You can draw… if you draw

There is a widely held belief that drawing is a gift. That some people are born drawers and that others are just out of luck and did not get the drawing gene. We often overhear people say, “I wish I could draw”. Perhaps you hear yourself say that too. In stark contrast to this belief is the experience that is repeated year after year is art classrooms and studios all around the world where people who say “I can’t even draw a straight line” throw themselves into it and discover that they can draw, and well, and that it gives them great pleasure to do so. Drawing is not a gift. It is a skill. A skill that we can all learn to a high degree of technical competency. The practice of this skill brings joy and deeper appreciation of life.

Many people stopped drawing somewhere in elementary school (usually around third grade). When we did, we watched the abilities of our peers who continued to draw improve around us. A few years later there is such a gap in the abilities of those who continued to develop the skill and those who had stopped that we look at the drawers as having a gift. This is psychologically easier to take. If you want to draw but don’t, you can just say “well, I was not born a drawer” and this gets us off the hook.

Here is the secret. It is just a matter of practice. The more you work at it, the better you will get. The improvement never stops. It is not a gift. It is not genetic. It is a matter of laying down proteins in your brain associated with this specific task. The same applies to playing a musical instrument, cooking, writing, or developing a sport. This is not an original idea on my part. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell discusses what it takes to make a master. It seems to be 10,000 hours (ten years) of practice and a supportive environment for your goals. See Gladwell’s website and a great UTube interview for more information.

I am nowhere near my 10,000 hour point but I see the influence of practice all the time in my own work. In 2003 I painted this American Coot for my field guide to the Sierra Nevada. At the time it was the best that I could do. It shows the identification features that I wanted to represent and I was happy with it.


In 2011 I repainted the American Coot for a field guide that I am working on of the birds of coastal California. I could have reused the first painting but after five more years of practice with thousands of new pictures I was a better artist and I was not satisfied with my previous work. Here is coot number two.

I think it is a better drawing. A few years from now I will be able to do even better than this. The point is- more practice makes better birds. The same is true in the development of any skill. Here is a similar set of illustrations of a female Ruddy Duck. This first one was drawn in 2003 and was used in Sierra Birds and The Laws Guide to the Sierra Nevada. It is OK, you can identify the bird perfectly well with this illustration.

This second Ruddy Duck was painted after more practice in 2011. It captures the feeling of the living duck more accurately and is arguably a better drawing. Both paintings took approximately the same amount of time to complete.

More time, more practice, better duck.

Have patience with yourself. Do not judge yourself prematurely by comparing the fruits of your work with that of others. Instead find your way to make drawing something that you can incorporate into your regular routines and something that you love to do. If you love it, you will keep doing it. The first year of throwing yourself into drawing is the most difficult. As you progress, you get increasing positive feedback from your work but in the first year this may be minimal. If you draw to make pretty pictures than you may become discouraged when one drawing does not meet your standards. People who are discouraged may quit. If you quit, you do not get better. instead, draw from nature to help you look more carefully. The process of drawing will help you notice details that you otherwise would have overlooked. Also drawing will help you remember what you have seen. So if a drawing helps you notice something or helps you remember it then the drawing is successful. This keeps you going.

As you progress, expect that there will be times that you feel stuck or blocked in your progress. This happens to everyone. The progress in developing a skill like this is a series of plateaus and breakthroughs. The point at which you will feel the most frustration is at the brink of the next breakthrough. Why? Because you can visualize what you can do at the next level but you are not there yet. In order to get there, you need to see it first so this is a good thing! A little more practice and you will be there. Then things will flow easily for awhile until you are at the brink of the next breakthrough. Then the frustration returns. When you fell the frustration, welcome it. It is a bell of mindfulness telling you that you are about to leap to the next level. Do not let the frustration make you put your pencils away

Take the time and decide what it is that you really would like to master then throw yourself into it. It is OK if drawing is not your thing. I would like to play the fiddle. I could if I did, but I don’t so I can’t. I have chosen to develop the art of seeing nature through the pages of my sketchbooks. Doing so gives me great pleasure, so I do it a lot and it is getting better.

19 thoughts on “You can draw… if you draw

  1. My twenty-eight years of teaching high school visual arts (academically as opposed to free-style expression) corroborates the concepts you have shared in this blog. I have taught a few students who, through no fault of their own, lacked fine motor skills or the ability to work with more than one concept at a time. I differentiate instruction either toward more art history or expressive art therapy for these. I have tried to teach many students who have failed due to a lack of interest or ability to engage in sustained concentration. Often the idea of practice and trying again is limited to one or two sessions. However, I have also worked with just as many, if not more, students who, through a willingness to discipline themselves via practice and risk-taking, have made the joyful discovery of what you have described in this post. Thank you for “being real”

  2. Ann says:

    “It is only by drawing often, drawing everything, drawing incessantly, that one fine day you discover to your surprise that you have rendered something in its true character.” Camile Pissaro

  3. Jack thank you very much for your very insightful posts, especially this one. Drawing and painting has brought a lot of joy to my retirement life and we should all appreciate the time an effort you selflessly put into sharing your knowledge.
    I have embarked into taming drawing trees and after watching your youtube video I am taking up your challenge to draw 16 trees. I will document my progress on Google +

  4. Mary King says:

    John. Thank you for this post. I appreciate your encouragement. I am one of the people that you spoke about. I am a retired nurse that had enjoyed making art as a child then put my crayons away, way to soon.
    I retired after 35 years and have taken up drawing and watercolor painting. I have always loved nature and 35mm photography and darkroom work, now digital. I was surfing the web and found your videos on You Tube and have enjoyed watching/learning.

  5. Andy says:

    Hello John. I’m a little late to this discussion, but I’ve only recently discovered your videos on youtube, which led me here. This is an excellent post for so many reasons. I’ve been in the “I wish I could draw/paint” since I was a kid. Now in my 40s I’m getting back into trying to take it more seriously, and I plan to finally progress to a point where I can feel like I’m really expressing something.

    Your analogy to musicians is so apt. I’ve played guitar for about 30 years, and I teach lessons semi-regularly. I’ve also played in bands for years. As we often all are, I’m my own worst critic, and I very acutely feel when my playing is in a hill or valley…or has plateaued. It’s frustrating, but playing is also a source of joy that I couldn’t live without.

    What I find with my drawing and/or painting (watercolors) is that I often don’t start a picture because my brain is telling me “it’s not going to look as good as you hope, and it’s going to be difficult”. A tough, self-defeating loop to overcome, but when I do I find that I enjoy myself. And I’m also slowly learning how to see things as they are, not what my brain preconceives them to be. It’s interesting and it’s fun. Perspective is so challenging.

    Lastly, I agree 100% about art being a skill and a craft that anyone can learn – same thing with music. I know visual artists who spent a lot of time and money at art school and so I think they feel protective of that…investment? And yes, while we all can learn the skills, there are some who possess more than just skill and can express themselves freely and without fear. I would argue that this is just as much about personal style and confidence as it is about talent, which is an impossible thing to quantify (though we may know it when we see it).

    Anyway, thanks for all the information you provide and your encouraging words. The world needs more artists, more art and more appreciation of the beauty that surrounds us all.

  6. daniel says:

    i am some what disagree with you… i agree that this is not talent but you still need to have the hands and brain to do something artistic. not all people can sing .
    no matter how much they’ll practice.

    and 1 more thing to think about is your imagination – i see many talented artist who can draw amazing works but they stop since they just dont know what to do…

    but the most important thing- is how to make money,…

    • JohnMuirLaws says:

      I can not sing. But I do not sing (except in the shower or in the car with the radio up and then I rock). People who are good singers often take voice lessons and practice a lot. Singing scales is a lot like warming up with gesture sketches. Singing too is a skill that develops with time. If I stated singing I suspect I could do a reasonable job with a reasonable amount of work at it. I would not be a Pavoratti (who started early and spent years in vocal training) but that is not the goal.
      Imagination and creativity also also things that can be learned. By sketching everywhere you develop more of a deep visual understanding of objects, textures, and light that you can draw from.
      Money helps, a lot. I am still working at that. Still there are many (most?) artists who are not making money or may only be appreciated after their deaths who still push on and create art with gusto. If you are creating art for the money, it will be hard to sustain your energy through the times when money is tight. It helps to be driven by a passion beyond money. You create art because it opens your heart and your world. The process itself is what sustains you.

  7. Corlis says:

    Thanks for posting this. (I shared it on my fb wall.) I once had an excellent artist tell me that art *is* mostly about talent, you can only learn so much… Is there anything more intimidating than an artist saying art really is a gift? I’m so glad there are excellent, hard-working artists like you setting the record straight!

    • Perhaps saying it is a gift makes some people feel more special but it total hooey. We can all develop this skill. Many people start when they retire and discover that if you start painting you can paint. Why not start earlier?

  8. Cat Wilson says:

    Very well put Jack. Being behind on my drawing is something I struggled with at the Santa Cruz program. The way I think of it is when you are stuck, it’s like being a chrysalis. It seems stationary and still, but a lot is going on under the surface. Old parts are liquifying to be come potential for the new.

  9. Patricia Hart says:

    A very encouraging read. I just happened to be looking for birds to draw and there you were. I am excited to find you. I am a senior citizen and have been trying to draw and oil paint for about a year. I am taking professional lessons and the only beginner in the class, so I’m not getting the full attention of the instructor, there are only 5 of us in class. Most likely, I’m expecting too much from myself too soon. Thanks for the encouraging words, I will keep check of your site. Pat

    • Thank you Pat.
      I encourage you to throw yourself into it fearlessly. The first year is the most scary but the more you move along this path, the more the art opens up to you. I hope it is a joyful adventure.

  10. Josie Crawford says:

    Ha! I just came upstairs to get something while in the midst of setting up a drawing- feeling discouraged before I began. I turned on the computer, saying to myself, “What the heck are you doing? You’re avoiding it. Facebook is such a waste of my time.” But I persisted with FB instead of the drawing and ran straight into this post of yours. So, I am turning off the computer now and thanking you, Jack.

  11. A very good article,thank you.I have recently started drawing birds and your help and advice has been great. My advantage is that I have lived around artists for most of my adult life, and am married to an artist. They have taught me to see and what makes good art.


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