If you’re here, you probably want to improve your art skills. But, you might not know where to start or what to focus on in your drawing practice.
I spent a few days reflecting, researching, and planning this article. Then I chose a few key concepts and exercises that have helped me get better at art.
Concepts and exercises like deliberate practice and warm-up circles can help everyone from beginners to even professional artists. Many of these I still apply and use today. I hope you find this article useful!
Important concepts for drawing practice
These drawing concepts will help you practice efficiently. If you follow this, you will be able to see much more improvement in your drawing skills.
Find the time to draw
The first and most important key to improving your art skills is to find some time to draw. All of us have time, but we choose to prioritize different things. If you find yourself thinking or saying that you don’t have time, but yet, you spend hours upon hours on Netflix each week. Then now is a good time to decide if drawing is important to you. If it is, find some time to draw every day.
Your actions should align with your goals. If your goal is to become a professional artist, then you should be devoting much more time than a hobbyist. Drawing 5-6 hours per day is quite normal for aspiring professional artists. But, for most, 1-2 hours a day will give you a lot of progress. I recommend drawing at least 30 minutes a day, even on the weekends. This leads to the next point.
You should be drawing every day. Yes, even on the weekends! On some days, you can draw only what you want if you feel worn down from studying things. Drawing every day will keep your skills sharp and help you improve at a much faster rate. And as the saying goes, “use it or lose it!”.
If you’re having a hard time finding time to draw, it helps to break the session into chunks. For example, draw 10 minutes in the morning when you wake up, 10 minutes during lunch break, and 10 minutes before bed.
The 50% Rule
I first discovered this rule from Draw a Box, a website that gives you great drawing exercises for free (we’ll get to this a bit later). It states that at least half of your drawing time should be spent on drawing just for drawing’s sake (for fun!). Don’t care too much about the outcome or whether or not you’re progressing. Try things that you might feel you’re not ready for, but things that you really want to draw.
In the other half, you spend the time studying the things that will improve your art. For example, if I’m struggling with drawing hands (who doesn’t!), I might devote a chunk of time just to draw hands. I found this incredibly helpful because it keeps your passion for art alive from the beat-down of some tough drawing exercises. It also allows you to try different things and discover what you love to draw.
You might’ve heard of this concept before. Deliberate practice is the key thing that creates masters. Cal Newport’s article explains this very well. Masters in chess, writing, art, and even surgeons used deliberate practice to get there. Deliberate practice basically boils down to 6 concepts:
Designed to improve performance – exercises or classes that you take should be designed to improve a set of skills. For example, taking an online class on figure drawing and anatomy, or drawing boxes from a bunch of different angles. Even drawing a bunch of straight lines is designed for you to improve.
Repetition – repetition is the key to mastering any skills. Draw something, and draw it again. But, this doesn’t mean you draw the same exact drawing you drew. You should be making incremental improvements, or you can draw the same subject in a different way. The best way to get better at drawing is to draw a lot.
Continuous feedback – feedback should be available to you whether it’s given by yourself, your art friends, or a teacher. Just the simple act of comparing your drawing with the reference photo to look for errors is a way to give yourself feedback. You can post in Facebook art groups if you’re not sure what errors you made.
Mentally demanding – you should be putting all of your focus and concentration on the task at hand. Don’t hop around from drawing to doing chores or browsing Instagram. It’s also different from mindlessly doodling around in your sketchbook.
Hard – deliberate practice is hard. It’s not very enjoyable. Challenge yourself in drawing the things you’re weak at. But, if you’re finding that you keep “failing” on your attempts, you might be drawing something that is too far out of reach. Start with drawing things that you can successfully draw, but you sometimes fail at drawing them well.
Have good goals – set goals that depend on the process of reaching the outcome, not the outcome itself. A bad goal would be “draw a hand that looks perfect”. A better goal would be “draw 30 hands with deliberate practice”.
Side note: you don’t need to deliberately practice all the time when you draw. Be sure to include them, but also have time when you’re just doodling or drawing whatever you feel like. You’re improving as long as you’re drawing!
Use reference photos
I can’t stress this enough! I used to doodle or draw things from my memory, and even if I was drawing regularly, I wasn’t getting better. Our visual memory is not as great as we think. Try drawing a cat from your memory. Now draw it again with a reference photo. The second drawing is probably better. This is because there are so many objects in the world that we don’t remember all of the little visual details on every single thing.
Drawing with reference photos allows you to absorb the visual information of that subject. You begin to build your visual library so you have a more accurate understanding of the subjects you draw. Once you’ve drawn something a few times, you can rely on reference photos a bit less (but, still use it!).
9 Exercises to include in your drawing practice
Here are 9 exercises that I have personally done and do believe will help you improve a lot.
Everything is made up of lines. Therefore, you need to know how to control your lines. I always start off my drawing sessions by drawing straight lines, circles, and ellipses for a 5-10 minutes warm-up. This doesn’t take a lot of thinking and helps you make better strokes as you improve.
Start with two dots. Then hover along with those two dots in a motion as if you were drawing a line. Do that a few times then draw the line. You can draw 5-6 strokes using the same two dots and check to see if you drew them accurately. Be sure to draw confidently in a single smooth stroke. Don’t try to draw slowly to get a perfect line (this actually makes it much harder to draw straight lines).
Another way to warm up with lines is to draw a bunch of dots on the page. Then simply connect those dots with lines. Also, it’s completely ok to mess up, especially at first. Mine is not perfect, and yours will get better as you practice.
Warm-up: circles and ellipses
Circles and ellipses along with lines can be combined to make pretty much any shape you’d ever need. Start with drawing a circle, then draw one right next to it. Then draw the next and so on. Try to have the edges touching, but not overlapping each other. This will help you practice control. Use the same hovering method as drawing lines (hover over where you want to draw in circular shapes before committing).
I usually draw two laps per circle and ellipse because it helps me reinforce that circular motion. For ellipses, you can simply draw a stack of them as shown in the picture. Like the circles, you can vary the sizes of your ellipses.
Tip: try to draw with your shoulders or your entire arm when you’re trying to do these warm-ups. They will give you more accurate lines because the wrists have a more limited range of motion.
Draw boxes from different angles
One exercise you can do is to draw boxes from different perspectives. This will help you practice perspective and is important later on when you try to construct objects. This process is quite complicated, so here’s the lesson from Draw a Box if you’d like to dig deeper into this. It covers different points of perspective and how to draw boxes. The goal is to be able to draw boxes from different angles that are roughly correct.
Start with easier subjects like trees, insects, and animals
Tree trunks, insects, and animals like elephants and deer are easier to draw because they have a higher margin of error. Most people are not visually familiar with these objects. This means that errors are harder to spot and that it’s easier for you to make the drawing look good. For example, a slightly off eye on an elephant is much harder to spot than on a dog or on a person. Our article on drawing ideas for beginners goes more into detail on the concept of margin of error.
Build your confidence by picking subjects that have a higher margin of error and are easier to draw. Start by deconstructing the subject that you see on the reference photo and draw geometric shapes to represent the main forms. Then flesh out the details. Once you’ve drawn something a few times, you can construct that subject using the same shapes and proportions but in your own style, perspective, or pose. Pretty much everything you draw follows this deconstruction and construction process.
Challenge yourself with harder subjects like cats, dogs, cars, and people
Using the same idea of margin of error, these subjects are harder to draw because there is less room for error. Most of us will be able to tell when a face is off or if the arms are longer than usual. We can also tell if a cat’s eyes are too far apart. Symmetrical, designed objects like a car is also harder to draw because you need more controlled lines and the right proportions.
Even if these are harder to draw, I still recommend you guys to try drawing them to challenge yourself. If it’s too hard, come back to it later. But, you’ll learn a lot just by drawing these and pushing yourself further.
Still life drawings
Most artists have done some sort of still life sketch or painting at some point in their art career. This teaches you how to observe, how to draw different shapes and forms, and how to add lighting to the object.
You can simply google still life photos or set up your own still life subject. Try placing a few different fruits on a small table. Then have one light source, like a lamp, pointing at them at the angle you want.
Draw a building with the right perspective
Here’s a digital drawing I did for an online digital painting class. You start by plotting out the horizontal line and different vanishing points. In this case, I had two vanishing points. Then most lines, except for the edges, should be pointing to those two vanishing points. Try looking up a picture of a house and draw that from a two-point perspective. This exercise helps you better understand perspective.
Draw a person with the right proportions
The human body is an interesting subject, and most art forms will have humans in them. There are so many things you can draw like the face, facial emotions, different muscle groups, or people in motion. You can also get into character design or illustrating cartoon characters. But, the first step to all of these is to learn the proportions of the human body. We cover this in our step-by-step guide on how to draw people.
This is related to drawing humans, but this helps you draw people from different angles and in different positions. Practicing this will allow you to draw people from all the angles you want. It will also help you draw them in different motions or poses. You can simply google for reference images or use this figure drawing tool by Line of Action.
Common mistakes you might be making when you practice drawing
Here are a few key points to keep in mind when you’re practicing drawing. I’m guilty of some of these, and getting rid of them will help you improve much faster.
Spending too much time coloring, shading, and rendering everything
If you’re still having trouble drawing something well, spending too much time coloring, shading, and rendering won’t help you improve. The perfect coloring can’t save a crooked face. Spend more time in the initial process of sketching and drawing different things. This is where you learn the most about the subject you’re drawing. Once you’re getting pretty good at drawing, then dive deeper into painting and shading.
Stylizing everything you draw
It’s super fun to stylize a person or a creature into something you like. But, if that’s all you do then you’re not learning about the actual structures of the subject you’re drawing. This is a pitfall that can hold you back from improving for months or even years.
Study something by drawing them realistically so you get an accurate picture of what that object actually looks like. Then stylize them once you’ve studied them well enough.
Drawing only the things you find easy
If your goal is to improve, you need to challenge yourself as mentioned in the deliberate practice section. Draw things you’re not familiar with or things that you have never drawn. You might also find that you like to draw those things more than you thought you would.
Hopping too much from one subject to another
Don’t hop from drawing hands in one minute to drawing faces in the next minute. You won’t really improve at drawing either thing because you didn’t have time to make incremental improvements. Sticking to one subject for a period of time, like 30 minutes or even a whole week, would be the better option.
Grinding through hours upon hours of practice that you don’t enjoy
Practicing can be hard and soul-crushing. Be sure to break them down into shorter sessions like 30 minutes to an hour. Don’t just go through hours upon hours and burn yourself out in the process. Remember the 50% rule!
What to do next
I hope these tips and exercises help you become better at drawing. If you’re having trouble getting started, check out our article on drawing techniques for beginners.