Thoughts on How to Improve Yourself as an Artist
I often get loads of questions about how to start drawing, getting better at drawing or how I draw things. At first, I was a bit reluctant to give any answers because I absolutely didn’t feel qualified to, but the more questions I gotten, the more my attitude toward this has changed. I think this is just the nature of our social media community. You see someone who does something you haven’t seen before, or you find someone inspiring and want to learn more about their mindset. Thus, I thought I’d talk a little about what advice I have for beginner artists who want to learn more, or just artists in general who feel a bit stuck sometimes (I certainly do). I am not by any means an authority on the subject, but I thought I’d share what has worked for me.
Draw as often as you can
This should probably go without saying, but it can be harder than you think. You work/go to school, you need to feed yourself and others, you have a million things to do before bed every night. This is life. It’s so easy to get caught up in the mundane of everyday life and be exhausted enough to not prioritize yourself. However, if you really want to get better at drawing, practicing is the only way to do it. There’s no magic to it, no cheat codes or any secret trick that someone can tell you that automatically makes you better. I know, it sucks.
So, in order to get better, try and make room for drawing as often as you can. Preferably you should draw every day, but I know that is not always possible so instead I ask you to make it a priority. Schedule in some you-time where you focus only on drawing. It might be five minutes every other day, or a couple of hours twice a week. Whatever works for you and your life. I usually always carry a sketchbook with me so that I can draw whenever I have time for it during the day. I do it while I’m on break, while commuting to/from work, while waiting for friends etc. I usually don’t have a lot of time each session, but I still do it and it makes a world of difference.
Don’t compare yourself to others
Let’s face it, we all do it. I do it. You do it. 50 years ago, you only had to be the best in your region/city/village to get recognized for your work. Now, we have the entire art world at our fingertips and even though it’s very exciting and inspiring, it can also cause severe stress and feelings of inferiority. Therefore, I really encourage you to try and not let yourself bring you down by letting the comparison to others make you feel bad. I know, you look at someone you admire and feel like crying a little because they’re just so much better than you at something you want to do. This happens all the time and it’s so easy to blame yourself for not trying harder, not starting earlier, not committing yourself fully. But the thing is: you are not them. You don’t know what they struggle with, what they have gone through or not to be where they’re at. You can only take charge of your own story. Your life, your hardships, struggles and circumstances are all things that have made you start your journey later on than they have. The only way to improve is to keep going and do the work necessary to improve and up your skill level. Don’t aspire to be someone else, just be the best version of you that you can be.
We tend to forget, but this is fundamental so I still wanted to include it. If it isn’t fun, then you’re not doing it right.
Evaluate your own work to find what weaknesses you have
I’ve talked about this before, but I thought I’d mention it again. Drawing every day to improve is important, but it’s equally important to constantly review your own work and see what mistakes you make regularly or what you struggle with. If you don’t do that, you’ll never know where to put in the extra work to get your skills to the next level. Do you suck at drawing feet (don’t we all?)? Do you struggle with getting the shading right? Do you understand the anatomy of the thigh gap? You don’t know until you critically evaluate your work. And when you’ve done that….
I really can’t stress this enough. Art studies is really the way forward. It could be anything that you’d want to improve on. Draw from life if you can, or from references, or even from other artists (but don’t forget to credit them if you ever post it online and make sure never to make any profit from it). Whatever it is you want to learn, you have to practice so that you fully understand the nature of the thing. This is generally the most boring part because it’ll look bad and you’ll get discouraged – until you don’t. With enough studied, you’ll develop new skills and that, my friends, is a great feeling.
Draw realistic drawings when practicing even though you have a stylistic style in general
I’ve touched on this before too, but it is worth mentioning again. There are so many benefits of drawing realistically when you’re doing studies unless you are imitating a style. Drawing realistically will help you understand how things look, and it’s not until you know that that you can start to make conscious design choices about what to include/exclude in your style. For example, I tend to exaggerate anatomy in a way that makes it completely unrealistic. It can be too long necks, joints that are bent wrong or other things like that. Still, I often get comments on me being good at anatomy. It’s an oxymoron. I think that the reason for this is that I do know what anatomy is supposed to look like. I know what I can do to make it look plausible even though it’s completely wrong. Don’t get me wrong, I still have A LOT to learn about it, but I’ve practiced very hard at this and the results are getting better and better because of ut.
Try as many styles and mediums as you want.
Essentially: don’t hesitate to experiment. In our world of instagram aesthetics, it’s so easy to want to stay with a certain medium or style because mixing things up will not look as aesthetically pleasing to ourselves or our audience. I find this a bit sad, because it also means that you don’t really know if you’d slay at watercolors or gouache just because you started out by drawing with ballpoint pens. From my experience, dabbling with several different mediums will transfer knowledge from one medium to another and you’ll be a better artist all around.
Find a challenge/community to encourage you and motivate you to keep working
When I first started going back to drawing in 2016, I joined up with a Facebook group called Just Draw that hosted a year long challenge based on different themes and prompts each month and day. The group consisted of artists from all genres and skill levels, some being professionals with incredible portfolios and some picking up the pen for the first time. The environment in the group was very open and welcoming. There was practically no negativity, ”constructive” criticism or competitiveness and I think that made us all relax and just have fun with it. I went all in and I learned so much from it. I built up my confidence and opened myself up to sharing things that I wasn’t 100% content with and a lot of other things that I find really useful in my everyday life as an artist. So, I warmly suggest that you find such a place for yourself. It could be a group of friends, an online community of some sort or perhaps an art class. Surrounding yourself with positivity will lead to positive experiences.
There’s this weird illusion going around out there that ”real” artists don’t use references for drawing. That is nothing short of complete bullshit. Of course you can make enough studies of something to know how to draw it without using references, but that takes a lot of time and ain’t nobody got time for that. Use references so that you know what things look like. Personally, I tend to use multiple references for one drawing to form an understanding of shape, texture and shading and then create an entirely new image based on that. I don’t like to use just one because then you tend to end up copying that particular pic and don’t understand what you’re actually drawing, but using references will make a difference for the end result. Also, if you’re practicing drawing something and really can’t seem to get it right, trace if you have to. I would not recommend doing that if you’re working on your extravagant, original masterpiece, but if you are trying to understand the planes of the face and how to shade and you can’t get it right, it’s perfectly fine to trace a reference and understand what you’re doing by copying that. As always, be mindful of the copyright, but don’t limit your art studies and yourself because someone online said that good artists don’t use references.
Don’t get too attached to your pieces, you’ll get scared
I will be the first to admit that I break this rule way too often. Something that were supposed to be a 10 minute doodle becomes a 10+ hours drawing instead. Most often, I don’t regret it because that’s just the way I am, but sometimes I get so caught up in the drawing that I overthink it and become hesitant to work on it because I’m scared of screwing it up. This can lead to me just sitting there and staring at it forever, or worry too much about how it’ll turn out. I am patiently trying to teach myself to remember that this is just one of many many drawings I’m going to do and it doesn’t really matter if it doesn’t turn out perfect. I can always make another one. Having this mindset also makes it easier for me to cope when shit happens. The cats stepping on it with dirty paws, coffee spilling all over it when you accidentally knock over your cup, ink droplets and general crap that tend to happen from time to time will get easier to cope with if you don’t get too attached. Not every drawing has to be a masterpiece.
Keep a sketchbook
I’ve already said that I keep a sketchbook with me at all times, but I want to explain why this is so awesome. If you get into the habit of carrying a sketchbook, there’s going to be a very short way from idea to sketch. All it takes is for you to take it out of your bag and jotting the idea down, either in words or as a sketch. If you don’t have the opportunity to do it as soon as you come up with it, odds are that you’re going to forget about it. It doesn’t have to be pretty or elaborate or anything, it’s mainly there to serve as a reminder for your brain that you had this awesome idea that you should develop.
I know a lot of people post beautiful pictures online of their gorgeous and elaborate sketchbook pages. I’m not that person. I do have a ”pretty” one where I collect scraps from other sketchbooks that I want to keep safe, but mainly my sketchbooks look like jumbled messes of non-coherent scribbles. No joke. I tear at the pages, I spill coffee on it, I get dirt on it from putting it on the ground or carrying it around in a dirty backpack. But it’s there and it helps me to think with my pens. If carefully planned pages filled with gorgeous work is your thing, you should absolutely do that, but you don’t have to. It’s a tool, not a pressure point. It’s supposed to get you into the habit of thinking with your pen, and getting used to always see sketching as a resource as well as a thing you can do at all hours of the day. And as a last tip: if blank pages intimidate you, start in the middle. It helps.
Do it because you love it.