Learning to Draw Version 4.0

Image: J. M. W. Turner from his perspective tutorials.

I’ve long had this notion that drawing should be added to the list of foundational skills we learn in school such as typing, grammar and multiplication. I think we’d all benefit if we developed our ability to see and represent the complex world around us. As William Morris tried to tell us, combining art with evolving beyond crapitalism will lead us to a better place.

Over the years I’ve made several abandoned attempts at learning to draw. Coincidentally I’m married to a talented artist and have a lot of friends who teach art (Fun fact: I met Kelly because the TV station I worked for had offices in the UCSD art department).

When my attempt to learn Spanish tanked, mid-quarantine, I took up drawing again, mainly focused on architectural sketching since that would the most useful reason for me to hone my weak drawing skills. Am I going to show you my drawings? No. While I’m steadily improving they’re still pretty embarrassing.

In addition to practical reasons, I also took up drawing again as a way to curb my social media doomscrolling. Spending a few hours drawing in the evening reminds me of the 1990s, of those long evenings devoted to some intricate crafty endeavor or just reading a difficult book. I thought that taking up drawing again would counter social media use and, to some extent, it has.

I’ve come to a few realizations about the skill of drawing:

  • Some people, such as Kelly, intuitively figure out the central trick of drawing as kids: that you draw what you actually see not the representations in our heads. For example, a human body is just another shape, like a boulder or a toaster. Understanding this is how you take the first step from stick figures to more accurate representations. This skill can seem magical to those of us who didn’t figure this out on our own. It can seem like a “natural” talent when it’s not.
  • Once you understand this first step the next step is, sadly, much harder. You have to practice drawing over and over and over again in the same way that if you want to learn the piano you have to go through daily, boring exercises. Unfortunately practicing drawing is confounding, frustrating and decidedly not fun especially at the beginning. Scrolling Instagram it much easier and way more tempting.
  • Buying art supplies is not the same as practicing drawing. There’s a temptation to shop when what you should be doing is just drawing. You can do perfectly acceptable drawings with a ball point pen stolen from the bank. Shopping for stuff it just an excuse not to go through the painful exercises and cope with what seems like glacially slow progress.
  • Lastly, I’ve confirmed with my in-house expert Kelly that drawing never gets “easy” no matter how long you’ve been at it.

The exercise of blind contour drawings have been another revelation for me. In this practice you draw without glancing down at the paper. You would think that this wouldn’t work but in fact I discovered that my drawings were better if a bit off register. The line quality was more lively and the representation of complex curves much more accurate. This is simply because you need to actually look at what you’re drawing and not get fixated on the representation on paper. I told Kelly about this and she gave me that “well, duh” look. I told another friend who teaches high school art about my revelation and he said that he has a hard time convincing his students that their blind contour drawings are better than their regular work. It’s a good thing, he said, that I know the difference.

An art professor friend gave me another good tip, that I should look at the drawings of top shelf artists from all different eras. This was a reminder that drawings aren’t the same thing as art and that it’s important to study both the form and content of the works of talented masters.

Image: J. M. W. Turner from his perspective tutorials.

I don’t intend to make art. For me drawing is more a meditation aimed at improving the act of seeing. Practically, I like to make furniture and do light construction work. Drawing is a skill that helps with these tasks. For furniture, I do ink drawings first even if I later go to the computer for the final plan.

If you’d like to take up drawing I’ve used a few resources. If you know of more please leave a comment. For the initial step of learning to see I’ve found the classic Betty Edwards book Drawing On the Right Side of the Brain useful. For exercises and techniques for pen and paper I turn to Alphonso Dunn’s YouTube channel. What I like about Dunn is that he doesn’t assume knowledge and is good at explaining concepts to idiot beginners like me. In the past I’ve also taken life drawing classes and would like to do that again. The takeaway from those classes was the importance of setting time limits and doing sketches that are loose and quick as well as long and detailed.

For architectural sketching I’ve been working my way through a new book, Sketch Club Urban Drawing. See above for my warning on shopping for art supplies, but I do really like my Rotring Isograph College Set. It comes with three refillable pens, a mechanical pencil, an eraser and a handy ruler/protractor thingy. It’s what architecture students used to use before the days of 3d rendering.

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6 Comments

  1. Excellent post! I still have to tell myself to practice, practice, practice. But my frustration over what I see as my lousy work often gets in the way. Thank you for the reminder and the encouragement!

  2. I’ve studied painting/drawing most of my life. Several years ago my husband (not a drawer) & I took a Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing workshop with Frederick Franck. It was inspiring. Rodney made the most amazing drawings & mine were changed in a most remarkable way. When a student asked about “right side of the brain drawing” he said let’s draw with “no-brain” draw with our eyes, our heart & our hand! https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13535132-zen-seeing-zen-drawing. Sent with kindness, Michele

  3. Great post, thanks!
    I worked through Edwards’ book in the mid-90s, did some pieces I was proud of, and haven’t picked up a pencil since — though I think about it almost daily.
    “Buying art supplies is not the same as practicing drawing.” Truer words were never spoken. I have a trunkful of pads, pencils, and paints.
    Hoping your post and Dunn’s channel (thanks for that, too) give me the kick in the pants that I need.

  4. I just discovered proportional dividers, the ones I have are by Prospek. They have sharpened my sketches, especially those of buildings and human made artifacts.
    Also, joining an Urban Sketching group is a great way to make practice enjoyable. And creating a grab n go sketching kit that includes a small folding stool will make on site sketching more likely.

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