Why it is so hard to practice drawing n°1 : Because most drawing methods are too difficult!
In my own experience as an aspiring artist, I have often felt frustrated with not making any progress in my work. After years of practice of drawing and painting, after years of looking at how others strive in their art, I’ve come to the following conclusion : I don’t think we really understand anything about practice.
To be sure, look at how our world is organized : it is more of a desolate place for automatized machines than a prosperous garden for skilful beings. It may well be that only those who make real beauty do know the difficult path to success. Therefore, in order to make real progress, we need to understand the “hard work” that is hidden behind such artwork.
In my view, the only way to deal with this complexity is to stay humble and find ways that will make one’s practice more efficient. This might seem paradoxical to you if you realise that most contemporary classical ateliers start by drawing the the most complex object in the world, that is the human figure. This is precisely why most students fail. I’ve been there myself and I can vouch for the fact that I was deceived (and deceived myself) into thinking I could really draw the figure by sitting in front of the model and drawing it over and over.
The truth is that no one can draw the figure or anything unless one goes from very small challenges to bigger ones. That’s why my articles on practice are not based on drawing exercises but on a set of principles that will guide you through any method you encounter, allowing you to bring efficiency into your daily routine and making it more likely that you will succeed.
Why it is so hard to practice drawing n°2 : Because most drawing methods never speak of practice itself.
Following the previous paragraph, you understand by now why you need to concentrate on the properties of practice itself before diving into drawing. That’s the idea behind this set of articles. These are not meant to be exhaustive but to give you a head start.
- In this first post, I will try to explain what an efficient practice should look like and why I think problem-solving skills are important for making progress.
- In a second article, I will give you the set of problem-solving principles that are key to an efficient drawing practice.
- In a third article, I will give you a second set of principles that will guide you through the organization of time as it relates to drawing.
Why it is so hard to practice drawing n°3 : Because we don't know what efficiency is really about.
“Efficiency” is not a very pleasant word. At least not to my intuition. My reason says : “Yes the only way to improving is being efficient!” but my intuition says : “No, there’s more to drawing than just being efficient!” Efficiency is too reminiscent of the disastrous battle for perfectionism. So let’s define efficiency in drawing in a different way.
Let’s imagine a hypothetical map with all the different paths you could follow in art. Imagine it as a tree with nodes and branches. In that map, say efficiency represents the most optimal path to where you are now to where you want to go. Your progress would then look like an iterative process of going from one node to the next in space and time. Even if external factors are at work here, it is a relative path in the sense that it is partly based on your own decisions. This also implies that there are no absolute paths that everyone should follow. There are only similar paths.
Given this definition, practice without efficiency would then be synonymous to following a wrong path. This can be for instance an artist striving to be a master figure draftsman that chooses the wrong figure course and never improves. To avoid this situation, the choice of a formulated and verifiable goal is a first step towards staying on the right track.
Now, in light of my own experience, when going from one node to the next, I have been mainly faced with two problems. The first consists in choosing the right material in all the resources available. In fact, a given method can be conceptualised as a hypothetical path someone else has chosen for you. Therefore you need some kind of personal filter to analyse, at every step of the way, whether the method has led you to where it said it would. The second problem is more complex. It may well be the reason of all our problems. Let’s look at all of this in more detail.
Why it is so hard to practice drawing n°4 : Because you're not choosing your drawing methods correctly.
Beginners don’t usually realize how important it is for them to have the smallest amount of resources possible for practice. Moreover, they usually choose resources that don’t meet the criteria that make them profitable. Their resources are often not structured, not coherent, not experienced, not affordable or not at the right level.
By applying this definition you can rule out most of resources available on the net : uncategorised and unstructured blog posts, articles, videos, Facebook groups, Youtube channels, expensive classical contemporary ateliers and so on. This is not an easy task by any means. And beginners cannot possibly apply this advice overnight. Choosing the right material is in itself subject to practice.
So whatever you have at your disposal, be sure to start asking yourself these questions :
- Who is teaching the material?
- What is the teacher’s level and quality of work?
- Is it at the level I’m aiming at?
- Is it structured correctly?
- Am I the only one not to understand the content?
- Is there even any chance I can learn something from what is being taught?
- Is there any result that is satisfactory?
- How long can I sustain doing that without becoming broke
This means you have to slowly start building a framework of principles against which you can judge teaching resources.
Florence Academy and Angel Academy are examples of what financial stress some students have to go through to get art education. A year at FA costs 16000 euros! Knowing that the curriculum is three years long, that amounts to 48000 euros for a single student. I’m not sure all this money is used to the advantage of the students and institutions. That’s not even counting the fact that the level of the artwork produced might not be at the level of the money invested.
This is an example of unstructured content from which there is frankly little to gain in terms of skills. Santos’ Youtube channel is only a marketing tool for selling expensive packaged videos which by contrast might contain the useful skills one needs. This is all the more disappointing that the technical skills of the artist are of a high quality.
Why it is so hard to practice drawing n°5 : Because you're not applying your drawing methods correctly.
In the previous paragraph, you learned how to avoid unsuitable drawing methods that don’t fit your goals or that are not of the quality required. There is also a very important learning principle that you should be aware of before choosing a drawing resource.
This principle states that the best way to learn is to choose the best exercise suited for your needs and repeat it over and over again until you become a master at it. That sounds easy but choosing the “best exercise” is a very difficult skill just by itself. So pick a starting point to the best of your abilities and experiment with it until there is something on which you can make a decision.
Once you’re confident with the quality of a given exercise, it is of vital importance that you execute this task “till death”. Of course, this not a real death but more of a rebirth of yourself with a new skill at your side.
Each of these core exercises is a building block you acquire on the road to becoming a professional. But I will insist on the fact that most of drawing courses and resources available everywhere nowadays violate this law in many ways. This is mostly because exercises are either too difficult or too insignificant. Don’t get fooled by the beauty of the result. This is especially true in figure drawing where you are tempted to draw what’s most beautiful without targetting what’s most useful. The latter has to come first and the two are not the same!
Finally don’t underestimate some teachers’ unwillingness to teach you what’s most useful : they might not have time to do so or they may think that no one would be interested. I don’t believe this to be relevant and even if it was, it is our duty as teachers to ensure that our art prospers in an accountable manner.
Why it is so hard to practice drawing n°6 : Because you need to get good at solving problems.
Once we’ve tackled the choice of drawing resources and methods, there’s a bigger problem blocking our progress. You will surprised to learn that this is less a matter of motivation than of frame of mind. You need to start thinking in a specific way to make your practice more efficient.
This way of thinking is usually what is missing in the art world but it pervades every other human activity that succeeds. It is called problem-solving. I will study the subject more in depth in future posts but if you need a more scientific introduction to problem-solving, you can read the famous book Peak. I will note here that “deliberate practice” in Peak or “System 2” in Thinking Fast and Slow by psychologists Kahneman and Tversky, are other ways of calling a problem-solving oriented frame of mind.
As you will see, problem-solving is not easy nor intuitive to implement. Apart from the inherent difficulties of drawing itself, there are a lot of psychological barriers to learning that we should overcome in order to bring “order and method” into our daily routines. Let’s see what that implies for drawing practice.
This is a very famous book among professional artists for understanding expertise from a scientific viewpoint. In my opinion though, it is somewhat ironic that we should let scientists rediscover what old masters had known for a long time : that learning is a path full of obstacles and that it may be mastered by years of targetted practice. That being said, if some need a scientific language to bring these things to conscience, so be it.
This is a very famous book in contemporary psychology. The same comments apply here than for Peak. It is still a useful contribution if we want to speak the language of the modern world.
Why it is so hard to practice drawing n°7 : Because there are strong psychological barriers blocking your progress.
In order to make it less difficult for you, you need to change the way you organize your practice time. In fact, it seems most people make it a sterile routine. They take whatever drawing content they have at their disposal and go through it until they have to go do something else. Checking boxes makes them satisfied with themselves : if they have gone through all the drawing exercises they have been given, then they must have improved.
But if you were to ask them at the end of their drawing session how useful a given exercise was, I’m sure most of them wouldn’t be able to answer. In fact, I’m convinced that they would make the implicit hypothesis that their brains unconsciously fills in the gaps and correct whatever they’re doing wrong. But will it? It might. My opinion is that it will do that only up to a certain point : the body has so many other things to take care of and correcting drawing mistakes might not be on top of the list of important tasks to achieve for evolution.
Therefore, what usually happens to us if we don’t bring some analytical mind into our art is that we’ll hit a competence wall at some point. Yours might be a little later than mine but that doesn’t matter. You will hit your wall anyway and you might get stuck there for a long time.
Why it is so hard to practice drawing n°8 : Because it is very hard to implement problem-solving in drawing.
Now that you know why it is so hard to practice drawing, you need to know how to do it. Easier said than done and that’s why I need to cover this subject in more than one post. But to conclude this first article, I want to give you the gist of what you need to do.
In order to make your practice more fruitful, you have to practice bringing your mistakes to conscience. Of course, there isn’t an absolute set of mistakes that you could consult to make your life easier. Because these depend hugely on your idiosyncrasies and what it is you’re trying to achieve. So your best bet is to build your own experience of what’s wrong in your work.
In my personal journey, I have come to learn how terribly my brain can trick me by exaggerating what’s good and by discarding what’s wrong. But the gold lies in the errors! Once I see them, most of the work has been done : I set myself on the right track and I find solutions. And sometimes I find not only one solution but a multitude of them. This might even be the definition of creativity : to tackle one’s setbacks forthrightly and with openness.
Regarding the importance of a problem-oriented frame of mind in all fields of knowledge, I recommend reading Beau Lotto’s book Deviate as an introduction.
Before I delve further into problem-solving techniques for artists
I hope you’ve enjoyed this article. If you have any questions, please leave a comment and I promise to reply.