subject and do not move them! The whole drawing will fit perfectly within those marks. If you base measurements on those marks, then find that you can't quite fit something and decide to move your extremes, you have just opened up a huge can of worms by distorting the entire drawing. Instead, find out why there is too much room or too little between the shape you are drawing and the limiting marks.

3. Measuring. Since the extreme marks (lets say the drawing is taller than it is wide) represent the top and bottom of the subject in life and on your paper, then the halfway point between the extremes should be the same in the drawing and in life. As your drawing develops, continually check the halfway point. If it hits a certain crease, or a stable landmark, make sure that the information there in your drawing matches what is there in life. The same goes for the quarters. This is critical - use a known measurement along the long axis of your drawing to check the width of your drawing. For a taller drawing - you If you just set the width arbitrarily without relating it to the height you can introduce systematic distortion in your drawing. Your widths might relate to each other but your drawing will be either skinnier or fatter than it should be.

4. Plumb! Use a weighted string or a knitting needle to check plumb. The elements that align vertically in life should align in your drawing. Prioritize all measurements and plumb lines based off of the core of the figure or the most stable thing in your drawing. In other words, work stable to dynamic and big to small. You wouldn't draw a finger first and then the rest of the figure around it, or a leaf blowing around before the trunk of the tree.

5. Refine. Again, work stable to dynamic, big to small. You can apply the same system you used for the large parts of a drawing for the smaller parts. For example, if, once your figure is correctly proportioned and everything is in the right place, you can start with doing an envelope of the head, securing the top and bottom marks, finding the halves and quarters, checking height to width, and then refining smaller shapes. Sometimes we refine this way down to the nostril, or to capture the exact forms of the eyelashes, or the creases in a lower lip.

Here are two drawings of mine done using this method, both are graphite on paper: 1 2

If you want to draw realistically and master anatomy and proportion there are other ways to do it as well. Our method can be described as a visual transcription of seen shapes - it is very observational. Another approach might be to observe the model, set the proportions and gesture, and construct the figure based on your knowledge of anatomy. This would be a Bridgman type approach. Jon DeMartin teaches this type of drawing, and he is great at it.

Either way, you measure, work stable to dynamic, big to small, and you get the large stuff as correct as you can, checking by all means available for accuracy before you allow yourself to move on to the next level of refinement. That's the real hard part, restraining yourself.

The best advice I could give is to look at the student work from ateliers, schools, workshops, academies, etc., find the work that looks like what you want to do, and go learn from them.

Good luck! If you have any questions feel free to contact me.
posted by amcm at 1:41 PM on June 24, 2012 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: amcm, I confess I have a tendency to start focusing in on the details well before I should. Thank you for the reminder to work from big to small (as well as all of your other great advice).
posted by indognito at 6:48 PM on June 24, 2012

I second amcm's use-a-system approach, and that you should seek out a formal instruction in it, and use it in life drawing and cast drawing.

This is a solid video on drawing which teaches a system called "comparative measurement" (explanation). The video, from the Academy of Realist Art, is not cheap, but it is much cheaper than a workshop or course would be. You can rent it as well but it is worth owning and re-watching. And this way the starving artist instructor gets a cut.

The best advice I could give is to look at the student work from ateliers, schools, workshops, academies, etc., find the work that looks like what you want to do, and go learn from them.
Here's a list of good schools:
Many give workshops; before signing up, see if the workshop is instruction in a system of drawing (and measurement) or if it is on paint-handling or some technique of rendering, which is handy but not what you're looking for.

Another approach might be to observe the model, set the proportions and gesture, and construct the figure based on your knowledge of anatomy. There's a russian Fundamentals of Drawing book here which teaches the build-up-the-figure approach. It may be quite solid but don't pick if up if you are also getting the video - focus on one system of drawing, and then, from some level of mastery, picking up something else.

There was a recent Ask Metafilter thread on composition which is worth reading.

p.s. Cats are tricky subjects, with ill-defined shadow shapes. Spend more time drawing people and learning to measure.
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:26 PM on June 24, 2012

Gesture drawing is an excellent way to learn how to draw and pose a body.
posted by hellojed at 11:10 PM on June 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Along with life drawing and real classes with a good teacher who'll give you good constructive criticism, I'd add: use better pens. To work with ink, put away the ballpoint pens and get some good drawing pens of various widths. They don't have to have metal nibs you dip into ink---there are even things like the Pigma Pen-Brush that are as easy to carry as a pen but give you all the power of a brush. Check out the ink pen at a good art supply store, pick up a few, and begin to experiment with the lines they give.

About books, I'd suggest The Elements od Drawing, by John Ruskin. It has exercises, theory, criticism, philosophy, and it's fascinating reading. You might disagree with his approach to art but it will give you much to do and consider. See also The Element of Drawing: John Ruskin's Teaching Collection at Oxford which was mentioned last November on MeFi.

Good luck with it all, and enjoy. All of your hard work will reward you.
posted by wdenton at 5:53 AM on June 25, 2012

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