I’ve certainly been there before: You’ve been drawing for years, grasped the basics, and your friends tell you you’re a talented artist, but chances are you have internalised the sheer amount of wonderful artwork online and realised that you still have a long, long way to go until you yourself are fully satisfied with your work. Let’s be honest – satisfaction is probably not something most artists ever really achieve. There is always an onward learning curve, the sky is the limit.
When you start to look at your own work critically and with a hint of dissatisfaction, that often times means you are ready to improve. Seeing where your art is lacking is the first step towards that improvement, before the question becomes ‘how do I move on from here?’
In recent years, I have noticed great amounts of improvement in my own work, and I remember exactly how the progression of my learning was kick started. I now work as a ‘professional’ (still feels weird to say that) Junior Artist for a mobile games studio producing 2D games and whilst I am not anywhere near fulfilling my potential in art yet, I think I can give some advise on how to improve! (I still follow these tips myself when I feel productive.) So let’s get to it and do some work.
1. Use References when Drawing.
One of the biggest mistakes beginning artists make is not working with references. Your brain doesn’t automatically know what something looks like! You may have walked past roses dozens of times in your life, but the human memory is fallible, and when you try to recall how a rose petal curves and folds from memory alone, you will quickly find yourself drawing a blank (no pun intended) and creating a rose that looks unrealistic and lifeless.
Get into the habit of collecting images of your motive that you can reference. This can be as simple as Googling your subject in the image search window. As you draw, use photographs as a constant reference point. This is not the same as copying! There is no shame in following a reference to get a pose anatomically right. You can use references to get a better idea of what colours to use, what exact shapes you are trying to create, and what variations of your subject exist. Overall using references will make your work far more accurate and realistic. Even advanced artists won’t skip out on references when they work. It is an essential part of the workflow and the sooner you make it a habit to reference what you draw, the sooner you will see an improvement in the quality of your work.
Redrawing an image you were once proud of can show you how much you have improved since!
2. Build up your visual Library
References will never becomes obsolete, but as you improve, it is useful to have a mental visual library both to reference from and to draw inspiration from. This is especially important when you are designing a fictional character or environment. Ideas are born from your existing visual library, by changing and expanding upon what your mind already knows. Nothing is ever quite original – it is merely a product of your experiences and impressions, and as such you want to have collected as many impressions and experiences as possible.
Build up your visual library by actively looking at different species and environments, different flowers and trees, leaf shapes and architectural styles. No matter what it is your like to draw, there are probably hundreds and hundreds of variations of that very same thing, varying between cultures and ages, colours and styles, sizes and proportions.
Our visual library expands the more we see and learn, so as it automatically increases, help it along by looking through travel catalogues, google image searches, google street views, fashion magazines, botanic gardens, films and games, and really taking in the key elements of different motives. You can also improve your visual library by reading, as detailed descriptions of fantastic places will create an image in your head that you can later reference.
3. Study Study Study.
You can certainly pick up a few books on art theory, and I highly recommend you do that too and familiarise yourself with the theory behind colours, composition, lighting and shapes, but when I talk about studying, I mean a different thing.
Art is an instinctive craft. You need to be able to identify what looks right and wrong, and be able to project your knowledge of a subject onto paper. I have already discussed how, to draw accurately and realistically, you might want to use references to help you capture the right form. But you won’t always find an exact reference to correctly portray what you are looking for. You want to be able to draw poses and faces from memory that look right, and in order to do that, you need to innately understand them.
There was once an experiment asking one pottery class to take a week to create the best vase they could produce. Another class was asked to make as many vases in that one week as possible. At the end of the week, the quality of the last vases made by the second group was better than the quality of the vase that was created using the whole week.
You improve a skill by using that skill. So draw as many pieces of your motive as you can! If you want to be able to draw bodies in motion, fill sheets and sheets of paper by drawing bodies in motion. Use a website that provides references for gesture drawing ( I use quickposes.com ) and time yourself to spend only a certain amount of time on each drawing. The goal is not to get one perfect image, but to internalise the shape of as many examples as possible and put them down onto paper. You can do the same with scenes and objects.
Another exercise is to draw the same thing multiple times in a row. Take an image for reference and draw it once, then a second time, then a third. You can even time yourself, giving yourself more time for your first attempt and less as your tries increase. Timed drawing helps you focus on the essential shapes of a motive.
And finally, study by copying a photograph or image (use only images you know to be excellently executed for this. Studying masters from Ancient Greece or the Renaissance can be helpful) as exactly as you can. Take as much time as you need to match the style and quality of the work as well as you’re able to. At first, your results might not look anything like the reference, but keep at it!
Study of a painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau
4. Know your Fundamentals
There’s no way around it, sooner or later you really should familiarise yourself with the fundamentals of art. Read up on them and view different examples. You want to know your colour theory, rules of compositions, tangents, lines, space, shapes and forms, and what effect they have on the viewer.
Even a little theoretical knowledge about things such as the rule of thirds, lines and tangents leading the eye, and complimentary colours can dramatically improve your work once you understand to apply them. Spend some time analysing world renowned masterpieces and how they are made effective. (Again, it’s a good idea to look at the classics!)
Often times all a beginning artist needs is to push some boundaries, try some new things, and be more daring! I often observe younger artists too hesitant to apply deep shadows, use strong colours, or move their compositions around. Often you find just front-facing, mid-entered characters with neutral facial expressions and pale shadows.
Studying and referencing will eventually take care of that, but first you need to be willing to leave your comfort zone behind and try out some new things. Draw what you can’t draw yet, at least you’ll have attempted it!
Here are a few fun exercises you could do to let loose a little and step outside of your artistic comfort zone:
- Draw upside down, or with your left! This may certainly not make your art better, but it might loosen up your strokes and let you play with different kinds of lines.
- Use toned paper and draw using black and white only. This is a great exercise to practise shading and lighting and improve your contrast!
- Do a colour palette challenge where you draw a motive using a set of colours you wouldn’t usually use.
- Draw a monochromatic image, using only different tones of the same colour.
- Switch up your medium! if you usually just draw, get some acrylics and paint. Use water colours, or use ink and a wet brush to try some new effects. If you work digitally, use a different brush (but really, reconnected to those traditional roots once in a while.)
- Switch up your style, try new line weights, colours, proportions.
An experiment with neon coloured overlays and hard, comic-inspired outlines became one of my favourite drawings of 2017.
That’s it! Tldr: You improve by doing, so just keep drawing, but be mindful of what you draw and what workflow you use so you improve your fundamentals along the way. Don’t keep drawing the same things without changing your workflow and studying some variety.