Learning to draw progress – weeks 24-31

I’ve just passed the 7 month mark of my year of daily drawing practice, so it’s high time for another update! The main take away for this round is that learning to draw is NOT a linear process. I know and understand this, but even so I’ve been pretty horrified at how my skill seems to fluctuate from day to day and week to week. The long term trend is still upward (I think, haha) but I have had many days where it really seemed like I had been teleported back to square one. Days where no matter how hard I try, I’m just not seeing things properly. It was actually getting me kind of down this month, so I tried to pay attention to what was happening to see if I could find a pattern.

These horrible regressions to come right after I’ve made some kind of “breakthrough” and seen evidence of significant progress. As soon as I feel I’ve made progress I start forging into new and difficult territory to keep challenging myself. Doing something new ALWAYS sucks in the beginning — I’m used to that and know that it’s a matter of just sticking with it. But why then does everything else seem to suck for a while too? I think I have figured out what’s going on. For example, if my new thing is working on perspective (boxes again, ugh!) I think what happens is that I take that mindset into other drawing practice as well. Like if I’m working on figure drawing, I will still have the new and difficult perspective stuff churning in the back of my mind and will subconsciously be trying to incorporate that into my figures. Many times I’ve caught myself thinking that I SHOULD be incorporating the new into the known. I think that alone takes up enough brain cycles that everything just falls apart. I’m telling you, there have been some SUCKY drawings this time around, but there’s also been some notable progress.

Last update I only posted one image (mainly because I didn’t feel like spending time sorting and uploading photos, sorry!). But this update is going to have loads of images to make up for that. To get started, here is a quick comparison of my gesture drawing practice from February to April.

Above: In February I spent 15 minutes on the drawing on the left. In April the one on the right took me 3 minutes.

Below is another comparison, showing the difference in a 10-minute drawing between early February and April.

Here are some other shorter gesture drawings.

This was a 4-minute gesture. With these drawings I’m not focusing on accuracy or details, but just trying to capture the feeling of what the figure is doing.
I often do quick sketches like these as warm-ups. These are one-minute gestures, done on the back of old printer paper.

And some figure drawings where I took more time.

15-minute figure drawing from early April
The above drawing is probably the one that made me feel like I really can’t put off learning to draw heads and faces. I tried to put a face on her but couldn’t get anything to look right, so it ended up being a weird, corpse-like smudgy mess!
Study of leg structure. It feels like if I can understand what’s going on underneath then the things I see on the surface will make more sense.
I often practice on recycled paper, like this wrinkled brown paper from some Amazon package or another. Above is my first attempt at using red and white chalk. Oh, and my phone and computers are now full of (tasteful) photos of naked people to use for drawing practice. When I open my phone’s photo app to show someone something, I often have quite a bit of explaining to do 😉
I did some experimenting with contour drawings in ink, with ink wash or watercolor. Sometimes I lay down the wash first and then draw the contours over. Sometimes I do the pen first and then add the wash. It’s all fun to practice!
For this contour drawing, my eye was on the subject about 80% of the time. These are really fun to do from time to time. They are messy, but sometimes there will be something about these drawings that I really like.
Building figures out of ellipses helps me to understand how the volumes are oriented in space. I don’t always get the directions right, that’s for sure!

During this past month I’ve gotten the courage to start practicing heads and faces (mainly because I’m sick of ruining otherwise decent figures with horrible heads and faces!!!). This has been both rewarding and super frustrating. Heads and faces are so complex, even if you don’t care about capturing a likeness and just want to draw a generic human head with acceptable proportions and features. So I’ve committed to drawing 1000 heads in a sketchbook I bought just for heads, figuring that by the time I’ve drawn 1000 heads I will see some improvement. Doing them chronologically in a sketchbook makes it really easy to review my progress (and inevitable regressions, haha!).

Let’s have a look at some of my first heads and the most recent ones. Prepare so see some spectacularly awful drawings!

Worst drawing from day 1 of my head drawing practice. Poor Veronica Lake!
Things were even worse on Day 2. I can’t believe I did this to Lauren Bacall.
I decide that dealing with two eyes is too much at the moment, and try to do some profiles instead. Then there’s only one eye to contend with, and you don’t have to try to figure out how to make the nose not look like a piggy snout.
More profile practice
More profile practice
I like vintage ladies!

That’s about where I was during my first week of head drawing practice. You can see I have my work cut out for me. Luckily things started improving around the third week, which I’ll get to below.

But first I should say that the inspiration for my “draw 1000 heads” project was the “2500 challenge” by Drawaholics Anonymous. In this challenge you’re supposed to draw 1000 heads, 500 arms, 500 legs, 250 hands and 250 feet in one calendar year. The rules are pretty simple:
– draw from photo reference (not from other drawings)

– each drawing must be unique (that is, you can’t draw the same reference more than once)
– spend 5-10 minutes per drawing
– keep it small, 3 to 4 inches per drawing
– pencil and paper only (no digital), although I’m sure it’s OK to use ink too

The full skinny can be found here: https://www.drawaholicsanonymous.com/challenge-2500

I say my own 1000 heads project is “inspired by” the 2500 challenge because, of course, I had to tweak it to fit the way I seem to learn best. First of all, as a head-drawing newbie, even 10 minutes is not enough time for me yet to feel like I’m learning something from drawing. I tried aiming for 10 minutes or so in the beginning and it was an exercise in frustration. Drawing heads is still overwhelmingly difficult, and there are so many ways my brain will try to screw me up with symbols and wanting me to straighten things. So I decided that I would spend as much time as I need per drawing in order to feel like I’m learning something from it. What’s the point of rushing through 1000 drawings and just repeating the same mistakes? As of now I usually end up spending 20 to 30 minutes per head, but I am much happier. I also feel like I’m making progress now, because I have time to think more about what I’m doing.

Here are some of my more recent heads, where I stopped feeling rushed and just took the time I needed to feel like I was learning something.

This is the drawing where I decided to stop rushing and really try to learn something from each drawing. With this one I remember there was something about the nose that I was having a hard time with.
I took more time with this profile compared to the ones above.
For all of these practice drawings, I try to at least approach getting some kind of expression and likeness.

And here are the most recent ones, done at around the 3-week mark.

This is head #30. I spent the most time on this one so far…I think it was the nose that gave me the most trouble. It was really hard to avoid giving her snout instead of a nose. She’s still kind of snouty, but I have at least discovered that the nose has a bottom plane!

Hopefully as I improve I will be able to get the time down to 10 minutes per head, or if I decide to do a longer drawing I can start working on things like line quality. Right now I’m just totally overwhelmed by trying to get the proportions and shapes somewhere in the ballpark. By far the hardest thing is when you have two eyes to contend with. Getting them in the right place and looking the right way is REALLY hard for me. But it’s early days…at the point of writing this I’ve been at it for one month and done 32 heads in my special sketchbook. I’ve also done some longer drawings on big paper with charcoal, etc., but I’m not counting those as part of the 1000.

Head #31. It felt like things are starting to come together a bit with this one.
Head #32. This reference was a strange angle…her head is actually tilted down so she’s looking out from under her bangs. That made her mouth look really strange, and try as I might I just couldn’t get it to look right. So in the end I actually got annoyed and crossed out the mouth! I turned it into weird stitches in the end. In any case, even with the failed mouth it still represents a lot of progress since my first efforts 3 weeks earlier.

In addition to my head drawing practice in my sketchbook, I did some other drawings with heads during the past month or so. Here are some of them:

This is a really big drawing, about 50×75 cm. I did it on the kind of tissue paper that you use for packing boxes when you move. It’s charcoal and pan pastel, and I like it because it gave me practice doing a face, hair, my first ear, and an arm/hand!
Another one of my vintage ladies…this is Conte 1710 B pencil. I like these pencils but they are a bitch to sharpen. But they make nice blacks and aren’t as messy as charcoal.
Another really big charcoal / pan pastel practice drawing on tissue paper. The tissue paper has a rough texture on one side, which is actually really nice to use with charcoal. I get 500 sheets for 8 Euros, so I can practice without feeling guilty about wasting money on good paper.
I have started working from Bargue plates as well, but am (obviously) not trying to copy them exactly. That would take forever for me at this stage. But I feel that I’m learning a lot this first time through by just getting as close as I can in about 30 minutes. This is conte pencil again, on newsprint. Ha ha, working on newsprint feels extravagant to me after hundreds of sheets of tissue paper practice!
Another vintage lady – digital charcoal in Procreate (no cheating, I promise)
Yet another one…what can I say, I like drawing vintage ladies
Normally I only use photos as reference, but I think there is a lot to learn from drawing from other people’s drawings. I’ve discovered a comic artist who makes very cool heroic ladies…Philip Tan. This morning I tried to roughly copy one of his drawings.
And this afternoon I attempted drawing from an old masters portrait drawing. I do not actually know who the original artist is for this one (darn Pinterest….it makes it too easy to find things that have no source attribution!) Anyway, this is not great by any means, but three weeks ago there is no way I could have even attempted this. Graphite on regular printer paper, about 45 minutes.

Moving forward from here

For my figure drawing I’m now trying to learn more anatomy and work on proportions. This means doing more “studious” drawings and not so much of the quick gesture drawing that I enjoy so much. At the moment quick gestures have been relegated to a warm up activity. I’m hoping that slowing down and focusing more on anatomy and structure for a while will spill over into my gesture drawing, as I build up a visual library and develop an stockpile of “shorthand” marks for different body parts. You can’t draw something fast if you can’t draw it slow.

Going forward my goal is to be more disciplined and organized about how I structure my practice. I have found that if I do take a few moments and write down a game plan for the day, I get a lot more out of it. I also need to be better at moving on to a new drawing if what I’m working on isn’t working. My default mode is to keep working on it trying to figure out what’s wrong. It would be better to take a short break, look at it with fresh eyes and try to do a new one.

Other things I want to get better at is stopping and checking my work by stepping back, turning it upside down, checking with a mirror, etc. I also want to remember to take frequent mini breaks to “wash my eyes” to better be able to see my mistakes. I tend to just work and work and work without taking a break, and even though I have a mirror right there, I forget to pick it up and use it. I will set my interval timer for 5 minute intervals for a while to try to build a habit of doing this.

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