Drawing is Harder than it Looks

A lot of us go into learning to draw thinking it should be easier than it is.

We draw a handful of images and are disappointed by our initial results. We express horror at our abysmal lack of talent, decide that obviously drawing isn’t meant for us and throw in the towel.

We need to dismantle the myth that creativity has to always be fun and flowing and that if that’s not the case then you must be doing it wrong.

We don’t approach building other skills in this way. It is a harmful attitude that prevents many people from stepping into their creative gifts and experiencing the joy of fully expressing their creativity.

Creativity is a skill you hone like any other. Why should it be naturally easier to build?

Drawing for example is an INCREDIBLY complex skill.

There is so much that goes into making a good drawing: Shape, volume, contrast, composition, perspective, anatomy, light, shadow, colour, storytelling, the list goes on and on.

Yet people make a handful of drawings, are genuinely devastated that they didn’t turn out well, decide they don’t have any talent and quit.

Imagine if plumbers did that. Or carpenters. Or architects. Or programmers. Or teachers. Or babies when they‘re learning to walk. “Oh that first attempt didn’t work out, guess I’m not good enough for this, so I won’t bother.”

It’s just silly.

Drawing is a complex skill, it requires lots of practice, and yes, sometimes building that skill is frustrating and boring and hard.

Yes, sometimes creativity is flowing and fun and magical and easy.

And oftentimes it just looks an awful lot like hard work as your brain grapples to understand something new so you can create something beautiful. And that’s totally normal.

Can we let go of the romanticized idea that creativity is a magical gift bestowed upon a few but not many, and that instead it is a skill we can build with dedicated practice if we so choose.

How to Move Through Creative Anxiety

Pretty much the only way I have found to move through creative anxiety is to actually do the creative thing.

You can watch tutorials, read books and mentally prepare yourself until the cows come home. But the anxiety and fear around doing the thing won’t go away until you actually do the thing.

Theory will never replace the action. Trying to think and rationalize your way out of the fear likely won’t weaken the fear, it will make it stronger.

There is no preparation you can do that will lessen the discomfort of actually doing the uncomfortable thing.

You will get stuck for ideas. You will come up against your fears of being inadequate. Your inner critic will do their best to discourage you. You will make mistakes. You will make art that you hate.

The blank page will never stop being a scary unknown place where your primitive brain imagines invisible tigers.

It will all happen. It will be uncomfortable. It will hurt.

And the only way out is through. Trying to escape the pain by not making art will only allow your anxiety to grow and whittle away at your soul. The longer you put off the confrontation, the harder it will be to get started.

Action cures fear.

Doing the thing you are anxious about and doing it again and again and again weakens your inner critic by proving it wrong.

“You are inadequate.” “I showed up anyway.”

“Your art sucks.” “I’m making art anyway.”

“You’ll never be good enough.” “But I’m still here.”

Drawing by drawing you prove your anxiety wrong.

Drawing by drawing you choose self-kindness and gentleness over self-flagellation and hate.

Drawing by drawing you face that hidden fear that is eating away at you.

It’s the only way to get rid of it. The only way out is through.

What if we allow creativity to be hard, simply because sometimes creativity is hard?

Not because we’re failures as a human being. Not because we aren’t creative enough. Not because we’re not inspired. Not because of artist’s block.

Creativity means sitting with a blank page of nothing and attempting to create something of substance from that very nothing. Creating something from nothing is hard.

Creativity involves growing and evolving as a person and an artist and allowing the work that we commit to to change us. Change can be scary. Change can be hard.

Creativity means facing the uncertainty of the blank page over and over again. Our brain hates uncertainty, so it does everything in its power to move us away from this perceived threat. That includes invoking all our personal demons and past failures to remind us why we shouldn’t be doing this. Sitting with that discomfort is hard. It’s painful. And that’s okay.

Creativity is hard sometimes. Personally, I find it hard quite a lot of the time.

Nothing is wrong with you if you find the hard things in life to be hard. We need to stop perpetuating a romanticized version of creativity that says it is always easy and flowing and fun and that if that’s not the case, you’re doing it wrong.

Sometimes creativity just is hard work. And I feel we are forgetting the value of hard, deep work and the rewards that we reap on the other side of it.

Sometimes things are hard simply because they are hard.
But we can do hard things.

Can You Redefine „Letting Yourself Off the Hook”?

We all have bad days. It’s normal. We all have days we really don’t want to do what we said we were going to do.

We’re tired, we’re sick, we’re sad, we’re mad. The temptation is high to let ourselves off the hook and sometimes it’s the right thing to do. If you’re trying to build a consistent drawing habit though, missing one day makes it easier to miss another. In the same way if you keep going for one more day, it will make it easier to do so in future.

In the past I’ve given up on complete challenges because I missed a single day.

It’s silly and it’s unnecessary. It shows I lost sight of why the challenge was important to me, and it’s happened to me several times. With Making Art Everyday I was determined not to let that happen again. So I had to redefine letting myself off the hook.

On days where I feel terrible, have no time or just really don’t want to draw, I try and reduce the pressure anyway I can.

I fall back on my minimum goal of 10 minutes. I know I can be uncomfortable for that long. I fall back on colour palettes, tools and techniques that I know work. I go back to simple shapes and let myself play with texture. I’ll sketch. I’ll turn a sketch into a finished piece. I’ll reuse a background from another image. I’ll recycle an old image into something new. I’ll redraw an image.

I do everything I can to reduce expectation and pressure, to make the experience as easy as possible. But I still show up. The important thing is to keep building the habit until it feels weird to not draw.

If I let myself miss a day, my brain will register that it got to take the easy way out by having a tantrum. And it will throw a bigger tantrum next time. Because I don’t give in, my inner critic has gotten a quieter over time.

But the moment I miss a day it gets louder, as each “failure” confirms what it was saying all along: That I’m useless, a failure, that I never stick to anything. If I persist in making art despite its nasty voice, it fades into the background over time.

I’ve created some of my best drawings on days I didn’t want to draw at all, simply because I showed up anyway. If I hadn’t shown up, those pieces would never have happened.

So let yourself off the hook if you have to, but don’t let yourself quit.

How to Have Drawing Ideas based on a Prompt List

Some of you may be thinking about joining or are already participating in some sort of daily, prompt based drawing challenge such as Making Art Everyday or Inktober.

If you’ve ever attempted a project like this yourself, you may have struggled a bit with making the prompts system work for you. This is totally normal in the beginning, there is nothing wrong with you I promise, and you really have to think of coming up with ideas as a whole new skillset that takes time to develop. It takes practice, and you will get better at it over time.

The more ideas you produce, the more ideas you’re likely to have. Creativity breeds creativity. Think of it as training up your creative muscles.

As you may know, since beginning of 2019 I have been creating a drawing a day as part of Lisa Bardot’s Making Art Everyday Challenge. There is a monthly theme, then often a weekly sub-theme and then a prompt for every single day.

I found at some stage that I had developed something of a system to kickstart my idea-finding process for a piece when working with prompts.

1) The Obvious

First level is to just draw the most literal interpretation of the prompt. When you are starting out or stuck for ideas, this is a great way to practice your skills even if you’re stumped for creative ideas. It works particularly well for individual objects or animals and less well for more abstract ideas such as emotions.

You can just bring up some reference images from Google or Pinterest and start drawing without thinking about it too hard.

2) Getting Specific

Beyond just drawing the most stereotypical, stock-photo expression of the prompt you can then try and get more specific. Let’s take the example of a tomato. Not all tomatoes are red and round, they could be an odd shape, you could add some interesting textures and variations within the colours, it could have bruises, be mouldy or squashed.

3) Collections

Still sticking with a fairly literal interpretation of the prompt you could play with creating a collection of tomatoes of various colours, sizes and shapes, maybe even a squished one all together. Collections can be more exciting than a single object as there is far more for us to discover in the image and your brain doesn’t just gloss over it as something it already obviously knows. For some objects you could associate around it and create a fun flat lay style image, so maybe your tomato could be part of a picknic or you could create a flatlay image of an assortment of different vegetables.

4) Abstract

What makes a tomato a tomato? You can abstract the tomato and change one of its identifying features. What if it were square? What if it were blue?

5) Associations with other objects

You could brainstorm words associated with tomatoes and see if that sparks a different train of thought. Tomato sauce? Spaghetti! Tomato Ketchup? Spilling it on your shirt! Tomato soup? A tin with a tomato on it!

6) Put it in a Scene

Then you can start thinking about the object a little more and putting it in a scene from its “everyday” or even not so everyday life. Where does the Tomato grow? Is it on the plant or on a plate or in a salad? Has someone just picked it? Is someone or something about to eat it?

7) Usage and Abusage

Play with the use of the object. What do you do with a tomato? (Chop it, eat it, make a salad…) What should you not really do with a tomato, which would make an interesting or funny story? (Throw it, eat it whole, step on it, sit on it…)

8) Getting Personal

Do you have any personal stories related to the prompt that you could use? Something funny or interesting that happened to you, a sentimental object or experience that you could create a story around?

9) Give it a Face

You could try turning the object into a character. What features of the object can you exaggerate into character attributes? Maybe she has red shiny cheeks, maybe he is very angry and that is enhanced by how red he is. How would a tomato spend its day? How would a tomato definitely NOT spend its day, and can you create a funny story around that? What would a grand adventure look like to a tomato? What does a world look like in which a tomato lives? What other everyday objects might take on a different significance in their world? I.e. a fork could be terrifying and dangerous, a plant pot might be a cozy home.

10) Interaction

You could have a different character interact with the object. A person, an animal, another vegetable? What would they do, or how would they behave towards a tomato? If you’ve already turned your object into a character, how would it interact with this new character? What would their relationship be?

Be Persistent

Chances are some prompts will immediately spark ideas and some will be an instant turn-off for you.

I would like to invite you to give the ones that you have a “ugh – no way!” reaction to a second chance and sit with them for a bit.

If you immediately have ideas, it’s likely you already have some sort of connection with the prompt or it’s something that’s quite obvious. Getting to something a bit more creative and out there may take a little more probing and gentle pushing outside your comfort zone and maybe you’ll need to spend a bit more time looking up reference and working to understand how your subject is visually made up.

Some of my best images have come from prompts that I hated when I first saw them. Something about not instantly jiving with the prompt makes me think more creatively about what I can do with it to make it fun for me and that often leads to more creative ideas. It also pushes me to draw topics way outside my comfort zone that I wouldn’t even consider otherwise, which is one thing I love about prompt lists, it really helps expand your visual repertoire.

Final Words

Asking these questions can feel a little silly and clunky initially, but basically they just really help me think differently about the object and start brainstorming new ideas that I wouldn’t have hit on otherwise. It’s mostly intended as a kick-start, once I’m in the right frame of mind I’ll often go off on a totally different tangent and might start asking completely different questions, totally just go with the flow once that starts to happen and see where it takes you, then come back to the questions if you get stuck.

Now that I’ve gone through this process so often, it mostly works on a more subconscious level and I’m often not actually asking those questions in my head.

As with drawing itself, it will likely take some practice to get comfortable with this process.

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Celebrate the Process – Lessons from #makingarteveryday

One of the things drawing every day has taught me is the importance of embracing the creative process over the final outcome. I’ve been aware of this concept for a long time, but it’s only through experiencing it myself through consistent daily practice that I’ve really started to internalize it.

Creating everyday at a consistent, high level is often just not possible. Some days I have better ideas than others. Some days I’m sick. Some days I’m hurting. Some days my mind is distracted by other things. Some days I give up halfway through a piece. Some days I’m just really tired. But I’m learning that the individual pieces are just stepping stones in my journey as an artist. They don’t matter all that much. What does matter is the progress those pieces help me to make over time and the improvement I see in the long run.

This year, I’ve gone from not creating digital artwork at all to creating small pieces I’m proud of quite regularly. I’ve gone from being clueless about how to use the ProCreate app to confident enough that I don’t have to think about the technical aspects of the drawing process, it feels natural. I’ve gone from total creative stagnation to a growing list of pieces I want to create. It’s Day 149 of the challenge, and I’ve seen significant changes since January 1st.

On days a drawing doesn’t turn out, or I don’t finish it and don’t ever intend to, it doesn’t bother me so much anymore. Creativity and life are cyclical, sometimes that’s just how it is. Instead, I measure my progress more by what I’ve learnt from each piece, rather than by the final outcome.

I can create a piece that is total crap and still have learnt something during the process. I practice my craft, I make happy mistakes, I learn lessons and gain valuable insights.

Instead of asking “Is this piece any good?” or “Am I happy with the result?”, I’m starting to ask different  questions.

Areas of Focus

  • Did I come across any weaknesses (perspective, anatomy, values) that I can focus on improving through further study?
  • Did I improve upon an area of weakness while working on this piece and gain any new insights?
  • Was I able to bring any recently learned lessons into the creation of this new piece and what effect did they have?

Tools & Media

  • What tools or media did I use?
  • Did I learn something new about those?
  • What worked or didn’t work?
  • Did I try a new colour scheme or colour combination I haven’t tried before?
  • Did I learn something about the media I created with, did I discover new effects or learn something about how the media behaves that I can replicate and use in future?
  • Did I discover or try out any new techniques?
  • Was I able to refine an existing technique, even if just through practice?
  • Did I make any interesting mistakes that led to new discoveries? Maybe even a new effect or technique I can reuse? Are there mistakes I can avoid in future?

Big Picture & Learning from Mistakes

  • What did I learn while creating this piece?
  • Where did I see improvement over past pieces?
  • Even if the picture didn’t work out as I hoped did I still learn something that could help me improve on this piece if I attempted it again?
  • If I drew the same picture again would I take a different approach?
  • Did I learn something that will help me create better pieces in the future?

When approached like this, no drawing is ever a failure. It’s just a lesson. It’s a small piece in a larger body of work that ultimately helps me hone my craft and create stronger pieces in the long run. I learn to make the good pieces through creating a lot of pieces. Some are good pieces. Some are crap pieces. Most of them fall somewhere in between.

It’s not the result of those individual pieces that matter, but what I learn about my craft, myself and my creative process in the making. The real magic happens in the process. By embracing it, I allow it to change me. And ultimately, the greatest reward is the larger picture all those pieces are a part of, the act of living a creative life, day to day, which really, is all I ever wanted.

Seeing

Thank you

To the strangers,
Who saw me in the street
And gifted a smile.

Thank you

To the teachers,
For seeing potential and strength,
For shaping body and mind into who I am today.

Thank you

To the healers,
Who saw what was healthy and whole,
When all I saw was brokenness and hurt.

Thank you

To the people who looked into my eyes and saw me,
As I voiced truths and dreams
I couldn’t admit
even to myself.

Thank you

To my family,
For seeing me as I am,
Not how you want me to be,
Always.

Thank you

To the friends who chose me, as I chose them.
For seeing me,
in light, and in shadow,
in weakness and in strength.

Thank you

To my partner, my lover, my other half,
For seeing me and helping me see myself clearer.
To see and to be seen by you,
there can be no greater gift.

Thank you

To that mysterious force that permeates my life and being,
for seeing me when there is no one else to see me,
and no light to see me by.

Thank you

To those who see the good and real and true in this world,
whose hearts see clearer than eyes ever could.

Keep seeing.

For the sake of all those who need to be seen.

I see you.