How to Draw (and Other Life Lessons)

“I can’t draw, I’m not an artist.”

I’ve heard this many times. Some people must think that being able to draw faces or pictures is something you’re born with. It’s not. It’s just a skill, like any other, that people have worked to become good at.

I just spent an afternoon doing illustrations for my upcoming guide, Think Outside the Cubicle. I’m definitely not the world’s best artist. But, I do think drawing (like many skills) is something anyone can learn and become good at.

Learn the Rules, But Don’t Obsess Over Them

I radically improved my ability to draw faces by learning one simple rule: place the eyes halfway between the top and bottom of the head.

Most people’s intuition is to place the eyes in the upper 2/3’s of the face. If you look at children’s drawings or even the smiley icon 🙂 , you can see how this is a common error. Spending some time to learn the basic rules can drastically improve your skill level.

But at the same time, don’t obsess over the rules. Only practice and trial and error can give you a worthwhile drawing style. Don’t spend energy worrying whether you’re breaking a rule, because that’s energy that could be devoted to practice.

In learning French, I’ve found it helpful to learn some of the basic grammar rules. However, I don’t worry about these when I’m trying to speak. I know I’ll break many of the rules anyways, so it’s better to practice and correct myself afterward, than to obsess over grammar.

Great Drawers Enjoy Drawing

If you enjoy something, you’ll spend more time on it. And if you spend more time on it, you’ll get better at it. And, if you’re better at it, you’ll enjoy it more. I think this increasing cycle of ability and enthusiasm is why some people are fantastic artists and other people can barely sketch a stick figure.

Even if someone only had 1% better ability than you, she might receive slightly better feedback. This would encourage her to continue drawing, increasing her skills. This increase in skill would create even greater feedback, encouraging her to continue practicing. In the end, she might have many times your skill level, just because of that cycle.

But you can short-circuit that cycle for yourself. If you push through those initial “I suck” phases of a skill, you can start getting positive feedback. Even if you’re a horrible drawer, once you push through the frustration barrier, drawing becomes more enjoyable and it will be easier to continue.

Find a Style and Master It

Don’t try to do everything. Once you find drawing techniques that look good, incorporate them into your style. A great artist you can recognize, just by the style of their work. I think it’s better to master a style, and experiment a little, than it is to try to do everything.

I learned this lesson when writing for this website. I would see other successful writers use a completely different writing style than my own. I’d try to mimic it, and the result would usually be a disaster. I’d try to write tips lists, stories or encyclopedia entries and they would fail miserably. The problem was that in trying to copy other styles, I was neglecting my own.

Some people see a style as a liability, it means that there will always be some people who don’t like your work. But I see it as a strength. Having a defined style means that it is much harder to substitute your work. If your irreplaceable, that increases the value of your work to the people who truly love it.

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  • Jimmy

    After anything else: I also can’t draw 😉 *
    But the most important thing that I learned from art class in highschool is the phrase that my teacher at that time said about Picasso. “He first learned every single rule about painting and then he systematically broke one after another.”
    I agree very strong with that and I think that this is the key to mastering many challenges in life.

    Like Nietzsche said in Zarathustra: First, you are a camel and be loaded with rules. Then you are a lion and bravely fight against the rules. And finally you become a child that plays with the rules.

    I wonder what you think about that Scott (maybe another blog entry 🙂 ?). Thank you for your amazing work. You inspired me several times with your thoughts!

    * I always liked art but my teachers in school always had the opinion, that I didn’t draw what they expected from me. So I stopped drawing and focussed on music which made me much happier anyway.

  • Karl Staib – Work Happy Now

    Sometimes we get carried away with what we think a certain skill should feel and look like, but if we just took a few lessons from others we would improve my 90%. I’m not much of a drawer myself, but I love doing it anyway. Watching a few videos on YouTube has been a big help. By letting my natural curiosity out, I’ve gotten better.

  • Andrew

    Three great topics there Scott!

    As Karl said, it’s important to keep our curiosity when we’re trying something new. We just have to remember it doesn’t have to be perfect.

    I really like how you laid out the cycle of feedback and enthusiasm. We like what we’re good at and we get good at things we like. One builds upon another.

    Style is important. As you say, it’s the part of us that makes us unique. It’s our unique selling point, as it were. If we just try to copy someone else’s style, we’ll never be as successful as they were, because we’re just a copy.

    It’s about what makes us different. What makes us unique, in this increasingly niche-y world!

    Thanks and good post!

  • Stefan |

    This one is great! Not only because I can’t draw, but I hate drawing also. Probably because I can’t draw.

    I think this is what misses in high school drawing classes, some basic rules. We didn’t learn them, we all just did something and it was wrong or right and mine was always wrong. But you can learn a lot, sometimes with more effort than the other times.

    Nice post Scott, it motivates me to do things I’m not that good at!

  • esp

    I’ve been drawing almost my whole life I’ve loved it ever since I was a kid. I wasn’t born knowing how to draw, but for me what’s intersting is that I started drawing so young and just kept drawing for so long since that I don’t remember when I started and it feels like I was born knowing how to draw, but I also know that’s not true.

    And for anyone who thinks having your own style is a bad thing I suggest they consider that everyone else’s style has already been done, if you want to take your artwork further or do better than the master artists (or masters of anything) ever did then the quickest route is the one they no one has ever taken.