5 Lessons Learned Drawing Daily for a Year

I’ve always been intimidated by drawing. I vividly recall times when being invited to do art projects with others has made my palms sweaty and my heart speed in my chest. As a fairly competent person, this fear has always bothered me.

I spent the last 12 months trying an experiment. In the past I have struggled with developing deeper skills. Fear of missing out on something new and exciting led me to jump ship for the next thing. This year I wanted to do something different. I wanted to do stick with one thing for a year.

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Also playing into this decision was this story from Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland:

>The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

 

>Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

I took this as my principle for the year. My goal every day would be to ‘draw something.’ This intentionally kept the goal easy to reach, but regular. If I was having a shitty day, I could spend 2 minutes scribbling something out. If I felt like spending 2 hours on something, I could and did. This allowed me to build a habit of daily drawing and reduce the decision fatigue of choosing to draw. In the end, I only missed either 1 or 2 days all year and made up for those with extra sessions.

What did I learn then?

#1: Step one was getting over myself

The first day started with a pen and a small notebook. I drew a game controller that was sitting on top of my coffee table.

Saying it that way is disingenuous; It makes it sound easy. I skipped over the part where I procrastinated until the end of the day, couldn’t decide what to draw, changed my mind several times, then stared at the blank page for a while. Most of the first few months was like that. It was a struggle to find time and things to draw. Most challenging though was the regular struggle with my inner critic, which was convinced that I couldn’t draw anything good, and if I couldn’t do that, what was I doing wasting my time?

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Luckily, I’m stubborn. I kept drawing, and over the first few weeks I happened to draw a few things that struck me as rather ok — knocking the wind out of my inner judge. One in particular in the first week was a hat that I sketched and shaded with pen and ink. After finishing, I remember thinking, ‘maybe I can figure this out.’ With a few small wins I started to think that maybe this would work out. As the first weeks continued along, the habit set in and I stopped worrying about how any given day would turn out. I trusted that if I just put in the time, I would improve.

 

#2: Art takes both skill and effort

If I were to graph the quality of the drawings during the year, it would be hard to discern any sort of trajectory because it bounced around hugely from day to day. A great sketch could just as easily be followed by a terrible one as another good one. There was a subtle upward trend though.

That’s not to say that there weren’t skill improvements. Most noticeable were the improvements in ease and speed with which I could put something down on paper from a reference. In the beginning, this was daunting task. By the end, I found it mostly pleasurable, so long as I wasn’t feeling rushed.

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One of my more recognizable blind countours

[Aside: Much of this shift occurred after I started doing blind contour drawings, at the suggestion of an instructor — I find this comically ironic, as the output of this exercise looks ridiculous, but it is all about building one’s seeing and connection with the hand.]

Skill improvement over time and the amount of effort (time) I applied to a given sketch were ultimately the best predictive factors for the quality of a given sketch. Sometimes things would pop out and I would get lucky without much effort, but if I reliably wanted to produce something I felt good about, I had to give it the time, both to develop the necessary skills and to create the sketch itself. One helping factor was that I would often slip into a flow state after about 20 uninterrupted minutes of drawing. In this state, my mind was quieter and I could focus longer on refining.

These realizations served to shatter the fallacy I held that good artists simply sit down and produce good art. It turns out that great art takes time. It takes effort. Even the old masters did studies of subjects. The great masterpieces are often done after much practice and with many corrections along the way. There are certainly skills that can be trained, but there’s no removing the hard work of honing a sketch into a final shape.

#3: It’s easy to get lost in the details

One of my most common mistakes during the early parts of the year — and still in the latter parts, but less frequently — was to start drawing something by sketching a rough outline, then zooming in and adding detail in pieces of it. I find this detail work really rewarding. Things look way better shaded and textured.

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Unfortunately, more often than not, this meant that I ended up with a few well shaded areas that didn’t fit together at all. Maybe the head was two times too large compared to the legs, or the walls of the house looked good, but didn’t actually meet where they should. Erase everything. Start over. What I learned to do was to stop and look at the whole every so often and to try to keep things at roughly the same level of detail. This was a hard discipline, but I noticed that my sketching got much better as I went. [Aside: This is a good metaphor for a lot of things in life.]

#4: Goofing around is important

Midway through the year, I started to feel somewhat aimless. I was drawing a lot of the same things every day and not loving it. An artist friend suggested that I try some different mediums. To paraphrase her wisdom, “just go buy some different types of charcoal and play with it.” To my surprise, changing the tools I was drawing with and the paper size I was drawing on felt different enough to break me out of the rut. The novelty was fun and invigorating. I left the house with a fat stick of charcoal and a pad of paper to sketch. I went to a figure modeling session and drew from life. There’s something fun and bold about a thick, black line of charcoal. The fragility and smudge-ability of it was fun and freeing also. This was a wonderful reminder that art is meant to be fun. I could, and indeed, must, play around with it.

I had the same experience later in the year when I discovered Art Crayons (or adult crayons as I like to call them). Something about them just feels good. They create thick lines of color and go on smoothly. Sometimes creativity just needs time to mess around with new toys. I’m sure the particulars are different for everyone, but the principle likely holds.

#5: Many hard things look easy

I’ve read a lot of comic books in my day. I have probably looked at hundreds of thousands of comic panels. Each one of them had to be conceived, composed, sketched, inked, and colored. I can read a page of them in about 10 seconds. Somehow this ease of consumption created a false sense in my mind that recreating them would be simple (or at lease simpler than reality). As it turns out, each of these stages requires a huge amount of skill and effort and can be someone’s full time profession. This should have been obvious at the start, but it wasn’t. It took me into the latter part of the year to start to be able to even understand the complexity behind this.

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My recreation of a drawing by Bruegel (if memory serves)

As one example: I’d been studying figure drawing in a certain way and spent a lot of time drawing figures standing still and head on. Turns out that these look pretty boring after a bit. There’s a reason that comic artists use dynamic poses and camera angles. Add that to the list of things I have to learn more about. Towards the end of the year, I started to think more about how to lay out my sketches and fought the urge to keep drawing static figures. I often would have to redraw a pose after starting on it because I realized that I’d played it too safe and it looked boring.


I consider this year a success. I stuck with my original plan and built a skill that I plan to continue to use. I am certainly far from being a professional comic book artist, but that gives me things to work on in the future. I plan to play more this year with colors, both acrylic paints and digital. I won’t be drawing every day, but suspect I won’t stop completely.

My biggest take away from the year was confidence in drawing. Oddly enough, I now realize how much I don’t know, but somehow that is comforting. I think I realize how impossible it is for anyone to know all of it, which means that I can just keep working on the pieces that I am interested in developing.

I’m moving on to writing for 2018, with the goal of writing something every day. Day two and I can already feel the fear that I will never be a good writer. I’ll take that as a good sign.

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