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Clara Lieu, RISD Adjunct Professor

What Mindset Do I Need to Draw Successfully?

Clara Lieu
Art Prof & Partner

“What is the most important mindset an art student needs to have in order to create a successful drawing?”

Mindset is everything when it comes to drawing. People tend to think that drawing is only about what your hands and arms are physically engaged in.  While the physical aspect of drawing certainly is important, how you approach your drawing mentally is much more critical. I’ve seen students in my freshman drawing classes make incredible leaps and improvements in their drawings in a matter of 15 minutes. This isn’t because their hands magically gained the ability to physically draw something over the course of those 15 minutes, rather it’s because they made some kind of shift or change in their mindset that allowed them to make a major stride in their work.

When I was in high school, I was a hardcore volleyball player.  I did it all: the varsity team at school, Jr. Olympics, tournaments, even volleyball camp. I remember clearly something my coach described as being “ready position”. “Ready position” is the position you’re in when you’re waiting for the other team’s serve to come across the net. You simply have to be ready for anything to happen, really alert, focused, and yet flexible enough that your body could move in any direction at any given moment. Physically speaking, when you’re in “ready position”, you’re a little hunched over, your arms are out to the side, you’re on the balls of your feet, loose, and slightly moving.

Art Supplies: Supplies for Charcoal Drawing

What happens in drawing is very similar to the ball coming across the net; you never know what’s going to happen, and yet you have to deal with it as it’s happening. Drawing is a series of reactions, to the marks that you’ve already made and the marks that you anticipate. The process is unpredictable and wild, which is exactly what makes drawing so amazing and infuriating at the same time.

It sounds very cheesy, but when I sit down to work on a drawing I have to pump myself up mentally to get going. Regardless of how I actually feel in real life, I tell myself in my head that I KICK ASS and that I am capable of anything I want. I have to build up a very strong foundation of confidence and belief in myself and that I’m doing. If I don’t, self-doubt will completely take over and prevent me from working altogether. Any shred of doubt always manifests itself into a huge distraction that makes it impossible for me to function. For me, the time for questioning is after I’m out of the trenches of working.  When I’m drawing, I don’t judge myself or the work.  I reserve that part of the process for after I’m done working for the day.

Drawing a Portrait in Charcoal

This is why the moment before my hand physically touches the blank paper is so scary.  In those moments, I’m mentally preparing myself to get started. I’m always nervous just before I get started drawing.  I think it’s very similar to jumping into a pool. Just yesterday I was at the pool, feeling a slight tinge of fear before I jumped in.  Will the water be cold?  Will I be freezing the whole time that I’m in the pool? Yes, all silly concerns, but that’s what goes through my head.  Jumping into a pool is a major commitment, you either do it or you don’t. When I take the plunge, I’m drenched in water, and there’s no going back to being dry.

The process of drawing is very similar, once your hand starts moving across the surface of the page, there is simply no going back to that blank page. You have to be ready to make bold commitments when you draw, being fussy and flaky about your marks only results in timid, boring results. Those commitments can only happen if you back them up with confidence and a strong mindset.

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6 responses on "Drawing & Mindset"

  1. Haha I need to read this post all the time!
    It’s so important for me to just get started and not let my mind get in the way – once I put pen to paper, all the doubt goes away and I’m “in the zone” – so many artist I talk to say the same! Don’t let your doubts make you forget you love what you do.

  2. “Regardless of how I actually feel in real life, I tell myself in my head that I KICK ASS and that I am capable of anything I want. I have to build up a very strong foundation of confidence and belief in myself and that I’m doing.”

    I love that!! Learning to trust myself and be my own cheerleader made my relationship with creating so much better. It’s all about just getting started, the rest is SO MUCH easier. Setting the bar high for yourself is one thing, but also encouraging yourself and believing in yourself to get there is just as important!

  3. Love this article! I always find starting a piece requires SO much more concentration and mental preparation than jumping back into one. Once I am committed to creating something, I find that I work better when I just turn my mind off and just let whatever happen, happen. Usually my best work comes out when I don’t think while creating, maybe it’s because it disables me from judging myself as I go.

    • SO TRUE! I find that a “healthy” level of distraction is important, if you are too aware of what you’re doing, the temptation to just judge yourself and your work every minute is just too high. Lots of my friends say that they listen to podcasts or movies they’ve watched 50 times, because they can listen without having to listen too hard, but it’s enough that they don’t ruminate about their drawing. One of my colleagues, Bill Flynn had this incredible series where he literally drew ONE chair for 4 years. He listened to NPR all the time, and since it was during the Iraq war, the news he listened to actually ended up influencing the drawings, and ultimately he realized that the chair was a metaphor for the war. Here’s a radio segment about his work.

    • Someone at my residency described making art or painting as a relationship with another person. Each new painting relationship is a first time which accounts for all the jitters. Sometimes humanizing the art you’re working with and realizing it’s coming from within you makes it a little easier to tackle.

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