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Start small


One word: thumbnails. I remember the day I realized that tiny little drawings, if designed well, will blow up into the same exact proportions. In other words, what works small, works large. Not the other way around. One problem: I hated my thumbnails. So, I spent years going through the agony of learning to draw shapes fast, and as accurately as possible. This saved tremendous grief down the line. Measure twice, and all that. I got more excited about...well, everything really, when the thumbnails were solid.

I dont trip over silly philosophies about how this line mimics that rhythm, or that gesture connects to this line. Or how movements repeat. A throughline, just like a story plot, leads the eye through the painting. If its a scene, I want to lead the viewer through it, looking from the most important element first, through to all the supporting pieces. Nothing complicated. Edited and simplified.

Use line to direct the eye

Foreground. Middle ground. Background.

I found that by drawing small, I could cover more ground, keep from getting lost in one composition, and find angles I hadnt thought of. I explore all those angles. I want to show the viewer how much I love what I paint. I want to take them with me. And Ive found over the years that theyre willing to go. Besides, I dont want my portfolio full of boring povs, unless I can bring something special to it.

Find a better point of view

As with 2D space, I also design in 3D: front to back. I find the focal point of the piece, and load the picture from there, working to allow the foreground to take my eye past it, into the picture, all the way through to the far background. The background will support and hold firm what I show in the middle ground. Everything is supported by the other elements. If it doesnt, its adjusted or its gone. I dont have the time in my composition to waste on elements that dont support the whole.


I ask myself right away: how is this baby gonna be lit? Whats the light in the world of the painting? Time of day? Year? Setting? Weather? Indoors, outdoors? Is the lighting the focus, or the subject in light? What kind of light do I want to try, play with, understand. Then I search for ways to express it in a way I alone want to see. This helps make it unique. I dont want my list of work to reflect the same damn light angle, from the same damn source, painted under the same damn conditions, every time. Shoot. Me. In. The. Head. Boring. Which leads to...

When I notice that Im spending too much time on an element, it means Im too much in love with that particular detail and I need to incorporate it into the balance of the whole picture. Theres not much sadder to me than to see a painter miss an opportunity to thrill by pushing and pulling pictorial elements apart or together. Elements must vary. Overlapping adds depth and interest at the same time, and keeps my compositions from becoming staid.



Lighting determines much of this. But I have to pay attention to whether its about a bright picture, or dark, haunting, moody, or uplifting. I study the differences all the time as to what makes pictures inspire certain feelings. What kind of light makes me feel certain things. There must also be a range of value to convey this. Once decided, the light values must stay consistent to be convincing. The more convincing the painting, the better the illusion.

I think a lot about what Im to portray. Then I try to feel the elements. Is it leather? Steel? Hair? Skin? This gives me the feeling I need to go after, and the best way for me to get it is to research it to exhaustion. I get every sort of reference needed about it: photos, video, the thing itself. I try to get it in the position I need, but Im not always successful. So, I surround myself in reference. I rely on my memory for the idea, not the final.

Think it, feel it, research it

Design the entire space

Every piece of space in the painting is important to me. I want to fall in love with every angle, every twist, turn, value, shape, and line. Every figure. Every face. I design out the space so that it works side-to-side, top-to-bottom. It is a fine designed window into the scene, and every piece is critical. Every piece. If it isnt, its out.

They are only there to remind me of the actual thing. Otherwise, Id have the thing in front of me. Certainly I work from photos, from sketches to finish. I remember that the photo is not the painting, so in the end, the very last thing to do is reject the reference in favor of the painting. And make it work.


Photos are guides

on teaching yourself to draw

Natural vs. Nurtured Talent

Theres a lot of debate on whether talent comes naturally or is nurtured. I think its safe to leave that debate behind because whether or not you have natural talent or nurtured talent, you will need to put in a lot of time and practice - and I mean a LOT of time and practice - to get good, reach your potential, or create work people will notice. Some people pick up drawing skills more quickly than others, and some can dive so much deeper into the craft of illustration. But the speed at which we learn or the distance we can travel should have no bearing on the amount of effort we pour into our craft. If its worth doing, its worth doing right. So leave the debate behind and pick up that pencil!

Every practice session meant something, served some purpose, and worked toward some goal. Intentional practice was what helped me really drive forward in my craft. Now, this isnt to say Ive arrived or Ive landed at a final destination. Far from it! Im still growing, still getting better, and still spending time in intentional practice.

Routine & Regiment

I love a good routine and a solid regiment. I used both to my advantage when it came time to teaching myself to draw. I spent time drawing every day by scheduling it as a part of my routine. Morning: 2 hours of study drawing from books, how-tos, etc. Lunch: 1 hour drawing, applying what I learned from the Morning Study time Night: 2+ hours drawing whatever I wanted This sounds like a big time investment - and it is. But its not unrealistic. I was doing this while married and working a full time job. None of this came at the expense of my priorities and responsibilities. It simply meant I had to schedule my days, get up early, and, most of all, stay consistent. If you can only put in 20 minutes a day, do it! Think of the time that adds up to in a year! Youll notice I broke up my drawing times with a mix of study and fun. I needed that to keep myself motivated. I had energy in the morning to pour through anatomy, perspective, color theory, and a host of other fundamental books. At lunch time I tried to apply what I learned from my morning studies. This showed me how much I was retaining and also gave me an idea how to get lessons to stick in my mind. Finally, the reward for my efforts was my night time drawing sessions. These were where Id put away the books and practice putting lines to what I saw in my imagination. This kept learning to draw from feeling too clinical or boring. It gave me motivation which would then drive my study times the next morning.

Square One
Every illustrator I know started at the same place: square one. We all had to learn to hold a crayon or pencil or some tool to mark on the page. We all had to produce loads of bad drawings before we were able to gain any measure of control over our medium of choice. Rest assured that for every good drawing you see from an illustrator you respect, there are thousands of bad* drawings behind it where they were struggling through the craft just as you are. *And when I say bad I mean early work which serves artistic internal purposes more than it would serve others. We do these drawings to learn, not to impress. With those points in mind, heres what I did to teach myself to draw.

Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

This was something my dad always used to say. He was a professional musician who knew what it was to practice. And I didnt understand his point until recently. The only way to learn how to draw is to draw. If you want to get better, you need to practice at it. Yet, Ive seen guys who fill up hundreds of sketchbooks and yet their work never seems to change. Why was that? They were practicing, they were spending time with pencil to paper - what was going on? The key is perfect practice - or, perhaps a more precise term, intentional practice. Instead of just drawing to fill up pages, I spent time drawing things I loved as well as the things I wanted to get better at. I had a limited amount of time I could spend drawing each day (more on that later) so to maximize my study times, I made sure that every time my pencil hit the page, there was a purpose behind what I was doing. Today, Im going to draw 100 hands. Today, Im going to draw feet. Today, Im going to draw objects I see in the room around me.

Stay Hungry, Stay Up

The blessing and curse of this craft is it simply takes time. It can be painful. It will be painful. But it can also be immensely rewarding. I always figured that I would never be able to draw what I saw in my head and the disparity between my imagination and what I was putting down on paper was just something I was going to have to learn to live with. But with enough practice, enough blood, sweat, and tears, the gap between imagination and production slowly vanishes. Soon the two work together in surprising ways and youll look back and realize it just took time.