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Why should I learn to draw?

Updated on May 21, 2009

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Drawing isn't easy. Why bother if I don't want to become a professional artist?

I never wanted to become a professional artist.

I set out in life at age four with the idea that I'd become a writer and make up the stories that go in books. Preferably the sort of stories that involve things you don't see every day, like dragons, magic, dinosaurs, rocket ships, computers, communications satellites, robots... okay, one of the cool things about science fiction is that sometimes it comes true. But the modern myths and fables about how robots interact with people may have resulted in avoiding some obvious catastrophes and in people at large paying attention to what engineers invent.

Heck, sometimes it's self-fulfilling prophecy and a writer will come up with a good idea that makes an engineer think of a way to get it done. I'm typing on a little bitty computer smaller than a three ring binder that I devoutly wished existed in the 1980s when "portable" meant "with forklift."

But I also had fun with crayons and kid watercolors and colored pencils, which I hated until I got some Verithins and later some Prismacolors that gave me much better effects than the thin faded lines that your usual cheap kid pencils give. I learned to draw because J. R. R. Tolkien drew the map of Middle Earth and sketched a little dragon on it with a pen, which I devoutly believed was the way Smaug really looked. Smaug only existed in his head. Only Tolkien knew what that dragon looked like.

Some lurid paperback covers by Frank Frazetta got recycled onto the wrong books and occasionally as still happens today, a dark-haired heroine would be painted as blonde on the cover. This offended me deeply. A book cover should show something really in the book, not some dumb looking blonde instead of the incredible Dian the Beautiful with her tanned, muscled body and wild raven locks. Frazetta got her right, curves and muscles both. But the blonde showed up on some of them and publishers still do that because blondes sell books.

I didn't get that. What I did get was that every scientist worth his salt could take a Rapidograph technical pen and draw a map of the place the fossil or specimen was found, sketch a fern true to life or a reconstruction of a dinosaur, draw a cell in all its minute intricacy and draw things as if they were real just with little lines of crosshatching and stippled dots. Shaded and everything. Better than photos. My dad was a scientist. I had a perfect example.

The perfect example noticed me struggling to do it and commissioned me to draw some little mammal teeth. Gave me some contemporary ones to practice on and when I got it right, penciled and inked, gave me some fossils to draw. At ten I had my scientific illustrations published in a real science paper by a real scientist and was paid in real Rapidograph pens. These were the old kind, fat-barreled black ones with colored tips that looked like the kind of fountain pens bank owners use, cigar-shaped and ponderous. Not the white-plastic techie-looking Rapidographs of today, but pens of majesty and power.

I may someday go looking for a vintage one just to use for signing books. I've already got a fountain pen though and its nib has a more flexible point for sketching. Live and learn. I've killed a lot of Rapidographs over my lifetime with carelessly letting them dry out, so cool as that pen was, its modern disposable Pigma Micron and Prismacolor Archival descendants are a little tougher and a lot easier on the wallet. Rapidographs are about $25 each and you need to empty the ink after every use or you will kill the $18 point with its funny little wire inside. Use it every day or empty it every time, those are your choices.

Tom Lehrer, in the intro to one of his funny songs about biology, mentioned that if you know how to draw you're guaranteed an A in Biology. This is true to this day. Maybe not an A, but I'm sure it at least counts for a grade or two if you can look at a diagram in your textbook to draw a cell, then draw and label it with all its parts in a way that doesn't look like a tracing. People who traced it tended to get marked down, science teachers disapproved of tracing.

Make the cell wall just a blobby shape that fills the page and trace the bits and parts separately in different areas, giving it a bit more cytoplasm, and you can get past that. I didn't do it but I had a friend who did and got an A for the results. Helps to also use colored pencils and distinguish the bits and parts. Also do your lettering in block letters, all caps, like a map legend -- it's very legible and the teacher doesn't have to strain to read it.

So there's one good reason to draw in itself. You'll get good science grades. Probably other classes too, sketches of Waterloo or 1776 liven up a report and can make up for fairly short text if you don't like writing. Hint, copy those from a famous painter's version in a library book, not the textbook itself. Shows that you took an interest and got something out of the library beyond required reading. Implies you even read it.

Beyond getting better grades in school though, being able to draw things accurately from life or from good photo references can do a lot of things for a person. Some of them are subtle. Some are social. Some help in problem solving and dealing with any situation. Some are convenient and others are economic.

Drawing and painting demand nonverbal, nonmathematical skills. They strengthen the intuitive, right brained visual and emotional observation capacities and interpret visual and emotional signals more accurately. This can make life a lot easier. It can lead to solving problems in creative ways when they aren't art ones. It can help strengthen spatial relationship observations too -- the convenience of being able to look at a space and tell whether that heavy dresser will actually fit without moving the chair can save a lot fo physical labor moving into a new apartment. You can judge distances and depth better.

Schools strengthen a lot of left brain analytical abilities. Schools and grades are all about being Mr. Spock, applying logic and solving problems that have been framed by other people in slanted ways to demand a certain kind of thinking -- and an unquestioning acceptance that the rules and the way the problem was set up are correct. Real life challenges do not have rules and how you frame the question can be critical to how you solve the problem.

A strong mind is well balanced in both hemispheres, can apply both logic and intuitive leaps of observation to any situation. Logic sometimes takes way too long to sort through if there's enormous amounts of information coming in. Intuition can cut right past that and show the solution shining out or at least a variety of solutions you can choose from a lot faster.

Left-brained people can become socially unskilled and boring, while right-brained people can have trouble bogging down in complex activity. Writing novels actually demands both, you have to use words and symbols and manipulate them carefully but you also have to make up an exciting story and tell it. Neglect either and the novel suffers.

This is also why it's sometimes hard for people to learn to draw, because years of school and the myth of talent leave them feeling like they can never do it. Years of practice at left brain "answer the question with its one right answer" thinking can leave a person's right brain stunted, and so it's immensely difficult to think like an artist and make decisions out of nowhere when presented with a blank canvas. To just pick a color or something to draw out of the moment's mood, be aware of your mood, do something just because you like it and not get drawn into group catharsis that way. Most people can't let their hair down alone -- they need a bunch of buds around them getting drunk with them to lighten up.

Artists can loosen up like that just by opening a box of paint or colored pencils and start thinking like little kids who are ready to play and learn whatever comes to hand instead of having a topic to begin with. Artists are independent and start learning to pick a direction instead of waiting to be told. And mastering a difficult skill can build confidence in anyone.

So stop believing it's impossible -- it's just difficult and may be very frustrating especially at first. Social support helps and stubbornly trying even when it doesn't work helps more than anything. Date anything you draw so that you can look back and see that your current drawings are substantially better. Also do try things from books, copy masters' paintings with a pencil, do the exercises -- these do help a lot and can create dramatic progress.

And keep a journal to see how learning to draw starts affecting the rest of your life. Look at your social life, what you do with your free time, how often you're sick or not, what you ate, where your spending money went, whether you slept well, what you were doing. Learning to draw can help solve any number of unrelated social needs and other difficulties in life that many people endure without realizing anything is missing.

Once you can draw well enough that you can do a few popular subjects recognizably, people will give you actual money for drawings. It seems like it comes out of nowhere and is usually a windfall. You can also save money by making blank greeting cards and drawing something on it instead of buying one, enough to get a Coke or a piece of candy or a very small burger. Go a step farther and  buy good paper instead of cardstock, and you can give people things like portraits of their cat or dog or kid instead of buying anything. Can save a fortune come the holidays once you're good at watercolors or good at oils or good at something like that.

Bob Ross used to mention on his show that the paintings he was demonstrating, if done correctly by a beginner, would bring in about $30 each at an art fair. This is still true except that the price is probably closer to $50 or $60 by now, there's been some inflation including the cost of getting oils and canvases. They are impressive. They look good. Take that up for a hobby and you'll have something for your Christmas list for just about anyone on it.

Eventually it helps to go outside to parks and scenic areas with the stuff and paint real things in your area. This may double the price at the art fairs and provide a hobby that pays for itself. Once you get competence in any specific subject, like doing cats or dragons or whatever, you will find that new art supplies always pay for themselves and you don't really have to budget them as carefully -- just get them with the proceeds of the stuff you did with the last binge and schedule your shopping trips after art fairs or conventions or getting commissions.

Many a skilled hobbyist comes away from a weekend spent painting for fun with a bit more spending money in hand rather than most hobbies where your bank balance is lower but at least you got some rest and a change of scene.

Drawing and painting relieve stress.

Stress in all its iterations may actually be the number one killer in America. The biggest health problem anyone faces. Depression is so endemic it hits a quarter of Americans and antidepressants are the second most common prescription. The most common? Blood pressure medication. I have low normal blood pressure. It's ludicrous because I've led a very stressful life with many challenges, handicaps and problems other people don't have.

I think a lot of why I don't have high blood pressure comes from my habit of drawing and sketching and painting for fun. I have worked as a professional artist several times in my life, most successfully selling portraits on the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans for several years. But I also burned out on doing it because I got tired of always doing people and I got sick from overexertion and cumulative sustained back damage and sports injuries from walking too far, bending too much, standing too long and going way beyond the physical limits of my disabilities.

And I stopped drawing for myself because the struggle to survive got more desperate the sicker I got. The quality of my art done for other people went down because I was discouraged and resentful -- I could not afford to keep anything I drew no matter how much I liked it, and got sick of portraits anyway. I didn't want to keep drawings of tourists I just met, what I wanted to do was landscapes with castles and dragons in them, cats, landscapes with no one else in them, landscapes with wild creatures in them and flowers.

That's eventually what I drifted into, landscapes and animals and flowers. I can still do a fair job with a person and did a self portrait in my watercolor journal, eventually mean to do portraits of my own loved ones, but I'll have to both be in the mood to do it and catch them when they're not too busy to pose. I know I'll get around to it someday.

The skill of drawing portraits was a great one though. It did something for me socially. It became a wonderful party trick. Cartoonists and caricaturists have that too. In fact, if you can draw anything people like, the social rewards are immediate and powerful.

Go out to a park or anyplace public, sit down and start drawing something. People will come up to see what you're doing. If they can tell what it is, they will be awed. You did magic right in front of them. Give them the sketch and you made a friend. Don't offer to and half the time they'll offer money for it.

You may not want to make a career of being a professional artist, but I can't count the number of times I was a little short on budget and accepting a commission from someone who adored my art got me past the little crisis. That's different. It becomes a side income you can control by how much of your spare time you want to put into it and into marketing it. With very little marketing, any financial emergency will get friends asking for commissions because they actually care about you and the art is worth getting anyway.

I found out rather later on, becoming an art collector, that holds true even at the professional levels and that if you buy art from someone who gets three figure prices from it and stay in touch, the artist will become a real friend and it's not something I'm doing to make them feel better. It's something I'm doing because I love John Houly's nature drawings and have two of his best giant graphite drawings in extreme detail and beauty. I have two of his paintings too. He's good. His art belongs in museums. When he does cats he knows I'll be interested.

So it's not that your friends just feel sorry for you. They also really do love the art.

Visual art gets appreciated.

It takes maybe ten seconds for a friend who does wish you well to look at a beginner's bad drawing and go "I really like the colors. That's cool."

It takes them half an hour of anxiety to make themselves look at that grubby handwritten manuscript that's the only copy of your story and have to make up something nice to say about it when they don't even read that genre and they don't usually read for pleasure. Reading bad beginner writing hurts. It's annoying. It's the biggest time and attention demand a person can make, which is why I came to understand when I became a decent writer because instead of friends running the other way if I mention that I'm writing a novel, they start asking for it.

Drawing well can break the ice when you move to a new area. Most people relocate every five years. Many times it's to an entirely new region. They don't know anyone but their family. They may be having lots of conflicts with said family members, and that's just the unstable nuclear family unit anyway, parents and kids. Spouses tired of each others' faces who desperately need adult company and music that isn't from Sesame Street.

Most Americans wind up socially deprived.

Work is professional. Professionalism matters. Don't get personal. Don't try to make friends or it will come back to bite you in office politics and gossip, something you said will get distorted into reason to fire you. Most workplaces have a few social bullies in them, sometimes in authority, and are not usually full of people who share any of your interests. Instead they're full of competitors and rivals and the boss is keeping everyone in a state of anxiety over being laid off and demanding an insane level of brown-nosing and flat-out social lying. You're supposed to agree with what the boss thinks on this, that and everything.

With some luck you can try to find a job where you don't distort yourself too much to fit in, but most of the people I've known in life are not all that happy with their jobs. The more skilled and specialized it is, the more likely you can actually share some interests and the job itself is an interest. People who work in stables do all have in common that they love horses and think owners don't care enough or know enough about them. People who work in the sciences or tech jobs wind up finding birds of a feather in their profession, more so the higher an educational level it takes to get into it.

But even in a job that provides some interesting social contacts and social connections, that isn't enough to fill someone's social needs. It is just as important to have friends whose opinions have absolutely no weight in terms of how they affect your life -- who are not in a position to either disrupt your marriage or hurt your position at work. Friends who are only your friends because they like you and you have something in common.

Who when they do agree with you, it's real and not because you might help them get a promotion. There's a certain amount of honesty in friends met outside work. But how people manage to meet them is a tough situation for anyone who hasn't grown up in the same area and gone to grade school and then high school with them.

People always told me "The friends you make in high school are the ones you'll keep for life."

It wasn't true for me because I left that area and didn't live the sort of lives my friends chose. I found out years later one of my closest high school friends was schizophrenic and had an entire fantasy persona built up around me that had no relation to reality, he wouldn't listen to the reality. He did point at a painting of Napoleon he'd done and call that his self portrait. He always did have a wit. My heart broke but I could not stand to connect with him again -- after all, when I did, he didn't actually know me.

But if you do blue collar work and grow up in a town, go to work at the plant that supports the town with a large number of your classmates, that old aphorism may be true. Everyone else gets uprooted by various life events like falling in love with someone who lives on the other coast or getting a good job that demands relocating, and winds up displaced. It can take years to mend the damage to your social life. To restore the large healthy pool of acquaintances outside work context from whom your closest local friends are drawn and have someone to spend Saturday afternoon with doing something that's nothing like work.

Healthy balanced living for a human being includes a tribe-sized group of acquaintances, out in the periphery of your social zone along with coworkers. Then a rather smaller group of friends, an even smaller group of best friends and close relatives (actual blood kin can fall in any of the zones including Stay Away From Them in reality, but the chart indicated  blood kin were supposed to be in the Intimate Zone) and then your immediate personal family, your spouse and kids and maybe parents if you get along with them. Parents actually being in that zone with your spouse and kids is rarer than it's supposed to be.

Family conflicts can turn toxic -- and one of the ways that happens fast is when your family has to carry the brunt of all your social needs. When family members are also supposed to be best friends and someone new and interesting every day, and spend all their time socializing with you, that distorts their lives badly. Your needs are real. So are theirs to have some time off on their own being who they are. The solution is to get some other friends into your life, or at least pleasant acquaintances who with time can build enough trust to be friends and then good friends, the kind you can keep for life.

Staying in touch over long distances is easier with the Internet but it only happens if you hang out at the same places online. Otherwise people drift apart. Most people don't have the time to maintain both old friendships and new ones and devote as much time and attention to the ones far away as the ones immediately nearby.

So this is where being able to draw cats and drawing one in public can get the attention of art lovers and cat lovers, striking up conversations on non-confrontational topics like Siamese or colored pencils or how cool it is that you can draw, will you teach me? I usually teach in self defense, because I get tired of people saying "I wish I could do that, but I have no talent."

I believe it when someone says "I wish I could do that, but I don't have time to learn." Very true. But claiming that you couldn't learn if you actually wanted to, that's different -- because I've seen people with bad eyesight and shaking hands successfully learn to draw without too much trouble in about six months to a year. And they are never, ever, ever totally flat broke without the resources for a smoke or a McD or an emergency shortfall like busfare again.

That's about how long it takes with a lesson a month and some practice every week for the average person who learned early in grade school that they had No Talent and could not draw. Because it does take a certain number of specific skills to draw realistically. Classes help, books help, monthly get togethers that are a lot of fun and give social approval to any progress help most of all. Websites like are fantastic for it because they're full of intermediates who just learned and are happy to help, plus seasoned professionals who wrote art books and did DVDs and are happy to help. Hang out there for a year and do the classes in the Basic Drawing section and you will draw well enough that people will start giving you cash in hand for it.

Before I learned to draw portraits, I recognized people more on their haircuts, clothing choices and their symbols, eye and hair color and general complexion. I could emotionally interpret expressions like any human being who doesn't have Asperger's, but I could not actually draw a smiling mouth. I judged whether people were goodlooking or not more on whether they dressed well than anything else.

One of the things I learned in drawing portraits was that appearances aren't even appearances. Wear the symbols of who you are and people will impose a stereotype. People underguess my weight and overguess my height all the time because of my personality, so I stopped worrying about what I look like most of the time. I also lightened up on being embarrassed about funny looking features, because most people don't see them anyway and artists are more interested in whether they can get the line right and mix exactly the right combination of olive green and various earth tones to get my eye color accurate.

People's eye expressions are subtle. Personality shows in the shape of your eyelids and the action of a lot of weird little muscles around them. Draw people realistically and it's much easier to see when someone's lying to you. This is a vital social skill, to be able to see it literally when someone's eyes look predatory while they are smiling. One of numerous reasons I voted for President Obama is that when he smiles, he means it. When he's unruffled, his eye expressions aren't worried. He's either one of the world's greatest actors (actors can and do pay attention to all these expressive details) or he is that honest a personality and when he shows some emotion, it's the one he's actually feeling.

Portrait drawing can reveal a lot more about the person through body language and expression than they are saying consciously. So it's easier to navigate through the large number of strangers anyone has to deal with  by being able to read faces better.

One of the side effects was hilarious. I found out how funny looking all the beautiful people are. Gorgeous actors and actresses have dumb features, weird features, real distortions and are often amazingly silly looking when looked at detail by detail. Few have perfect faces. All have strong personalities and expressive faces, trained faces that can project emotion clearly.

Yet the ugly people of the world that I wouldn't have looked at twice turn out to have hidden beauty. Most old people are very cool to an artist's eye. Their life stories are written in their wrinkles and the planes of their faces. Other ugly people when analyzed closely, do not actually have bad features, but have sour expressions or nasty personalities and it shows, so they become a portrait of something ugly like a bully or a carping petty critic -- and you can tell at a glance who to avoid. But they get into a good mood when they want their portraits done and especially if you get it accurately.

I got accused of flattery all the time doing portraits when I did exactly the opposite, tried to draw every flaw exactly true to who they were. People tend to like themselves and think that they're right, so the very uptight old man that I drew as stern and uptight and got his features accurate thought that my portrait had dignity. Also you can't draw every wrinkle, not in pastel. So everything gets softened and people look younger.

Put them in strong side lighting from one side and faces look better and more expressive, so all of them came out looking better than they see themselves in the bathroom with lighting directly in front making them look green or orange depending on fluorescent or incandescent. They look better out in the sun with the sun to one side, anyone does.

Because anything unusual is more interesting to draw, every human being I met became beautiful. I went on into doing flowers and animals and the world exploded into beauty. Boring stuff became beautiful. Concrete walks and chain link fences with a bird on it started to catch my eye as potentially something cool to draw. Literally, learning to draw realistically changes your perception of the world for the better.

Which can improve your mood and make you more likable. It can give you something to think about standing at the  bus stop so you're not just feeling lonely in a crowd, you're watching that sparrow thinking about how to paint sparrows. Wait too long and actually sketch it, and instead of lonely, you get a compliment out of nowhere from someone you don't know and maybe they birdwatch or something and have a good story.

It breaks the ice. It solves several difficult social situations anyone in these times in this country face frequently, and it makes the world a pleasanter place to live. So learning to draw realistically is worth putting in a year hanging out with interesting people learning to do it -- the changes in you will be deep and lasting, bring more happiness and balance into life in many ways.


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    • PinkWeddingDresse profile image


      6 years ago from Singapore

      This is one question I always ask myself and haven't been able to answer. "Why do I want to learn drawing when I do not aspire to be an artist?" People find it weird that I have to justify my actions to myself. I think it is very necessary for me to have a reason for doing what I am doing. Thanks for the article. It gives me useful insight and food for thought.

    • Neil Ashworth profile image

      George Poe 

      9 years ago from United Kingdom

      Cool hub!!!

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Thanks! Having a place to post your sketches online and get comments and encouragement is about the best motivator I've ever found. I started doing Daily Art because I get lots more blog comments when I do, especially if it comes out well that day. It really helps me get over the jitters when I try something difficult to know I've got readers who like it and will say something nice when I stretch my skills.

    • RiaMorrison profile image

      Ria Bridges 

      10 years ago from Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada

      Very inspirational Hub. I keep telling myself over and over again that I really ought to get around to doing more drawing, sketching, all that fun artistic stuff, but always seem to find a reason to put it off.Then you post another Hub about artsy stuff and I get inspired again and want to dig out my Ticonderoga pencils and sketch something random in the living room. :D

      I've heard you talk before about WetCanvas, but haven't bothered checking the site out until now. Looks pretty nifty; I might start hanging around there for some more good inspiration!

      Thanks, Rob. You really are a wonder! :D


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