The Artistic Myth Debunked: How and Why Anyone Can Learn to Draw

Zeus, Sisyphus and “I can’t draw” are a few of the greatest myths of our time. Remember that art class when we were in elementary school (back when schools taught the arts) and there was that one kid who could draw the coolest stuff and we weren’t him. We’d break our pencils in half and whine, “I can’t do it!” Rarely, and sadly, did anybody ever say to us challenged youngsters, “That isn’t ture. You just have to learn how.” Instead, we all equated drawing skill to athletic ability: you were either graced with it or you should completely avoid activities requiring it. But just like the dodge ball victims of our youth are today obliterating that disparaging fallacy with their yoga and their moutain climbing, the frustrate finger painters are now channeling their dormant inner Van Gogh. Well, they could be anyway.

After my last semester in college, I snuck into Italy under the guise of studying art–not because I was that kid in class who could draw (because I so wasn’t) but because it was the only school sponsored, ergo financially feasible, brigade going to the home of Michaelangelo and Vito Corleone. I warened the instructors that I couldn’t even draw stick people. They smiled and said, “Don’t worry. We’ll show you how.” I was sure they’d heard my line before, but I was terrified of proving it to them.

That summer, I discovered gnocchi, Italian discos and the truth about drawing. “Learning to draw is like learning to write,” one of my beloved, patient teachers told me one evening over vino rosso and authentic bruschetta. Discovering I could draw was an incredibly empowering experience–one I want to share so that others may learn.

First off, equipment is everything. Snag your yellow pages and look up ‘Art Supplies.’ Now when you enter the art store, you’re going to feel as comfortable as a guy walking into Victoria’s Secret for the first time, but just navigate your way to the counter and confidently the natural-born-artist with an employee name tag for their drawing section.

When you get to the section, you will see more pencils that you have ever seen in your whole life. Don’t fret. Just look for a small package of four graphite or charcoal pencils. Most likely there will be one HB, 2B, 4B, 8B–this is their thickness/heaviness. The graphite pencials are about a buck a pop, while charcoal is a whopping 100% more at $2 a pencil. (Derwent is a good brand.)

Once you have something that makes marks you need something that erases marks. There are two erasers I love, one’s for when I’m feeling tidy and one for when I want to feel at one with my drawing. The fastidious artist will prefer an extra soft white vinyl eraser. (Factis is a good brand.) It works for graphite and charcoal and on all paper surfaces. The greatest eraser ever is the kneaded eraser. You need the kneaded eraser! These are fabulous because they are non-abrasive and they are your blending partner. For a buck, two if you want their extra huge one, this thing is your best friend. (Design is a good brand.)

Paper is more important than you think. Start with ‘rough newsprint.’ This stuff is cheap and it loves graphite and especially charcoal. Don’t buy a tiny tablet or a monster one (unless you’re extraordinarily ambitious) but you need one that’s at least 12″ x 12″. (Strathmore 300 Series Rough Newsprint 50 sheets 9″ x 12″ $2-3, 12″ x 18″ $3-5, 18″ x 24″ $4-9.) Not only is it imperative that you get good paper but the packaging is too. Don’t get some sturdy binding with a lovely cover that shelters only your best work. It should be plain, boring, ugly, if you can find it. You should want to hurry up and open it so you don’t have to look at the outside anymore. It should not be a treasured journal for which your drawings have to be worthy. Also, it has to be practical. Get something with a spiral so you can turn over pages or an easy-tear-out binding. This needs to look like a play pad, remember you’re an infant in drawing.

Naturally gifted artists can sketch masterpieces on their phone bill’s envelope using those stubby questionnaire pencils but the rest of us need the forgiveness and kindness of strangers. You may think you’re no stranger to pencils, erasers and paper, but, trust me, you are to these–and you’re going to wish you met them years ago.

Okay, you’ve got the garb, now what? Plump yourself down somewhere in your home, preferable a place you don’t sit down regularly so your brain is bamboozled into thinking you’re in a totally different place while still comforted by being in your own home–oh yes, there are tricks to this. Pick out an object you like, not love because you’re getting ready to crucify it, and stare at it for a while. Five minutes is good. Look at the shapes, the lines, the curves. Where does the light hit? Is anything in shadow? Is it at an angle? Do some things that should be equal seem not, like ears? Just look at it. Squint your eyes and see it as shapes and shades only. Now loosen the deathgrip you have on your brand new pencil so that you cradle it gently and, while still looking at your model, start outlining the shape of the object. It doesn’t have to be precise. Just know that a circle is over here and something tall is over there. Graze the pencil, make the graphite tickle the paper. When you’re done, go over it againt, this time being a little more detailed. The circle has two smaller unequal circles inside on the upper right and the tall thing in back is twice the size of the not-as-tall thing in the middle. Stuff like that. One that’s done, go over it again, adding more detail, more refinement. Then, again. The important thing to keep in mind here is that your eyes should be glued on the model about 80-90% of the time. Only occasionally look down at your paper.

After you’re done drawing, look at your creation for an appreciative moment–there has to be at least one good thing about it! Smile, laugh, whatever, then date it and put your tablet away and come back again the next day, or the day after, just as long as you come back eventually.

Some things to keep in mind:

– The first time you do this, your markings will either be too light or too dark and it will look nothing like you intended it to. Don’t worry. Your first capital “A” didn’t look so keen either.

– This is a learning process. Tenacity counts for a lot. Your observation skills, which are stronger than you think, will grow to be amazing. You’ll see the whole world differently. You’ll be looking at shades and curves everywhere.

– Don’t start with people. Your ability to disfigure will produce the likes of the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

– Start with medium-sized things like your Tiki statue lamp, not small like your good luck buffalo penny. But play with large things like the David, unless you’re not in Florence, then try things like buildings and cars.

– Then try small things on the big things, like the horse emblem on the Ferrari you just keyed. Play with things.

– Also remember to warm up. The greatest athletes in the world do a little stretching before gametime. Time yourself, say three minutes. Do six sketches in that time. (Yes, that’s 30-second sketches.) All you’re doing is getting the shape and highlights and cueing up your eyeballs.

– Finally, don’t show your sketches around. Poeple will be as excited about seeing them as they are about seeing pictures of your children. Really, you’re the only one who has to be delighted with them.

When you start getting jazzed with this whole doodling shebang, it’s time to go back to the art supply. Put down your graphite, pick up some charcoal and get dirty. No, don’t go digging outback in your neighbor’s grill, buy some compressed charcoal sticks. The slick pieces are artistically arousing and make you feel bohemian–or like you’re back in kindergarten. Try colored paper. Try neon charcoals on black paper. Get pastels and draw blue bananas and pink puppies. Find out what the fuss is about those weird ‘conte’ things. (Conte crayons are thinner and harder than traditional pastel sticks giving a crisper detail.) Draw on leaves, on T-shirts, on top of another drawing. Grab some of those waxy crayons and draw on your boyfriend or girlfriend’s back. Pretty soon you’ll discover that drawing really is just like writing. You can do it in a lot of different ways on a lot of different things for a lot of different reasons. And remember, even if it doesn’t turn out exactly like you imagined, maybe it’s just that your imagination is better than the real thing.

Finally, as you gaze at your creations (sometimes while cringing,) never forget why you’re doing this. It’s not to become a professional artist. It’s not so you can sketch your mother and give it to her as a birthday present. It’s not even to prove to that elementary school teacher that she’s a fool who missed your potential. No, it’s to discover that you can indeed do something beautiful that you didn’t believe you were capable of doing. It’s to exercise a different part of your brain (somewhere in the right hemisphere of your cerebrum.) It’s to enjoy the thrill of sitting down and telling yourself, “I will draw for a half hour” and then glancing at the clock a moment later to discover it’s been forty-five minutes. Okay, and maybe it is partly to prove to that ol’ teacher she was flat out wrong about your artistic prowess.

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