5 Tips for Improving Your Art

These tips are things that I found to be helpful in my art journey.  They are in no way fit for everyone, but if you are feeling stuck in your art, give them a try!  I’d love to know any tips for beginners you have, so feel free to leave them in the comments!

  1. Practice every day

This may seem tedious at first, but if you get in the habit of drawing every single day, you will see improvement much faster.  You don’t need to work on a big project or finish a big drawing every day, but work for at least 10 minutes.  If you aren’t in the mood, try to at least do a little doodle.  It may seem weird, but just this little bit can help you hone your skills and improve faster.

There are also some easy drawing exercises you can do that will help you improve certain skills.  For example, make a loop with multiple squiggles and then without picking up the pencil retrace your loop over and over.  Try to do it as fast as you can without going off the original line.

Another practice you can do is for shading; if you draw a circle or other simple shape, you can practice shading by having the light source on one side (feel free to change it up each time).  Where you light is should be the lightest, and the opposite side should be the darkest.  Practice having the shading go from one to the other smoothly, with no noticeable line dividing the two areas.

When I was recovering from surgery and was stuck in bed for 6 weeks, I drew, A LOT.  Here are a few drawings from that time, just to show you what how quickly drawing every day can make a difference.  *these are a bit faded because I did not spray them with fixative in my sketchbook lol.  To me the biggest difference in these is the accuracy of the facial features.  That was my focus during this time.

  1. Contrast

One of the easiest ways to make something look more realistic is by creating lots of contrast.  The values (how light or dark the color is) that you achieve are more important to realism than the actual color.  For this reason, if you are new to realism I suggest starting with monochromatic drawings.  This will force you to only focus on the values and not the color of your drawings.

Having enough contrast is something I still struggle with sometimes.  It can be scary to make things really dark, since it can be hard to fix them if you go too dark.  The way that I find works best for me is putting in the darkest areas first.  This way, you can adjust the other areas accordingly.  If you start with the lights or the mid tones, and they get too dark, then your darks won’t look dark enough.  By starting with the darkest areas first, you can then use these parts as reference for the rest of the drawing to access the values.

Make sure you are leaving your brightest areas clean until you are sure of their values.  For example, if you have a white highlight in an eye, leave it blank until you complete the rest of the eye.  Generally, things that look white at first glance aren’t actually white, but you want to make sure you do not make it too dark.  The easiest way to make sure the value is correct, is to leave it blank until you can see how it compares to the rest of the drawing.  Once the values for the remainder of the drawing are completed, you will be able to tell how you need to adjust this spot.

If you are working in color and you aren’t sure of you values, take a picture of the drawing and convert it to black and white.  This will show you if your values are correct, and they you can adjust as needed.

  1. Reference photos

One thing that will make a big difference is having a reference photo.  Even if you are drawing something from your mind, for example a random tree, it is a good idea to have some kind of reference.  Even if the tree you are drawing isn’t exactly the same shape as the one in the reference, the reference will help you know when the light would be hitting the leaves, bark, etc.  These things will help your drawing look much more realistic.

When using a reference photo, it is important to have it match your intended drawing.  If you are doing a black and white drawing, make sure you convert your refence to black and white.  This will help you see the values instead of the colors.

The same goes for size.  Try to print your reference photo to be the same size, or if you have it electronically you can just zoom in to make it the same size.  Sometimes when you are looking at the shapes of your photo in a smaller size than your drawing, you mind has a harder time converting them to larger than you would think.  If your reference and your drawing are the same size, it takes this step out of the equation.

  1. Using a lightbox

If you want to practice shading or coloring, trace your outline so you don’t get bogged down with the line drawing. This is helpful when you have a specific skill you want to practice.  If you have trouble getting line drawings correct, you may get frustrated before you get to the shading/coloring steps.  To avoid this, use a light box or projector to trace out your outline.

I use the Cricut light box (I use it to transfer my sketches) because it goes through darker paper pretty well.  You don’t need anything fancy though.  If you can’t get a lightbox, you can tape your paper to the window on a sunny day for the same affect.

Once you are more confident in your line drawing, you won’t need to trace your outlines, but I found this helpful when I was just starting out so that I could practice my shading.

  1. Grid method

If you are not confident with free hand drawing, I highly suggest trying the grid method.  You can create a grid over your reference photo by hand, or digitally using rulers in Word or Photoshop (or other photo editing software).

By making a grid, you are sectioning the photo so that your brain has an easier time seeing the shapes instead of the whole photo.  When I first started, I found this method to be extremely helpful.  Over time, it helped my freehand skills improve so that I don’t always need the grid.  I still use it for drawings that I need to be perfectly accurate to the photo.

Here is a YouTube tutorial I have for this method.

The Beginning of My Art Journey

Art vs. Science

Drawing I did in middle school art class.

Growing up I was always doodling in my notebooks or occasionally drawing on a sketch pad. My grandmother had been a hobby artist, so I think a part of me felt connected to her when I did art. It was never my primary focus however; I was more interested in science ever since I was little. Around the age of 9 my favorite TV show was “Crossing Jordan”. I wanted to be a medical examiner just like Jordan when I grew up. I had this singular mindset for most of my childhood and into my high school years. While I took the required art classes, I never thought of art as something I wanted to do as a career. Even when my art teacher suggested I take some more art classes, my answer was always, “No I don’t have time for that.”

I later went on to get my Bachelor of Science with dual degrees in Forensic Science and Biology. While my views on being a medical examiner had changed, I still loved science and research and was looking forward to a career in the field, although I hadn’t yet figured out what I wanted to do. After my undergraduate degrees, I decided to get my Master of Science in Cellular and  Molecular Biology. I have always loved working with DNA, and did some research in whole genomes and the effect they can have on human susceptibility to disease.

During my graduate degree I had the opportunity to student teach, and found that I fell in love with teaching. As much as I liked doing research, I could never really see myself working for 8 hours a day in a lab. Once I had the experience teaching, I knew it was the right fit for me.

Where does art fit in?

Now you may be wondering, okay so how does art fit in to all this?

During my senior year of college, I was diagnosed with hip dysplasia. I found out that I would need multiple surgeries on my hips, starting with a PAO, which is where they have to break your hip to surgically reconstruct it. For these surgeries I had a long recovery time, where I couldn’t do much but sit on the couch.

One of the first portraits I did when I started drawing again

After my second surgery, I started reading The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare. In these books the protagonist is a young artist named Clary Fairchild who goes on to become a shadowhunter and a hero. I can’t say why exactly, maybe because I was stuck at home, but reading these books gave me the idea to start drawing again.

I went out and bought a cheap sketchbook and set of pencils and got to work practicing my drawing. In the six weeks that I was unable to put weight on my leg I drew every single day. I was amazed at how much my skills improved during this time. I also found that I loved doing art so much that I knew it was something I wanted to one day turn into a career. I finally felt like I found that missing piece of my life. I had always felt lost when it came to deciding what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and I think this was why. I needed that balance of art and science to keep both parts of my brain happy. Being an adjunct Biology professor and an artist is such a great balance for me, and I wouldn’t want to give up either.

How my Art Career Started

I continued to practice every day, and after about a year I felt that my skills had improved enough to start taking commissions. I found that I improved so much with each new drawing, and I started experimenting with different mediums and styles.

My first drawing of Ovie

Over the last four years I have realized that my favorite style to work in is realism. It just clicks with me and I love being able to bring people and animals to life in that way. I am still on the journey to finding my own distinct style, but I am finally feeling like I am at least partially there. I continue to try out new techniques and mediums, hoping to find the one that fits me best. So far, I really love working with graphite, colored pencil, charcoal, and pastels. I hope to learn more about painting with oils and acrylics too. It is all a journey for me, and I am glad you have decided to join me. 😊

My original cow drawing, still one of my favorites!

The thing I love most about art is that there is no real end goal. There is always room for improvement and new things to learn. I look forward to seeing where this journey takes me in 5 years, then 10 years, and so on.