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Be a confident artist: The importance of deliberate drawing practice

Portrait of Symposia author Vishal Sheth
Vishal Sheth

Mar 24, 2022

 | Max 


 min read

Good artist in the beginning stages of art class
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You may think of training as trying to do something, over and over, until you get better at it. If you want to draw portraits, you might sit down and draw a portrait.

But even if you're very disciplined and draw for hours every day, this is a very inefficient approach. There is no such thing as a "portrait drawing skill." Instead, there are many sub-skills involved, including drawing contours, awareness of proportions, light, shade, and anatomy knowledge, among many others.

The best way to get better and enjoy drawing is to practice these skills individually with the right drawing tools through exercises designed to isolate them. Practice by itself is not enough to become an expert artist, as I'll discuss later in the article, but it is vital, and it's one of the aspects of your artistic development that you have under your control.

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The characteristics of deliberate practice for drawing skills

Several factors distinguish it from the common conception of practice:

  • Targeted exercises: The activity should be targeted to a narrow skill or weakness as precisely as possible. For instance, a sketch artist might practice contour drawings—drawing only the outside edge of an object without looking at the paper—to learn to coordinate the movement of her hand with her sense of sight.
  • Challenging: The activity should be at the edge of your ability.
  • Tiring: Too tiring to be done sustainably over the long run for more than a few hours a day. Beginners should start drawing with one hour and gradually work up to more. At the peak of their abilities, expert performers only do about four hours of practice a day.
  • Requires focus: You should not be able to multitask during the activity.
  • Not inherently enjoyable: Because the activity is at the edge of your ability, practice activities are not usually done for fun. However, they can be satisfying as you increase in skill.
  • Feedback: A teacher gives feedback, or it's clear from the result of the activity whether you are improving.

Practice will help you become a more confident artist

Artistic confidence means that we are free from any negative thoughts about our work. Artists are optimistic and can do whatever they want. Creative confidence is the ability for artists to make their art in their style without second-guessing themselves.

This is the goal we should aspire to. And it's within reach—if we're willing to put in the hard work.

When you're starting, it's normal to feel insecure and compare your work unfavorably to that of other artists. But as you improve, you'll begin to see your progress and feel proud of your work.

few examples of drawing materials for your first drawing

Establishing a practice routine

The best way to incorporate the practice into your life is to make it a habit. Set aside time for it every day, and make it a priority.

It's also important to be patient and consistent. Don't expect to see results overnight—it takes time to develop and build skills. And don't get discouraged if you have setbacks—they're part of the learning process. The most important thing is to keep practicing, and eventually, you'll start to see real improvement.

Establishing routines is challenging, as I've covered in my article how to form habits.

The limitations of practicing deliberately on your drawing ability

Consistent practice is essential for improving your drawing skills, but there are some limitations to keep in mind. First, it's critical to target specific skills you want to improve. You can't just practice drawing in general – you need to focus on particular aspects of the craft, like contours or proportions.

Second, the activity should be challenging but not too demanding. It should be at the edge of your ability so that you're pushing yourself to improve, but not so tricky that it's impossible to sustain for more than a few hours a day.

Third, practice activities shouldn't be inherently enjoyable – they're meant to help you improve, not just provide entertainment. And finally, feedback is crucial. A teacher can guide you and let you know if you're on the right track with your artistic skills, or you can get feedback from the results of your practice sessions.

creating art and focusing on line practice

It can't explain all expertise like figure drawing

There is a lot of controversy over how big a role practicing deliberately plays in developing expertise. The researchers who developed the concept believe that practicing deliberately explains most (>50%) of expertise. But some researchers think other factors, like talent and genes, are more critical.

To become an expert in any field requires many years of hard work, practice, and luck—but not everyone is born with the temperament to do all the tedious practice necessary to succeed as an artist. There is some truth to this. Genes affect intelligence, motor abilities, and emotional qualities like resilience and motivation.

That said, even skeptics agree that practice is responsible for a significant part of the expertise in specific fields. In a meta-analysis of studies of the role of practicing deliberately in expert performance, researchers found that "practicing deliberately explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions." 21 The study didn't specifically break out the arts, but even if it only explains, say, 20% of the difference between experts in the arts and less accomplished artists, that's enough that you can't afford to ignore it.

It's more important in some fields than others.

It is much easier to break down skills into sub-skills and devise exercises for them in some fields. Such fields include music, the visual arts, sports, and games. But in others, the relevant skills may be challenging to break down, or you may acquire them slowly throughout life.

For instance, much of a writer's skill comes from the reading she has done all her life: she unconsciously picks up the shades of meaning of words, the cadence of sentences, subtleties of tone and style, the structure of logical arguments, rhetorical devices, and much more. Though she may consciously remember only a tiny fraction of what she has read, all of it has contributed to her mental model of what good writing looks like. This means that someone who doesn't read much is unlikely to write well.

However, most artists are in luck: music, crafts, and the visual arts—like drawing, painting, sculpture, and photography—are very well suited to practicing deliberately. Experts have been dividing the skills of these domains and devising exercises to teach them for hundreds of years.

These methods are a great way to improve your chosen art form. This type of practice involves breaking down the skills you want to improve and working on them until you get better. Luckily, most artists are in luck because music, crafts, and the visual arts are very well suited to practicing deliberately. You can find excellent training materials in books or on YouTube, but nothing beats having a teacher to help you out. So if you're serious about becoming an artist, find a way to incorporate practice into your life.

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It's important to have a goal in mind when you practice, like improving your shading skills or learning how to draw perspective correctly.

How can I incorporate this into my life?

By far, the best way to begin practicing deliberately is to find a teacher or mentor. A good teacher will know the best exercises to isolate their techniques. They'll know where you are in your development as an artist and assign just the practice you need to move forward. And perhaps most importantly, they'll give you feedback on the results of your exercises. If you are serious about developing your abilities, finding a teacher is worth the trouble and expense.

If you can't find or afford a teacher yet, the next best solution is to find training materials in books. Because good practice for many arts is so well developed, many great books can help you get started. The best books give many exercises, with clear directions on how to do them and how much time to spend on them (A great example is The Natural Way to Draw, by Kimon Nicolaides).

YouTube is another excellent resource for learning the arts because it gives you something books can't: it lets you see the proper technique, which you can absorb unconsciously.

Be Specific, Focused, Deliberate

When practicing drawing, it's essential to be specific, focused, and deliberate. This means that you should focus on improving one particular skill at a time and practice that skill regularly until you get better.

Draw for hours on end

This is one of the best ways to become a better artist. By spending hours drawing objects, you can focus on improving your techniques. And the more you practice, the better you'll become.

Find an art teacher or mentor

If you're serious about becoming an artist, find a way to incorporate a daily drawing practice into your life. This could mean finding a teacher or mentor who can help you out. Good art teachers will know the best exercises to isolate their art skills. They'll know where you are in your development as an artist and assign just the practice you need to move forward.

Learning to draw by practice regularly

How can I improve my drawing skills?

When I see someone practice drawing, many say they wish they would draw differently. I hear it quite often. I can answer that easily: Draw. Some people do not consider drawing important. The person is a designer and photographer and does not understand how drawing improves their design techniques and photography abilities. Drawing is hard for us.

When you draw, you have to spend a lot of time in direct observation of things and then analyzing them to recreate them. You capture it and move onto another picture. You become a conscious artist with observational skills of shape, proportions, and colors.

Take the time to look carefully and analyze

When you draw, you look at something to analyze it and reproduce it. Doing this develops your eye and your brain to work together. The left side of the brain is logical; it sees shapes and colors as they are. The right side of the brain is more creative, and it will see the whole picture and how the parts work together. When you train both sides to work together, you develop what we call a "design eye." This allows you to see things in a photograph and understand how they work together. You can then reproduce these same ideas in your drawings.

Woman outside who started drawing with new ideas


A final option is to design practice exercises for yourself. I don't recommend this to anyone at the beginning of their journey to become an artist. The problem is you don't know which core skills you need to learn, much less how to break them down into sub-skills. But there are situations in which this may be your only choice.

If you're an experienced artist and get stuck on a piece, you may be able to devise an exercise to get you past the block. Or you may be trying to learn an art for which there are few existing exercises, like creative writing.

To design an exercise yourself, use the characteristics of practicing deliberately described above. The training should isolate a particular skill; it should be challenging and require all of your focus, and you need to be able to judge whether you're getting better at it from the results. But be warned: this is much harder to do than it sounds; you're better off finding a teacher for drawing lessons or books than trying to blaze your trail.

  1. If you want to learn to make art, deliberately practicing subskills will get you there faster than trying to make a finished work.
  2. Deliberate practice is targeted to a narrow skill. It's challenging and tiring, and it requires complete focus.
  3. The best way to deliberately practice is with a teacher, but many good books and YouTube videos can help you learn on your own.
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