A step-by-step guide to teach yourself how to draw

I want to learn how to draw well. But like many beginner artists, I don’t really know what the best approach is to teach yourself how to draw.

Since I am not attending art school there is no predetermined learning format or structure I have to follow. 

This can be a very good thing because I can decide on a learning process that matches my personal art goals and interests. 

And this can also be a not-so-good thing because if I don’t structure my learning process correctly I won’t improve as much as I would like.

That is why I decided to find out how you can learn drawing skills by yourself. In this post I am sharing my findings for anyone interested in learning art through self-study.

Can you teach yourself how to draw?

You can teach yourself how to draw if you know how to structure your learning process the right way. Many renowned artists were self-taught artists who did not receive formal art education. To advance as an artist you have to deliberately practice with discipline, intent and focus.

HOW TO TEACH YOURSELF TO DRAW IN six STEPS 

1. Study the art fundamentals

The fundamentals of art are essentially the building blocks of art. 

  • Perception = learning to draw from observation 
  • Construction = constructing objects using three-dimensional shapes (cubes, spheres, cylinders, cones)
  • Gesture = drawing figures with naturally flowing gestures
  • Anatomy = understanding the basic anatomy of a figure 
  • Perspective = drawing three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional paper 
  • Color theory = understanding the theory of how colors work 
  • Rendering = learning how to paint (or, ‘render’) 
  • Composition = learning how to effectively arrange (or, ‘compose’) the elements of a drawing 

Understanding and applying these fundamentals will give your artwork a solid foundation. Find explanations and tutorials to guide you through the art fundamentals if you are unfamiliar with them.

Art tip: I think it is helpful to think of your learning as a circular process and not a linear process. That is to say that you do not have to master all fundamentals immediately, but try to study and revisit them repeatedly so that they become intuitive over time. Every time you come back to a topic you can study it more in-depth as you progress in your skill level.

2. Draw from life

Draw from life as much as you can. This will help you understand how to translate three-dimensional forms onto your paper. 

Here are a few ideas to try if you are new to life drawing: 

  • The easiest way to draw from life is to go outside with a sketchbook and start drawing. Notice the little things around you and try to capture the right feeling in your drawings. 
  • You could also set up a ‘still-life’ composition at home and draw objects you find around the house (e.g. a bowl of fruit, vase with flowers, ornaments or figurines).
  • Draw a part of your room or the view from your window. This is a great way to practice perspective. 
  • Attend a figure drawing class. This is especially helpful if you are interested in learning to draw the human figure. 

Art tip: Do not focus on the details. Focus on the life, the feeling and the gesture in your drawing. The ‘life’ in a drawing is much more important than the details. You can always work on the details later. I try to think of it this way: if the foundation of your drawing (e.g. perspective or proportions) is wrong, no amount of detail – no matter how beautifully drawn – will improve the drawing.

3. Learn to draw ‘sculpturally’

This idea tells you that you need to understand the object you are drawing like a sculptor. You need to understand the object from all angles in a three-dimensional space before translating it to a two-dimensional drawing. 

Instead of thinking in terms of outlines, you have to think in terms of forms. This will give your drawings a three-dimensional quality. Analyze forms, not just the lines and shapes. Think around the forms you are drawing. Focus especially on finding the gesture and the life of the character you are drawing. 

4. Study artworks and artists you love

Study the works you love and learn more about the artists that created them. How do these artists approach drawing? How did they study to reach their skill level? What can you learn from them? 

Studying and drawing from artists you love will help you find your sources of creative inspiration. Analyze the artwork in detail and then try to imitate it as best as you can. Imitating the work of artists you love will help you to understand art on a deeper level. Even if you are a beginner studying a more advanced drawing, painting or animation sequence. 

Examples of animation artwork I love
– Cinderella (e.g. character animation by Disney’s Nine Old Men;
visual development by Mary Blair)
– Tangled (e.g. drawings by Glen Keane; visual development by Lisa Keene and Claire Keane)
– Tangled the Series (e.g. opening credits and journal drawings by Claire Keane)

5. Create your own art curriculum

Maybe you want to create visual development art, character designs, background paintings or animation. Think about what you want to accomplish creatively and translate your goals into a learning plan to guide your practice. How would you design your art curriculum if you were running your own art school?

One way to do this is to break down the skill you are learning into smaller components. Then you create a schedule where you only focus on one subject or a few subjects at once.

Start with the fundamental art skills. Here is an example deconstruction you can use to create a practice schedule:

elementsfundamentalsfigure drawingperspectivepainting
line 
shape 
form
space
value 
color
texture
perception
construction
gesture
anatomy
perspective
color theory 
rendering 
composition
life drawing
gesture drawing
anatomy – head
anatomy – torso
anatomy – arms
anatomy – legs
anatomy – hands
anatomy – feet
anatomy – animals
1-point
2-point
3-point
black and white
limited palette
color

Apart from studying the art fundamentals you also need to incorporate more advanced skills in your art education. The design of your advanced art curriculum will be determined by the creative direction you wish to pursue. Think about elements such as:

  • Applications. Drawings, paintings, book illustration, visual development art, character design, background art, storyboard art or animation (2D/3D).
  • Materials. Pencil, pen and ink, charcoal, pastels, oil paint, acrylic paint, gouache, watercolors.
  • Mediums. Traditional art, digital art.

Find art resources and study materials (e.g. books, courses, tutorials) that can help you learn to draw the way you want to. 

Example resources/learning materials
Drawn to life series (part 1 & part 2) by Walt Stanchfield
Gesture drawing for animation by Walt Stanchfield

6. Practice deliberately

The fifth and final step is to practice deliberately. Practicing deliberately is different from simply practicing to clear your to-do list. Remove anything that can distract you from practicing. Clear your desk and set all your practice essentials in place before sitting down to practice.

Remember that drawing is a cerebral activity. Drawing is thinking – visual thinking. This is why you have to practice with deliberate intent and focus. You have to actively learn, think and solve problems while drawing. Analyze the object instead of simply copying what you see.

To sum up

You can learn how to draw by yourself with this six step approach:  

  1. Study the art fundamentals
  2. Draw from life
  3. Learn to draw ‘sculpturally’ 
  4. Study artworks and artists you love
  5. Create your own art curriculum
  6. Practice deliberately