You've probably heard the saying "work smart, not hard". In this post, I want to show you how you can apply this concept to learning how to draw, so you can improve much faster than you probably are! If you prefer to listen rather than read, I recommend watching the Youtube video I made on the topic. However, I will be adding extra information here! You could also do both for the information to really sink in.
Table of Contents
Art can be a very complicated skill to learn because it's so easy to think that learning to draw is mostly intuitive. We all know you have to study the fundamentals and by practicing a lot you'll start to "get it". So, we start practicing without a proper aim and grow frustrated when we don't see the results we wanted. I thought watching some videos on different tips about drawing was studying. I would maybe try to implement them, but then later I'd forget about them completely, so they didn't help much.
Very few people can just "get it", and even then that'll take a long time. Most of us need a bit more structure, need to "study smart". That is why I call it "Active Learning", to break away from the idea some of us might have that art is instinctive. I strongly dislike this "passive approach" because it was the source of all my frustrations with art.
In two years drawing everyday, I went from drawing a girl from front view to a girl from side view. There were definitely improvements in rendering, and proportion. But that's so minor for two whole years of studying. I couldn't draw expressions, extreme angles of the head, animals, the body, clothes, and everything else. Not to mention, I felt like a fraud or an impostor because only a few of my drawings looked "decent enough".
My deceitful progress
Learning to draw shouldn't be something this difficult, and the good news is that it doesn't have to be. We can make it so much more complicated and complex than it needs to be. I spent two years walking in circles barely going forward, but one day I decided enough was enough.
In the video thumbnail, you can see my improvement in just two months. I spent another two months on portrait drawing. I also learned to draw clothes, objects, and a bit of perspective. After 6 months, I could even sketch scenes from imagination and design characters. I finally felt more confident in my art, as most drawings were turning out good. This image on the left is also about two months of progress, both drawn from imagination (click to enlarge). You can check the video for more images of my progress.
Instead of waiting for your brain to understand something through repetition, active learning focuses on finding good exercises and practice that will ensure you understand the concepts you're trying to learn. How do you study for a test, by listening to a recording of your teacher's lecture over and over again or by taking notes, making flashcards, and taking mock tests? You do have to draw lots of heads, bodies, etc, but you have to do it in a smart way and be intentional about it. Being intentional and deliberate is the stepping stone for implementing Active Learning.
Make a Plan: Decide what exactly you're going to focus on and for how long. Figure drawing, portrait, value, etc? One week, two, a month? If you're drawing about 30min-1h almost daily, a good time frame is one or two months. Decide also what it is that you want to achieve. Do you want to improve your expressions? Or the structure of the face? You can break down the fundamental you're studying into steps that are each one goal to make it easier (i.e. figure drawing: gesture, form, shading, anatomy).
Study in Cycles: Don't worry if two months is still not enough, move on because other fundamentals build on one another. I saw an artist doing gestures for one whole year and never moved on to figure drawing the form or anatomy. Learning the form will help your gestures, and anatomy will help with your form and gesture. It's better to study in cycles that increase in difficulty each time, you'll learn better and be less frustrated.
Focus on Learning, Not on The Result: After the 6 months, I thought it was time to get my art out there and I started to focus more on doing pretty final drawings rather than learning. I got frustrated again, I felt like my art skills were regressing and I was no longer happy with my drawings. I had been obsessed with drawing pretty instead of improving. Remember that pretty drawings don't prove your worth as an artist, focus on learning a bit each day and you'll get there anyway, but you'll be much happier.
Analyse your Drawings: Try to find why a drawing isn't working and exactly what you need to work on for the next drawings. If that's hard in the beginning, just identify what parts of the drawing you like and which ones you don't. Later, as you improve, you'll be able to be more specific. Analysing allows you to identify your shortcomings and immediately try to correct them, thus, making you improve faster.