What Drawing for Fun Taught me about Daily Practice

I drew something almost every day for three months. It was a bit of an experiment on how to learn effectively. Learning a new skill is intrinsically rewarding. I wanted to see if I could learn to draw. I also wanted to see what kinds of practice work for me. Ultimately, it turns out that making time for practice every day was the most important thing.

At first, I started by following along with youtube videos. I followed along on videos by Christopher Hart. His videos are fun and he has some nice books, too. My versions of his drawings were… somewhat demented.

2015-12-05 11_13_11-draw blog - Google DocsI felt like I could improve at this, but it was hard to define what I wanted. I thought about how Covey said to begin with the end in mind. I was also inspired by the TED talk by Josh Kaufman called The first 20 hours — how to learn anything. I realized that I needed a more specific purpose. I started to ask what I wanted to be able to do. I realized that I wanted to be able to make a little comic and I wanted to be able to do it quickly.

At about 3 weeks, I made this comic about the frustration of being unable to tear a paper towel properly. I used stock art/photos, GIMP, and a drawing tablet to do it. It was fun. I wanted to be able to make comics like that more efficiently. I found a goal: to be able to make a simple comic panel in 10 minutes.

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I started reading about Scott Adams’ method. He deliberately designed a simple style that he could create quickly and consistently. He uses that style to tell a funny story every day in his comic strip, Dilbert. I like that. I started to study his style. The results were not very impressive.

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After working on them for 10 minutes a day for two weeks, though, my drawings started to look more pleasing (at least to me). The style is deliberately simple. For me to create a panel in 10 minutes, it has to be simple. The proportions are not great by any artist’s standard. But I was starting to feel like I could make something that could tell a story.

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There is no pause button on this skill: it’s “use it or lose it.” It has been a longstanding pattern in my life that when something is “good enough” I tend to get distracted. After 6 weeks, I got spotty in my practice. I would take a few days off, and the quality would noticeably slide. I think that was a big eye-opener to me. It was either improving or atrophying. I think people who play sports intuit this, but I certainly don’t. My (incorrect and dangerous) intuition is that I should be able to come back to a task or project and pick up where I left off. For someone who wants to draw or has a particular artistic goal, clearly the right thing to do is to practice every day.

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For a casual hobbyist like myself, there are tools on the internet to help make comics. Computational tools have certainly helped me keep the illusion that skill can be maintained without practice. A basic memory of how a program works is enough to return to a project after a month or longer and still make progress. Working a program is like riding a bike (at least to me). That doesn’t apply to more refined skills, evidently. If I am not going to practice drawing every day, can I “cheat” and use one of these programs to help make comics when the mood strikes?

Two internet tools for making comics are StoryBoardThat.com and ToonDoo.com. Storyboardthat is a little more refined and responsive, but both can lay out a comic a lot faster than I can draw one. I tried using a toondoo comic as a template for my own. That worked reasonably well. It still required some skill to get it to look consistent with what I had been doing earlier.

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After 3 months, it was time to move on to other things, but I think the core lesson was worth remembering. My little experiment in drawing didn’t make me an artist but it reminds me that many (most?) skills take deliberate practice. I am taking this lesson to heart with writing (which is a big part of my real job). Writing every day is critical. As of yet, there are not many technological shortcuts for that.