Stick Figure to Mona Lisa: 15 Tips for Becoming Artistic

Mona Lisa Stick Figure

You are an artist. Everyone is. Any act of creation is art. Software, articles and cooking are as much artistic acts as painting a landscape or composing a symphony. Even if your normal tools are a keyboard and IDE instead of a brush and canvas you can improve your artistic skills.

I’ve always had a passion for creating new things. I used to play a game called Warhammer where you collected small armies that you painted yourself. The game itself never fascinated me as much as the fun of assembling and painting an miniature force. Since then I’ve gone through many different mediums, from game design to painting, 3D animation, writing and I even spent a few months learning a music composition program, ModPlug.

“But I Can’t Draw…”

But I’ve always been troubled by how many people consider themselves unartistic. As if there were some mystical force that prevents them from being able to graduate beyond stick figures. Here are a couple of the (in my opinion) lies people tell themselves for why they can’t become artistic:

  • I’m a left-brain person. Huh? It’s funny how smart people can claim to be a half-wit. You use both hemispheres of your brain. A friend of mine who is a professional music composer is also a fantastic programmer, visual artist and writer. You don’t need to master everything, but why limit your opportunities?
  • I can’t draw. Don’t confuse the ability to draw with artistic prowess. Drawing, like all mediums, has specific tools and guidelines that can dramatically improve your results.
  • I don’t have time. This is a matter of priorities. I personally believe that creating something new is satisfying enough to invest the time. But most jobs allow for you to be artistic, so devoting hours of your day isn’t necessary.

I think anyone can become artistic. The only limiting factor is your desire. If you have an urge to make real what only exists in your mind, that is enough to start. Here are some tips for boosting your talents:

  1. Know the medium. Each medium is different. Becoming artistic means learning the tricks that accompany different mediums.
  2. Don’t fudge the details. The difference between a great piece and a mediocre one is usually the details. When I am creating an image, I often feel the urge to skip out on details I don’t think others will notice. But they do notice. Beauty comes from having all the components in harmony.
  3. Simple is Beautiful. Express less to impact more. When writing articles, I intentionally have to cut out parts that I feel would be valuable but don’t fit closely enough within the topic. When painting a picture, fewer points of interest mean less distraction.
  4. Develop a toolkit. Every medium has tools. When making computer graphics I heavily use the Bezier line tool to do shapes and outlines. When I painted figurines I knew how to exaggerate contrast to make details more visible.
  5. Break down other works. Find the tools others used. I’ve found you can often pinpoint tricks just by looking at a finished piece.
  6. Practice. It takes time to perfect a craft. A little practice can have dramatic effects, but don’t expect mastery to occur overnight.
  7. Experiment. Try out different techniques and tools. When I write articles I experiment with different post formats, headlines, tones, length and style. I try to avoid simply falling into old habits by experimenting constantly to get new ideas on how to improve.
  8. Minimize twisting. Twisting is what happens when you change the direction of a piece midway. This happens particularly on larger projects where your feelings might change before you finish. You might start writing a book and later want to twist the theme, or create a painting and want to twist the mood. Twisting is sometimes unavoidable, but it will diminish your final product.
  9. Function is form. I enjoy art that has function. Writing articles is creative, but it also informs. A website design can be beautiful and functional. Creating graphics can help lend power to metaphors and ideas. Function doesn’t reduce beauty, it enhances it.
  10. Constraints create. Giving additional constraints will make a finished product more unique, not less. Constraints help you to simplify. They also make the act of creation more fun and challenging.
  11. Doodle. Start by just doodling in your medium. That means experimenting with tools without a finished product in mind. Regular doodling let’s you practice ideas you wouldn’t feel comfortable testing on an important piece.
  12. Limit Themes. Use less colors with your painting. Use less instruments in a music composition. Use less devices in your writing. Avoid the tendency to use more.
  13. 80% or mastery? 80% skill doesn’t take that long. With just a small amount of practice almost anyone can reach 80% of a masters craft. Distinguish which mediums you want to be a master in and those you just want to be adequate. Mastery takes time, adequacy does not.
  14. Know the math. Every artistic act has technical underpinnings. 2D graphics have pixels, RGB values and filetypes. Music has chords, beats and timing. Just knowing that the eyes go halfway between the top of the head and the chin can dramatically improve your portraits.
  15. Visualize. Explore the finished piece in your mind before you set brush to canvas. It will help you understand what tools and skills you need to bring it to reality.

  • Thomas

    Excellent post, Scott!

    To those who are too “left-brained” in their drawings, I can really recommend the book “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards:

    It contains background information (that, unfortunately, is repeated over and over again), but also very practical advice, and the exercises are truly excellent. The difference between self-portraits, drawn by students both before and after following the accompanying course, is almost shocking.

    The book won’t teach you to be creative per se, but it will stimulate you and improve your skill.

  • Jeff Seely

    “I think anyone can become artistic…”

    For sure, Scott. You may be familiar with how Richard Feynman took up drawing as a hobby. The story can be found in “Surely you’re joking Mr Feynman.” It is an excellent example of how even one of the greatest analytical minds in history can develop impressive artistic skills (starting from a base artistic ability of nil).

    I think it’s unfortunate how many people assume you have to be an artist to make art. I cannot think of anything more intrinsincly satisfying than working on an artistic creation in your private time.

  • Scott Young

    Thanks for the insights, Jeff!

  • D

    I strongly agree that a great majority of people do feel that they are not “artistic” and generally many out there feel that art is related to drawing or painting. Haha I used to think like that too.

    Thanks for tip number 15. Never did focus much on visualizing on the end product just wanted to start things and hope it would turn out like what I pictured.

  • max night

    Ive always believed that you didnt need to know how to draw well to paint. To me, Paint is paint. as long as you know proportion, shading, style, and most of the basics you dont need to learn to draw. Not every painter paints a portrait of someone down to the last detail. Quite a few modern painters only do abstract.

  • s

    I disagree; having an artistic ability is something cognitive, and therefore (mostly) something which I believe requires a natural affinity (aka, “natural talent”).

    Surely, drawing can be improved upon with skill, but there’s really a lot of people out there who try to draw, but really aren’t that good.

  • lazaroth

    You are an artist. Everyone is. Any act of creation is art. Software, articles and cooking are as much artistic acts as painting a landscape or composing a symphony

    ok, i stoped reading after that. stop smoking that pal.