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Teaching yourself to draw

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Inspired by Noah Bradley’s Don’t go to art school blog at

Drawing and art in general has always been something I didn’t quite grasp or try to understand. I was a software development guy, a technical guy, used to writing code, looking at text, spending days and years in text editors others call IDE’s. Software development and art aren’t that different actually: they both require an open mindset and an extreme creative approach at solving problems. That’s one of the reasons I became interested in drawing. Another is to get some color into my journals. I’ve been journaling for about 7 years now and it’s been my most important tool in life. It helps me understand myself, collect and execute ideas and to keep the chaos in the world and my mind contained. Writing pages isn’t a problem, doodling either, but the page never really pops. Sketching is something I like to do now and then but after hearing things like “you can’t draw at all!” my motivation completely disappears.

How to really master a skill?

  • Deliberate practice
  • Getting down the pyramid chain:
    teaching > practicing > group discussion > reading > lecture
  • “10.000 hours” (it’s an average, I know)
  • Quantify yourself by using a feedback loop

My Feedback loop is this very blog.

It should be that simple. I intent to learn to draw within a year, without enrolling in a traditional school. To be successful, I will turn to books, online courses, experts in art by visiting expo’s/museums, experts in art by going to short term workshops, and above all: by lot’s of practicing. Noah states that $10k could be spent wisely within one year. I have no idea how much it will cost me but my intention is to keep it as low as possible.

Each learning ‘session’ will be another blog post. I have a general idea on what I like (ink, watercolor, anything physical, journals) and what I don’t like (acrylic paint, anything digital) but since there is so much I don’t know, this might change during the course of the coming year. Since Pinterest is so inspiring I’d like to upload as much of the artwork as possible. Sharing via pins makes it easier for people to try it themselves.

Take a look at my Pinterest profile by clicking on the icon on the bottom of the page. If you’re looking for all blog posts about learning to draw, check out the 'Teaching yourself to draw' tag.

Are you familiar with the frustrated feeling you get while visting an art supply store and staring at all the equipment but having no idea what does what? That’s me. So, I figured…

Start with the beginning.

Snow&Rose workshop: Illustrative techniques was my entrypoint. It’s a 10-week (once a week) workshop to cover the basics of drawing illustrative creatures, flowers, landscape, anything. No realistic drawing, no up-front knowledge required and each week it covers another medium:

  1. charcoal and pencil
  2. bistre, reedpen
  3. pastel
  4. aquarel
  5. acrylic paint
  6. aquarellable colorpencils
  7. ecoline
  8. ink with fineliners
  9. collage/scrapbooking
  10. mixed media

Price is 390 EUR. As it’s only once a week, it creates the perfect opportunity for me to practice drawing “stuff” between the lessons and to experiment a bit with the different mediums.

I made some christmas-themed cards with cheap pastels during the third lesson. It starts out very simple. I’m still having difficulties buying the right equipment. The pastels used above are very hard and grainy, and don’t contain a lot of pigment. That is clearly visible in the gameboy one on the far left: the brown paper shouldn’t be that visible. Small steps, small steps…

But I suck at drawing!

So do I.

Each week (this sounds like a promise I’ll have to make to myself) I’ll post a new blog post summarizing what I’ve learned about drawing, art ant painting. Hopefully, after 52 posts, others who are thinking about making the step won’t be that intimidated as I am right now. I’ve already felt that looking too much at work of others (in Pinterest for example) completely demotivates me. You’ll always find someone who completely outperforms you. It’s not about their work, it’s about your own, and the progress you make, however small that might be. If it’s going forward, it’s going forward. There is no hardwired limit on where to go to. Let’s just keep on trying, failing, getting up and trying again! It looks like 2017 is going to be an interesting year for me.

Week 1

As you might already have read, I started the drawing adventure with a 10-week ‘illustrative techniques’ course. It sounds complicated but it wasn’t really: it’s more of a gentle introduction in different mediums (pencil, ink, acrylic paint, …) than a crash course in drawing techniques. I didn’t know then that to draw illustrations, you still have to be able to draw. (I’m reading “drawing at the right side of the brain” and I know better now). But still, thse drawings might be fun to look at or to compare to the other weeks.

These are all random drawings I did between the lessons to get myself familiar with a pencil. That sounds awful, doesn’t it? Who uses pencils anyway. The left scan contains some color: that’s an experiment. The brown is bistre, something we had to work with in the second class. The other colors are very cheap pastels.

So, what did I learn this week:

  1. Bistre can be a bit of a mess. You absolutely cannot wait, edges will form and it’ll be worse than watercolor.
  2. Expensive tools are better than cheap ones. Pastels are softer and contain a lot more pigment than the ones you can find in sale bins.
  3. I know the difference between a HB and a B4 pencil. I know how to sharpen one. Yay.
  4. These drawings look like doodles because they are a lot like doodles. I like drawing that but I have the feeling I’m missing a lot background info (will be continued…)
  5. Patience looks like an important skill to aid me in learning how to draw.
  6. Do not look at the work of others!

I warned you:

A drawing in bistre. Copyright Pinterest.

This also is bistre.


Week 2

After the illustration course, I’m not ashamed to admit I completely dropped the pencil out of the game. It creates lines easy to remove and that means I’m working on a drawing forever. I need something to commit myself to. That something is called ink.

It also seems that I already have stuff to get ink on a paper: pens. Ballpoint pens. Black, blue, whatever. Just simple pens you use to write with - the cheaper, the better. I came across Danny Gregory’s work Art before breakfast and The Creative Licence (buy the latter one if you can). These are very inspirational books that get you kickstarted drawing from zero by learning how to see, explaning negative space and other simple techniques. It doesn’t go into detail, it simply helps you get drawing.

And Danny is a fan of ink + watercolor. I immediately fell in love and knew that was what I wanted. So yes, put that pencil back where it belongs. I started trying to draw what I see.

It looks a lot brighter than week 1. After drawing with a pen a few times, it felt better and better. I tried to copy Danny’s style a bit by giving it some (water)color but that might be too much new stuff within a few weeks.

I’m particulary fond of the yellow post-it note: an impression of my left foot while waiting for my wife to finish shopping. I keep pen & paper with me at all times: that’s a healthy habit I developed 7 years ago when starting journaling. The first foot trace was a complete disaster by the way.

So, what did I learn this week:

  1. Pen > pencil.
  2. Danny Gregory rocks. He has tons of books and is co-founder of the Sketchbook Skool. Once I knew that, I enrolled in the “beginning” kourse.
  3. I like sketching more than doodling.
  4. “Seeing” is incredibly hard: I constantly mess up proportions.
  5. Adding watercolor seems to add a lot of dimension.

Let’s take a look at what Danny does:

Danny Gregory's drawing. Copyright Pinterest.


Week 3

I wanted to continue my quest of finding my own style within ink and watercolor boundaries. After the amazing discovery of, I switched to using Artline fineliners. I also have some Steadlers but hardly notice any difference between different felt tip pens if they have the same thickness. I found a short course by Shirish Deshpande on drawing with ink and creating some contrast and texture. The drawings in the videos are amazing and I tried to copy them to my best abilities.

The ink flowing from a technical pen is much more intense than a standard ballpoint pen as seen in week 2. I like that a lot. It also enables me to be much more precise and that is something that I tend to do a lot. I usually draw (too) small and try to cram in as much details as possible. The thinner the felt tip pen, the better for me. (Although I borked a 005 one, those guys are very sensitive!).

During the snow & rose course, the lesson with the fineliners suited me the most, and now I have that same feeling. I finally give (cross-)hatching a shot and it really looks a lot better. Thanks Shirish, for building up my confidence in drawing with ink!

So, what did I learn this week:

  1. Intensity of ink matters.
  2. Contrast is extermely important and gives your drawing an “oomph”
  3. I learned the “hatching”, “stipling”, and “random” technique.
  4. Fineliners > ballpoint pens > pencils (sensing a trend here, fountain pen coming up)

Let’s take a look at what Shirish does with his pens (and added colored ink):

A sketch made by Shirish. Copyright Pinterest.

He usually doesn’t color with watercolor but with (diluted) colored ink. I have yet to try that.

Week 4

As I’m slowly getting a tiny bit better at drawing things I see, I still don’t have a fundamental basis to rely on. Until I’ve read “Drawing at the right side of the brian” from Betty Edwards. Everything I’ve read in there came as a complete revelation to me. She explains how you should “look” at things, what is important to look out for when realisticly drawing and how values/tones work. It’s an amazing book and I’m very glad I’ve added it to my toread list (a few years ago, I finally got around to actually reading it.)

Yes, I am well aware that the second portrait still looks like crap but come on, at least it shows highlights, it has a decent contour and my skull isn’t “chopped off”. Both drawings took me 45 minutes. I’d say that’s a definitive improvement here.

Other exercises in the books concentrate on hands, interiour, chairs, … Everything is done with a pencil. My preference is starting to lean towards 2B and 4B instead of HB.

So, what did I learn this week: (these are some quick oneliners that summarize each important chapter in the book)

  1. Draw (shared) edges of stuff: call them contours.
  2. Draw spaces between stuff: call it negative space.
  3. Draw relationships between stuff: call them angles and proportions.
  4. Draw lights and shadows on stuff: call them tonal differences.
  5. Do not draw the appearance of stuff: call it “the gestalt”.

The last point is an interesting one. It’s also called “making it come together” and is usually achieved by simply focusing on the other 4 points.

Doing these exercises gave me a real boost in confidence and motivated me to draw even more. I even started enjoying the use of a pencil - soft shading is nice and not doable with a pen!

Read more on how to draw better in Jen Review’s How to Draw Better blog post.

I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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