There are three steps to learning how to draw. Step 1 is where you learn to draw what you see, Step 2 is where you learn to draw what you know and Step 3 is where you learn to draw what you want to see.
These steps shouldn’t be skipped over. In fact, it’s impossible to skip over them. If you try to skip over Step 1, for example, you will find yourself learning Step 1 in a sloppy way, as you attempt Step 2. You’ll only be holding yourself back and take twice as long trying to learn things at random. That’s why It is in your best interest to take these steps one at a time in order for you to learn at a good pace.
Drawing what you know comes after you’ve developed the basic ability to draw purely what you see, as you see it. The things you “know” refer to theories like anatomy, technical terms and details, perspective, etc. Understanding and applying theory is a huge step in the process of learning to draw. Even once you understand the theory, it is always beneficial to revisit and strengthen your grasp of these concepts throughout your artistic career.
Having a solid understanding of theory is very important because theory is what will inform your decision-making as you begin drawing or painting from your imagination. Basing yourself on theory and knowledge will allow you to make confident decisions as you work, which improves the quality of your work exponentially.
The 3 theories I suggest you focus on learning first are anatomy, perspective, and design principles. These will help you strengthen your basic drawing and painting skills.
2 point perspective drawing made by my sister, Karla Pineda.
To start learning, you can find classes being offered online or locally or, if you’d rather try it at home, I strongly recommend these books:
-Perspective: The Art of Perspective: The Ultimate Guide for Artists in Every Medium by Phil Metzger
-Design Principles: Design Principles and Problems by Paul Zelanski and Mary Pat Fisher
Keep in mind that when I say you need to understand these theories, I don’t mean you have to master them in order to start improving. For example, you don’t have to understand the anatomy of the human body like a doctor before you start drawing it well. To strengthen your understanding of the ideas, it is also very important that you experiment with them hands-on.
What I mean is this: study the theory and apply it. When you study an aspect of human anatomy, the best way to solidify your understanding of it is to actually draw something applying the theory.
You might want to reference:
Here are some examples:
-Read about the general proportions of a human face and make several studies or sketches of a variety of human faces (using photo references), focusing on applying the things you just learned.
-Read about the difference between female and male body shapes and make studies (using references—Bridgman’s books are great for this) looking to highlight the differences you just read about.
-Read about one, two, or three point perspective and create your own perspective drawing.
-Test your knowledge of perspective by finding the horizon line in a photo reference and identifying the vanishing point(s), etc.
-Learn about the 6 principles of design and create your own designs following each principle.
-Find three good examples of each design principle in an editorial magazine or online.
A few exercises I did for my design principles class, experimenting with rhythm, variety, and repetition.
You’ll begin to notice improvements in your work as soon as you start studying these theories. Many of the things you’ll learn might seem obvious, but you don’t actually start to apply them until you start looking specifically at each one. This makes sense because there are so many nuances that belong to each theory that it’s impossible for a beginner to inherently “know” these things from the beginning. These are things you see everyday but don’t actually notice until you start looking at them as if with a magnifying glass. The feeling of realizing “Oh yeah, I know that!” as you start to learn these things is awesome.
It’s necessary to have very strong drawing skills before you shift your attention to other theories. Honestly, above all, strong drawing skills are what you need to improve the quality of your work. So before you start wondering about color schemes and composition and digital painting, you need to have spent months or years strengthening your drawing skills. If not, you’ll find yourself constantly held back by your weak drawing skills.
A study I made during a life drawing session.
You can certainly study and strengthen your understanding of various theories concurrently, but I wouldn’t advise starting that way. Start by focusing on just the 3 mentioned above, then, once you’re comfortable with those, move on to others like color theory, light and value, different media and techniques, visual storytelling, etc.
If you’re thinking this sounds like it’ll take a long time, you’re absolutely right. It will take you a very long time to get better. Any artist you ask will tell you they spent years perfecting their skills before they got to where they are now. That’s the way it is. The outcome is well worth the effort, though. If you really want to be a great artist, you won’t regret putting in the hard work. You’ll even enjoy it.