1. Design & Illustration
  2. Theory

What's Your Excuse? Why Can't You Draw?


You've tried so many times. You've looked at some amazing piece of art and felt this heat in your heart, only to get a few scrappy lines when trying to do the same. Finally you gave up. Let's be honest, you don't have talent! Or a tablet. Or better manual skills. But do you really need it all?

I Don't Have Talent

"I wish I had your talent!" Sounds familiar, eh? You've probably said it a lot of times to someone who impressed you. Please, don't! It's not a compliment, it's an insult! What the artist may hear when you say it is, "I don't care how many hours you have spent developing your skills, I'm jealous that you were given good genes that I wasn't lucky enough to get." Or, more bluntly, "I'd be as good as you if only I was born with good genes." In other words, you keep saying to people who impress you that they haven't done anything on their own!


"I'm so jealous you were born with natural talent and didn't need to learn anything"

What Is Talent Then?

You can go anywhere. Using a bike or a car would take you there faster, but still, you'll reach the destination sooner or later. Having talent is like having a car. It's a catalyst, something that's accelerating the process of learning. Having a car doesn't imply you'll reach your goal—it'll just make it easier.

People with natural talent have been encouraged to draw since they were able to hold a pencil. Parents and teachers saw something promising in their childish scribbles, and every praise is a motivational boost to a child. These scribbles weren't really "epic", nor were they "beautiful". Probably a teacher could see what was drawn there without any explanation, and that was enough. Enough to keep a child drawing more and more! When the other children found games they thought were better than smearing paper with graphite, that child kept on drawing. And then, years later, you both meet. This person can draw a photo-realistic portrait in a few hours, and you can only draw a stick man That's right, your skills haven't developed since kindergarten! Now ask yourself, why?

So It's Too Late, I Should Have Started When I Was a Kid

It's said you need seven years to perfect a skill. All these talented kids have it already (or almost) behind them, but you still have a lot of time too! Good news is you can now collect all the proof of your progress, use tutorials on the Internet and get feedback from other artists—you're not a kid anymore, so you can really plan it! And stop asking artists how long it took them to get to that level. You'll just use their answer to tell yourself that it's too late for you to try.

"hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard" - Tim Notke

But I Can't Even Draw a Stick Figure!

What does that mean? You're not allowed to? Your hand stops responding when you touch the paper? You're probably trying to say it doesn't look right. So, again, what does that mean? What exactly is the "right way" to draw a stick figure?


I Mean, a Terrible Stick Figure Is All I Can Draw. Are You Happy Now?

Totally! Because a stick figure is all you need to start out. Every human drawing starts with a stick figure. That's what drawing mannequins are for - you create a pose, draw a stick figure and then use your anatomy knowledge to make it look like a real human.

The evolution of a stick man

Anatomy Knowledge? Yeah, Sure...

But hey, nobody was born with it! Every talented child had to learn it to draw these epic concept arts you adore. And learning is something you can do without any talent - you read books and practice, as always. So, manual skills needed to draw a stick man + anatomy knowledge = human drawing.

My humble collection of anatomy resources. No, they didn't come with free talent.

My Hands Are Just So Clumsy

Use your feet or mouth then. Everything can be trained to make marks on a paper. And then, with time and practice, these marks will start to resemble something. Don't believe me? Check out the work of Larime Taylor, a disabled artist who draws with his mouth. This guy had a story to tell, and his health condition didn't stop him! If you have fully functional hands, what can stop you?

If My Hands Are OK, Why Don't My Drawings Resemble Anything Real?

It's not about your hands. All these talented artists draw exactly the same lines as you. The only difference is they know where to put the lines. It's about the way you look at things. Have you ever wondered why children draw a stick man when they want to draw a human? Because they see simplified shapes. Everything can be converted into simplified shapes for easier representation. The problem is sometimes you've got simplified shapes stuck in your mind the way you saw them when you were a child. A head is a circle, eyes are ovals, a cat's ears are triangles and a human is made of five sticks.

It's a good point of view, but only for the start. You need to see more. Look at a tree as if you saw it for the first time. It's not really made of two elements, is it? You'll notice the irregular shape of leaf clusters, the way that branches bend, that a tree's trunk isn't really straight, and that, actually, a tree is made of many little trees. Now you'll never draw a stick with a green cloud on the top again!


But I Can't Even Draw a Straight Line!

Neither can I. Seriously, we use a ruler for these things. And if your lines are really shaky, you're probably drawing in the wrong direction. Go ahead and draw a few wavy lines in every direction, from top to bottom, from left to right, across the paper and so on. Check and see what makes your hand relaxed, and when it takes slightly more effort to draw a line. There is a reason all my characters are heading left. It just feels more comfortable!


But Every Tutorial Starts With a Circle, and I Can't Draw Them Without a Compass

Actually, you're never supposed to draw a perfect circle. It would be pointless, since a circle is just a base for the rest of the picture, and it's usually erased afterwards. You're not an architect! A lot of people think artists draw a full picture from memory, with every line being perfect from the start. The problem is you only see the final draft of a picture. No messy lines, everything clean and perfect. You don't know about the guide lines, about all the corrections, mistakes and whatever the artists did before they finished it. There's an illusion the picture looked like this from the start. Then you try to draw it like this and end up frustrated.


Be messy! There's a long journey from a sketch to a final picture, and you're allowed to make a whole bunch of mistakes at every level of drawing. Don't push your pencil, don't draw long lines, touch the paper very lightly, learn to draw with your hand relaxed. That's the first step to leaving stick figures behind.

A circle is a visual average of all the short arcs

I Know Exactly What I Want to Draw, but My Proportions Are Always Off

This is a very serious problem. You know how to sketch simple lines, you learnt how to see, but then nothing looks as it should. How you can fix it? For a start, stop drawing complicated things until you overcome this problem. Just forget about them for a moment. Learn to measure simple things with your eyes - see where you can place guide lines to restrain the proportions. And really learn it before coming back to faces or whole bodies.

Learn to see proportions where there seem to be none

I Can't Afford a Graphics Tablet

And if you could, you'd draw epic, colorful landscapes, right? You could use layers and Control-Z away any mishaps, so there would be no fatal mistakes, and that would be like having all painting tools in one! And all these digital brushes... You can just download a cloud brush, click a few times and there you go! Or a fur brush. No more drawing hair by hair, just a few smudges and it's done! Ahh, it's so cool to be a digital artist...

Wrong. OK, it's really cool to be a digital artist, no arguments there, but first you need to be an artist. If you can't draw with a pencil, how are you going to draw with a tablet pen? When you can't drive, buying an expensive sports car won't take you to your goal any faster. OK, you can take a taxi (photo brushes, tracing) and go right to the destination without any learning. But... you wanted to learn how to draw, right? Not how to pretend you can draw.

What About All This Special Equipment: Pencils, Markers, Paper, Colors...

When you were a child, all you needed to get creative was a stick and dirt. Now you can be more professional and buy yourself a real pencil! And by real pencil I mean a classic, cheap HB. You can also buy a heap of cheap copier paper that you won't be sorry to waste. And that's all. Of course, painting is great, and better paper makes a difference, but we're talking about starting out here. Again, don't even try to get yourself a better car when you're still learning how to hold a wheel.

But I Know How to "Hold a Wheel". My Drawings Are Just Ugly and I Think I'd Do a Better With Colors/Better Paper/a Tablet

Don't go down that road. Don't use paint to cover your mistakes, don't hide your poor skills behind photo brushes. Learn how to sketch. Become a master of sketches, and then you're free to go further. You're not really learning how to draw - everyone can draw - you're learning how to see. This is the skill you'll need for every artistic activity, and if it doesn't work so good in drawing, it won't work in painting either.

My Pictures Are Never Good Enough

Oh, I know this feeling. I look at all these professionals and wonder how they make it look so easy, when I can't do it. This feeling of discouragement is well known to artists on every level. Even professionals struggle with mistakes and their own ambitions. You think they're good enough, because they're so much better than you. They think otherwise, because they have their own idols - artists better than them. It looks like a paradox, because there is no perfect artist. You'll always be jealous of someone's particular skills, while someone will be jealous of your own set of skills. There's never "enough", there's no "stop" for a human. Don't try to be perfect. Keep trying to be better, and appreciate every small improvement.

One more thing: saying "my drawing looks so bad" shouldn't be a spur to praises - it should bring critique. When you say that, do you want to hear how wrong you are, or how to actually fix your mistakes and get better? Don't expect nice comments, don't draw for people to praise you. Don't pretend to hate your work to get attention. Ask yourself why you want to draw and stick to the answer.

But Drawing Imperfect, Ugly Pictures Isn't Fun

Again - they'll never be perfect, so accept this fact. You'll never be happy with your pictures. It's you that chooses the moment of "enough". The best way to enjoy the first phase of learning is not to show your exercises to anyone. Don't let them tell you you're not good enough to draw. Sketch a lot and throw the sketches away. Don't develop any feelings for them, they're just steps. Just draw, try things and have fun, no matter what the end result!

And when you're happy with the outcome, you can try and show it to someone. Don't expect praises, ask for a critique. Suddenly your "decent" work will become lame again, but you'll know how to do better next time!

Building your skills by drawing lots of useless, messy sketches is like starting a collection of building blocks. You can try and make a working roller coaster with only a handful of blocks, but you'll get better results if you start with simple shapes and save the complex projects for when you've got more materials.


Actually, I Like My Artwork, It's Others Who Say I'm Not Good Enough

Are you happy with the level you're at? Awesome! You can now draw things you have in mind in a way you like, without feeling pressure to be better. Maybe you use bases for your characters, maybe you use someone else's line art to create the characters from your mind. And that's great, as long as you really don't need to be better. There are two types of people:

  • They see they're not good at drawing, but they know how to enjoy art. They love to create, to show people something they have in mind, and the final effect is good enough for them. Maybe they'd like to be better, but they don't have time for learning and they're glad of the level they're staying at. Critique is useless for them, but they also don't want any praises.
  • They see they're not good at drawing, but they want to hide it somehow. When someone points out their mistakes, their favorite excuses are: "Drawing with a mouse sucks!", "It's my style!" or, more creatively, "How can you tell my dragon is wrong if you've never seen one?" They also pretend they belong to the first group, but they actually want to hear praises, not a critique. They're under the illusion that if someone tells them their work is beautiful, it automatically becomes beautiful. A person praising the artwork is an expert, while a person finding faults in the same picture is a spiteful idiot.

If you belong to the first group, it's good to let people know you don't want a critique, nor false praises. Feedback can help you improve, but it's your choice. And if you're in that other group, accept the fact you're bad. Just believe it. There's nothing wrong with that, a lot of people are actually worse than you, so they don't even try to draw. We all want our artwork to be appreciated, but do you really need false praises? If you want to be better, learn and try; if you think it's too hard, but still want to draw - don't pretend you're good. Forget about the defensive "it's my style!" and embrace the new, humble answer to every critique: "I just like drawing, that's all. I know I'm bad, but I don't want to be better". And say thank you. They're trying to help, after all.


Wow, that was a whole bunch of excuses! If you can find any more, I'll happily discuss them with you in the comments. So, why can't you draw?

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