Why learning to draw takes so much time : does drawing take more time to master than other arts?

In light of my own experience, I have often been tempted to think that drawing takes more time to master than other arts. Take music for instance. In music, there are in fact a lot of frameworks that contribute to saving the student’s time : conventions, notes, sheets, powerful music institutions and education, music industries, and so on..

In drawing and painting, none of this seems to exist. In fact, no one can deny that the tradition in Europe disappeared a long time ago and that the poor efforts made today by the American “Atelier movement” to bring it back to life are not sufficient. In any case, what we need is more than a “movement”. That is especially true when art schools today seem to be more preoccupied by making money than by building the future of Art.

That’s why we artists are lost in our quest of becoming masters. That certainly condemns us to an eternity of frustration. So it is time we reflect about the connection between art, practice and time. In so doing, we shall find solutions to accelerate our growth and give some interesting perspective to our work. 

Why learning to draw takes so much time n°1 : How long did it take humanity to become good at drawing?

How did man really achieve all his greatest art? Millions of year must have passed before he even realised he could use coal as a tool. It might even have been by chance. Before this decisive step was digested, more eons of time must have gone by. And we pretend we can learn easily?

No, it is time we realized how deadly difficult learning to draw is and how difficult it has been for our ancestors to bring us to where we are today. On the road, man has produced a lot of beautiful art. But it is a long path for a single individual to go back that ancient thread, acknowledge what has been done and make a distinctive mark of his own.

Some will object : “We don’t need any tradition, we can just go and draw without any knowledge of the past”. Isn’t that precisely what the human industry is doing today by creating objects of unprecedented shallowness? For sure, these objects embody our modern vision of art : cars, planes, computers, phones and atomic bombs. Do you really want to escape tradition? Do you really want to forget the Renaissance, the Romans, the Greeks and everything beyond? No you don’t!

Therefore, being a draftsmen will require you to go into the past and, like old masters, dig the ancient statues from their graves. You have to accept this paradox even if this takes you several life times. It’s the only way of anchoring your artwork in time.

Why learning to draw takes so much time n°2 : How long will it take you to become a master at drawing?

“The pencil is the tool of the draftsperson, like the scalpel of the surgeon and the arrow of the archer. Learning to use a pencil is like learning to use a fork. If you could remember how long it took, when you were a child, to learn to do things that require coordination, like eating spaghettis or peas, you might have more patience with yourself when it comes to learning how to use the pencil.” (Anthony Ryder, The Artist’s Complete Guide to Figure Drawing)

We have to understand that a manual skill is awfully more demanding than memorizing a piece of abstract information into memory. As Anthony Ryder says, anyone who has practised a musical instrument knows how long it takes to become good at playing. But somehow we think we know how to use the pencil and forget how complex the meeting of pencil and paper can be.

Professional drawing skills will take you years if not decades to learn. There are no shortcuts. And I can’t give you a ready-made formula to apply. These things are much too complicated to predict. The only way to go about it is to have a robust practice routine and tackle drawing every single day.

That being said, there are concepts that are helpful for coping with time and that’s what this article is about.

This book, which is one of the first serious books on figure drawing I bought, can be misinterpreted in that it takes years of training to apply what Anthony writes. I was only fortunate to spend a year with him but I can vouch for that fact that his best students spent at least a few years training in Santa Fe, 6 hours a day, 5 days a week. These usually added hours of portrait drawing after class and personal projects during weekends. A year of drawing would therefore represent approximatively 1200 hours of work. If we assume it basically takes 10 000 hours to become a master, you would be left with ten years of intensive practice before you get anywhere.

Why learning to draw takes so much time n°3 : What will your drawing journey look like?

I don’t really know what your drawing journey will look like. I don’t even know what other artists journeys are like because they tend not to communicate on the matter. But I will tell how how mine is going so that you are motivated into conceptualizing your path for yourself.

The positive spiral of drawing started its journey very slowly for me, almost at a halt. I was already 25 by then. It then accelerated very slowly for decades, resting only on faith, bread and water.  It seems other types of beings might very well have died in that eternity. At the age of 44, I am still struggling in such a far reaching part of the galaxy.

However, from what I can see of the future, this eternity won’t last forever. It will hit an inflection point. Above this breaking point, I hope things will get accelerated exponentially and my drawings will become beautiful (at least that is my wish).

Dear artist friends, my own experience is by no means representative and it is not my intention to bring your spirits down. But it is my belief that those who don’t have the flame burning at all times have no chance of reaching the magical land of beautiful drawings. Ingres speaks of these matters better than myself (see extract below).

“As I make painting to do it well, I take a lot of time and therefore I don’t earn much… Me, poor devil, with the most assiduous work, and, shall I say, the most distinguished, I find myself at the age of 38, with barely more than 1000 ecus on the side ; and yet one has to has to survive everyday. But my philosophy, my good conscience and the love of art support me and give me the courage, together with the qualities of an excellent wife, to find myself reasonably happy.

Confront everything with courage, working to please only one’s good conscience and then only a few people, that’s the duty of an artist, because art is not only a profession, it is an apostolate. All these courageous efforts will bring their reward. I will have my own. After so many dark days, the light will come.”

And indeed what light have you brought on the forefront of humanity dear Ingres.

My journey through drawing really looks like a logarithmic spiral. This one is a fractal by the way. I think such conceptualisations of an artist’s path help making one more confident and less dependant on human judgment.

Why learning to draw takes so much time n°4 : What qualities should you foster to be a better draftsman?

In truth, it takes quiet some time to form a human being, quite a bit more to train an artist and an eternity to give rise to a philosopher.

There is no art without patience. This is a hard one folks. I’ve been guilty myself of wanting to become a better draftsman at once and hit the wall many times. Modern society as whole has become a set of impatient agents that want ever more ever more rapidly. We have lost our sense of perspective in time.

Therefore, I think we need to shift our paradigm (remember my spiral) so as not to be the slaves of Chronos. We need to project our art into long spans of time. One generation of artists will surely not be enough. That’s why we need to give a sense of wholeness and continuity to our work so that others can pick it up where we left it and hopefully further our work.

How do we do that? There a lots of ways but for now let’s enumerate a few ones without giving bothersome explanations : work everyday a small amount, put your work in perspective, don’t spend more time than you need to on a drawing, read read read, take notes and organize them, go to museums, be aware of what other artists are doing, write write write, teach.

Why learning to draw takes so much time n°5 : What's the most unsettling paradox you will have to deal with as an artist?

Artists are masters of slow motion. Where time stops, the mind exists and thinks. Decomposition and slow repetitive execution are key to the mastery of drawing. If you want to learn more about slowness, read my article on How to practice drawing efficiently.

This slowness contrasts with the impression that is felt in front of master drawings, that is the impression of completion and unity . But any drawing is a complex concatenation of an artist’s life : years of learning skills, years of producing paintings, personal life, interactions with others and so on. And every new drawing inherits the complexity of all the others. Therefore, if we are to progress, we can’t possibly ingest everything at once. We need to acknowledge that learning to draw is like a game of chess played on a whole lifetime. Moves are slow and we need to think them over at every step.

Why learning to draw takes so much time n°6 : How the draftsman should spend his time?

“The child is innocence and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelling wheel, a first motion, a sacred Yes.” (Nietzsche, Zarathoustra)
 

Our modern world has misled us into thinking that we are masters of our reason and that we can shape our time the way we want. But anyone who has any experience will know better than. The truth is that we don’t have much control over our lives and on ourselves. And if we had the folly of building a good conceptual excel-like schedule for ourselves, we would retaliate as soon as we tried putting it into practice. We won’t take orders from ourselves easily. That’s how we humans are and it is no use trying to fool ourselves.

Therefore, we need to make our daily routine practice more resistant to ourselves and to the outside world. That’s not an easy task by any means.

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