You want to be a good artist. You practice a lot, you follow tutorials and watch videos, you analyze the art of others… but you don't seem to progress at all. You work so hard, and yet you can’t see the improvement you were hoping for. “Maybe it’s just not for me," you’re thinking, “maybe I’m wasting my time”.
I believe there are other possible reasons. You may simply be making mistakes in your learning! Misconceptions, unproductive practice… Once you remove these obstacles, you’ll see yourself improve much faster. So what kind of obstacles may there be?
1. Unrealistic Expectations
Whenever we desire something, it’s based on a vision of satisfaction we’ll feel once we get it. When you’re looking at a great artwork, you imagine how amazing it would feel to draw something like this. That feeling is what you pursue when you start learning how to draw.
The problem is, you cannot satisfy this desire right away. You want the emotion of drawing an artwork that is based on highly developed artistic skills, and those can’t be achieved overnight. So you have a desire to be able to draw something great, here and now. That’s what you want. And what do you get instead, when you draw? A bad drawing. A proof of poor skills. The artwork of a child.
Because of this, every session of drawing inevitably leads to frustration. You want a certain feeling, and you get the opposite of it every time you try. You may know, consciously, that it takes time to learn, but it doesn’t stop you from feeling like a failure.
It always strikes me as odd that drawing is treated differently than other skills. When you sit at the piano for the first time, you don’t expect you’ll play like Mozart right away. When you sit behind the wheel for the first time, you don’t really dream of winning a race that day. When you want to cook something on your own for the first time, you don’t expect a restaurant-quality dish.
In all these cases, you expect failure. You know you’ll fail, and it doesn’t matter. You may even laugh when it happens, because beginner mistakes are often funny! Yet when you want to draw your first drawing, you take it completely seriously. You feel as if everyone expected good results from you on the first try. As if you were only allowed to draw if you were already good at it.
And still, drawing is a skill like everything else. You are bad on your first try, when you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re not much better on your second try, because you’re still getting a grasp of it. You’re getting a little better with every other try, but you still seem like a child in comparison to someone more experienced. And this is normal!
The desire to be good, to feel that amazing satisfaction of creating a perfect artwork, makes you impatient. You want the destination, but not the journey. And the slower the journey seems, the worse you feel—because that’s not what you wanted at all!
To become a good artist, you need to lower your expectations first. You need to learn how to think in a more productive way; to put less focus on your desire (the goal), and more on the process (the way). Here’s an exercise that may help you discover your unrealistic expectations and replace them with something more productive.
Write a list of your expectations about your drawing. Even if they sound ridiculous as you write them, write them anyway. It will feel good to give them some rational judgment! Some examples:
- Every next drawing of mine should be better than the previous one.
- Bad drawings are worthless.
- When I draw a bad drawing, it means I suck.
- I’m supposed to be good at drawing.
- I’m supposed to learn quickly.
Now, look at these statements. Are you sure they are true? What if they aren’t? Counter each one with something more realistic.
Every next drawing of mine should be better than the previous one—I don’t learn in a perfectly linear way, like a computer. Sometimes I practice one thing, sometimes another. I experiment a lot, which means sometimes I get better results, and sometimes worse. I may also forget what I learned and make an old mistake again. This is normal, because I’m a human, not a learning machine.
- Bad drawings are worthless—Bad drawings are a normal byproduct of learning. You can’t get better without being bad first. I need to create bad drawings to learn from them. I wouldn’t know what I need to improve at if I didn’t do it wrong first.
- When I draw a bad drawing, it means I suck—When I draw a bad drawing, it means I’m not good at drawing yet (like many people, who are so afraid of this fact that they don't even try!). Everyone is bad at something, and it doesn’t mean we all suck! And I'm doing something to improve, which is already something I can be proud of.
- I’m supposed to be good at drawing—Nobody is supposed to be good at anything. I want to be able to draw nice things, but there’s no obligation for every drawing person to produce pretty art only. If someone believes otherwise, it’s their problem, not mine.
- I’m supposed to learn quickly—Everyone has different learning capabilities. If I learn slowly, it doesn’t mean I’m lazy or not good enough. It’s just my personal pace and I shouldn't compare it to anyone else’s, because we’re all different.
Don’t they sound better now? And it’s not as if you're pretending that reality is different just to feel better. Reality looks exactly like this once you strip it of ridiculously high expectations.
You may be afraid that you’ll work less hard once you stop pressing yourself with high expectations. Maybe it’s true. But why work hard, if that only makes you unhappy? Less pressure will give you more satisfaction here and now. You’ll be able to draw more for the fun of the journey and less for the desire of reaching the destination. You may never reach the goal, but you’ll take satisfaction from your drawing here and now—and that’s better than drawing for the sake of being good.
2. Aversion to Learning
The myth of talent is responsible for making the lives of many beginner artists harder than necessary. You may be one of them—you may believe that a great artist draws everything from imagination, without any aids. They never use a reference, they never follow tutorials, because then they could—gasp!—use a technique developed by someone else. And that’s cheating.
When you believe that art is created to achieve the praise and admiration of others, it becomes a serious business. For example, if you admired an artwork, and then it turned out to be traced, then your admiration has been stolen, in a way. You praised the artist for the skills they didn’t have, so they got your praise for free! Filthy cheater...
This way of thinking creates a scale of “praise-worthiness” of art:
- Artwork created from imagination, quickly, without thinking
- Artwork created from imagination, but with visible effort
- Artwork created from a reference/references
- Artwork created from a tutorial
- Artwork traced from a photo/other artwork
Of course, this scale doesn’t include the quality of the artwork. It just describes how hard it was to create the piece. You can actually think of it as the “difficulty level” of drawing. It’s easy to be successful at the lowest level, and lack of success can be justified when you play at the highest level.
Drawing from a reference is certainly easier. You can simply copy what you see, without even knowing what it is, and make it look super realistic. When you draw from imagination/memory, you need to imagine everything yourself—a natural pose, perspective, correct anatomy, details, the way the light hits all the surfaces... So, obviously, this way of drawing deserves more admiration.
But it's admiration towards the skill achieved through thousands of hours of practice. These great artists aren't simply born with a knowledge of "natural poses, perspective, correct anatomy, details, and the way the light hits the surfaces". They must have practiced it, and using references is the fastest, most effective way of practicing.
It's counterproductive to keep drawing the same thing over and over, waiting for the mistakes to stop occurring. You can just find a photo of the thing you're trying to draw and see what you're doing wrong. Just like that. It's not like using a cheat sheet during an exam—it's more like using the textbook while learning!
If you think about it, trying to draw something you've never practiced and hoping it will be as great as the works of experienced artists makes you seem really arrogant. They had to learn, but you are supposed to be good without learning. Because learning is cheating.
Drawings created from imagination do not come from the inside—they come from the outside, just in the past. Even when you draw without a reference, you're still using a lot of inner references—your memories. Avoiding references is like saying: "I am only allowed to use the memories I've gathered unconsciously; it would be cheating to create new ones consciously."
Treat drawing like every other skill, not like some mysterious ability you can only discover in yourself. Do your cats have the wrong proportions? Analyze photos of cats to find some rules you can utilize. Your drawing is perfect, except for the head of the creature? Find photos similar to it and see what you're doing wrong. You will stop using references when you stop needing them, in a natural way. Giving up on them before that is like throwing away your textbook, because you believe that its content is already somewhere in your mind!
3. No Planning
This is another issue coming directly from the belief in talent, and drawing as a skill coming from within. You practice drawing by… drawing. You draw a lot. You’re very creative, and you try to create something new each time. You put a lot of effort into each artwork, and you believe that this is all it takes—the more effort you put, the better the art.
But despite this belief, it doesn’t seem to work. Your progress is unbelievably slow. You see people around you improving so fast—so what’s wrong with you?
Again, drawing is a skill that you learn. It’s not hidden in you, just like the ability to play the Moonlight Sonata is not hidden in you. You can’t just press random keys on the piano, waiting for the whole song to be played. And you can’t just draw random things and hope that each new drawing will be somehow closer to your dream than the previous one.
You can’t learn if every “lesson” is supposed to end with a masterpiece. If everything you draw is meant to be published and praised, you put too much effort into making it look good, instead of learning. Yes, your goal is to create good drawings. But you can’t create them without drawing a lot of bad sketches first. You don’t need to publish everything you draw, so don’t worry about others.
Learning requires planning and a lot of thinking. Don’t draw chaotically, waiting to achieve a general drawing skill in the process. Decide what you want to learn, and find out how to learn it. Then… learn. Draw a lot, but draw purposefully. Think about what you’re doing, don’t just observe it happen. Search for rules, something you can memorize and use later. Test these rules, and modify them if needed. Make the learning active.
It doesn’t mean you should stop drawing for fun. Just don’t make every drawing of yours, be it a sketch or a study, a publish-worthy piece. From time to time, create a finished, fully rendered artwork. And see the progress really happening between them.
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- How to Learn to Draw: Stage Four, StyleMonika Zagrobelna31 May 2018
4. Too Much Planning
OK, so you know well that drawing must be learned, so you learn it. You’re an ambitious student and you approach it seriously. You follow tutorials, sketch studies, watch videos of other artists. You read motivational articles and watch video lectures about drawing. Not a day passes by without you learning about drawing.
And it’s great, but there’s a trap waiting along the way. Articles and videos from experienced artists are a great source of motivation and confidence. When reading/listening to them, you feel as if your skill is growing passively. So you keep searching for more: “5 secrets of great drawing”, “10 habits of every successful artist”, “1 trick that makes drawing easier”. It feels like learning, but without any effort!
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not being hypocritical here—I’ve written this article, after all. But when you catch yourself watching another “10 things every good artist does” instead of actually doing it, you are not productive. You’re not working towards your goal. It only feels productive, but the articles and videos will give you nothing unless you actually follow the advice from them.
Another side of this issue is the constant search for more tips, more groundbreaking techniques you’ve never heard about. Instead of spending a lot of time and effort on learning how to draw something, you browse the Internet in search of some brilliant technique that will make it all easier at once. This is dangerous, too, because you feel productive when doing it.
Tutorials and guides are really helpful, but they’re just aids. You can’t use them in place of actual practice. No matter how obvious some technique sounds, you need to practice it on your own to make it stick. Reading a whole book about drawing will not make you a good artist. Spending an hour on Pinterest browsing visual tutorials will not make your drawings better. Scrolling through a step-by-step tutorial will only give you a seeming sense of understanding.
Only drawing can make you better at drawing. And while it’s unproductive to draw without any preparation, too much preparation is just as bad. Go on, watch that video, read that article. And then... draw!
5. Comparing to the Best
Most of us get to drawing inspired by great artists. It’s not only Old Masters anymore—in this digital era we don’t have to visit a gallery anymore to see professional art; it’s simply everywhere. Moreover, we can watch videos of these great artists painting, stroke by stroke, as if it was so easy. This is your goal, this is who you want to be. To get only speechless admiration from your fans, to be above critique.
Seeing the art of great artists is really inspiring, but it may also break your spirit. This goal seems so distant, so unattainable… why even bother? Especially since you can’t draw anything even 5% as good. Your greatest efforts look like childish scribbles next to these masters. They are able to produce a masterpiece sketch in 20 seconds from imagination, and you can’t produce anything half as good in 20 hours, even with a reference.
Yes, they certainly seem like gods. But they are humans, like you and me. You observe them after they have reached their destination, but you don’t know anything about their journey there. So when you compare yourself to them, you compare your current point of your journey to their destination—and this will always give you frustration.
Every artist had to start somewhere. Every artist starts as a scribbling child, then draws a lot of bad drawings, then some more decent drawings, and after thousands of hours spent on active practice they finally reach the state you observe them in. You, with your mere hundred hours or less behind you, look at them and think: “Why, oh why, can’t I be as good as them?”
You certainly can. But you can’t magically teleport to that state. They have reached it with hours of hard work, and so must you. Don’t ignore their experience just because you can’t see it; don’t ascribe it all to mystical talent. This isn’t only unfair—it also makes your journey seem harder than anyone else’s, and strips you of motivation to work hard.
You don’t know their journey and you can’t imagine it. You can’t compare yourself to them, and you can’t estimate how good you should be at some age, or after a certain number of hours. Your journey is your own, and it doesn’t have anything to do with theirs. You may go to a similar destination, but each of you takes their own path. And trying to catch up with someone who’s set off much earlier than you (and is still walking!) will only exhaust you.
The only healthy, honest way to judge your progress is to compare yourself... to yourself. You can see how much distance you’ve walked by comparing your position to where you were the last time. Not by comparing your position to the position of someone you’re following.
Keep your drawings, even if they’re bad. Date them all for future reference. Whenever you feel bad, because you’re still not as good as someone thousands of hours ahead of you, look behind. Check your old works. You may be surprised how quickly you take certain abilities for granted!
Take your time, walk your path. It takes thousands of hours to get good at anything; there’s no shortcut. Some people are already there, but it’s simply because they did what you still have to do. Admire their work and take it as a reminder of what hours of practice may lead to, but don’t wish to become like them magically. They are not special, and neither are you. They got there because of their hard work—and so must you.
6. Changing Mediums Constantly
“Drawing” has a very broad meaning. A set of lines engraved in a stone is a drawing. A piece of line art sketched with a ballpoint pen is a drawing. A fully shaded portrait drawn with graded pencils is a drawing. A digital sketch colored with digital tools is a drawing. You could also mix mediums to create something between a drawing and painting—for example, to color a sketch with watercolors. There are so many possibilities!
And each possibility requires a slightly different set of skills. The difference between creating line art and shading is especially big. So you may believe that if you can’t achieve spectacular effects with one tool/technique, it’s time to try something else.
There’s nothing wrong with experimenting, trying to find what you’re the most comfortable with, but you must be aware that every tool must be learned. You will never find some magical tool that will solve all your problems right away. If you can’t draw a line the way you intend, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the pencil is too rough or the paper is too smooth—usually it means your hand is not trained yet. And it will not be trained until you spend some time with one medium.
This problem is especially visible in young artists who can’t afford a graphics tablet. Being surrounded by digital art with its dark, crisp lines and vivid colors, they blame their “normal” tools for their poor results. If they only could use the Undo command. Or select and resize some part that turned out wrong. Or erase and fix some line without a trace. This would make it all so much easier!
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But easier doesn’t mean better. Finding a way to cover up your weaknesses doesn’t make you stronger—fighting them does. Do you struggle to draw a line intentionally? Work as long as necessary to solve this problem. Don’t search for some other tool that will make it easier. Don’t jump from one tool to another just because you saw some great artwork created with something you haven’t used yet. Every tool is capable of creating great artworks. You just need to spend enough time with it to master it.
7. Irregular Practice
You have a sort of love-hate relationship with drawing. There are days when you draw like crazy, follow tutorials, watch motivational videos, open social media profiles for your art. And then something happens—you see some amazing artwork that you know you’ll never be able to draw, you get a comment from a hater, you get disappointed with your progress—and you lose your spirit.
You stop drawing for a while. Your social media profiles get empty. Your fans forget about you. And then you get inspired by someone, something. You come back, you work even harder than before… but it doesn’t stay this way for long. Because you still don’t seem to get any better!
Or maybe you like drawing, actually, but you can never give it enough attention. You draw something today, follow some tutorials, practice a technique for a week… And then something more important happens in your life. You would like to draw, but you just can’t find time. It can wait, you think. Just one more week and I’ll come back to it. But when you do, you discover you’ve lost all your progress. It all went to waste!
Our brains are not perfect. Our memory is not like the hard drive of a computer—you can’t put something there and save it forever. Each memory has a kind of path leading to it; the more you walk it, the easier it is to get there. And if you stop, it will get overgrown with bushes and you may never find the way again.
That’s why repetition is the key to learning. You can’t practice something for a whole day and expect it will stay with you forever. If you don’t use it soon after, your brain will think it’s not important and it will be scrapped. You must retrieve the information you want to save for longer from time to time to keep it retrievable. Learning is not about studying like crazy for one day—it’s about regular practice.
These thousands of hours of practice required to be good at something can’t happen all at once. We need breaks, time to consolidate the knowledge. It happens even when we sleep! So practicing for half an hour every day will give you much more than spending the whole weekend on tutorials and then forgetting about them for the whole week.
Don’t wait for that perfect time when you can finally practice in peace for as long as you wish. Find that 15 or 30 minutes during the day between preparing the dinner and waiting for the pasta to cook, between tidying up and watching TV as your evening ritual. Mere minutes every day are better than hours once in a blue moon.
8. Drawing for Others
When you admire a great artwork of someone else, admiration for the skills is only a part of that feeling. You may also feel jealous—not for the skill, but for the admiration of others.
It feels great to be praised for your hard work. When other people acknowledge your efforts, you feel proud and so much more confident! But there’s also another side of this coin. When others say bad things about your art, you feel belittled, ashamed, even worthless, despite being satisfied with your work a moment earlier.
Linking your self-worth to the quality of your art is a dangerous thing. Yes, being good at something does wonders to one’s self-confidence, but if it means that you feel worthless until you get any good, then it’s really counterproductive.
When people judge your art, they don’t judge your worth. They only judge your skill. It’s you who makes these two things mean the same. And this is a very dangerous thing. When you believe that the praise of others is a proof of your worth, then you must do everything to satisfy them. You can only draw what they like and never show them any mistakes. You can never experiment, lest you disappoint them. You become a seller of the product they want, and they pay you with attention.
Is there anything wrong with it, if both sides are happy? It depends. If you really like drawing the same fan art over and over again, because you enjoy it just like your fans, then it’s totally fine. But if you feel like a slave, you’re tired of drawing that popular thing/style all the time, and yet you’re afraid of trying anything new… Then this is the time to break from it.
Remember that you don’t really want to have any fans. You want to have fans of your art. You may think you want to draw what they like, but you actually want them to like what you draw. You should be your biggest, most important fan ever. Your opinion should have a priority above the opinions of others. Even if a thousand people say they don’t like your art, it doesn’t matter at all as long as you like it. Because it’s yours, and you know the best what it’s supposed to look like.
But remember: they are allowed to have their own opinions as well. If they don’t like something you like, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong and you’re right. Opinions can’t be right or wrong; you can only share them or not. Smile over the comments you don’t agree with. If they offer some advice, you can use it. If not, then let them go—you can’t and don’t really need to please everyone, after all.
Perfectionism is usually seen as simply a part of personality. I prefer to call it a disorder. When you suffer from perfectionism, you have a distorted view of your own achievements. No matter how well you do, you’re never satisfied—because you could always do better. You don’t even believe others, when they praise you. They're only trying to be nice, you think. Or they have no idea about drawing.
No matter how much progress you make, it’s invisible for you. You’ve only learned what you were supposed to know long ago, after all! In the mind of a perfectionist, working to be better at something is not like climbing a mountain, but like digging out of a hole in the ground. For a perfectionist being the best is simply a default state. So it’s a source of shame to be “not good enough”.
You may still see some good in this approach. Perfectionists tend to work very hard, don’t they? So they have a bigger chance of reaching that goal. The problem is, a perfectionist doesn’t take any satisfaction in what they do. They’re under constant pressure to do better and better, which may give them progress, but robs them of any reward for it. To use a metaphor, perfectionists work, but they don’t earn any money—they pay off a debt.
I don’t have any special cure for perfectionism, but I can give you advice. You must be aware that this is all in your head. It doesn’t mean you can control it, or that it’s your fault—it simply means that there are no outer consequences for failing your expectations. Only inner ones. It hurts, but it won’t kill you.
You have a belief that a mistake is something to be ashamed of. Try to replace it, actively, with a more rational view: “I’m a human, and humans make mistakes. I can learn from mistakes”. And make them! If you’re afraid of starting a picture because you don’t know how to draw it right, try to draw it wrong intentionally. Have fun with it, play with art!
Do you expect others to be great at drawing, too? If not, why treat yourself differently? What makes you so special? You are the only person who expects you should be great at everything you do. Tell that person to shut up, at least for a moment every day. And make that moment longer and longer with time. You’re not special. You’re like everyone. And everyone is bad at many things. Allow yourself to be like everyone!
10. Seeing Realism as the Only Style That Matters
Art, in the most popular meaning, is about creating a copy of reality in some medium. There’s supposed to be some meaning in the lines you draw, something that can be recognized. And of course, the easier it is to recognize it, the better. There’s nothing worse than an artwork that’s supposed to be realistic, but fails.
When you’re a declared fan of realism, you don’t believe in compromise. Realism is the only style that matters, it’s the peak of artistic creation. Everything else is lacking. A line art sketch may look cool, but it will never be as cool as a photorealistic pencil portrait.
In the olden times, drawing/painting was supposed to “record” reality as accurately as possible. There simply wasn’t any other way. So perfect realism was the goal most of the time, because it fulfilled the purpose of art. Today we have cameras, and they are more perfect than any artist. Infinitely faster, too. And when we want to copy a photo, we have copy machines. It’s unbelievably easy to capture reality 100% realistically these days.
Because of this, realism (or photo realism) became simply art for art’s sake. You draw realistically, because you want to prove yourself/others that you can, and nothing else. Realistic art isn’t innately worth more than other drawings anymore. It’s the default style—but not the only one.
Being a good artist doesn’t mean that you can draw 100% realistically. It simply means that you can draw intentionally. That you know what you want to draw and you can draw it exactly this way. When you draw something inaccurately, it’s not a mistake, because this was your intention. You play with reality to include non-visual elements of it, and the way you do it in creates your own, personal style.
If realism was the goal, then all the best artists would draw identically. Perfectly, but identically. When you stylize an artwork, you make it your own. You make it more than realistic. You put a piece of your heart in it, a piece of your soul. And instead of presenting your fans something they could see in a photo, you show them something they could never see without you. This, in my opinion, is the real point of art!
But how can you tell having a style from having a defensive “my style!!!”? It’s all about intention. If you have one specific outcome in mind, and it turns out differently, it's a mistake. If you know what's realistic, and you make it unrealistic on purpose, it's not a mistake. So the purpose, not an accident, should create that deviation from realism.
It’s important to study realism, because that’s what we recognize. If you want to picture a lion, you must know what lion looks like if you want others to recognize it. Once you know what is considered realistic, you can intentionally replace some elements of it with something of your own. And then you won’t be a slave of realism anymore!
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Drawing, like every other skill, is simple on the surface, and very complex under it. And because so many people still believe it’s a skill we can only be born with, it’s not easy for a person to learn how to draw. I hope this article addressed some of your concerns, and that you feel more confident about your abilities now. If you still have some unsolved issues with drawing, please write a comment—I’ll be happy to help!
And if this article made you want to draw something, but you're not sure what, why not try some of our simple tutorials for beginners?
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