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The TWO SKILLS Necessary for Good Drawing

August 30, 2021 12:59 PM | Dan Nelson

I’ve discovered that there are TWO separate and distinct skills that must be developed if you want to develop a high degree of skill in drawing or rendering things accurately. 

The two skills are:



These are easy to describe with examples-- The first skill is the one artists exercise whenever they do live-model figure drawing, live-model portrait drawing, or plein air painting. It basically means that artist looks really, really hard at the subject, does all kinds of inner-mental-gymnastics, and then paints or draws what they see—or THINK they see, to be more precise.

The second skill is the one we develop whenever we pick up a book like "How to Draw the Human Figure" or "How to Draw a Realistic Portrait" or "How to Paint Trees" and so on. Most of us do this online these days, but the principle is the same: when you pick up such a book, look at such a website, or video, the teacher says something like "The average human is 8 heads tall" or “The sky gets lighter close to the horizon . . . “ and so forth. We would learn all these rules eventually through our own observation, but these tips get us down the road toward competence more quickly.

Here's the surprising thing to me-- IT REQUIRES BOTH OF THESE SKILLS to get really good at realistic drawing/rendering. 

Let me give you an example from my experience-- Several years ago I participated in an art competition in another state. Most artists came with their work already finished, but I— having a bit of masochist in me, evidently— did all my work on location. I painted 12 hours a day for 3 weeks, and most of that time was spent doing portraits of people from my cell phone. I painted 77 realistic portraits (plus 8 landscape images) during those 3 weeks. I would have thought that after all those portraits, that I would be able to draw “yer basic human face” by rote perfectly! . . . But I was surprised to discover that this was not the case. I had spent the entire time exercising Skill #1, but none of Skill #2— the ‘by-rote’ stuff. 

On the other hand, if all you do is learn the by-rote stuff from teachers, like “Tree trunks are more likely to be gray than brown,” and you don’t LOOK at said tree trunks and say, “How ‘bout that! They really ARE mostly gray!” then you won’t develop great skill in capturing stuff realistically. It takes BOTH— memorizing AND observing. 

In both cases, it is the act of SKETCHING that is key. I’ve met some students who claim they don’t like doing sketch-books, they only want to paint. No problem! Sketch in paint, then! The key is you need to DRAW STUFF to get good at DRAWING STUFF. You can’t just LOOK at those “How-To” books, you have to draw the by-rote rules they discuss. Likewise, if you don’t try to DRAW the things you’re looking at, you just THINK you’re learning what they look like. 

Let me know how this works for YOU.

Until then, keep on painting . . . or sketching, really!


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