Monday, November 12, 2012

For Isabelle in Alaska: how to teach yourself to draw

I was just noticing that some time ago Isabella, who lives in Alaska, asked for advice on how to study drawing formally while living far from a classical atelier. So here is the first of a series of posts that attempts to answer how you can learn to draw when you live too far away from a good teacher. We know it is possible, since some of the great artists of the past were self-taught, at least for the most part.

Having never graduated from anything, and having thrown away a stupid amount of money on pointless college courses, I've learned to be a champion of autodidacts. Ray Bradbury, my first literary love, graduated from high school, but having been raised in the Depression, could not go to university:

"Libraries raised me. I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years."

Even though I've learned to draw by direct professional instruction, I know it is possible to learn nearly anything by yourself given enough interest and drive. For many years, I believed that anything I really wanted to know I could learn from a book in the library, and for the most part this is true (with the possible exception of learning to play an instrument). With drawing you have taken on a considerable challenge in teaching yourself, but I do believe it is possible. The trick is to be motivated enough. And to remember that books are going to be of limited value.

You are indeed in a difficult spot, but it's still not impossible. The most important thing to know is that you teach yourself to draw mainly by drawing.

The trick with drawing is learning to see, and to draw what is actually there in front of your eyes. This is harder than it sounds as you have spent your whole life from infancy up learning to create interpretations of the world with your brain. This is a good and useful thing, without which you would not be able to function in the world at at all. But for drawing you will have to learn the skill of turning that process off at will. Close observation of nature, that is, of the real world, is the best training and indeed is pretty much the only way to learn to draw "realistically". As with everything else in life, "Only the Real counts" and for your drawings to be convincing they have to be about the Real World. I have written about this here and here.

When I was looking around for somewhere to study, I was aware that teaching myself was going to be very difficult. I had bought books but didn't know enough to know how to begin. I had done some of the exercises in Betty Edwards' book, but had found that the tricks of observation, while it was useful to begin to understand how your brain can fool your eyes, was not enough to bring me any further along. I also knew that I lacked the necessary self-discipline to do the enormous amount of focused work that would be required to bring myself up to a professional standard. Now it is much easier that I have developed a few skills, not only in drawing but in learning how to draw. I can make myself practice and have a great deal more courage in trying new things.

But when I was just starting, my own fury at my inability was a big stumbling block, and the poor quality of the work I was able to produce made it very hard to keep trying. The incredible leaps and bounds I made while receiving instruction has given me the confidence to do a lot of extra work at home that I would never have had the courage to try otherwise. I have written before that the real reason most people think they can't draw is that they have learned a set of iconic symbols for various objects and have not learned to use their eyes instead of their symbolic visual vocabulary when they are drawing. Learning to trust what your eyes are really seeing is a huge step. (Betty Edwards' book is quite good at helping to overcome this initial stumbling block.)

If I were to break down my advice into point form, I think I would say:

- First learn to see. Spend a lot of time looking at art. Go to galleries, buy books. Muscle memory develops motor skills by repetition. Repetitive looking will also develop seeing skills in ways you can't understand until you have them. Look at art. Spend hours poring over art books. Stare at the pictures. Waste a ton of time on it. Eventually, you will feel the first glimmers of inspiration, and will start wanting to copy them.

- When you start drawing, whatever you want to draw, forget about what the thing is. Forget about it being an armchair. It's not an armchair, it's a connected series of lights and shadows. Begin by mentally flattening it into 2 dimensions. This is something you can learn without picking up a pencil. Try it right now. Look at a distinct object in the room. Now close one eye and run your eye all around the edge of what you see. Note how the arm of the chair connects to the back right there and which direction the angle goes. Break the object down into masses. Biggest shapes first, then smaller and don't forget to look at the shapes created by negative space.

- Divide the shapes into lights and darks, and draw the shadows. Avoid drawing things as outlines around an object. Draw the shadows.

- like this.

- Try making and carrying a viewfinder around with you for a while and use it train your brain to look at things in a two-dimensional way. This is basically just a rectangular piece of heavy card that makes a frame you can look at things through. This two-dimensional view is called the Picture Plane. A viewfinder will help you to create a mental image of whatever object or scene you are looking at as though it is already a picture. Use your viewfinder to look at something, like the armchair, and break down mentally where the angles and masses are in relation to each other and to the negative space. Using this, try just looking at things and mentally working out how you would draw it. Pretty soon you will want to put this mental exercise into practice. When you start drawing, keep the viewfinder with you and use it to frame your picture, then just copy everything you see inside the frame.

- Keep scrubbing at it. People often give up too soon on a drawing that "doesn't look right". But persist on a drawing even when it's not going right. No artist ever gets the lines in the right place the first time. Looking closely at good reproductions of Leonardo's and Michelangelo's drawings will reveal that even these great masters, trained from childhood by other great masters, would lay down lines and then erase or draw over their first lines to get it right. If you don't get a drawing right at first, don't throw it away and start again, and don't erase too much. Just draw over top of what you have and keep scrubbing away at it. You will find that as you are drawing it, the object or person or whatever, will become more and more clear to your eyes as you correct the drawing. The more time you spend on a drawing, as a rule, the better it will be. Patience is hard to learn at first because as an adult you are probably overly concerned with being bad at drawing and you are going to be almost eager to be discouraged at first. Keep drawing over top of your mistakes.

- Copy the masters. Buy yourself a book or several books of large reproductions of the works of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Bernini to start with. These guys were the best of the best for the human figure, and learning to accurately copy their drawings (paintings are way harder, start with the drawings) and their sculptures is going to teach you things you can't even imagine knowing right now.

- Draw from largest, simplest shapes to smaller and more detailed. Don't get bogged down starting with little details in a drawing. The simpler the better at first.

- Draw a subject in the round. Don't start at the top left hand corner and work your way around the outer edge of a subject. If you are drawing a human, don't start with the head and work your way down to the feet. Start by mapping out the full figure, the extremes in all four directions, top, bottom, left and right. Then add things all around, working now here, now over there. If you feel like you are getting frustrated with a particular thing, getting the ear in the right place, or both eyes to match up, leave it and go work on something else.

- If you are getting stuck on a particular thing, "sneak up on it". Forget about drawing the eye, if you find it is stumping you. Draw all the stuff around it. Draw the eye socket, the zygomatic arch, the hair, the background. After you have drawn everything but the eye, all that will be left in the drawing is a space exactly where the eye should be.

- Isolate one area where you need to improve - maybe accuracy, or value or composition - and focus on developing that for a few weeks. If you have a decent book of instruction, you will see right away that you need to learn various specific things: line, value, form, perspective, and what to look for and how to pursue it. Then go doggedly after it for a set period of time. You will find that your improvement becomes quite noticeable, and this will boost your confidence to move on to the next thing on the list.

- Draw lots of ordinary, everyday objects. These things you have lying around the house with which you are very familiar. Everyone has a go at drawing their left hand (or whatever hand you're not using for drawing) because you are familiar with how it looks and can tell when you've got it right. Kitchen things are really good, often quite interesting and we've all got a lot of them. Draw the old hand egg beater. Draw your favourite tea cup. Draw a stack of pots. Draw your mobile phone. Draw your feet. Draw anything you can make sit still for more than ten minutes.

- Learn anatomy by copying the greats. I got quite a kick out of going through all my art books and copying noses for a week. Just page after page of noses. Do the same for the hard stuff like hands and feet. Get one good anatomy for artists book (there are probably hundreds) with good clear drawings and photos, and copy the pictures, including labels.

- Obviously, you will need a sketchbook and pencil set. I like medium size ones that are small enough to fit in my larger bags but not so small as to make drawing on them awkward or cramped. Buy a pencil kit that is rigid so the pencil leads won't break after you have gone to the trouble of getting a needle point. Keep a kit with you all the time made up of the following: 2H, HB and 2B pencils (that's hard, medium and soft); a soft gum eraser that you can buy at any art supply store and most stationers; a craft knife for sharpening, and an emery board wrapped in a tissue for bringing your pencil up to a very fine point. Carry these around with you all the time. You can start drawing in your book from postcards you keep tucked in the front flap. Once you have developed some skills, you can draw office chairs, cars, buildings or anything else that won't move. This will really build up your confidence. (You will be amazed what will impress onlookers too. I was doing a terrible, hashed up job of a sketch of a milk jug in a coffee shop where I was having tea. The waitress stopped and asked me where I learned to draw so well. People will love to watch you no matter how much you suck, which can be fun sometimes.)

- Funnily enough, one of the more useful things I've found is YouTube videos. There are a lot of videos of speeded up drawings. Skip all the stupid trashy nonsense of people drawing pictures of celebrities from magazine photos. As with books, also skip anything that tells you "how to draw ____". You want to learn to see and how to transfer what you are seeing to the page, for which the "technique" is always the same. Once you have learned this, it will apply to anything and everything. Apart from the volumes of rubbish, however, there are really quite a few serious artists out there making videos like this, and this. Watching videos can be surprisingly helpful. Slow them down, go back over and over the bits you think might be hard.

- Since the thing you have set yourself to learn is very difficult, and doing it without instruction is going to take longer than otherwise, get excited about the process. I have learned that the special joy of drawing is not in the creation of the finished object. In fact, I often don't care at all about the thing itself once I am done. But the doing of it, the actual drawing process, is such a huge joy, such a thrilling pleasure, that I would recommend it to anyone at any stage and for a lot of reasons. It is an activity that takes you out of yourself, out of time even, and allows your brain to work on a level that is, perhaps, related to that of spiritual ecstasy. It is an otherworldly state of mind that makes the doing of it a goal in itself. A way to escape your troubles, soothe and calm your mind that involves no drugs and won't put weight on you. I have said to Andrea many times while working in the studio that drawing (and now painting) is the thing I've done that has made me happier than any other activity.

Art instructors I trust: Kimon Nicolaides, his famous Natural Way to Draw has been in print for decades and is still a standard work. Juliette Aristides has produced a series of excellent books giving an outline of the Atelier method; and Harold Speed's Science and Practice of Drawing is also thought to be a classic.

But mostly you learn by doing it. Be brave enough to endure being bad at it for a while and you will get better. You don't have to show anyone.

More later...



Marianne said...

Hilary, you really inspired me- have been taking classical drawing classes for about five weeks now- I am totally astounded at my limited but steady progress!! Long long way to go but would never have believed that I could go beyond 'stick' men, lol. Many thanks, keep us posted on your progress.

Mark S. Abeln said...

Hilary, could you recommend any books on composition?

HJMW said...


I'm afraid I was sort of thinking of asking you the same question.

Mark S. Abeln said...

Well then.

I’ve been reading a few books on composition, none really satisfactory, and will eventually blog about what I’ve learned.

My email inbox is always open to you.

Anonymous said...


Thank you so much for remembering my questions. My internet access has lately been limited to borrowed phones on my wifi and I finally have my laptop fixed. I was surprised and delighted that you even remembered me, let alone answering so many questions I wouldn't have thought to ask.

I think my fundamental mistake was trying to paint before I was ready. I found some of my charcoal studies from when I was a teen, and they are better than my recent cartoonish efforts. It sounds like I need to go back to the fundamentals and develop an eye for shapes and for light/dark. I guess classic training is considered "classic" for a reason; it works.

This was so incredibly encouraging that you would take the time to write all this. Thank you again. Winter in Alaska is actually a good time to focus on drawing from nature. As our days grow shorter, it is easier to see the basic structures of things and the play of light and dark - if you look. I have been paying too much attention to details.

Back to my charcoals.