I am okay at drawing. That means: I am probably better at drawing than a random person walking down the street but I'm far, far behind the type of artists that regularly post in Instagram. I am also mostly self-taught: I took some initial lessons via mail from the well-known (at the time) Modern Schools, gave up for a couple years, and picked it back up in my late teens when I needed something to do besides programming and not having friends. Some of my drawings have been published, and one in particular has been stolen countless time by people who thinks copying things from the internet without attribution is fine.
I was recently asked what I would recommend to someone who wants to learn how to draw. This question took me by surprise for two reasons: one, because I was never asked this before, and two, because my answer was surprisingly useless even to me:
Any tutorial you find online will give you the right steps. But you'll only understand them after you already know how to draw.
This is a pointless answer, which also happens to be 100% correct. This post is my attempt at giving a slightly clearer answer, explaining why anyone would think that my advice makes sense and hopefully give beginners some good points on where to start.
Note 1: this post contains links to drawings of naked people. If you are not comfortable with drawn nudity, you should probably not follow the links and definitely reconsider whether figure drawing is good for you.
The boring advice
All drawing is, at its core, more or less the same. Whether you are interested into realistic drawing, comic drawing, manga drawing (a term I hate), webcomics or editorial cartoons, the art of representing human figures in 2D is based on 90% the same rules. Sure, US comics have more muscles and japanese manga characters have no nose, but the fundamentals are the same. A typical drawing curriculum should include:
- How to sketch a human figure. This guide is relatively good, while this one sucks for reasons I'll explain later on. If you've seen those wooden figures, they are useful for getting the hang of this step.
- The proportions of the human body. More specifically, this guide on how many heads you need to draw a full body.
- The proportions of the face. This is annoying enough that it often warants a section on its own.
- How perspective works. One, two, and three points perspective are the typical ones.
- How shadows work. Getting it perfect will take a long time, but "dark part is dark" will get you far with little effort.
Once you reach this point, you can either start learning about muscles and improve your anatomy (have you ever stopped to think about how weird knees look?), or become a caricaturist and call it a day.
The number of books and tutorials out there convering all these points is virtually infinite, and therefore any book you choose it's going to be probably fine. If you want some more specific advice, multiple generations of artists have learned with Andrew Loomis' books, which are freely available on the Internet Archive. You should start with Figure drawing for all it's worth, follow up with Drawing the head and hands, and fresh up your perspective with the first half of Successful drawing.
Practical advice I: Keep drawing
There are two extra pieces of advice worth discussing.
The standard advice says "keep drawing until you become good at it", which is technically true but only barely. The full, honest version should say:
Start with one drawing. It will suck, and that's fine. Once you're finished, look at it objectively and enumerate its defects. For your next drawing, focus on solving those defects. Repeat until you consider yourself good enough1.
In other terms: you can draw circles all day and all night for years, but that won't make you any better at drawing squares. If you want to get better at drawing, you first need to be aware of what's there to improve.
That doesn't mean that you can't be happy about something you just drew. Few things are as rewarding as putting your art supplies to the side, looking at your drawing, and admiring something knowing that you made it. All I'm saying is: you need to know what your blind spots are. If you are like me and your eyes are always sliiiiightly out of alignment, it is perfectly fine to still be happy about that portrait you just made. But if you are not honest and accept that yes, that one eye looks weird, then you will never learn how to fix it2.
Practical advice II: Copy other people
As the quote goes, "Good artists copy, great artists steal". Therefore, it is your duty as aspiring artist to copy as much as you can. Most self-taught artists I know started the same way, copying drawings over and over until they felt comfortable enough to start doing their own.
My suggestion: find an artist you like. Pick one of their drawings and copy it. Add the final work to your sketch folder. Repeat. This exercise serves several purposes:
- It will improve your pencil grip, make your lines stronger, and improve your technique overall.
- It allows you to focus on a sub-part of the problem (drawing a figure) without having to worry about the complicated stuff - you don't need to think about perspective, shadows or posture because the artist already did it for you.
- It helps you to build your personal portfolio. It will help you visualize your progress, and gives you something to brag about whenever someone learns you are drawing and asks you to see something you've done. Plus, it's not like you wanted to throw those drawings away, right?
- It will help you answer questions you didn't know you had. Do you want to know how to draw a feminine-looking nose? Copy one of Phil Noto's illustrations. Would you like to know how does a professional go from zero to done? You can watch professionals like Jim Lee do a couple pieces in real time online and even explain their process as they go. Are you wondering how much attention to pay to clothes and background? Once you notice that classical painters couldn't care less about whatever is below your shoulders, maybe you won't lose your sleep about it either.
Eventually, you'll start noticing that different artists have different skills to offer. Maybe that guy draws cool hands, that other artist draws clothes very well, and that third other one has very expressive faces. Copying their work helps you understand the tricks they are using, and adding them to your repertoire helps you develop your own style.
Rest of the owl
The final point is both super important and really difficult to explain to beginners.
Are you familiar with the how to draw an owl meme? This picture is very popular in amateur art circles because it goes straight to the core issue: that most tutorials will take your hand and guide you step-by-step, but then they will let go at a critical step and you'll fall down a metaphorical cliff.
The root of the problem, I think, is that one step where the book tells you to "do what feels natural" or to "just keep going". What these people forget, however, is that learning what feels natural takes a lot of practice!
This tutorial I mentioned above is as bad as it gets: the instructions tell you to "Draw some vertical and horizontal lines to plan your drawing", which is completely useless advice that only makes sense once you know which lines to draw and where. Whoever wrote that guide has forgotten what it was to be a beginner, and their advice is really not helping.
When that happens, you have two choices. You can look for a better tutorial, or you can keep going, and see how far you make it. There is no shame in trying and failing, and who knows? maybe you'll still make it. Truth be told, there is a point at which no tutorial can help you and all that's left for you to do is to just draw. But that only applies for specific, advanced tutorials. It is the sad truth that, as a beginner, you will often recognize bad tutorials only once you are stuck in them.
Nobody said the life of an artist was easy.
This guide ended up being longer than I intended, and half as long as it should be. That's always going to be a problem: the average artist does not let structure get in the way of their vision, and any attempt at a "formal" answer will stop halfway (as I have complained before). That said, if you would still appreciate a more structured approach, I have heard good things about Betty Edward's book Drawing on the right side of the brain.
And finally: have fun. All of this advice is useful for when you want to get objectively better, but there's a lot to be said in favor of simply drawing because you enjoy it.
Fair warning: in my experience, most artists never feel that they are "good enough". This is a well-known bug of art.
I believe the process of "find defect, correct defect, repeat" is why most artists I know are never happy about their work. Seriously, go to an artist and tell them you like a particular drawing of them - there's a good chance that they'll give some excuse for why the drawing sucks.