Why Can't I Draw? - Not Satisfied With my Art? - Part 1
Updated: Apr 5, 2020
[A little disclaimer before you begin the series - I'm just a cheeky girl going through my best creative period, which makes me wanna burst into colorful confetti and scream to the universe how good this feels. I'm writing to share my discoveries, and because I want you to discover your own. Please don't take my words in a serious serious business kind of way, this is just my humble way of hopefully contributing to a happier art life]
Part 1 - Why Can't I Draw?
How many times have we bashed on ourselves trying to draw, or paint, or do anything out of... nothing!?? Literally, we expect to know how to do things just.. because. Specially drawing. Why? Why are we supposed to know? Just because we have been doing some crazy doodles since we found some pigment and our mom let us scribble stuff on the cave walls, for about 300.000 years ago?
Ok, that's a very good argument, but no. We are not supposed to know how to draw things from nothing!
Let's go back in time to how it begins. I mean not the cave paintings, those are probably coming from the boredom in between lunch and dying/surviving in the next dinner meal prep. I understand. But let's go back to us. We grow up learning how to draw at school, usually with loosely themed activities, so it all comes from our... imagination. What will that imagination draw, then? When we are kids, we don't really think of the things we are being exposed to, we don't really read a great lot of information, we don't actively consume much, because.. well, we are kinda super busy learning a whole language from scratch, building vocabulary for the first time, learning how to read, how to understand and keep track of stories, we are learning the basics of socialization, autonomy, morals, values... it's a long list of important life things. Drawing usually is something we will do at school; at least for a short period of time while we're there. So we draw things we remember: the sun, clouds, our parents and siblings, teachers, our house, pets, little objects from our routine. Here and there some of us will draw a demon with 53 horns and a long whip-like tail, drinking orange juice with a "I'm gonna kill your whole neighborhood while you sleep" expression on his face and say he was at the dinner table the day before, but fortunately that's not very common.
UUf, thank God that's not very common. I mean... I'm not scared, are you?
Most people stop drawing after those annoying homework assignments of "draw the 5 most important people to you" or "draw what you want to be when you grow up". Most people get busy with other things and never really think about drawing, because they believe they have no talent, meaning they have no skill. Oh boy, the talent thing. It aaaaahhh it really bugs me. I'm itching right now, AAAA. Ok, let's keep going. I'm gonna phrase it differently. Most people go on and find interests in life to pursue, which they are going to study, read about, research and.. practice. Some people go to baseball practice, some people find salsa classes, some take swimming lessons. Some drop it after a few months, change to something else, some keep doing it for a few years. You can probably remember some random things you tried when you were younger. I did volleyball and contemporary jazz. What??? So I'm gonna exaggerate really badly now - nobody is born knowing how to perform a coronary angioplasty and stent implantation, right? Those are very common medical procedures for heart conditions. I wonder why no doctor is framed as being "SO TALENTED" when they're 8, in contrast to someone who decided to spend some time drawing anime. Ok, let's put my sarcastic-slightly-mad-when-she-talks-about-talent-her-#1-pet-peeve on the side and go back to the point.
What I really want to say is.. it's very very hard to draw things from imagination when your imagination is on the basic level of something. If drawing is the visual representation of a subject, then it's up to you to decide on how you want to represent that, it's true. But for most people, the idea of a "good drawing" is either a more detailed one or a more realistic one.
Now let's think about these types of "good drawings". It's very hard to draw your house when you don't really remember your house. It's very hard to draw your dog when you don't remember your dog. It's very hard to draw your mom's facial attributes when you don't remember your mom. Oh, wait. Nah, I chose those examples on purpose. I don't think you have amnesia, dementia, Alzheimer or anything. Even if you have, it's ok, I mean.. I, I better just move on, because I'm putting myself in a very awkward position right now. So you're like "Ivna.. what the hell? Of course I remember my mom. Not sure about my dog or my house, but my mom.. I surely remember her!". Alright then... let's see. Your mom had you at least in her 20s, which means if you're reading this you're at least 15, judging by social media analytics, so she is 35+ years old. Do you know how many things are happening on her face right now at (supposedly) 35, differently than when she was 25? Do you know how many wrinkles her face is gonna create depending on the facial expression she makes, and how they are gonna interact with each other? Do you know the angle her nose is gonna turn slightly when the muscles from her mouth pull the cheeks to each side? Do you know how the light casts shadows on every single one of her facial planes on the light setup you thought of her at? Oh wait, you haven't thought of the light setup? *ironic laugh* Do I need to go on how you probably don't know how many whiskers or jaw bumps your dog has, neither how many tiny colors the number plaque on the outside of your house displays depending on what time of the day you look at it? I sound terribly mean, I know, I'm so sorry. I don't mean to be the most arrogant person on earth, I just wanna tell you that I don't know any of that either. Of my own mom! I'm so sorry, mom! But I'm not afraid to admit that, which takes us to our first deep understanding of something big. We think we have a lot of information, when we actually barely scratch the surface. And it's ok! I promise!
LEADING OUR IMAGINATION WITH A LITTLE PUSH
Our first conclusion is: we don't know many things in detail, much less remember it. Sometimes we don't even know by looking at a picture.
I'd love to say that I'm kidding, but well.. not really. That's a very important first step to comprehending why we cannot draw amazing things out of nothing, just because we have some practice with gouache in kindergarten. This happens probably because we're not looking at it precisely, we're not paying attention to the right things. And it's normal. Completely normal. It takes a lot of studying, a lot of paying attention to details, light, shapes, contours, angles and proportions. Drawing is studying all of that, just like a cardiologist studies electrophysiology, cardiogeriatrics, coronary heart diseases and hemodynamics. I don't know why I keep going back to the medicine comparison. Maybe because it's pathetic how we praise one's choice of studies so much and devalue the other completely, thinking "it comes easily or naturally". Or maybe just because I'm an artist in a family of doctors - yea, that's probably why.
Second conclusion: we gotta study! That's when magic happens! If somebody came to you and randomly asked "Hey can you draw me a monkey riding a bike?", instead of thinking "Oh, I've never really drawn a monkey before, nor a bicycle, because most times I'm drawing cute people with cool outfits, or random characters with things I like", we go to this nonsense train of thought of "Yes, sure, I must know deep inside how to do it anyways, because I... am an illustrator, right? I should be able to do it, I'm pretty talented and I have been doing it for some time now".
No! NOOOO! Completely wrong! Don't do that to your poor little brain!! It might seem really obvious when we put two possible opposite ways of thinking like that, but this is really the story we tell ourselves, and it's incredible how we feel this pressure that we're supposed to know how to draw this or that, just because. No, you should not know. It’s ok to not know. It means you haven't dedicated part of your time to understanding and practicing that yet. It’s part of the whole thing. So next time somebody asks you "Hey can you draw me a monkey riding a bike?", you ask them "a capuchin? a baboon? golden lion tamarin? spider monkey? a japanese macaque?" plus "a mountain bike? hybrid? BMX? cyclocross? a tandem? some kid's bike?". Okay?
Again, not to sound like the full-of-herself-human-being that I just apologized for sounding like a few paragraphs ago, of course when somebody says “draw me a monkey” they’re thinking of a very generic one. One that just has the basic attributes to be recognized, like a long tail, round ears, flat nose and face. But these can be represented in so many ways. The curious part is that when people say "draw me x or z", they pretty much have some idea of what they're thinking. Because they've seen a handful of monkeys, whether it was from pictures, memes or the nearest zoo. But you don't really have the same monkeys in your head, because you lived your own experiences. Maybe you went to another city's zoo, to a foreign country where they're super visible. "You had access to different monkeys". To keep it short, if you have a vague idea of something, if you don't know how it works and don't remember it very well, guess what? - you're not gonna be able to make an amazing drawing version of that thing!
THE SECRET THAT IS NO SECRET
But there is no need to panic! It just means that you have to start researching! If you can't book a trip to Brazil and lose yourself on the Amazon Jungle just to stalk monkeys and draw them all day, and maybe never find your way back home (it's the biggest jungle in the world, after all), hop on google instead, find some amazing blogs, forums and communities sharing fantastic monkey pictures, try to find different angles, lighting, framing, poses.. and start learning about your subject! I'd say it's one of the most pleasing parts of the process of drawing. We discover so many nuances and so many parts of nature just by looking at a picture with a different goal in mind.
But Ivna, what about those people who are not even old enough to consider buying a trip to Brazil from your advice and they are already so freaking great at drawing? Like that 14 year old who is not even in high school and already has 200k followers on instagram?
First of all, that's.. amazing. I'm not jealous, I'm not jealous, I'm not jealous.
(maybe if it repeat it enough it's gonna turn out to be true)
Second of all... congratulations to that little person, because she found an interest and pursued it, non-stop; found a comfortable place in her skills after practicing a lot, and gathered many many people to follow her journey in continuing this exploration. That's basically what I wish for anybody in life! But let's get a little bit more technical about it, shall we?
There is this post on Austin Kleon's blog where he shares that "problems of input are problems of output" (it's a great post!), meaning that when we feel blocked, it's usually because we're trying to put things out too much without letting things in. Well, of course his wording is waaaay better than the disaster I just did to his idea, which is why you have to go read it! Hahaha
"Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself"
Little 14-year-old smart kid probably, like many other of his school friends, watched a lot of cartoons, anime, Netflix, youtube and saw many, many, MANY artworks on instagram, pinterest, and the internet in general. Sounds familiar? Yeah, of course, that's basically what pretty much all of us are doing, to some extent and lots of variation. So what's the difference? Why can't I have 200k followers and why do I still draw stick figures even though I have binge watched all Studio Ghibli movies? My Totoro looks drunk and lost. Which is baaad, 'cause he lives in his own forest, how could he be lost? That's about how terrible it is. Well, I'm sure you know the "number one" advice every single person in life is gonna tell you when you want advice for getting better at something:
Oh, you just have to practice.
Ok, I have to practice.
Good. Now I practice, right?
Oh, practice. What a world of its own. It's like this 7-headed monster. One of its heads is procrastination, the other is impostor syndrome, the other is lack of motivation, there is another one for being out of inspiration and you know, the monster is still popping out some weird heads here and there, it's like never-ending! So why is it that some people get to just watch something and go straight into thing-making and come up with this intricate masterpiece afterwards, while so many others just... don't feel anything strong enough to put away the bag of chips, clean the sofa and crack open their sketchbook? Oh my, it has like spider webs at this point. Dust from 2 months ago.
Well, I'm sorry to be annoying, but... you have to practice.
Wait, let me make it pretty this time...
You just have to practice
"No Ivna, I already passively accepted when you mentioned it a few lines ago, this time I'll go against you! How the hell am I gonna practice? I don't feel motivated enough, I don't know what to draw, how to begin, what to do, I don't even know if I deserve to be this thing I think I want to be, I don't even know who I am anymore, what is life?"
Let's take a deep breath! If you don't know how to do something, you just have to.. study it! Every single artist you like drew stick figures at some point. It doesn't matter how insane is their skills now, if you check their drawings as a kid, if you go back long enough, you're gonna see the same exact type of drawing you did. You just didn't pay attention because at that time everybody was on the same level. The difference is that the artist you like maybe was drawing while you were having piano lessons or selling cookies. Maybe she cannot dance like you do, nor write that well. Because she was focused in one thing more than others, that one thing naturally blossomed. We can both be sure that that doctor guy didn't jump to his first surgery after deciding he wanted to save lives and all. Isn't it freeing? If people can go anywhere and reach some other point in their artistic skills, so can you. You just gotta put some thought about it.
So why is it that you feel lost?
A REALLY TOUGH AND FACELESS MONSTER
I believe everybody feels inspired, a lot of times. When we watch a movie that has a nice story, when we watch an animation with a cool style and colors, when we see a picture of a place we think is beautiful, when we hear words that re-shapes the way you think of the world. And you wanna know the secret to all of this? Recognizing when you feel it, and trying to understand why. It's a very important step. These days, more than any time in history, we have the craziest amount of information slapping us on the face pretty much all the time. All the freaking time. If I go watch a video on youtube... on the way to this video I see 10 more videos, words, sentences and pictures, then I click on the video, I watch advertisement before it, during it and after it. Once I'm done watching, there are links, more pictures and some more videos somewhere on the video itself and to its right. What??? That's crazy! I thought I had a very specific thing to do (watch a video), but on the way there, my attention was caught by so many other things. You can argue that I still watched the video, ok, but look how much more unsolicited information I got. What happens is that all this information is not being used, we are acquiring it for.. nothing, it's pretty much for passive reasons. This creates a lot of clogged input... with no output. It's a lot of consuming, with not much producing to even things out.
It's hard to stop that from snowballing. The more we consume... the more we consume! So we are like.. practicing consuming. I'll tell you one thing that I hope and wish you keep:
You get better at what you keep doing.
If I keep watching cat videos, I'm gonna get really good at watching cat videos. If I keep sweeping my house with a red broom, I'm gonna get really good at sweeping my house with a red broom. Not a green broom, a red one. Why am I being so ridiculously specific with my examples and... ridiculous in general? Because we think if we watch many organizational videos we are going to be good at being organized. No!!! We are gonna be good at watching organizational videos!! If we watch many tutorial videos on how to draw hands, we are gonna be very good at watching hand drawing tutorials, not at drawing hands. Because to become better at drawing hands, we have to draw hands. And to become better at being organized, we have to start trying to organize something. That's what I want to come to.
You get better at what you keep doing.
The more you do it, the more you will do.
Oh my, it must be so annoying that I keep giving you those simplistic statements, right? But it's the truest truth i'll ever tell you, and once you start remembering it, so many things change!
THE MONSTER IS ACTUALLY EVERYBODY'S ACQUAINTANCE
How many people say they have "this great idea"? They wanna write a book, make a zine, paint these beautiful landscapes, start this company, open a restaurant, sell this amazing product, yada yada yada. Yeah, ok, I got it, you think you are this undiscovered artist that nobody is paying attention to, and it's so unfair that people don't see your things! (ok before i try to apologize again for sounding absurdly arrogant.. that's basically me talking to myself, which is so very ironic, let's laugh together) SO SAD, HUH? Guess what, everybody probably feels that way. The one that annoys me the most is the "I wanna be rich". Oh really? You wanna have money to buy all the cute things you see around, to cover up any possible medical emergencies you and your closed ones might have in life, to not worry about mortgage or rent, to choose exactly the place, location and decoration you wanna have in your house without budgeting, and to experience many different cultures and natural wonders comfortably and luxury, all depending on your wills only? How peculiar you are! Soooo unique! You have no idea whatsoever on how you're gonna get rich or any step to get there, but you know you want all those things.
I don't even have to argue.
Yea, I won't.
It's very very obvious, right?
Nah, I'm still gonna say it, in case aliens invade earth, find this blog article and want to get very specific insight on how humans are, without doubting if they are always humorously ironic or not:
Everybody wants the security of living in a stress-free environment, where all your basic needs are covered, so you'll have time, mental space and physical abilities to pursue whatever else you feel like
So this was a very aggressive way of saying "No, you're not special because you have ideas. That's actually very human, if you're having ideas it means you're succeeding in being human and that's very good." I mean, I was talking to aliens just now, I'm not even sure I'm succeeding at being human at this moment...
Back to the point(s)!
We don't simply know things, we must study them
Studying is the first step, working is the next one
Working is the only thing that will get you to become better at making something
I have to pause the list of points we're making right here, because this sounds weird. Working is not THE ONLY THING to do in order to get better at something. It is, but it's not. It is, because you can study, read, hear, research and collect, this will all make you expand your knowledge about a subject. But it's only when you apply that knowledge that you actually develop a skill. For every single field of interest you decide on diving deeper, you are going to encounter so many more things to work on. Like a tree that has so many branches that you cannot even count them. We're down there beside the trunk, looking up at this majestic canopy when we find a new hobby. It's scary, but that's a good sign! When we see a tangled and tortuous canopy we are both amazed and slightly scared, right? Same thing for your new hobby! There is a lot to explore! Specific to drawing, you can try a realistic approach, cartoony, stylized, graphite, markers, watercolor, gouache, oils, acrylics, digital art, colored pencils, you can try mixing them up and there is a whole world of possibilities, which you already know. Me and my simplistic examples again! Going back to "watching drawing tutorials", we feel like when we watch them we are learning, because we are studying! We are learning the theory of it, which would make us good at repeating the theory. But with drawing, 99% of the outcomes are actual artworks*, so you're gonna have to be good at drawing the freaking hand, not just explaining how you'd do it. You have the theory to help you out for when you go practice, but you have to practice. Ok? Cool? Don't hate me for thinking I said working is the only way of improving, it's not what I mean! But working is still the only way to doing better work. By the way, how funny is it that the word "artwork" is art + work?
This is the beginning of discovering why you feel lost. You have to understand where you are in this scale. Have you found your interest? Have you studied it? Have you worked on your skills and practiced it? Have you applied your skills to a greater idea or project? Most of the times, we jump straight into the last part of the process: we try to already draw a long format zine or comic, and then we feel so frustrated with the inconsistency of our styles, or with our lack of ability to break down the big plan into smaller manageable tasks - which manifests itself in form of procrastination, avoiding the work and anxiety. The reason we still keep trying anyways, is because we are inspired by the final form of an art, and we want to do our own versions of that. One day we saw an amazing portrait, got inspired and thought it would be nice to draw our own pet or a friend. One day we bought a really cool shirt, got inspired and thought we could totally come up with puns and funny designs to wear, too. See the pattern? We're always drawn to engage in something at first because we get inspired by some sort of polished version of that skill. We feel inspired with a movie because it tells a story in a way we relate to, we feel inspired with a book because they said words we always thought but had never actually seen, we feel inspired on museums and exhibitions because we see how a picture changes the ambient. We get inspired all the time!
We want to put our own ideas out there too. We have so many! Re-mix our interests and express ourselves. It's only human to do so. But we forget that there is a long rocky path to it, in which we learn, grow, find a lot of problems to solve, and do the most important thing: improve. So we should not skip the steps in it, in any ways, or we will face those bumps later on, anyways. There is no predicting the future to know what kind of things we are going to encounter, yes, but we can prepare to deal with them in a healthy, sustainable way. I believe we can think about our approach of drawing. We should think about it, and help our brains get through it. Because if we don't, it goes some weird and ridiculously pressuring ways of "oh you should know this" or "you should be able to do that". No you shouldn't, you should only understand where you're at, and find ways to go further. It's learning about learning. And that's why I'm gonna do my best to give you a good perspective on all the things I gather to learn about drawing. The technical part, but also the invisible part. How to draw hands, yes, but also how not to abandon your practice, how to find your style, your next project, and how to motivate yourself to keep going.
Let's understand what's pushing you away from the things you like, so we can stab those demons on the back together and go draw happily. I don't know why I get so dark with my references sometimes, I think it's cause I love horror movies and this part of me comes to the surface at times.
That's it for now! Here are the following parts of this series, I hope you stick around and check them out as I share my best golden bits of information :)
Thank you for reading!!
Not Satisfied With my Art: