There is a formula to improve your drawing skills… the question is:
are you using it?!
Much of western culture has no training or education that promotes art skills or art theory or even art history in our curriculum. I’m not surprised so many people think you have to be “naturally” inclined in the subject matter for you to become skillful in the arts. Unfortunately, this holds many people back from their curiosity and interest in the arts. And this is completely false.
I’ve used my resources and experience as an art teacher, artist and research conducted by Anders Ericsson on expertise to design my own formula artists can use to consciously build their drawing skill.
Feel free to break down this content any way that works for you. I have set it up to create a mini challenge for yourself with 7 separate parts, but trust that inner artist if she feels called to work through this formula in another way.
Either way be sure you use #DrawingDrills so other participants can easily find you. I run this activity year round, so there is no such thing as starting late or being behind!
Part One: Why most artists plateau in their skill.
The first piece of our skill building puzzle is something that makes a lot of people cringe, which is the real reason why so many plateau in their skill.
The very first quality Anders Ericsson outlines in his research on developing expertise is: well-defined, specific goals.
You must have a goal.
I have received emails about goals and SO much negative feedback about requiring and encouraging artists to set goals for themselves. Why? The truth of the matter is some of you are scared to set a goal because if you create it you can fail to reach it.
Goals don’t have to be a set in stone commitment. Goals can be as big or as small as you decide AND goals can evolve and change over time.
Reaching for goals means you are aiming for something. Even if you don’t reach your goal, you will improve and be better at your art. Isn’t that the whole point?!
I’ve received emails telling me that “my goals are private.” This is another way to set yourself up to never improve your skills. Saying them out loud even only to a friend will make you more accountable and help you follow through.
I really encourage you to take a leap and share your goal in an even more public way. Tell us about your goal using #DrawingDrills.
But first: how do you create a well-defined, specific goal for your drawing ability?
Here’s my advice:
Choose something that you care about.
- For example, a measure of success in the arts for me has ALWAYS including being able to capture the likeness of different people. This means I should choose my drawing goal to be about portraits and people.
Then keep making it specific.
- How else can you narrow it down? I could choose to focus on drawing from life or drawing from photo reference.
- What medium will you work in? I will only work in pencil. Or blue ink.
- How much time will you spend on this activity? I will spend 15 minutes a day working on portraits from photo reference with pencil.
Keep narrowing it down until you can’t think of another way to describe or break down your goal.
Part Two: How to measure your growth.
I want you to do something called a “baseline assessment.” It’s education-speak that means I want you to create a “BEFORE” drawing.
If you really want to know if you have made improvements in your skill you need to have something you’ve drawn to compare to before you implement all of these strategies.
You can choose a baseline in a couple of ways:
- Print it out and draw it to scale. I highly encourage you to print it out to fit an A4 or letter sized image and draw it on the same sized paper.
- Try to match the image’s size as you draw it accurately.
- Give yourself one hour with a timer to draw it as best as you can. Very few, if anyone, will be able to complete the drawing in an hour. That is OKAY. That isn’t the point.
This is what it looks like:
(2) Choose an image that speaks to your specific goal in Part one.
- For example, since portraits are my jam, I could select an image of a super challenging portrait.
- You can define challenging by how scary it feels to try it OR make it measurable.
- For portraits, 3/4 views are some of the hardest to do, so this could be a requirement of my baseline.
- You can find royalty free images you can choose from here.
Once you choose how you will create your baseline it’s time to make some art. Set aside one hour and get drawing!
Please note: Even if you have to slow down this formula and take longer to complete it, be sure you make the time to create your baseline.
Without the baseline, you really have no sense of the improvement you’ve created for yourself.
Don’t move ahead to Part Three until you complete this step. This is SUPER important for your success in the challenge.
Part Three: Practice makes progress.
The second quality Ericsson describes in his formula for becoming an expert is to “Puts baby steps together to reach a longer term goal.”
Once you have a specific goal, which we talked about in Part One, you need to break down the goal into baby steps:
What can you do in those 15 minutes every day to work towards your goal?
For me, one step could be selecting an image reference for each day of the activity. Or, it could be setting up a workspace, or a sketchbook for me to use for my practice.
Choose one of the steps and get started. Draw, draw, draw. Remember: practice makes progress.
Part Four: Why is mindfulness important?
If you aren’t focused, you aren’t going to see the growth in skill you hope to achieve. Focus is another trait or quality Ericsson found shared by his “experts.”
Sitting down to draw for 15 minutes and daydreaming about what to have for dinner is very different than setting a timer for 15 minutes and being super intent and committed to seeing the values in the eyes, nose and mouth of the image you are working on today.
Focus is everything for you to build your skill.
THIS is part of why people sometimes see ebb and flow in their skill development.
There are periods of time where artists will see jumps in their skill and other times where they practice and practice but don’t see any change or improvement.
These plateaus happen, in part, because we don’t remain focused. That’s another reason I created a free challenge called Drawing Drills. And my program based on these steps is called Better Drawing Bootcamp. Building our skill isn’t always fun. It takes discipline and focus, which means committing to drawing activities or practice that stops feeling fun because some things are just really hard.
It always feels good when you reach the next level, though. And that’s what keeps you coming back for more!
Work on one of your steps today and make it ALL about the focus.
For this formula, you might realize working on noses, or ears, or the value in your landscape drawing is ALL you can focus on for the rest of the challenge. THIS IS GREAT! Talk about a well-defined, specific goal! If you know this is your major weakness, then use your time to commit to this. It means you may also want to revisit your baby steps if you want to commit only to “noses.”
Part Five: The thing artists avoid but need
Another reason artists can plateau is that you MUST have feedback to improve your skill. And LOADS of artists hold fear around sharing their work.
For example, even when I had 2000 plus people in the FB community, only a handful of artists really participate and share their art regularly in the group. Lots of artists choose ONLY to share their finished works, too. I believe it’s because of this fear of sharing. And we are scared to share because, well, what if we aren’t actually any good?!
Irony moment: you certainly won’t get better if you can’t get feedback on the techniques you are using. So by not sharing our work, we hold ourselves back from growing. We create a plateau in our skill development.
The only way to have continued, focused, practice is by learning what you struggle with, and what you need to keep practicing or develop more.
For example, if I am constantly struggling with creating shadows for noses, one of my new steps I need to add to move towards my goal would require time focused on this one activity.
In order to receive the best feedback, you need to always have teachers who are ahead of you. And this isn’t just about the skill, it’s about a teacher’s knowledge of learning the skill.
This will mean at some point you might up level and need a new teacher. That’s okay too. But we can all, always benefit from teachers.
Today we are pretty lucky: teachers are more accessible than ever. You can find teachers everywhere: on Youtube, in local art classes, your public library and in spaces like Artist Strong. It’s up to you to find a teacher you will can help you find those mistakes so you can have focused practice on those areas to grow!
Note: if sharing is just too scary for you. There ARE ways we can individually help ourselves improve our skill. And we should use these whenever we are drawing! A few include:
- Flipping your work upside down or sideways to see it with free eyes (and orient your photo reference in this new way)
- Draw a grid on your drawing and paper (lightly so you can erase it later) to help you compare proportions
- Take a photo of the work and look at the photo
- Squint your eyes
- Step back and look at it from far away
Part Six: Why comfortable is playing small
Here is the one reason Ericsson argues lots of people stop improving their skill in their discipline of choice. To improve your skill, you MUST expand outside of your comfort zone. Guess what people, this means Improving your skill is UNCOMFORTABLE.
There are lots of ways to expand outside of your comfort zone. YOU know what it feels like when you feel challenged. Well, this is an integral ingredient for you to improve your drawing ability.
If you always choose easy things to work on, you will plateau in your ability as an artist. This is okay if you are satisfied to be where you are. However, you are here reading this so I have a good feeling you want more from your art.
Here are 3 ideas for expanding outside of your comfort zone:
- Choose challenging images or still life setups
- Set a timer for a little bit less time than you normally give yourself
- Draw in public
Part Seven: How to assess progress
While this is part seven I hope you see that the steps I’ve outlined for you is about A LOT more than a single blog post or formula. This can literally be a strategy you use for ANY art skill you wish to develop, for the REST OF YOUR LIFE.
If choose to do one part each day 7 days isn’t a huge amount of drawing time but I have seen students make great strides by committing daily to at least 15 minutes of focused practice while applying this formula. You can and will see improvement in your specific (noses, anyone?), well-defined goal.
So this part is when you return back to that baseline assessment. Try drawing from that photo reference again, with only 1 hour on the timer. Let’s see how much you improve!
Taking it to the next level
Having a teacher guide you and feedback from teachers and peers is an integral part of this formula. This is why I created Drawing Drills, a FREE 7 day challenge.
In it, you will apply the specific, science-based formula I use to help students improve their drawing ability.
Each day receive a drawing task that will help you develop your own formula to improve your art skill. You CAN draw faster. You CAN draw from your imagination. Learn how –> sign up to get stArted!