The magic trick for learning to draw

Have you ever thought to yourself ‘Oh man, I wish I knew how to draw (insert random thing)’? Here’s a secret – you do. Maybe you don’t know how to draw it as well as you’d wish, but you can draw anything you want, right now. And I’m going to teach you a magic trick that will prove it to you.

One comment I hear very often from people is ‘Oh I’d love to make patterns like yours, but I don’t know how to draw.’ My first impulse is to blurt out ‘Hell, neither do I.’ I know they wouldn’t believe that, so I usually just say something supportive instead. But the fact is, most of my freehand sketching attempts look like an unfortunate accident at the pencil factory. Don’t believe me? Check it out:

'Heartbroken' by Celandine, detail.

‘Heartbroken’ by Celandine, detail. Doesn’t that sketch look bad enough to make you cry?

The image on the left shows part of the final rib cage linework, but you can see a good portion of my original sketch. That’s the only sketch I did for that piece. Note how pretty much every mangled piece of the sketch became an actual thing in the final piece – so the sketch is very accurate, just also awful.

So what’s the magic trick for getting from point A to point B?

First, say the magic words – ‘I got dis.’ They’re more effective if you use a confident tone.

Second, spend approximately 15 minutes hunting down good reference pictures. Ideally you want to look at not just photographs of your subject, but also other artists’ illustrations of it, to get an idea of how they’ve decided to stylize and simplify it. Most of the time we draw things in a style so far removed from realism that looking at actual photographs can bring us more confusion than clarity.

Find a total of three to five pictures closest to what you want to draw, and spend a few minutes studying them. How did they handle the linework? How thick are their strokes? Are they showing volume through shadows? Are they adding perspective?

Finally, here comes the magic part – draw the thing. Draw it very, very slowly. You want every line to be deliberate and thought out. Say you’re drawing a petal on a flower – try to imagine it first. Does it curve outwards? Does it fold over in some places so you can see the inner side? Does it overlap with the petal next to it? How thick is it at the base? I suggest you sketch in PS if you can, because of the additional Magic Power of Undo. If a line turns out completely horrible, (and they will,) undo it. If it turns out partially horrible, erase away the ugly part. Glance back at your reference pictures any time you feel unsure.

The main goal is to visualize clearly where you want to put the next line, just before you draw it. Don’t try to visualize the whole flower, not even the whole petal. Just think ‘where does this next line go.’ Every well-placed line will inform the next. And there miraculously all of a sudden, you’ll have your flower. Once that first pass is done, look at the whole thing and see which parts stick out and need further improvement. When you’re fairly happy with the look of it, move to a new layer and start working on your final linework. Now that your shapes are in place and you know how you want your subject to look, it’s pretty much like tracing – the stress goes down and you can focus on making the lines smoother, prettier, and more dynamic.

This method really works like magic for me, and I have yet to encounter anything I wasn’t able to draw this way. Sometimes I get cocky and try some freehand sketching, thinking ‘surely I can do this!’, and invariably I get slapped back to reality by the shocking level of ugly that results from those attempts. But then I go back to my magic trick and everything works again.

The trick is really in the level of focus. We’ve all seen a hundred thousand flowers, we know how a flower goes – pistil, petals, stem. But that’s not good enough for drawing. When you’re drawing flowers, every flower is unique. You need to give yourself enough time to see beyond the general category of ‘flower’ and find one perfect flower for this part of this drawing that you’re making right now. And that takes a few minutes of deliberate thought.

Bonus Exercise for transcending your mental ‘I can’t do this’ barriers related to drawing – pick a random noun every day and draw it. Pick from a dictionary, pick from around your house, have your boyfriend or your kid pick for you. Draw it once from memory, then go look at a picture or the actual item and draw it again. Nothing fancy, just a five minute sketch. Don’t fret if both drawings turn out ugly as sin. Keep doing this for a year, changing your subject every day, and you’ll be stunned by this time next year at how far you’ve come.

Let me know how you get on with applying the Magic Trick. Did it work for you? Its one requirement is like that leap of faith in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – you have to believe it’s gonna work. I’d love to hear how it worked! 




4 thoughts on “The magic trick for learning to draw

  1. That piece looks extravagantly awesome! I’ve took a peek when you sent the newsletter and let me tell you, it looks really good. The amount of details!! It sounds like a really exciting project, can’t wait to see more of it : )

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