Picture yourself sitting in your desk, working on a drawing. How do you feel? Are you confident in what you’re doing? Or do you feel helpless? What kind of marks are you making? Are they confident deliberate marks? Or do you use lots of tiny little marks because you’re afraid of making a mistake? Do you find yourself having to erase and fix mistakes over and over? Is this how it goes every time you work on something? If it is, you could use a healthy dose of confidence.
First of all, I commend you for having the dedication and determination to continue drawing. I promise that as long as you keep trying, you will improve. However, if you’re serious about being an artist, you should learn to work with confidence, especially if you’re not very confident in your skills.
Regardless of your skill level, when you work on something, you always have to trust your instincts. That is how you learn to make smart, intuitive decisions. What separates professional work from amateur work is the deliberate manner in which professionals work. Professionals make deliberate decisions during their creation process and they stick to them. Amateurs often work hesitantly and make poor decisions, which force them to constantly waste time fixing their own mistakes.
If you’re still unsure as to why you should work with confidence regardless of your skill level, think of it this way: You don’t wait until you’re a professional to start working like a professional. You become a professional by working like a professional.
Take these as examples. When you look at Milt Kobayashi’s painting on the left, you can tell he knew exactly what he was doing. He knew where and how to place his marks and you can tell he made each mark only once. He worked with confidence. When you look at my self-portrait on the right, you can tell I wasn’t sure of what I was doing. I made random marks, made more marks to fix the first ones and ended up mixing everything into a muddy mess. My painting looks wonky, forced, and inconsistent. I worked hesitantly.
So how do you work with confidence when you have no idea what you’re doing?
Here’s the thing: when you want to draw something, don’t just grab a pencil (or brush, stylus, etc.) and start making random marks on the page. Drawings and designs aren’t fossils you dig out of the ground. You construct your artwork. You build it from the ground up. You have complete control over it. So take advantage of this. Help yourself by preparing before you start.
-Gather references (Ex. a picture of a particular pose you want your character to be in, several pictures of medieval swords, armor, and horses) If there are pictures of it, there is no reason why you should have to make it up. If you want to make stuff up, at least base yourself on something real. Learn to love references. It’s not cheating. It’s being smart.
-Make preliminary sketches (i.e. thumbnails, roughs, color breaks) to get a better idea of what you want your final image to look like. Move things around to see what looks best compositionally, work out anatomical issues, etc. Once you have a sketch you like, use it to base your clean drawing off of. This way you’re not starting with a blank page. Your sketch is a road map for you to follow.
-Look at existing artworks and use them as inspiration to determine what sort of style or look you want your work to have (Don’t copy the work, just take a few parts of it that you like the most—maybe the colors, or the composition or certain aspects of the style, but never all of it exactly as it is!).
Being prepared will help you start projects with confidence. You won’t feel like you’re starting from zero. You’ll have a plan and a more concrete idea of what you want the final piece to look like.
That’s just the beginning. You also need to execute your work with confidence. This is hard to do because you’ll want to rush through the process and force yourself to erase and redo and fix every little thing you do. To work with confidence, you have to learn to make smart decisions. Don’t just put something down on a whim. Think about the effect it will have and how it’ll help you accomplish your goal. Try to visualize what your mark will look like once you put it down. Ask yourself, is this the best way to go about it? Is there another kind of mark I could make that would work better? Learning to make efficient marks will save you time in the long run. You’ll spend more time creating and less time trying to fix your mistakes.
I know it’s tough to visualize things when your mind isn’t trained to do it yet. But the only way to learn is by doing it. It’s all trial and error at first. Again, be patient. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. Trust your instinct even when it might be wrong.
Remember that your mind learns from every mistake you make. The more you experiment, the more you’ll learn. It’s not about making things look “good”. It’s about teaching yourself to visualize things and learning what works and what doesn’t.
Your brain will eventually register that making a certain type of shape requires you to twist your wrist a certain way or that placing the eyes a certain distance from the nose has a particular effect on a character’s expression, etc. You’ll learn thousands of little things like this once you start making deliberate mistakes. And eventually your deliberate mistakes will become successful marks.
Consider these two self-portraits of mine. One has authority in its execution, while the other is just plain amateurish. I painted both of these with my right hand using the same oil paints on the same gessoed paper. What makes them so different is the confidence (or lack thereof) with which I executed them. In the painting on the left, I made conscious decisions and stuck with them. In the one on the right, I just fumbled my way through, not thinking through any decisions.
Instead of making a mark with lots of wimpy little lines, commit to a decision and make marks with confidence. If you don’t know what you’re doing, fake it ‘till you make it. You’ll learn much faster and your artwork will carry more authority, even if it’s not perfect. I’m not saying you can’t sketch loosely or use wimpy little lines as a style, if that’s the effect you want. But don’t lie to yourself. It’s not a style if you’re doing it because you’re afraid to commit and make mistakes.
Be confident and make those mistakes! That’s how you’ll learn. Don’t judge yourself for not being “good” at art. You’re learning! That’s the only way to get better. Every one of your favorite artists started out being “bad”. It’s not about being good or bad. It’s about working with confidence and being open to failure.
You don’t just suddenly become a confident artist after spending years being hesitant and self-doubting. Instead, project the way you want to be from the very beginning. Work with confidence and your work will reflect that!