People often admit to being prolific, if perhaps not proficient, artists in high school. I was no different. Class was my most productive time—I placed myself strategically at the back, hoping my teacher would think I was frantically taking notes on 19th century French literature instead of doing crude drawings of video game characters.
In college my output slowed down, but after graduation I decided to get more serious about drawing. Aside from a one-page feature in Amazing Spider-Man on how to draw hands like Mark Bagley I had been completely self-taught, but now I decided it was time to learn how to draw “properly”. So I bought some drawing books, rolled up my sleeves (a necessary precaution against graphite stains) and got to work.
Initially things went well. I did studies, exercises and still lifes as the books prescribed, but just as my skills started to improve something unexpected happened: I stopped drawing. I had lost my motivation. I tried habit-building techniques, joining a study group and buying new art supplies (has that ever worked for anybody?), but no matter what I tried I couldn’t seem to keep drawing for more than a couple of weeks. But then something changed.
I was listening to an episode of the Pencil Kings podcast where the host was giving advice on how to get back into art: “When you start to get serious”, he said, “you start to get hard on yourself. You risk losing the element of fun. If you love Ninja Turtles, why not draw Ninja Turtles? What’s forcing you to only draw nude figure studies?” I paused the podcast and started thinking—when was the last time I had drawn something just for fun? I couldn’t remember.
Maybe the reason it was so hard for me to keep motivated was that I was pushing myself too hard? As an experiment, I put aside my books and started drawing only from imagination. This turned out to be harder than expected; I had been focusing so much on what I should draw that I had lost touch with what I actually wanted to draw. Thinking back to what I used to draw in high school was a good exercise—it turned out that the 31-year-old me enjoyed crude drawings of video game characters just as much as the 13-year-old me.
Bit by bit, I managed to rehabilitate my “fun drawing” muscle, and as the fun came back to drawing so did my motivation. I’m not saying that you should give up on deliberate practice, but there needs to be a balance between the two. Drawing from imagination has actually made me more motivated to study because it highlights gaps in my knowledge; if I’m drawing a character and I can’t get the arms right, then I know I need to study more anatomy. And once I’ve studied anatomy, I know the dividends will be arms that look more like arms and less like unusually thick spaghetti.
Nathan Aardvark summed it up nicely in a recent blog post:
Learning to draw is hard, and not always fun. In fact, it’s often so frustrating that people just give up. We have to balance the learning with the ‘funning’. We have to have fun drawing if we hope to make any progress.
A lot of drawing intro courses for beginners say you should start with mastering lines, some say you should start with studying shapes. I say hold off on that for a second and ask yourself if you truly care for what you’re drawing. If not, maybe it’s time to turn to your 17-year-old self for advice?