The Self-Taught Artist

How to Start Drawing

Level up your portraits

Let’s say you want to draw or paint. Where do you start?

You might Google the most basic question: how to draw?

You might go to the library or browse through Amazon. You might get the book Drawing On the RightSide of the Brain, which I did and of which I only completed a couple of exercises.

Or you might start doodling right away, creating your own version of things without concerning yourself with the “right” way.

I’m always thinking what makes a person suddenly say: I want to learn to draw. I go back to my own story and I guess it’s simply I admired people who could draw and I wanted to do it too.

I was convinced that you needed innate talent. I tried drawing when I was younger but as my standards are always impossible, I gave up. Then I tried again with a few books. It was classical instruction.

When I took piano lessons, I had to do scales and learn boring pieces which in turn made me throw a shoe at my teacher. I also quit. I want to learn what I want to learn and have no patience for the build-up.

I imagine there are many people like me. We want to achieve something, we set impossible standards. We want things to magically happen.

It’s not that we are lazy. It’s more like a rebellion. Knowing what we want to do, we feel sidetracked if we have to draw a cube and a sphere one hudred times.

Back then I didn’t know what I wanted to draw or why

Most importantly, why. 

The famous why is a changing creature. One day I might want to draw because I want to be considered “artistic”, the next day because I want to pass the time. A year later I want to prove myself that I have made leaps and bounds in my skill. Other days I wanted to learn to draw to make money. 

Why do I want to draw or paint?

Once I had my answer, my learning path became much clearer. I stopped trying to take all the classes (or rather, binge-watch Skillshare hoping I would get good by osmosis).  I didn’t have to nudge (or force) myself into practicing things I didn’t want to do and instead I made so many drawings of the things that I did which made me improve.

I experimented and combined techniques. I re-watched some of my favorite classes and took notes. Then connected things. I made a list of my top considerations for successful drawings. 

So where do you start if you want to draw?

If I could give advice to myself from five years ago, I would tell her: be truthful to your taste. Look in the boxes of ephemera you’ve collected and examine it. See what attracts you and what you love to look at. This will save you detours into themes that don’t attract you and leave you dissatisfied.

Where do you find the images that you want to collect? Are they on postcards? Posters? Books? Are the images you gravitate towards, complex, realistic, simple. Are they made of expressive line work or are they precise in their shading and proportion? 

When you have a vague direction (because it will be vague; I love intricate artwork and super precise graphite drawings equally!) then you can start practicing deliberately.

Below are some online drawing class recommendations that will get you up to speed quickly.

If you are starting from absolute zero

  1. Drawing essentials with Molly Hatch (Creativebug) (Get three months for $1)
    The thing I hate most about learning to draw resources is that they emphasize basic concepts in such a structured and boring way. Molly Hatch’s style is loose and playful but has so much feeling. You will review basic drawing concepts like line, form, shape etc. as well as contour drawing, negative space. She has two drawing classes, one class on colour and two other project based classes. This is by far, the class I recommend to get started quickly, learn the concepts and move along without feeling discouraged and overwhelmed.
  2. Illustrating Nature: a creative exploration (Domestika) with Laura McKendry (Update)
    I took this class in December and it basically deconstructed everything I knew about drawing. I realized there are two ways to learn: shape by shape, with strict classic instruction (which is good if you are that type of learner) or by simply exploring what your hand and your eye are trying to express. This class requires a LOT of drawing using different materials. The British approach to learning art is very different from the North American, clean-line, style. It’s rare to find this in the usual classes and tutorials. So give yourself a gift and plunge into this class!

Here are some other classes that have made a big difference on my drawing skills:

  1. Level Up your Portrait Drawings: Practical Approaches to Advanced Concepts! (Skillshare)
    Personally, I find it helpful to start drawing realistically before trying to stylize. This is how you learn the correct proportions, how to apply values and how to make a drawing pop. I’d seen a video by Chris Hong on YouTube and I was intrigued by her technique, which is a bit like boxing-in, where you draw straight lines all around and then you start to refine. Even before taking her class, I tried to imitate how she drew and my portraits immediately started to improve. I had tried the Andrew Loomis method, the head divisions, measuring, grid, everything and all my drawings seemed stiff. Here are some of the portraits I’ve made after taking this class.
  1. Illustration Gym: Find Your Style
    After practicing realistic drawings a lot, I aspired to a more fluid, more stylized drawings. Last year I lost a sketchbook where I’d practiced a lot of portraits starting realistically and then removing and removing until I had a minimal drawing. I cried the loss of my sketchbook but I kept at it. In this Domestika class, Santiago Solís gives you ideas on how to create a series of drawings where you make “rules” for yourself to produce a consistent series. This is what I came up with. His teaching style is super simple and it’s not one of Domestika’s most rewarding classes, but if it’s on sale you should get it. I loved his explanation about active and passive drawings and he gives an excellent tip on how to make  illustrations from reference photos much more interesting.
  1. Design and illustration of a Fanzine. (Domestika)
    I mentioned this in my Best Classes for Learning Illustration page but I must include it here. I absolutely love her pencil drawings in this class. She goes to great lengths to explain her process. I’ve watched her videos several times as her art is always so full of beautiful references which she manages to make her own. She draws a mesmerizing crocodile which inspired me to go to the Natural Science Museum and sketch.
  1. Perspective for Sketchers (Craftsy)
    I often wonder why people insist on making perspective so damn difficult. After watching this class, I stopped running out of paper when sketching a scene. I’m not very adept at sketching on location but sometimes when my husband is taking photos, I do like to pull out my sketchbook and capture a street or a building. I loved her three step approach. 
  1. Finding your Unique Style (Skillshare)
    This super short class is one of the most helpful ones I’ve found on Skillshare. This one helped me to stylize some of my drawings to the point I couldn’t believe it. It has a couple of surprising and effective exercises. Here is an example of a fashion sketch where I created first a realistic drawing, I lost this particular sketchbook :( but I rescued this drawing and brought it into Photoshop, where I fiddled around.
A mashup of styles.

After practicing and feeling confident that I can draw free-hand almost any subject, I continued to investigate what kind of artworks I feel most happy making. I oscillate between realistic and refined drawings but imbued with imagination and the scribbly, texture-heavy results of oil pastels.

I still have one big hurdle to conquer and I’m not sure if I ever will. But I will write some more about it in the future. As I usually become obsessive and jump to conclusions too fast.

Everything starts with a sketchbook

Talk about resistance! I wanted my sketchbooks to look beautiful like those in YouTube sketchtours. So I wouldn’t start, until finally I realized it’s such an important practice. But how do you make the most of it, and how to you make a sketchbook an idea machine? First, by drawing every little think that pops into your head. No matter how bad, how crazy. Include notes, paste your loose-leaf drawings, experiment with your materials, re-draw stuff. But if you’re like me and you must have visual inspiration, these classes have helped me break my own mental barriers to keeping a sketchbook.

Sketchbook Practice

What if your hurdle is time?

After taking the classes you know you need to practice, but practicing by yourself might not be that much fun. Sure you can do challenges on Social Media but sitting down for an hour daily and just draw is as inviting as trying to do interval training. You might want to take a look at In Flow: Online Artist Residency program, designed to gather the energy of a small group of people and DO.

Drawing of hares in ink and gouache

There are affiliate links to classes I’ve taken in this post. If you click on them I get credits for more classes!

Don’t forget to join The Studio Chronicles for essays, thoughtful inspirational resources, and surprise discounts for some of the classes I’ve shared here.
Join below,