If you want to learn how to draw, read this. All of it. Or you can go be entertained by some process video on YouTube, try to do it yourself, fail, then binge something on Hulu like you always do, and be stuck in a rut for the rest of your life because you still don’t understand what drawing is.
If you make it to the end, let me know. If you have questions, ask. If you think this is stupid, you’re me 25 years ago, so you’ll ignore it and hope the questions its raised in your mind will just go away. Maybe after a quarter century of pain, suffering and defeat you will figure it out for yourself.
This is not about how I make art—it’s about how YOU SEE, how we all interpret a three-dimensional reality from two-dimensional imagery.
This post is all words. No drawings showing you how to do it. But all these strong words are needed to dislodge you from your misconception about what drawing is. Get mad at me if you have to. I don’t care how you think about me—I care how you think about drawing.
You think drawing is if you get the shape of that nose exactly like how it looks out there, or employ subtle “shading”, you will have drawn a great-looking face. It doesn’t work, so you try again and again. Maybe it looks good, maybe it doesn’t. You can’t tell because you don’t know what drawing really is.
Drawing, as I’m using the word here, refers the powerful tool we use to create the illusion of form and space in 2d art. Whatever the medium, if your picture has solid form, it’s because of solid drawing. If it has “drawing problems”, the illusion of form suffers. This is what is meant by “drawing” in the technical sense.
Can you make great, wonderful art without solid drawing? YES, of course! Of course you should do that if you want. If not…
LESSON ONE: WELCOME TO THE UPSIDE-DOWN
You might want to stand on your head for this…
As representational artists, we don’t RENDER form, we CREATE the ILLUSION of form. The difference is significant: the form does not come from the 3d reality being depicted, it comes only from the drawing, obviously, right? Your subject out there may be three-dimensional, but your drawing is two-dimensional, and it is the only thing your viewers see.
A drawing is not a copy or a rendition or a version of some other reality—it is its own reality, a direct line to the viewer’s brain, like you are drawing on the chalkboard of their mind. If you are able to do that, then it seems to the viewer like you are depicting forms that really exist. You must understand this paradox!
In art we have this amazing abstract thing: the line. It is the most basic way of making a shape. Yet that shape, lacking value (lightness/darkness) and color, is not real. Why do we perceive a four sided figure (e.g. a rectangle) as a shape? What even is a shape? Shape is just a human concept. Why does this matter?
Because it demonstrates that 2d representational art is an abstraction. Masterful line art proves that you can create the illusion of a three-dimensional reality without using anything that belongs to that reality. That should tell you what drawing is.
LESSON TWO: DRAWING IS A LANGUAGE
This is not a clever metaphor—it is a direct analogy. Drawing is a means of idea transmission. A drawing is not a copy of reality—it is a tangible, external product of your mind.
You learn to use language by listening to other speakers; analyzing, or being instructed about how the language works; and communicating in that language—not by observing reality. You can stare at a tree all day and you’re still not going to know how to say “tree” in Swahili. If you can say “tree” in Swahili to a person who understands Swahili, the person won’t think “You are speaking Swahili”—she’ll just be thinking of a tree, because you generated that thought in her mind with your use of language.
When you are fluent in a language you think in that language. Fluent means it flows. It doesn’t mean you are Shakespeare. It doesn’t mean you have a huge vocabulary or anything interesting to say. It simply means you don’t have to think about doing it—instead you use it TO think.
Even if you spend time figuring out how to say what you want to say with words, using a thesaurus, etc., you are NOT struggling or even thinking about the fundamentals of your language. That is fluency.
Once you are fluent, then you look at and listen to the world (and/or your inner demons), and use your language to express your own subjective experience of these things.
But learning a new language feels super awkward. You can’t express yourself. You have all these ideas but they can’t come out. You’re so embarrassed you revert to the security of speaking your own language, even though that means the other person can’t understand you at all and thinks you sounded much less stupid when you were speaking her language, however clumsily, and is maybe irritated that you are making her work so hard to understand you. Sound familiar?
Well don’t feel bad, because…
LESSON THREE: WE’RE BAD AT DRAWING
Humans are wired for spoken language, but we are really bad at drawing because we’re really good at seeing. I told you we’re in the Upside Down.
It’s like this: our visual apparatus is fully devoted to interpreting form, without knowing why or how or even THAT it is doing this. You actually think you are seeing forms out there, but you’re not! Your brain is responding to a two dimensional image on your retina.
Do you know how you walk? Do you know how you think? You don’t know how you see either. You don’t know how you see because you’re so good at it. The problem is you base your assumptions about how drawing works on this lack of understanding of how seeing works.
So how do we reverse-engineer the process of seeing? By exploiting how good we are at it! If you think this contradicts the point I made above, it’s because you are not looking in the right direction…
LESSON FOUR: DON’T DRAW FROM LIFE
Gasp, cough!! What?! Yes, drawing from life is critical for most representational artists. But it’s not how to learn to draw. Because there is a difference between how drawing works, vs. drawing things.
Yet, art education combines the two in foundation life drawing class, where you are to employ your (nonexistent) drawing skills to understand the human form, and, conversely, the human form is supposed to teach you how to draw!
Drawing from life/observation is how you learn about that specific subject, but not how you learn how to draw.
LESSON FIVE: HOW TO (LEARN HOW TO) DRAW
Keep your eyes on the drawing. By looking at our dang drawings (and other people’s drawings) we are studying the language of drawing. And a drawing that is not working is just as instructive as one that is (fortunately we all have tons of the former to look at).
Drawing is a 100% learnable skill. Maybe some people are more naturally equipped for it, maybe they develop drawing skills intuitively. If that’s not you, don’t worry—it’s not me and many other artists (and I know how to draw, now J) .
So pick up a pencil, put aside all ref, and try to draw forms. Imagine a form, then draw it, or draw a shape, and see if it has some hint of form. If it does—see why, and make it have MORE of that. If something is working against form, make it have LESS of that. You will become very sensitive to what is making form and what is killing form.
This is different from what you are doing now: now you are trying to draw THINGS. When your drawing isn’t working, you think the answer is to look at the thing more, to make your drawing more closely resemble the thing. Instead you need to remove all the specific thing-ness and just look at the raw language. Does the sentence make grammatical sense: Subject-verb-object, regardless of what the specific objects and actions are? It will if you know the language.
Don’t draw cylinders, spheres, etc.—because those have a right and wrong. You need to be “accurate” with those, and that is another representational trap. You think if you draw that cylinder with perfect perspective and perfect ellipses it must definitely have form. What more could you do—you’ve drawn it exactly correct! NOT TRUE. You are concluding it has form because you understand that what is before you represents “correct cylinder”. But you’re not really seeing form. Learn the difference!
Make up your own unrecognizable forms. A sluggy blob mass. A lump of… some lumpy lump. You will confront the fact that you have previously been relying on recognizability and accuracy to get away with poor illusion of form.
See if you are fooled—really fooled. This form is definitely further back in space than that other form (or it isn’t, and why isn’t it?). That is a three-dimensional mass, not a flat shape. That blank spot of paper is closer to me than that other blank spot of paper.
Learning how to draw is simply learning how to look at your drawing and see what it is telling you. This requires brutal honesty. Courage, even. You must avoid that wide and hazardous middle ground where you get what the drawing is supposed to be doing, form-wise, so you become insensitive to whether it is really truly unquestionably achieving that.
Drawing recognizable things is a trap that will undermine your ability to understand how drawing works in the purest sense. It’s easy to make a drawing that looks like a thing. The real test is if you can draw a meaningless abstract form that the viewer understands unambiguously, so they could recreate it in clay or Zbrush and it would look exactly like what you intended.
Because you have not previously trained your brain like this, doors will open for you immediately.
You will be surprised at your ability to draw complex, organic forms.
You will develop your own form vocabulary. Once you’ve spent time exploring the abstract forms you find yourself gravitating to, loving to draw, for no tangible reason, they will burst their way into your drawings of things made from imagination and from observation. This naturally leads you to your own unique style. Whatever you draw will have power, integrity, authenticity, uniqueness.
Once you become a world-class liar with your drawing you will find that when you go to draw, say, the human figure, things like proportion and accuracy matter very little in the overall scheme of art. What matters is how the forms interlock—because there are no “correct” human proportions, especially not in art.
When you understand that form does not come from accuracy, you will have access to the bottomless source of art and imagination: inspiration. You can look at one human nose, for example, and draw a million very different noses that all have that basic form in common but reflect your style.
When you look at a model or photo reference you will now be striving to understand its form, rather than trying draw everything. You will look at life like a drawing, vs. looking at your drawing like an inadequate version of life.
You need to understand this because these principles are operating in your 2d art whether you realize it or not. Even if your work is non-representational, these principles are at work because humans compulsively deduce form from everything we see, even those nonexistent things we call lines.
CONCLUSION & HINTS
You think all I’ve done is told you to go figure it out for yourself. But that’s not all I told you to do.
I told you to try to fool yourself.
I told you not to draw specific things.
I told you to not look at anything other than the drawing.
If you need a bit more guidance, here it is. It’s not much. If you jumped ahead to this part, you will be disappointed. If you read all the way through to here, you’ll still be disappointed, but also maybe angry that I wasted your time. But I told you I don’t care what you think of me. In fact I want you to stop wasting your own time by trying to draw certain things in a certain way when you should first understand how drawing works:
It’s not about linear perspective
It’s not about line weight.
It’s not about “shading”.
It’s not about light (it really isn’t)
It’s not about aerial or atmospheric perspective.
It is about shapes.
Understand how shapes operate! They are the words of the language of drawing. And, one more time: it is not about copying shapes accurately or even kind of accurately—it’s about knowing how shapes function. Then you make your own shapes that are better than copying, and people see ‘accurate’.
More specifically, it’s about RELATIONSHIPS between shapes, or shapelationships, or, let’s go with “Relationshapes”—the point is, you need to remember that that is ALL that creates form.
You think the illusion of form comes from light striking surfaces. It doesn’t. In the real world light makes shapes. In your art you make shapes—and you can make better, more specific shapes, and fewer of them, leading to elegance and economy in your art.
Here is an easy way to see this: what makes it look like one shape is overlapping another? What makes you know you are seeing one shape on top of another, when in fact there are really just two or three separate shapes on a two-dimensional surface? This is the beginning of seeing for yourself that there is a grammar to the language of drawing.
If you try this approach you will likely have an ‘aha!’ moment, where you see what drawing is. This is “practicing smart not hard”, like struggling to draw from a model or plaster casts. It is a voyage of exploration and discovery!
Now please, go assemble some shapes!
You can see more of Chris Beatrice’s art at: