If you really, REALLY want to improve your artwork, you need to understand the foundation of good art. I’m not talking about composition, value, and rendering. I’m talking about something much more basic than that.
Good drawing skills.
The Foundation of Good Art
If you can look at something and are able to translate that object into a drawing, then it doesn’t matter what tools you use. You can create a likeness using a burnt out match stick on a brown paper grocery sack.
Artist Sarah Becktel said something very close to that in a recent interview with John Middick on the Sharpened Artist Podcast. If you haven’t yet listened to that interview, I encourage you to do so. John and Sarah talked about a lot of important topics, so you will learn something.
But I want to share something that I’ve always known, often forgotten, and was reminded of again last summer.
The Importance of Good Drawing Skills
Knowing how to draw freehand—to look at something and make an accurate drawing of it—seems to be a lost art these days. The trend is toward fast and easy, and there’s nothing fast or easy about learning to draw.
I know. I’ve tried.
I’ve also fallen out of the drawing habit.
Has my artwork suffered? In some ways, yes. In other ways, no. For example, the most recent portrait I did began as a tracing. I had to do some freehand drawing to correct photographic distortion, but it was minimal. I had to get the portrait done in the time allowed and in the midst of an already full calendar. So I traced.
There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just another tool.
But I missed the opportunity to really get to know that horse by working my way through the many phases of drawing him by hand. And that’s my loss.
Getting Back to Drawing Freehand
In 2021, I was did two challenges. The first was issued by a friend who listened to my struggles to find time and enthusiasm for drawing. After sympathizing with all my woes, she told me to “just draw something.” She wanted to see my drawing when we met the following week.
So I took a handful of pencils and a few small pieces of paper when we took a cat to the vet, and I sketched while waiting in the car. I sketched later in the day, too, and ended up with two nice sketches of trees. They weren’t masterpieces, but they turned out well.
Fast forward to July 2021…
In mid-July 2021, I heard another podcast from Sharpened Artist. This one was titled Creating Art Authentic to You. Among other things, the hosts talked about sketching.
I remembered the sketches I’d done early that year and decided to try sketching again. To make it more formal, I decided to challenge myself to regular sketching. You can read all about that here.
I met my goal of doing one sketch every day six days a week for the rest of the year, and finished 2021 with a total of 207 sketches. Were they masterpieces? No. At least not all of them.
But I could see an improvement in my ability to create values, and the look of realism with just marks on paper. Most of the time with only one color.
So when I heard Sarah Becktel’s comment, it resonated. She’s right. If you don’t have the ability to look at something and translate it to paper, all of the best colored pencils and paper on the market won’t help you create better art.
So What Can You Do?
The solution is simple. Not easy and not fast, but simple. Start drawing.
You can do a sketching habit like I did or you can do something different. The key is that you do something.
I’d suggest getting an art journal or a spiral bound sketch pad. Something to help you keep your drawings together and in chronological order.
Then draw as often as possible. Every day is best, but if you are really short on time, two or three times a week is better than not at all.
I used to carry a 5×7 inch spiral-bound drawing pad and a few drawing tools (pencil stubs, pens, etc.) in my purse. If we went somewhere and I had to wait in the car (or chose to wait in the car,) I had the tools for drawing. Most of the time, I drew whatever was in front of me, up to and including the utility connections on the back of a store!
I haven’t carried a drawing pad for quite some time, so maybe it’s time I get a new one. Then we can improve our drawing skills together.
The Foundation of Good Art
That’s my opinion.
If you’d like guided instruction in learning better drawing skills, I can highly recommend John Middick’s Sharpened Artist Academy*. The Beginner’s Colored Pencil Course is a great place to start, but there are also other courses available. For more advanced artists, John offers a colored pencil mentoring program.
Whether you practice drawing on your own, or find a guided course, I do hope you’ll take the time to work on your drawing skills. Knowing how to draw freehand the way you want to draw provides artistic freedom impossible with even the best reference photos.
It’s time all of us started making good use of that freedom.
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You are spot on with your article for me. I do need to practice my free hand drawing skills. I have done some practice with classes for same and realized I need to do it fairly consistently to really improve. So… right now I am doing Zen tangle in the evenings. It is freehand drawing but very simple because the designs are impressionistic and somewhat free form, but not entirely. I do follow book patterns, but they are drawn free hand. I also have a drawing class I should finish up and then continue going on from there. I just need to find things to draw that aren’t so difficult that I get discouraged. I do have a nice brand new, mixed media sketching pad too that I wanted to add nature designs into. Thank you for the gentle nudge, Carrie. I get into the habit of just tracing off a photo and although that is okay, I need the free hand drawing practice too.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. You are drawing freehand. Drawing Zentangle designs is still drawing, and every stroke you make freehand will help you learn to draw other, more complex things.
What I’d suggest is that you start drawing from life with very simple things. Instead of drawing a tree, draw a branch on the tree, or a twig on a branch, or even a leaf on a branch. I tend to think big and want to draw all of the prairie, only to be quickly discouraged by the size and complexity of the subject. Don’t do that! 😉
I’ll be interested in hearing your thoughts on the sketch pad, since I’m looking around for a good sketch pad again. I miss having one and it’s time to correct that!
Thank you for reminding us about this basic foundation of art! I think drawing gives us a connection to the subject that’s not achieved by any other means.
I have a moleskin sketch pad for mixed media. Haven’t done much with it but want to this year.