Improve Your Drawing Ability...Quickly

by AnomalousArtist

Working in the animation business I was surrounded by brilliant artists who shared tips with me on how to improve one's drawing skills; here are some of them.

I'm not a great draftsperson...I may not even be that GOOD. But through time, experience and practice I have definitely become a BETTER draftsperson.

I have drawn all my life but my skills were generally unstructured and self-taught in my youth. I attended art school briefly and came to the realization I didn't need to spend a lot of (my parents') money to learn how to become a "starving artist."

Somehow or other (but that's another story) I ended up in the animation business drawing pictures for a living for 13 years at major studios like Disney and DreamWorks. While there I was surrounded by master works of art and the masters who created them. Along the way I learned some interesting tips that might be of use to artists hoping to "plus" their own work.

Colored Pencils
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1) Observation is key

The most essential tool for creating a nice drawing is the ability to reproduce what you see in the world in your own way.  To "see" a thing in your mind is to be able to see it on a page, physical or digital.  Look at everything, study everything around you, see how it moves or stands still, ask yourself why it IS the way it is.  If you understand something (anatomy, architecture, nature or light) you can reproduce it much better. 

2) Draw from life

The best way to make your work appealing is to have it connect with something in the "real" world, and this is done by drawing things that are "real."  Of course, reality is everywhere!  Pick something you like to look at and just...draw it! 

A seasoned artist can usually tell when a newer artist has or hasn't used some form of reference, at some point--often times a lack of reference will result in a forced, stilted drawing. You don't HAVE to use an actual model in an actual life drawing class necessarily--people and animals are everywhere--but it's ideal if you can. Trips to the zoo, watching your animal companions; life is everywhere and just waiting for you to interpret it as a drawing!

3) Trace!

While the first two tips might seem obvious, and any artist is probably doing these things already, this one might not be so common, but it really helps. 

If you have a specific artist or style you like, particularly when it comes to cartooning, tracing is a great way to start out. 

Like everyone before me and since, I had a difficult time trying to draw Mickey Mouse; there were many nuances that made it difficult to get the character "on model" as we would say at the studios.  I learned by going over and over existing drawings and getting to know the quirks of the character and why the designers did what they did with it.  An example: when drawn, Mickey's ears are placed on his head so that they both show well in a flat drawing but is hard to replicate in 3D; also, Mickey's ears are never completely round, just a *little* bit oblong, in a very specific way.

The same can be true of master works, if you're more interested in fine arts.  At one time, one test requirement to get into the famous California-based art school CalArts was to reproduce, by sketching, a famous existing painting.  It's an excellent way to discover and study the challenges a master artist faced while creating a masterpiece. 

4) Keep reference handy

If you're serious about becoming better at drawing it's a good idea to keep a "library" handy; a place, either physical or on a computer, where you can quickly pull up examples of what you're trying to draw--faces, fingers, animals, architecture, things you've collected.  This is well demonstrated in a great, quirky documentary from the 90s, "Crumb," where famous cartoonist R. Crumb displays the library of images he used for his backgrounds and the photographs he culled them from.

5) If it isn't working...fix it!

This was an interesting piece of advice I got from someone early in my career.  I asked a mentor once, "How do you get your work to look so good?"  She said to me, "I step away from it, come back to it, and if it isn't working...I fix it." 

Just like that?

It's a lot easier in principal than in theory--it takes years to train your eye to what makes some things work and why some things do NOT.  But I have used that advice in all my work since. 

If it doesn't look right, if you aren't happy with it, FIX it, and don't give up until you do.  It WILL improve your ability!

6) Share your work with others

This is probably the toughest thing to do.  No one wants criticism, but it's essential if you want to grow.  Although I believe you learn just as much through success and validation as you do through "failures," you've got to do both; I've yet to meet anyone who was truly an "overnight success." Success always comes at the end of a long trial period of fishing around.

But criticism is essential, that is, if it comes from someone whose opinion you value.  Be wary of showing your work to friends and family who only have your best interests in mind--you want the opinion of a respected, considerate, outsider if you can get it.

One of the best "criticisms" I ever got in life drawing class was, "That's really not very good." 

This was the instructor's honest opinion and it forced me to evaluate how I felt about my own work.  I had to ask myself if I'd achieved what I'd set out to do and, if so, I had to ignore the comment.  If not, I had to accept that there was some validity to it. 

In the end I took a mixture of both and it all helped me on my way to becoming a better artist and more mature adult.

7) Keep drawing!

The best way of all to become better at something is to keep doing it, and drawing is no exception!  Most "real" artists I know keep a drawing pad of some kind handy, even if it's a small notebook, so they can draw wherever/whenever.  For years I sketched in my notebooks at work and have recently begun compiling the hundreds of drawings in them into books both for posterity and to share; I'm amazed how many great ideas I've been able to pull out of all those random, quirky sketches I did mindlessly, things I've been able to use later. 

If you really want to get better at drawing the best way is to just keep doing it...but observing some of these tips might just help you push yourself to another level of expertise or personal satisfaction.

Links to pages with my drawings on them

warning: some of 'em are a little risque... :)
Updated: 05/16/2013, AnomalousArtist
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AnomalousArtist on 05/17/2013

Thanks for the comment and glad to hear it! My downfall was math--I'd draw characters swinging off the times tables to stay interested, ha ha

frankbeswick on 05/17/2013

At school I was excellent with language and appallingly poor with art, so this article is useful.

AnomalousArtist on 05/16/2013

Thanks you guys, and I sincerely hope it DOES help out or inspire someone :)

katiem2 on 05/16/2013

Really practical and to the point advice, I know a few budding artist that will find this helpful. Thanks for the guidance.

Tolovaj on 05/16/2013

If it isn't working - fix it! I like that. It comes handy in all situations:)

AnomalousArtist on 05/16/2013

Thanks! I have a hard time getting excited about inanimate objects/things in the background, personally My favorite thing is drawing faces!

dustytoes on 05/16/2013

I am enjoying reading your art pages. Your characters are interesting. Are there some things you prefer to draw over others, or some things you don't enjoy drawing at all? For me, it's people and animals - I just can't get the hang of it.

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