How to Improve Your Art

When starting out as a webcomic artist, one of the most common questions people seem to ask is “how do I learn to draw better?” If it isn’t one of the questions you’ve asked yourself (and I know I have – I still do, in fact) then unless you’re Dalí reincarnated, maybe you should. Everyone can improve.

Unfortunately there’s no one shot, step by step draw better guide that can be downloaded and which will guarantee a buttload (metric or imperial) of fantastic art without effort. Improving requires three things: patience, honesty and practice. Lots of practice.

Patience is a virtue

Character portraits from Zoë's sketchbook

Drawing the characters of artists you like will highlight the areas of your art that you need to work on.

Nobody improves overnight unless they’ve spent that night honing their skills in a super-caffeinated flurry of activity, and even then they’ll only be marginally better because fatigue, sleep deprivation and repetitive strain injury all take their toll (ask anyone who’s left an assignment to the last minute). You didn’t learn to speak overnight, I’m pretty sure of that. You didn’t learn to write overnight, either. You won’t learn to draw overnight.

Patience is therefore the key factor. Remember that this is a long haul, and you’re going to be working for quite a while before you reach a point where you think you’ve found the style you want; and even then you’ll probably want to keep pushing yourself, because improvement can be addictive.

So learn to look ahead at where you want to be but don’t fret over not getting there just yet. Nothing that’s worth doing takes seconds.

Honesty and Influence

Before you can really start to improve, you have to know you need to. This is the reason for the “unless you’re Dalí” comment in the opening paragraph. However, even Dalí didn’t just rock up in Figueres with the ability to paint a masterpiece. He knew he had to learn how to paint first, and his influences (mainly the Renaissance masters) during his apprenticeship are evident in all his paintings.

Learning what areas you need to focus on can be a difficult process. When trying to improve your art, the best way to uncover your weaknesses is through comparison with artists you admire and whose style, or parts thereof, you aspire to.

When asked what his top tip for drawing better was, H.C. Noel of Tara Normal said “Keep drawing & studying your favorite artists. I always look at work of my favorites. It’s almost like my mind is a sponge soaking up parts of their art I admire.”

Comparing your art to someone else’s is made easier when you try to draw/paint/etc a copy of something they’ve already done. As a personal example, I wanted to improve my ability to draw cartoon features before starting work on All over the house, so I went about finding webcomic artists I liked who drew in that style.

I slavishly copied the work of Mike Krahulik (Penny Arcade), Tatsuya Ishida (Sinfest) and Lise Myhre (Nemi) until I knew just what was wrong with my work. Because I could put my drawings next to theirs, it was a lot easier to see I had no skill in drawing eyes, noses, ears, mouths or hair. My chins were okay, but only occasionally. Some people will say I still have a lot to learn and they’re right, but now I know what I need to learn, and that was the point of the whole exercise.

Practice Makes Perfect

Some people might be put off when they put their work up against that of another, better artist. To those people, I say this: expect your work to be bad. You wouldn’t be doing a comparison if you were churning out masterpieces left, right and centre. The key is not to show you just how bad you are, it’s to see where you need to improve the most.

Now that you’ve got your work there, start making notes on it. You drew the pictures to learn, so don’t feel bad about writing all over them. Write down your initial thoughts (“eyes not straight”, “mouth is crooked”, “this guy looks like he’s melted”, etc.) about what’s wrong with your pictures compared to theirs.

Now it’s time to make a list What do you think will improve your art the most? Put that at the top. What would be great if you could pull it off, but it’s not a really big deal right now if you can’t do it? That should be at the bottom.

Once you’ve got your list, then what? It’s simple. To quote oppernaR of irregular comic oppernaR, “practice practice practice practice practice practice practice practice practice practice practice practice practice practice”.

You know where you need to improve, so now you can focus on improving it. If you had a problem drawing eyes, it’s time to draw some eyes. Lots of eyes. Fill pages of a sketchbook with eyes if you have to, just make sure that each time you draw them, you compare your work with the style of drawing you admire and you’ll soon see you’re getting closer to your goal.

Essentially, the key to improving your art is the ability to look at it with an honest eye and know which parts need to be worked on. Practice is great and anyone who’s compared the first page of a long-running comic with the latest one can plainly see that practice makes perfect but on its own, it can only do so much.

Focussed practice, where you sit down knowing there’s one thing you need to get right and you keep plugging away at it until you get it, is how you improve. It worked at school with spelling (remember how your teacher made you write things out over and over again when you were starting to learn to write?), and it works here too.

Happy drawing!

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