How to get better at drawing

how to improve your drawing

I am often asked, How do I improve my drawing skills? It is often said with an accompanying implied secondary question like, Is there a trick to getting better at drawing quick?

The easy response is to use an old cliché like, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going!” but that’s not what they want to hear!

Drawing is often defined, as making marks on paper. That description, it seems to me, is a lazy short cut to describe the complex set of obstructs that drawing involves and could be a better fit to define doodling.

We are all excellent mark markers! Handwriting bears testament to that!

Drawing is not doodling. Drawing is bringing to life and giving coherent form to both imaginative ideas and reality.

Many a great artist has been quoted as saying, “Draw what you know and not what you see”. At first glance that sounds like a recipe for disaster. What it does not mean is, draw what you think you know! That would be a recipe for a life spent in a naive art swampland.

Good drawing, must reveal the learnt experience of the artist. The artist must be able to pool the general principles that underpin the visual world, into an expressive and coherent moment.

Without understanding the basics you could become expert in observational note taking, ie, detailed drawing. But every time you draw something new, you will be forced to draw with zero understanding and 100% detail.

You can learn through the act of observing, but that is like always playing visual catch up. You are really deluding yourself and in effect only learning something about the small details, ie, the transient nature of moment.

Some drawings, made with little detail, seem more real and more alive than drawings labored over and reduced to a labyrinth of detail? It all hinges on how well the artist, as I say above, pools their understanding into moment.

So, drawing is a delicate balance between analyzing what you see and drawing what you already know, right!

How that pans out when drawing a new portrait, for example, is conditioned by how well you can see through the multitude of distracting light conditions of the moment, to observe how that person differs from the model you understand of how heads are built structurally.

Getting to grips with how the skeleton and overlaying muscular structure of the human form, affect the way it appears is a good first step. Not taking that learning route will mean that the head will always be just a collection of complex shapes, conditioned by changeable light conditions.

Without digging deeper into the underlying structures of things, we are forever only drawing what we see. In that sense we can never learn “to own” the experience.  We can never see things for their structure, but only for their appearance – and we know appearance is only one tenth of the truth hey!

knowledge is the empowerment of the artist.  Technique is nothing more than understanding and without it we are forever stuck in first gear.

This lesson is fundamental and goes a long way to explaining why the life drawings of so many art students, are trapped in, what I call, “the victim state”. That is a state where we are recipients of visual treats but can never understand them.

Yes, you can get very good at drawing what you see. Many modern artworks, especially portraits are testament to a very high level of skill in recording what is seen. These portraits though are so very different to portraits painted only half a century ago.

The reason they are different is simple. The impressionist and expressionist movements have so fundamentally altered our perceptions of what being an artist means, that it is very difficult to return to a time when the patient pursuit of visual understanding had priority over emotion and impression.


Author: Francis Rubbra

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Francis Clark is an Australian born artist, illustrator and musician.