Improve Your Illustrations With This One Simple Trick

Do you love drawing? Want to get better? Well there’s one simple (or at least simple-sounding) way to turn yourself into the best illustrator you can be.

A view of my drafting table

A view of my drafting table in its “natural state”

At the end of four years of college, when I was making more art than ever before in my life — when I was making as much art at one time as I thought I possibly could — my major professor launched me into the world with this parting advice:

“You need to draw more.”

What? How could I possibly be drawing more? There were no more hours left in the day that weren’t already devoted to friends, frisbee and frolicking. I could still achieve my dream of making children’s books with the skills I already had. It was all art all the time. He was all wrong. I was all good.

But it nagged at me. My professor’s admonition echoed in my ears:

“You need to draw more.”

I didn’t, or couldn’t, do anything about it until I was five years into a computer-programming career, working in code and databases 100% of the time at a world-class graphic design shop, surrounded by amazing and talented designers who were all drawing. A lot. They were doing the kind of work I wanted to do, and I was typing code all day, doing nothing to get myself closer to my illustration dreams.

So I got myself a sketchbook, and I drew a terrible-looking chicken on the first page. And this time I said it to myself:

“Whoa. You need to draw more.” 

A wizard drawing

A wizard-in-progress sketch

It comes as no surprise that practice is a great way to improve a skill. As for drawing, I’m not sure there is any alternative. There is muscle memory that has to be trained. Our hand-eye coordination is only improved by repetition. Even world-class artists, illustrators and animators regularly attend life-drawing sessions or maintain some kind of regular drawing regimen. I recently saw a museum exhibit of the preliminary drawings that Edward Hopper made before he began painting. There were dozens of sketches for each image before any paint was applied to canvas.

Malcom Gladwell has discussed the idea that we can only master a skill after 10,000 hours of practice. A noted animator told one of his protégés that we all have 100,000 bad drawings in us, and we just need to get those out of the way before we can start making the good ones. I like to tell my students to “draw like a photographer,” which essential means to make a lot of images, and pick the best ones.

Whatever way you want to think about it, there is only one simple trick to improving your drawings: “You need to draw more.”

Thumbnail sketches for a picture book

Thumbnail sketches for the picture book, Nine Words Max

But of course it is not really all that simple. For me, once I figured out how to trick myself into drawing more, I got better. Quickly.

Here are a couple of easy steps for getting started:

Step 1: Get something to draw on.

It could be a sketchbook, but if that is intimidating, you can use plain copy paper on a clipboard, like I do. Nothing is permanent, and I can just toss anything I don’t like in the recycling bin. Another great option is a pocket-sized notebook that you can carry around with you. That way you are ready whenever the mood strikes. Anything that works for you is good enough — this isn’t about making finished, gallery-ready art. Think of it like calisthenics.

Step 2: Get something to draw with.

I love art stores. I call them toy stores. There are so many tools and utensils made for making marks on things, like pencils, pens, crayons, pastels, paints and anything else you can think of. A burnt stick will make marks. But my go-to sketching tool is a cheap, plastic, mechanical pencil that you can buy in the grocery store. There’s nothing intimidating about it, and it’s the same thing I used to draw with as a kid, sitting on the floor with my brothers, passing an Ed Emberley book back and forth for ideas.

Step 3: Make time to draw.

If you close your eyes and imagine your day, you can probably think of dozens of little five minute chinks of time when you could pull out a pocket sketchbook and draw. One of my most productive sketching times is while I watch TV or stream a movie on my laptop. My mind goes a bit fuzzy, my subconscious takes over for a while, and strange and interesting things appear on the page. Or maybe you can be more deliberate about it, pausing that Alfred Hitchcock film or Star Wars dogfight and taking time to sketch out the composition of the scene.

No matter what works for you, the best plan – the only plan – for improving your illustration is that you need to draw more

Picture book, Nine Words Max, on a shelf

A finished copy of Nine Words Max, on the new releases shelf at the office of my publisher, Tundra Books

I promise you this works. Drawing more has led me to my dream job of illustrating children’s books, including Nine Words Max, pictured above, written by Dan Bar-el, and published by Tundra Books. 

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