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Clara Lieu, RISD Adjunct Professor

What is the Best Way to Practice Drawing?

Clara Lieu
Art Prof & Partner

“What is the best way to practice my drawing skills in traditional media? I draw with colored pencils and I also paint with acrylics and I am sort of okay at it , but I really want to become better.”

Drawing is a highly complex beast which involves so many different elements at the various skill levels. Rather than get into all of those details, I’m going to boil it down to four fundamental directives that will help improve your drawing skills across all skill levels and media.

1) Draw from direct observation.

This sounds so simple, and yet I’m appalled at that vast majority of art students and artists don’t work from direct observation when they are looking to improve their drawing skills. This problem is so prevalent today, that you’re actually defying the norm (drawing from photographs)  if you draw from life. The issue is compounded by the fact that photography is so crazy easy and fast to have access with smart phones and the Internet. Not only are people drawing from photographs 99% of the time, but they’re drawing from crappy, low resolution photographs that they find online.

Photographs may be appear to be convenient and easier to work from, but they’re a cheap shortcut that will lead to the development of all sorts of bad drawing habits.The amount of information that a photograph has pales in comparison to seeing a subject in real life.  This is not to say that one should never ever in their lifetime work from a photograph; I work from photographs all the time now. However, I know how to use a photograph as a visual reference well because I’ve developed skills based on many, many years of working from direct observation.

Drawing a Portrait with Caran d'Ache Crayons

When you work from life, you experience your subject matter in way that a photograph could never allow you to:  you can touch your subject, smell it, walk around it, and see the subject within the context of its environment. This overall sensory experience is vital towards your understanding of your subject matter and will always translate into your drawing. Drawing is as much about learning how to see as it is about the marks that you put on the page. With a photograph, your understanding of your subject is inherently shallow and uninformed.

Nowadays, many people are learning a lot about each other online before even meeting in person.  Frequently, you’ll read a bit about that person, and see their photograph.  Think about how vastly different the experience of seeing their photograph online is to meeting them in person-it could not be more different. Nothing prepares you for what that person is actually like in real life. That’s the difference between drawing from a photograph and drawing from life. Experiencing your subject in real life will bring a profound level of understanding and connection with your subject that simply cannot exist with a photograph.

Ask the Art Prof: RISD Adjunct Professor Clara Lieu

As a professor, I’ve noted that people who can draw from life can practically draw from a photograph in their sleep, while people who only draw from photographs find themselves paralyzed when asked to draw from life. One of my peers in art school flat out refused to draw from life.  She spent all of her time drawing from photo references from fashion magazines, which is an odd choice to begin with considering the over-the-top Photoshop treatment every model and celebrity gets when posing for a fashion magazine.   Her drawings always looked mismatched and strange because all of the people in her illustrations looked like they had just jumped off the cover of Vogue magazine.

Once, when she was traveling in Italy, she met a group of Italian guys she was flirting with, and she wanted to impress them.  Upon learning that she was an artist, the Italians’ first reaction was “Draw my portrait!”  She said she totally froze, and just couldn’t do it. She was mortified and completely embarrassed by her inability to draw from life.  By training herself to draw exclusively from photographs, she had limited herself to a very meager set of drawing skills.

The skills that you will gain from working from direct observation will tremendously inform and support your ability to work from all sorts of other references.

Lauryn Welch, Painter & Performance Artist

2) Practice daily.

Drawing is very similar to athletics, and it really is just a matter of investing the time.  If you were an athlete, you would have a rigid schedule of training set up that you would adhere to. Drawing is the same way: it requires serious focus, rigorous training, and intense physical stamina. Every time you sit down to draw, it’s an opportunity to sharpen your eye, and become more proficient in coordinating your mind and eye with the physical movements of your arm and hand.

There is no artist I know working today, who can coast on their inherent drawing talent. One of my peers from art school was one of those people you just hate because he drew so incredibly well, with what appeared to be so little effort.  No matter what I did, I couldn’t match his efficiency and level of drawing.  On the other hand, this peer was also super lazy and scatter brained, and today, he hasn’t done much with his drawing talents. Talent goes nowhere if you’re not willing to train and work hard on a consistent basis.

Many people get impatient with drawing and expect results right away.    You have to be committed, and be able to recognize that improvement is a slow and gradual process. One would never expect to be an Olympic level skier after one week of training, the same way you can’t expect to be a master of drawing after working for a few days. For most artist, it takes years and years of rigorous time and commitment to achieve a certain level of mastery.

Drawing on a daily basis doesn’t have to be a huge commitment.  Get a small, portable sketchbook to carry around with you, and do very quick, casual pencil sketches any time you can.  You could do 5 minute sketches during your lunch break, when your friends are watching a movie, when you’re standing in line at the grocery store-drawing doesn’t have to be fancy or time consuming.

3) Practice gesture drawing.

If you can do strong gesture drawings, you’ve already won half the battle. Gesture drawings are the core of any drawing, they capture the essence of what a drawing is trying to say in just a few strokes, in just a few minutes. The first 2 minutes of a drawing are critical in that they lay the foundation for the rest of the drawing. It doesn’t matter how polished your drawing is if the initial gesture isn’t there to begin with.

Ideally, one should practice gesture drawing from a nude model, but if you don’t have access to a model, there are plenty of other options.  You can go to a local cafe and sketch people sitting in the cafe, or draw a bunch of friends who are sitting around.   One of my friends always liked going to the beach to draw  because people sit still and they’re practically naked anyway.  I had a peer in art school who used to go to college parties and draw all of the drunk people sitting around. Get creative and find as many contexts as possible where you can practice your gesture drawing.

To create a strong gesture gesture, it’s important to keep your arm moving and circulating throughout the page, moving from top to bottom, side to side, very quickly. Start very, very light with marks that barely show on the page.  This allows you to make lots of mistakes that will not show later because they’ll be so light. Develop all of the parts of the drawing together so that you don’t neglect any area.   Try to aim for continuous movements and fluid lines rather than fragmenting your lines into choppy marks. Look at your subject more than you look at your drawing; your subject is where the information is. Keep your gesture drawings about 2-5 minutes in length, any longer than that it’s too easy to get lazy and fall back into bad habits.

4) Look at historical drawings.

Go to the library and check out books that feature drawings by historical artists. Avoid the Internet: 1) the Internet is often times overwhelming if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for and 2) you won’t get nearly the range or selection of drawings that you’ll get if you just sit down in the art history section of the library for a few hours. Get acquainted with art history and really make the time and effort to see the extraordinary range of drawings created throughout centuries of history.

In this case, start by referencing art history and expand your knowledge from there. To get you started, some historical artists whose drawings I would recommend looking at are: Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Kathe Kollwitz, John Singer Sargent, Raphael, Leonardo, Pontormo, Degas, Frank Auerbach, Lucien Freud, DurerGiacometti.

The historical drawings that you’ll learn the most from are gesture drawings and quick sketches done in sketchbooks.  In these quick sketches you’ll get to see all of the visual evidence: you get to see all of the mistakes, all of the troubleshooting that happens in an artist’s drawing process. This is what is so unique about drawing that you won’t see in other media like painting and sculpture; the opportunity to see traces of an artist’s process in a drawing.   Investigate and analyze what kinds of strategies these artists take in their drawing process and try to use them in your own.

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5 responses on "Practicing Drawing"

  1. I’m gonna be that person that throws a wrench in things and say that there is really nothing wrong with drawing from photos. You can still improve and keep up your drawing skills by referencing photos. Just look at Adam Warren’s daily AM sketch pages! But maybe it’s more like a diet and exercise type analogy, because I do spend a lot of time drawing from life as well, and it is perhaps because of this that I have no problem with photos.

    I think drawing from life really helped me psychologically. When I got out of school, I was pretty uptight about my subject matter. I designated some things as too kitschy or banal to make art about. With photos and the internet, you can pretty much find any kind of image you want, so I was really picky, yet indecisive about what I was going to paint and how I was going to paint it.

    But there is a mundanity to working from life, you only have what’s in front of you to work with. It’s like meditation. After doing it for a while, you notice you gravitate toward certain things in a scene or a drawing, or ways of working. And you figure out what it is you actually like and you realize the world didn’t mock you when you drew a picture of your cat (in fact, I believe every great artist has done a portrait of their pet). Sometimes it really helps to lose the romanticism and drama of creating and just experience it as work. Your work. That thing that you do. I think that takes some of the pressure off.

  2. The hardest thing for me in drawing every day was when I started to think my work just “wasn’t good.” Why bother taking the time to draw if your work just won’t get anywhere, right?
    I really hope you all see the logical flaw in this faster than I did.
    If you have this problem as well, were your criticism of your drawing keeps you from making work, you just have to start drawing! Once your in the groove, you’re set – so if you’re anxious before starting a life drawing session, just doodle something fun to relax you! It helps you get distance, and remember that the whole reason you pick up a pencil anyway is because it gives you joy! And if you think to yourself “well the old masters never doodled on the side of their serious drawings,” just look at what these Monks were up to….

  3. A huge break-through in my drawing occurred when I started carrying a small sketchbook with me everywhere I go… I initially started doing this while I was studying abroad in Italy, and I found on many occasions that I was terrified of drawing in public – but really what it came down to was that I was terrified of drawing so much from life!

    Life drawing was a skill I really only practiced in an academic setting, primarily in nude figure drawing sessions at art school… And although that was great practice it also didn’t do anything to break me of the self-consciousness that is such a huge obstacle to drawing as a process of observation and growth. This changed after that semester abroad, when I forced myself to get used to making bad drawings in front of strangers! It’s that very situation where you most want to do a great job, and yet it is nearly impossible to be that precious about the final product.

    So, in other words – draw as much and in as many different contexts as possible! Make some bad drawings!

    • I think everyone who draws is always worried about whether the final product will “be good,” which makes sense, because who doesn’t want to succeed? But the truth is that if you want to make good drawings, you HAVE to make bad drawings, like, a LOT. Let’s put it this way: I would much prefer to make 50 bad drawings with the shot of getting 1 amazing drawing, rather than walk on eggshells the whole time and come out with 50 drawings that are mediocre. Yes, it’s no fun to make bad drawings, but just think about it as fulfilling your required “bad drawing quota.”

    • I completely understand the feeling of making bad drawings in public – it’s like you can feel people judging the quality of your art. I used to avoid drawing from life due to this reason, but as I sketched more, I began caring less about people’s opinions. Now, drawing in public feels normal, and I have noticed a lot of improvement in my sketches and artwork.

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