Five years ago today I stood looking at a beautiful display of Prismacolor Premier colored pencils. I’d purchased them — a complete set — to use with the new “grown-up” coloring book I’d recently bought. These coloring books were only then beginning to become popular, and I was quite excited.
Now, if you’ve followed this blog for a while, you know the story. I’ll quickly re-tell it here for the benefit of new Artistcoveries followers.
As I looked at all those gorgeous pencils laid out so neatly in that gorgeous box, all I could think was “These are artist pencils.” I was not an artist. I was, therefore, not qualified to own such beautiful colored pencils.
“Well,” I said, “I guess I’ll have to learn to draw.” That’s where my journey began.
In my mind, being an artist and learning to draw were somewhat synonymous. To me, that was what artists did. It was the ability to draw that made one an artist. Quite a simple-minded thought I realize now, but it set me off on this path of “art discovery”.
Over the last five years, I’ve become quite an advocate for the “anyone can learn to draw” school of thought. I point this out often to others, to those who shake their head — as I once did — and proclaim, “No, not me. I could never learn to draw.” Sadly, most of these wishful artists leave it at that, walk away, and never try learning.
Occasionally, though, someone wants to know more. Precisely how did I learn to draw? Did I teach myself? Did I take classes? How difficult was it? While questioners may still be skeptical, often insisting that I “must have tapped into an already existing talent,” I repeat this simple truth. Anyone can learn to draw.
For what it’s worth, no, I didn’t tap into some inherent talent for art. Maybe some people are born with a gift for art — I do believe that’s true — but I was not one of them. Although I’ve learned to draw, have learned to paint, and have made good use of those colored pencils, art still doesn’t come easily to me. I’ve developed enough skill to call myself an artist, enough ability to join several art associations, enough courage to display my work in shows and galleries, and I’ve had good fortune enough to have won several awards for my art. But it’s still not easy.
It has been, however, worth the effort, and for those who ask, “How did you do it?” I’d like to share a few thoughts about what I did, how I did it, and why I was successful in my quest of learning to draw.
I HAD THE DESIRE
This is probably the most important quality needed. If you really want to learn to draw — or achieve proficiency in any other area of art — you can. If it’s nothing more than a shrug and an “I wish I could draw” attitude, you probably won’t succeed. Learning art requires a commitment of time and effort, as well as some expense. A half-hearted approach will get you only half-hearted results, but a sincere desire to learn can take you a long, long way.
MY EXPECTATIONS WERE LOW
I put absolutely no pressure on myself, set no deadlines on my learning, and gave no thought to goals or objectives. Quite simply, even though I had a desire to learn, I really didn’t think it was possible. So, instead of being disappointed at my initial efforts, I was surprised and pleased with the results of my lessons.
I COMMITTED MYSELF TO THE PROCESS
Because my expectations were so low, it would have been easy to give up, but what I lacked in confidence, I made up for with commitment. Regardless of the results, I told myself, I was going to keep trying. I had a beginner’s drawing book, and I promised myself that I’d faithfully follow all the exercises. In the back of my mind was the idea that once I’d tried and failed, I could conclude that I would never learn and could give up then. But first, I had to make a serious, committed effort to the process. So I bought the requisite supplies: a sketchbook, an inexpensive set of drawing pencils, a good eraser. I sat down each day and spent about thirty minutes doing drawing exercises. And, lo and behold! Long before I reached the end of the book, I was making so much progress that I had to go running to my husband to say, guess what, I’m learning to draw! From that point on, there was no looking back.
I FOUND THE RESOURCES I NEEDED
This is probably the trickiest element in learning to draw. While there are hundreds of “how to draw” books and hundreds of online tutorials covering every aspect of art instruction, they’re not all created equal. I was lucky to find two valuable resources that were exactly right for me. I began with Kate Berry’s book on “Drawing Lessons for Beginner Artists“. I chose that particular book after looking at several. Most, to be honest, intimidated me. But then I looked at the Kate Berry book, saw that “step one” was a lesson on how to draw straight lines, and I breathed a sigh of relief. That was exactly the right starting point for me. So I bought the book and followed along. I drew simple straight lines, and I felt good about it. About a week later, while searching for a little additional information on turning shapes into forms, I came across The Virtual Instructor, Matt Fussell’s art education site. I watched one of his free video lessons on the topic of shapes and forms, and his way of teaching just clicked for me. He was exactly the teacher I needed at exactly the time I needed.
I LEARNED THROUGH REPETITION
As for the “how I learned” part of the story, I used the time-tested technique of repetition. I took each illustration in Kate Berry’s book and copied it. Not once. Not twice. I copied every illustration at least ten times, sometimes more. I looked at her drawing, tried to repeat what she did, and then compared mine to hers. I noted where my shapes were too long or too narrow, or maybe too short or too wide. I tried it again, made adjustments and more comparison. Usually it required at least three or four such attempts before my drawing looked good. Once I had a solid understanding of how to properly create the image, I would repeat it again and again. And then, for the fun of it, I might get inventive. Instead of drawing a single leaf, I might try putting two or three together. I might turn the image in a different direction. I enjoyed exploring these possibilities.
I KEPT IT SIMPLE
I made lots of simple drawings and that was fine with me. Even though I was beginning to believe in myself and even dared to dream about creating more realistic graphite drawings, I kept things simple at the start. Simple line drawings of leaves and flowers. Simple practice exercises of straight lines, curved lines, and basic shapes. Simple practice sessions every day to build my skills and provide encouragement. These simple practices were designed for one thing — success. And, yes, I succeeded.
I FOCUSED ON FUNDAMENTALS
Every area of knowledge or skill has certain fundamental principles that must be learned, understood, and utilized. I gave myself a solid foundation for art by focusing on essential elements — line, shape, form, color, texture, value, and space. These are building blocks for drawing, and even now, five years into my art education, I still repeat these seven elements whenever I sit down to draw.
I CREATED APPROPRIATE CHALLENGES AND ASSIGNMENTS
It was up to me, I realized, to outline a curriculum to follow, and while my practice sessions were simple and designed to give me a successful learning experience, I knew I needed an occasional push, if for no other reason than to evaluate where I was. I kept these “special assignments” reasonable, looking for illustrations to copy that were slightly more complex than those I’d done in the past, but which weren’t overly complicated. I also challenged myself to find things to draw from life. I sketched our stuffed puppies, rocks in the yard next door, miscellaneous objects from the kitchen. I forced myself to step a little bit outside my comfort zones and as often as not, I surprised myself with what I was able to do.
I EXPLORED NEW RESOURCES WHEN NEEDED
When I finished that first “how to draw” book, I had learned basic drawing skills. Very basic. Not enough to say “Yes, I can draw now.” Definitely not enough to say, “Yes, I’m an artist.” The skills I’d learned were enough, however, to excite me and to whet my appetite for more learning. Again, I looked at various books and explored online options. I took the “basic drawing course” at The Virtual Instructor site, and picked up another beginner’s drawing book. I still focused primarily on essential skills, and was pleased to see my abilities improving.
Eventually I moved from “basic beginning drawing” to more intermediate levels, and I continue to study drawing techniques now. I work on shading, using contour lines, gesture drawings, and other aspects of art. Of course, I’ve also branched out now to other media — colored pencils, charcoal, pastels, watercolor, oil painting.
Art has become an adventure. It has led me to places I never dreamed of going, and it’s provided me with opportunities to learn, to grow, and to share my creative spirit with others — with family, with friends, with our community, and with the world.
Had you told me five years ago where I would be today, I would have laughed. No way! But here I am, living proof that yes, indeed, anyone can learn to draw. So if you’re one of those who’ve often wished you had drawing skills but have never really pursued learning because you didn’t believe it possible, please, pick up that pencil. Grab a sheet of paper. Make straight lines. Make curved lines. Buy a sketchbook. Find the resources that are right for you, and set aside a little practice time each day.
You can do it. I did it, and yes, you can too!