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How To Be More Creative Part 3: Learning To Draw

learning to drawThis is part three in a series. If you’re just getting here, please check out:

How to be more creative part 1
How to be more creative part 2

We’ve talked a lot on this blog about asking more questions, and always trying to ask better questions. The most creative people I know are usually the most curious, and they wonder how things work. I have never really been mechanically inclined. But I have read several times, and heard from many people, that if you want to know how something works, you have to know what it looks like on the inside. I’m never had the urge to take things apart and then put them back together. Whenever I have tried, it never goes well.

My substitute has become a primitive version of drawing. I say primitive because my ability to sketch is absolutely horrible. I took an art class as a Freshman in High School. By the end of the semester I was able to draw (and shade) a cube. I could also sit at one end of a hallway and draw lines on a piece of paper–I could draw a hallways. It just meant that down at the far end of the hall, everything got smaller. And that was the extent of my ability.

In parts one and two of this series, I have mentioned being inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci. One of the things I find so fascinating–and intimidating–about him is his ability to draw. But he did not draw just for the love of it. He drew to understand how things worked. It was a sort of visual brainstorming for those things that could not be solved simply by taking something apart and then putting it back together again. For example, birds in flight. Dissecting a bird was perhaps not enough to account for all of the variables that made a bird capable of sustaining flight.

I mention this example because in a replica of one of Leonardo’s notebooks, I saw endless sketches of birds flying. From every angle. With all sorts of notes scribbled in the margins, and doodles that all essentially looked like a million questions marks to me.

So, in an effort to stimulate parts of my brain that I can’t touch any other way, I have been trying to draw more. Normally, my sketching is limited to time I spend in meetings, not paying attention to what is happening. But now I’ve bought a notebook and everything. I am trying to find things, things I would like to know more about the mechanics of, and I am trying to draw them. I have to go extremely slowly and double check everything I do. Otherwise, the cube I tried to draw might turn out to be a weird blob. I probably couldn’t even sketch out the hallway anymore without serious effort.

Is it working? I have no idea. I certainly don’t feel less creative so far.

What do you think? Are any of you fabulous artists? Any tips for someone who is trying to learn how to draw? Anyone here who has seen the benefit or has done similar experiments?


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  • Bryce September 9, 2010, 10:52 pm

    Josh I have always wanted to be able to draw and sketch and about half or more of my family can do it well. I can’t. Even my stick figures leave something to be desired. However, in working at a wilderness therapy company for a couple of years, the students and staff all carve spoons to eat with typically out of juniper trees. My first spoon had potential and was functional and I’ll leave it at that. My next one was better and the next one even better. As I progress with spoon carving I realized I did have an artful bone in my body, it just took trying different kinds of art and creation. I am still awful at drawing and accept that (mostly). I guess the moral, if there is one, is try enough things and you might run bassackwards into a creative part of yourself you may not have known existed. That’s one of the ways I find creativity!

    • Ilaria/Swimturtle September 9, 2010, 11:56 pm

      I love that idea! I read an essay once by the lovely Canadian (now naturalized American) essayist… brain freeze, I can’t remember his name… anyway, in the NY Times and it made me cry it was so beautiful. He went on assignment to a craft camp where he spent ten days doing basket weaving. Before he went he thought it would be the most boring, useless, stupid thing he ever did, but then he discovered that it was wonderful, and soothing and filled him with grace. Anyway, by the end I was in tears. You just never know what you’re going to discover if you try things.

  • Elle B September 9, 2010, 11:24 pm

    Hey Josh, I haven’t been around for a few weeks because I thought you were on creative hiatus. How’s the book coming along? Is the drawing helping with the writing?

    • Josh Hanagarne September 10, 2010, 10:10 am

      Elle B, the creative hiatus actually has made me feel less creative. If i don’t get in here and poke around a little bit I get bored and stuck. So I’m not going to be writing as much as normal. I’ll only send a couple of posts out to subscribers, maybe one per week unless things change. I also write compulsively, so if I sit down and churn something out that is just for the sake of writing, I won’t bother the regular readers with it, so if you check in and see things you haven’t received, it’s just me experimenting.

      The book is going great! Difficult, but a lot of fun. There have been some big changes in the angle I’m taking, and I can’t wait until the day when I can actually tell you guys more about it.

      • Elle B. September 10, 2010, 12:25 pm

        I’ve had that happen (re hiatus making one feel less creative). Kind of like my cat…when you really want creativity to sit in your lap, it won’t.

        Looking forward to hearing more about the book and maybe if your experiments in drawing feed the creative fires!

  • Ilaria/Swimturtle September 9, 2010, 11:51 pm

    Hi Josh, I am similarly afflicted. I can more or less trace a circle by putting a glass on a piece of paper. Then I took a course using the method of the wonderful book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and it changed my life. My abilities have since regressed somewhat, but I learned some really amazing things, and I know you can too. I have recently bought the latest edition of the book and a few others besides. Just to impress upon you the wonders of this method, the teacher was horrible, truly unpleasant, but the method was so great in and of itself that not even a crappy teacher could ruin it. My blog, Turtlehaus, has some images that I drew in that class that I exhumed from my basement. Check them out.
    xoxo, Ilaria

  • Julianne Fuchs-Musgrave September 10, 2010, 5:12 am

    Love this! As an artist and an arts teacher for a number of decades I always find that many humans over the age of 10 approach any of the arts with the words “can’t,” “don’t,” and occasionally “won’t”–especially when it comes to drawing. The first thing I do with adults is take a piece of paper, any drawing utensil and write his or her name in cursive, print the name, make an oval and a rectangle. “There,” I tell them. “You just drew.” You’ll note I don’t ask for circles or squares–and certainly not cubes–way too inhibiting.
    Then we work on the body. As a man in-tune with muscles, you might understand that when you draw with the tips of your fingers–you get a tight, constipated drawing. So I have them do big arm swings, back twisting at the hips a few times. We talk about what happens when you make huge circles with the whole body, circles with the entire arm, circles with the arm, elbow down, circles from a loose wrist, unclenched hand, loosened fingers. It’s always fascinating to see most of the group’s work open up–and each person’s response to the art become more positive.
    Then we work on seeing. Drawing is nothing more than the triangle of an object being perceived by the eye, the brain and then the brain informing the muscles to move the pencil on the paper. I can look at drawings around a studio and tell you which was made by someone who was actually looking, seeing. The head goes up and down around the room. Drawing to object. Object to drawing.
    I do suggest separating drawing from designing in your mind. Drawing means actually seeing an object & capturing YOUR perception of it on paper. Designing is imaginative line work, abstract systems of depth and tone, exploration of where a line might go. Both are wonderful practices–neither is a greater art.
    If you continue working alone (although I really suggest classes–not for the instruction necessarily, but just being in a studio is inspirational), try the most difficult exercise I know: Take a white egg and a 2-sheet piece of white paper towel. Crumple the towel, place the egg on the towel, move it around until you get some interesting shadows and highlights. Then draw what you see (and this takes at least a pencil or crayon), without using any hard lines. NO HARD LINES. This teaches your eye to see what happens when shadow hits light. Somewhere there is deep black shadow, somewhere there is bright light. I do suggest my students use hard-boiled eggs. The frustrating moments can get really messy with fresh ones!
    Seriously, this is a da Vinci exercise that helps open the creativity we all have. Creativity is just the willingness to be open to all the beauty around us, and the itch to play. It is meant to enjoy–not struggle against.
    So my first, middle and last instruction always is, “Lighten up, loosen up, remember what it felt like to play.”

    Art is never finished, only abandoned–Leonardo da Vinci

    • Josh Hanagarne September 10, 2010, 10:05 am

      “Lighten up, loosen up, remember what it felt like to play.”

      I love that.

  • Todd September 10, 2010, 5:48 am

    I love drawing. So much so that I found a way to do it and get paid (drafting). Funny thing happened–in order to earn a buck, I started doing it in CAD, and haven’t picked up a pencil to doodle in years.

    • Josh Hanagarne September 10, 2010, 10:05 am

      I looked at a CAD book the other day at work. That looks really difficult.

  • ami September 10, 2010, 7:57 pm

    Consider taking another class. Taking a drawing class opened my eyes to shapes, color and light (photography did, as well). It helped me see the simple shapes in complex objects (including humans!) – and I thought it was a great metaphor for life, i.e., if you shift your perspective just slightly you may see something completely new and unexpected, and you may find solutions to problems you’re working on that you hadn’t considered. Plus, drawing is a great right brain activity that stimulates your problem solving abilities (see Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind about how right-brainers will rule the world)

    Finally – I’ve heard a lot of good things about the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain – you could check it out (and I believe a lot of adult ed art classes are available that follow the ideas in this book)..

    Love the sketches you shared.

  • Jonas September 11, 2010, 3:17 am

    I have most of my experience from drawing from photos. About 4 years ago I saw some very realistic pencil drawings and I was very impressed it could be done with just a paper and pencil – it looked like a photograph. I wanted to be able to draw like that!

    I started gathering information, asking experienced people about tips, reading tutorials etc and started my journey becoming a better drawer. My first drawing was not good at all, but I tried to learn something from each new drawing. And I think that was the key for for progressing, always seeking for improvement. I always ask myself questions like: “does this look good”, “am I happy about this” “what can be done to make it look even better”. And there is always a way to get things better 🙂

    My advice for someone starting out drawing is to ask yourself these questions when you draw. It will give better quality in the end and you have to THINK in the process. Everyone is different, but that worked for me and it could work for you.

  • Juan Martinez September 12, 2010, 8:32 am

    Hey Josh, nice post, and some really useful insights in the comments, too. Drawing is an area about which I feel I know a thing or two. Along with the fine suggestions you’ve already had, I would strongly recommend copying some drawings that you might admire or wish to emulate as a means at development. Particularly useful are works from old masters and 19th century masters, all non-copyrighted works. Most older systems (pre 20th century) of learning to do art depended first upon copying “from the flat” –i.e., from drawing samples or old masters — before proceeding to the complications of the 3-dimensional and colourful real world. As a youngster I spent many hours copying from books on Michelangelo and I think I eventually drew nearly every figure from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. This approach works at any age. What it does is get you to understand how others have already solved some of the problems of seeing and transposing that vision to the 2-dimensions of the paper. From that, you will get a better understanding of how to do it yourself far quicker than by “reinventing the wheel” every time you sit down with a pencil. It is very difficult to become proficient at drawing by copying photographs. Better to copy art first (drawings), then move on to Nature (reality), then you’ll do much better when working from photographs. That’s the best order of learning.

    Of course, that said, Michelangelo might not be to everyone’s taste and nor is his work especially “realistic”. You can also find more recent works, say figure drawings from the 19th c. or early 20th c. from various academies throughout the world including New York’s Art Students League and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. These are just some ideas. If you do a little Googling, you’ll find lots of good material. It doesn’t have to be figures although they are, admittedly, my bias. But, even if you aren’t especially interested in figures, per se, they are a great learning tool. I know some professional wildlife and landscape painters who attend figure drawing sessions whenever they’re able to, just to improve their drawing “chops”, and they never include people in their professional work.

    Anyway, there’s my 2-cents worth. Best of luck in all your pursuits. You are an inspiration to many on numerous levels, Josh. Thanks for that.


    • Josh Hanagarne September 12, 2010, 2:04 pm

      Thanks Juan. I agree with the copying bit. The only thing I ever created in that art class that I was mildly happy about was a sketch of a photo. It took forever. I divided the picture up into about 20 squares, then drew 20 squares on a blank page and tried to get it done that way.

      This has been a very interesting discussion.

  • Ezmelts September 13, 2010, 3:29 pm

    Copying is always a good way to start, and while there are some artists that are self-taught, I’ve noticed that many persons attending art courses benefit greatly from having the finer points of art and drawing, which would seem obvious to naturally skilled persons, explained to them.
    Yet copying can only take you so far, it should be used as a foundation for developing your own style. It’s surprising how many “artists” are unable to draw unless they are looking at a reference of what they wish to draw, or how they can’t come up with original compositions.

    • Josh Hanagarne September 13, 2010, 3:38 pm

      Very interesting. What is your definition of an artist? I never get tired of hearing responses to this question.

      • Josh Arnold May 28, 2011, 8:25 pm

        I believe an artist is anyone who creates a new idea or develops a unique skill. Short and Sweet